Hanging out with Old Bones
Dinosaur Provincial Park
I have always loved the drama of a badlands landscape. Dinosaur Valley, as the portion of the Red Deer River east of Calgary is known, is spectacular. Grasslands and sagebrush topping chocolate flakes of clay, contrast with layers of café au lait mud and sand. And all sculpted into weird and wonderful landforms.
The dry air makes the 30 degree Celcius heat bearable. Thankfully so, as there are very few trees to stand under for shade. But 75 million years ago, this area was a coastal plain with sub-tropical forests. Rivers flowed eastward emptying into a large inland sea. It was a paradise for huge flying reptiles and dinosaurs.
Dinosaur Provincial Park, is the centre of Dinosaur Valley and draws thousands of visitors every year. The park, established in 1955, protects the fossil beds. It achieved UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1979 for the international importance of the fossils found there. Over the past 100 years, 150 complete dinosaur skeletons have been found. In addition, there are concentrations of ‘bone beds’ which hold masses of disorganized bones.
Make Sure You Book a Tour
Wandering around many areas of the park is not permitted as paleontological research is ongoing. However, numerous guided tours, booked in advance, allow visitors the opportunity to get close to the dinosaur bones.
It was an incredible experience to walk through these areas, to see and touch fossilized bones laying on the ground and scattered about. There were even some poking out of the ground as if they had just been uncovered. It was hard to believe that these bones, lying everywhere, were 75 million years old. They hadn’t been disturbed since they were first laid down.
There were a few interpretive sites in the area which showed excavations in progress. One particular site had an illustration of what was believed to have happened at that spot. It was eerie to stand there and try to visualize the river in flood. And imagine the terror experienced by the dinosaurs as they were trapped, pulled under, and washed away.
On to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller
Having wandered around and amongst the bones for the morning, we decided to head over to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. It is about an hour’s cross-country drive across prairieland from Dinosaur Provincial Park. Up until 1985, extracted fossils were sent to Ontario or the United States for scientific analysis and display. With the opening of the museum, Alberta could now retain the fossils for local scientific research. It also provided the opportunity to exhibit them locally on a much larger scale.
Adults and children alike are fascinated by the extensive and dramatic displays of full-sized dinosaur skeletons and reconstruction dioramas. The sheer size of tyrannosaurus rex is terrifying, not to mention the size of the teeth and its powerful hind legs. It is one thing to see it on screen or in books and quite another to stare into the jaws of a real one. Even if it is only a skeleton.
Some of the fossils were exceptionally well preserved and scales and skin texture could be discerned. The dry climate in Alberta protected the bones in ways similar to the way in which the Egyptian climate protected the artifacts and mummies in the tombs. The excellent state of preservation has helped us understand more about the dinosaurs and their habitat.
The Latest Theory for the Demise of the Dinosaurs
Since 1980 there has been a theory of an asteroid event which took place about 66 million years ago. In the intervening years, additional scientific study has confirmed a location of an impact in the region of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula which appears to have been from an asteroid.
It is known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) Extinction Event, and is visible around the world as a thin layer of dark sediment. This event is believed to have caused mass extinction of three-quarters of the plant and animal life on earth. Large animals, such as the dinosaurs were destroyed quickly in the first thermal waves. Many others were starved by the loss of food supply, plant and animal, from the prolonged dark winter. This brought an abrupt end to the Cretaceous Period.
Ironically, many of the tiny mammals that existed at that time survived. They hibernated in their burrows underground. Insulated from the intense thermal blast, they were able to sustain themselves until the landscape gradually regenerated. Millions of years passed. As dinosaurs no longer dominated the landscape, mammals expanded and diversified unhindered, to fill the ecological gap left by them.
The demise of the dinosaurs provided the rise of the mammals and their incredible global diversity. Looking at the cottontail rabbits which bounded in and out of the eroded land formations, I wondered, was I seeing the descendants of the mammals who had survived that catastrophe in this location 66 million years ago?
If You Go:
For more information on Dinosaur Provincial Park //www.albertaparks.ca/parks/south/dinosaur-pp/
Drumheller City: In addition to the museum, there are a number of other attractions you may be interested in https://traveldrumheller.com/
Royal Tyrrell Museum – Advanced bookings are required https://tyrrellmuseum.com/
About the Author
Deborah Tiffany knew from Grade 5 that she wanted to be an explorer. She got started later in life than most explorers but better late than never!
Photo Credits by Author