Citizen Science Paleontology at Grasslands

OK, this was the coolest thing ever.

For one week per year, Grasslands National Park and the Royal Saskatchewan Museum offer a Citizen Science opportunity to help with an archeological dig.  The program is called Fossil Fever, and I really enjoyed my day as an amateur paleontologist.  A special thanks to parks staff who were able to fit me in at the last minute (a cancellation) as this program often sells out months in advance.

The program lead, Dr. Emily Bamforth from RSM took us on a tour to see some incredibly interesting dinosaur stuff.

K-Pg boundary, where the dinosaurs went extinct

I actually was able to put my finger on the place in time where the dinosaurs went extinct.  In the picture I am pointing at the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) boundary (white line), which marks the end of the Cretaceous Period the beginning of the Paleogene Period. Its age is usually estimated at around 66 million years ago. The K–Pg boundary is associated with the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, a mass extinction which destroyed the dinosaurs.  Basically (in my simplistic understanding), a big meteor hit the earth, causing all kinds of havoc.  This killed off much of what was living on earth at the time (including the dinosaurs), and scientists now believe that this is what caused the carbon layer below the white line – all those dead animals and plants became carbon.  Then there is the white line, which is the iridium, which can only come from space – this was in the atmosphere after the impact and then it settled.  The carbon after that is from the animals and plants that died shortly after that – the ones that survived the impact but died due to the subsequent changes on the planet (like lack of sunlight, etc).  How cool is that!

I should have made notes, but there is a sad story associated with this dinosaur tail.  I don’t remember what type of dinosaur it is from.  It was just sitting there, and had been for years, one of the signature pieces of the park.  The paleontologists planned to get a permit for excavation sometime soon.  But over last winter some idiot came and pried out the middle piece of the tail (left in the picture).  Anyway, here is what remains of those remains.  They are hoping to get a permit to see what they can salvage.  One of the key learnings from the day is that the important part about fossils is where they are – we should never collect or dig them up, the paleontologists need to see it in situ (in place).  If you find something, take a picture, note the location, and bring that to your nearest museum.  Don’t bring the fossil (d’oh).  A random fossil, without knowing where it comes from, is worth 1/10th what it is worth in situ.

Another very cool part of the Fossil Fever week at Grasslands is that each night there is a talk by a Paleontologist.  In addition to the team from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, there was a team from the Canadian Museum of Nature.  They were doing some preliminary work to see if they could find evidence of mammals just after the dinosaurs.  (as a side note, I was at the Canadian Museum of Nature when I was in Ottawa around Canada day – I spent two days there, and still didn’t see all of the cool stuff.  What a fun museum.)  Dr. Danielle Fraser gave a very interesting talk explaining how they investigate finds of fossils of unknown animals, tracing back from current mammals.

Maybe again next year!