Remains of a past world lie scattered at my feet: random shards of petrified shell and bone, skin and teeth – souvenirs from 75 million years ago when Alberta was a Louisiana-like bayou. Except that this province’s shark- and crocodile-infested cypress swamps also spawned lumbering, sometimes ferocious, dinosaurs. For 150 million years – during the splitting and drifting of Pangea into continents and the folding of land to form the Rocky Mountains – these beasts survived, continually adapting to the whims of nature.
It is hard to imagine that murky world and almost impossible to fathom the eons it endured as I crouch on a dry, sandy ledge overlooking the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park. Cacti, rare grasses and wild sage sprout from peaceful hillsides and between hoodoos, where the Red Deer River carves into a valley of cottonwood trees. It is only mid-morning, but already the June sun is boring down on world-renowned palaeontologist Philip Currie, his wife, palaeobotanist Eva Koppelhus, a clutch of grad students and lab technicians, my fiancé, Mike, and me. We’re peering down at a bonebed – its fossils infinite, like seashells on a shore.
I first contacted Currie a year ago, after having been away from Alberta for nearly a decade. The province was, of course, vastly different from the one I’d left. Change was the new buzzword; everyone was promising it. But somehow this prompted me to look, not forward, but back, to the age of the dinosaurs. Humans are the only species capable of understanding the concept of extinction. Yet rather than preserve the world that sustains us, we destroy it.
The Alberta I now saw was one of bloated, sprawling cities driven by the pumping of the province’s other prehistoric remains; of rivers drained for casinos and shopping centres, of freeways replacing farmland. Maybe the human race will be taken out by a meteor one day, as many believe was the case with the dinosaurs. But in the meantime, we seem to be missing the warnings. Alongside news articles celebrating the latest dinosaur discoveries – an Edmontosaurus bonebed in Edmonton, a new horned dinosaur species near Grande Prairie, the largest known horned dinosaur at Dry Island Buffalo Jump – were now accounts of depleted fish stocks, dwindling grizzly bear populations and the relentless advance of the pine beetle.
Meanwhile, amidst all this high-paced change, palaeontologists have been steadily and determinedly chipping away at the mysteries of the past, particularly in the Alberta badlands, continually adding to our understanding of one of the most successful animal species ever. For his part, after more than a quarter-century of toil in Dinosaur Provincial Park, Currie has honed an unrivalled understanding of its prehistory, slowly unveiling the world of the dinosaurs that once roamed here – their teeth and bones, diets and behaviours, and the ecology of the land that sustained them. In the process, he has spent his career putting this province on the international dinosaur map. After starting as a fossil curator at the Royal Alberta Museum in the 1970s, he became the dinosaur curator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, when it opened in 1985. Meanwhile, his research in Dinosaur Provincial Park helped the site earn UNESCO world heritage status in 1980. Today, as a professor of palaeontology at the University of Alberta, he focuses on theropods (a group including Tyrannosaurus rex) and the evolutionary relationship between dinosaurs and birds. He even has a dinosaur named after him: Quilmesaurus curriei. And all of this from a transplanted Toronto upstart who decided on his life’s work at age six, after finding a plastic dinosaur in a cereal box.
Currie’s depth of knowledge can be, at first, intimidating. But by the end of our early morning ride along a bumpy trail into the park, my nervousness had dissipated. Currie – and everyone else in the van – seemed to know everything about their field. Yet these “dinosaur nerds,” as one student in a dino T-shirt put it, were just as excited as Mike and I about spotting an antelope or interesting hoodoo, and they didn’t laugh at our questions. To learn from Currie, they had travelled here from all points of the globe, with an abiding respect for those palaeontologists and others in the field who had gone before them. And when Currie stopped at “Happy Jack’s” homestead, which dates back nearly a century to when this local character manned a small boat to ferry dinosaur hunters across the Red Deer River, we all napped photos and felt a common sympathy for poor Jack. Despite his nickname, he must have been a lonely man. One week’s entry in his journal, Currie told us, goes something like this: Sunday: Drunk. Monday: Drunk. Tuesday: Drunk. Saturday: Sick. Monday: Worse. Wednesday: Long live booze, Hurrah for Hell.
The bonebed, despite its infinite fossil bits, apparently doesn’t interest all of us. After Currie’s slightly troubling safety reminder (“Don’t go off on your own, don’t slip, and watch for rattlesnakes; chances are, you will see one today”), the team scatters in search of larger specimens. Mike and I stick with Currie. He is using a GPS and aerial maps in an attempt to locate a lost quarry first described by American C.H. Sternberg, one of the leading palaeontologists of his time. (Sternberg and his three sons were hired by the Canadian government in 1912 to compete for fossil finds with another American palaeontologist, Barnum Brown, who for years shipped crates of Alberta dinosaurs to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; even today, it displays more Alberta dino skeletons than any other museum in the world.) While the park’s quarries are now systematically marked with numbered brass stakes, this practice did not become commonplace until the 1940s, and hundreds of old sites have yet to be rediscovered. Quarries are always worth revisiting, notes Currie, as erosion from even a single rainstorm can reveal new bones. Even the way the light is shining can illuminate something otherwise unnoticed.
Despite Currie’s patience in the field, however, it is impossible to keep up with him. The 58-year-old lopes up and down the steep hills, seemingly impervious to cacti and loose gravel, rattlesnakes and sinkholes. Undeterred by the heat, he is bareheaded and without sunglasses, his shock of silver hair bleached by decades spent outdoors, his skin the colour of golden sandstone. He is part of the park. In seconds he is standing on a ridge above us, squinting against the sun and scanning the horizon for landmarks to match those on the map in his hands.
I take a swig of water from my bottle, and Mike and I settle beside Allan Lindoe, a palaeontology lab technician with 40-plus years’ experience in, he says, “digging and scratching.” (We learn later that in 1962, Lindoe discovered a new species of champsosaur – a kind of crocodile subsequently named after him.) He is busy brushing off a large fossil in the bonebed as Mike and I sift through the gravel, in awe that it’s so old and slightly frustrated that we don’t instinctively understand it as the others do. We resist the constant temptation to ask, “What’s this?” But then Mike finds a rounded, slightly reddish fossil that’s larger than the rest. He holds it out to Victoria Arbour, a grad student from Halifax studying ankylosaurs and tail structures, questioning its significance. “Hmm,” she replies, turning it over in her hands. “This looks ike a shoulder bone.” “Really?” asks Mike, impressed. “Yup,” and with that, she tosses it over her shoulder.
It’s hard to imagine that any fossil can be considered mundane, but apparently one can afford to be choosy in this 80-square-kilometre preserve. More than 35 species of dinosaurs have been found here (the majority being hadrosaurs – duck-billed dinosaurs) along with dozens of reptile and mammal species, the bones of which might be in the handful Koppelhus is inspecting nearby. Such fossils tell a lot about which species lived together, she says, and pops them into a baggie – where all important fossils go – for documenting back at the lab.
They will undoubtedly prove interesting, as Dinosaur Provincial Park is an unparalleled Late Cretaceous site, both for its concentration of fossils and the variety of species they represent. The park was not only once an ideal dinosaur habitat, says Koppelhus, it also provided optimum conditions for preserving dinosaur bones not swept away by rivers, tides and scavengers. Today it is equally perfect for fossil discovery, thanks to a particularly high rate of erosion. In fact, since the first dinosaur fossil was found in Alberta in 1874 by pioneering Canadian geologist George Mercer Dawson, more than 500 skeletons have been removed, 200 known skeletons still await excavation and, as Currie puts it, they’re “finding new stuff all the time.”
By late morning, as we dig and scratch and try to ask only good questions, I’m getting a sense of the enormous scope of the field of palaeontology. Adept at finding fossils, Currie and his colleagues also understand the anatomy of more than 400 dinosaur species discovered worldwide, as well as the evolutionary relationships between them and the countless reptile, mammal, bird and other species that followed. (A sampling of this mastery is found in Dinosaur Provincial Park: A Spectacular Ancient Ecosystem Revealed, edited by Currie and Koppelhus, which includes sentences like “The Scleroglossa, or rough-tongued squamates, includes Gekkonidae, Pygopodidae, Dibamidae, Serpentes, Amphisbaenia, Gymnophthalmidae, Teiidae, Lacertidae, Xantusiidae, Scincidae, Cordylidae, Anguidae, Xenosauridae, Varanidae, Helodermatidae, and Lanthanotus.”)
Palaeontologists also study disease and population changes and piece together clues to dinosaur behaviour. They must have a firm grounding in geology and botany as they strive to grasp the general ecology of a world hundreds of millions of years in the past. Their work often extends across international boundaries. (Currie, for one, has conducted digs in Mongolia, Argentina, the Arctic and China – where dinosaur fossils are likely the basis of that culture’s mythical dragons.) And they use techniques often borrowed from the field of archaeology, including the study of old newspapers, bottle caps and other human litter, to unravel the history of past quarries. Finally, palaeontologists must often conduct this work in extreme conditions: remote, exposed locales that require careful expedition planning and old-fashioned hard work.
Currie points out the layers in the cliffs around us. Created by a millennia-long process of edimentation and erosion, the striations indicate various geological formations, each named after the region’s major parks: Oldman (the oldest), Dinosaur Park (the most fossil-rich) and Bearpaw (the one nearest the surface). Created by ice ages and ocean currents, tectonic plate movements, volcanoes and the drying up of inland seas, the formations reveal the history of our planet. “Deep time” is, in fact, how geologists and palaeontologists describe the immensity of the earth’s past – a somewhat disconcerting concept. For how can one comprehend 70 to 80 million years (roughly the age of the Oldman formation)? How can one truly envision the rise of mountains? From the perspective of deep time and its timeline of near-infinity, the 200,000 years that humans have been on the planet seems such an insignificant span, we almost disappear.
Currie, Koppelhus, Mike and I climb a hoodoo for a 360-degree-view picnic. All around us: more hoodoos, wildflowers, swooping swallows, a fragile desert-like land. As we munch sandwiches, the conversation ping-pongs between environmental degradation and the opening of the Creation Science Museum, this same morning, in Big Valley. At times, science still has a tough go of it in Alberta. (David Spalding, in his 1993 book Dinosaur Hunters, notes how even into the 1940s the Alberta government doubted fossil finds in the area and claimed that palaeontologists made fake bones to confuse religious believers.)
I touch on palaeoanthropologist Richard Leakey’s belief in the need for greater “scientific literacy” and muse about education being the key to wonder, to a humble respect for the natural world. Currie responds that he learned long ago to avoid those who refuse to understand science, since “you can’t change someone’s mind and it’s frustrating to keep trying.” It must be maddening to fight for science funding in a world focused on Hummers and Hollywood; perhaps it’s comforting to think in terms of deep time and remember that all species come and go. Yet within his own sliver of time, Currie has advanced science, written books, led international digs, inspired countless aspiring palaeontologists (and kids), helped open a world-class museum and encouraged the UNESCO world heritage designation of the park around us. I offer Dr. Currie a chocolate chip cookie, and we let the topic drop.
After lunch, we join Miriam Reichel, a grad student from Brazil studying isotopes in fossil tooth enamel as a way to theorize about dinosaur diets. She and Arbour seem to have located an old quarry, and Currie hopes he might find a skeleton nearby. Everyone starts digging. If we find something good, we’re ready for it: besides baggies, we’ve got all kinds of supplies for excavating and transporting fossils, including plaster of Paris to encase larger bones. Simple technology like this has made life for palaeontologists infinitely easier; in the early days, it was a struggle to keep a fossil – after meticulous excavation – from suddenly crumbling.
The sun beats down, the day wears on. Mike and I keep finding “shoulder bones” while the others make minor discoveries, including what appears to be fossilized crocodile feces. The test to determine whether something is fossil or rock, we learn, is to lick it. If it’s fossil, one’s tongue sticks; if it’s rock, it won’t. Arbour matter-of-factly checks this latest find. The verdict: fossil. Into a baggie it goes.
I ask Currie what his most thrilling discovery has been to date. Was it the dinosaur eggs with embryo remains found near Devil’s Coulee in 1987? The thousands of centrosaurus skeletons with “green” bone breaks, suggesting a mass drowning and trampling, which first allowed him to speculate on herding behaviour in dinosaurs? Or perhaps, his discovery of feathered dinosaurs in China? “I’ve loved every moment of it,” he replies. “I’m not looking to solve any particular riddle, though, of course, I’d like to find more links between dinosaurs and birds.”
As he talks, Currie is like a big kid: excited, curious, full of wonder. Dinosaurs are clearly his favourite topic, a passion not impeded in the slightest by the patience with which he explains his world. He constantly scans the hills as he talks; I follow his gaze to a small whirlwind whisking across the valley. Turning, I snap a few photos, and find even this relates to a discovery story. Once, Currie recounts, he lost hold of his camera case and it tumbled down a hillside. He clambered down after it, cursing, to discover the camera angled against a tyrannosaur skull. As in Spalding’s Dinosaur Hunters, the tales of how fossils are found can be as intriguing as the finds themselves.
Mid-afternoon, the walkie-talkie crackles: “Wanna see an incredible microsite?”
“We’ve already found one,” replies Reichel, “and ours is better.”
“I found a tyrannosaur metatarsal,” says the scratchy voice.
“OK, you win!” And with that, we pack up. I climb a rock step I’ve now ascended 10 times in the past hour or so, but this time a small, brown ball draws my attention. I stoop to pick it up, then show it to Koppelhus. “It’s a late Cretaceous cone,” she says, smiling. As it happens, this is not an insignificant find as botanical fossils are relatively rare in the park. I’ve found something worthy of a plastic baggie! Koppelhus kindly lets me hold it, so I can savour my feeling of discovery before we continue on. Trying to conceal my excitement and not doing such a good job (Mike jokingly rolls his eyes at me), I tag along as we make our way to the hilltop where the rest of the team has gathered. The thrill of discovery is certainly addictive: after my little cone find, I survey the ground at every step.
We arrive at the far hillside to find the others eyeing a large, rusty patch on a bonebed. It looks like a large fossil. After much deliberation, however, the consensus is that it’s too broken up to signal a good skeleton. We’re tired, and Currie calls it a day. Picks and packs are gathered, and we amble slowly back to the vehicles, parked a few kilometres away. Mike and I keep pace with Eric, a grad student from California who is navigating the tricky terrain on crutches after twisting his ankle earlier in the week; we’re fearful he’ll topple down an embankment. Then, likely because of his careful scrutiny of the ground to avoid slipping, it happens again. As we pass a big rock that the others have just bypassed, Eric notices something. It’s rust-coloured and, while crumbling, it looks like a fossil. We note the location and continue on. (Later, we learn it was the remains of a Centrosaurus skull.)
We drive back along the bumpy path, then down the road past the old townsite of Steveville – historically a fossil hotbed and more recently the setting for Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film Unforgiven, now no more than a few cement foundations. Leaving the park is bittersweet: there is the immense satisfaction of spending the day in such a beautiful place, and relief that we never did see a rattlesnake. But I’m also just plain sad to leave. “The park is a special place,” says Phil Bell, a grad student from Australia studying dinosaur pathology. “It gets in your blood.” He met his girlfriend, a park interpreter, during a dig. He proposed to her here, and they hope to marry in the park. Like Bell, Currie, even old Happy Jack, I’m hooked. I can’t wait to return.
That evening, Currie and the gang invite Mike and me to dinner at the nearby Patricia Hotel. The place is an old-time saloon: swinging doors, a “No Smoking on Sundays” sign at the entrance and cowboy paraphernalia in spades. We grill our own burgers and steaks on a giant indoor barbecue at the back of the bar, and it seems to please the waitress greatly to drop a piece of raw meat in front of each diner, then point to “the kitchen.” One wall is painted with a mural: oil wells, cattle and a rodeo scene, a few stray antelope, gophers and dinosaurs. On another hangs a copy of a 1998 National Geographic magazine, its cover story describing Currie, possible links between dinosaurs and birds, Dinosaur Provincial Park . . . and dinner at the Patricia Hotel.
As everyone else heads back to their park trailers, Mike and I stroll around the town. Dogs are everywhere – the house with the Chevy truck parked in the back driveway, the waitress tells us, just had puppies. The rodeo grounds feature only scaffolding, the playground at the edge of town is empty. A house with a garage sale sign appears vacant. Not much is happening in Patricia. But just down the road, the world’s most renowned palaeontologist is revealing, piece by piece, a past world – and, even in the deep-time picture of things, improving this one.