Dinosaur display: Asian bones and Canadian eggs

`WE found quite a bit of material,'' says Dennis Braman, just back from China's Gobi Desert. ``Material,'' in Dr. Braman's terminology, means fossils of dinosaurs and turtles. Braman, a curator at the Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology here, was a member of a joint Canadian-Chinese expedition from August to October in that remote corner of China, which few Westerners are allowed to visit because of its closeness to the Mongolian and Soviet borders.

The ``material'' discovered included a single neck rib 10 feet long and six vertebrae that together stretched 20 feet. They belonged to a sauropod, a 90-foot-long creature that roamed what millions of years ago was an upland area providing plenty of vegetation for this animal to gobble up and grow, and grow, and grow. The fossil dinosaur is the largest yet found in Asia, Braman says.

In the lobby area of this handsome museum in the badlands of the Red River Valley, a new display shows the femur and other bones of a baby duckbill dinosaur. They are tiny. They come from an embryo found this past summer at Milk River not far from the United States border well south of here.

Wendy Sloboda, a farm girl and amateur fossil collector, had spotted some dinosaur eggshell material on the ground of what has since been named Devil's Coulee. She led a field crew of scientists from this museum to the site. The next day, while Wendy was writing a Grade 12 departmental examination, technician Kevin Aulenback sat down to rest after scouting the site all morning. His rest place turned out to be a dinosaur nest.

Mr. Aulenback tells of spotting a piece of tibia in an eggshell, then seeing four melon-size eggs with hatchlings. He grabbed a bunch of fossilized bones and ran to show them to his colleagues. ``They say I was babbling about babies, fetuses, eggs,'' he says.

This was the first discovery of unhatched dinosaur eggs in Canada. Philip Currie, head of research at the museum, ranks the find as the most important paleontological discovery in Canada in 50 years. There are only two other known dinosaur egg sites. One was found in Mongolia in 1920. The second, in Montana, was found in 1978 by paleontologist John R. Horner.

All this action has meant an exciting year for the Tyrrell museum and its 44-member staff. The publicity helped bring attendance to well above 1 million since the $30 million (Canadian) museum first opened its doors in late September 1985.

Public relations official Lynne J. Thornton acknowledges the museum has benefited from - and perhaps fed - the current interest in dinosaurs. (See related story on Page 23.)

Southern Alberta is rich in late Cretaceous dinosaur fossils. Dinosaur Provincial Park 100 miles southeast of here was declared a World Heritage Site in 1979 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. The Tyrrell museum has on display more than 200 dinosaur specimens, including 35 complete skeletons.

In Montana, Mr. Horner unearthed hundreds of eggs of a primitive hypsilophodont, a quick, 10-foot-long vegetarian dinosaur, and some eggs of a previously unknown duckbill. Horner named the latter Maiasaura, or ``good mother lizard,'' after finding evidence the dinosaur fed and looked after its newly hatched young.

Here in Alberta, the paleontologists hope their Milk River finds will shed further light on both the growth patterns and behavior of these extinct animals. They have found seven definite nests on this 70- to 75 million-year-old site. These nests contain up to 24 eggs each. The unhatched dinosaurs are in their original positions within the eggs. In Montana, the embryo bones were scattered.

The site has been covered up to protect it from the harsh winter weather here. Besides the nests for the hadrosaur, a ``small'' duckbill dinosaur weighing three to four tons, the site contains a bone bed of mature dinosaurs.

The growth-rate pattern of the dinosaurs may give some indication of whether they were warmblooded or coldblooded, a controversial question among paleontologists. Horner maintains that the creatures grew quickly, regarding this as evidence they were warmblooded.

The site may also offer some proof that at least some dinosaurs migrated in herds up and down the coastal plain of an inland seaway that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Beaufort Sea, dividing North America.

At Milk River, some nests were sitting on top of each other, each covered with a layer of silt. This, scientists say, indicates a lengthy habitation of the area by brooding dinosaurs.

The expedition to the Gobi Desert found a fairly complete skeleton of a theropod, a large meat eater; a pterosaur, a flying reptile; placepod (freshwater snails); crocodiles; turtles; and other fossils.

Dale Russell, a curator of fossil vertebrates from the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Ottawa, noted that ``the Chinese dinosaur record is different and rather unique.'' These animals existed perhaps 10 million years before the creatures found in Alberta. The Chinese region was semi-desert, with alkaline marshes and lakes; the inland sea area of North America had more water and was more biologically lush.

``The setting was exotic,'' says Dr. Russell. The Gobi Desert area has not been touched by sea or glacier for 100 million years or so. ``It was like being on another planet. You have a wonderful feeling of time, of antiquity.''

The expedition was sponsored by the Chinese Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Peking, the National Museum in Ottawa, the Tyrrell Museum here, and the Edmonton-based Ex Terra Foundation. The Canadian scientists plan to go back to China and Inner Mongolia in 1988 and '89. Some Chinese scientists will work in Canada during the winter of those years. There are also plans to put together a traveling exhibition of the expedition's finds.

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