Spotting A Hadrosaur

By | October 6th, 2022|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Sometimes serendipity and palaeontology combine, for example, a sharp-eyed field team member spotting a hadrosaur fossil specimen eroding out of a small hill in the Dinosaur Provincial Park (Alberta, Canada). The fossils could represent a rare skeleton of a juvenile and there is evidence that skin impressions have been preserved.

Whilst hadrosaur fossils are relatively common in this part of southern Alberta, the animal’s tail and right hind foot are orientated in the hillside to suggest that the entire skeleton may still be preserved within the rapidly eroding mudstone.

Standing next to the exposed hadrosaur skeleton.
Brian Pickles (left) and Caleb Brown (right) stand next to the exposed skeleton. Picture credit: Melissa Dergousoff/University of Reading.

Potentially a Very Significant Fossil Discovery

Whole dinosaur skeletons are extremely rare, this specimen tentatively referred to as a “dinosaur mummy” could provide important new information on juvenile hadrosaurs and the ontogeny of duck-billed dinosaurs.

Diagram of potential hadrosaur specimen
A diagram of the potential hadrosaur skeleton showing exposed parts with skin impressions and the potential orientation of the rest of the skeleton. Picture credit: Caleb Brown.

Spotting a Hadrosaur

The exposed caudal vertebrae (tail bones) show preserved skin impressions as does the exposed right ankle. The size of the bones and the distance between the tail and the astragalus (ankle) suggest that these are the fossilised remains of a young hadrosaur.

Close-up view of the exposed caudal vertebrae with preserved skin impressions.
A close-up view of the exposed caudal vertebrae with preserved skin impressions. Picture credit: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.
View of the exposed ankle bones with skin impressions.
A view of the exposed ankle bones with skin impressions. Picture credit: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

Discovering a Duck-billed Dinosaur

During a field school scouting visit in 2021 to look for possible excavation sites, Dr Brian Pickles (University of Reading) was leading a small team examining one location when volunteer crew member Teri Kaskie spotted the fossil skeleton protruding from the hillside.

The "Hadrosaur Hill"
Teri Kaskie (right) and (left) Melissa Dergousoff stand next to the hill containing the hadrosaur skeleton. Picture credit: Brian Pickles University of Reading.

The first international palaeontology field school is taking place, involving academics and students from the University of Reading and the University of New England in Australia. In collaboration with researchers from the Royal Tyrrell Museum (Drumheller, Alberta), the team are working together to excavate the skeleton and ensure the material that remains in the hill is protected from the elements.

The first part of the conservation work involves coating the fossil site in a thick layer of mud, to help conserve the delicate fossils and to prevent erosion.

Covering the exposed fossils with mud
Covering the exposed fossils with mud to provide protection. Picture credit: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

An Exciting Fossil Discovery

Commenting on the significance of this hadrosaur fossil find, Dr Pickles stated:

“This is a very exciting discovery, and we hope to complete the excavation over the next two field seasons. Based on the small size of the tail and foot, this is likely to be a juvenile. Although adult duck-billed dinosaurs are well represented in the fossil record, younger animals are far less common. This means the find could help palaeontologists to understand how hadrosaurs grew and developed.”

Vertebrate palaeontologist from the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Dr Caleb Brown added:

“Hadrosaur fossils are relatively common in this part of the world but another thing that makes this find unique is the fact that large areas of the exposed skeleton are covered in fossilised skin. This suggests that there may be even more preserved skin within the rock, which can give us further insight into what the hadrosaur looked like.”

Protecting the exposed hadrosaur fossils
The burlap screen erected over the exposed fossils to help protect the material from erosion. Picture credit: Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology.

A Substantial Project

Collecting the entire skeleton is going to take many months and the site will have to be closed down and secured as the weather worsens towards winter. It may take several field seasons to complete this work. Once the specimen has been removed from the field, it will be delivered to the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Preparation Laboratory, where skilled technicians will work to uncover and conserve the fossilised bones.

At this time, the scientists are unsure as to how complete the specimen is and which genus the fossils represent. Species identification will only be possible if a substantial proportion of the skeleton, including skull material can be recovered.

Exposed hadrosaur skeletal material in the Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation
Brian Pickles and Caleb Brown stand next to the exposed skeleton with an illustration showing estimated skeleton size and potential position. Picture credit: Melissa Dergousoff University of Reading with diagram by Caleb Brown.

Which Hadrosaur?

Several different types of hadrosaur are known from the Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation (Campanian faunal stage). Lambeosaurines are represented by Corythosaurus, Parasaurolophus and Lambeosaurus whilst members of the Saurolophinae subfamily represented include Gryposaurus and Prosaurolophus. As more of the skeleton is prepared, the researchers are hopeful that they will be able to confirm the species.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the assistance of a media release from Reading University in the compilation of this article.