Dinosaurs in the mines
Often times it is shovel operators, not paleontologists, who unearth Athabasca's bitumen fossils
One fateful day about 110 million years ago, in the rainforests of what is now British Columbia, a hapless ankylosaur lost its way among the ferns and fauna and ended up in the Western Interior Seaway – a massive open waterway that stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The land-based dinosaur likely drowned, was swept far out to sea and soon buried in the sediments of today’s northeastern Alberta.
It lay there for eons of geological time until the morning of March 21, 2011, when Suncor shovel operator Shawn Funk, who had been scraping back layers of overburden at the Millennium mine face, spotted the distinctive armored plating of the creature’s back. When paleontologist Donald Henderson was called in, he was blown away with what he saw.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes – it was a dinosaur,” says the curator of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology (RTMP). “When we first saw the pictures we were convinced we were going to see another plesiosaur (a more commonly discovered marine reptile).” The fossil instead turned out to be one of the best preserved ankylosaurs in the world. “All the armor is in place; we’ve got skin and other soft tissues, and probably stomach contents as well,” Henderson enthuses.
It was an exciting discovery for the oil patch: Henderson says it is the only land dinosaur that’s been found in the oil sands, which is located in what was once the vast waterway. “Everything else has been ichthyosaurs or plesiosaurs, which we generally call marine reptiles [and not dinosaurs],” he says. And there may be many more discoveries to come. As oil sands activity picks up, more and more fossils are being uncovered.
Of the major fossil discoveries in the oil sands, a majority come from Syncrude pits, with two exceptions: the 2011 nodosaur came from the Suncor Millennium mine, and the December 2012 elasmosaur came from roadworks at the new Parsons Creek interchange, just north of Fort McMurray. All are from the Wabuskaw member of the Clearwater Formation.
Oil sands producers already have plenty of added responsibilities these days as energy politics come to the forefront of national debate. But with increasing numbers of fossils being uncovered by shovel operators rather than paleontologists, there is another, less obvious, responsibility to consider: preserving (pre)history. So, what’s the process to ensure valuable paleontological resources like these aren’t lost? And who is responsible for preserving these resources?
Dan Spivak, head of the resource management program for the Alberta government, says before oil sands projects can commence, companies must apply for a permit under the provincial Historical Resources Act – the same regulatory process as archaeological clearance. “If there is any requirement for a pre-impact study, a paleontological consultant would have to go out, do the study and submit the report to us, which is then reviewed by my office and one of our curators.” The consultant is engaged by the operating company long before development.
One such consultant is Sam Wilson, the president and principal paleontologist at Nautilus Paleontology Inc. of Calgary. Once engaged, he starts with a baseline study “to understand where the known fossil sites are located that are relevant to the study area,” he says, considering their age, geologic formation and rock type. After obtaining a permit to excavate, he then gathers his camera, GPS unit, small tools and notebook and heads out to site.
Most fossils he finds in such studies are surface or bedrock exposures, or contained in Quaternary sands and gravels. “I rarely excavate but occasionally accompany an archaeologist during backhoe testing.” He documents and sometimes salvages any fossils he finds, for deposit with the RTMP to which also goes his report. RTMP staffers evaluate the report and provide a recommendation to Alberta Culture for the company’s permit application.
Once granted a permit, companies may proceed but must report all fossil encounters. Operators therefore need a keen spotting eye. In some cases, RTMP paleontologists will assist companies with training. “We worked with Syncrude to put together a pamphlet on what to watch for,” Henderson says. “In the Syncrude pits, the fossils stand out with quite a different color; a pale yellow against a darker rock and they tend to fall out of the cliff in isolated pieces.”
Syncrude operators are well aware of the possibility of finds and have made several. “In 2012 one of our shovel operators, Jason Young, made a discovery and the year before that Maggie Horvath also made a discovery,” says Lorne Shearing, manager of Mildred Lake mining at Syncrude. “It is pretty large-scale equipment we are running; these shovels have a 100-ton capacity, so the fact that our operators are finding these kinds of fossils is really a testament to their skill.”
For the case when an operator encounters a fossil, companies have strict policies in place, which is mandatory under the Historical Resources Act. If operators discover what they believe to be a fossil, the area is cordoned off and equipment is moved outside a 20-meter excavation radius of the find. A staff geologist then investigates and records scale, GPS location, co-ordinates, elevation and geological unit of the find.
Once the geologist is adequately confident there is a find, the RTMP is contacted, who immediately load equipment and make the eight-hour drive to the oil sands. Time is of the essence: tardiness could conceivably cause costly delays. In the case of the ankylosaur find, Suncor sent the corporate jet and flew the paleontologists in. “That is one of the reasons we have been able to maintain positive relationships with these companies,” Spivak says. “We try and do it quickly; we don’t want them to incur unneeded costs because they did the right thing and reported a fossil to us.”
Despite these short interruptions, Spivak says, discoveries always manage to pique the interest of on-site workers. “When we did the ankylosaur, we had a steady stream of visitors every day,” he recalls. “People were just thrilled; we got the sense that some had another chore in one of the big pits and just happened to take a very indirect route to swing by.”
Paleontology isn’t exactly foreign to geologists; most have basic understanding, and the professions are fairly closely linked. The two practices overlap especially in biostratigraphy, or the act of classifying rock layers by their age. The names of some of Western Canada’s most prolific plays underscore this: the Second White Specks Formation and the Cardium Formation are both named after fossils. In Alberta, all fossil finds have taken place in the Wabiskaw Member of the near-surface Clearwater Formation, which lies atop the McMurray Formation.
Bill Ayrton, a geologist with Ayrton Exploration Consulting, reckons paleontology has long been a fundamental tool for geologists. “We have the corals of the Devonian reefs that really got the oil boom going here in 1947,” he says. “Imperial Oil looked at outcrops in the mountains and found these reefs that were full of sponges and corals from an ancient reef that grew 350 million years ago. They mapped them up and down in the mountains and chased them out in the plains.” Their reward was the famous Leduc find of 1947.
Paleontologists owe a lot to the miners. “We would never see this stuff if it weren’t for the industrial activity,” Henderson says. “Looking at the erosion rate on the Athabasca and the Clearwater, I suspect we would never see them even if we waited a million years. It is the same with the coal mining: we just wait and see what pokes out.” It has been estimated about 1.2 billion cubic meters of rock have been unearthed at the Suncor pit “and our specimen occupied about two cubic meters,” he says. “It’s one in a billion.”
Oil patch discoveries go back a long way in Alberta. Philip Currie, past curator of dinosaurs at the RTMP, remembers the second excavation he ever did: for Dome Petroleum. Now a professor and Canada research chair in dinosaur palaeobiology at the University of Alberta, he says Dome was putting a pipeline across the Red Deer River north of Drumheller at the time. “The specimen was pretty cool because it had clearly been eaten by one or more tyrannosaurids, probably Albertosaurus,” he says. “The back end of the skeleton was nicely articulated, but as we uncovered the front part of the skeleton, we found only broken bones mixed with tooth crowns from the carnivores.”
All specimens become property of the Alberta government and many are on display at the RTMP. The work can be painstaking: the ankylosaur was excavated in 2011 but Henderson reckons it will be another three years before study and restoration will be complete. When it is, it will be a world-class exhibit for Canada.
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