Another Dispatch from the Tumbler Ridge Dino Dig

Photo: Palaeontologist Rich McCrea works on jacketing a large rib at the 2008 Tumbler Ridge dinosaur excavation site.

By Charles Helm

The 2008 dinosaur excavation near Tumbler Ridge has now been in progress for over a month. Work is intensifying on a six square metre working surface, and in places the main bone-bearing layer has been reached, with dramatic results. To date sixty-six bone elements have been identified, with more being found each day.

One of the highlights has been the discovery of no less than five tyrannosaurid teeth (possibly shed during scavenging at the carcass site). Added to the one discovered closer to Tumbler Ridge in 2006, these six teeth represent the only ones of their kind in B.C. Other as yet unidentified teeth have been removed as well, and await preparation in the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre in Tumbler Ridge. More articulated vertebrae have been added to those exposed and removed when the site was discovered in 2007, and the vertebra tally now stands at ten.

I am finally persuaded to forsake trench warfare and have a go on the work interface. I think the palaeontologists have a theory that my surgical skills as a family physician may prove useful in finding bones. In this they are not correct, so I choose a square metre that seems to be the furthest from the known bone concentration area, where I am least likely to miss or destroy something critical.

Rich McCrea is working on jacketing and removing a massive rib bone. I am struck by the similarity in shape to human ribs, complete with a groove through which ran the dinosaur’s nerve, artery and vein, just like in modern-day mammals. In a dramatic moment he and Lisa Buckley chisel away at the base of the Plaster of Paris jacket he has laboriously created, and it pops off, securely holding the rib inside it – another successful removal to add to the burgeoning list.

Lisa Buckley works meticulously with grid, compass, plumb bob and notebook, logging every minute discovery. This will all help piece the dinosaur together at a later date. The dig is delightfully low tech: hammers and chisels, glue, brushes and dustpans, plaster and water for the bones, and shovels, buckets, picks and person-power in the trenches. Dynamite is suggested as a means to remove the overburden, and for the moment is dismissed in favour of prison labour in 2009 – perhaps Community Service by a gang of twenty.

After a few hours of work, as I prepare to leave, Field Assistant Tyler Shaw reports that the bone at which he has been picking away is narrow but long, and has been exposed over a 25 cm length. By day’s end it is 75 cms long, still with no end in sight, and Rich is entwined with a series of huge newly found ribs and what looks like a femur. The excitement just never seems to abate.

Soon the dig will be wrapped up for the summer, maybe to be resumed in the fall. It is time for the palaeontologists to head into the snow-free alpine for the short season of fossil fish and marine reptile collection. These ancient Triassic fossils are also nationally and often internationally significant, and the research team has made the difficult decision to tackle these marine fossils as well as the incredible Kakwa fossil footprint site during the height of summer, rather than just focus on the dinosaur excavation. Adequate provincial funding would allow for an appropriately large team of scientists to do justice to this amazing fossil resource, which makes northeastern BC one of the world’s least known fossil hotspots.

Back at work the next day one of my patients, a man who is comfortable in the bush, keeps his eyes open and knows what to look for, tells me about fossilized footprints he has found close to Tumbler Ridge. Dinosaur footprints – now I am back on home turf! At the first opportunity I follow his directions where there is, to my great excitement, an ankylosaur trackway, as well as a couple of other museum-quality specimens. Now we just have to figure out how to get these massive stone slabs into the research centre, make casts, and put them on display. Here is maybe another month’s work for the already overburdened museum staff. What a wonderful problem to have! Life is never dull in this, the finest part of the world to inhabit.