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Death to a Display: How Does the Journey of a Dinosaur Fossil Begin?

Emlyn Koster, PhD

November 2022

Dinosaur Mania

A great article by Tom Holland in The Guardian newspaper in 2015 illuminated our obsession with dinosaurs: “Emblems alike of success and failure, of continuity and extinction, of weirdness and familiarity, they are fit objects on to which we can project all our manifold obsessions and concerns: as mutable and contradictory as human society itself”. With hard to forget names, we gaze at them in museums because they vividly take us back to a bygone era. We marvel at their sizes and shapes, teeth and claws. We realize the distinctions between predator and prey, meat eaters and plant eaters. Maybe we also ponder that their skeletons are like ours with a skull, spine, ribs, and limbs.

That these extinct reptiles abound in the imagination of children is encouraged by Hollywood’s blockbusters Jurassic Park (1993), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) and Jurassic World Dominion (2022). Not long ago, public surveys commonly revealed confusion about the relative ages of dinosaurs and humans. With the help of abundant exhibits and voluminous literature, the fact that the last dinosaurs preceded the earliest ancestors of Homo sapiens ― all of us biologically speaking ― by some 60 million years has become much more widely known. And more and more it seems, our fascination with these creatures includes their equally adaptive descendants, today’s wonderful variety of birds.

Some other myths about dinosaurs resist reality checks. One is the link between the rugged colorful terrain called badlands (named by French trappers because wagon trains found them challenging to traverse) and the remains of dinosaurs hiding beneath their slopes. These eroding landscapes expose sedimentary layers that were deposited in lowlands inhabited by dinosaur-dominated ecosystems more than 66 million years ago. Dinosaurs have not occupied today’s badlands and although similar scenery existed during the dinosaurian world there was no chance of fossilization there! I recall a campground lecture in Alberta’s Dinosaur Park about my geological studies in its vast badlands. Afterwards, an enthusiast shared his amazement over the extent of excavation by paleontologists: not so, I exclaimed to his greater amazement! Meltwater as the Ice Age ended about 11,000 years ago rapidly eroded a spillway, now the Red Deer River Valley, with ongoing erosion of its margins by each snowmelt and rainstorm gradually exposing what was buried long before.  

New Research Angle

As a geologist interested in sedimentary processes of rivers and across coastal plains before my nature and science museum career, I was fortunate during the 1980s while at the Alberta Geological Survey and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology to undertake field research projects with longtime colleague Philip Currie. We were focused on strata of Late Cretaceous age, 100-66 million years ago, in what are now southeastern Alberta and China’s Gobi Desert, in my case over five years and five weeks respectively, in his case a whole life. Then in 2016, as Director of the North Carolina of Natural Sciences with its chief paleontologist and exhibition lead, I pursued an invitation to view the ‘Dueling Dinosaur’ fossils from Montana at their Long Island storage site. Exquisitely preserved, side by side, complete skeletons of a young Tyrannosaurus and old Triceratops, the two most popular types of dinosaur, the North Carolina Museum acquired them and a customized preparation laboratory to be in public view is slated to open in early 2023 (https://duelingdinosaurs.org/).

During the late 20th century, intensified research to collect dinosaur fossils, better understand their evolution, and reconstruct their ecology coincided with a rising interest in dinosaur taphonomy (from the Greek, taphos for burial, nomos for law). Focused on reconstruction of biological and sedimentological processes between death and burial, a Russian paleontologist Ivan Yefremov introduced this term in a 1940 article in the journal Pan-American Geologist. Like so many breakthroughs in science, there was a considerable lag between the idea and its application. Entering the badlands to study the outcrops exposing dinosaur remains ― from fragments to partial skeletons to entire skeletons ― I was immediately fascinated by what these suggested about environmental conditions during death and burial. For example, an isolated and abraded 6 inch wide, 2 inch thick vertebra was evidence of a much more vigorous river flow than would be deduced from just the enclosing sand-sized sediment.

Enriching Interpretation

“The passage from the biosphere to the lithosphere” was an evocative description used by Yefremov. Taphonomic studies do indeed stir our imagination not only about the environmental conditions before fossilization but also about what happened to the vast majority of animals with no preserved remains. Taphonomy also builds bridges between paleontological and biological investigations. Even in the absence of nearby carnivores and scavengers, the rapid two-stage course of in situ destruction of a carcass by de-fleshing and weathering has been well documented. A long-term study of mammal remains, including of elephants, near Kenya’s Lake Amboseli discovered complete decomposition within 10-15 years. A monitoring study in Uganda’s Rwenzori Park spotted a rare occurrence of two still-attached neck vertebrae of a buffalo four years after its death. The renowned field biologist George Schaller observed mass mortality of migrating wildebeest herds during flashfloods in the Serengeti to be an almost annual event. Such an observation reinforces paleontological interpretations that the greatest potential for dinosaur preservation occurred when the same event instantly caused both the killing and the burial.

Since those encounters with dinosaur taphonomy three decades ago, I have imagined that dinosaur exhibits in museums could significantly expand their scope of interpretation, especially when exhibits of what were partially preserved skeletons are composites of what was found and what was added based on other finds. Often only with labels that communicate the scientific name, geologic age, place of discovery, and a few lifestyle details, the level of intrigue would surely be even greater if knowledge about the causes of death and burial was also presented. In Alberta’s Dinosaur Park for example, pioneering studies by Charles Sternberg (1850-1943) that were published in 1970 concluded that bloated dinosaur carcasses may have floated upside down with their heads dragging beneath the shoulders. This graphic interpretation suggests why skeletons were often preserved without heads.

Novel Repercussion

I could not have imagined during fieldwork and while at the helm of the Tyrrell Museum that the avid interest of tourists in dinosaurs had further potential in a commercial and ambassadorial way. In 1990 when Queen Elizabeth II bestowed royal appellation on the Museum, I proposed an idea to the general manager of nearby Calgary International Airport. While waiting for luggage on a carousel in its arrival area, the idea dawned on me that the well-watched areas between carousels could be effectively occupied by eye-catching, three-dimensional exhibits depicting what makes Alberta famous: its badlands and dinosaurs, Rocky Mountains, and equestrian events. Guess what?: they’re still there, enlightening visitors and greeters, flight after flight!

Topical Footnote

In today’s troubled world, there often seems to be little inclination to take the time to reflect on links between nature and culture across time. Yet more than ever, the public ought to grasp the evidence that fuels scientific progress and in particular the teachable moments arising from spectacular breakthroughs ought to be leveraged. The communication of science has become as important as the conduct of science. Across all ages and backgrounds, nothing quite compares to the enduring worldwide fascination with dinosaurs.