Successful summer for Royal Saskatchewan Museum paleontologist at various fossil sites across the province

Written by Matthew Liebenberg

Sask. Landing

Paleontologist Dr. Emily Bamforth has been spending a lot of time digging dirt this summer.

She is a curatorial assistant at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM) T.rex Discovery Centre in Eastend and has been working at sites in southwest Saskatchewan and elsewhere in the province.
“It was a fantastic summer,” she said.
The RSM has a number of active fieldwork sites around the province where excavations take place every summer.
“Every year we go to some of the same sites, but we switch up which sites we go to,” she said. “This year was a really great year. It being hot and dry means that we didn’t lose many days to rain, but also there’s less grass growing on the outcrops, so we’re able to see more. Every year is different, every year is exciting and I have never had a boring field season.”
She worked in the field with paleontology students from McGill University and at some sites, she was also joined by volunteers.
One of the first field stops this year was a dinosaur bonebed on Lake Diefenbaker at Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park, where the RSM and McGill University have been doing excavations since 2012. The fossils at this site date back to about 72 million years ago.
“A bonebed is a place where we have a lot of individual dinosaurs preserved in a confined space,” she said. “We’ve collected in total over 100 dinosaurs fossils from this particular site.”
The field crew of 12 people moved about 16 tons of rock by hand with pick axes and shovels during a five-day period.
“Fortunately, it’s not solid rock,” she said. “We don’t need a jackhammer or anything. It’s mostly sort of sandstone, which is a little bit easier to move, but it’s still quite an effort. It’s a very physical kind of a job.”
They spent about two weeks on the site. They used field jackets to safely remove 16 large fossils from the site. It is a technique that has been used by paleontologists for more than 100 years.
“The early fossil hunters did exactly the same thing,” she said. “You dig a trench around it and then you cover it with plaster and burlap, you flip it over and then you cover the back with plaster and burlap as well. Basically, you’re left with a package that has the fossil, all of the rock that surrounds it, all encased in this plaster and burlap jacket. That makes the fossil safe for transporting and also for storage.”
They also found some 200 smaller fossils during this excavation. Fossils of horned dinosaurs, called Ceretopsians, are common on the site, but there are some duckbill dinosaurs. A surprise find at this site was a lower jaw of a duckbill dinosaur. The Edmontosaurus was the most common duckbilled dinosaur in Saskatchewan, but this jaw belongs to a group that is common in Alberta.
“It’s actually quite rare in Saskatchewan,” she said. “So we were excited to find that particularly kind of hadrosaurid duck-billed dinosaur.”
The fieldwork team spent some time at a site in the Grasslands National Park East Block, where the dinosaur fossils are around 66 million years old. They continued to work on the excavation of an associated skeleton of an Edmontosaurus.
“This is a skeleton that’s not all put together, it’s sort of a jumble of bones, but of course we can take them out and reassemble them,” she said. “This year we’ve collected part of the rib. In previous years we’ve also collected part of the limbs and a bunch of the backbone. The vertebrae has also been collected from this site.”
They collected many micro vertebrate fossils, which are the same age as the larger dinosaur fossils, on this site. It includes fish scales, salamander vertebrae, lizard jaws, dinosaur teeth, and crocodile teeth and scutes.
“They’re little fossils that tell us a lot about the paleo biodiversity of the area,” she said. “They’re found in these concentrated areas that we call vertebrate microsites and they’re really important for understanding the ecology or the paleo ecology at the time. Our site in Grasslands is one of these and we collected  about 700 of these little fossils this year.”
This summer’s interesting discoveries at the site include parts of the scull of a Thescelosaurus, which was a small dinosaurus, and a turtle fossil. She noted that turtles from this time period are common, but they usually only find their shells.
“This one not only had the top and the bottom shell, but also had parts of the limbs, shoulder and the hip as well as vertebrae from the neck and the tail, which is really rare for a turtle,” she said. “This actually had some of the internal bones as well. So that was a nice find.”
The Grasslands National Park hosted the five-day Fossil Fever event from Aug. 13-17, which allowed visitors to participate in the dig with the RSM and McGill University fieldworkers.
“They were able to help collect the fossils and do some of the digging themselves,” she said. “It’s really nice to have people in the field learning paleontology. … We’re really happy to give people the experience to come out and see where the fossils actually come from, because you go to a museum and you see the skeletons and the displays, but to be able to see them come out of the ground and to understand the context that they come with the rocks is really important.”
Bamforth worked at two other RSM excavation sites during the summer. The Herschel marine bonebed near Rosetown is between 72 and 70 million years old.
“This is from a time when Saskatchewan was covered with a shallow sea and this is where we get marine fossils,” she said. “We get things like sharks and fish and marine reptiles; things like Plesiosaurs and Mosasaurus, those big reptiles that use to swim in the sea.”
They collected about 50 fossils at the site and many local volunteers participated in this dig, which was an opportunity for them to learn more about this prehistoric time.
“People are fascinated by the concept of a world that is so different from today,” she said. “I think that really captures people’s imagination, which is the reason why Jurassic Park and Jurassic World are so popular.”
People who had the opportunity to participate in these hands-on paleontological experiences have found it worthwhile.
“They really appreciate the chance to actually go out and to find something for themselves,” she said. “People tell me it’s a fantastic learning experience. They go out just expecting to be shoveling dirt all day and then to learn so much about fossils and paleontology and geology just from being there.”
A highlight for Bamforth from this summer’s fieldwork was a trip to Pasqua Regional Park in July, where RSM paleontologist Tim Tokaryk unearthed the world’s most complete skeleton of a giant prehistoric crocodile in the early 1990s on the banks of the Carrot River.
“Some material was collected there at the time, but the Royal Saskatchewan Museum really hadn’t been back since then,” she said. “This trip was just to go up and take another look at the area and to see if we could find anything more. That was exciting.”
This marine site is about 92 million years old with fossils of marine reptiles, shark, fish as well as some bird fossils.
“We found a lot of really amazing stuff, including a beautiful fish fossil that was maybe 15 centimetres but completely articulated,” she said. “So it had all the backbone in place, the skull was all still there, the scales were still attached to the outside, you could see all the fin rays still well preserved.”
They returned from the area with about 250 pounds of rock, which will be added to the existing material from that site. The summer students have already been preparing, identifying and cataloguing the material previously collected from the Carrot River site.
“It’s a big job,” she said. “There’s probably over 1,000 individual fossils that are preserved in these rock, but it’s definitely all worth it and every fossil is important.”
All the material collected at the different sites during the summer will be processed and identified over the next few months.
“In the winter we do all of the preparation, the processing, the cataloguing, and it’s also when we write papers on what we found,” she said. “So basically share the information that came from our field season with the scientific community.”
The information from this year’s field season will help them to plan next year’s field trips. If they find something new during a trip, they will return the following year to look for more fossils.
“This is the reason why we have sites that we’ve worked on for a number of years, because every year we find a little bit more that entices us to go back,” she said. “In addition to going back to sites we’ve already visited, we always prospect for new sites as well. For example, this year, we were at Unity and we did a little bit of prospecting up there, just looking for new sites.”
She noted the RSM’s T.rex Discovery Centre at Eastend is well located for their fieldwork trips and they are within an hour’s drive of several fossil sites.
“The fact that we’re in the middle of the field means that we can be out collecting from May all the way to mid October and this is kind of unique,” she said. “A lot of universities and museums will have a narrow window of time. They plan to go out for two or three weeks a year and that’s all the field time they have whereas being in Eastend it’s really just on our doorstep.”

via SW Sask News – Prairie Post – Prairie Post

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