May 14, 2008

Boneyard #20: Meeting a Prehistoric Creature: The Un-Professional Palaeontologist

Though my life has turned out fairly well (ignoring my current teacher registration and immigration issues) I've always had one regret.

I didn't grow up to be a professional Palaeontologist.

Now there's all sorts of reasons for this. My lack of great marks throughout school, my inability to apply math to the real world, and just frankly it wasn't in the universe's cards that were dealt to me.

It's not too say I didn't manage to grow up to be a palaeontologist of sorts. In fact, considering my education and work experience has been constantly building towards working with kids and teaching, I think I've done a pretty good job leaning my life expereince towards the prehistoric.

Having failed to achieve a formal approach into science at a university level, I wrote off the dream of working with dinosaurs or fossils throughout the first few years of my post high school life.

However when I started to (appear to) out-grow summer camps my mother made a fateful intervention into my work search that reignited the seemingly lost dream. She checked the Royal Tyrrell Museum's website for job openings.

They were looking for educational interpreters. A job that required a whole scattering of skills: dinosaur and science knowledge, public speaking, experience with kids, acting and creative imagination. A list of things I happened to have (and still have!) in some abundance.

Long story short I got the gig, and frankly I think I appreciated my experiences of "meeting prehistoric creatures" all the more than if I'd become a true academic Palaentologist.

My first year at the museum was a steep learning curve on the "practical" side of Palaeontology [note this photo is not from this point of my life, but rather it was taken on my last DAY working at the museum ever... *tear*]. Being a childhood dino geek I knew lots of theoretical stuff that you find in books. However, skills like finding fossils and digging them up were all completely new to me.

I managed well enough. Though I won't claim to be a professional I've got a pretty firm grasp on everything from prospecting, excavating, preparation (though I did damage my first Hadrosaur Phalange), and even casting. At the same time, I was not one of the museum's "pros" I did get paid!

One of the key things I definitely learned that not all professionals know, is how to commincate and relate these cool prehistoric creatures we've met from the deep past to the public.

My main love from this time was dinosaur and palaeontology promotion and education. Sadly as a teacher I don't get to do this anywhere near as much as I like, and only manage it by sneeking my puppet Traumador the Tyrannosaur into some of my lessons as a hook. The kids just can't get enough of him!

So when I wasn't showing off palaeontology concepts in such entertaining ways as mock ceratopsian duelling with my colleague Peter Bond (check out his awesome Boneyard entry by clicking here!), I had the oppurtunity to really engage in some real palaeontology.

The kid in me, who is still sticking around, treasures these experiences like few others, and they show that even if you can't become a "proper" palaeontologist you can come pretty darn close!

Prospecting : At the Burgess Shale... Sorta


At the end of my first year at the museum in 2003 we had an unbelievable oppurtunity to go on an out of season trip to Mount Stephen in Field, British Columbia. Now for those of you who don't know the signfiicance of Mount Stephen it is part of the Burgess Shale. It is however, a less famous site than the Walcott quarry located on the connecting ridge of Mount Field and Mount Wapta directly across the valley from Mount Stephen.

Having just gotten hooked on the bizarre wonders of the Burgess Shale this was the trip of a lifetime.

It was also my first chance to hunt for fossils outside the Badlands. By this point in my 4 year run at the Tyrrell I was pretty good at determining fossil from rock, but it was this trip where I started my progress to the next level of knowledge in trying to identify the fossils I found.

The benefit of Mount Stephen vs. the Walcott quarry is that there is a near infinite number of specimens to be found. This slab full of Trilobites was found on the trail nearly 200 metres below the fossil producing plain.

The drawback of Mount Stephen is that it only produces hardbody specimens of trilobites and a handful of other arthropods. On the other hand, The Walcott quarry contains a massive array of excellently perserved specimens exhibiting the spectacular diversity of the Cambrian. Only there, you have to actively split shale to get to these treasures. On Mount Stephen there were more fossils than I could have ever imagined possible!

The actual fossil plain is atop the Mountain, and requires a very arduous hike. It is worth it though.


As the Burgess Shale was part of a UNESCO heritage site, and thus partially protected, half the hill was off limits to perserve this site for future generations, though erosion in my opinion negates the point of this rule. This meant we could only search part of the slope.

You couldn't help but wonder at the time whether the best fossils would be contained within the no go zone...




With this simple mat of shale in front of you, you could look at the more impressive layered outcrop in the protected area of the plain and wonder wistfully what you could find.

It turns out every 2nd or 3rd piece of shale in THIS photo had at least one trilobite fossil in it!!!

If you don't believe me this photo was taken within 3 minutes of our starting to look!

This trip also was my first experience to engage in real field work. The then curator of invertabrates at the Tyrrell, Dr. Paul Johnson was here to collect samples of rock for his upcoming paper on his theory of the Burgess Shale ecosystem forming around volcanic thermal vent environments.

It was a very enlightening and educational trip for me. Not only did I help collect some of the samples, but I was able to ask him all the questions that my heart desired. Those were the days.


Here are samples of our finds.


Lots of trilobites.

A few species of them too! Olenoides and Naraoia. I am hoping here that memory serves me well, as sadly my palaeontology books are all still stuck in Canada.

Trilobites weren't the only thing to be found though.


Among the most exciting finds of my life was this little beauty... An Anomalocaris claw!!! One of my favourite prehistoric creatures ever...
Though rarer than Trilobites there were few of these to be found.

New Responsibilities... New Oppurtunities


For my 3rd year at the museum in 2006 I returned as a founding member of the brand new Badlands Summer Science Camp. I was a natural to help pilot this program having had 3 years previous summer camp experience, and some palaeontological experience.

Combining the two has been thus far been my most statisfying work related experience.

As the kids were coming out for a whole week of 24/7 palaeontology experience we needed our programs at camp to be a lot more extensive than normal tourist programs. As such I got to do a lot of developement that required far more extensive palaeontology activities than I'd done as an interpreter.

Excavating- Dinosaur Provincal ParkOne of the most hands on experiences was working closely with the Museum's Senior Curator Dr. Donald Brinkman to develop a Micro Fossil sorting program. In addition to the educational presentation, which this photo of Traumador and Dr. Brinkman is from, I also helped collect the fossils. What made this cool for the kids, and cooler for me was that we were helping sort these for actual research!

The best part was the camp team accompanied Dr. Brinkman to do this excavating in Dinosaur Provincal Park which is among the most dinosaur rich sites in the world.

As this trip with Dr. Brinkman included teaching and supervising our work, every single one of us are now pretty competent micro fossil experts.

This was our quarry. Unlike macro fossil digs it wasn't the most elaborate of digs.

At the same time I have to say I enjoyed the "one day and you're done" aspect compared to week long macro digs.

Fossil digging whether micro or macro is great excercise. In the case of micros carrying them and the matrix they're in out of the field is a lot heavier than it looks.

As the micro fossil program was mine to develop I was put in charge of cleaning and screening them for our use.


Which just made working with these fossil all the cooler. I found em, prepped em, and finally..


with the help of the kids sorted them.

Casting- The Corythosaur of Doom!



Another of my development projects was refurbishing an old cast skeleton of Corythosaurus into a program prop usable by children. Sadly I only managed the refurbishing part of that task. The skeleton had been a test bed for a number of experimental casting materials in the 80's and as such a lot of it was made of fairly brittle, or worse, heavy stuff. This made it impossible for me to make it truly kid friendly.

Not that we didn't try it out with the kids. Sadly it was too hard to make it engaging for them as the hands on part had to be strictly supervised, and we adults did the "fun" work of putting the skeleton together. For example, the arms required two of us to attack. One person would hold up the heavy cast and the other would bolt it to the frame.

We retired it from the camp program roster after 2 failed attempts.

That having been said the 2 months I spent repairing the skeleton was a very indepth expereince in cast and mounting techniques. Though I couldn't nessecarily mould a new specimen, beyond wielding the underlying frame, I could put together the mounted cast skeleton now with what I learned in this project.

Much like the whole program's tragic outcome, due to the hectic pace of that pilot camp year I stupidly never had a good photo of me and my creation taken though I believe there is one out there somewhere!

Lost Quarries

In my last year I decided to develop a program around one of my personal favourite research projects at the Tyrrell. For the last decade or so, Darren Tanke has been hunting down the lost dig sites of such legends as the Sternbergs and Barnum Brown throughout Alberta.

I approached him about developing a program in which our kids are given a simulated lost quarry on the camp site, and using Darren's techniques figure out who dug it up, when they carried out the dig, and what dinosaur it was. Darren not only agreed to help me with the program, but he personally got involved!

These photos you're seeing are those taken of me and Darren in the early 20th century costumes that were used in the program.

Considering he's hunting for unrecorded spots all throughout the extensive Badlands of Alberta it seems incredible that Darren has found as many sites as he has so far.

Using nothing more than old expedition photographs, like the ones we simulated in these photos, garbage, old newspapers, and some good old fashioned detective work Darren now routinely pinpoints anywhere between 4 and 7 of these sites each summer. Considering he does this during his off time on current digs he's working on I think that's amazing!

Darren's guidance and assistiance led to this being my most successful program out of the lot. My only regret was a few authentic artifacts (like glass bottles and broken wooden crate) had to be substituted with child safe proxies.

The kids loved it. Being presented with the method of how Darren finds them they really enjoyed finding out the mystery of which dinosaur was found at camp.

This outcome was of course ficticious, but for the record it was the Hypacrosaur George Sternberg "found" in 1914. My Corythosaur cast was to stand in for the Hypacrosaur, but of course that didn't happen.

So I guess I sort of lost my target of meeting a prehistoric creature here at the end. To salvage this premise on this last photo I'll relay the best connection to palaeontology I made with my kids.

Having had a very long day most of the camp staff were incredibly exhausted. They just wanted to get back to the camp site and sleep. I offered for any who wanted to go on the Lost Quarry photo hunt.

You see Darren often finds the unknown dig site locations by matching land marks in the antique photos with the landscape of today. Taking the kids on a hike with this series of photos we followed a trail of landmarks that brought us to this lookout.

In the "modern" day this spot is camp itself, and though simulated the 6 kids who came with me forgot this wasn't real, and ran into camp to excitedly inform everyone that George Sternberg had been digging AT camp!

So, I may not be a professional palaeontologist, but I've had my fair share of run-ins with prehistoric creatures. Perhaps more importantly, I've facilitated and shared these encounters with a whole new generation of potential palaeontologists. Or at least I can try to comfort myself with that thought next time I start to regret my life's outcome.

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Prehistoric Insanity Unity

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Thanks for stopping by, and hopefully see you again in the future!

5 comments:

The Flying Trilobite said...

Okay, I'm just drooling at your shale photos.

Prehistoric Insanity said...

I don't mean to rub it in Glendon, but those are just the photos I took in the first 20 minutes (and when I found the Anamolocaris claws). We got bored with photographing them... The amount of trilobites up there STILL hurts my brain.

Next time you're in Alberta you HAVE to book into a Mount Stephen hike! Don't fall for the appeal of the Walcott Quarry! Go for Mount Stephen...

Everyone I know who've done both say Stephen is the way to go if you're into finding stuff (and who isn't!?!).

At the Walcott they let you look at prefound stuff, but you aren't allowed to prospect, for a number of reasons. At Mount Stephen all you do IS prospect. You'd find enough Trilobites to last you a lifetime... okay in a Trilobite nut like you a decade at least ;p

I guess the one disclaimer I'll put out there is due to the UNESCO protection you can't keep anything you find. I personally think it adds to the experience, but for some it might be a deal breaker...

The highlights in a way (though the Trilobites are cool) were the Anamolcaris claws. Dr. Johnson pulled the rug out from us on that front though.

We'd found about 30ish of them in 2 hours, and were pretty proud of ourselves. Dr. Johnson comes down from the rocks he was sampling up the hillside looks down and picks up a slab with not one but two claws and mouth piece in perfect articulation and position of where the whole animal had died (as this was the Stephen bed the soft parts don't perserve. I learned that Stephen represents a slightly different environment than the Walcott quarry, and Dr. J thinks Stephen is volcanic vents that fed and powered the rest of the Burgess Shale environment).

Definately one of the best things to happen to me in 2003, and that whole first year at the museum was like working in the magic store!

Anonymous said...

You are also an idiot. Do you take medication?

Prehistoric Insanity said...

Anonymous-

So THAT is what's been wrong with me all these years! Phew I was real worried there that I wasn't going to figure it out...

You say they have medication to treat idiocy now!?!?!

Where can I get a WORLDWIDE supply?


Oh and next time you come onto my blog don't be a stranger... I would very much like to know the name and face of such a "genius" as yourself. What with your ability to not only diagnois idiocy, but also your knowledge of how to treat it.

Peter Bond said...

I wonder if "anonymous" knows how to treat Stupidity.