Jurassic Park

Dinosaur delving in Alberta’s Badlands
Cherie Thiessen,

My partner and I were no larger than specks of pepper in the dinosaur’s mouth. We crept up its ‘intestines’ – 106 steep, shadowy and eerie stairs, with the sounds of the prehistoric swamp pulsing around us. Thankfully, we survived to stand agape in the beast’s jaws.

Drumheller, Alberta really does have thelargest dinosaur on the planet. At 26.2 metres (86 ft. tall) the Tyrannosaurus rex peers down at the town from almost every vantage point. Fortunately it knows its place.

Rex was born in October eight years ago and since then has been ingesting hundreds of tourists daily. Even without dinosaurs, though, Southern Alberta’s Badlands are jaw dropping. We’d come across them suddenly, an unexpected, twisting dip in and out of a dusty coulee, a startling glimpse of hoodoos skewered on the wasteland, a mini grand canyon abruptly dropping away from the road.

We’d seen those hoodoos advertising this part of Southern Alberta before, those eroded pillars of soft rock that have become a provincial symbol. To see the thousand year old behemoths in situ, though, is staggering. Sadly, the mushroom-shaped caps that protect the structures from erosion are dissolving, and in some cases have disappeared entirely. Once this happens, the hoodoo is doomed to disintegration.

This selfsame sandstone erosion is also that makes the Badlands the perfect place for dinosaur diving. Formed 70 to 75 million years ago,  this area had a climate like present-day Florida, making it a perfect home for its dinosaur denizens. So hunting for their remains is great sport for tourists and amateur paleontologists.

To see how all these bones have been put back together, a visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum, is called for. The only Canadian museum devoted exclusively to paleontology, it preserves 120,000 individual specimens in its nine lofty galleries. One spectacular specimen is the 21- metre Shonisaurus, a giant marine reptile painstakingly excavated by the museum’s past curator of Marine Reptiles, Dr. Elizabeth Nicholls. Found in northern British Columbia, and only displayed since last year, it’s considered the museum’s biggest discovery. Other showstoppers on display include Black Beauty, the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex skull ever found, and a young Theropod (fierce lizard) skeleton, the best example of its kind in the world.

takeoff_tileThere are over a dozen worthy museums in the area, chronicling the early days of the pioneers, First Nations heritage, coal mining, dinosaur nesting sites, reptiles and more. Plenty of entertainment for dino-nerds of all ages. Dinosaur Provincial Park for instance, a world UNESCO Heritage site, is the world’s largest dinosaur fossil find in the world. Paleontologists think that the bone beds found here contain up to one thousand Centrosaurus (horned) skeletons — Flinstone heaven for any twelve year old.

Photo Credits: Cherie Thiessen & David Dossor