It took five years of painstaking work on a remote B.C. hillside near the Alberta border, but last week, paleontologist Richard McCrea and his team finally unearthed the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in B.C.
“It’s been time consuming, but it’s quite something to go from discovering a dinosaur and excavating it and removing it,” McCrea said in an interview Thursday, describing the skeletal remains of the approximately 73-million-year-old hadrosaur that was airlifted to the Tumbler Ridge Museum last week.
But still the hunt continues: The hadrosaur is missing its head.
“We’re likely to find a head at some point,” McCrea said, but he noted it might not be the one they’re looking for.
“There’s at least two other dinosaurs in the area, and this kind of animal, the hadrosaurs, they did not live in small groups,” he explained, speculating there could be at least 30 more skeletons yet to be excavated in what he called a “bone bed.”
“We found a total now of six femora, which is six thigh bones, and normally dinosaurs only had two, just like we do,” he said, laughing.
McCrea said it’s possible the hadrosaur’s head was scavenged by a tyrannosaurus because about 60 of the carnivorous dinosaur’s teeth were also found in the bed.
“The head would have been easy to take off” after the hadrosaur died, he said. “It’s one of the weakest links on most animals because the head is fairly heavy.”
Close to 3,000 teeth filled the heads of adult hadrosaurs, McCrea said, which helped them chow down on tough vegetation. They stretched up to 10 metres long, and weighed several tonnes.
Hadrosaurs “would have likely been very good meals for the tyrannosaurus,” McCrea said.
For McCrea, the skeleton and the potential for many more discoveries are proof that B.C.’s paleontological history needs to be taken more seriously.
“It used to be thought, mainly by people in B.C., that British Columbia doesn’t have dinosaurs,” he said. “It does obviously have them, now, but they’re not in easy to get [to] places.”
For example, McCrea described the five years his team spent excavating the hadrosaur from its remote hillside location.
“For every metre that we go into the side of the hill, we have to remove eight metres of overburden, and that’s all by hand,” he said.
“Plus we have to be very careful when we’re excavating anyway. It’s not pick-and-shovel work when you’re down at the bone layer. We’re using very small instruments. Little picks, brushes, that kind of thing.”
Excavation also takes even longer, he said, because his six-person crew operates on a very small budget.
Provincial support for paleontological discoveries, he said, is “non-existent.”
“It’s nothing to do with any present government,” he said. “It’s just with British Columbia as a whole, this province does not have that as part of its identity or culture, even though it has substantial paleontological resources.”
McCrea said it will be at least a year before the hadrosaur’s remains will be displayed because he currently does not have funding to hire the proper technicians to prepare the bones.