The most complete dinosaur skeleton ever discovered in British Columbia was recently airlifted to a paleontology museum in Tumbler Ridge. The remains of the duck-billed dinosaur, known as a hadrosaur, are about 74 million years old. Lisa Buckley, a paleontologist and the collections curator at the Peace River Paleontology Research Centre, spoke to The Globe and Mail about the difficult airlift and explained why more dinosaurs aren't found in the province.
How challenging is it to transport a dinosaur skeleton?
Extremely challenging. We decided to pull the skeleton out in one big piece, rather than pulling the individual bones out. Makes for a much more informative specimen when you pull it out in one piece.
The first thing we had to do was make sure we gave it a strong enough support jacket – made out of plaster, burlap and wooden beam supports – so that when the skeleton was flying around in the air there wasn't any stress put on the skeleton. That could cause the jacket to crack and the contents fall out.
So we spent the entire summer thinking of the worst-case scenario that could possibly happen during a helicopter lift, and tried to prevent it. The helicopter used a 200-foot line. [When it was over] the technicians called it a textbook lift – it was a nice boring lift, which means nothing went wrong.
What makes this discovery an important one for B.C.?
It's our first articulated dinosaur skeleton we've found in B.C, and as such, it's B.C.'s most complete dinosaur skeleton. You know when you go to a museum and you see all the bones in the position of how they would have looked when the animal was alive? That's articulated.
But even though it's B.C.'s most complete dinosaur, it's missing its skull. This is something that happens frequently. After an animal dies, all the connective tissue that connects the skull to the backbone starts to fall apart. Skulls are bulky and they're a little bit heavier than the neck vertebrae. So if the body was transported down a river after it died, the head might very well just fall off through the natural decay process.
We're hoping that didn't happen with our skeleton, because we've found a lot of the neck vertebrae scattered around the skeleton. There's a good chance the skull will be there, but we're still on the hunt. We're going to be returning to this site for many years to come, not just to look for the skull, but we also have evidence there's more than one animal preserved at the site. At least three.
Where exactly is the site?
I'm going to give you the glib answer, and say it's at an undisclosed location and unspecified distance from Tumbler Ridge. The reason we have to do that is because there are no specific fossil protection laws in B.C., so if someone comes across the site and vandalizes it or steals things from it, we have very little legal recourse to go after people like that.
Unfortunately, in this region, it's not unheard of for fossil sites to be vandalized. Last year at a duck-bill [dinosaur] fossil site near Grande Prairie, the plaster jacket was pulled off and things were smashed.
Why don't we find more dinosaurs in B.C., given all those found in Alberta?One reason is that people haven't really looked. Another reason is the geography. In Alberta there's a lot of exposed rock, but in B.C. we have a lot of vegetation covering the dinosaur-aged rocks.
What has been historically well-known in B.C. are dinosaur footprints. Those have been known in the province since the 1930s. That was from the Peace River Canyon area, and that was one of the top track sites in the world at the time. It's one of British Columbia's best kept secrets.