CANADA

Unearthing a T. rex

Scientists discover a rare fossil in Saskatchewan

MARK NICHOLS August 8 1994
CANADA

Unearthing a T. rex

Scientists discover a rare fossil in Saskatchewan

MARK NICHOLS August 8 1994

Unearthing a T. rex

Scientists discover a rare fossil in Saskatchewan

The badlands of southwestern Saskatchewan’s Frenchman River Valley have a harsh but breathtaking beauty. Millions of years of wind and water erosion have chiselled the sides of the valley and, in many places, stripped the land of vegetation. On the steeply sloping sides of a gully 350 km southwest of Regina and about 150 km from the Alberta border, a team of scientists and technicians have labored since June in temperatures that occasionally exceeded 40° C. Using dental tools, scalpels and paintbrushes last week, they deli-

cately extracted pieces of fossilized bone belonging to a creature that lived 65 million years ago—a Tyrannosaurus rex that perished in, or beside, a stream when the area was lushly forested. So far, they have found parts of the animal’s skull and lower jawbone, segments of its backbone and legs, a hipbone and a thighbone. And each new discovery is making John Storer, one of the paleontologists working on the dig, more excited about what they will have extracted by the end of the summer.

“We are very confident,” says Storer, “that we have a nearly complete skeleton here.”

The discovery is important because so little is known about the fearsome-looking animal that is a special favorite of children fascinated by the prehistoric beasts. Only about a dozen T. rex skeletons have ever been found—and only about four of those are largely complete. With its wicked rows of pointed teeth and powerful hind legs, T. rex is widely believed to have been a fast-moving and rapacious giant that fed on smaller members of the dinosaur family. Still, some scientists have argued that because of its size—T. rex could have weighed as much as 5Y2 tons and stood 20 feet tall—they may have been too large and heavy to be active hunters. Storer says that the latest specimen was probably an adult T. rex “and may have been larger than average.” Hans Sues, head of the department of vertebrate paleontology at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, calls the Saskatchewan discovery “an exciting find,” adding: “It’s nice to have an additional specimen of T. rex to study.”

The T. rex first came to light in July, 1991,

on a cattle ranch owned by Daryl and Connie Allemand, 34 km southwest of the farming community of Eastend, Sask. Robert Gebhardt, a local school principal and an amateur paleontologist, was out looking for fossils with Storer and Tim Tokaryk, paleontologists at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, when he spotted what turned out to be part of a dinosaur tooth and a vertebra on the side of a hill. The scientists immediately suspected that it might be from a T. rex. But the significance of the find was not confirmed until April of this year, when Tokaryk returned to the site and uncovered part of a skull, which unmistakably came from one of the king-size creatures. In June, Storer and Tokaryk set up a camp in the gully and began searching for the rest of the skeleton.

The work is often arduous, because many parts of the skeleton are embedded in ironstone, a substance formed over the ages as low-grade iron ore combined with rock. “There is a romantic idea about paleontology that it’s glamorous and exciting,” says Tokaryk. “But a lot of it is pick-and-shovel work.” In fact, Storer and Tokaryk say that a large part of the skeleton will probably have to be removed in a huge slab of rock and bone that could weigh as much as six tons and be

taken to Regina for further work. Storer hopes that most of the digging will be completed by summer’s end. But it could be three years before the delicate work of extracting all the parts of the skeleton is completed. According to Storer, the T. rex will not be put together to form a skeleton because that would require drilling through, and damaging, the bones. Instead, as with most skeletons, casts made from the bones will eventually be assembled for display purposes.

The discovery has proved profitable for motels, souvenir shops and other businesses in the town of Eastend (population 620), where municipal officials have been shuttling nearly 600 tourists a week to the excavation site for a 2V2-hour tour—at $20 a head for adults and children over 6, $13 for younger kids. The money goes to a regional economic co-operative to defray the costs of the tour. In scientific terms, the find may eventually help to answer some of the riddles surrounding the fabled, but little understood, T. rex. But it is not likely to shed light on one of the central mysteries surrounding dinosaurs: why they became extinct. The creatures seem to have vanished

from North America, perhaps as the result of a huge comet strike in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, about 65 million years ago. But according to Storer, geological seams in the area indicate that the T. rex found near Eastend lived many thousands of years before the extinction. “I suppose,” adds Storer, “that we all dream of finding dinosaur remains close to the point where the dinosaurs disappeared”— in the hope of finding clues to the extinction. “But we haven’t found one yet.”

MARK NICHOLS

STUART ELSON