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030 Baby Bison and Dino Discoveries

This week, news is out that a grizzly has been very curious of the newly born bison in Banff National Park. I also look at some amazing dinosaur discoveries taking place in northern Alberta and British Columbia.

The tourism season is upon us, so drop me a line at ward@wardcameron.com if you’d like information on how you can make your Rocky Mountain experience a memorable one…and with that said, let’s hit it…

Story 1 – Baby Bison meet Bears for the First Time

 

Story 1 – Baby Bison meet Bears for the first time

If you follow this podcast then you know that on Earth Day of 2016, the first bison to be born in Banff National Park in 130 years took its first wobbly steps. Since then, 9 more calves have been born and the bison paddock has taken on the appearance of a nursery.

As we wonder how bison being parachuted (literally) into the habitat of one or more grizzlies will affect the bears, we can look to Yellowstone’s wolves. In 1995 14 gray wolves were tranlocated from multiple packs in the Jasper and Hinton areas of Alberta all the way to Yellowstone.

In 1996, 17 more wolves joined the initial release. Like this grizzly, these wolves were transported into a landscape to encounter an animal they had never seen before.

Whenever a new potential food source is discovered, it takes time to learn, experiment and perfect techniques to tackle this new prey. In Yellowstone, while some wolves were able to bring down a dying bison calf, in the larger story, it took most of the wolf packs a little over 2 years before they were successful in getting their first buffalo burger.

In addition, when the wolves first arrived, elk were more prevalent than bison and so the wolves, which already knew how to hunt elk, could often rely on them for their dinner.

Like most carnivores though, if one prey becomes less prevalent than another, they may switch preys to take advantage of higher numbers. Unfortunately, this prey switching has to factor in another challenge. What if the new prey are more dangerous than the less prevalent one?

In the April 11, 2017 issue of the publication Functional Ecology, biologists in Yellowstone have indicated that wolves rarely hunt bison, even though elk are far less common. Bison are just really big and formidable animals. A typical bull bison can weigh in at around a tonne. This bias towards elk even persists when the bison are more than twice as prevalent as elk.

Every time a wolf, or perhaps in Banff’s future, a grizzly as well approaches a bison, it is a high-risk activity. Most predators are very cautious to reduce the risk when trying to hunt. Injuries can be, well, fatal.

It appears that in Yellowstone, wolves are increasingly shying away from bison simply because of the danger. It’s easier to cover more territory looking for easy prey than focusing on bison. In the rare cases that they do hunt bison, it seems that they are large packs hunting smaller herds with calves. Now should they find a bison carcass, well that’s a treat that no wolf will ignore?

How will this affect wolves and grizzlies in Banff? Only time will tell. What we can infer from other studies is that there will be an adjustment period where predators meet bison for the first time. I’m guessing some of the bears may get a big surprise when the first bull heads their way in the defense of the calves.

Hopefully, there are some funds to continue to study these evolving predator-prey relationships.

On this podcast, I’ve talked a lot about the ecosystem engineering abilities of bison. Here’s a look at how they affected Yellowstone’s ecosystem. A functioning ecosystem is a happy ecosystem.

Story 2 – Dino Discoveries

Dinosaur discoveries can happen in the most unexpected ways. Take for example the recent announcement of the most well preserved dinosaur ever found. March 21, 2011, began as just another day for Alberta Suncor worker Shawn Funk as he worked an excavator at the Millennium Mine located 27 km outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Just like he did every day for the previous 12 years, his shovel bit into gravels saturated with bitumen. This combination of thick oil and sand is known as Alberta’s oil sands.

The oil itself is made up of the remains of long dead organisms. Most of them are thought to have been tiny marine creatures called zooplankton, although larger creatures may have also been a part of the organic soup as well.

As this material was buried under deeper and deeper overlying deposits, heat and pressure transformed the organic material into petroleum. The oil sands in northern Alberta represent the world’s third largest reserve of oil.

Funk had been excavating oil sands bitumen for years and, in all that time, had previously only turned up the odd petrified tree stump or other pieces of fossilized wood.

On this particular day, that would all change. At around 1:30 pm, his bucket hit something that seemed harder than the surrounding material. As he emptied his shovel, he noticed a larch chunk of rock with a diamond pattern and a texture that struck him as unusual.

After calling in his supervisor, Mike Gratton, they realized tht this was no ordinary rock. Both realized that experts needed to examine the find. When Donald Henderson, a paleontologist with the Royal Tyrell Museum arrived, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He was quoted in Alberta Oil Magazine as saying:

“I couldn’t believe my eyes – it was a dinosaur. When we first saw the pictures we were convinced we were going to see another plesiosaur. The fossil instead turned out to be one of the best preserved ankylosaurs in the world. All the armor is in place; we’ve got skin and other soft tissues, and probably stomach contents as well.”

This wasn’t the first dinosaur to be discovered in the oil sands, but itoil was the first to be found in the Millennium Mine.

Every company operating in the oil sands needs a permit under the provincial Historical Resources Act. Before any work is done, a paleontologist is hired to do a baseline study of the area to get an idea of where any current fossil deposits may be located.

Once the permit to begin excavation is granted, they’re still required to report all fossil discoveries. It’s up to operators like Funk to keep a close look on what his shovels are unearthing. If a fossil is found, the rules are very strict. The area has to be cordoned off and equipment has to be moved at least 20 metres away. Once a geologist verifies that a fossil has been found, the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology gets a call and head right out to the site.

The vast majority of Alberta’s oil sands are found in a deposit known as the McMurray Formation, which dates from 145 to 66 million years ago. These dates encompass the entirely of the Cretaceous Period – or the age of the dinosaurs, so the area is perfect for their discovery.

Sooooo…what exactly did they find? It is a dinosaur known as a nodosaur…a whatasaur? Well depending on how well you know your dinosaurs, this is a low, plant-eating dinosaur which is part a group known as ankylosaurs. The ankylosaurs are kind of like a huge armadillo (without the ability to curl up into a ball), but they had a huge bony club at the end of their tail. They are like a tank, low to the ground with heavy armor plate and body spikes to protect them.

Nodosaurs represent a family within the ankylosaurs and are similar except that they lack the tail club and have a somewhat narrower head. They were very formidable. If you’ve visited the Royal Tyrell Museum, you may have seen a display of an Edmontonia which was closely related to this currently un-named nodosaur. This link will take you to a great article on the National Geographic site that will give you a great look at this amazing new dinosaur: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/06/dinosaur-nodosaur-fossil-discovery/.

However that is not the only recent dinosaur story this year, but like many dino-tales, this one has been developing for the past decade. It began near the town of Hudson’s Hope in northern British Columbia in 2008.

Despite many tracks being found in the past, all these prior discoveries pale before this site known as the Six Peak track site. It was discovered by Barry
Mireau in an area that had been logged 25 to 30 years ago and had disturbed the overlying soil.

It’s currently one of the largest dinosaur track sites in North America with over 700 square metres of tracks exposed within the Gething Formation, however, their goal is to excavate 3500 sq metres which will likely make it the largest track site in the world. The Gething formation has shown many tracks in the past. In fact, one of the great dinosaur hunters of the early 20th century, Charles Sternberg, described track sites near Hudson Hope as early as 1932.

The site dates to between 115 to 117 million years ago putting it in the early part of the Cretaceous, the age of dinosaurs. The first large-scale study was undertaken in 2016 and by August 30th, they had identified 12 different types of dinosaur tracks with over 1,000 different and tracks dozens of individual track paths.

These included giants in the sauropod family, of which the Brontosaurus is perhaps the most well-known genus. It also included tracks from several types of meat-eating dinosaurs which would have been related to Allosaurus, which was a precursor of the Tyranosaurs such as Albertasaurus. The date of this site is too early for these dinosaurs which arrived on the scene much later in the Cretaceous. There were also smaller types of meat-eaters as well as many bird tracks.

There were many tracks from various duck-billed dinosaurs, which were active in wetlands during the Cretaceous.

In addition to these more well-known dinosaur types, there was one set of tracks that baffled the researchers until it was only recently identified. The tracks were very strange when first spotted because they were clearly of a large dinosaur that walked on its hind legs, but instead of the usual 3-toed track that virtually all of these dinosaurs exhibit, these tracks had four toes.

The tracks are 54 cm in length so the animal’s hips would have been around the height of a high door, some 2.5 metres high. This would make it similar in stature to a small Tyrannosaurus rex, or about as tall as a telephone pole…yikes.

Not only were 4-toed tracks not known from the Gething Formation, they were not known globally for this particular time-period.

In January of 2017, Palaeontologist Richard McCrea of the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre announced that they have identified these strange tracks with an equally strange creature…a Therizinosaur. As he put it, they are “a cross between a hallucinogenic dream and your worst nightmare.”

Therizinsaurs are the theropod dinosaur known to have four functioning toes and while the tracks are still waiting for peer review to confirm the identification, it doesn’t take away from the strange nature of these animals.

If indeed, the ID is confirmed, try to imagine a large presumably plant-eating dinosaur that walked on two legs with a longish neck and claws on their forearms that can be as much as a metre in length. They are presumed to be plant-eaters simply because no skull material has ever been found. They remain largely a mystery with only sparse fossil evidence.

While no Therizinsaur bones have been found in the Gething Formation, tracks are still a pretty important piece of palaeontological evidence. You can learn a great deal from an animal from the tracks and track patterns it leaves behind.

Ideally, this site will help build support for a museum-like structure over the trackway what would help to protect the site. There are precedents for this in places like St. George, Utah where a facility protects another major track site and attracts some 100,000 visitors annually.

Regardless, I hope the Six Peaks track site has many more surprises yet to be unveiled.

As I researched this story, I stumbled upon another story of a northern B.C. track site that revealed additional dino details in 2014. Coincidentally, the research was also done by Palaeontologist Richard McCrea of the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre.

In this particular case, a moose hunter, Aaron Fredlund came across some tracks in the fall of 2011. As a hunting guide, Fredlund knows his tracks and he knew right away these were not any natural formation.

They were not small either, each foot measured some 60 cm in length. As we often do when we find something strange, he took some photos of the tracks, in particular, one with his boot located beside the track.

After a bit of scouting, Fredlund and his clients found other tracks in the same area. When his wife saw the images she insisted that he report the find.

Eventually, he called the Tumbler Ridge Museum and they passed them onto McCrea who was far away in Australia at the time studying track sites. As McCrea was quoted in a CBC article: “As soon as I saw them, I wished that I wasn’t in Australia.”

His team managed to visit the site before snowfall to make some casts of the prints and returned the following year to find even more.

Tracks of tyrannosaurs are very rare. In fact, this site was the site to ever show more than a single track, and the first to show a series of tyrannosaur tracks…and to make it even the more incredible, it showed tracks made by three different animals, all hunting in a pack.

So when you think of Jurassic Park and the villainous T. Rex, imagine if they hunted in packs like the Velociraptors did in Jurassic Park 2…yikes.

Like our previous story, these tyrannosaurs would have had their hips around 2.5 metres high and would have been about as long as a tour bus in length, some 10-12 metres. In terms of tyrannosaurs that have been found in B.C. and Alberta at the time these tracks were made, the likely culprits are either Albertosaurus, Gorgosaurus or Daspletosaurus. Either way, this is the first site in the world to suggest that tyrannosaurs hunted in packs.

McCrea published his findings in the scientific journal PLOS One in 2014. Here’s a link to the paper if you’d like to dig into the details of this story (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0103613).

When we think of dinosaurs in western Canada, we usually think of Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Royal Tyrell Museum, but every year, northern Alberta and British Columbia seems to be revealing more and more amazing discoveries. I can’t wait to hear what comes next.

 

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