Alberta has established itself as one of the world’s foremost destinations for dinosaur researchers and enthusiasts. We paid a visit in a Mazda CX-5 to learn why it’s become an area of such significance 

Words Gavin Conway / Photography Sian Richards

In the dim atmospheric light of the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s galleries, small herds of four- and five-year-olds rocket around the place like pinballs, not quite believing that the next sight will be better than the last. Their squeals of delight and astonishment pierce the air, their eyes wide and unblinking—for most of these kids, there’s little doubt this is the most incredible experience of their lives, one they’ll never forget. The adults are just as impressed, with expressions of “Wow, look at that!” standing in for squeals, which would be unseemly in an adult, after all.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum houses one of the world’s largest displays of dinosaurs, most of which were excavated in Alberta. It was founded in 1985, and its mission from the beginning has been to be an unrivalled centre for showcasing the diversity of the Earth, from the tiniest grain of pollen to the most monstrous dinosaur. It is also internationally recognized for its scientific and research credentials. And it has been wildly successful: last year, some 450,000 people visited and, in the course of any given year, at least 70 scientists from all over the world travel here. The museum’s location is unique, too—the vast majority of such institutions are based in urban areas, but the Tyrrell is situated right out here in the Alberta Badlands, where the fossils and dinosaur skeletons are prospected.

“it is the dinosaurs that bring people to the royal tyrrell museum—and they are quite sensational”

But museum folk will happily admit it is the dinosaurs that provide the hook to bring people here. And they are quite sensational, from the bird-like Stegoceras validum (bird-like is relative, as the thing was nearly three metres long) right up to the star of the show, Tyrannosaurus rex. As Hollywood will happily confirm, T. rex is easily the most terrifying creature ever to stalk the Earth, although it wasn’t around during the period that the Jurassic Park movie was set.

The really bad news for everything else on the planet then was that T. rex was a carnivore, one that was nearly 12 metres long, up to 3.6 metres tall at the hips and with a substantial 10 tonnes of heft. Most of its colleagues were herbivores, or as T. rex would describe them, “lunch.” Indeed, it is impossible to stand in front of Tyrrell’s T. rex without experiencing a full-body shudder.

Only the hips, legs, feet and tailbones of this T. rex were preserved. The rest of the beast at Tyrrell was created using casts based on other T. rex specimens found in Montana, forming a perfectly accurate display. That’s an approach the museum uses often. When a skeleton becomes fossilized, it is effectively turned into rock. On larger exhibits, bigger sections like the skulls are often too heavy to mount in a display, so a lightweight cast will be made. That knowledge doesn’t make the T. rex exhibit any less scary.

If you want to find somebody even more enthusiastic about palaeontology and dinosaurs than those little kids, look no further than Dr. Caleb Brown, Curator of Dinosaur Systematics and Evolution. When he speaks, wide-eyed and bouncing with passion for the subject, the words flow with a staccato energy. As well as overseeing what goes on with the museum’s collection of fossils, Dr. Brown also gets his hands (very) dirty.

But what this scientist is keenest to stress is that while the public galleries of the Tyrrell are hugely important, the stuff going on behind the scenes represents the real heart of the museum. “The most important room in any museum is where the collection is stored,” explains Dr. Brown. “If the gallery programs stopped, the Tyrrell would still be a museum, because we have the collection and that’s available for research. This is what defines a museum, what defines our museum. We have around 270,000 inventoried specimens. But should you decide to look at the number of individual fossils in the Tyrrell, then we’re into millions, because each specimen can have multiple fossils.”

Alberta probably has the highest concentration of dinosaur remains in the world. So why was this province so popular with these creatures? “There are three main reasons that Alberta has such a wealth of fossil resources,” Dr. Brown says. “The first is that back in the Cretaceous period [66–145 million years ago], this was an amazing place for dinosaurs to live. It was very warm, and it was very wet, and North America was then bisected by an inland sea that went from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean and Alberta was on the coast of that. So it was coastal, very warm and very lush.

“in the cretaceous period alberta was an amazing place for dinosaurs to live—coastal, very warm, very lush”

Dr. Caleb Brown

“The second main reason is that when those dinosaurs died, there’s a good chance that they got buried and that’s essential for fossilization. If an animal dies and it’s not buried, it’s going to get scavenged, it’s going to get weathered by the rain and eventually the bones are going to fall apart and get scattered. Here, there were these large meandering rivers carrying lots of sediment, really muddy, dirty rivers and these rivers would also flood their banks, probably several times a year, and inundate areas with mud and sand. So if an animal died in that coastal plain there’s a good chance it would either be swept into the river and buried by that or in a river flood when it was spilling its banks.

“The third reason we find so many fossils in southern Alberta is because rocks of the right age [Cretaceous] are exposed. Glaciers came through here about 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, and when those glaciers melted, all that glacial meltwater carved these deep valleys, down into rocks of the right age. You can go to Calgary and dig a long way straight down and find dinosaurs, but that’s a lot of work! Come here and Mother Nature has already done the work for you. They’re exposed in these vast expanses of erosion associated with the river valleys.”

Once a site for excavation is identified, the hard work begins. “We collect things by putting layers of burlap and plaster on top, and that basically forms a protective shell. We dig underneath and flip the whole thing over and put more burlap and plaster on the other side, then we have a specimen completely encased in this jacket. And it is in no danger of eroding or falling apart.” The specimen can then be taken back to the museum for storage—researchers can crack open the “jacket” next week or in 20 years. There are thousands in the museum’s collection.

“driving in alberta’s pastoral landscape, the cx-5 is a superb long-distance cruiser: refined and smooth riding”

THE MAZDA CX-5

Our journey around Alberta was in a Mazda CX-5, and with the province’s arrow-straight roads, the focus was less on the SUV’s excellent handling and more on comfort, luxury and refinement. The CX-5 had this in abundance, with smooth power from its turbocharged 2.5-litre engine and a ride quality that soaked up bumps. Inside, the calm was only interrupted by the occasional blast from the superb sound system. Supportive leather seats were great long-distance companions, too. In the Alberta sun, the ventilated front seats provided needed relief and complemented the Mazda’s dual-zone climate control. On steep gravel roads, the CX-5’s i-Activ all-wheel-drive gave an extra measure of confidence, too.

We leave the Royal Tyrrell in our Mazda CX-5 and head southeast toward Dinosaur Provincial Park. The CX-5 is a superb long-distance cruiser: refined, smooth riding and quiet. Which is handy, as Alberta’s roads appear to be endless, with gently rolling, golden wheatfields defining a pastoral scene. Combines trailing huge plumes of dust break the monotony of a landscape that doesn’t seem to change.

Until it does. One minute you’re driving through a peaceful meandering prairie and then the next, you’re contemplating a terrain so foreign that it might as well be on another planet. It doesn’t rise up like a mountain range, but falls below the rolling landscape, similar to a Grand Canyon experience.

MOVING THE FOSSILS

We were still in the preserve when the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Dr. Caleb Brown rolled up with a team of researchers. They were here to prepare a couple of jacketed specimens from the same site for a helicopter lift the following day. Both specimens belonged to an Ankylosaurus, a tank-like, armoured dinosaur that could grow to eight metres and weigh nearly seven tonnes. The dinosaur had a long tail with a club on the end of it, which was one of the specimens waiting for a ride. “Some say the club was a defensive weapon, because this was a herbivore and there were things like Tyrannosaurus around,” Dr. Brown says. “But if you’re talking about the evolutionary driver, it’s usually about sexual display.” Dr. Brown and his crew rolled the jacketed specimens into nets to prepare them for a short flight to a waiting flatbed truck, and from there, back to the museum. The largest specimen, the Ankylosaurus tail, weighed about 300 kilograms, while the smaller specimen was around 180 kilograms.

This is the Dinosaur Park, where 150 dinosaur skeletons have been found, along with 50 new species. We’ve been granted special access to the dinosaur preserve (it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Steering the CX-5 along dirt roads through the preserve, we encounter the so-called hoodoos, fantastical eroded pillars of soft sandstone rock topped with a resilient cap of much harder rock, which protects the pillar. Later, we explore on foot and I’m astonished to encounter fossilized dinosaur bones just lying about on the ground. One of the park’s guides relates a saying: “If you throw your hat and it doesn’t land within 20 feet of a dinosaur, you’re not in Dinosaur Park.” Everything we see here is from the Cretaceous period.

A conservation officer leads us deep inside the preserve to the Hadrosaur House, a shed protecting the remarkably complete remains of a Hadrosaur at the site where it was found. Hadrosaurs are by far the most common species of dinosaur found in the park. This one is a bit special, though—it’s referred to as an articulated skeleton, because the bones are still more or less arranged as they would have been in life. Another amazing sight. At the end of our trip, it isn’t hard to see why the Royal Tyrrell and Dinosaur Park have become world-renowned for those professionally or personally intrigued by these incredible creatures. It’s an enthusiasm that can take you over. Just ask Dr. Caleb Brown.