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Technician uncovers history in the land of the dinosaurs

Trackways #19, Winter 1999: For years, when Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology technician Darren Tanke prospected in Dinosaur Provincial Park, he searched only for fossil bone eroding out of the ground. But, for a period in the late-1990s, he also looked for less likely treasure: old newspaper, dried clumps of plaster, tin cans and burlap… traces left by palaeontologists who collected fossils in the park during the 1920s and earlier.

Tanke was trying to locate historic quarries. From 1995, when he started his quest, to 1999, he had verified eight mystery quarries, using old garbage, archival photographs, field notes, and old letters to date excavation, identify who did the collecting, and what was collected.

“We found the quarry-location map made in 1950 is incomplete and somewhat inaccurate,” he says. “On top of that, palaeontologists started quarry-staking excavation sites in the park only in 1935, and locations excavated earlier are poorly described: ’10 miles below Steveville’ is a lot of territory in the badlands.”

Quarries are staked when palaeontologists cement a steel pipe into the floor of their quarries. A disk welded to the rod identified who collected what and when. In 1999, there were about 230 staked quarries in the park, leaving Tanke with the task of trying to find and identify another 150 to 2000 unmarked quarries.

Apart from their historical significance, accurate quarry records help today’s palaeontologists determine what dinosaurs are associated with which layers of rock. They also help scientists match new fossil material discovered in old quarries to incomplete specimens collected years ago.

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