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Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Dinosaur Provincial Park
Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta
It took glacial meltwater and rain about 15,000 years to carve out the badlands of southeastern Alberta from the surrounding prairie. It takes a group of visitors about 15 minutes of wandering through dry gullies lined with sandstone and sage to find their first tyrannosaur tooth. The two-inch, triangular tooth is dark brown and shiny, with tiny sawtooth points along the edges. Before it fell from its owner's mouth, it was attached to a hungry dinosaur weighing about seven tons. The excited finders pass it from hand to hand, running their fingertips along the still sharp edges.
Not every fossil comes out of Dinosaur Provincial Park this quickly, but this collecting party had several advantages. Led by a palaeontologists who had been roaming the area for the last 20 years, they were guided by maps made 50 years ago by scientists who pulled bones from this same hillside. And they were lucky, because a rainstorm the previous week carried away just enough sandstone to expose the tooth while not carrying away the prize itself.
These explorers also had the law on their side. The relatively small park (about 18,000 acres) is one of the richest fossil sites in the world. But you can't get into most of it unless you're led by a park interpreter on a scheduled hike or bus tour. And you certainly can't take home a fossil, or even move it, because in Alberta all fossils are protected by law and belong to the province. The tooth discovered that day was marked, photographed, bagged, and sent two hours northwest to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, which keeps tabs on fossil finds in Alberta.
You can come to the park and have a look, however. As you drive northeast from the town of Brooks for about half an hour, you travel over flat prairie and past signs for small farming towns, most of which seem to be named in memory of women, such as Millicent and Patricia. Soon after passing Patricia, a sudden dip in the road drives her from your mind as it takes you down through 300 feet of rock and 75 million years of time. Welcome to the park.
It was quite a different place back then, of course. An ancient, inland sea divided North America, and this was a low-lying coastal plain near the shoreline, hot and humid and heavy with vegetation, and laced with branching river channels. Tyrannosaurs such as Albertosaurus and Gorgosaurus roamed the area. Large herds of horned ceratopsians lived and died here, eating the abundant plants and dodging the abundant predators. Hundreds of duckbilled hadrosaurs were around as well. More than 30 dinosaur species have been found within the park.
You can see the results by camping under cottonwood trees on the riverbank, or bunking in Brooks and driving out for the day. Either way, plan on doing some walking. Wear hiking boots to keep your footing on the slippery sandstone. Bring a hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, and plenty of water - these badlands were not named idly.