Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Eastend Fossil Research Station
Eastend Fossil Research Station, Saskatchewan
In 1991, on a cattle ranch southeast of Eastend, Saskatchewan, palaeontologists Tim Tokaryk and John Storer were prospecting for fossils in the coulees of the Frenchman River Valley. With them was a local teacher, Robert Gebhardt, who noticed parts of a tooth and tail bone protruding from the hillside. Lo and behold, they were the first pieces from a nearly complete skull and skeleton of a 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex.
Saskatchewan's first T. rex, "Scotty" was finally freed during the summers of 1994 and 1995. Eight months of excavation reclaimed the jumble of bones, and four plaster-jacketed blocks, each weighing up to four tons, were carefully transported by a team of Belgian horses and by truck to the Eastend Fossil Research Station in October 1995. Surrounded by rugged prairie, the research station had opened five months earlier in anticipation of Scotty's arrival. After the skeleton was found, palaeontologists wanted a convenient facility in which to work on the fossils, and locals lobbied to keep Scotty in the area. The region's wealth of fossils has been known since the 1920s when "Corky" Jones, a local fossil hunter, began making discoveries.
Rock deposits in the Frenchman Formation preserve a range of vertebrates from the late Cretaceous - when this area was a subtropical coastal floodplain - that range in size from frogs and salamanders to Triceratops and Edmontosaurus. In 1995, during a break from the excavation of Scotty, Eastend palaeontologists discovered fossilized feces from a Tyrannosaurus. Nearly 18 inches long, the coprolite was chock-full of bone fragments from a juvenile plant-eating dinosaur.
Open daily year-round, Eastend Fossil Research Station contains interpretive exhibits, including tyrannosaur teeth and hands-on fossil and geology displays. Visitors can watch preparators in the lab meticulously removing and cleaning Scotty's bones or other fossils. A mural shows all the identified T. rex bones to date.
Separating the fossils from surrounding ironstone and mudstone takes years of work. Scott's skull should be ready for display by 2002, but completing the skeleton will require a decade or so. Then the bones will be cast and mounted in the research station, a satellite facility of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina.
In summer, visitors can join a day dig or quarry tour for a firsthand look at field work in a local site known for 35- to 40-million-year-old mammals, including deer, horses, and rhinoceros-like brontotheres. The field station may add tours to dinosaur or other more ancient bone quarries. A few openings are available each year in the volunteer dig program, which requires a minimum commitment of two weeks.
During July and August, twice-weekly "Fossil Discovery" programs geared for children feature hands-on paleo crafts and activities. Visitors can make casts of dinosaur footprints, open plaster jackets containing miniature dinosaurs, or pick through a sandy matrix to find real fossils. Similar programs are offered twice a month at nearby Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.
Visit the Eastend Museum for a broader sample of local dinosaurs, as well as fossils of marine plants and animals, including many found by "Corky" Jones. A larger museum, scheduled to be built in a year or two, will focus on the science and process of palaeontology and archaeology. The museum will feature its own fossil-preparation lab and a spacious gallery where some of the research station's specimens of Triceratops, other dinosaurs, and fossil mammals from the Cypress Hills Formation can be shared with visitors.