Amidst the strange industrial landscape of Canada’s Athabasca oil sands, Shawn Funk is hard at work. At the controls of his excavator, he digs down through ancient layers, hoping to reach the precious bitumen beneath. But when his bucket strikes something hard, he makes a find that’s actually far, far more valuable.
On March 21, 2011, Funk was on duty at Millennium Mine, a facility near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. Operated by Canadian energy company Suncor, the mine is one of several built to capitalize on the deposits in the Athabasca oil sands.
Covering some 54,000 square miles around Fort McMurray, these sands contain bitumen – effectively, extra-heavy oil. The deposits are made of the remains of animals and plants that lived over 100 million years ago. Under steady heat and intense pressure, these remains have been converted into bitumen. But to Funk and his colleagues, the deposits of course bear little resemblance to the incredible creatures they once were.
Anyhow, early in the afternoon of that day something spectacular would happen. After spending hours digging for bitumen, the bucket of Funk’s excavator struck something solid under the earth. Then, as he watched, a series of strangely colored objects fell out onto the ground below. Funk therefore grabbed his supervisor, Mike Gratton, and the pair began to investigate what he had found.
Picking up one of the lumps, they turned it over to reveal a bizarre pattern. Set into the gray rock was a series of brown circles, arranged neatly in rows. Funk and Gratton had no idea what they were looking at, though. Were the shapes just peculiar pieces of fossilized wood – or could they be something else entirely?
The pair quickly realized that they needed to get an expert in to take a look at their discovery, so they duly contacted the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta. Opened in 1985, the museum is a hub of research in an area that has seen hundreds of dinosaur fossils discovered over the years.
Soon, then, curator Donald Henderson and museum technician Darren Tanke were on a plane headed for Fort McMurray. And when they arrived, they realized that it wasn’t just a pile of strange rocks that Funk had stumbled upon. In fact, it would turn out to be one of the most fascinating dinosaur fossils that they had ever discovered.
The process of removing the fossils from Millennium Mine was, though, a long and arduous one. For many hours, the teams from Suncor and the museum worked away until the rock was whittled down to a single 15,000-pound piece. Then they prepared to lift it out of the mine.
However, disaster struck. The fossil was too fragile to bear its own weight, and it broke into several pieces in mid-air. So while Henderson and Tanke were desperate to get the dinosaur remains back to the museum, they also didn’t want to damage the amazing find further. Eventually, then, the broken sections were encased in plaster of Paris and transported to Drumheller, some 420 miles away – and fortunately without further incident.
Finally safe at the museum, the discovery was handed over to Mark Mitchell, a fossil preparer. And over the next five years Mitchell would spend some 7,000 hours painstakingly preparing the fossil for it to take center stage in a new exhibition. As he worked, meanwhile, researchers were able to take a closer look at the fascinating find.
The conclusions drawn were pretty amazing, too. What Funk and Gratton had taken to be patterned rock was actually the fossilized skin of an ancient dinosaur – and with much of its plated armor still intact, it was incredibly well preserved. Experts remarked that it was like nothing they had ever seen.
“We don’t just have a skeleton,” researcher Caleb Brown told National Geographic in June 2017. “We have a dinosaur as it would have been.” Paleobiologist Jakob Vinther, meanwhile, said that the fossil made it look as if the animal “might have been walking around a couple of weeks ago.”
Experts were soon able to identify the prehistoric creature as a nodosaur – a type of armored dinosaur that lived during the Cretaceous period, some 110 million years ago. Remarkably, too, the find represents the best-preserved nodosaur ever discovered – and a new species in its own right.
Measuring nine feet long, the fossil consists of the nodosaur’s front section, reaching from the hips to the nose. However, in life the dinosaur is thought to have reached some 18 feet in length. What is more, covered in hard plates known as osteoderms, the beast would have weighed a staggering 3,000 pounds.
Researchers believe that the creature lived in what is now western Canada at a time when the climate was warm and humid. When it subsequently died – possibly in a flood – its body is thought to have washed towards the sea. Then, as it sank to the floor of the ocean, the nodosaur’s carcass was encased in mud.
Minerals then penetrated the nodosaur’s body over time, leaving it perfectly preserved. Millions of years passed, and the ocean dried up, but the creature’s remnants remained intact under the rocks, as if waiting for the moment when they would be discovered. And of course, as fate would have it, Suncor ended up digging in the very same place, meaning the nodosaur once again saw the light of day.
The nodosaur has, moreover, proved to be an invaluable specimen for paleontologists wanting to study these incredible prehistoric creatures. The preserved state of the osteoderms was a particularly special find in view of the fact that they are rarely found in fossils, since they tend to be lost as the animal’s remains decay.
In this case, though, the osteoderms had not only remained partially intact, but they had also retained their coating of keratin. And this has allowed researchers to study precisely how this material may have affected the plates’ size and shape. According to Henderson, the discovery is a “Rosetta stone” for those studying dinosaur armor.
Meanwhile, the world at large has also been given a look at this amazing find. In May 2017 the fossil was finally ready to be displayed to the public; currently, the nodosaur is the star of “Grounds for Discovery” – an exhibit that showcases specimens uncovered during the development and mining of Alberta. Unsurprisingly, too, the discovery has been making quite an impression.
“It was like a Game of Thrones dragon,” National Geographic photographer Robert Clark said in a May 2017 interview. “It was so dimensional, like a prop from a movie.” But even as visitors marvel at this monster from the far-distant past, researchers will be learning its lessons for many years to come.