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Fieldwork

Because new fossil discoveries have the potential to drastically change our perception of the history of life, our lab is active in the field, searching for and collecting dinosaurs and other vertebrate fossils. We work with our  colleagues to organize and conduct fieldwork in southern Alberta, the Canadian high arctic, Uruguay, Sudan, Mongolia and South Africa.  These projects have the potential to reveal new dinosaur species and to contribute to our knowledge of poorly known geographic regions or temporal intervals in dinosaur evolution.

SOUTHERN ALBERTA DINOSAUR PROJECT

Current fieldwork in Alberta is directed in the Milk River region along the Montana border, and is part of a multi-year collaborative field research project organized and initiated with colleagues from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Royal Tyrrell Museum. This area contains some of the oldest dinosaur-bearing sediments in Alberta, and has potential to reveal new dinosaur species and to contribute to our knowledge of a poorly known time in Late Cretaceous dinosaur evolution.

Excavating a bonebed on the Milk River

The geology and paleontology of the Late Cretaceous of Alberta has been intensely studied, but directed in large part toward regions with large amounts of its easily accessible outcrop.  The region in and around Dinosaur Provincial Park has been particularly well sampled, with over 400 articulated or associated dinosaur skeletons having been collected from this locality in approximately 100 years.  New research reveals significant faunal turnovers with the most fossiliferous series of rock layers, the Dinosaur Park Formation that may be related to environmental change related to sea-level rise. From this dataset, a habitat-tracking model makes a number of predictions regarding the distribution of individual genera and species: taxa in the upper part of the formation can be hypothesized be more common in more coastally-influenced lower coastal plain sediments, whereas those taxa found low in the formation are expected to be more common in more inland, upper coastal plain settings. Also the high species turn over rates and chance discoveries suggest that the poorly known sediments of the lower Belly River Group may contain an entirely new and distinctive dinosaur fauna. Due to poor sampling in regions outside of Dinosaur Provincial Park, further fieldwork is required to test these hypotheses and determine the nature of the faunal shifts within the Belly River Group.

The 2009 Southern Alberta crew

The vertebrate fossil resources of the Milk River region of extreme southern Alberta have received relatively little attention, although small collections of fossils made by former ROM scientists Lorris Russell (in 1936, 1949-50) and Gordon Edmund (in 1966-67) are noteworthy, along with contributions by the Royal Tyrrell Museum more recently. Fossiliferous strata are particularly well exposed adjacent to the Milk River, over 125 km southeast of Dinosaur Provincial Park. This area contains some of the oldest dinosaur-bearing sediments in Alberta (Milk River, Foremost, and lower Oldman formations), as well as significant portions of the Oldman and Dinosaur Park formations that are time-equivalent to the section exposed at Dinosaur Provincial Park. We are currently engaged in a long-term fieldwork project that aims to execute a complete paleontological survey of this area, with the goals of compiling a detailed biostratigraphic framework for this region that can be compared directly to the datum now in place for the Dinosaur Provincial Park locality and to document the poorly known dinosaur fauna of the lower half of the Belly River Group and the Milk River Formation. This fieldwork is part of a multi-year collaborative project with Dr. Michael J. Ryan (Cleveland Museum of Natural History) and the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and it has potential to uncover more new dinosaur taxa and contribute to our knowledge of a poorly known time in dinosaur evolution.

Nasal horncore of Centrosaurus, in situ at the McPheeter’s BB

Collaborators: Michael J. Ryan (Cleveland Museum of Natural History), David Eberth (Royal Tyrrell Museum), Philip Currie (University of Alberta)

Associated Publications

Evans, D. C., R. Schott, D. Larson, C. M. Brown, and M. J. Ryan. 2013. The oldest North American pachycephalosaurid and the hidden diversity of small-bodied ornithischian dinosaurs. Nature Communications 4:1828. doi:10.1038/ncomms2749

Ryan, M. J., D. C. Evans, and K. Shepherd. 2012. A new ceratopsid from the Foremost Formation (middle Campanian), Alberta. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 49: 1251–1262. Available here.

Ryan, M. J., D. C. Evans, P. J. Currie, C. M. Brown, and D. Brinkman. 2012.  New leptoceratopsids from the Upper Cretaceous of Alberta, Canada. Cretaceous Research 35: 69-80. Available (subscription) here.

Larson, D. W., N. R. Longrich, D. C. Evans, M. J. Ryan. (In press). A new species of Neurankylus from the Milk River Formation (Cretaceous: Santonian) and a revision of N. eximius. Gafney Turtle Symposium Volume. Spring-Vrlag Press.

Schott, R. K., D. C. Evans, T. E. Williamson, T. D. Carr, and M. B. Goodwin. 2009. The anatomy and systematics of Colepiocephale lambei (Dinosauria: Pachycephalosauridae). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3): 771-786.

Evans, D. C. and R. R. Reisz. 2007. Anatomy and relationships of Lambeosaurus magnicristatus, a crested hadrosaurid (Dinosauria: Ornithischia) from the Dinosaur Park Formation, Alberta. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology   27(2): 373-393.

TAPHONOMY OF THE DRAGON’S TOMB, MONGOLIA

The Campaninan to Maastrictian (Late Cretaceous) deposits of Mongolia contain a wide spectrum of freshwater and terrestrial vertebrates fossil remains that have been collected from a large number of localities in the  Gobi desert. The fossil-rich badlands on the south side of Altan Ula that expose the Nemegt Formation were first explored by the Russian Academy of Sciences Palaeontological Expeditions in 1946, 1948, and 1949. During these expeditions, Russian palaeontologists discovered an amazing series of large duck-billed dinosaurs preserved together in an area no larger than a tennis court. They documented and excavated seven articulated skeletons of Saurolophus angustirostris, many complete with skin impressions.

Skull of Saurolophus (left) and preserved skin impression (right)

This graveyard of dinosaur ‘mummies’ is one of the most spectacular single sites ever found in Asia. They called the unique site “The Dragon’s Tomb”.  Ivan Efremov conducted preliminary investigations regarding the deposition of the skeletons at Altan Ula during the genesis of the discipline of taphonomy.

Overview of the Dragon’s Tomb site, Altan Ula, Mongolia

Unfortunately the “Dragon’s Tomb” has been badly poached in the last ten years by vandals illegally searching for teeth, claws and skulls. Much scientific data has been lost to these  activities, and more is in danger of being destroyed.  In this project, started in 2009, we are conducting a detailed examination of the Dragon’s Tomb locality to build upon the pioneering work by Efremov. We will also conduct fossil prospecting and sedimentological work in the Altan Ula area. This project is a collaborative project between Dr. Michael Ryan of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Royal Ontario Museum, and our Mongolian colleagues.

CRETACEOUS TERRESTRIAL VERTEBRATES OF SUDAN

Most of our knowledge of Late Mesozoic terrestrial vertebrate faunas comes from fossil deposits in the New World, Europe, and Asia, whereas from Africa there is only little information based on a few isolated localities. In particular the northeastern part of the continent has so far remained dramatically understudied. We are currently exploring the poorly known fauna of Late Mesozoic terrestrial vertebrates of the eastern Saharan Africa by performing paleontological fieldwork in Upper Cretaceous sediments of central northern Sudan, which promise to provide invaluable insights into the patterns of vertebrate diversity in northeastern Gondwana shortly before the K/T extinction event. The project is a collaboration between Johannes Muller at Humboldt University in Berlin, the Technical University Berlin (both Germany), the Royal Ontario Museum Toronto (Canada), and the Geological Research Authority of Sudan.

David investigating a fossil crocodilian skull

POLAR DINOSAURS: PALAEONTOLOGICAL SURVEY OF THE CANADIAN SUB-ARCTIC

Several decades ago, geologists collected fragmentary dinosaur bones from along the Peel River, northeastern Yukon, and from the North West Territories. These fossil occurrences are biogeographically significant because they contributes critical data on Late Cretaceous dinosaur distributions and arctic dinosaur faunas. During this time, the western subarctic was an important biogeographic corridor linking Northeast Asia via Beringia with the remainder of western North America. In addition, the paleolatitude of the area was well within the paleoarctic circle at the time the sediments and associated faunal remains were deposited, which implies extreme seasonal variation in sunlight, temperature, and vegetation. The implications of these conditions on dinosaur paleobiology and extinction is poorly understood and controversial. The excellent quality of preservation of the dinosaur bones and large extent of outcrop suggests that the Canadian arctic has considerable potential to produce Cretaceous-aged vertebrate fossils with detailed paleoenvironmetal context, yet due to logistical difficulties in conducting fieldwork in the arctic, this massive region has never been adequately explored.

Exposures of the Bonnet Plume Formation, Yukon

We are currently engaged in an exploratory fieldwork project aims to execute a thorough paleontological survey of the Bonnet Plume Formation with three main goals: 1) to collect vertebrate fossils and assemble new information on the faunal composition and biostratigraphy of both the Cretaceous and Tertiary parts of the formation, 2) collect new plant macrofossil, sedimentological, invertebrate fossil, and trace fossil data to reconstruct associated paleoenvironments, and 3) precisely correlate the formation with other units in the Western Interior Basin to assess latitudinal faunal variations and their relationship to paleoclimatic gradients. We will also explore the Early Tertiary deposits of the Bonnet Plume Formation for information on the faunal composition and biotic recovery of northern high-latitude faunas following the end-Cretaceous extinction event.

Associated Publications:

Vavrek, M. J., D. C. Evans, D. R. Braman, N. E. Campione, and G. D. Zazula. 2012. A Paleogene flora from the upper Bonnet Plume Formation of northeast Yukon Territory, Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 49:(3) 547-558. doi 10.1139/e11-073

Evans, D. C., M. J. Vavrek, D. R. Braman, N. E. Campione, T. A. Dececchi, and G. D. Zazula. 2012. Vertebrate Fossils (Dinosauria) from the Bonnet Plume Formation, Yukon Territory, Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences: Published on the web 25 January 2012, 10.1139/e11-064

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