Kristina here –
If you ever find yourself in Canada and have an interest in palaeontology (yes, we spell “paleontology” with an extra “a” up here) and the geosciences, Alberta is a treasure-trove of cool fossil sites and excellent museums. For those of you that might not be familiar with Canadian geography, Alberta is one province east of British Columbia, separated by the Rocky Mountains, and shares the Canada-U.S. border with the state of Montana. Alberta is known for its ranch lands (beef production), prairie crops, great ski hills in the Rockies, and the “oil sands” (“tar sands”) – Canada’s major oil and gas deposit which is, for better or worse, still an important part of the local economy. Oil and gas deposits are often referred to as “fossil fuels”, and as you might have guessed, Alberta also has a LOT of fossil deposits! Alberta is one of the best places in the world to find dinosaur fossils, but there are so many other amazing fossil sites too! I’m here to tell you about a few of the highlights.
But first, some background. Why does Alberta have so many fossils? Rocks in Alberta are part of what is known as the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB), a massive package of sedimentary rocks nestled to the west of the Canadian Shield (part of the original continent, or craton, of North America). Throughout its geologic history, Alberta has been part of various shallow seaways next to this North American craton, and at times has been above sea-level, meaning that there is a mix of shallow marine and low-land terrestrial deposits. Generally, both shallow marine and low-land terrestrial deposits have the best rock records, as eroded rock material tends to get swept easily into these environments, creating the perfect conditions for fossil formation (rapid burial of organisms is key for forming fossils). For example, during the time of the dinosaurs (Mesozoic), the Rocky Mountains were forming, meaning all of the rocks on the western side of Alberta were getting pushed up, while at the same time experiencing erosion that carried all of that sedimentary material down and towards the east, where there was a shallow seaway called the Western Interior Seaway that acted as a giant catch basin for all of that material. The result? Lots and lots of awesome fossils! Here are just a few notable sites:
Alberta’s badlands have some pretty spectacular geologic formations. The term “badlands” refers to an area where there has been interesting erosion of large packages of clay-rich sedimentary rocks, usually caused by wind and water (rivers). Sedimentary rock layers can have different hardnesses, so the layers might erode at different rates, causing interesting erosional features like hoodoos. In southwestern Alberta, the Red Deer River has cut through these layers over time to form badlands.
Alberta’s badlands are best known for Late Cretaceous dinosaurs, but there are many important microfossil sites containing other small reptiles, fish, and mammals, as well as plants, and invertebrates too. Some of the more famous fossils to come out of the area include: Albertosaurus (a tyrannosaur that is smaller, and slightly older than T. rex), the first dinosaur found in Alberta (hence the name); a massive bonebed of Centrosaurus, a horned and frilled dinosaur (Ceratopsian); another ceratopsian called Chasmosaurus, including a beautifully preserved juvenile (baby) discovered a few years ago; and a lot of hadrosaurs (the duckbilled dinosaurs). Alberta is arguably one of the best places in the world to find duckbill dinosaurs!
If you love palaeontology, Alberta’s badlands would definitely be a good place to visit. The best places for the public to visit and explore are Dinosaur Provincial Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site near the town of Brooks), and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller.
Grande Prairie Area
Most people think of the badlands when they think of fossils in Alberta, but fossils can be found just about everywhere in the province. There’s even a bonebed in the capital city of Edmonton! If you travel northwest of Edmonton to the town of Wembley (near Grande Prairie), you can visit another museum called the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum (named after famous Canadian palaeontologist Phil Currie, who helped found the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and is now a professor at the University of Alberta). The most famous fossil from the area is Pachyrhinosaurus, another of the horned and frilled (ceratopsian) dinosaurs that has one of the most heavily-built skulls of any vertebrate animal. There are also other dinosaurs found around the area, as well as other reptiles.
Fort McMurray Area
On the northeastern side of the province, is the town of Fort McMurray. Fort McMurray is situated on the very edge of the oil sands, and its population is mostly tied to the oil and gas industry. The oil sands themselves are a very large deposit of Early Cretaceous sandstones, called the McMurray Formation. Most of the fossils within the McMurray Formation itself consist of trace fossils like Skolithos, burrows of small marine animals. The combination of these sandstones and trace fossils became a massive trap for the thick, tarry oil, known as bitumen. Because of the oil exploration in the area, crews occasionally unearth larger fossils, including an exceptionally well-preserved armoured dinosaur called Borealopelta. It was discovered in 2011, and was only recently prepared and described. I was lucky enough to see this specimen in person just last week, and it honestly took my breath away with its incredible preservation. It’s basically a mummy with the skin and armour still intact and truly does look like it was frozen in time.
Beneath the oilsands lies a large unconformity where a large piece of time/rock record is missing. The package of rocks underneath the McMurray Formation is called the Waterways Formation which is where the oil itself often comes from. The Waterways Formation is mid-late Devonian in age (about 390 million years), meaning that there is about 200 million years of time missing between the Waterways and McMurray Formations! At the time when the Waterways Formation was being deposited, Alberta was mostly underwater and near the equator, meaning that conditions were perfect for giant reefs to form. The Waterways is full of a diverse assemblage of marine invertebrates that lived either on or near this reef system, which was built mostly by a type of sponge called a stromatoporoid. There are also abundant brachiopod communities in the Waterways Formation, and they are great for studying things like functional morphology (the relationships between an organism’s shape and how it lived), biotic interactions with encrusting organisms, and community evolution. I did my undergraduate and M.Sc. projects on these brachiopod communities, and still love working on Waterways fossils.
Other Important Alberta Fossil Sites:
There are too many awesome fossil sites in Alberta to describe in detail, but other notable fossils and areas include:
Korite Mine near Lethbridge – The only mine in the world to produce ammolite, a gemstone made from the unique preservation of Cretaceous ammonites (a shelled cephalopod, relative of octopus and squid).
Insect and dinosaur feathers in amber – some of the most fossil (inclusion) rich amber in the world is found in southern Alberta and Canada.
Joffre Bridge – an amazing Late Palaeocene deposit of incredibly well-preserved fossil plants, including leaves, seeds, whole plants, and trees. Fossil flora include lycopsids, Ginko, Equisetum, Metasequoia, and many others.
The Burgess Shale – technically in Yoho National Park in B.C., but people passing through Banff and the Rockies into B.C. often come from the Alberta-side. The Burgess Shale is one of the most important and oldest fossil sites in the world, containing a diverse assemblage of bizarre late Cambrian fossils, including Hallucigenia, Anomalocaris, and trilobites, and many soft-bodied organisms.
A note about fossil collecting in Canada:
Don’t. The rules in Canada are much more strict than in the United States. It is illegal to collect fossils in Canada without permits, and those can only be given to professional palaeontologists that work for the government, museums, or universities. Fossils in Canada are considered “Crown Property”, meaning that they are property of Canada and the Queen (we are part of the Commonwealth), and are protected by the Heritage Resource Act. Even palaeontologists cannot claim ownership over the fossils on which they work.
Barclay K.M., Schneider C.L., Leighton, L.R. 2015. Breaking the mold: using biomechanical experiments to assess the life orientation of dorsibiconvex brachiopods. Paleobiology 41(1):122 – 133. DOI: 10.1017/pab.2014.8
Currie P.J., Holmes R.B., Ryan M.J., and Coy C. 2016. A juvenile chasmosaurine ceratopsid (Dinosauria, Ornithischia) from the Dinosaur Park Formation, Alberta, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1048348.
McKellar R.C., Engel M.S. 2013. New bethylid and chrysidid wasps (Hymenoptera: Chrysidoidea) from Canadian Late Cretaceous amber. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 88(4):433-451. DOI: 10.1007/s12542-013-0208-y
Mendonca S., Barclay K.M., Schneider C.L., Molinaro D.J., Webb A.E., Forcino F.L., Leighton L.R. 2018. Analyzing trends in tropical Devonian brachiopod communities during environmental change in the Waterways Formation of northern Alberta. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2018.06.020
Weides S., Moeck I., Babadagli T., Bauer K. , Grobe M., Heidbach O., Huenges E., Idowu O., Majorowicz J., Rostron B., Schmitt D.,2 , Unsworth M. 2011. Geothermal technology and exploration of geothermal resources in Northern and Central Alberta. AAPG/SPE/SEG HEDBERG RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Enhanced Geothermal Systems” March 14-18, 2011 — Napa, California