Dinosaurs! An Alberta, Canada backhoe discovers what may be a duck-billed dinosaur fossil

Credit: The Canadian Press

The fossil skeleton is of the creature’s tail. Credit: The Canadian Press

You may not remember the names of all the dinosaurs the way you did when you were in grade school, and you may have missed some of the latest news in paleontology. But one man from Alberta, Canada didn’t miss a dinosaur recently—he hit a dinosaur fossil with his backhoe while working on a construction project. The ancient reptile, which scientists on the scene have posited may be a hadrosaur, or a duck-billed dinosaur, has resurfaced, and construction has stopped while scientists get their first look at this specimen. While dinosaurs don’t frequently make headlining news, discoveries about the ancient creatures are made frequently, and as recently as July 2013, new dinosaurs were still being discovered. The new dino on the block, the Nasutoceratops titusi, may be a name that the kids stumble over—and even some scientists are referring to the new horned addition to the dino canon as “devil dinosaur.”

Pausing the pipeline

On Tuesday, October 1, a construction worker digging a trench for an oil pipeline for the Tourmaline Oil Corporation near the town of Spirit River, Alberta, Canada, had no reason to think his day at work was going to make international headlines. But then he accidentally hit an ancient dinosaur fossil with his backhoe. Initially, the worker, whose name has not been reported in news outlets, expected to be able to lay aside a piece of the fossil that his backhoe had picked up–but after a second look, he realized there was more of what he’d found. The company called a halt to work while they tracked down a local expert. Paleontologist Matthew Vavrek was called to the scene, expecting a normal, jumbled up or crushed set of dinosaur bones. Instead, he saw the long piece of continuous tail that had been unearthed. “As we walked around it, we saw this whole part of a tail of a dinosaur. To see something like that is pretty incredible,” Vavrek told Ben Brumfield of CNN, who reported on the find in the October 3, 2013 article, “Backhoe cuts into dinosuar’s tail, revealing rare fossil find.” Vavrek continued, “The last time I’ve seen something like that was in a museum. I’ve never found something like this before.”

Vavrek and Tourmaline Oil Corp workers are racing against Alberta’s coming winter—there has already been a little snow in the SpiritRiver area—to unearth and preserve the fossil. Some chunks of the tail were lost when the backhoe lifted them, and the fossil is very fragile. Vavrek, the head paleontologist for the Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative, is also joined by a team of paleontologists from the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Grande Prairie, National Geographic, and the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Brian Brake of the Currie museum and Andrew Neuman of the Tyrell posited that the dinosaur may be a hadrosaur, and thus the fossil could be around 100 feet long if a full skeleton has been preserved. “It looks like there may be quite a bit more of it back in the hillside,” Neuman told Edmonton Journal reporter Marty Klinkenberg in the October 4, 2013 article, “Paleontologists busy removing massive dinosaur fossil unearthed near Spirit River.” But Vavrek warned in the CNN article, “We don’t know for sure that the rest of the animal is there. Sometimes, all you get is what you see.” The pipeline construction has been halted while the scientists do their work, and it could take weeks to retrieve the bones—longer if the ground freezes.

Devil dinosaur

The fossil find is a significant one, but only for the well-preserved nature of the tail that has already been uncovered. If it is a hadrosaur, it’s a previously known species. What is significant about this so-called devil dinosaur? The Utah-discovered Nasutoceratops titusi was reported by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B as a new genus of dinosaur, and is the first species of its type—short-frilled dinosaurs with horns—to be found in the American south. Previously the dinosaurs had been thought to live only in the north.

“It’s not every day you find a whole new group of dinosaurs,” Denver Museum of Nature and Sciences paleontologist Scott Sampson told Elizabeth Barber in the July 17, 2013 Christian Science Monitor in “Strange New Dinosaur Discovered in Utah.” “And this is the linchpin to demonstrate that there were distinct dinosaur communities in the north and south.”

Regardless of the difficult pronunciation of Nasutoceratops titusi, and its cartoonish big nose and dragon-like horns, it is sure to become a new favorite focus of college students in the science field.

What do you find fascinating about the recent discoveries of these extinct dinosaurs? Tell us in the comments.

Find even more research topics and credible sources about dinosaurs  and fossils on Questia.

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