Everybody knows Alberta’s windblown south is one of the world’s great dinosaur-hunting zones. Drumheller, where the geological record of prehistory lies exposed almost everywhere you look, is home to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Canada’s premier independent institution of paleontology. But there are dinosaurs in Alberta’s north, too. They’re just harder to find in a land of boreal forests, says fossil hunter Phil Bell. “The only exposed areas are along riverbanks. That’s where you’ve got to go to find these things.”
Bell is head of the Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative, a plan to build a paleontology centre next year near Grande Prairie. Comedian Dan Aykroyd hosted a fundraiser last year, scooping $500,000 from supporters. But Bell and his colleagues had a gruesome setback on July 5 when they went to a site near the creek to retrieve a complete hadrosaur skeleton they’d found three weeks before. It was to be a centrepiece of the new Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum. “It was not only a spectacular local find,” Bell says, “but everything I can collect myself saves money spent on copies of skeletons from other museums.”
But exploring for dinosaur bones on riverbanks comes with a hazard: weekend boaters, hunters and partygoers. Someone had vandalized the site, smashing and scattering the bones. There is a large private market for dino fossils—a legal one, but definitely black around the edges—and it is not unheard of for unscrupulous bandits to steal specimens from, and damage, sites staked out by scientists. But this incident, Bell says, is clearly just unknowing foolishness. “I’ve seen black-market, smash-and-grab paleontological poaching in Mongolia,” says the Aussie scientist. “There’s no indication that whoever did this knew anatomy. They pulled an arm right off and threw it down the hill; it was broken into a dozen pieces. No professional would destroy big, showy bones like that.”
A theft would almost be easier to take than blind, nihilistic destruction, Bell admits; he is no fan of fossil hijacking, but at least his hadrosaur specimen would exist, somewhere, in the hands of someone who valued it. Police may be close to an arrest. Under the provincial Historical Resources Act, offenders face fines of up to $40,000 and a year’s imprisonment. Bell’s crew found bone debris around a messy campsite near the crime scene, along with a liquor receipt. The RCMP is said to have identified potential suspects in the area.
“After we saw what had happened, we spent the rest of that day literally picking up the pieces,” Bell says, whether the fragments were 10 cm or 10 mm. “We may be able to reassemble some of the pieces, but the totality of the specimen, the context in which it was found, is important to a scientist. And in this situation it’s been hopelessly compromised.” Despite the calamity, however, the Currie Museum, named for the Alberta paleontologist who helped found the Royal Tyrrell, remains set to open in mid-2013.