8 Jul 2011

Seeing the real McCoy... er, McDino

I love really old animals. Really, really old animals! Not just dinosaurs, but ancient mammals and sea monsters and proto-birds and mysterious undersea critters that have left their imprint in ancient rocks... all of them. And I love thinking about how they and their worlds link up with us and our world.

In fact, I love that so much that I've written two books on the subject: Super Crocs and Monster Wings, and Spiked Scorpions and Walking Whales.

So, imagine my delight at visiting the T. rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, a small town in southwestern Saskatchewan.

Although it was named for Scotty, the Tyrannosaurus rex found nearby, the Discovery Centre is a treasure trove of an amazing range of fossils from the area, from giant sea creatures that swam in the great inland sea that once covered most of the Great Plains to the strange-looking mammals that evolved to fill niches left by the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Still, Scotty the T. rex is pretty cool. With more than 65 percent of her skeleton complete, she (probably she) is the most complete T. rex found in Canada so far. Scotty was discovered 20 years ago near Eastend. All her fossil bits are in the Royal Saskatchewan Museum's fossil research lab, which is housed in the Discovery Centre. There's something rather amazing about peering through a huge glass window to see a complete set of fossilized dinosaur vertebrae laid out in order on four large shelves. Not replicas. The real thing!

Coincidentally, in the year that Scotty was discovered, 1991, other scientists discovered the impact site of a huge meteor that struck Earth 65 million years ago and hastened the extinction of the dinosaurs, as well as plenty of other animals. In fact, 75 percent of the species on earth became extinct after that impact.

The meteor left its mark around the world, in a layer of light-coloured clay and ash, often rich in the element iridium, which is more common in meteors than in Earth's crust. It's called the K-T Boundary because it marks the end of the geological time called the Cretaceous Period (it starts with a K in German) and the beginning of the Tertiary Period.

And there it was, too! Not just a diagram of rock layers or a photograph, but a chunk of rock from the Frenchman River Valley with the actual K-T Boundary layer running through it. Below that pale line was rock a dinosaur might have stepped on. Above it was rock that might once have carried the footprint of a mammal exploring its new, dinosaur-free world.

When you spend a lot of time reading about the ancient past, looking at pictures or replicas of fossils, and even writing about it, seeing the real thing right in front of you is a thrill.

Can you tell?

Claire Eamer


Ishta Mercurio said...

I love that section of rock - not only can you see the lighter layer running through it, but there is also a subtle difference in the layers above and below it. So amazing!

On a side note, I love the photo of the Discovery Centre: such a lovely building, and so nice the way it is integrated into the surrounding landscape. Thanks for sharing this!

Claire Eamer said...

Hi Ishta,
Seeing that bit of the K-T layer was really special, after having read so much about it. And I agree about the building - very nice design. I think the Centre is going to get better and better. Thanks for dropping by here.

Paula said...

Wow! That's another museum I absolutely have to visit. Thanks, Claire!
Museum fans who like this place will also like the museums at the Royal Tyrrell museum in Drumheller, and the museum at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

It's a little skewed, that's for sure. said...

I'll be posting here about both Claire's and my recent visit to Drumheller in a few weeks. Claire and I will have to compare notes so we don't supply too similar posts!

radlady said...

Glad to hear you loved the T-Rex Centre. I am assured by all the Paleontologists there that the hills are FULL of fossils for the aimless hiker! If you want to see more about what the Cypress Hills has to offer feel free to watch this short video on just a few of the things (including the T-Rex Centre) that can be found in the Hills: http://youtu.be/-3PKIJM8cVE

Oh, and if you perchance are back our way again - make sure to take in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Summer Star Party in the Dark Sky Preserve that is the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park!

Gail Kesslar