Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Summer's End

So today marks the end of field season for us summer staff! For most of us, school starts next week (!), so it's time to pack up our fossil gear and get back into the swing of doing essays and lab reports. Joe, our curator, will still be outside digging fossils and giving tours until the end of October, so don't worry, there's still lots of time to get a personal tour of the CFDC.

It seems like we've only been here a month, but there's a lot we've accomplished; doing tons of plaster jackets (many more than last year), exploring Pembina Valley Provincial Park in much greater detail than has been done before, and, of course, finding a whole bunch of new fossils, including squid, bony fish, sharks, and lots of mosasaurs. The museum's first ever Shark Week gave us the opportunity to display some of our best fossil shark material that, to my knowledge, has never been put on exhibit before (and next year will be even better!), while Bruce's Birthday, Kidsfest in Winnipeg, and Morden's Corn & Apple were awesome events that put us in touch with tons of people who didn't even know that fossils existed in Manitoba.

While travelling in the Provincial Park was a lot of fun, my favorite part of the year was finding a teensy-tiny, really well-preserved mosasaur backbone, one of the smallest in the entire collection. Digging for fossils can become frustrating after a while, but a sweet find like that vertebra instantly injects new enthusiasm into the hunt. I didn't achieve my goal of locating a pterosaur (flying reptile) skull, but a mosasaur's pretty nice too!

The Fossil Crew (mostly Aaron) has been working on improvements and replacements for various CFDC exhibits. Hopefully, we'll be installing many of these in the coming months and years, so even though we may be gone by then, there'll be a bunch of cool stuff for you to see that we'll have left behind. If that's not incentive to come visit, then I don't know what is! Meanwhile, there's plenty of things to check out already, so come on down. Until next year,

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Friday, August 23, 2013

Corn & Apple

The Corn & Apple Festival is fast approaching! The city's biggest event of the year is this weekend, when Morden is flooded with festival-goers and the temperature attains new heights (this year, at least). If you'd like to enjoy a fossil dig as part of the weekend's activities, there's tours leaving from the booth downtown three times a day today and tomorrow (but not Sunday). I can (almost) promise that there won't be any ticks out in the field! Failing that, we'd be more than happy to see you at the museum or at the booth.

Shark Week culminated with the Beach Blast at Minnewasta Lake this past Saturday, complete with a Dunk Tank and a shark tooth hunt in the sand. During the week, we had Discovery Channel's Shark Week playing the gallery, complemented by a display courtesy of the University of Manitoba, size comparisons of our fossil sharks to Bruce, and a big skeleton from a Cretoxyrhina, one of the biggest sharks to swim in the Cretaceous period. Don't worry (too much) if you missed it, though; we plan to celebrate Shark Week every year from now on! The exclusive exhibits will only get better.

Recent discoveries from the field include a number of ribs and vertebrae (backbones) from a mosasaur that we're currently uncovering; multiple fish teeth and vertebrae from the same site, some of which belong to Xiphactinus, our biggest bony (non-shark) fish at a maximum length of 18 feet; part of a squid pen from a 40-foot-long Tusoteuthis; and a nice tibiotarsus (leg bone) from a diving bird (like a penguin) called Hesperornis, one of the few bird fossils found this year. We've done a lot of plaster jacketing in the last week or so too, which involves covering a section of fossil-containing shale in a protective plaster cast, similar to those used to stabilize broken bones. Once the cast hardens, we bring it back to the museum; with all the recently-made jackets, the lab preparators are going to have a lot of work this winter! Their task of cleaning the surrounding shale matrix off the fossils is a difficult and time-consuming process.

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Monday, August 12, 2013

Shark Week!

Shark Week's coming to the CFDC! For those of you who haven't gotten your fill of sharks from Discovery Channel's Shark Week, we're staging our own six-day event, complete with a new exhibit, shark activities for kids during Dino Day Camp, and special digs for shark fossils. We've been pretty busy setting everything up, and the final display is going to look pretty awesome; there's preserved sharks from the University of Manitoba, a microscope set up with slides of shark skin, and a giant fossilized Cretoxyrhina shark that comprises three huge field jackets.
Cretoxyrhina vertebra with the
jaws of a baby Great White.

Because of the emphasis on sharks, I thought I'd do a little feature on the ones that we find around Morden, kind of like the one I wrote about mosasaurs a few weeks ago. We get four different kinds of shark here, all of which lived during the Late Cretaceous and went extinct millions of years ago. Since sharks are cartilaginous, their skeletons don't fossilize very easily (cartilage is the soft tissue that your nose and ears are made out of); usually, we'll only find their teeth, which are much harder and more durable.

I'm not so sure about this...
Cretoxyrhina is our most awesome shark, topping out at 24 feet (similar to Great Whites) and possessing a dominant spot in Western Interior Seaway ecology. Its size enabled it to confidently challenge and defeat plesiosaurs, small and mid-size mosasaurs, and every other kind of fish that lived at the time, and its teeth are large and smooth, helping it to slice straight through bone and cause catastrophic injury to its prey. Despite its effectiveness in combat, however, it eventually lost the fight for top spot in the food chain to bigger mosasaur genera like Tylosaurus and went extinct about 80 million years ago. As such, we only find Cretoxyrhina in older shale layers where mosasaurs are very uncommon. Fortunately, it tends to fossilize extremely well in those layers relative to other prehistoric sharks, with a number of nicely articulated (meaning that much of the skeleton is still in one piece) specimens having been discovered in North America, including some at the CFDC.

Squalicorax is our most common shark in terms of the number of teeth we find; at about 10 to 16 feet long, it was lower down on the food chain than mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, and the biggest of fish, and as such, it likely engaged in a lot of scavenging activity in addition to the normal predation on smaller marine creatures that people expect from the well-known sharks of today. This versatility combined with a smaller food requirement made it a better survivor than Cretoxyrhina, living until the end of the Cretaceous period when the dinosaurs finally went extinct. For whatever reason, Squalicorax is the only local shark that has serrated teeth, which would have been useful for peeling flesh off of bones.

We also get sharks called Cretolamna and Archaeolamna around Morden, but they're very rare and there isn't much known about our local species. They were likely a little smaller than Squalicorax, but didn't possess the more effective serrated teeth. Worldwide, the Cretolamna genus is known to have survived the mass extinction 65 million years ago, living for about another eight million years in North America and 25 million years around the north-western regions of Africa before going extinct, while Archaeolamna probably died out with the dinosaurs and marine reptiles.

Sharks as a group survived the end of the Cretaceous and, being efficient and sophisticated hunters, are the preeminent marine creatures in many ocean habitats today. This week coming up, we're going to have all our best shark material on display, so be sure to come see it! Everything will be taken down after August 17 to be put away for next year.

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bruce's Birthday!

Cretoxyrhina, our biggest shark,
attacking a small Clidastes mosasaur.
This Saturday (July 27), Bruce is turning 80 million and 39 years old! (80 million from the late Cretaceous and 39 since he was first discovered.) There'll be cake, kids activities, and free admission to the CFDC (!) all day, so be sure to drop by and see our new exhibits. Speaking of new exhibits, our Shark Week event (from August 12th to the 17th) is fast approaching and we're currently in the process of designing an exhibit to highlight both the fossil sharks that we find near Morden and some of the sharks that are famous worldwide, such as the Great White and Megalodon. Similar to Bruce's birthday, we're arranging for shark-themed activities and Shark Week broadcasts on the gallery TV. Sharks are among the rarer animals at the museum, and it's really neat that they're finally getting a chance to have their own exclusive section. It'll be temporary, though, so you'll need to come down during Shark Week to see our special displays.

Field Techs at the Stampede.
We had a booth at the Manitoba Stampede in Morris last Thursday to Sunday for the first time ever, which was neat. As part of our promotion, we had a draw for a free 1-Day Fossil Dig Tour, which we're happy to announce was won by Emma Randle of La Salle, MB! A 1-Day tour comprises a personalized tour of the gallery and, as a special bonus, the back collections room where we keep all the fossils that are currently not on display (there's some really sweet stuff in there, let me tell you), as well as part of the morning and an entire afternoon digging for fossils out in the field with the Field Techs. All Canadian fossils are Heritage objects and therefore automatically belong to the government (so they can't be kept), but there are other minerals like bentonite, jarosite, and the diamond-like selenite that are perfectly legal to take home. If you're interested in booking your own tour, call ahead at 204-822-3406 or email Trevor, the Customer Services Rep, at info@discoverfossils.com.
Matt Remple
Field Tech

Friday, July 19, 2013

Quick Update

Quick update: there's some cool stuff happening this weekend! First, for the first time ever, the CFDC has a booth just west of the race track at the Morris Stampede from today until Sunday. If you're going to be there, swing by and enter our draw for a free fossil dig! Not only that, but you can pick up some award-winning barbecue right across the way from us.

The ugly fish on the left is a
Xiphactinus (not the shark).

Second, we're very pleased to announce the winner of Travel Manitoba's Name that Fossil Fish contest! Angela Gray won with her submission of the name "Stanley", after Stanley municipality (where our big Xiphactinus fish was found). Xiphactinus is the biggest kind of bony fish we find, which basically includes all our fish except for the sharks. Angela will receive a free Fossil Dig Adventure, and you can follow her on Twitter @littlegraybird.

Finally, Robyn Hanson from Think! Social Media in BC is coming to Manitoba for a month-long trip organized by Travel Manitoba. She'll be visiting the CFDC tomorrow for a Dig Tour, and we're very excited for her arrival! Robyn will blog about all her adventures, including her trip here, and they'll be available to read on her site http://www.bcrobyn.com/. You can also follow her on Twitter @BCRobyn.

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Fieldwork and Contests

Examining a Boyne outcrop.
I didn't provide any field updates last week, so I'll write a bit about that now. We haven't found a ton of new stuff in the last couple weeks, but a couple of neat things have cropped up; while doing a stratigraphy section in the Pembina shale, our Fossil Crew found small pyrite veins and blue bentonite. The bentonite is really cool because it means that it had never been exposed to oxygen, making it fairly rare (by now, it's turned white or yellow), and pyrite veins have never been discovered in the Pembina before (pyrite is also known as fool's gold because of its sparkly color). We've planned a field trip with the Manitoba Geological Survey on account of these discoveries.

Measuring bentonite layers.
A lot of our recent field  activity has been devoted more to hiking and exploring rather than intense fossil excavation, although we have located a few neat specimens. It's been getting pretty hot out, with most days peaking at 30 degrees Celcius or higher, but the trade-off is that the tick population is in steady decline and should probably vanish around the beginning of August. The heat is nasty enough on its own, though, especially in areas where there's lots of sun and little wind (like in the creek beds or shale pits where we seem to spend a disproportionately large amount of time searching for fossils). Of course, swarms of mosquitoes appear as soon as the wind dies down, so a day outside in July requires a lot more preparation than one in May when this year's field season started; sunscreen and bug spray are absolute requirements, while it's sometimes necessary to bring two or three bottles of water depending on humidity.

The CFDC's Dino Day Camp is now in full swing! If you needed any incentive to drop off the kids and get the day to yourself, we've just begun a promotion in conjunction with Amell's Gas and Go in Pilot Mound where all Day Camp registrants receive a coupon for a free ice cream cone; conversely, those of you who order a T-rex Burger at Amell's and present the receipt at the museum will get a 10% discount on a Day Camp booking. Our Youth Program Coordinators have a whole bunch of great activities planned, so don't hesitate to visit Amell's or the museum.

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Monday, July 08, 2013

Mosasaur Feature

Since the CFDC is most famous for its mosasaurs (I'm sure most of you have heard of Bruce, for example), I thought I'd focus on them in this week's blog for the purposes of clarifying what they actually are and why they're so impressive and important. As you'll soon see, there's a lot more to them than being big, swimming lizards with lots of teeth.

Bruce, at 43 feet long, is the
biggest Tylosaur in Canada.
To begin: when we refer to a "mosasaur", we usually mean a extinct member of the Mosasauridae family of reptiles; three of its six known subfamilies are represented at our museum. An analogy I often use during tours is to liken mosasaurs to bears; just like there are many different kinds of bears, there are all sorts of different mosasaurs! The smallest kind of mosasaur we find is called Clidastes, which could grow to about 13-15 feet long, while our biggest mosasaurs, which were called Tylosaurs (Bruce is one of these) could grow up to 43 feet long. The CFDC also has some medium-size specimens named Platecarpus and Plioplatecarpus.

Despite these drastic size differences, our mosasaurs are morphologically very similar, which means that their body structures look more or less the same (but not exactly so). Their hunting habits would have been related as well; Clidastes would have eaten smaller fish, turtles, and marine birds, while Tylosaurs would have had a similar diet except on a much larger scale. Due to its small size, Clidastes also served as a prey animal for bigger mosasaurs, a few fish (like Xiphactinus and the Cretoxyrhina shark), and giant squid; a fully grown Tylosaur, on the other hand, would have been invincible to nearly everything except disease and old age.

Clidastes skull.
I should note that mosasaurs are marine reptiles, not dinosaurs (as they're often erroneously called), although they co-existed in the same time period; dinosaurs and marine reptiles are from totally different evolutionary lineages. Mosasaurs superficially resemble crocodilians with long tails and flippers instead of proper feet for terrestrial movement, but these groups aren't closely related either; the closest thing you'll get to a mosasaur today are monitor lizards like the Komodo dragon.

Bruce and Scotty, a T. rex from Eastend, Sask.
At their time of existence, mosasaurs were abundant all over the globe; Tylosaurs, in particular, were the dominant predators in the Western Interior Seaway, a massive body of water that bisected North America and connected the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. This is evident in their big teeth and long, powerful bodies, but Tylosaurs also had some neat hunting techniques that increased their predatory efficiency and reinforced their position at the top of the marine food chain. Their first trick lay in their quadrates, which are bones common to all squamates (a group that encompasses most reptiles) that were located at the back of their jaws. Like snakes, Tylosaurs (and mosasaurs in general) could unhinge both their quadrates and their lower jaw bones, augmenting their bite radii to such an extent that a Tylosaur like Bruce would have been able to fit an entire adult T. rex skull in its mouth (not that this would ever probably happen).

Once a mosasaur has prey in its mouth, a second technique, in the form of pterygoid teeth, goes to work. Pterygoid teeth are a second set of teeth, comprised of two columns, that are located at the top of a mosasaur's mouth. Once a prey animal is hooked on these teeth, the two columns go forward and backward very quickly, creating a shredding effect that essentially turns the mosasaur's mouth into a blender and renders the prey into so many tiny chunks. Once this is achieved, the mosasaur is free to swallow its food and look for its next meal.

The new Tylosaurus coin.
Because of these adaptations, mosasaurs quickly outcompeted other large marine fauna like sharks and plesiosaurs (another kind of extinct marine reptile). However, their numbers gradually dwindled as the Cretaceous period came to a close and they went extinct, along with 65% of life on earth, around the same time that an upsurge of violent global volcanic activity and a devastating meteor impact where Mexico is today ended the Mezozoic era, paving the way for mammals to establish themselves both as a dominant presence on land and a significant force in the oceans. Unfortunately (or thankfully, depending on your perspective), we only find the fossilized remains of mosasaurs today; no remnants of the family are extant.

Coincidentally, the Royal Canadian Mint has recently designed a limited edition 25-cent coin that features a glow-in-the-dark Tylosaur. It costs around $30 and is available for pre-order through the Mint; once it's released come September, you'll be able to purchase one here at the CFDC as well.

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Happy Canada Day!

Happy Canada Day! I hope you all had a great time yesterday; the weather was great here in southern Manitoba the whole weekend and decided not to rain, for once. Ashlee and Rebecca were both down at the Morden Beach Blast manning the CFDC booth, so hopefully some of you got a chance to check out the fossils we had on display.

 It was the last day of school on Friday (if you're in Manitoba, at least)! If you're looking for something to occupy all the kids who will soon be in the process of transforming your house into a disaster area, bring 'em down to the Dino Day Camp at the CFDC, which starts this week and runs every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday until the end of August. The Dino Day Camp is for kids aged three to ten and uses fossil-themed arts and crafts to teach them about the creatures of the Western Interior Seaway during the late Cretaceous period, which we find all around Morden and Miami. Kids can come for any number of days they (or you) like, so drop by if you're looking for something to keep them busy this summer.

Fossil Crew with the Grey Cup.
As part of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Kickoff Run to celebrate the opening of their stadium, the Grey Cup came to Morden last Monday. Our whole Fossil Crew got a couple pictures with it, which is pretty sweet; I'll post one on the blog in case you haven't already seen them on Facebook or Twitter. It's too bad the Bombers lost on Thursday, but they did a number of good things (I hate being generic, but we'll leave it at that) and it was totally awesome when Kenny Ploen gave Milt Stegall the ball in the opening ceremony. I was at the pre-season game at the new stadium a couple weeks ago, and let me tell you, it's an amazing place. If you get an opportunity to go to a game this year, take it, no matter how the Bombers are playing.

Exploring a site with both
Pembina and Millwood shale.
As for finding fossils (yes, we did do some of that), we engaged in more exploration than excavation last week, spending some time in a site with a huge expanse of Millwood shale and continuing our visits to Pembina Valley Provincial Park. Millwood isn't really conducive for digging in, even when it's dry (as I may have mentioned in a previous blog), so we mostly walked around and scoured the surface for fossils exposed by wind and rain. We found some fish or mosasaur ribs from both the Millwood and the park (the park ribs might be connected to a larger skeleton, which is exciting), while we also recovered what could be a rare Millwood skull fragment from a mosasaur or plesiosaur. It looks kind of gross because it's been all trampled by cows and whatnot, but hey, a skull frag's a skull frag.

As for this week, we're looking to spend lots of time outside and maybe do some plaster jackets. Keep in mind that Bruce's birthday is coming up! On July 27th, we're having cake and there's free admission to the museum, so be sure to drop by. Also, we're right in the thick of planning exhibits, presentations, and neat activities for our Shark Week celebration on August 12th through the 16th, so mark that our your calendars as well. Cheers! Enjoy the beginning of summer.

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Monday, June 24, 2013


Boyne shale at the PVPP.
We went back to Pembina Valley Provincial Park on Monday to look for shale outcrops, and while we met with some success, we mostly found a whole bunch of mosquitoes and woodticks instead. However, we did locate some neat Boyne shale outcrops, including some with iron content, as well as a weird-looking pyrite formation (found by Aaron) and a mosasaur vertebra (discovered by Eric). The backbone is particularly interesting because it's only the second local mosasaur ever found in the Boyne, which represents a time period where sharks like Cretoxyrhina are currently thought to have been more dominant in our part of the Western Interior Seaway. It had been washed down a creek bed and was weathered to the point of resembling a Pembina fossil in its coloring (we've got lots of those, but was determined to be from the Boyne after Joe (our paleontologist) tested it for calcium content by exposing it to hydrochloric acid. Unfortunately, any other bones from that particular mosasaur have likely been washed to random spots downstream (if they were ever fossilized in the first place).
Augen texture at the PVPP.

Our first two-day tour of the season occurred on Tuesday and Wednesday! Here's a shout-out to Ally Chernoff, who uncovered a number of mosasaur ribs, teleost (fish) teeth, and some more obscure fossils that we have yet to identify. From all the Field Techs, we really enjoyed digging for fossils with you in the field and we hope you had a great time. If any of you other readers would like to hunt for fossils with us, now's the time to schedule a tour since the weather's starting to really heat up, so don't wait! There's some cool stuff just waiting for you to uncover it at the CFDC.
Our awesome fort.

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Cretaceous Seafloor

Creatures of the Western Interior Seaway.
Whenever we take tours out to the field, one thing they always find a ton of is shale. Kids and adults alike can get sick of it pretty quickly and we often think of shale as being in the way since we're usually only interested in finding the fossils in it. However, shale is actually pretty neat in and of itself, and is only considered to be "boring" because it's so common. Many people don't realize that shale, although it's dry and dusty now, is former seabed from the Western Interior Seaway, which is where the animals that we currently find as fossils used to swim (sometimes even we field techs forget that!). Think about it: above the sea floor swam sharks, squid, and marine reptiles like mosasaurs and plesiosaurs, while closer to shore were numerous birds like Hesperornis and Icthyornis. Near the underlying seabed were all kinds of corals and shellfish, while tiny invertebrates burrowed through the murky bottom. The sea floor and the area above it were teeming with life; now, all we have are the rock remnants that they left behind, but there's still a multitude of things we can learn from them.
Shale layers; we mostly excavate
 in Boyne through Millwood.

There are several different shale layers that we find fossils in around Morden, each representing a period of time. These layers are usually quite different from each other, although certain layers are sometimes very similar (like the Millwood and the Upper Gammon that I've written about before). Changing composition of shale means that the conditions in the Seaway were changing as well. For example, a shale formation with high levels of bentonite indicate a lot of volcanic activity (bentonite is a common mineral formed from compressed volcanic ash). As well, fossils can have major differences in appearance depending on which layer they were formed in; fossils from the Pembina shale tend to be reddish-grey with fairly poor preservation, while Boyne fossils are black and shine gold in the sun. The Gammon Ferruginous can be extremely hard to dig through, but its fossils are likewise very well preserved.

Attempting to sift through Millwood.
Whenever we go to the field, we never refer to the rock we dig in as simply 'shale'; rather, we use names like 'Pembina' or 'Millwood' to describe the kind of shale we're excavating in, since the differences between layers are so pronounced. Odanah shale excels at staying dry when it rains, for example (making it popular for use on country roads), while Millwood and Upper Gammon are the only local shales that turn into sludge when they become wet. Last week, we tried sifting for shark teeth in some wet Millwood, but the stuff just clumps together and refuses to separate, so we didn't have much success. We might try again next week, but until then, we'll have to find fossils somewhere else.

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Kidsfest and the Millwood

Suzy's skull at Kidsfest.
Yesterday was the last day of Kidsfest in Winnipeg, our first major festival of the year. We spent five days there (I was at the booth on Thursday), and had a great time! Lots of kids had a blast with the fossil dig box, and we were right next to an awesome bug-catching exhibit from Oak Hammock Marsh. Factor in the presence of the excellent food at the Forks and it was time well spent for us at the CFDC.
The dig box. 

Now that Kidsfest is finished, we'll turn our attention back to field work, where a lot of cleanup remains to be done. For example, part of one of our sites is comprised of a ditch that grows into a small gorge. Due to all the rain we've experienced this spring, there's been a ton of water rushing down the ditch, causing it to become much wider and deeper than it was before. We used to have a ladder to facilitate transportation between the ditch and the upper part of the site, but the torrent swept it a ways downstream. I've since recovered it, but the ladder is no longer tall enough, nor is a sufficiently stable spot available, for it to continue to function in any helpful capacity. Now we're required to go around and cross further upstream to access the ditch, but it's still worth taking a trip down there every now and then. Once the stream dries up completely, we'll be able to explore the whole thing and maybe find some fossils that have been washed down to the bottom!
Which object doesn't belong?

On Wednesday, we also explored the Millwood shale for the first time since the rain started. Like the Upper Gammon, Millwood turns into a nasty, sludgy mess when it's wet, so it's been mostly inaccessible to us for the last several weeks. Dry Millwood, though, presents an interesting opportunity for fossil finding; Millwood shale doesn't have much sand in it relative to other local shales, making it clumpy and hard to dig in. Because of this, it's more efficient to search for fossils on the surface than to actively uncover them; we call this method 'prospecting'. Also, Millwood fossils are a dull black color, making them pretty distinctive compared to both the Millwood shale and fossils from the Pembina shale, which form the majority of our collection and sport a stone-grey coloration.

Millwood shale, next to a cattle pond (gross!)
During inclement weather (like what we've been having), the rate of surface erosion (and therefore fossil exposure) increases, making it likely that new fossils will be waiting for discovery at our Millwood sites. We spent a brief period of time prospecting at one site, where Joe, our curator and resident paleontologist, found several belemnites and what is likely a fragment of a mosasaur tooth (all I got were cow bones). Mosasaurs, which superficially resemble large crocodiles with flippers, are what our museum is most known for (Bruce and Suzy are both mosasaurs), while belemnites are tiny little cephalopods (like squid) that are fairly common.

Such have been our latest adventures! The weather's looking pretty nice for the next several days, so we should be spending most of our time in the field and have lots of new stuff to blog about at the end of the week.

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Friday, May 31, 2013

Hiking for Fossils

Fallen inukshuk. Shaded blue, just because.
Well, it’s been a pretty interesting week! On Tuesday, we were planning to stay inside due to the rain when an impromptu school dig tour showed up. Luckily, the dig itself was fine and the shale was good and dry for excavation underneath the top layer, but when the kids tried to leave, the bus got stuck! This has happened in previous years, but it was the first time it had occurred on one of my tours. Thankfully, a farmer who lived nearby pulled the bus out with his tractor and the group went on its way home.
Fish fin, with a pocketknife to indicate size.
We went to Pembina Valley Provincial Park on Wednesday for the first time this season. I’ve never been there before and the view at the top of the hills is pretty nice, although you won’t be too impressed if you’ve seen mountains before. Part of the initial trail was all nasty and busted up, so we followed a creek bed in order to join up with another path. It turned out to be a fortuitous obstacle; since although a couple of us slipped and ended up with wet shoes, we were lucky enough to find a whole bunch of fish vertebrae in the shale under the water, including five in an articulated vertebral column (forming a recognizable spine). These particular fossils, being from the Boyne shale, are jet black and very distinctive when compared to the grey surrounding rock, making them easy to spot. The rest of the hike was great; not too hot, few mosquitoes, and an absence of the rain that that we’ve had nearly every day this week.
The articulated vertebral column.
Accordingly, the last two days have been wet and dreary, meaning there’s been no field activity. Tomorrow’s supposed to be nice and sunny, though, which is great because that’s when the Morden Block Party is happening! If you’ve got some free time, head down to Stephen St. and visit our booth; it’ll be open all day. There’s free food, too (or so I’ve heard). Next week, we’ll be at Kidsfest in Winnipeg from Thursday to Sunday, so if you can’t make it to Morden tomorrow, then be sure to see us at the Forks! With any luck, all the rain will be finished by then.
Scattered fish backbones.

Matt Remple

Field Tech

Monday, May 27, 2013

Rain and Mud

With all the rain we had on the long weekend, it’s remained difficult to access most of our sites. One of the sites where we’ve spent a lot of time this year had a partial cave-in (nothing major), which wouldn’t be a big deal if the shale wasn’t from the upper Gammon Ferruginous member of the Pierre Shale (don’t worry about that too much). Upper Gammon is brutal when it’s wet, turning into a mass of sludge that sticks to shoes and shovels with equal tenacity. The cave-in is in a trench, too, making it even harder to get at. Nevertheless, Aaron, Eric (two other Field Techs), and myself spent some time digging part of the trench out last week after the first school dig tour of the year, which came all the way from Vita, MB. It was hard work, but life in the field is a lot better if we don’t have to walk or wheelbarrow through wet Upper Gammon.
Field work isn’t all hard labour, though! A few days ago, I found a tiny, really well preserved mosasaur vertebra (backbone). It’s smaller than any mosasaur backbone our curator has ever seen, smaller than Bruce’s very tiniest vertebra, which means that it’s probably from either a relatively small adult mosasaur or, even better, a baby mosasaur! A baby would be a great find, since they’re pretty rare. I’m really excited; this fossil is likely more significant than any of the few specimens I’ve found before.
Tours are really starting to heat up, so if you’d like to book one, do it quick! The weather’s only going to get better as summer approaches, and we’ll be opening more of our sites up soon. There are  half-day, one-day, two-day, and five-day dig tours available, as well as museum tours; if you’re interested, give us a call at 204-822-3406. See you soon!

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Fossil Excavation

One of the new plaster jackets.
This week, we made our first plaster jackets (also called field jackets) of the season! The fossils we collected, which are currently theorized to be from the stomach area of a mosasaur (or simply from a highly fossiliferous region) were discovered last year and were all ready to be packaged up when we returned to the site last week. The mosasaur skeleton isn’t articulated, but there are a number of vertebrae (backbones) that were deposited in a rough line and are surrounded by mosasaur rib fragments, fish vertebrae, Hesperornis legs (Hesperornis is a kind of marine bird), and even some fossil teeth (which could be from a smaller mosasaur that was eaten by the first one).
The hind limbs of a mosasaur, which are
permanently stuck in plaster.
We make plaster jackets in order to protect fossils when we transport them from the field to the museum, working in much the same way that casts do for broken arms and legs. That way, they stay safe in case the jacket is accidentally dropped or if some other calamity befalls them. Constructing a plaster jacket can take a while; first, we dig little trenches around a big fossil or a collection of smaller ones to separate them from the larger rock layer (it ends up looking like a collection of puzzle pieces carved into the rock). We then put a separating layer on top of the resulting “island”, which can be composed of paper towel, tin foil, or, in this week’s case, simply mud. This serves to keep the plaster from contacting the fossil, since it’s extremely difficult to remove plaster from rock. Thirdly, we dip strips of burlap in plaster and lay them on top of the separating layer, and finally, we cut underneath the island, flip it over, and repeat the plastering process on the bottom side.
Suzy's skull, with the tail of
Bruce, our biggest mosasaur. 
Once the jackets come to the CFDC, we saw them open (carefully, and with a hand saw, not our eyes) and clean the matrix, or surrounding rock, off the fossils. If need be, we glue fossil fragments together if they’re falling apart. Once that’s done, the fossils can accessioned or even put on display! Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, mining operations in our area resulted in a ton of fossils being found and plastered up. There were so many field jackets that we still have many of them waiting to be prepared! Our second-biggest mosasaur, Suzy, was actually lost and re-discovered because a number of years passed between the time when her fossils were jacketed and when the jackets were cut open. If you’d like to see her or any of our brand new plaster casts, come on down to the CFDC! We’re open every day. 
On the left is an old cast with a mosasaur
skull still in it. Next to it is a new
plaster jacket. 

Matt Remple
Field Tech

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Field Season Kickoff!

The Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre’s 2013 field season officially began May 1st, and that means that it’s high time to get our “Daily Fossil” blog back in action again! (Especially after a hiatus in 2012) We’ve already visited a number of our dig sites during the past few days, although a bunch of them are still inaccessible due to snowmelt and mud (the Millwood member, one of the shale layers that we find fossils in, turns into a positive quagmire when it’s wet). Yesterday we returned to our most productive 2012 site and spent the better part of the day cleaning it up and getting it ready for further excavation this year. This is the same site where we found a mosasaur flipper that had been chewed up in the mouth of a Xiphactinus fish a few years back; while those specimens have been mostly removed to the CFDC, we’re still in the process of uncovering a second, bigger mosasaur that was discovered just above the first two creatures.
                Nature has been kind to us thus far; the weather’s been wonderful and the Fossil Crew has only found three woodticks during four days in the field. The ticks will become much more common in late May and June before declining during July, but they’re definitely irritating until they disappear. One of the Field Techs did a little research on homemade tick repellent (conventional bug spray doesn’t seem to have any great effect), but all the Internet came up with was spraying field clothes with vinegar or tea tree oil. I figure that would probably repel more than ticks.
                We have some other projects on tap this year, besides the aforementioned site. We’ll be at the Pembina Valley Provincial Park a lot, mapping geological outcrops and, of course, looking for fossils. As well, we’ll be at a number of Manitoba festivals, like the Children’s Festival in Winnipeg, the Morris Stampede (for the first time ever!), and the Corn & Apple Festival, our very own local event in Morden.
The Daily Fossil will have a new blog at least once a week, which will contain details about our latest discoveries, upcoming events, and other goings-on at the CFDC. If quick, up to the minute information is what you’re after, though, then check us out on Twitter (@discoverfossils) and Facebook (Bruce Mosasaur). Of course, the best way to see what’s new is to drop by the museum! See you in the field.

Matt Remple
Field Tech