He did a double take. The lumps spilling out of his excavator bucket did not look like conventional rock fragments. He should know, as he spent all his days surrounded by rock and sand. That said, this was something he’d never seen. He debated whether to keep on working or to investigate further. He decided to stop excavating and call his supervisor. But neither of them had any idea of what they had just stumbled upon.
It had started as an ordinary spring day for Shawn Funk. He worked as a heavy equipment operator for Suncor, Canada’s largest energy company. Right now, he was contracted to work at the Millennium Mine, part of the Athabasca Oil Sands project in eastern Alberta. It was hard work that required strength and endurance. But to Shawn, it was worth it. Business was booming and the pay was good. And there was a good reason for that.
The Athabasca Oil Sands are deposits of bitumen -- a viscous, heavy crude oil that is formed from the remnants of ancient marine plants and creatures that lived and died hundreds of millions of years ago, converting them into fossils. About 70 percent of the world’s oil sands deposits are in northern Alberta, and the Athabasca site is the largest one. For centuries, bitumen was used as a type of glue to waterproof structures or to create substances such as asphalt. It was never considered part of the world’s oil reserves because refining such viscous material was not profitable. That is, until quite recently. Little did he know all that was hiding beneath the soil.
The Athabasca site began production in 1967 but it wasn’t until the 2000s when the real boom began. People flocked to the town of Fort McMurray to find work in one of the many oil sands, natural gas, and pipeline operations in the region. Shawn was one of those people. But his story was about to take a strange turn as he never expected to find something so amazing lurking beneath.
About three percent of the Athabasca Oil Sands contain deposits that can be extracted through surface mining. And that is where Shawn was assigned. Every day, he operated an excavator that dug through layers of dirt, rock, and sand; which would be later filtered to extract the valuable bitumen. It was monotonous work. But one day, the monotony was broken when Shawn’s excavator came across something odd.
Shortly after noon, Shawn was digging up sand in a pit when suddenly the excavator bucket hit against something hard -- harder than normal rock. Shawn stopped digging and brought up the bucket, then emptied it next to the pit. What he saw was rather unusual. There were big lumps of what looked like rock, but with a strange walnut-like color. Something in the back of his mind told him this was important. So he turned off the excavator and called his supervisor.
Shawn’s supervisor, Mike Gratton, came over to look at the discovery. He was as puzzled as Shawn. Both men crouched over the weird lumps, wondering what they could be. Then Shawn reached over to grab one and flipped it over. The men did a double take. The chunk of rock was patterned with rows of light-brown colored disks, with a gray stone in between. In his 12 years of digging, Shawn had found petrified tree stumps and fossilized wood. But nothing that looked like this. “We gotta get this checked out,” Mike told Shawn. And that is when the pair were taken aback.
“It was definitely nothing we had ever seen before,” recalls Shawn. He and Mike went to the higher-ups to notify them of their strange discovery. Thinking they had found an ancient relic, the company called the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller -- 420 miles away from the site. The museum decided to send dinosaur curator Dr. Donald Henderson and veteran technician Darren Tanke to check out the find. Suncor even provided a jet for them to fly to the mine. But when they arrived, the work had barely just begun.
Henderson and Tanke examined the lumps and determined it could very well be a dinosaur fossil. But they had to extract the entire remains to make sure. With help from Suncor excavators, the two men began to chip away at the rock, working tirelessly in 12-hour shifts. Finally, the fossil was separated from the rest of the rock except for the bottom. And that was going to be the hardest task.
The workers had whittled the rock down to a 15,000-pound protuberance that contained the mysterious fossil. But they still had to get it out of the ground. They dug two tunnels beneath the block of stone and placed wood beams inside, which allowed them to whittle down the rest of the rock. Then they placed slings at the end of each beam which would be used to lift the entire structure. But when the machine was turned on, disaster struck.
Instead of rising straight upward, the beams split to the sides and the rock collapsed under its own weight. It was a disappointing development for the whole team. But they still hoped to preserve the remaining pieces, so they covered them in plaster and burlap for protection and loaded them onto a truck. Now it was up to the museum staff to uncover the identity of this strange fossil. But it would be years before the truth was revealed.
Separating a fossil from its surrounding rock is work not unlike that of a sculptor. It takes long hours and painstaking attention to detail to expose the remains. “You almost have to fight for every millimeter,” says Mark Mitchell, one of the museum’s fossil preparators. It took him five years and 7,000 hours of labor to finally free the fossil from its rocky tomb. But what it uncovered made it all well worth it.
Shawn’s discovery did turn out to be a dinosaur fossil -- but not just any dinosaur. It was a nodosaur, a new species and genus of the ankylosaur. And its extraordinary nature did not end there. The fossil was extremely well-preserved, with its scales, armor, and even skin still visible. “We don’t just have a skeleton,” said Caleb Brown, a museum researcher. “We have a dinosaur as it would have been.” How did it manage to remain untouched for millions of years?
Paleontologists speculate that this dinosaur lived in the Cretaceous period when Alberta had a warm, humid climate and was separated from British Columbia by a sea. They believe the nodosaur was swept away by a flooding river and floated to the open ocean, where it later sank to the bottom and was engulfed by mineral-rich mud. These minerals slowly replaced the animal’s bone and soft tissue, preserving it for posterity. It is the best-preserved dinosaur fossil ever found -- and it’s finally ready to be seen by the public.
Facebook/Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology
Though the study of this specimen will continue for years to come, the Royal Tyrrell Museum was finally able to unveil it to the public as the centerpiece of an exhibition that includes fossils found in Alberta’s industrial sites. And it wasn’t just the museum staff that was excited. “You’ll see a lot of Suncor people down there,” said Doug Lacey, the mine’s project manager who helped direct the operation. “I know I will. Hopefully, I get the backstage pass for the kids, now that I know a few of the fellas.”