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Discover: Take a break from COVID-19 news to meet some Canadian dinosaurs

Everyone’s heard of Tyrannosaurus Rex, but what about Albertasaurus or Edmontosaurus?
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What does a Tyrannosaurus Rex sound like?

If you’ve seen one of the many Jurassic Park movies, a roar may be echoing in your ears right now, a result of the epic final scenes. However, what you may not know is that recently scientists were able to pinpoint exactly the sound the massive dinosaur made, and it is not what you’re expecting. 

Moving more as a vibration over many miles, the ‘roar’ of a T-Rex is actually more of a low rumble. A terrifying low rumble, to say the least, but certainly not the roar that’s so often portrayed. 

That’s the thing about science; there are always new ideas, hypotheses, and discoveries. That’s how you end up with the announcement of a new dinosaur, just one month ago. 

Finding Fossils

Canada is a hot bed of fossil life with remains from many different periods found in all provinces. Dinosaurs, though, are mainly found in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. 

Not so much in Sudbury. Why? Because Sudbury is too old.

As Jennifer Beaudry, senior scientist at Dynamic Earth explained, most of the dinosaurs in Canada were found between the Triassic (250-200 million years ago) and Late Cretaceous period (60-80 million years ago).  

However, in Sudbury, “we’re dealing with much older rocks. We’re dealing with Cambrian, Precambrian, we’re dealing with the Canadian Shield,” she said. 

That timeline is more than 500 million years away from today. The Big Nickel is just too old for dinosaurs.

Really, in the geological age of the earth, dinosaurs are quite recent. “They’re just babies, when you start looking at how old our planet is,” said Beaudry. “The evolution and the changes that have occurred through time – rocks are really a history book, you just have to learn their language and you can unlock a lot of the mysteries.”

So within the rocks of certain parts of Canada, there are fossils found, just waiting to be discovered. But fossils aren’t usually just hanging out in the open. It takes a very specific set of circumstances to create them.

“When we look at fossilization,” Beaudry said, “we’re looking at minerals basically replacing the bone materials. Calcium and all that in your bones, the minerals are going in and replacing that and solidifying that, so all the conditions have to be very perfect in order for fossilization to happen. So it’s a quick death followed by a quick burial and compression to be able to have beautiful specimens.” 

But when we have these perfectly preserved specimens, we can see what amazing dinosaurs once roamed in what we know as Canada. 

Prosauropods

Found in Nova Scotia, the discovery of this Canadian dinosaur — the oldest specimen in Canada — offered paleontologists a view into a species that survived one of the great mass extinctions: an event between the Triassic and Jurassic Period, 200 million years ago, that caused the annihilation of more than half of the species on Earth.

“The sauropods, the ones that are found in Nova Scotia, they’re really unique because they survived that mass extinction, they survived the continent starting to be ripped apart. That’s what some of the paleontologists are currently researching right now: How did that happen? How were they able to adapt and adjust to a really big change in their environmental conditions?”

A mega-continent ripped apart (Pangea is the name we’ve given the ancient continent) breaking into the world as we know it now. So what happened? 

“A lot of the theories are coming back to a huge amount of volcanic activity, but there is also research about a methane gas bubble that ended up coming up into the ocean that could have caused it, as well a lot of that climate change that we’re seeing as a result of the mass extinction.”

The Prosauropods were the forerunner to the Brachiosaurs and they have been found mostly in the Bay of Fundy. Of course, it wasn’t a coastal area then, more of a desert, but still home to the dinosaur many consider ‘not overly large’– the herbivore measured about eight metres in length. Believed to be both bipedal and quadrupedal, the Prosauropod could make use of its forelimbs when necessary, or rear up on its hind limbs for running. 

Of course, these behavioural aspects are assumptions based on available evidence. 

“Anything in the past, anything that we have not personally had experiences with, we then have to build what could have happened based on the knowledge that we have today.”

And that means new understandings come the more evidence there is. Take for instance our next dinosaur – the Albertasaurus.

Albertasaurus

Named for – you guessed it, the province – the Albertasaurus was a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, but a little less than half its size. Again though, that’s somewhat of an understatement. This carnivore has a massive skull and jaw, with 58 razor-sharp teeth waiting to press down upon you with 3,413 Newtons – or 767.27 pounds – of force. It’s at that point you care less about it being ‘only’ nine metres long and weighing two metric tonnes. The Albertasaurus was an apex predator, and though you may think you can ridicule its tiny arms, it had a walking speed of 14-21 kilometres an hour – so don’t think you could make a joke and run. 

Continued research into the Albertasaurus is showing that not only are there indications of feather-like structures on the juvenile of the species in particular, but that they may also have been a pack animal. 

“We find sometimes that we’re finding Albertasaurus in groups,” said Beaudry. “So they could have been similar to wolves, pack-like animals, and they could have attacked their prey as a pack, but because we weren’t there, anything behavior is inferred. We can’t 100 per cent say ‘absolutely this is what it is’.”

Edmontosaurus

In the case of the herbivore Edmontosaurus, named not for the city but for the ‘Edmonton Formation,’ there is a great deal of evidence that this was a herd animal. 

“The Edmontosaurus is one of the dinosaurs that is most studied in North America because of the large amount of dinosaur beds that they’ve found, as well as the quality of the specimens that we have,” said Beaudry. 

The Edmontosaurus would have been a prey of the Albertasaurus, and it’s another example of a dinosaur that could walk on four legs, or run on two. The fascinating aspects of this dinosaur come down to its battery of teeth – thousands of them lined up perfectly for grinding hard plant material – and the shark-like ability to regrow them when damaged. It had an almost duck-billed snout, though it wasn’t a beak but a piece of bone that allowed the dinosaur to clasp a branch and snap it before chewing. 

And the Edmontosaurus is another example of paleontologists continuing to understand these dinosaurs when further evidence is shown. Soft tissue doesn’t fossilize well, and there are few dinosaur remains that are classified as ‘mummified’ dinosaurs. But a mummified Edmontosaurus was found, and on its head was a colourful comb, somewhat similar to that of a rooster. 

Triceratops

A favourite of many children, Triceratops are named for their three horns – two long, above their eyes, and one short, on its snout. What you may not know is the sheer size of the ‘frill’ as it is called, the plate of bone that sits behind the head of the triceratops. 

The dinosaur was about the size of an African Elephant. Its head and frill took up three quarters of that. Feels like ‘frill’ may not be not the best word to describe something so scary. 

“There’s two hypotheses with the frill and the horns,” said Beaudry. “One would be for defense mechanisms, battles between one another and the locking of the horns, and then the other one would be a mating display. So especially with your frill, you’d be able to attract a potential mate, similar to the peacock today.”

Triceratops were a part of a large family of dinosaurs called Ceratopsians, and they spent their time on four legs – a hypotheses based on preserved footprints – with the two in the front slightly shorter than in the rear – and Beaudry infers that may be for maneuvering with such a giant head. At the end of each leg are several hoof-like structures. 

Thanatotheristes Degrootum

Let’s start this one by describing the origins of its name. First ‘Degrootum’ named for amateur paleontologists who discovered the remains while walking the shore of Alberta’s Bow River in 2010. Just this past month, the University of Calgary announced that this find was in fact a new species, an early member of the Tyrannosaurus family, one with a three-foot-long skull. 

It is named in Greek: Thanatos for ‘God of Death’ and Theristes, ‘Reap.’ Makes you glad it lived 80 million years ago. 

As new fossils of this dinosaur are discovered, so too will hypotheses about its evolution and behavior. So for now, keep an eye out for news about the ‘Grim Reaper’ dinosaur. 

And just in case you were worried that Jurassic Park taught you nothing, you can thank Dr. Grant for introducing amateurs to the idea of dinosaurs evolving into birds. 

“In the ’80s even, we were really focused that all dinosaurs were reptilian,” Beaudry said, “And that’s not the case. We’ve found primitive feathers with dinosaurs, so we know for sure that there were dinosaurs that were covered in feathers. So that leads to a whole new thought pattern.”

It’s that willingness to continue to understand what we thought we understood already that makes science, and paleontology, a fascinating study.  

“Just like when they’re looking at the mass extinction, when they’re looking at the potential causes, there are always new studies and new scientific tools available to allow us to better understand what could have potentially happened in the past,” said Beaudry. “That’s the fun of science, that’s the fun of earth science even, there is so much history to our planet that we’ve barely skimmed the surface of understanding everything that happened.”

Jenny Lamothe is a freelance writer, proof-reader and editor in Greater Sudbury. Contact her through her website, JennyLamothe.com.




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