Scratching the surface of Saskatchewan’s dinosaur bone bed

Watch above: uncovering dinosaurs in rural Saskatchewan

HERSCHEL, Sask. – In west-central Saskatchewan, near the hamlet of Herschel, a group of roughly a dozen people are sweating in the hot summer sun. With spades and shovels, the team is removing the top layer of a hill in a dry pasture of virgin prairie.

Drumheller and the Alberta Badlands are known as a hotspot for dinosaur exploration in Canada, but the bones and fossils don’t stop at the border. An archaeological dig in Herschel, Sask. is beginning to scratch the surface.

Emily Bamforth with the Royal Saskatchewan Museum is leading the excavation. Bamforth has been working in Saskatchewan as a palaeontologist since completing her education five years ago. Contributing sweat equity of her own, Bamforth surveys the site before delving in.

“Oh there is more! Amazing!” said Bamforth upon approaching the site and seeing another specimen uncovered.

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The bones belong to a pleisosaur. Today’s find was made by David Neufeld, who chairs the Ancient Echoes Interpretive Centre in Herschel.

“Within five minutes I had found these three ribs and a little later, I found the fourth one there,” Neufeld said enthusiastically.

The fossils glisten in the hot sun. Bamforth explains the sparkle on the bones is called gypsum, a type of sea salt, indicating that the entire pasture where we stand was once under water. More than 5,000 specimens have been recovered from the site so far.

“How many more there are depends on how extensive the bone bed is and so right now, we’re pushing the bone bed south,” explained Bamforth.

During the Cretaceous time period 65 million years ago, underwater dinosaurs such as the pleisosaur lived here in a massive ocean that stretched from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico.

In the middle of that ocean is where Saskatchewan is situated, significant to Bamforth because the water would have been deeper here than in Alberta and Manitoba. Depth changes make for a perfect opportunity to compare similarities and differences between fossils found here and fossils found elsewhere.

The site has peaked the interest of students from McGill University in Montreal. The field class students made the three-day trip from east-central Canada to Herschel to help with the dig. They’ll also be spending time at a site at Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park 40 kilometres north of Swift Current.

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Sara Popov, who’s studying at McGill and is originally from New Jersey, is more than impressed.

“You have marine bone beds such as this one and then you also have terrestrial so before and after the seaway flooded, you have Dinosaur Park Formation in Saskatchewan so you have all those iconic dinosaurs. You find T-rex here, Ceratopsians and duckbilled dinosaurs are here,” Popov said enthusiastically reciting a line she heard from an employee at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

“In Saskatchewan, you’re just a couple hours drive from about 70 million years of history!”

Once uncovered, specimens are removed from site and taken to the T-rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, Sask. where they’re catalogued and studied.

“Palaeontology in general can tell us an awful lot about life,” said Bamforth.

Studying the past to have a better understanding of the future, Bamforth encourages anyone who’s interested to come out. Tours are offered through the Ancient Echoes Museum throughout summer.

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