Okay, so the Cretaceous period isn’t as old as the Jurassic era, but hey, this isn’t rocket science it’s paleontology. What do you think paleontologists do when they don’t have to pick up dinosaur bones anymore? They evolve into archaeologists, unless they open a flea circus on Petticoat Lane. National Geographic recently ran a reminiscence on the accidental discovery of a dinosaur preserved so perfectly, it has been called the Dinosaur Mummy, and if it hasn’t it is now.
In March 2011, Shawn Funk was part of a construction crew carrying out overburden from the Suncor Millennium Mine in northeastern Alberta, Canada, when he hit a scientific water main. He dug up a 110-million-year-old creature named Borealopelta. By chance, according to published reports, he’d recently visited the Royal Tyrrell Museum to see the dinosaur collection, and went on to make history by adding a piece of prehistory. The fossil is so well preserved you can see its skin. Something that isn’t “an illusion. Something that was real, something that they could see and touch,” to put it in Jurassic Park terms.
Paleobiologist Jakob Vinther from the U.K.’s University of Bristol says the dinosaur is so well preserved it “might have been walking around a couple of weeks ago.” You can “count the scales on its sole,” the National Geographic reporter observes.
“If someone wants to come face to face with a dinosaur, and see what it actually looked like, this is the one for that,” Caleb Brown from the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology told the magazine. “We don’t just have a skeleton. We have a dinosaur as it would have been.”
And it’s more impressive than a six-foot turkey.
The Borealopelta is an ankylosaur, and it’s ankles were probably sore because it weighed one and a half tons. It is 20 feet from foot to tail and built like a tank with 20-inch-long spikes coming out of its shoulders. Armored dinosaurs are called nodosaurs, which are their generation’s rhinoceros. This one is 112 million years old.
The animal was a plant-eater that got caught in a flooded river and was carried out to sea. It was found encased in “siderite concretion,” which protected it from scavengers, and from the sand and fluids from the seabed it laid on to die. It retained its “original configurations and morphology, with minimal dorsoventral compression,” according to the museum’s own analysis. They scanned it with electron microscopy (SEM) and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDAX) analyses.
Millennium Mine is about 17 miles north of Fort McMurray. Funk worked at the site for 12 years and had uncovered fossilized wood and trees. This was the first creature. “It was definitely nothing we had ever seen before,” Funk said in a 2011 interview.
The fossil was excavated when it was chiseled down to a 15,000-pound rock, which shattered during removal. The workers from Suncor preserved the “fragments in plaster of paris, while Tanke and Henderson scrounged for anything to stabilize the fossil on the long drive to the museum. In lieu of timbers, the crew used plaster-soaked burlap rolled up like logs.”
While early attempts to tag the fossil “Mrs. Prickley,” didn’t stick, it is currently on display in Drumheller, Alberta, at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology’s new exhibit, “Grounds for Discovery,Unearthing history by accident,” which is dedicated to fossils that have been discovered through industrial work.