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Dinosaur Provincial Park a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Alberta, Canada

The largest and most spectacular area of badlands in Canada is also the location of Dinosaur Provincial Park in Drumheller, Alberta (50° 46' 04'' N113° 39' 15'' W). This 83 SqKm area is the richest and most diverse Saurischian ("Lizard-Hipped") dinosaur fossil site worldwide for the Late Campanian Age dated between 75.5 - 77.0 million years ago from the Oldman and Dinosaur Park Formations.

A herbivorous Chasmosaurus (KAZ-mo-SAWR-əs) a Ceratopsid dinosaur - Royal Tyrrell Museum
A herbivorous Chasmosaurus (KAZ-mo-SAWR-us) a Ceratopsid dinosaur - Royal Tyrrell Museum

Located 235 Km southeast of Calgary the Dinosaur Provincial Park was established by the Government of Alberta in 1955, and in 1979 the Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2022, the Dinosaur Provincial Park was named among the “First 100 Geological Heritage Sites” designated by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).

The first dinosaur fossil of southern Alberta was found in 1884 by Joseph Burr Tyrrell an explorer, historian as well as a geologist for the Geological Survey of Canada. The first dinosaur find was a 70-million-year-old skull of a large carnivorous Albertosaurus sarcophagus (“flesh-eating lizard from Alberta”) a genus of Tyrannosaurid theropod and a smaller relative to the Tyrannosaurus rex.

Tyrannosauridae exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum
Tyrannosauridae exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum

In recognition of the significance of his endeavours the Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology at Drumheller was named after him in 1985. The “royal” appellation was added in 1990. Alberta has some of the strictest fossil protection laws in the world.

The fossilised remains of plants and animals, or traces of their activities, are protected under the Government of Alberta's Historical Resources Act. Violation of the Act is punishable by fines of up to $50,000 and/or one year in prison. If you visit the area and find a fossil please share your find and contact the museum.

The Campanian Age was the fifth of the six ages within the Late Cretaceous Epoch between 83.6 - 72.1 million years ago. During the Campanian Age, Dinosaur Provincial Park would have been a flat, low-lying coastal plain bordering the Bearpaw Sea that formed part of the Western Interior Seaway. The Bearpaw Sea was home to many marine reptiles, ammonites, fishes, and other aquatic life.

 Dinosaur Provincial Park - Image by Ric Matkowski
Dinosaur Provincial Park - Image by Ric Matkowski

The Western Interior Seaway is also called the Cretaceous Seaway, and the North American Inland Sea. This seaway split the continent of North America into two halves during the Cretaceous Period.

The Western Interior Seaway was created when the Pacific and North American tectonic plates collided, causing the uplifting of the Rocky Mountains.

Numerous North American fossil sites owe their existence to the Western Interior Seaway. The sea was relatively shallow, flat with a soft seafloor of oxygen-depleted mud ideal for the preservation of fossils.

As the Bearpaw Sea receded around 72 million years ago it left behind a thick layer of marine deposits known as the Bearpaw Formation. This is the formation that forms the base of the Hoodoos east of Drumheller.

Hoodoos stand 5 to 7 meters tall and take millions of years to form. A hoodoo is a sandstone pillar resting on a thick base of shale that is capped by a large stone. Notably, the current-day landscape was influenced by glacial melt-water from the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age 15,000 years ago.

The Dinosaur Park Formation forms the top layer of the Belly River Group of rocks in southern Alberta. The Belly River Group is a nonmarine rock sediment laying in what is known as the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin.

This combination of predominantly clay minerals and quartz is subdivided in ascending order into the Oldman, Dinosaur Park, and Bearpaw Formation formations with each having its own distinctive characteristic.

Dinosaur Provincial Park - Image by Ric Matkowski
Dinosaur Provincial Park - Image by Ric Matkowski

The Dinosaur Park Formation lies above the Oldman Formation and beneath Bearpaw Formation. The Campanian stage sandstone, mudstone, and siltstone sediments were transported by rivers and braided streams that flowed into the Bearpaw Sea from the nearby mountains.

The Oldman Formation has large numbers of isolated dinosaur bones rather than articulated fossils. specimens have been found.

The thicker smooth grey sandstones and green-tinged mudstones of the Dinosaur Park Formation indicate a wetter coastal plain environment where ponds and swamps were situated alongside wide, deep, meandering rivers with high sediment loads. The Dinosaur Park Formation has a larger number of articulated dinosaurs and a high density of dinosaur bonebeds.

The Bearpaw Formation is the uppermost rock strata deposited when the Western Interior Seaway was flooded and is comprised of marine-based mudstones and shales, so dinosaur specimens are virtually absent. Instead, fossils are typically limited to invertebrates such as ammonites and baculites vertebrates including sharks, mosasaurs, and plesiosaurs.

Lambeosaurinae ("Crested Hadrosaurs" and Ceratopsidae (“Horned Dinosaur”) from the Dinosaur Provincial Park exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Over the last 100 years, fossil collecting among the remains has included large dinosaurs preserved as fully-to-partially articulated skeletons and skeletal parts laying in very large-scale bonebeds. Nearly 170 species of vertebrates including 51 species of dinosaurs and assemblages of plants and invertebrates have been recorded.

The Dinosaurs from the order of Saurischia found at the Dinosaur Provincial Park include Tyrannosauridae (“Large Theropod Dinosaurs”), Ornithomimidae (“Bird-mimic Dinosaurs”), Erlikosauridae (“Slow Lizard Dinosaurs”), Caenagnathidae, Troodontidae (“Small Theropod Dinosaurs”) and Dromaeosauridae (Small Theropod Dinosaurs).

The Dinosaurs from the order of Ornithischia (“Bird-Hipped Dinosaurs”) found at the Dinosaur Provincial Park include Dromaeosauridae (“Small Theropod Dinosaurs”), Hadrosauridae (“Duck-billed Dinosaurs”), Hadrosaurinae (“non-crested hadrosaurs”), Lambeosaurinae (“crested hadrosaurs”), Protoceratopsidae (“First Horned Dinosaurs”), Ceratopsidae (“Horned Dinosaurs”), Chasmosaurinae, Pachycephalosauridae (Dome Headed Dinosaurs), Nodosauridae (“Armoured Dinosaurs”), Ankylosauridae (“Club-tailed Armoured Dinosaurs”)


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