Rich McCrea wants me to pick out the lambeosaur dig site. Standing beside an anonymous creek, one of thousands gurgling through the vastness of northeastern British Columbia, I gaze up and down the heavily eroded opposite bank.
"There," I say finally, pointing.
"Congratulations," he replies, "you're the first visitor to get it right."
McCrea, who enjoys testing those who think they know too much, has an ulterior motive this time. With his season finished, the dig is protected by buried tarps and disguised with sediment and woody debris to be indistinguishable from dozens of other slumping cutbanks. McCrea hoped I wouldn't recognize the spot where British Columbia's first — and so far only — dinosaur skeleton lies waiting to be removed to the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre (PRPRC) in Tumbler Ridge, where McCrea and his partner in pursuits both scientific and domestic, Lisa Buckley, will prepare it as the centerpiece of a nascent but already popular Dinosaur Discovery Gallery.
To be fair, I had better than average odds. Dual science and journalism credentials include my fair share of palaeontological excavations. And I've just spent a week in the field with McCrea, being schooled on the fossil riches of the Peace, in particular the Wapiti Formation that's cradling the lambeosaur (a form of hadrosaur, or duck-billed dino, sporting a head crest). I've learned how the Wapiti's secrets are revealed through a combination of downward watercourse erosion and upward weathering; how to isolate, amidst other exposed sediments, potential bone-bearing layers; and how to identify a so-called "fossil stink line" — a rusty halo in lighter-coloured rock, the iron-rich artifact of anaerobic decomposition whose presence suggests a higher probability of bone.
Probability plays a huge role in the treasure hunt that is palaeontology, and based on experience, analysis and possibly a tad of hubris, McCrea was fairly certain he'd find something when he first prospected here in 2007 with an Italian geologist. "We immediately found a theropod (meat-eating dino) digit in the creek," he recalls. "Further along I found more bone. It was from the lambeosaur."
McCrea and Buckley slowly excavated a worksite of some 60 square metres. For four summers they picked carefully downward at half-centimetre intervals with a hand awl; by 2009, they knew they were dealing with a partially articulated skeleton. The animal lies on one side, tail pointing toward the water and curling back on the hips while the rest of the body heads under the stream bank. A unique ecological feature of the burial emerged early: the highest number of tyrannosaur teeth ever found with another species — over 50, the majority from juveniles, indicating hyena-like scavenging of the carcass by young tyrannosaurs.
When it comes to scavenging of the lambeosaur, however, McCrea has a greater worry: amateur and commercial fossil hunters, who are propelled by B.C.'s lack of legislative protection for such sites — the reason the dig is so well hidden. "Something about dinosaurs drives people whacky," says physician Dr. Charles Helm, the driving force behind the non-profit Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation (TRMF). "There's glory and fame in a find, plus the connection with a distant past that we all feel. Some people want to own a piece of that, and feel they have the right to remove it. We're trying to instill that these remains represent knowledge that belongs to the province, the country — everyone."
As McCrea and I look out over one of the most bucolic excavations imaginable, he shares an important observation. "It's hard to find bone in this kind of concentration. We got lucky on this one."
Lucky indeed. And for the ntological aspirations of Tumbler Ridge, that fortuity extends back 230 MYBP (million years before present) to when the Rocky Mountains to the west were the bottom of an ocean ringing the supercontinent Pangaea, and sediments that gathered preserved the remains of countless invertebrates, fishes and marine reptiles such as the giant ichthyosaurs that the Peace is renowned for. During the mid-Cretaceous, 100 to 75 MYBP, serendipity covered Tumbler and environs in swampy coastal forest, a massive carbon-sink ultimately sequestered in coal beds whose sloughs, beaches and mud flats preserved the footprints and bones of its dinosaur denizens. The final stroke of geologic kismet was reserved for the lambeosaur skeleton: Pleistocene glaciers that scoured this valley missed it by only a metre. And now, some believe, the opportunity residing in this diverse prehistoric fortune might help smooth Tumbler's boom-and-bust sine wave of coal mining by contributing to tourism and other economic initiatives as it has next door in fossil-rich Alberta. Indeed, through contributions to the TRMF, the town has invested more than $1,000,000 in the proposition — money that McCrea, a champion fundraiser, is proud to have more than matched from other sources.
"There's obvious scientific value in the discovery and preservation of remains," says Larry White, a three-year mayor of Tumbler Ridge, who retired in 2011, and a museum volunteer formally trained in bone extraction and preparation at the Royal Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alta. "But there's also what it means to the town in terms of tourism and basic diversification. You need the science to make the museum a good attraction, and you need the museum in place so the palaeontologists can go out and explore. The province has a lot to gain from something that can ensure longevity of the town."