Friend of Science Found Dead Near Fort MacMurray
Syncrude plesiosaur may offer key insight; specimen rare
Ancient history is coming to the surface in Fort McMurray, Alta., where modern mechanical giants meet the prehistoric kind.
Last week, a Syncrude Canada Ltd. oil patch worker at the controls of an enormous shovelling machine unearthed what could prove to be a paleontological treasure.
The remains of a rare reptile that prowled Alberta's prehistoric seas are now being excavated by scientists who hope to learn something about life in the province more than 100 million years ago.
"There's nothing around like it today," said Don Brinkman, director of preservation and research at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. At up to 20 metres long, the long-necked plesiosaur was one of the largest to swim in the ocean that once covered most of the province.
The specimen is rare for a couple of different reasons, Mr. Brinkman said. This kind of animal has been found in few locations around the world. And the skeleton, while still mostly buried, may prove to be complete, also a rarity, particularly given the size of the digging machines in the oil patch.
"In Fort McMurray, for all the excavation they've done, for all the earth they've moved, there have only been 10 specimens of marine reptiles," Mr. Brinkman said.
"The scale of the operation is so big they could easily have a full fossil in a scoop shovel that they'd never see," he said. "If you aren't looking at exactly the right place at exactly the right time, you're not
going to see it."
Last Monday, while on shift as a heavy machine operator, Maggie Horvath spotted the fossil before it could be damaged.
"I think it's great that I'm part of this," Ms. Horvath said in a release. "It felt pretty good to call my son and let him know that I found a prehistoric fossil while working in the mine. As operators, we always keep our eyes out for a find."
Once they do make a find, Syncrude's protocol requires work to stop in the immediate area and the company's geologist gets notified.
The company has now discovered 10 fossils on its leases, although most have been fragments.
The Tyrrell Museum has already received two plesiosaur fossils, part of a shoulder and part of a pelvis. "What we're really hoping is that we'll get a head," Mr. Brinkman said.
The skull is the most informative part of a skeleton, indicative of the size and shape of the brain, eyes and jaws. From that, scientists can discern feeding behaviour and get an idea as to the animal's senses.
Fri, 25 Nov 2011
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