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Toronto Star
Insight — front page
August 10, 2014

DRUMHELLER, ALTA. —The prairies give way like a sigh, exposing a moonscape of crumbling mudstone. Head bent, Dr. Philip Currie reads the terrain. Thousands of years of rain and wind have carved this arid swath of southeastern Alberta into deep coulees, towering hoodoos and brittle cliffs terraced in bands of black, grey, red and brown sedimentary rock: a cross-section of some 2.8 million years of prehistory eroding away from the green lip of the pastureland above.

Everywhere he looks, the veteran paleontologist sees fragments of a lost world littering the ground: tiny salamander verterbrae, shards of petrified wood, broken tyrannosaur teeth, fossilized tendons and shattered limbs scattered amidst rock, brittle grasses and small flowering cacti — fragments that are all but invisible to my untrained eye. Some things, like a hard brown flake that once made up part of the domed skull of a pachycephalosaurid, get picked up and put in a plastic bag.

Sometimes Currie will turn a tiny piece of broken bone in his hands, meditating on it in silence before placing it back on the ground. Or sometimes he’ll just lay on his side in the dirt to look at and poke in the kaleidoscopic gravel, trying to understand what all these fragments were and how they ended up dead and shattered in Alberta’s badlands.

“Like the study of human history, the study of paleontological history helps put modern times in context,” Currie says. “Fossils have allowed us to develop an understanding of the interrelationships of living plants and animals, and gave us the framework to ask questions about evolution, genetics and all of the science that is derived from recognizing that things are always changing.”

We’re in Dinosaur Provincial Park, some two and a half hours east of Calgary. Nearly 50 dinosaur species and more than 500 individual specimens have been unearthed at this 83 square kilometres UNESCO World Heritage Site since the late 19th century, making it one of the world’s richest fossil sites. Currie, who began conducting field work here in 1976, is also one of the park’s most prolific fossil hunters.

Excavating and collecting half a dozen dinosaur skeletons and thousands of dinosaur footprints and bones in his first five years here, Currie and his teams soon overwhelmed the storerooms of the Provincial Museum of Alberta, inspiring Alberta’s government to open the impressive Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology in nearby Drumheller. In his nearly four-decade career in paleontology, Currie, now 65, has named more than two dozen dinosaur species, authored more than 200 papers and books, and worked in locales as diverse as Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and the South Pole’s Transarctic Mountains. But it is here in Dinosaur Provincial Park where the Ontario native most loves to dig.

“There’s no place like this anywhere in the world,” Currie says. “Everywhere, all over that hillside, all that brown and white — that’s all bone,” he adds, pointing into the parched distance.

“It’s so rich, there’s even going to be places where you’re standing on bone.” He looks at my boots and laughs. “You’re on one now!”

Every summer, Currie assembles a team of University of Alberta students, technicians, colleagues, and volunteers to spend a month prospecting and digging in the park, most of which is off-limits to casual visitors. Overseen by Danish paleobotanist (and Currie’s wife) Dr. Eva Koppelhus, their camp is nestled under a stand of old cottonwoods at a bend in the Red Deer River, providing stunning views of the valley’s jagged badlands. Cattle from a nearby ranch meander around the camp’s bright nylon tents, and in the evening, pods of white pelicans can be seen bobbing on the muddy river. When dinner’s done and darkness falls, the researchers warm themselves around a campfire, drinking beer and trading stories while the valley echoes with the yips and howls of coyotes.

Allan Lindoe, a burly and bearded long-time volunteer, tells me to be careful of rattlesnakes.

“And watch out for the sinkholes when you’re out there,” he adds. Carved into the soft terrain by rain, they are often concealed by vegetation. “I once found one with the bleached skeleton of a bison inside, a fetus curled into its womb. It must have been there for centuries.”

During the day, the team divides into groups. Some prospect for new fossils while others dig in established quarries.

While prospecting, Currie moves with a determined ibis-like stride, effortlessly scrambling up steep slopes or plunging into gullies while scanning the ground for bones, his neck stooped and skin baked from decades in the field. He’s tall, silver-haired, and soft-spoken. There is a slight distance to him, as though his mind is always being taken by something: a ledge in the distance, a femur protruding from the next ridge, a hill flecked with pieces of white clamshell.

Currie’s students had warned me about their supervisor’s feverish pace — warnings that I shrugged off. After all, I’m in decent shape, and how hard would it be to keep up with someone more than double my age? They grinned and wished me well before hiking to a nearby quarry.

I kept up with Currie — but barely. And when we returned to camp after eight hours of hard trekking in the badlands, I immediately retired to my tent for an exhausted muscle-aching nap that was soon cut short by the steady thwack of someone chopping wood. I peeked out of my tent, and there was Currie wielding an axe.

Over dinner that night, I casually asked him if he had had a chance to rest after our day in the field. Half-joking, he flashed me a mischievous smile and said, “I’ll rest when I die.”

I follow as close behind Currie as I can. He carries a rock hammer — a steel tool with one blunt end and another curved into a pick — and a handheld GPS. Prairie falcons circle overhead while wrens dart in and out of stunted conifers. In the distance, we see deer negotiating the slopes of mudstone — a type of sedimentary rock composed of mud and clay that comprises most of the badlands.

Mudstone can be incredibly treacherous to hike on: in the heat, it crumbles underfoot, making it easy to slip into sinkholes and pincushion cacti that leave tiny barbs embedded in your flesh (Currie offers me his tweezers), and when the wind picks up, the loose dust can be blinding. Sporadic rainfall also punctuates the day, making the mudstone incredibly slick.

None of this seems to slow the paleontologist.

A dino in a box

Currie’s passion and undaunted resolve developed at an early age. As we hike, he tells me about growing up in southern Ontario, and about how his dinosaur fascination started at the age of 6, when a plastic Dimetrodon — a carnivorous sail-backed reptile — tumbled into his breakfast bowl from a box of cereal.

“I wanted to get the whole set, and of course the rarest one was the Tyrannosaurus Rex,” Currie laughs. “I made my parents buy so many boxes of Rice Krispies, but they made me eat every box before they would buy the next one. And they wouldn’t let me dig into the box to get the dinosaur, either — I would have to eat my way to the bottom.”

Currie, who has a particular fascination with carnivorous dinosaurs, would have to wait until 1981 to find his first tyrannosaur.

The sense of patience and discipline his parents instilled in him would prove vital to the budding scientist. He voraciously consumed books and comics about the long-extinct reptiles and developed a love of science fiction that persists to this day. (Authors intent on creating dinosaur dreamscapes often consult him.)

After his family moved from Brampton to Port Credit, Currie would spend long days hunting for fossilized marine life in the limestone rocks scattered along the shores of Lake Ontario. He also became a frequent visitor of the Royal Ontario Museum, and when he realized that most of the dinosaur specimens at the ROM had come from Alberta, Currie made up his mind to move out west.

In 1976, at the age of 27, Currie got a job as the curator of paleontology at what is now Edmonton’s Royal Alberta Museum. While working in the museum and the field, he completed a PhD in absentia from McGill in 1981. That year, he also began working for the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology, which opened its doors to the public in 1985. In 2005, Currie became the Canada Research Chair in Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta. He has received numerous Canadian and international awards and recognitions for his work — particularly for his research on dinosaur behaviour (imagine toothy tyrannosaurs hunting in packs!) and the origin of birds (that blue jay in your backyard is related to T. Rex) — and in December of this year, he will also be honoured with the opening of the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Grande Prairie, Alta.

Erosion exposes new finds

Using the GPS as a guide, we visit sites where dinosaurs have previously been exhumed.

“The badlands erode by about one centimetre a year,” Currie says, “so it makes sense to revisit old sites every few years to see if erosion has done any work for us.”

In addition to bone fragments, we see prehistoric logs, massive intact limb bones, and softball-sized vertebrae poking out of the mudstone, sandstone and ironstone layers. Excited, I point out a lichen-covered tibia that’s nearly the size of my arm. Currie only gives it a cursory glance.

“That’s from a duck-billed dinosaur, a hadrosaur,” he says. “They could grow to be about six tonnes.”

Currie explains that hadrosaurs, the most common large reptiles in the park, were like the cows of the dinosaur world. A lone bone, he adds, offers little hope of finding an intact skeleton.

“We’re looking for articulated limbs that would indicate that a whole skeleton is buried underneath,” he says. “I’m also looking for anything weird or unusual — anything that I can’t explain.”

Currie jokes that researchers visiting from other parts of the world often become overwhelmed by the plethora of fossils scattered throughout the park.

“They fill up their backpacks, fill up their pockets — fill up everything,” he laughs. “Then you start to see this desperate look come across their faces as they realize that they can’t pick up everything because they can’t carry all of it!”

The park owes its wealth of fossils to its geographical location. More than 75 million years ago, during the late Cretaceous period, it stood near the western edge of a shallow sea that once blanketed North America’s prairies, separating the slender island continent of Laramidia from Appalachia in the east. Warm waters lapped a low coastal plain: a humid place of tangled verdancy, much like southern Louisiana. Further back, the lush and swampy shoreline gave way to dense forests of redwood, cypress, magnolia, sycamore and fern. Fossilized leaves, pollen, seeds and spores are sometimes found in the park.

Meandering rivers bisected this landscape, flowing from mountains in the west. Large herds of herbivores, like hadrosaurs and massive horned ceratopisians, roamed the land, hunted by fierce predators such as the Albertosaurus and the frighteningly feathered Dromaeosaurus, while Eodelphis and Mesodma, our rat-sized mammalian kin, scurried underfoot. Early birds and winged reptiles like the Pterodactyl took to the skies and crocodilian reptiles waded in rivers and estuaries.

The region often flooded, washing carcasses into its waterways where they would be covered in silt and sand carried by rivers and rain from Laramidia’s mountainous interior, preserving bones and sometimes even impressions of skin and feathers.

“Every time you find a bone or skeleton, you get excited about it,” Currie says. “You realize that you’re the first person that’s ever seen it.”

The study of dinosaur paleontology, he adds, also offers some valuable contemporary lessons.

“Even dinosaurs become relevant when you realize that they dominated the world for more than 150 million years, and yet crashed spectacularly,” Currie says. “The extinction of non-avian dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous is interesting in that evidence suggests that their biodiversity was being reduced, probably because of climatic change, which made them susceptible to extinction when the asteroid hit the Earth.

The asteroid he speaks of, which hit the Gulf of Mexico some 65 million years ago, is widely believed to have heralded the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that annihilated the dinosaurs.

“To me,” Currie adds, “that is a good lesson to learn on the dangers of biodiversity loss today.”

The bone beds fascinate me. Currie describes them as lengths of river — some more than a kilometre long — where thousands of different dinosaur corpses washed up over centuries, creating jumbled miscellanea of large and small limbs, skulls and vertebrae. There are more than 200 of these in the park. We also visit a mass death site where an entire herd of large horned dinosaurs perished. Currie imagines the herbivorous animals being overtaken by floodwater. When their bloated bodies came to rest at a bend in a river, predators feasted. Paleontologists have found the broken and chewed bones of hundreds of young and old ceratopisians here along with countless tyrannosaur and crocodile teeth.

Towards the top of the badlands, Currie points out a darker layer of sediment from when the Bearpaw Sea inundated the park between 74.8 and 68 million years ago. Currie sifts through the stone and fossil rubble, picking out shark teeth and pieces of softshell turtle. Large marine reptiles reminiscent of the Loch Ness Monster would have dominated these waters.

Currie hikes down from the Bearpaw Formation and scrambles along a precipitous rock face, digging his hammer into the mudstone for balance. He stops at a scattering of red-brown rock twisting along a ledge. He stares at it for a long while, and I ask him what he sees.

“It’s a hadrosaur,” he says. “The head is probably curled up into the hill. You can see the ribs, limbs and tail.”

He points out the badly eroded features and I start to see. Completely intact skeletons, Currie says, are very rare. He jots a description in his notebook, then saves the co-ordinates on his GPS.

“Perhaps it’s something that we’ll look at next year.”

An infectious enthusiasm

As the day wears on, I start to think about the process of paleontological discovery; about how basic yet profound prospecting is: how a casual glance or a trick of light and shadow can reveal or obscure a monumental discovery; how missing a patch of earth during one season could leave a magnificent specimen eroded beyond extraction; how just millimetres under my boots and waiting to poke through the earth might lie an enormous tyrannosaur that would have regarded me as a gangly (and tasty) rodent; how Currie’s experiences present his mind with a richly labelled lost world where most others would just see a bleak and foreboding wasteland.

Currie is modest. In frequent interviews, he has attributed his successes to hard work and luck. But there is more at play here. There’s his infectious enthusiasm, his energy, his enduring positivity, and an unassumingness that makes him beloved by students and colleagues alike. There is also his brilliant mind, his natural eagle-eye, as well as an element of fate. He tells me about the time he accidentally dropped a camera case down a slope, then scurried after it to find it resting on the partially-revealed skeleton of an almost perfectly intact tyrannosaur.

Then there was the time when he discovered hundreds of 120-million-year-old bird footprints — the oldest known at the time — pressed into the top of a boulder in British Columbia after he accompanied a photographer into a canyon to search for some lost equipment. But he’s also made numerous significant finds on normal head-stooped days of prospecting in the field. One of his favourites is a specimen on display in the park’s visitor centre: an incredibly rare metre-and-a-half-long baby ceratopsid.

“Baby dinosaurs are not so common because tyrannosaurs were too effective at cleaning them up,” Currie says. “This baby would have been about one mouthful.”

One species, however, has eluded Currie for decades.

“I’d love to get a Troodon skeleton,” he says of a small feathered meat-eating dinosaur. “We’ve never found a whole skeleton here in Alberta, or anywhere else for that matter.”

On another day, Koppelhus, Currie’s wife, joins us in the field.

Koppelhus, who studies prehistoric pollen and plant life, is cheery and outgoing: a perfect foil to her amiable yet introspective husband. She often takes on the role of Currie’s spokesperson.

“Phil got me hooked on dinosaurs,” Koppelhus laughs. The two, who met at a conference in 1993, have been inseparable since she moved from Denmark to Alberta in 1994. Together, they now spend more than half the year conducting field research around the globe.

“We don’t compete — we complement each other,” Koppelhus says. “I’m very happy. I hope he’s happy too.” She glances over at Currie, who’s absorbed in prospecting, then laughs again. “He’s happy because he’s in the badlands.”

We visit a small, sandy gulley ringed by towering hoodoo formations that a student had marked on his GPS while prospecting earlier in the week. Armed with awls, brushes, scrapers and dental picks, Currie drops to the ground to uncover part of a hadrosaur limb that the student had found. Satisfied that the two bones stand on their own, he shifts his attention to a football-sized bone that Koppelhus has been scrutinizing.

“This is unusual,” he says of the dark brown metatarsal bone. “It’s from a hadrosaur, but the shape is off.”

Together, the two scientists pick, scrape and brush around the specimen. When it’s revealed, Currie begins impregnating the brittle fossil with a thin, clear glue to enhance its structural integrity. Once dry, they cover it with toilet paper, then begin wrapping it with wettened bandages saturated in plaster. They jacket the bone layer by layer until it’s bulbous and white.

The work is painstaking and meticulous. An entire skeleton, Currie says, takes two to three weeks to extract, then another four to five person years to prepare for display. The remoteness and inaccessibility of much of the park means that specimens usually come out in small pieces — it would be all but impossible, Currie says, to carry anything large across the crumbling, undulating terrain.

While technology has revolutionized the study and preparation of dinosaur fossils, the process of removing them from the ground — often using little more than burlap, plaster, and water — has remained virtually unchanged since the 1870s. Modern equipment like mass spectrometers can shed light on where and what a dinosaur ate, and computer imaging can even show us how a skeleton would have moved, but extracting fossils remains basic, arduous — and dirty.

When the plaster jacket is dry, Currie and Koppelhus dig deep underneath the fossil before flipping it over. The only time I hear Currie swear in the few days I spend with him is when a piece of bone breaks off the flipped-over cast.

Everything assembled, Currie and Koppelhus pack up their gear. With the sun leaning to the west, washing the badlands in an orange glow, Currie delicately cradles the heavy plaster cast in his arms as though it were a baby before striking out ahead over the windswept landscape for the long hike back to camp.

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