Category Archives: CANADA

14,000-year-old ice age village discovered is 10,000 years older than the pyramids

14,000-year-old ice age village discovered is 10,000 years older than the pyramids

In their oral history, the Heiltsuk people describe how the area around Triquet Island, on the western coast of their territory in British Columbia, remained open land during the ice age.

“People flocked there for survival because everywhere else was being covered by ice, and all the ocean was freezing and all of the food resources were dwindling,” says Heiltsuk Nation member William Housty.

And late last year, archaeologists excavating an ancient Heiltsuk village on Triquet Island uncovered the physical evidence: a few flakes of charcoal from a long-ago hearth.

Analysis of the carbon fragments indicates that the village site — deserted since a smallpox epidemic in the 1800s — was inhabited as many as 14,000 years ago, making it three times as old as the pyramids at Giza, and one of the oldest settlements in North America.

“There are several sites that date to around the same time as the very early date that we obtained for Triquet Island, so what this is suggesting is that people have been here for tens of thousands of years,” says Alisha Gauvreau, a scholar at the Hakai Institute and a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, who has been working at the Triquet Island site.

But how was it that Triquet Island remained uncovered, even during the ice age? According to Gauvreau, sea levels in the area remained stable over time, due to a phenomenon called sea level hinge.

“So all the rest of the landmass was covered in ice,” she explains. “As those ice sheets started to recede — and we had some major shifts in sea levels coastwide, so further to the north and to the south in the magnitude of 150 to 200 meters of difference, whereas here it remained exactly the same.”

The result, Gauvreau says, is that people were able to return to Triquet Island repeatedly over time. And while nearby sites also show evidence of ancient inhabitants, people “were definitely sticking around Triquet Island longer than anywhere else,” she says. In addition to finding bits of charcoal at the site, she says archaeologists have uncovered tools like obsidian blades, atlatls and spear throwers, fishhook fragments and hand drills for starting fires.

“And I could go on, but basically, all of these things, coupled with the fallen assemblage, tell us that the earliest people were making relatively simple stone tools at first, perhaps expediently, due to the parent material that was available at the time,” Gauvreau says.

The site also indicates that these early people were also using boats to hunt sea mammals, and gather shellfish, she adds. And later on, they traded or travelled great distances to obtain nonlocal materials like obsidian, greenstone and graphite for tools.

For archaeologists and anthropologists, the find bolsters an idea, called the “Kelp Highway Hypothesis” hypothesis, proposing that the first people who arrived in North America followed the coastline in boats to avoid the glacial landscape.

“It certainly adds evidence to the fact that people were able to travel by boat in that coastal area by watercraft,” Gauvreau says.

And for the Heiltsuk Nation, which has worked with the archaeologists for years to share knowledge and identify sites like Triquet Island, the updated archaeological record provides new evidence, as well. The nation routinely negotiates with the Canadian government on matters of territory governance and natural resource management — negotiations that depend in part on the community’s record of inhabiting the area over long periods.

Archaeologists at the site are unearthing tools for lighting fires, fish hooks and spears dating back to the Ice Age

“So when we’re at the table with our oral history, it’s like me telling you a story,” Housty says. “And you have to believe me without seeing any evidence.”

But now, he explains, with the oral history and archaeological evidence “dovetailing together, telling a really powerful tale,” the Heiltsuk have new advantages at the negotiating table.

“That’s really going to be very significant … and I think will definitely give us a leg up in negotiations, for sure,” he says.

The Arctic Could Turn Green and Free of Ice Like it was 125,000 Years Ago

The Arctic Could Turn Green and Free of Ice Like it was 125,000 Years Ago

Researchers analyzed plant DNA more than 100,000 years old retrieved from lake sediment in the Arctic (the oldest DNA in lake sediment analyzed in a publication to date) and found evidence of a shrub native to northern Canadian ecosystems 250 miles (400 km) farther north than its current range.

As the Arctic warms much faster than everywhere else on the planet in response to climate change, the findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may not only be a glimpse of the past but a snapshot of our potential future.

“We have this really rare view into a particularly warm period in the past that was arguably the most recent time that it was warmer than present in the Arctic. That makes it a really useful analogue for what we might expect in the future,” said Sarah Crump, who conducted the work as a Ph.D. student in geological sciences and then a postdoctoral researcher with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).

To gain this glimpse back in time, the researchers not only analyzed DNA samples, they first had to journey to a remote region of the Arctic by ATV and snowmobile to gather them and bring them back.

Dwarf birch is a key species of the low Arctic tundra, where slightly taller shrubs (reaching a person’s knees) can grow in an otherwise cold and inhospitable environment. But dwarf birch doesn’t currently survive past the southern part of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Yet researchers found DNA of this plant in the ancient lake sediment showing it used to grow much farther north.

“It’s a pretty significant difference from the distribution of tundra plants today,” said Crump, currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Paleogenomics Lab at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Tundra Plants

While there are many potential ecological effects of the dwarf birch creeping farther north, Crump and her colleagues examined the climate feedbacks related to these shrubs covering more of the Arctic. Many climate models don’t include these kinds of changes in vegetation, yet these taller shrubs can stick out above snow in the spring and fall, making the Earth’s surface dark green instead of white — causing it to absorb more heat from the sun.

“It’s a temperature feedback similar to sea ice loss,” said Crump. During the last interglacial period, between 116,000 and 125,000 years ago, these plants had thousands of years to adjust and move in response to warmer temperatures. With today’s rapid rate of warming, the vegetation is likely not keeping pace, but that doesn’t mean it won’t play an important role in impacting everything from thawing permafrost to melting glaciers and sea-level rise.

“As we think about how landscapes will equilibrate to current warming, it’s really important that we account for how these plant ranges are going to change,” said Crump.

As the Arctic could easily see an increase of 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels by 2100, the same temperature it was in the last interglacial period, these findings can help us better understand how our landscapes might change as the Arctic is on track to again reach these ancient temperatures by the end of the century.

Mud as a microscope

To get the ancient DNA they wanted, the researchers couldn’t look to the ocean or to the land — they had to look in a lake. Baffin Island is located on the northeastern side of Arctic Canada, kitty-corner to Greenland, in the territory of Nunavut and the lands of the Qikiqtaani Inuit. It’s the largest island in Canada and the fifth-largest island in the world, with a mountain range that runs along its northeastern edge. But these scientists were interested in a small lake, past the mountains and near the coast.

Above the Arctic Circle, the area around this lake is typical of a high Arctic tundra, with average annual temperatures below 15 °F (?9.5 °C). In this inhospitable climate, the soil is thin and not much of anything grows.

But DNA stored in the lake beds below tells a much different story. To reach this valuable resource, Crump and her fellow researchers carefully balanced on cheap inflatable boats in the summer — the only vessels light enough to carry with them — and watched out for polar bears from the lake ice in winter. They pierced the thick mud up to 30 feet (10 meters) below its surface with long, cylindrical pipes, hammering them deep into the sediment.

The goal of this precarious feat? To carefully withdraw a vertical history of ancient plant material to then travel back out with and take back to the lab. While some of the mud was analyzed at a state-of-the-art organic geochemistry lab in the Sustainability, Energy and Environment Community (SEEC) at CU Boulder, it also needed to reach a special lab dedicated to decoding ancient DNA, at Curtin University in Perth.

To share their secrets, these mud cores had to travel halfway across the world from the Arctic to Australia.

A local snapshot

Once in the lab, the scientists had to suit up like astronauts and examine the mud in an ultra-clean space to ensure that their own DNA didn’t contaminate that any of their hard-earned samples.

It was a race against the clock.

“Your best shot is getting fresh mud,” said Crump. “Once it’s out of the lake, the DNA is going to start to degrade.”

This is why older lake bed samples in cold storage don’t quite do the trick. While other researchers have also collected and analyzed much older DNA samples from permafrost in the Arctic (which acts as a natural freezer underground), lake sediments are kept cool, but not frozen. With fresher mud and more intact DNA, scientists can get a clearer and more detailed picture of the vegetation which once grew in that immediate area.

Reconstructing historic vegetation has most commonly been done using fossil pollen records, which preserve well in sediment. But pollen is prone to only showing the big picture, as it is easily blown about by the wind and doesn’t stay in one place. The new technique used by Crump and her colleagues allowed them to extract plant DNA directly from the sediment, sequence the DNA, and infer what plant species were living there at the time. Instead of a regional picture, sedimentary DNA analysis gives researchers a local snapshot of the plant species living there at the time. Now that they have shown it’s possible to extract DNA that’s over 100,000 years old, future possibilities abound.

“This tool is going to be really useful on these longer timescales,” said Crump. This research has also planted the seed to study more than just plants. In the DNA samples from their lake sediment, there are signals from a whole range of organisms that lived in and around the lake.

“We’re just starting to scratch the surface of what we’re able to see in these past ecosystems,” said Crump. “We can see the past presence of everything from microbes to mammals, and we can start to get much broader pictures of how past ecosystems looked and how they functioned.”

12 Year Boy discovers rare dinosaur skeleton in a remote part of Canada

12 Year Boy discovers rare dinosaur skeleton in a remote part of Canada

A 12-year-old boy made the discovery of his lifetime when he discovered a dinosaur fossil dating back 69 million years.

An amateur palaeontologist was walking with his father in a fossil-rich part of Alberta, Canada this July, when he saw bones protruding out of a rock. On Thursday, the skeleton’s excavation was completed.

The kid, Nathan Hrushkin, says that when he first looked at the bones, he was “literally speechless.”

12 Year Boy discovers rare dinosaur skeleton in a remote part of Canada
Nathan Hrushkin, 12, and his father, Dion, discovered the partially exposed bones while hiking with friends in Horseshoe Canyon near Drumheller, Alberta.

“He told the BBC, “I wasn’t even excited, even though I know I should have [been]. “I was in so much shock that I had actually found a dinosaur discovery.”

Nathan, who has been interested in dinosaurs since he was six, often goes hiking in the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s protected site in the Albertan Badlands with his father.

“I’ve always just been so fascinated with how their bones go from bones like ours to solid rock.”

A year ago, they had found small fragments of fossils, and his father guessed that they were falling down from the rock above. So this summer Nathan decided to inspect. The fossilised bones were poking out of the side of a hill.

“Dad, you got to get up here!” he called to his father.

His father knew Nathan had found something by the tone of his voice.

“They looked like bones made of stone – you could not mistake them for anything else,” his father, Dion Hrushkin, said.

“It looked like the end of a femur – it had that classic bone look to it – sticking straight out of the ground.”

The bones belong to a young hadrosaur and have been dated at around 69 million years old.

Nathan knows that the fossils are protected by law, so when they got home, he and his father logged in to the website for the Royal Tyrrell Museum, which is located in Alberta and devoted to the study of prehistoric life. The museum advised them to send photos of their discovery and its GPS coordinates, which they duly did.

The Badlands are home to many fossils, and a dinosaur – named the Albertosaurus – was discovered by Joseph Tyrell in the late 1800s. But the part of the conservation site where they were walking was not known for fossil discoveries, so the museum sent a team of experts to excavate.

So far they have found between 30 and 50 bones in the canyon’s wall, all belonging to one young Hadrosaur, estimated to be aged about three or four.

“I was probably like most kids, the Tyrannosaurus Rex was probably my favourite kind [of dinosaur],” Nathan says.

“But after my discovery, it’s most definitely the Hadrosaur.”

The dinosaur is scientifically significant, the museum claims, because the fossil is about 69 million years old, and records from that time period are rare.

“This young Hadrosaur is a very important discovery because it comes from a time interval for which we know very little about what kind of dinosaurs or animals lived in Alberta. Nathan and Dion’s find will help us fill this big gap in our knowledge of dinosaur evolution,” the museum’s palaeo-ecology curator, François Therrien, said in a statement.

Nathan says he’s enjoyed learning more about dating dinosaur bones, and that the whole process has been “surreal”.

“It’s going to be great to see them, after months of work, finally take something out of the ground,” he says.

A 9,000-year-old caribou hunting structure beneath Lake Huron

A 9,000-year-old caribou hunting structure beneath Lake Huron

Underwater archaeologists have discovered evidence of prehistoric caribou hunts that provide unprecedented insight into the social and seasonal organization of early peoples in the Great Lakes region.

An article detailing the discovery of a 9,000-year-old caribou hunting drive lane under Lake Huron appears in today’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This site and its associated artefacts, along with environmental and simulation studies, suggest that Late Paleoindian/Early Archaic caribou hunters employed distinctly different seasonal approaches,” said John O’Shea, the Emerson F. Greenman Professor of Anthropological Archaeology at the University of Michigan and lead author of the article.

The Drop 45 Drive Lane. (A) A plan showing the major topographic and cultural features associated with the drive lane. Black dots represent the location of placed stones. The hunting blinds incorporated within the main drive lane feature are labelled. The raised cobble surface to the north and west of the drive lane varies from 1 to 2 m higher than the bedrock on which the drive lane stones are located. This plan was produced as an overlay of the acoustic image. (B) An acoustic image of the drive lane produced via a mosaic of scanning sonar images. The scanning unit is the black circular area near the centre of the image, and the red circles surrounding have radii that increase by 15 m. A trace of the second scanning sonar location is visible in the southeast of the image. Light coloured objects are stones that produce a strong acoustic signature, whereas dark areas are acoustic shadows.
Stone tool debris from the Drop 45 Drive Lane. (A) Composite photograph showing the 11 chert flakes recovered from the Drop 45 Drive Lane. (B) The location of archaeological tests on the Drop 45 Drive Lane superimposed on the acoustic image (Fig. 2B). Small white circles represent test locations that did not generate identifiable archaeological debris. Large white circles with black centres represent locations that produced lithic debris. Black centres with adjacent numerals indicate locations that generated multiple lithic remains. North is to the top of the image, and the red circular rings surrounding the scanning sonar placement are incremented in units of 15 m.

Diver and remote operated vehicle collecting samples at Drop 45 Drive Lane in Lake Huron.“In autumn, small groups carried out the caribou hunts, and in spring, larger groups of hunters cooperated.”

According to O’Shea, who is also Curator of U-M’s Great Lakes Division of the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, the site was discovered on the Alpena-Amberley Ridge, under 121 feet of water, about 35 miles southeast of Alpena, Mich., on what was once a dry land corridor connecting northeast Michigan to southern Ontario.

The main feature, called Drop 45 Drive Lane, is the most complex hunting structure found to date beneath the Great Lakes. Constructed on level limestone bedrock, the stone lane is comprised of two parallel lines of stones leading toward a cul-de-sac formed by the natural cobble pavement.

Three circular hunting blinds are built into the stone lines, with additional stone alignments that may have served as blinds and obstructions for corralling caribou.

Although autumn was the preferred hunting season for caribou, the orientation of Drop 45 shows that it would only have been effective if the animals were moving in a northwesterly direction, which they would have done during the spring migration from modern-day Ontario.

“It is noteworthy that V-shaped hunting blinds located upslope from Drop 45 are oriented to intercept animals moving to the southeast in the autumn,” O’Shea said.

“This concentration of differing types of hunting structures associated with alternative seasons of migration is consistent with caribou herd movement simulation data indicating that the area was a convergence point along different migration routes, where the landform tended to compress the animals in both the spring and autumn.”

The structures in and around Drop 45, and the chipped stone debris for repairing stone tools, provide unambiguous evidence for intentional human construction and use of the feature, O’Shea said. And they also provide important insight into the social and economic organization of the ancient hunters using this area.

Diver and remote operated vehicle collecting samples at Drop 45 Drive Lane in Lake Huron.

“The larger size and multiple parts of the complex drive lanes would have necessitated a larger cooperating group of individuals involved in the hunt,” he said.

“The smaller V-shaped hunting blinds could be operated by very small family groups relying on the natural shape of the landform to channel caribou towards them.”

Co-authors of the article are Ashley Lemke and Elizabeth Sonnenburg of U-M, Robert Reynolds of Wayne State University and Brian Abbot of Nautilus Marine Group International.

Man-Made or Natural? Mysterious, Giant Face Discovered on Cliff in Canada

Man-Made or Natural? Mysterious, Giant Face Discovered on Cliff in Canada

A mysterious, “large” face on the cliffside of an island in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve has recently been re-discovered by a man who has been searching for the face for over two years, according to government agency Parks Canada.

Man-Made or Natural? Mysterious, Giant Face Discovered on Cliff in Canada
A mysterious, “large” face on the cliffside of an island in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve has recently been re-discovered by a man from who has been searching for the face for over two years, according to government agency Parks Canada.

Hank Gus of the Tseshaht First Nation, an aboriginal group in the area, first heard about the “face in the rocks” of Reeks Island, part of the Broken Group Islands, two years ago after hearing a story that a kayaking tourist spotted the face in 2008, said Parks Canada First Nation’s program manager Matthew Payne. He added that Gus was not able to find the reported face until just a few weeks ago.

“Gus and some Tseshaht beach keepers recently discovered it a few weeks ago, and they were very excited to share it with us and the archaeologist we work with,” Payne, 43, told ABC News. “We went out to see it recently, and it’s remarkable. It really is a face staring back at you.”

The strange face was spotted on Reeks Island in British Columbia, Canada

The face, believed to be about seven-feet-tall, is similar to a wooden carving on the door of the Tseshaht administration office, Payne said.

“The Tseshaht has lived in the area for thousands of years, so we working with the First Nations to find out if there are any oral histories the face could link back to,” Payne added.

Now, Tseshaht First Nation and Parks Canada are trying to figure out if the face was man-made or if it’s a natural marvel, he said.

“Mother Nature is capable of creating all sorts of amazing things, though the face is very striking,” Payne said. “But we still can’t definitively say if the face is man-made or not.”

Though the Tseshaht and Parks Canada would like to examine the face up-close, the cliff the face is on is treacherous, Payne said.

“The island has a rocky shoreline with lots of hidden rocks, and it can be dangerous depending on sea conditions,” he explained. “You need to know what you’re doing to go and look at it.”

The Tseshaht First Nation did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for additional information.

12-year-old boy finds 69 million-year-old dinosaur fossil during a hike with his dad

12-year-old boy finds 69 million-year-old dinosaur fossil during a hike with his dad

For as long as he can recall, Nathan Hrushkin had decided to be a palaeontologist, and the 12-year-old had already made a major discovery. When exploring with his dad this summer at a protected site in the Horseshoe Canyon in the Badlands of Alberta, Canada, he uncovered a partly uncovered dinosaur fossil.

12-year-old boy finds 69 million-year-old dinosaur fossil during a hike with his dad
A 12-year-old boy made the discovery of his lifetime when he found a dinosaur skeleton dating back 69 million years.

It’s incredible to find something that’s real, like the real discovery of a fossil, like an actual dinosaur discovery,” “It’s kind of been my dream for a while.”

Nathan is a seventh-grader in Calgary, which is about an hour-and-a-half away. The fossil was a humerus bone from the arm of a juvenile hadrosaur — a duck-billed dinosaur that lived about 69 million years ago, according to a news release from the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Nathan and his dad, Dion, had found bone fragments in the area on a previous hike and thought that they might have washed down from farther up the hill.

They were just finishing lunch when Nathan climbed up the hill to take a look.

“He called down to me, he’s like, ‘Dad, you need to get up here,’ and as soon as he said that I could tell by the tone in his voice that he found something,” Dion Hrushkin said.

“They looked like bones made of stone – you could not mistake them for anything else,” his father, Dion Hrushkin, said.

Nathan said the fossil was very obvious and it looked like “a scene on a TV show or a cartoon or something.”

They sent pictures of the bone to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, which identified the fossil and sent a team of palaeontologists to the site.

Fossils are protected by law in Alberta, and the NCC said that it is important that people don’t disturb any fossils they may find.
The crew has been working at the site for about two months and uncovered between 30 and 50 bones that came from a single young hadrosaur that was about three or four years old, according to the statement.

Hadrosaur bones are the most common fossils found in Alberta’s badlands, but few juvenile skeletons have been found, the statement said. It was also found in a layer of rock that rarely preserves fossils.

“This young hadrosaur is a very important discovery because it comes from a time interval for which we know very little about what kind of dinosaurs or animals lived in Alberta,” François Therrien, the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s curator of dinosaur palaeoecology, said in the statement. “Nathan and Dion’s find will help us fill this big gap in our knowledge of dinosaur evolution.”

The fossils were very close together, so the palaeontologists removed large pieces of the surrounding rock from the canyon walls.

The bones were then covered in a protective jacket of burlap and plaster, so they could be taken to the museum for cleanup and further study.

One of the fossil-rich slabs weighed about 1,000 pounds and was more than four feet wide, according to Carys Richards, a communications manager with the NCC.

Nathan had heard of the hadrosaur before his big find but said it wasn’t the most well-known dinosaur. It’s probably his favourite now — beating out the wildly popular Tyrannosaurus rex.

Nathan and his dad have come to watch the dig several times since the discovery and were there on Thursday when the team was hauling out the last specimens.

“It was pretty fun to be there and watch them do their things,” Nathan said.

57,000-Year-Old Wolf Pup Mummy Uncovered in Canadian Permafrost

57,000-Year-Old Wolf Pup Mummy Uncovered in Canadian Permafrost

In Yukon, Canada, a perfectly preserved wolf puppy, hidden away for 57,000 years in permafrost and identified by researchers as “the oldest, most complete wolf,” has been discovered in Yukon, Canada.

At the Klondike goldfields, near Dawson City, a miner had seen something in the frozen mud wall, and he had to blast through it to get to it to see what it was. He found a creature that was named the Zhùr by the local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation people.

Julie Meachen, an associate professor of anatomy at Des Moines University in Iowa, told CNN, “This mummy is so complete, she has basically got all her skin, most of her fur … all her soft tissues present, and she’s 56,000 years old.

57,000-Year-Old Wolf Pup Mummy Uncovered in Canadian Permafrost
This photo shows a closeup of the wolf pup’s head, showing her teeth.

The female pup, according to Meachen, is “the oldest, most complete wolf that’s ever been found,” allowing researchers to delve deeper into what her life would have looked like.

Using X-ray techniques, experts determined that the puppy, which had been preserved in permafrost, died at 6 or 7 weeks old.

Meanwhile, a technique called stable isotope analysis revealed that the animal lived during a time when glaciers had receded.

This photo shows an x-ray view of the wolf pup.

“There weren’t quite as many glaciers around, which means there was a lot more freshwater,” she said. “There were a lot of streams, a lot of rivers flowing, and probably a lot of other animals around. She lived in a lush time.”

The wolf cub’s diet, researchers found, was influenced by her proximity to water: Isotope analysis revealed “she and her mom were eating mostly aquatic resources — things like salmon, maybe some shorebirds,” Meachen said.

DNA analysis revealed the pup is descended from ancient wolves — the ancestors of modern wolves — from Russia, Siberia and Alaska.

This photo shows the wolf pup as she was found

“It’s not a surprise — she is related to the things that were there at the time,” she explained. “But the cool thing about that, that most people might not know, is that wolves in the ice age were only distantly related to wolves that are around today.

“They are still the same species, but they are very different, for being in the same species. Their genetics have changed quite a bit over time — the diversity of wolf has been diminished over time, and again, expanded.

“She is truly an ancient wolf, and she was related to all the wolves around her at the time,” Meachen said.

It takes very specific circumstances to create a permafrost mummy, the researchers said, although several well-preserved wolf cubs have been retrieved from Siberia. However, this cub, found in North America, was particularly rare.”It’s rare to find these mummies in the Yukon.

The animal has to die in a permafrost location, where the ground is frozen all the time, and they have to get buried very quickly, like any other fossilization process,” Meachen said in a statement. “If it lays out on the frozen tundra too long it’ll decompose or get eaten.”

Because of her “pristine” condition, experts think that the wolf cub died instantaneously, perhaps when her den collapsed, as data showed she didn’t starve.

Massive dinosaur fossil unearthed by Alberta pipeline crew

Massive dinosaur fossil unearthed by Alberta pipeline crew

A new large tyrannosaur from Alberta, a predatory dinosaur whose name means “reaper of death,” was found by palaeontologists from the University of Calgary and the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

The 79-million-year-old fossil, named Thanatotheristes, is the oldest tyrannosaur reported from northern North America and the first new tyrannosaur species found in Canada in 50 years, according to the research team’s report.

“It’s the oldest example of a large tyrannosaur in Canada found in an older window of time than in previous tyrannosaurs,” says Dr Darla Zelenitsky, a co-author of the study, PhD, Principal Dinosaur Researcher of the University of Calgary and Assistant professor in the Department of Geoscience.

Study lead author Jared Voris, shown above, a PhD student of Zelenitsky’s whose analysis identified the new species, says the fossil specimen is very important to understanding the Late Cretaceous period when tyrannosaurs roamed the Earth.  It gives us a new understanding of tyrannosaur evolution and how these animals interacted with their ecosystem.

“With this new species, we now know that tyrannosaurs were present in Alberta prior to 77 million years ago, the age of the next-oldest tyrannosaur,” says study co-author Dr. François Therrien, PhD, curator of dinosaur palaeoecology at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. “We can tell from the skull how Thanatotheristes is related to the other, better-known tyrannosaurs from Alberta.”

The research team also included Dr.Caleb Brown, PhD, curator of dinosaur systematics and evolution at the Royal Tyrrell and a co-author of the study.

Thanatotheristes degrootorum is named after John and Sandra De Groot, who found the fossils.
Thanatotheristes degrootorum is named after John and Sandra De Groot, who found the fossils.

The team’s study, “A New Tyrannosaurine (Theropoda: Tyrannosauridae) from the Campanian Foremost Formation of Alberta, Canada, Provides Insight into the Evolution and Biogeography of Tyrannosaurids,” is published in the peer-reviewed journal Cretaceous Research.

New species have distinct physical features

Thanatotheristes degrootorum, a new genus and species, was identified from a fragmentary fossil consisting of parts of the skull and the upper and lower jawbones. The bones, which had apparently tumbled from a cliff and shattered on the shore of the Bow River, were found by John and Sandra De Groot (after whom the new species was named) in 2010 near the town of Hays, about 200 kilometres southeast of Calgary.

The specimen lay in a drawer at the Royal Tyrrell Museum until last spring, when Voris examined it. “We found features of the skull that had not been seen before in other tyrannosaurs,” he says. “The fossil has several physical features, including ridges along the upper jaw, which clearly distinguishes it as being from a new species.”

The diagnostic evidence showed that Thanatotheristes is a close relative of two other well-known tyrannosaur species, Daspletosaurus torosus and Daspletosaurus horneri. All three species form a newly named group of dinosaurs called Daspletosaurini.

This group had longer, deeper snouts and more teeth in the upper jaws than tyrannosaurs found in the southern U.S., which had shorter, bulldog-like faces, Voris says.

Research indicates diversity among tyrannosaurs

Thanatotheristes, which Voris estimates were approximately eight metres long, likely preyed on large plant-eating dinosaurs, such as the horned Xenoceratops and the dome-headed Colepiochephale that were part of the ecosystem.

The differences in size, skull shape and other physical features among tyrannosaur groups from various geographical regions may be adaptations to different environments, available prey type and hunting strategies, Zelenitsky says.

“Some species are better suited to certain environments,” Voris says. “This reduces competition and gives species a better chance of survival.”

Such “provinciality” can also be seen in modern ecosystems with lions and tigers, he adds. Lions are found in Africa and favour open, savanna-type environments, while tigers are found in Asia and prefer forested environments.

Darla Zelenitsky, Jared Voris and François Therrien stand with the Thanatotheristes fossils.
Darla Zelenitsky, Jared Voris and François Therrien stand with the Thanatotheristes fossils.

Royal Tyrrell Museum

The team’s research also suggests tyrannosaurs didn’t share one general body type. Instead, groups of different tyrannosaur species evolved distinct skull forms, body sizes and other physical features, spreading into different environments where each group thrived.

“The next step is to test that hypothesis further and compare how tyrannosaur species from various geological regions differed,” Voris says.

The team’s research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, an Eyes High Doctoral Recruitment Scholarship for Voris, and the Royal Tyrrell Museum Cooperating Society.