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A new dinosaur from the Peace Country

April 30, 2016

By Matthew Vavrek

Although the rocks of the Wapiti Formation near Grande Prairie have been known to contain dinosaur bones for decades, we have surprisingly little information about what specific dinosaurs would have lived in the area. It was only as recently as 2008 that the first specific dinosaur was described from the area, namely the well known Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai (Currie et al. 2008). This discovery of a new species of pachyrhinosaur was some of the first published evidence to back up a long held suspicion by many that the Peace Region may have once been home to unique types of dinosaurs, unknown from other parts of the province. Since then, a new specimen of a hadrosaurid (duck-billed) dinosaur was found that was complete enough to be confidently identified to a certain species. In this case though, the hadrosaurid was determined to be a specimen of Edmontosaurus regalis (Bell et al. 2014), a type of dinosaur that is relatively abundant in exposures along the Red Deer River of southern Alberta (Campione and Evans 2011).

So, for the first two dinosaurs fully identified from the Wapiti Formation, we have one new species and one shared species. But what does this say about the Peace Region dinosaurs, and how they’re related to those from further south? Well, talking about the Wapiti Formation as a single time bin is – though technically correct – not very comparable to what is going on in southern Alberta. In particular, the Wapiti Formation takes in a much longer amount of time than any similar formation from southern Alberta, and in fact is equivalent to six formations (i.e. Foremost, Oldman, Dinosaur Park, Bearpaw, Horseshoe Canyon and Battle) in the south. And while some of these southern formations are terrestrial, there is a large portion of time during which southern Alberta was covered by the Bearpaw Seaway (represented by the Bearpaw Formation), while in contrast the Wapiti Formation is entirely terrestrial. And that missing land record from the south is when things get most interesting. From the fossil record of southern Alberta, we know that the dinosaurs change across that span of time when the area was flooded, and we have no idea of what specific species would have been around at that point. However, the terrestrial record of the Wapiti Formation can fill in that missing blank.

In a paper published this year, NADP member Dr. Phil Bell and his colleague Dr. Philip Currie describe a new theropod dinosaur from that “missing” time period, and lo and behold, it is also a new species (Bell and Currie 2016). The new dinosaur, called Boreonykus certeki, was closely related to small, carnivorous dinosaurs like Velociraptor or the recently described Acheroraptor. The fossils of Boreonykus come from the Pipestone Creek Bonebed, a well known fossil site in the Grande Prairie area. Although most of the fossils themselves were excavated decades ago, the relatively small number of them meant that it was many years until it was found that they did in fact represent a new species. Luckily, a frontal (a bone making up part of the snout of the dinosaur) was found, and this specific bone had a several characteristics that distinguished it from all its relatives.

While this new discovery is exciting, it likely represents just the tip of the iceberg in the numbers of dinosaur species known from the area. Looking at southern Alberta, there are at least 60 unique species known from the formations that are time equivalent with the Wapiti Formation, which means we should expect to find many more species in the region. And while it is likely that many of them will be the same as those found from the south, there also seems to be a good chance we will find more new species unique to the Peace Region. And that is one of the great features of palaeontology – no matter how many new things you describe, there always seems to be more just waiting for you to find on the next hillside.

Bell, P.R. and P. J. Currie. 2015. A high-latitude dromaeosaurid, Boreonykus certekorum, gen. et sp. nov. (Theropoda), from the upper Campanian Wapiti Formation, west-central Alberta. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 36:e1034359.

Bell, P. R., F. Fanti, P. J. Currie, and V. M. Arbour. 2014. A Mummified Duck-Billed Dinosaur with a Soft-Tissue Cock’s Comb. Current Biology 24:70–75.

Campione, N. E., and D. C. Evans. 2011. Cranial growth and variation in edmontosaurs (Dinosauria: Hadrosauridae): implications for latest Cretaceous megaherbivore diversity in North America. PLoS ONE 6:e25186.

Currie, P. J., W. Langston Jr., and D. H. Tanke. 2008 A New Horned Dinosaur from an Upper Cretaceous Bone Bed in Alberta. NRC Research Press, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.



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