Saskatchewan’s best fossils are competing for glory and you can play along

SCIENCE by Gregory Beatty


We have a bone to pick.

Saskatchewan’s first recorded dinosaur fossil find was in the 1870s. Since then, the province has been the site of many scientifically significant discoveries — enough to qualify us as a bit of a fossil hotbed.

Yet despite its rich fossil history, Saskatchewan has yet to adopt a fossil as a provincial emblem. What the hell Saskatchewan? This will not stand.

Enter the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

RSM staff have spearheaded a contest pitting seven candidates against each other in a battle to become the province’s official fossil. You can read about the contenders — which include mammoths, plesiosaurs and the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex — in the sidebar we’ve got lying around here somewhere. Better yet, you can SEE portions of the fossils at the RSM, where you’re invited to drop by and vote for your favourite.

“There’s a fact sheet beside each candidate — people will be able to read a bit about them,” says RSM public programs manager John Snell. “We’ll also have specimens on display, such as a skull, or a leg. For four, it will be the original fossils, and three will be replicas.”

And it will be cool. SO cool.

Fun Fossil Facts

Fossils, simply put, are the prehistoric preserved remains of an organism. After death, mineral-rich groundwater can fill the empty spaces in a sediment-covered corpse — such as eyesockets and the gaps between ribs — and this, through chemical processes, can result in a preserved version of a body that’s tens or even hundreds of millions of years old.

Fossils can also be molds — think of fossilized footprints or textured skin. But whatever form they take, they’re found in rock.

And Saskatchewan’s got ’em, in spades.

“Saskatchewan’s vertebrate fossil record — vertebrates are animals with backbones — goes back 100 million years,” says Royal Saskatchewan Museum paleontologist Tim Tokaryk. “The older fossils are typically found in east-central Saskatchewan; that represents the interior seaway that existed around 95 million years ago. Then we have the terrestrial dinosaurs from a more sub-tropical environment around 65 million years ago. Then there was the opening of the grasslands that we see today, around 35 million years ago.”

Throw in an ice age with multiple periods of glaciation starting around 2.5 million years ago, and it adds up to a pretty diverse range of habitats. And those habitats, in turn, supported a broad assortment of marine and land-based animals.

The RSM has a great mosasaur in its collection, but Manitoba recently made the giant marine reptile its official fossil, so that’s out. Stupid Manitoba.

But lots of quality candidates remain.

“We have several fossils that are extremely unique to Saskatchewan,” says Tokaryk. “They’re called “type specimens” that a new species was named after.

“Another criteria was the need to have a fairly good portion of the skeleton, or something we knew a fair amount about,” Tokaryk adds. “If we were going to get people behind this project and vote on an official fossil, it was important they be able to identify it.”

While Saskatchewan’s fossil history is extensive, it’s far from a closed book — these things don’t just sit in the ground forever, waiting for bored paleontologists to dig them up.

“Fossils are eroding out of the hills every year and it’s our job to discover them, and try to retrieve them and interpret their relevance to now-extinct paleo environments,” says Tokaryk. “Erosion is our friend because it exposes new fossils. We don’t just go to an area and start digging. We need to see the fossil coming out of the hill. However, erosion also destroys fossils at a rapid rate. I’ve found stuff in the beginning of summer that I wasn’t able to collect and before I could get back to it, it was destroyed. That’s how quickly erosion works.”

In addition to voting in person at the RSM, Saskatchewan residents will be able to vote online in the final two weeks of the contest (which closes April 25). A winner will be declared in early May, says Tokaryk.

And then?

“The fossil will join the list of other provincial emblems and will represent Saskatchewan’s unique natural history.”

As it should.

Cool Enough For School

For decades now, dinosaurs have been huge in pop culture, so naming an official fossil is a smart move for Saskatchewan, says the Royal Saskatchewan Museum’s John Snell. “We come from a fairly rich fossil area, so I’d expect it would be very well promoted by the province, especially since we have two museums — the RSM in Regina and T. rex Discovery Centre in Eastend — that [study] fossils. It’s a great opportunity to let people know more about what we have.”

There’s also a classroom component to the contest where grade seven students are being encouraged to pick one of the candidates and make a short video on why it should be Saskatchewan’s official fossil.

The videos will be posted on-line to tout the candidates and promote the contest.

“We worked with the Ministry of Education to ensure the contest incorporated enquiry-based learning,” says Snell. “If teachers are interested in getting involved they can find more information on our website. The grand prize is that Tim will come out to the school and talk to the students.”

You can learn more at or follow the campaign on Twitter at #Fossil4SK.

The Stony Seven

Meet Saskatchewan’s Official Fossil contenders

Saskatchewan’s five month long fossil campaign is a true marathon. Pundits (okay, me) wonder if that will favour candidates with strength and stamina. Or will smaller, more nimble candidates who can respond quickly to twists and turns in the long campaign benefit more?

A lot will depend, of course, on the students’ campaign videos. Will they stick to the high road and extol their candidate’s virtues, or will they resort to attack-style videos against the other nominees?

Remember, we’re talking prehistoric creatures here. Things could get ugly.

Heading into the campaign, “Scotty” the T. rex has to be considered the favourite. It was a high-profile find in 1991, and T. rexes are about as cool (and badass) as it gets in the dino world. Plus, oddly enough, of all the states and provinces who have official fossils, none has yet selected a T. rex.

Still, pundits (yeah, me again) wonder if an “Anybody But Scotty” movement might not emerge. It’s a long-shot, admittedly. But if the 12 metre-long T. rex starts getting cocky as the front-runner and lives up to the Latin root of its name “Tyrant Lizard”, who knows… .

Really, all seven fossils are worthy candidates. So worthy, in fact, that Saskatchewan should consider adopting two official fossils: one land-based, the other marine. Kansas has official marine and flying fossils (a Tylosaurus and Pteranodon respectively). So why should we limit ourselves to one?

Take a gander at the candidates, and you’ll see what I mean. To avoid any accusations of bias, we’ve listed them in chronological order from oldest to most recent. /Gregory Beatty

“BIG BERT” THE CROCODILE (Terminonaris robusta) A distant ancestor of modern crocodiles, “Big Bert” was found near Carrot River. It lived around 92 million years ago when Saskatchewan was covered by the Western Interior Seaway. Six metres long, it had an elongated snout and thin teeth, suggesting it ate fish. Members of its genus ranged as far south as Texas, but Montana is the only other place this species has been found.

SHORT-NECKED PLESIOSAUR (Dolichorhynchops herschelensis) This marine reptile inhabited Saskatchewan 70 million years ago. It ate fish too, but had a much finer snout and teeth than Bert. While the Dolichorhynchops genus ranged from the Arctic to Texas, this fossil represents a distinct species. It was found near Herschel and is named after the town.

“MO” THE LONG-NECKED PLESIOSAUR (Terminonatator ponteixensis) This is another “type” specimen found near Ponteix. It lived at the same time as its short-necked cousin, and was shaped similarly, but with a greatly elongated neck. When I asked RSM paleontologist Tim Tokaryk about a dark-horse candidate, he replied diplomatically, “I just dig them up.” The RSM’s John Snell, though, gave a shout-out to the long-necked plesiosaur: “It’s just so strange looking.”

“SCOTTY” THE T. REX (Tyrannosaurus rex) Found near Eastend, Scotty roamed the southwest corner of Saskatchewan 66 million years ago. The inland sea was gone and the climate bordered on sub-tropical, with lush forests of deciduous conifers and broad-leafed flowering trees. The T. rex’s range included most of the central plains, but as noted above, it’s somehow still unclaimed as anyone’s official fossil. Could be a case for other jurisdictions of “you snooze, you lose” if Saskatchewan voters say yes.

THESCELOSAUR (Thescelosaurus assiniboiensis) Shared the same era and range as the fearsome T. rex, so deserves bonus points for that. Like Bert and Mo, this is a type specimen too, named after the town of Assiniboia. Roughly three metres from nose to tail, the thescelosaur was a herbivore, which could translate into support from vegan voters. But will it be enough to topple Scotty?

BRONTOTHERE (Megacerops sp.) Built like a modern-day rhino, this herbivore lived in herds and inhabited Saskatchewan 35 million years ago. Forests were in retreat and grasslands were expanding. The brontothere is one of two fossil mammals in the running. If it taps into a vein of non-mammalian xenophobia among Saskatchewan voters, it could surprise.

MAMMOTH (Mammuthus sp.) Essentially a hairy elephant, so not as exotic as the other candidates. Lived during the recent Wisconsin glacial episode (about 15,000 years ago), so that’s cool (um, literally). And don’t discount a bump for this fossil from the popularity, especially among younger voters, of Manny the woolly mammoth from the Ice Age franchise.

Olivia Vs. The Creationists

So far, only two of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories have official fossils. Nova Scotia was the first in 2002, adopting a 315 million year old lizard (Hylonomus lyelli). Manitoba embraced the mosasaur earlier this year, and B.C. has a process underway to name an official fossil. But that’s it.

Stateside, they’re way ahead of us. Fully 44 of 50 states have official fossils. Rhode Island, Arkansas, Florida and Iowa are some of the holdouts. South Carolina used to be too, but thanks to school girl Olivia McConnell, that’s no longer the case.

In 2014, she suggested South Carolina adopt the Columbian woolly mammoth as its fossil. In support of her submission, she noted that mammoth teeth were first found in the state in 1725 (by slaves digging in a swamp, as it happened).

A bill authorizing her proposal passed in the House, but was stalled in the Senate by creationist senators who wanted to add a clause to the fossil’s official description stating that the mammoth had been created “on the Sixth Day with other beasts of the field.” Fortunately, saner heads prevailed and the bill passed free of biblical verse. /Gregory Beatty