All which is dead need not necessarily be forgotten...

Back from the Badlands


Burgess Shale at the
Royal Tyrrell Museum

The title of this entry is a paraphrase from H.P. Lovecraft's Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, "...all which is forgotten need not necessarily be dead..." I believe the reverse sentiment to be more accurate and powerful, especially in the face of organisms from the Cambrian.

Once I began to feel that my drawing skills were approaching a professional level, I have found the creatures from the Cambrian to the Permian to hold a special fascination. As I have said in previous posts, I get shiver down my back when beholding an organism so strange and unusual, that we as binocular primates can look at and comprehend. This love is not religious and not dogmatic; it is the evolved primate rush of understanding. And when the object of that understanding is a five-eyed Opabinia (above, playing in the sponges) from 505 million years ago, I marvel.

I do not know how much time I have to write this. Even now, I hear the scratching at the door...a very Lovecraftian anomalocarid lurks in the gloom...The horror of the fluttering flapping thing! Those eyes!
Heh.



Alright, enough glowy-eyed marvelling. The Royal Tyrrell Museum had enough pre-dinosaur fossils to keep me entertained for weeks. These photos are from their re-created chamber of Burgess Shale fauna, all 12 times life size. The room is dimly-lit, with spots, and the floor is partially transparent so you can see the trilobites trundling around the sea floor below you, competing with that poser-crustacean, marella.

The sounds of other patrons entering this room were a lot of fun. One couple, I would guess were in their seventies, were utterly fascinated. I noticed most people entering without reading about the Burgess Shale creatures on the information wall outside. Then they came in and encountered the truly strange.

In the photo above at right, you can see on the ocean floor a little mound with wings, wiwaxia. In Aquagenesis: the origin and evolution of life in the sea, author Richard Ellis says, "(wiwaxia) was not a snail, it was not an arthropod, it was not a worm. Like so many of the animals of the Burgess Shale, it was sui generis, and nothing like it has ever been seen again."

There is a beautifully to-scale recreation of a reef, in water that holds many people's gaze as they look at all the fish and cephalopods hidden in a natural setting. The folks at the Tyrrell have done a wonderful job of recreating the lushness of coral aquariums often found at the better zoos.








The Tyrrell Museum as a whole could easily take up a week of sight-seeing for an enthusiast. In my posts, I haven't even touched on the marvellous ceratopsians, the humid and lovely Cretaceous garden and waterfall, and so many other sights. The museum is heavy on information content, and does not dumb things down for the casual visitor. You can simply gawk, or you can read more and more to learn about the past. I desperately want to go back.

My apologies for the following if you are not a Lovecraft & Cthulhu fan.

The anomalocaris is once again scratching at the door...I do not know if this manuscript should be found, and if so, will the flapping mad thing chase down another trilobite? Will any being know of me in the fullness of time? The dark ages of oblivion yawn before me...

Dinosaurs as Art: Royal Tyrrell Museum

Back from the Badlands

The Royal Tyrrell Museum near Drumheller was more than I had imagined it to be. I have grown up with the Royal Ontario Museum; I took classes there as a child, and have been a frequent visitor since. The R.O.M. specialises in many areas, from ancient China & prehistoric animals to modern bats, & art. When constructing its new dinosaur gallery inside the Crystal, the R.O.M. would do well to pay attention to the wealth of uncompromising science and education about evolution at the Tyrrell. No concessions made to offending any religious sensibililties, just facts and supported theories, evidence in abundance, pure science.

The Tyrrell has a narrower, and richer focus. Prehistoric life. Evolution. The world of what happened before us.



Above, left: Golden Eagle claw with Sauronitholestes. Above, right: The sickle-claws of a dromeosaur, ornithomimus & velociraptor.

The pictures I am blogging today are from my favourite room; a Gallery, shrouded in darkness, reverent spotlights revealing the detail and majesty of the fossils. Ornate gold frames, in the baroque-style, encased the larger specimens. Simple North-Renaissance black frames with black-velvet mats added subtle lushness to the sophisticated evolved claws, teeth and feet of swift-moving dinosaurs.

Above, an Albertosaurus caught in a dramatic rigor mortis pose.

A struthiomimus.

The majestic Tyrannosaurus. Mounted without frames or hyperbole.


Perhaps this room appeals to me so much because of my Fine Art background. When I oil paint, I begin on a black or dark background, adding paint and the figures emerge from the darkness, much as this room brought to life. Bravo and thank you to the curator.

I believe one of the greatest experiences of my life was first entering this room. Seeing the magnificent creatures of the past I have loved so much, through the lense of the human art world was sublime, and I felt the rush of the scientifically-numinous.

Dinosaur Provincial Park

Back from the Badlands
After our visit to the Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum, my hunger for more fossils grew. I wanted to see bigger ones, jutting out of rock. I'd heard about Dinosaur Provincial Park even as a kid, (didn't the Polka Dot Door do an episode once?) I wen hoping to see a parasaurolophus skull grinning out of the sandy matrix.

It was a long and beautiful drive out from Calgary. All of the sudden, the lightly rolling hills drop away, and we were in the Badlands proper.


We'd just made it, and hopped on board the 24-seater painted schoolbus, and our guide Eric sprayed misty water on us, claiming it was air conditioning.

He drove out to one of his two favourite spots, and as we got off the bus, he pointed out a femur in the dirt parking spot. It seemed so staged just laying there right where he parked the bus. Boy, was I wrong! We all sat down on some banana-coloured pieces of foam. There was a brief group lesson, everyone looking at small fossils of the kind we were likely to see. Crocodile teeth, scutes from crocodiles or euplocephalosaurus, herbivore teeth, femurs and a great many more.

We swore the One Finger Oath, and were shown how to do the lick-test to identify fossil bone. If you lick your finger, and press it hard against a suspected fossil, the tiny pores in the stony bone will create suction. We walked a few more paces, and the fossils were literally littering the ground underfoot. The picture at left shows a breathtaking lichen encrusted stone sitting on shattered manganese. The stone is likely a fossil, but it was so pretty I didn't lick my finger to test it out.

Our guide Eric was terrific. He spent a lot of time with the children, who eagerly tried to show off to him what they had found in a constant stream. Finding a large shattered femur, bulbous and amazing, I wanted to show off to him too, and grabbed his attention for a few moments. As I'd pass by, wandering on our little exploratory hill, I heard him say one of my favourite phrases for a scientist; "Wow. I don't know what that is, but I'm gonna have to find out". He said it more than once. This is education, kids.

This was one of the most incredibly exalting experiences I've ever had, just exploring this hill in a tiny section of the park. At right is another exposed femur, possibly some kind of hadrosaur. Could it be the parasaurolophus I had sought? It could. Nearby was a covered, partially-excavated spine and ribcage for our viewing pleasure.

Dinosaur Provincial Park is also famous for its centrosaurus beds. Centrosaurus, a ceratopsian with a very pretty head-shield can be found in abundance.

The park is an offshoot of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and more excavated wonders awaited us inside. The displays were heavy on information, and uncompromisingly scientific. Exhausted, the day only half gone by, it was the morning of a lifetime. The thrill of amateur, touristic discovery was rewarding and left me flush with wonder.

Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum

Back From the Badlands

While staying at a gorgeous cabin with an amazing view near Pincher Creek, Alberta, this Ontario-born blogger got to see a local treat. Spying an ad in a five year old tourist-attraction booklet, we called ahead to see if the Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum was still open for business. It boasted Canada's largest collection of cephalopods. I just had to go.

On the way there, we speculated what it would be like. It sounded like a small collection, and I wondered if it would be in someone's living room. I was wrong. At the time we arrived we were the only visitors. And we stumbled into an insidious Garden Gnome Invasion. They were everywhere! My heart raced at the thought of seeing fossilized remains of early gnominids. Painting ideas were coming to mind.

The gentlemen and collector greeted us out in the winding, tree-lined front yard, obviously in league with the garden gnomes all around. Being from Toronto, it's easy to forget how large these rural Alberta properties are. We did not head for his living room; we headed to a building behind the house. The gnomes followed, I'm sure of it. Waiting to pounce.

The treaty the owner had with the gnomes was still holding. They did not enter.

Once inside, it was clear the declaration of "largest cephalopod collection in Canada" was no idle boast. There were tons of them! Check out the ammolite specimen above. Ammolite is the semi-precious "stone" interior of ancient ammonites, like mother-of-pearl, but sometimes with startling red tones shot throughout. The owner gave us a bit of information, then sat down at a desk and let us look. Each glass case held a myriad of early life forms or minerals, all hand labelled with a description and location.

At left is a pretty geode, larger than your fist. Looks like marshmallow, doesn't it?

Mmmmm....tasty geode....

I love minerals like this. The little 'hairs' on the puffball-looking formation are so tiny, it challenges the eye to pick them out.

There were shark's teeth, plant fossils, fish fossils, and enough coprolite to keep my five year old nephew entertained (at least after we told him it's dinosaur poop).

The collection is well worth the drive out of the way for any fossil enthusiast or person looking for a spot to take the family. It is a private collection however, and I would strongly recommend asking permission before taking photos, as I have done. It's polite. Rural Alberta has a bit of a reputation for being conservative, at least with Ontarians, and it was nice to see an entire museum devoted to fossils instead of fundamentalism.

Of course there are abundant trilobite fossils, even if they were outnumbered by the ancient predatory cephalopods. Here is Mr. Jumbo, a whopper of a fossil about 60 cm long. This beautiful trilobite is easily more than a match for the gnomes outside, and no wonder they did not enter the building. Is that some sort of iron-rich mineral giving it a rusty appearance? I wonder. A little sea scorpion and ammonite sit submissively beneath the pygidium of this prehistoric royalty.

There are a few tiny fossils and mineral jewellry for purchase, nothing as grand as what's in the collection. I bought a nice little brachiopod, and left the Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum with my appetite for prehistoric wonder whetted for more.

We left the militant gnomes behind.

Back from the Badlands

I'm back from my family holiday in Alberta. The land was so starkly different from Ontario, I simply gawked out of my window for much of my trip. Mountains gliding across the distant horizons. Electric yellow-green canola fields commanding the eye. Gorgeous white windmills silently thrumming in the fields, often lined up to catch an invisble corridor of kinetic power for kilometers at a time.

Every once in a while, the land sloping sharply downward through a layered cake of every shade of beige and rust toward a riverbed that may or may not have water at the bottom. And may or may not contain fossils sprinkled throughout.

I have a lot I wish to blog about the trip. A very warm thanks to my travelling companions, and to our gracious hosts, my wife's cousins' and aunt & uncle, for all the fun and more travelling than was reasonable to indulge this paleo-nerd in looking for things millions of years old.

Over the next few weeks, likely topics I will blog include: