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Finding Fossils and Digging Dinosaurs

The first and most important dinosaur finds in Canada were made by the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). While discovering dinosaur bones must have been exciting, can you believe geologists were actually more interested in the smaller fossils they found?

Photograph of fossilized fern leaves

Fossilized leaves of a fern that have been carbonized
Source

Fossils are a very important part of geological surveying. Fossils help geologists figure out how old a rock formation is. Because we know what time period certain animals and plants lived in, we are able to use that information to date the rocks that those fossils are found in.

Photograph of a trilobite fossil

Trilobite fossil collected by Logan
in the Gaspé region
Source

William Logan did not know much about fossils. In 1855 he hired Ottawa lawyer Elkanah Billings to help the GSC. Billings was a paleontologist whose interest in geology had started as a hobby. Billings started Canada's first specialized scientific journal, called Canadian Naturalist and Geologist, in 1856. With Billings' help and the help of other paleontologists who would follow, the GSC was able to study and date Canada's rock formations and discover where Canada's resources lay.

Photograph of a clam-like bivalve fossil

Fossil of the shell of a clam-like bivalve, collected by Logan in the Gaspé region
Source

In eastern Canada the sedimentary rocks are hundreds of millions of years old. The fossils they contain are mainly marine invertebrates.

In western Canada, George Dawson noticed that scattered dinosaur remains were not uncommon in the area that is now southern Alberta. Joseph Tyrrell, a 25-year-old junior employee, was given the job of studying the region more closely. Tyrrell made his first major dinosaur find in 1884, while he was looking for coal along the Red Deer River, near Drumheller. At the time he had never led a field party and had not been educated as a geologist. Tyrrell went on to make other dinosaur discoveries before his interests turned to gold mining. Today, the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta, a world-famous dinosaur museum, is named after him.

Newsworthy Nuggets

- Wetting a rock can help make the mineral crystals and colours easier to see. Geologists will often spit on a rock to wet the part they need to see clearly!

Photograph of a specimen of EOZOON CANADENSE

Eozoon canadense, collected by William Logan
Source

- Everyone makes mistakes! George Dawson's father did. In 1864, geologist John William Dawson found what he thought was a fossil in rocks from the Canadian Shield. He named the fossil Eozoon canadense. In 1894, another sample of Eozoon was found in altered limestone that had been brought to the surface by flowing lava from Mount Vesuvius, a volcano in southern Italy. Eozoon was actually a metamorphic rock, but Dawson died still believing it was a fossil.

Digging Deeper

What is a Fossil and How is it Formed?

Diagram showing how a fossil is formed.Explore this Topic

Digging Deeper

Become a Rock or Fossil Collector

Where to Look, What to Bring and What to Do with Your Specimens

Explore this Topic

In His Own Words

"I walked up the bank close to camp, and at an elevation of between forty and eighty feet above the creek found a number of Dinosaurian bones in an excellent state of preservation, though very brittle. Most of them were heavy and massive, such as those of the limbs, etc. but among these was a large and fairly perfect head of Laelaps incrassatus (Albertosaurus), a gigantic carnivore."

(Joseph Tyrrell, June 1884 field notes)


Digging Deeper

Albertosaurus

Photograph of the Royal Tyrrell ALBERTOSAURUS exhibit showing ALBERTOSAURUS skeletonsExplore this Topic
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