New Dino Discoveries

Charles Helm

 

In the summer of 2011 Tim Millward showed up in my office with a bunch of photos. Tim was the guide-outfitter and rancher way up the Wolverine valley. It was the first time I had met him. The photos clearly were of dinosaur tracks.

He had previously purchased a copy of one of the books I had written about Tumbler Ridge, and left it lying around the ranch. Two Aussie students were helping out on the ranch for the summer, and in it they read about the dinosaur tracks close to Tumbler Ridge. They decided to go prospecting in the area closer to Tim’s ranch, and, amazingly, had almost immediate success.

What made this most interesting was the age of the tracks, at the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary, older by half than those closer to town, and amongst the oldest in western Canada. We knew from a single dinosaur footprint discovery by Kevin Sharman on the highest summit on the Holzworth Meadows hiking trail (now known as Theropod Peak) that a search in such rocks might one day prove fruitful, but hadn’t expected such a great initial lead.

Within a few weeks I managed a solo reconnaissance trip. Tim welcomed me and offered the services of one of his staff to show me the tracksite, in a deep, inhospitable canyon with vertically oriented rock layers. En route I found a few other theropod tracks, and further upstream I hit pay dirt: a rippled surface, on which was an ornithopod trackway, complete with tiny hand impressions. After taking photos and making notes, I returned elated.

Because of weather and flooding it was not possible to take the Tumbler Ridge palaeontologists to the site until this past summer, when I took Rich McCrea into the canyon. Initially I struggled to find the ornithopod trackway, and this pushed us further up the creek.

When I came to an unclimbable waterfall blocking the way ahead, I knew we had gone too far, and retraced my steps. When I met Rich I apologized, but he had a satisfied smirk on his face. He had come across something that I had missed, something that only his trained eyes would have noticed. A big rounded boulder in the creek-bed, way too heavy to carry out, on closer inspection revealed an unusual pattern of distinctive toe prints. It was the natural cast of a left sauropod footprint.

To understand the implications of this discovery one needs to appreciate the history of sauropod tracks in Canada. Firstly, one needs to know what a sauropod is – fortunately we all have a mental image of these largest-of-all-dinosaurs with their extremely long tails, long necks and diminutive heads. These are sauropods, and their tracks were well described in the southern USA many decades ago. However, the refrain amongst North American palaeontologists was: “Why were there no sauropods in Canada?”

That was, until Rich McCrea came along. First, he found a few massive prints in the coal mines in southeastern BC in 2000 with the help of miners, then made a cast of a huge sauropod trackway that had been exposed by industrial activity there in 2008. The trackway has subsequently disintegrated, and the remarkable replica is due to be exhibited in the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery in Tumbler Ridge some day when space and funding permit. Now, we had found one near Tumbler Ridge, extending the North American range north by hundreds of kilometres, and establishing a world latitude record for sauropods.

After this amazing start, we then began a systematic appraisal of creeks and canyons cutting through rocks of this age. One day my son Daniel and I had a dismal experience prospecting up one ridiculous, alder-choked creek, finding just a few dinosaur footprint remnants. Wanting to salvage something, we quickly attempted a larger creek and immediately felt a good vibe, noting as a bonus some impressive rock scenery. Before fading light made us turn around, we had identified cool theropod prints and also an intriguing rock wall adorned with a series of giant depressions. Not conclusive, we realized, but possibly an area trampled by sauropods. We let Rich McCrea and Lisa Buckley know about our positive feelings for this creek.

Soon they came to explore it in detail, venturing further upstream. And due to a fortunate combination of timing, clear skies and angled sunlight, they made a momentous discovery. High up on a great near-vertical rock-face were a number of dinosaur trackways covering almost 1000 square metres, made by some very big critters. In a further serendipitous event a national film crew was due to arrive, focusing on the Tumbler Ridge dinosaurs. Within a few days of arriving they were shooting footage of Rich on ropes on the rock wall examining and tracing what turned out to be giant ornithopod and theropod tracks. The feature documentary is due to be aired on the History Channel in 2014, and further documentation and research are planned at the site in 2014, including the production of a large-scale replica of the surface that will be exhibited in the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery.

Last week saw a culmination of these events, with great support in the sky from Ryan Mahaffey of Ridge Rotors and on the ground from Larry White. The result was the extrication and flying out by chopper of the sauropod footprint and a bunch of theropod prints. These now reside in the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre, and await display in the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery.

This saga is now three years old, but far from over – there are many more creeks with rocks of this age begging for pioneer exploration in 2014. As I reflect on this, three thoughts cross my mind. Firstly, where else in the world could things like this happen so close to town, and so easily? When I tell people I live and work in the best place in the world, this is part of what I mean. Secondly, as the Tumbler Ridge application for Global Geopark status evolves, with all its implications for diversification of the local and regional economy, each and every extra discovery counts and makes our proposal stronger. Thirdly, how fortunate we are to have Rich McCrea and Lisa Buckley living in our midst, and able to transform these discoveries into something that tourists from all over the world will want to learn about and see.

We know not what the future holds, but one thing seems relatively certain: there will be more new stuff coming out of the TR creeks and canyons in 2014.