A Suncor oilsands worker near Fort McMurray, Alta., has unearthed a rare dinosaur fossil that could be 110 million years old.
On Monday, shovel operator Shawn Funk noticed a large lump of dirt with an odd texture and a diamond pattern in a shovel-load of material.
He shut down the shovel, and together he and supervisor Michel Gratton sent photos of the find to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta.
The find intrigued experts enough that the museum sent a scientist and a technician up to Fort McMurray two days later.
Curator Donald Henderson believes the completely intact dinosaur skeleton is the earliest dinosaur ever found in Alberta — a 110-million-year-old fossil of ankylosaur, a rare land dinosaur with bony plates of body armour.
Ankylosaur was a squat, plant-eating quadruped with powerful limbs and a club-like tail probably used for self-defence.
"We’ve never found a dinosaur in this location," Henderson said.
"Because the area was once a sea, most finds are invertebrates such as clams and ammonites," he said. "Marine reptiles have been found in the area before, but even these are not common.
"The last giant reptile removed from this area was an ichthyosaur found 10 years ago. To find an ankylosaur is totally unexpected here. Finding one of these animals anywhere is a rare occurrence."
Scientists will return to Fort McMurray next week to supervise the removal and transportation of the specimen to the museum for further study.
"The good news is that the fossil is in 3-D," said Henderson. "The bad news is the rock is extremely hard. It's harder than the bone and it's going to take an awful lot of careful work to get it out."
"Suncor and its staff deserve a big thank you for recognizing this as a fossil and reporting it to us as quickly as they did," said Andrew Neuman, the museum's executive director.
"This is a great example of a company calling to report a find and it turning out to be something of potentially major significance."
By strange coincidence, the backhoe operator had just visited the Royal Tyrell last week, said Henderson.