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Best dinosaur fossil ever discovered in Alberta


Wikimedia/Photo by Machairo licensed CC BY-SA 4.0 

Let’s all welcome the newest dinosaur to the prehistoric family! Meet the nodosaur! This heavily armored, plant-eating dinosaur is related to the spiky ankylosaur, but is an entirely new species. Even though up until a few years ago scientists had no idea nodosaurs existed, they have a really good idea of what these dinos looked like. That’s because the only fossil of the nodosaur is also the best-preserved fossil in the world. It shows what this dinosaur looked like when it was alive — 112 million years ago!

Found in Alberta

an overhead view of a tar sands mine in Alberta like the one the nodosaur was found in

The fossil was found in a tar sands mine, much like this one, near Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Photo by Pembina Institute licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The fossil was discovered completely by accident in 2011, when miners were digging in a spot in the tar sands north of Fort McMurray in Alberta. One of the miners noticed rocks that were harder than they should be. Looking closer, he saw the rocks also had a weird shape. It was clear this was something that needed to be checked out! Scientists who study fossils, called paleontologists, began very carefully digging the nodosaur out. It wasn’t easy! The fossil, along with the rock surrounding it, had to be lifted out of the mine — and it weighed close to 7 tonnes. They took the dinosaur to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, and began very carefully revealing the nodosaur. The process took 6 years.

Best fossil ever!

the nodosaur fossil

Photo by Government of Alberta licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Discovering the nodosaur wasn’t important just because it was a new kind of dinosaur, the fossil itself is special. Usually dinosaur fossils are only bits of tooth or bone. Sometimes a dinosaur with its skin or even feathers is unearthed, but it’s usually been squished flat by the pressure of the rocks around it. But the nodosaur is in 3D! It wasn’t squashed or shattered into bits because of where the nodosaur lived. Back then — 112 million years ago — northern Alberta was warm and mostly covered with water. The nodosaur ended up at the bottom of a sea, where it sunk into the mud. That mud and the ocean minerals protected it as it fossilized, so that it kept its shape.

More dragon than dino?

a drawing of the nodosaur's closest relative, the ankylosaur

This is the nodosaur's closest relative, the ankylosaur. It had a tail with a spiky club on the end, while the nodosaur's was likely long and smooth. (Wikimedia)

The nodosaur fossil seems like a statue — some people say it looks like a statue of a dragon! When it was alive it was around 5.5 metres long and weighed nearly 1.4 tonnes! The fossil has bony protective armour covering most of its body, and that armour has half-meter long spikes on it. Despite the scary appearance, the nodosaur was a herbivore, meaning it only ate plants, and all of the armour was to protect it from other dinosaurs. Underneath, the nodosaur has scaled skin, much like a lizard. While its closest relative, the ankylosaur, had a tail with a spiky club on the end, the nodosaur’s tail was likely long and smooth. Scientists even have a good idea of the nodosaur’s last meal — some fossilized fruits and seeds were preserved inside its stomach!

the entrance to the Royal Tyrrell Museum

Entrance to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. (Photo by Qyd licensed CC BY SA 3.0)

You can see the nodosaur on display at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller. It’s the closest you can get to visiting a live dinosaur!