Dinosaur Cold Case

The accidental discovery in Alberta of one of the best-preserved dinosaurs ever opens a prehistoric cold case to uncover the secrets of its mysterious death.
Available on CBC Gem

Dinosaur Cold Case

Nature of Things

It’s the ultimate cold case. A Canadian mine operator working in the Alberta oil sands hits a hard object covered with strange spots. It turns out to be a perfectly preserved corpse that’s been buried for 110 million years.

The discovery is a comple tely intact armoured dinosaur, the fossil of a brand new species to science. This is no collection of dry bones. It’s a truly extraordinary find: an in-tact dinosaur that lived during the mid-Cretaceous period. It looks as if it was walking around yesterday before being turned to stone.

Borealopelta markmitchelli, as this species would later be named, is in pristine condition. After six years of painstaking work to chisel it from its cement-like tomb, the details of its bony armour and skin can be seen in incredible detail.

Paleontologists at Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum have been using forensics to unlock its secrets: where did it come from? Why was it found upside down, hundreds of kilometres from land in what was once an inland sea? How did it die and why was it so perfectly fossilized in its full, 3D glory? As Don Henderson, curator of dinosaurs at the museum, points out — paleontologists aren’t like forensic detectives, they are forensic detectives.

Dinosaur Cold Case follows the evidence as scientists piece together the prehistoric clues of Borealopelta’s life and death. Ancient fossilized footprints, found elsewhere in Alberta, offer insights to its speed and gait; its stomach contents are analyzed to identify Borealopelta’s last meal and cutting-edge technology reveals clues to the dinosaur’s original colouring.

Key predator suspects are identified and bite forces are simulated in a laboratory to help assess whether the dinosaur’s impressive armour could withstand a crushing attack from one of them.

Face to face with a perfectly preserved dinosaur that looks like it was alive yesterday
100 million years ago, Alberta was a giant sea, surrounded by tropical forests
"Destroyer of shins" — a newly discovered dinosaur may have used its armour for more than defence
Sexing a fossil that's millions of years old

Paleontologists paint a picture of Borealopelta’s world: a warm, humid, semi-tropical land near an inland sea that eventually became the great plains of North America.

While almost all living creatures decay without a trace, Borealopelta’s rare preservation is a puzzle in itself. What extraordinary events led to this animal becoming fossilized in such exquisite detail? The answer will help scientists formulate a theory about how Borealopelta died and came to rest, buried beneath a vast sea.

In Dinosaur Cold Case, scientists are just beginning to solve these mysteries as they stare across eons at a once living, breathing animal, and come face-to-face with a 110-million-year-old, real-life dinosaur.