Alberta floods could increase chance of finding fossils

Last month's severe flooding in southern Alberta could increase the chances of finding unearthed fossils and dinosaur bones.

Southern Alberta is a 'dinosaur galore' area, say experts

The public will play an important role in helping paleontologists record and find new fossils unearthed by the flood. ((Fred Spoor/National Geographic/Nature/Associated Press))

Those surveying flood damage along southern Alberta rivers could be in for a prehistoric surprise.

Last month's severe flooding in southern Alberta is expected to increase the chances of finding fossils and dinosaur bones, say paleontologists.

"All of southern Alberta is dinosaur galore," said Francois Therrien, a paleontologist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, east of Calgary. "It's going to be a matter of just trying to select the areas where there's more exposure and where there's more potential."

Alberta, especially the arid Badlands region in the province's east, is incredibly dino-rich, ranking alongside Mongolia's Gobi Desert for one of the top fossil spots in the world.

But it's those people in some of the hardest hit areas who have the most potential for discovering fossils — specifically, the flood-stricken Foothills area to the west of Calgary.

While the rock there is old enough to contain dinosaurs, thick vegetation in the region means fossils are often only spotted along exposed ricks on rivers and banks.

Exposed bones found in Calgary

It's not only dinosaur bones up for discovery.

'I knew they were larger than what I would say a standard cow is.'—Cody Van Megen, Calgarian who found bison bones

When Cody Van Megen took his dog for a walk along Calgary's swollen Bow River days after last month's floods, he was bracing for signs of devastation along a stretch of bank in the city's southeast.

What he found were a set of gigantic rib bones, sticking out of the riverbank.

"I was a little surprised because of the size of them," he says. "It was kind of exciting to see something like that. I knew they were larger than what I would say a standard cow is."

Van Megen took some pictures and got in touch with Therrien, who told him the bones were unlikely to be from a dinosaur, because the rock in the Calgary area is too young.

But the discovery could still be significant — potentially signalling an early bison fossil — and a team will be heading out in August to have a look.

Public plays important role

Therrien predicts a call like Van Megen's will likely be the first of many this summer. He and others are urging to public to keep their eyes peeled.

"The general public plays a big role in helping paleontologists with finding new fossils, especially in remote areas," says Therrien.

"So when people find fossils along riverbanks we always appreciate them contacting us and letting us know about any new discoveries that have been made."

While amateur explorers can discover Alberta's buried treasures, however, they're not permitted to collect them without a permit.

Fossils and artifacts are protected under provincial law and even when in private hands, they remain the property of the province.

Darryl Bereziuk of the Archaeological Survey of Alberta says the potential for finding artifacts -- including bison bone beds, tool collections and rock drawings -- is also high.

The 45,000 archaeological sites listed in the province are "just the tip of the iceberg", he says, noting his group "continually" receives calls about new discoveries.

"The great majority of archaeological sites out there have not been recorded yet, which is why we need the help of the public to let us know when they see some of these things."

Caution while exploring is urged as high floodwaters do, however, mean many potential sites are still soggy and even unsafe. But Therrien says he plans to bring a crew to look at certain areas within a few weeks.

Other teams will be waiting until late August or the autumn to check on existing sites and look for new ones.