Ancient sea reptile from Alberta oilsands yields research bounty

A reptile that once prowled the seas where Alberta's oilsands are now located has been named after a paleontologist who studied prehistoric ocean life.

A reptile that once prowled the seas where Alberta's oilsands are now located has been named after a paleontologist who studied prehistoric ocean life.

In a paper that formally describes the carnivorous aquatic predator, paleontologists from the University of Calgary have named the 2.6-metre-long plesiosaur Nichollsia borealis in memory of Elizabeth (Betsy) Nicholls.

The skull of Nichollsia borealis is on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta. ((Royal Tyrrell Museum))

Nicholls, who died of breast cancer in 2004, was a former curator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. One of her biggest projects was describing the largest-ever prehistoric marine reptile, a 23-metre-long ichthyosaur, found in northern B.C. in 1999.

Former U of C graduate student Patrick Druckenmiller and biological sciences professor Anthony Russell wrote the paper published in the current issue of the German research journal Palaeontographica Abteilung.

Even though the fossils were unearthed in 1994, Russell said a new species' name must be formally published before it can be shared with the public.

"We chose this name because Betsy was a key player in the study of marine reptiles, a mentor to me, a former student of Tony, and a great person," said Druckenmiller in a news release Thursday.

"We felt it was a fitting way to honour both her memory and her accomplishments in paleontology."

The plesiosaur fossils were uncovered about 60 metres below the surface in a Syncrude mine near Fort McMurray. The specimen, now on display at the Royal Tyrrell, is largely complete, except for its left forelimb and shoulder blade.

Elizabeth (Betsy) Nicholls conducting field work in northeastern B.C. ((Rolex Awards/Tomas Bertelsen))

The Nichollsia borealis lived about 112 million years ago, around the same time that dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Considered one of the most complete and best-preserved plesiosaurs from the Cretaceous Period, the Nicollsia borealis fills a gap of 40 million years that plesiosaur researchers previously did not know much about.

"I was able to have its three-dimensional skull CT-scanned so we can see the details of the insides of its braincase. This has helped us understand this animal in more detail than almost any other plesiosaur ever found," said Druckenmiller, who is now curator of earth sciences at the University of Alaska Museum.

The researchers credited Syncrude with helping them in the study of fossils found in the ancient sea floor now being mined for oilsands.

"At the Syncrude site, the people who are operating the excavating equipment are perched up in these massive machines, so one scoop of this excavating device takes 100 tonnes of rock at a time," said Russell.

"So the operator is astute enough and has good enough eyesight to be able to see there's something important, significant and that we should shut things down for a while, get this out of there and then let the operation start up again."