Fossil treasure trove found at oilsands

Alberta's oilsands is not just producing black gold — they're also yielding a treasure trove of ancient reptile and dinosaur fossils.
A Syncrude heavy equipment operator unearthed the remains of a plesiosaur while working at the oilsands last week. (Courtesy Syncrude)

Alberta's oilsands is not just producing black gold — they're also yielding a treasure trove of ancient reptile and dinosaur fossils.

The area, which contains one of the largest proven crude oil reserves in the world, was once covered by an ancient sea.

The marine reptile is similar to this fossil discovered in northern Alberta in 1994. (Royal Tyrrell Museum)

Last week, Maggy Horvath, a heavy equipment operator at Syncrude, unearthed a nearly complete plesiosaur fossil during her shift.

It's the 10th fossil discovered on leases held by the oil giant.

Scientist say it's one of the bigger ones — up to 20 metres long and "mostly neck."

"I think it's great that I'm part of this. It felt pretty good to call my son and let him know that I found a prehistoric fossil while working in the mine," said Horvath.

"As operators we always keep our eyes out for a find."

'A very rare find'

The plesiosaur, a marine reptile, hunted fish with its long neck and a big mouth full of sharp, pointy teeth 100 million years ago. It was not a dinosaur. Dinosaurs are now considered to be more closely related to birds than reptiles.

The plesiosaur closely resembles the popular public image of the Loch Ness monster.

Scientists and technicians from the Royal Tyrrell Museum of  Paleontology are examining the fossil.

They hope to have the specimen removed by the end of the week.

"This is a very rare find. It's a ... marine reptile with a very long neck, small head and short body.

The last one recovered was 10 years ago," said Don Brinkman, director of preservation and research at the Tyrrell dinosaur museum.

"We are hoping that this is another specimen of this kind of plesiosaur. The new specimen is particularly important because it looks to be nearly complete."

Oilsands once prehistoric sea

Alberta's oilsands are in an area that was once part of a prehistoric sea and have yielded several important marine reptile fossils.

The last one found in 2000 was declared to be one of the most complete Cretaceous ichthyosaurs of its age ever discovered in North America.

The new plesiosaur the second major oilsands fossil find this year. In March, a worker at Suncor stumbled across one of the oldest dinosaur fossils ever unearthed in Alberta at a mine north of Fort McMurray.

The 110-million-year-old remains were of an ankylosaur, a plant-eating dinosaur with a large tail.

It was buried beneath a kilometre of earth and encased in rock.

Syncrude has a protocol for fossil finds, which requires an operator to stop digging in the immediate area and notify Syncrude's geologist, who works with the Royal Tyrrell on fossil discoveries.

"This is a very exciting discovery for us at Syncrude and for all Albertans," said president and CEO Scott Sullivan.