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'It's a pretty rare dinosaur': Alberta paleontologist hopes to find Troodon

Philip Currie is on a hunt for an elusive dinosaur. The renowned Alberta paleontologist is becoming increasingly confident he will find a fully intact skeleton of a Troodon in the County of Grande Prairie, where he’s leading a major dig this summer.

Philip Currie will lead a large dig at the Pipestone Creek next summer

Paleontologist Philip Currie is pictured Friday in his lab with a fossil from a dinosaur bonebed in the Grande Prairie region. Currie is leading a major dig there next summer, and hopes to uncover a Troodon skeleteon. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

Philip Currie is on a hunt for an elusive dinosaur.

The renowned Alberta paleontologist is becoming increasingly confident he will find a fully intact skeleton of a Troodon dinosaur in the County of Grande Prairie, where he's leading a major dig next summer at Pipestone Creek.

"We find its teeth all the time up in the Grande Prairie region, yet in the rest of Alberta, it's a pretty rare dinosaur," Currie said Friday.

While the Troodon was named in 1856, a complete specimen has yet to be discovered anywhere, Currie said.

Bits and pieces have been found across North America, from Wyoming to Alaska.

In Alberta, Currie estimates only about 10 per cent of a Troodon skeleton has been unearthed.

We don't have a full understanding of what that animal even looks like.- Philip Currie , paleontologist

"We don't have a full understanding of what that animal even looks like," he said.

Troodon is believed to be closely related to birds.

"Troodon was a very advanced little dinosaur," Currie said.

"We're seeing it was maybe more successful than we thought.

"It has the largest brain known for any dinosaur anywhere in the world."

Finding other small animal bones

Another reason Currie believes the Grande Prairie region could be the spot where researchers find a Troodon is that digs in the area are turning up the bones of small lizards and mammals.

He said it's a big deal, because usually their more fragile skeletons tend to break apart — especially if there's a river nearby with a strong current.

That's what appears to have happened at Dinosaur Provincial Park, near Brooks in southern Alberta.
Silhouettes showing approximate sizes of different members of the Tyrannosaur family. They are: A) Nanuqsaurus hoglundi; B) and C) Tyrannosaurus rex; D) Daspletosaurus torosus; E) Albertosaurus sarcophagus; F and G) Troodon. The scale bar represents one metre. (Anthony R. Fiorillo and Ronald S. Tykoski/Perot Museum of Nature and Sciences)

"If you're an animal that's falling apart because you're rotten, your big bones aren't going to be washed very far by a river, but your small bones will be washed a long way," Currie said, noting the water at Pipestone Creek is fairly calm.

"Because the small animals are being preserved there, we hold out great hope that we're going to find small dinosaurs as well."

Grande Prairie an 'interchange point' 

Next summer at Pipestone Creek, Currie will be working with six to 15 other researchers, including some scientists from around the world.  

Paleontologists from China are expected to take part in the dig, which could provide insight into the hunt for the Troodon, since similar species have been found in parts of Asia.

So far, a dozen different kinds of dinosaurs have been discovered in the Grande Prairie region — remarkable considering that paleontologists have only been digging there since 1976.

In comparison, other sites in Alberta, where about three dozen species have been uncovered, have been active since the 1800s.

When the continents were connected during the dinosaur era, Currie said, Grande Prairie appears to have been near the "interchange point" between Asia and North America.

"There are several families of Asian dinosaurs we've never found in North America," he said. "One of these days I think we're going to find some.

"The potential is definitely there."

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell