New feathered dinosaur species named after famed Alberta paleontologist

Meet the Albertavenator curriei, a feathered, toothy dinosaur that once roamed a lush coastal plain in what is now Drumheller Valley.

Philip Currie has been researching predatory dinosaurs for decades

An artist's depiction shows the Albertavenator curriei, which was about the size of a small adult human. (Oliver Demuth)

Meet the Albertavenator curriei, a feathered, toothy dinosaur that once roamed a lush coastal plain in what is now Alberta's Drumheller Valley, a species that now carries the name of a famed Canadian paleontologist.

The dinosaur was named after Philip Currie, a professor at the University of Alberta. Currie is a Canada Research chair and has worked for decades on predatory dinosaurs.

"This is a great honour … it's in fact an Alberta dinosaur and it's a type of dinosaur that I've worked on over the years," Currie told CBC News. "It's extra meaningful."

It's well-known that this type of dinosaur — a troodontid — is one of Currie's favourites, said David Evans, author of the paper naming the species published in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. Because fossils and fragments of this type of dinosaur are so rare, Evans said he couldn't miss the chance to honour Currie.

"Given what Phil has done for Alberta paleontology and the contributions he's made to the study of these feathered dinosaurs, it seemed only appropriate to name it after him," said Evans, who is the Temerty Chair in Vertebrate Paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Albertavenator curriei was named after renowned paleontologist Philip Currie. (Eva Koppelhus)

Currie acknowledges his obsession.

"There's a lot of mystery surrounding troodontids; that's why I love them so much," Currie told CBC News.

Other than the name, of course, it also associates my name with Alberta, which is a great thing.- Philip Currie, paleontologist

Imagine a feathered dinosaur about the size of a small adult, with huge eyes that could likely see in the dark.

A close relative of the velociraptor, it had sharp, serrated teeth, suggesting that it ate meat, though it may have also added a bit of vegetation to its diet. It had sharp claws on its feet and was one of the fastest dinosaurs. 

Add the huge relative brain size — Evans refers to them as the "brainiest" of all dinosaurs — the semi-opposable fingers on their wings and a long tail, and you have a puzzling and exceptional prehistoric animal. 

Reclassifying an old dino

Albertavenator curriei — meaning "Currie's Alberta hunter" — lived in a swampy environment similar to that of today's southern Louisiana. 

The remains of this dinosaur — only small fragments of skull — were found in the 1990s near the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, when they were believed to belong to a troodon, another feathered dinosaur that lived 76 million years ago. But paleontologists never understood why this particular one lived five million years later: it should have evolved with different traits over time.

A skull fragment helped paleontologists identify the new species, Albertavenator curriei. (Kentaro Chiba)

So Evans and his team re-examined the remains. Upon closer inspection, they realized that this was an entirely new species, though still part of the troodontid family.

This isn't the first dinosaur to be named in his honour, but Currie said this one is of particular significance to him.

"Other than the name, of course it also associates my name with Alberta, which is a great thing," Currie said.

One of the fragments used in the discovery was found by American paleontologist Jack Horner when Currie was taking him around the site of the Tyrrell Museum while it was under construction. They weren't able to collect the entire jaw, as it had begun to rain.

Two weeks later, Currie returned to the site, but was unable to find it. He returned time and time again, he said, for almost two years, always leaving empty-handed. Then Horner returned and Currie took him to the site.

"Sure enough, Jack went right to the site and showed me where the jaw was," Currie said.

Evans said that he's thrilled to be able to honour not only a colleague but a researcher who fostered his love of paleontology.

"I've named a few dinosaurs, including a few from Alberta ... for me what made this special was being able to tip my hat to Phil Currie," Evans said. "To be able to name one of his favourite dinosaurs found in Alberta after him, and honour all the work he's done.… it was great to be able to recognize him for that."