The fragments that spilled out of his excavator bucket didn’t look anything remotely similar to a rock. And he ought to know. He spends a lot of time working with sand and rock. But this was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. After reeling from the shock, he wasn’t sure if he should study the items further or keep on working. He decided to call his supervisor instead. But neither of them had any clue as to what they’d just uncovered.
It was a typical spring day for Shawn Funk. He was the heavy equipment operator for Canada’s largest energy company, Suncor. He had been assigned to the Athabasca Oil Sand Project at the Millennium Mine in Eastern Alberta. Fortunately, he had plenty of strength and endurance because it was a lot of hard work. But Funk didn’t mind. The pay was good and business was booming. And there was a perfectly good explanation for that.
The Athabasca oil sands contain bitumen deposits. This heavy type of crude oil was created from the remains of ancient creatures and marine plants that existed millions of years ago. But over time, they became fossils. Approximately 70 percent of the oil sand deposits in the world are located in northern Alberta. But the Athabasca site contains the largest amount. Bitumen has been used for centuries to produce substances such as asphalt, and to waterproof structures. But it wasn’t really considered a part of the globe’s oil reserves because refining the material was not cost effective. However, that changed in recent years. But he had no idea what discoveries awaited under the soil.
In 1967, the Athabasca site started production. But the real boom began in the 2000s. This is why people headed to Fort McMurray to look for jobs in the various oil sands, pipeline, and natural gas operations in the area. Funk was among those who came to this town. But he never imagined that his story would take the interesting turn it did when he made an amazing discovery that had been right under his feet.
Thanks to surface mining, deposits can be extracted from about three percent of Athabasca oil sands. And that’s the kind of work Funk was doing. He operated an excavator every day that ripped through the dirt, rock, and sand layers. These materials would then be filtered to attain valuable bitumen. The work was tedious. But one day, Funk’s excavator found something unusual that put an end to the monotony.
At some point in the early afternoon, the excavator bucket hit against something that was much harder than conventional rock. Funk suddenly stopped what he was doing and brought the bucket up. Then he emptied the contents next to the pit, but that’s when he saw something odd. The lumps were big and they looked like rocks, but their color was similar to that of a walnut. Something about this told him these rocks were important. So, he turned his equipment off and notified his boss.
Mike Gratton came over to take a look at Funk’s discovery. He was the site’s supervisor. But as he crouched over to study the lumps, he couldn’t help but wonder what they were. The rocks had rows of light-brown colored disks and a gray stone in between. In his 12 years of experience, Funk had discovered fossilized wood and petrified tree stumps. But this was way different. “We gotta get this checked out,” Gratton told Funk. And that’s when the men were truly petrified.
“It was definitely nothing we had ever seen before,” said Funk. He and Gratton decided to reach out to the higher-ups about this odd-looking discovery. The company contacted the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, which was 420 miles from the site. The men were convinced they had uncovered an ancient relic. The museum sent Dr. Donald Henderson, who’s a dinosaur curator, and Darren Tanke, a veteran tech, to check out the unusual stones. Suncor paid for their flight expenses. But the real work was still ahead of them.
The lumps were examined by Henderson and Tanke to see if these were parts of a dinosaur fossil. To do that, they had to extract all of the remains. Suncor excavators lent the two men several hands in order to dig through the rock. They worked in 12-hour shifts. Eventually, the fossil was finally removed from the rockface, all except for the bottom part. And that would prove to be a challenge too.
The excavators had managed to wear down the rock to a 15,000-pound protuberance where the fossil had remained for millions of years. Now, they had to get it out, so the team dug two tunnels underneath the stone block and added wood beams within. This allowed them to whittle down the remaining rocks. Then they placed slings on the ends of the beams to lift the whole structure from the ground. But disaster struck when the machine was activated.
The beams didn’t rise upward. Instead, they split to the sides. This caused the rock to collapse under its weight. The entire team was disappointed by this setback. They hoped that they could preserve whatever was left. To do this, they protected them by covering the pieces in burlap and plastic. Then, they loaded the items onto a truck. The rest was up to the museum staff. Only they would know what this odd fossil was, but the process would take years.
Separating a fossil from its rocky prison is a lot like sculpting. It takes a lot of time, and tons of attention to expose the remains. “You almost have to fight for every millimeter,” said Mark Mitchell, the museum’s fossil preparators. It took Mitchell 7,000 hours of hard work and five years to liberate the fossil from the rock. All that time and hard work had definitely paid off in the end.
As it turned out, Funk had discovered a dinosaur fossil, and it was rare find indeed. The fossil belonged to a nodosaur, a newly discovered species and genus of the ankylosaur. But that wasn’t the most extraordinary thing about this. The fossil’s scales, armor, and skin had remained well-preserved. “We don’t just have a skeleton,” explained Caleb Brown, a museum researcher. “We have a dinosaur as it would have been.” But how did it stay so well-preserved for so many years?
Paleontologists believe that the nodosaur was around during the Cretaceous period. At this time, Alberta was separated from British Columbia by the ocean. Its climate was also warm and humid. Experts believe that the nodosaur was caught by a flooding river and wound up on the open ocean where it sank. Its body was then engulfed by mineral-rich mud at the bottom of the sea. These minerals replaced the animal’s soft tissue and bones, preserving it for all time. But it was the best-preserved dinosaur fossil found so far and the public was ready to see it.
The Royal Tyrrell Museum had finally unveiled the dinosaur to the public. In fact, it was a centerpiece exhibition that contained the fossils found in the industrial site in Alberta. The specimen will undoubtedly be studied for several more years. But the museum staff wasn’t the only one who loved this exhibit. “You’ll see a lot of Suncor people down there,” explained Doug Lacey, the mine’s project manager, who directed the operation. “I know I will. Hopefully, I get the backstage pass for the kids, now that I know a few of the fellas.”