BY HEIDI YANG, P.ENG.
Peace River Branch
do the Grande Prairie area, a creek bed and an engineer have
in common? A Pachyrhinosaurus-like dinosaur, of course.
This past spring, APEGGA member Dr. Robert (Bert) Hunt, P.Eng.,
and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology unearthed an
800-lb. fossil skull from the Pipestone Creek bone bed. The
plant-eating dinosaur had a frilled skull like the triceratops
and was about the size of a modern-day rhino.
"It is one of the two most complete skulls found of this
particular dinosaur in the world," says Dr. Hunt. "The
significance of this skull is that its completeness basically
tells us where everything was located on the skull and their
The Engineering Challenge
Dr. Hunt, a mechanical engineer with a PhD in geophysics as
well as an instructor at Grande Prairie Regional College since
1974, played a key role in this excavation - and in many before
it. Here's the challenge he faced this time: you have a hole
in the ground and an 800-lb. rock at the bottom. How do you
get it out, as well as up a 400-metre, steep embankment?
That's in the rain and snow, by the way.
"I used my problem solving skills garnered from engineering
studies and broke this complex problem into pieces,"
says Dr. Hunt. "Our original plan was to slide it down
and then take it out with quads and a tandem trailer along
the creek bed, but fresh snow and high water crossed out that
"So, we constructed a tent and provided heat to the excavation
area so that we could continue work on the skull. We then
got a double-winch tow truck within 400 metres vertically
above the site, found about 400 metres of steel cable and
a skid, then hauled out the plaster jacket containing the
An Engineer and More
His original involvement was supposed to be just that kind
of expertise. Geology instructor Dr. Desh Mittra introduced
Dr. Hunt to the field of paleontology in 1983 when their first
major fossil was found. And a rare find it was: a complete
skeleton of a 10,000-year-old elk.
Dr. Hunt ended up with some extra responsibilities. He became
the prime negotiator with landowners, and equipment owners
and operators. He even helped glue bones together. "It's
like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. It's a lot of fun."
In 1988, a joint venture between Grande Prairie Regional College
and the Tyrrell Museum led to further Pipestone Creek excavations
of the Pachyrhinosaurus-like dinosaur. "As the relationship
with the Tyrrell Museum and the college grew, my role did
as well," says Dr. Hunt. "I also got involved in
the project management aspect of organizing digs, collection
trips and prospecting.
"Funding them with dollars and gifts donated by the college
and the community was a challenge but very rewarding. We have
many locals who will assist with expenses and labour just
for the opportunity to find a 72-million-year-old dinosaur
skull, so that they can touch it and excavate for restoration."
Dr. Hunt understands their fascination. The many hours he's
spent volunteering in excavations and bone reconstructions
have been gratifying, he says. "It's good to be able
to enhance the reputation of the college in the area of applied
research and expand our knowledge of dinosaurs that once lived
in this area."
And he has a vision. "My personal objective is to keep
local fossils found in this area and have them on display
at places like the Grande Prairie Museum, the college and
at Center 2000 (Grande Prairie's tourist information venue),
so that we can see some of our own natural history."
In August Tyrrell Museum gave the regional college a full-sized
replica of a free-standing skeleton of the Pipestone Creek
Pachyrhinosaurus to commemorate the years of collaboration
between the two organizations.
An APEGGA Fit
In a way, there's a third organization involved. Dr. Hunt
thinks the work at the Pipestone Creek bone bed fits naturally
with his role as a member of APEGGA. He has provided leadership
in the community for dinosaur research, and he serves the
public by educating people on what to do when they find a
fossil. He also uses his engineering background to ensure
the safety of crews during these excavations.
"What I am doing is a great example of how our profession
can help other
professions. As an engineer, I have learned a lot from the
paleontologists. In turn, I have been able to provide useful
skills as an engineer in problem solving, project management
More Bones Ahead
The tale doesn't end here. Dr. Hunt is currently working on
two different bone beds. In September, what seems to be an
entire skeleton of a potentially new species was found along
the Wapiti River.
In 2001, another new adventure began with the rediscovery
of a bone bed - that has, again, the potential to provide
paleontologists with another new species of Alberta dinosaur.
Information on what the species is has eluded the Tyrrell
Museum for the 50 or more years since the bone bed was first
Who would have thought that the area south and west of Grande
Prairie along the Wapiti River would be the second richest
dinosaur area in North America? What new dinosaurs will be
found and how will they differ from those in Southern Alberta?
We'll have to wait and see what Dr. Hunt and the others dig