Terri-Jane Yuzda


Grande Prairie Engineer Helps Dig Up Dinosaur

Below, drawing of the head of a 72-million- year-old, Pachyrhinosaurus-like dinosaur; right a fossil of a10,000-year-old elk.

Peace River Branch

What 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 proportions."

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 possibility.

"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 skull."

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."

College-Tyrrell Partnership
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.

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 and consultation."

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 discovered.
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 up.


Home | Past PEGGs | PEGG Search | Contact Us