Where the last of the dinosaurs roamed, Canada's 'Jurassic Parks' predate Hollywood hoopla

June 06, 1993|By Allen Deever and Ellie Deever | Allen Deever and Ellie Deever,Contributing Writers

There the egg had been, sunk in that cold black mud, perhaps three hundred years. But there was no mistaking it. There was the . . . embryo with its bird head and curved back and its heart beating under its throat. . . . Here was I hatching out the eggs of the biggest of all extinct birds. Drumheller, Alberta -- When H. G. Wells described hatching prehistoric eggs to life in his 19th-century story, "Aepyrornis Island," little did he know he was reporting a Canadian news story 100 years ahead of his time.

Inside the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology not far from Drumheller are the most priceless dinosaur eggs in existence. Discovered in 1987 at Devil's Coulee (186 miles from Calgary), more than a dozen dinosaur nests yielded up to 20 cantaloupe-sized eggs each.

Alas, they are millions of years beyond hatching, but this makes them no less exciting, for inside were found the perfectly preserved fetuses of baby duck-billed dinosaurs (herbivores that grew to 33 feet in height).

According to Michael Crichton, author of "Jurassic Park" -- on which the film of the same name, opening this week, is based -- the day will come when genetic biologists can clone dinosaurs from DNA extracted from insects preserved in amber or from fossil fragments such as the eggs at Tyrrell.

Until that time, dinosaur enthusiasts can still visit Canada's first three "Jurassic Parks" to view a landscape where it is believed every known variety of dinosaur once roamed.

Those making their way to the province of Alberta will be able to celebrate that sector of time known as the Mesozoic Era and the three periods within it: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous.

Stop first at the Tyrrell Museum, a $30 million saurian showcase. The museum boasts the largest display of dinosaur specimens in the world, including a rare complete skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex dubbed "Black Beauty."

Some 800 other fearsome fossils are set to life by colorful murals depicting how ancient Earth looked. Fifteen mini-theaters provide continuous shows, and 20 electronic games take visitors on a journey through millions of years of Earth's history. Hands-on computers allow children of all ages to design their own dinosaurs and then find out if the creatures could have survived.

The detail that has gone into each full-scale model is amazing. While excavating an albertasaurus (first cousin to the tyrannosaur) in 1884, Canadian geologist Joseph Tyrrell (the museum's namesake) was fortunate enough to find imprints of dinosaur skin in the soft rock.

From this information, "Lillian," a 26-foot-tall albertasaurus, was literally squeezed into existence, drop by drop from a hand-held syringe, in an exacting effort to duplicate the true texture of her skin.

The museum is also a research facility, where it seems each week a new discovery is made. The eggs discovered at Devil's Coulee, for instance, are giving researchers important clues as to how these dinosaurs lived. Fossil evidence suggests they traveled in herds and were highly protective of their young. Remains of one mother hadrosaur were found, frozen in time, atop eggs she tried to protect from a landslide.

Other recent studies to determine brain size and shape revealed some of these "dimwitted" dinosaurs may have been more intelligent than our modern-day horse.

Turning down another museum passageway, the visitor marvels at the painted casts of triceratops (last of the horned dinosaurs), ankylosaur (last of the armored dinosaurs) and a leptoceratops (perhaps the last remaining dinosaur of all).

'In Memoriam'

The dioramas of dinosaurs end abruptly, as the dinosaurs did themselves. A banner above the hallway reads: "Dinosaurs are dead. All of them. Something happened about 64 million years ago that ended their line." In an alcove to the left there is a plaque that says "In Memoriam" and lists the names of the fallen. It's apt that the memorial exists here, because it is believed the last remaining dinosaur expired in Alberta.

There have been many theories to explain the dinosaurs' sudden demise; the most popular centers on iridium, an element found in platinum ores. Iridium is rare on Earth but common in space. In conjunction with the dinosaur's disappearance, there seemed to a marked increase of iridium on Earth.

Scientists theorize that the fragment of some crumbling asteroid plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico near the Yucatan peninsula, strikingthe water with a force equal to 10 million hydrogen bombs. The impact would have created a dust cloud that would obscure the sun for three months, causing surface temperatures to drop below freezing.

It's a chilling theory to ponder as one enters the museum's Hall of the Ice Age and continues on to the present age.

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