A hit comes to the land of dinosaurs

January 03, 1995|By New York Times News Service

DRUMHELLER, Alberta -- With a practiced eye, Philip Currie negotiates the eroded hills, halts at a clearing of weathered sandstone and picks up what appear to be stones.

In fact, they are the fossilized bone fragments of a dinosaur.

Dr. Currie is head of paleontology at the Royal Tyrrell Museum here, the only dinosaur museum in the world not in a city or university but in the heart of dinosaur country.

Drumheller is a town of 6,500 in the Alberta badlands, where glacial ice and meltwater carved deep trenches into the prairie around 10,000 years ago.

The town lies about 100 miles northeast of Calgary. Five miles away at Kneehill Creek, Joseph Tyrrell in 1884 came upon the skull of a fearsome, flesh-eating dinosaur later dubbed Albertosaurus.

That was one of the big discoveries of its day, and touched off the region's first dinosaur rush as American and Canadian museums competed for fossils, which were carted off in boxcars to museums in New York, Chicago, Toronto and Ottawa.

Decades later, the government of Alberta began displaying its own dinosaurs, which culminated in 1985 with the opening of the Royal Tyrrell Museum showing 35 complete dinosaur skeletons against the conjectured background of their habitat more than 65 million years ago.

Now a new dinosaur rush has been generated by the popularity of the film "Jurassic Park."

Dr. Currie has seen it four times.

Some see the youthful, outdoors-loving Canadian paleontologist as the model for Dr. Dale Grant, the hero of the book and movie who was interested not just in collecting and cataloging bones but extrapolating dinosaur social behavior.

"I can empathize with that character very easily," said Dr. Currie, whose research has shown that dinosaurs, far from being pea-brained plodders, functioned in social groups, nurtured offspring and shared characteristics of modern birds.

Dr. Currie, 45, is grateful to the movie for what it's done for his museum. A half-million people have visited in the past two years, 40 percent more than the pre-"Jurassic Park" days of 1992.

Dr. Currie talks about dinosaurs with the excitement of a child.

"They are all the superlatives -- the biggest, the longest, the fiercest, the wildest things out of your imagination," he said. "The difference is, they were real. And they made you think of the age of the Earth, how could animals get that big, how would they interact with each other."

Once, at a British Columbia site, Dr. Currie encountered footprints that ran across rippled mudstone and disappeared into the water.

"I was walking along there and was looking at these footprints, and the sun was just right, just a perfect level. You couldn't tell it was rock anymore. It looked like mud. It looked like a beach, and my hairs just kind of stood on the back of my neck."

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