Titans in Waiting 

There's an ocean underfoot in southern Manitoba, and it's filled with scary monsters

click to flip through (8) ILLUSTRATION BY JON PARRIS - Titans in Waiting
  • illustration by Jon Parris
  • Titans in Waiting

It's late August in south-central Manitoba. Mustard waves of canola that typically light up summer horizons here are long gone. The remaining fields are striped by grains lain flat to dry between rows of severed, bleaching stalks, leaving vast zebra-like patterns framed by tall blocks of corn. It looks like a good harvest, and farmers are already talking up the coming weather — for January. The future, as defined by next year's crop (and heralded by the occasional whiff of a manure spreader), is what matters here. Yet for Matt Duda, kneeling to delicately brush a block of exposed shale studded with ancient bones in this same fertile landscape, it's the past that holds sway.

Duda is curator of the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre (CFDC) in the city of Morden, an hour and change southwest of Winnipeg. Lodged on a side street in the basement of a multi-use sports and community centre, the CFDC seems an unlikely home to the country's largest collection of marine vertebrate fossils. (See the "Skeletons in a Closet" sidebar on page 44.) That surprising bounty includes an array of fish, sharks, crocodiles, turtles, seabirds, various plesiosaurs (think Ogopogo or Nessie), as well as the centre's signature cabal, a diversity of the giant aquatic lizards known as mosasaurs — toothy, terrifying kings of Mesozoic seas.

The term "mosasaur" can be traced to a 1774 fossil find near the Netherlands' Meuse River. And while recent discoveries call the term's taxonomic validity into question, Dr. Michael Caldwell, mosasaur expert and former president of the Canadian Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, remains bullish on the evolutionary significance of this group of early squamates — the lineage that gave rise to our more familiar lizards and snakes. According to Caldwell, mosasaurs radiated quickly, following the same geologic pace (< 10 million years) to extreme aquatic adaptations as more familiar aquatic titans such as ichthyosaurs and whales. "We now also have fossils of freshwater mosasaurs, some without paddle-like limbs, and good evidence of forked tails," says Caldwell. "A pan-global distribution suggests they were more than lazy coastline migrators, and probably ocean-going. It all points to unexpected diversity."

Caldwell, who is also chair of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, draws attention to the roughly 9,000 species of living squamates and how few — a handful of sea snakes and one marine iguana — have re-entered the ocean. "Mosasaur ancestors went back to the sea, diversifying spectacularly and attaining sizes far exceeding those of modern squamates," he notes. "The largest living lizard — the 2.5-metre Komodo dragon — isn't as big as even the smaller mosasaur, nor anywhere near as nasty. So the 'ferocious sea monster' prize is still held by mosasaurs."

To get a feel for these creatures, I joined Duda and executive director Peter Cantelon at one of the CFDC's several ongoing dig sites. Here, where he got his own start as a volunteer digger, Duda now supervises summer students and tourist volunteers keen on a uniquely authentic experience. In 2011, a scene worthy of a Japanese monster film had been uncovered in this small quarry — a large mosasaur apparently locked in battle with a five-metre predatory fish. While digging down to where they thought this 83-million-year-old cage match extended into the bank, technicians encountered another mosasaur in a different layer. It is this creature that's now being cleaned by Duda's soft-bristled brush. Behind him, the alternating dark-and-light of the quarry's wall, reminiscent of the surrounding fields, tells another geological story.

During the mid- to late-Cretaceous, between 90 and 65 million years ago, this area was under the vast, shallow Western Interior Seaway connecting the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. The seaway thronged with large marine vertebrates, whose dead bodies were often captured after death by the rapid sedimentation in near-shore basins. Over this same time span, ash plumes from volcanic activity accompanying the rise of the Rocky Mountains periodically settled over the area, sinking to the ocean floor to form a slurry that would become bentonite, a mineralized clay. Between eruptions, ash layers were covered over by regular sediment. Long after the seaway disappeared, these deposits were cut through by an ancestral Red River, then further scoured by continental glaciers and meltwaters to expose grey, fossil-bearing shales shot through with lighter bands of bentonite — the Pembina Escarpment, now rising some 100 metres above the prairie. Settlers mined the layers containing bentonite for use in a range of products, from lubricants to steel to toothpaste, but amateur paleontologists mined the fossils revealed in the shales between them.

Although the area's first mosasaur finds date to 1934, little was made of these until the early 1970s, when word spread that bentonite miners were routinely uncovering large skeletons. Aided by Pembina Mountain Clays CAT operator Roy Friesen, local schoolteachers Don Bell and Henry Isaak would show up at night after the mine shut down to plaster-jacket and remove fossils by the light of their automobiles. In only two years, they accumulated 30 mosasaur and 20 plesiosaur skeletons. The struggle to house these would lead to the establishment of the CFDC and its current stock of 1,000-plus specimens. That piece of information alone seems a discovery unto itself; are we really in Manitoba?

And now, with Duda, I'm seeing what Bell and Isaak saw. Close against the quarry wall lie smallish vertebrae and fin bones, a shoulder blade, and ribs arching over what are identified to me as stomach contents (a mess of fish and bird bits). The skeleton scatters toward the far wall in the form of more ribs and several large vertebrae recently uncovered by a father-daughter team of tourist volunteers.

The animal is spectacular. Even before it's all out of the ground, you can sense it's large — though not quite as enormous as Bruce, one of the CFDC's star mosasaurs, whose 13-metre skeletal replica fills an entire room. Mounted at face-level, Bruce's conical dagger teeth and enormous skull — with expandable jaws that could engulf truly massive prey — explain why mosasurs are often called the "T. rex of the seas." Furthermore, the Guinness Book of World Records declared Bruce — actually later discovered to be female — the world's largest mosasaur. Add that to Manitoba's previous Guinness coup of world's largest trilobite, and it's the kind of doubleheader even the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum  — co-tenant in the community centre with the CFDC — can appreciate.

To get to the next site, we follow the undulating escarpment via the squarer geometry of concession roads, a circuitous route that makes little sense to the crows and raptors circling above. Our final turn is onto an off-road track that rises into the hills where Duda, Cantelon and I have to get out and hoof it. Ascending through waist-high weeds amid a conversation about wood ticks ("My record is 135," says Duda), we duck an electrified fence into a hydro cut with a sweeping view over the prairie, and I imagine standing here 10,000 years ago with the greatest of Canada's post-glacial puddles — Lake Agassiz — pooling at our feet. Finally, we cross a band of forest into a mix of pasture and large wedge-shaped shale mounds up to 30-metres high — a landscape unexpected for Manitoba.

Passing an open quarry where several years ago a Scottish family on a CFDC dig uncovered a 10-metre mosasaur they named Angus, we skirt a pond where Duda uncovers a mosasaur vertebrae along the drying shore. On a shale mound, I find a large fish vertebrae, an animal Duda reckons was a few metres in length. On another, Cantelon scoops up a tooth-bearing fish jaw, while I spot what I think is petrified wood near the base of a rose bush. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a chunk of rib. While Duda marks its position with GPS, I find another piece four metres away, joking about the remoteness of it being from the same animal. But when Duda absently pushes the two pieces together, they're a perfect fit; we can't believe our luck or the incalculable odds of this in such a fossiliferous, 83- million-year-old trash heap. On the way out, I toe the leathery eggshell of a local smooth greensnake, recently breached by either a hatchling or a predator, an interesting juxtaposition given the shared origins of snakes and mosasaurs among basal squamates. Beyond such taxonomic connections, however, we all agree we've just experienced the simple gratification of fossil hunting: when recognizable shapes of organic life emerge from an otherwise random matrix of dirt and rock to offer simultaneous mystery, intrigue and knowledge. "Plus, it's addictive," smiles Cantelon.

We're joined the next day by Mary Anne Cram and her 14-year-old son, William. Though the latter is as quiet as his mother is loquacious, they're both well on their own way to fossil addiction after less than a year volunteering in the field and working in the CFDC prep room with delicate tools and compressed-air scribes. "Not only have we both learned a lot, but it has been a great activity for us to do together," says Mary Anne.

We start at the site of the first mosasaur finds, a half-hour from town and accessed by a trail through a grove of towering birch. Walking in, farm fields appear to run along a plateau 10 metres above us. But it's actually we who have descended: the shale pans pocked with small, ongoing digs are the remains of mining operations begun in those same fields, the trees grown since operations ceased decades ago.

Our final site, a cattle range fringed in forest and riven by wetland, features exposures similar to yesterday that likewise quickly produce a rib poking from beneath a large cow pie. Frogs shelter from the sun in wet mud cracks and red-sided gartersnakes dart through the grass, but further fossils prove elusive. After two hours in the hot sun with little to show, we declare fossil hunting yang to yesterday's yin. Disappointing, perhaps, but Duda reminds us that erosion springs eternal, and amazing material regularly surfaces in fields like this — including Bruce, discovered when her massive jaw was thrust straight up from the mud by the footfall of a cow.

That's a hopeful thought: one solid rain or meandering cow and things could change here, the past rising to the surface like mosasaurs breaching for air in an ancient sea.

 

Skeletons in a Closet

Given its professional displays, important collections, educational outreach, and the diversity of creatures found within a 40-minute radius, the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre might be the most underappreciated science attraction in all of Canada. And while it aspires to the kind of recognition enjoyed by Prairie paleo-celebs such as Drumheller, Alberta's Royal Tyrrell Museum, or the T. Rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, Sask., those others are owned by their respective provincial governments and benefit from concomitant funding, research gravitas and marketing muscle. While the small city of Morden has always been the CFDC's most generous benefactor, funding cuts beginning in 2012 increased reliance on fundraising and in-kind donations. Fortunately, executive director Peter Cantelon's experience in business development has been about building such relationships. "The CFDC is market ready, but not market aware," he says.

In Cantelon's opinion, Manitoba's paleontological wealth suggests the province could benefit from buying into fossils to boost tourism and that the region would benefit from any investment in the CFDC, whose draw stretches across Manitoba and into eastern Saskatchewan, western Ontario and North Dakota. "We're also an educational facility that hosts thousands of school kids a year, so the beyond-dollar value we bring to the community is immeasurable."

Happily, the past two years have seen just such traction. Manitoba designated its first official fossil emblem in 2015 — a rendering of Bruce, who now also exists as a life-sized, life-like sculpture at the welcome sign to Morden, an immediately popular roadside attraction. In the CFDC itself, a rendering of the most complete mosasaur skeleton ever found has been installed as a companion to Bruce. Suzy, a 10-metre long mosasaur, traces her name back to "souvenir," the story goes, because many years ago before her significance was fully understood, volunteers used to give pieces of her to visitors. In 2016, after a 12-year process, the CFDC was designated one of seven signature museums (out of 300) in Manitoba, a label that brings additional funding from the province. With fossil surprises on the horizon that will eclipse Bruce in significance when they are published, things are looking up at the CFDC.

Nevertheless, despite these PR watersheds, the CFDC's greatest appeal continues to lie in the ability of the public to participate in digs, an educational opportunity that also helps augment the thousands of hours of labour required to uncover and remove a specimen. "You can't go to a zoo and start taking care of the lions, but even a five-year-old can make an important paleontological discovery," says Cantelon. "All you need is good eyes and curiosity,"

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