As a kid I had aspirations to be both a geologist and an archaeologist, so when I had the chance to go on a fossil dig at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden, I jumped on it. My 12 year-old self was pumped! And my present-day self – now the mother of a dinosaur-crazed three-year-old – was pretty pumped too.
My afternoon begins with a tour of Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre – home to the largest collection of marine reptile fossils in Canada. Now, thanks to my son’s love of all things prehistoric, I already know why the museum is home to marine fossils and not land living dinosaurs fossils: in the Late Cretaceous Period about 80 million years ago, the area that is now Manitoba was covered by the Western Interior Seaway. And these fossils are now ripe for discovery along the Manitoba Escarpment, the former shoreline of the glacial lake Agassiz.
“We’re actually going to the beach,” quips my tour guide Eric about heading out to the field for our fossil dig. “Just 12,000 thousand years too late.”
Eric, a university student and Head Field Technician, gives an in depth tour of the museum’s exhibits, including the fossils of a short necked plesiosaur, the fierce looking Xiphactinus fish, and one of only seven prehistoric crocodiles in the world.
He describes sites where a variety of fossils, like those of squid, fish and shark teeth, are found together as a “death assemblage,” a pretty intense term for some pretty intense prehistoric creatures. And the most intense creature of all is the museum’s feature attraction the massive 43-foot mosasaur – known as Bruce. Bigger than a T-Rex, Bruce was just recently joined by a second mosasaur, the 30-foot Suzy.
After we tour the exhibits, we go behind the scenes to see what isn’t on display. There are 1,000 drawers filled with fossils and other cool finds – like the hair of a woolly mammoth!
In the lab, Eric shows me how he and other technicians painstakingly clean the fossils using dental tools. He asks me not to photograph a table where a sheet of plastic was covering an “extremely rare find” that he hinted is going to be a pretty big deal in the paleontology world. I try to get him to tell me more, but he is tight-lipped!
Now that I know the history of how these fossils came to be and how the museum preserves them, it is time to head out into the field to see if we could add to their collection. Eric, museum volunteer Samantha and I head out on a short drive to Site 13, known as the Ditch. The name becomes obvious when we walk a short distance from the road, where erosion has left a deep crevice – the Ditch.
Eric and Samantha remove tarps protecting two plaster jackets at the site. Obviously there are fossils to be found here, so we arm ourselves with dental picks and paint brushes and get to work. It’s a windy day, but the sun is shining as we dig through the soft earth. It’s kind of relaxing, digging and brushing, digging and brushing.
And yet it’s exciting as I wonder if every rock I dig out is something significant. And then Samantha, who is literally two feet away from me, says, “I think I found something.”
I look over and Eric is already there, pushing away the dirt. “That’s a mosasaur vertebrae,” he says. How cool! He says the rounded shape is a clear giveaway, Samantha admits with a laugh that she thought it was just a rock.
After the excitement of the find, we take a break and head into the Ditch.
I slide my way down the steep slope and look at the layers of earth’s history on display. “Geology nerds love it down here,” says Eric. So I guess I must be a geology nerd, because I think it’s pretty cool.
We head back to the museum where I pick out a poster and two dinosaurs for my son at the gift shop. Later that night when I get home, I tell him all about my day. His eyes light up as he asks if he can go and dig for fossils. I tell him that he has to be ten years old. Then he says to me, “Can I go to the museum to look at the fossils?” So, I guess I’ll be making another trip out to Morden to introduce my son to Bruce, Suzy and all the other fossils at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre.