Dinosaurs! (Or, How to Make a Fossil)

Guess who turns 30 this year? (No not me, that was last year.) It is the Royal Tyrrell Museum. (Pronounced TEER-uhl not tie-RELL) Now, 30 years old might not sound that impressive when you are showcasing exhibits that can boast 30 MILLION years old but none-the-less, still a pretty big deal.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum is nestled down in Alberta’s badlands, in the lovely City of Drumheller. You go from the beautiful canola covered prairies and end up in the desert, where a very different geological landscape awaits you. What makes the Royal Tyrrell Museum one of Canada’s treasures is that it is THE Dinosaur Museum. And who doesn’t love dinosaurs? Seriously, to say you don’t love dinosaurs, weren’t completely fascinated by them as a kid, don’t have a kid that isn’t fascinated by them, and don’t find them remotely interesting now, you are either lying or have no sense of whimsy. Dinosaurs are awesome-that is why Jurassic World it all its terrible-ness still made money hand over fist: dinosaurs are awesome.

And on the other side is a lush prairie field.

And on the other side is a lush prairie field.

For me (and my fiancé), going to the Royal Tyrrell Museum is like being a kid in a proverbial, allbeit science-themed, candy store. Exploring the world, not as we know it, but starting from over 570 million years ago in the precambrian period. What other place can you go where you can you travel in time, going from the Permian, to the Triassic, round a corner, end up in the Jurassic period, walk a little further on and hit the Cretaceous period, see a mass extinction event (one that wasn’t influenced by human activity nor threatens your current safety) and live to see the Rise of the Mammals?

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Dimetrodons from the Permian period.

Stegasaurous (my personal favourite) from the Jurassic period.

Stegasaurous (my personal favourite) from the Jurassic period.

Triceratops from the Cretaceous period.

Triceratops from the Cretaceous period.

Just another thing that makes Alberta a pretty special place to live is the fact that it seems the land in which we now call Alberta was once a hot bed (now fossil bed) for dinosaurs. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise, considering that our economy is oil-based. Petroleum hydrocarbons are what happens to plants and animals millions of years and thousands of tonnes of pressure after they die. What is surprising to me is that we are able to find so many dinosaur fossils at all. What we dig out of the ground are not animals that existed 10s to 100s of millions of years ago themselves, but rather pieces of those animals (and plants) that just happened to die under just the right conditions where their decay wasn’t stunted and they were then turned to stone. This becomes even more remarkable when we are able to find evidence of soft tissues.

So let’s take  a look at how to make a fossil:

The first thing that has to happen is that the animal has to die. Now when you die, there are lots of things that happen. There are always scavengers that are looking for a quick meal. There are also bacteria that start breaking down all of the organic matter through a bunch of biochemical reactions. Then there is the environment: wind, rain, fire, it can all affect the body of a decaying organism. But I haven’t told you anything that you didn’t already know: animals die, their bodies decay. That process doesn’t necessarily lead to fossilisation. To make a fossil, the carcass needs to be buried, and pretty quickly, before too many things have eaten it or capricious weather has destroyed the remains. Now, the speed at which an animal needs to be buried depends on environmental factors such as humidity and temperature. The key is for the animal to be buried before too much of the carcass, specifically bone, is destroyed by the natural degradation processes.

The skeleton known as

The skeleton known as “Black Beauty” at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. The bones of this T-rex are a striking black. This is due to manganese being incorporated into the skeleton during fossilisation.

Now that we have buried the carcass, the bacteria, naturally present, get to work. Animal bones are not inert, hard structures that our bodies hang off of. Bones are a matrix of living organic tissue where the mineral hydroxyapatite has been grafted up around it. Hydroxyapatite is a mineral comprised of calcium and phosphate ions. Over time and under pressure, the hydroxyapatite can change, incorporating ions from the surrounding sediment, such as iron, uranium, even (rarely) manganese. The biggest change, however, comes from the bacteria “eating” the organic part of the bone. As these bacteria metabolise the organic material from the bone, the produce mineral by products, depositing these minerals into the spaces of the bones previously occupied by the organic matter. The most common mineral deposited is calcium carbonate. The bacteria use calcium ions from the surrounding water and sediment to capture the carbon dioxide that is produced as waste product of their metabolism. Calcium carbonate is better known as limestone. The bacteria may also incorporate other ions, like iron, into these mineral deposits. After many years, the bacteria will have successfully transformed bone into stone.

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When I think about this process, how an animal has to die, be buried quick enough and deep enough that degradation processes don’t completely destroy the skeleton, I can help but be amazed that we even have fossils, let alone the stunning array of fossils that we do have. We have managed to piece together some pretty amazing details about the life on earth millions of years ago. This has allowed us to take a glimpse into our own evolution. This is what the science of palaeontology gives us: a passport into the past, a pastport if you will. So if you have ever wanted to travel back in time, I encourage you to visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

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Dates, Jobs, and Balance in Science

I think it has been pretty clear that I have not been writing as much for Curiosity Science as I would like, even though there is so much to share in the world of science. That has to do with my new adventure: an actual paying job! I am working for Paracel Laboratories as the new business development person for the lab starting in Calgary. What is particularly awesome is that this is also a joint venture with Life Science Forensics. This has given me the opportunity to learn in a new field and also I will be writing for Life Science Forensics blog. It is a great opportunity, but all of this has me spread pretty thin and lacking the inspiration to move forward.

Me and the boy, getting ready for date night.

Me and the boy, getting ready for date night.

Luckily I have a great partner. He’s that handsome one on the right. He knew it was time for us to go out and have a date night. It was a Thursday. Where does he plan to take a scientist who is getting burned out, lacking balance, and getting low in inspiration? He takes her to the Telus Spark Adults Only Night!

Adults Only Night! I am so excited.

Adults Only Night! I am so excited.

 

This has to be one of the best dates that we had, and we have had some pretty great dates. (And yes, I am wearing molecule earrings. I try to dress on point.) I have always loved going to Telus Spark (or in Edmonton, the Telus World of Science) during regular hours, with all of the kids. My nephew has great fun there, and of course, Auntie will always take him, because, science. But this was BETTER! And not just because they were now selling booze (though, it is a charming perk) but you get to play in all of the exhibits without worry that some kid is going to cut in front of you and grub up what you are looking at. Sure, some rowdy adult might do that, but while people really give you the side-eye if you get annoyed with a six year who is wrecking your wind tunnel experiment with their mindless block stacking, they applaud you for pointing out the line to hold the snake. (I don’t really get mad at 6 year olds; I do point out lines. I like order.)

A fossil on display; a loan from the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

A fossil on display; a loan from the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

This time they had the Dinosaurs in Motion exhibit. Art + Science = Amazing! These are sculptures of dinosaurs that are also like big metal puppets. So you learn about the dinosaurs, you learn about how the sculpture was built, and also how to make them move.

Making a T-Rex move requires some decent force!

Making a T-Rex move requires some decent force!

Ever paid homage to a pulley? The pulley is one of the basic, simple machines, reducing the force required to lift an object. It reminded me of first year physics, where we actually had to calculate the amount of force that pulley would reduce the movement of a load by. Why did none of those problems involve us moving a T-rex? Seriously, it might have actually been an interesting exercise if I had to do that calculation.

Me trying to make this guy move with the playstation controller. It isn't going well.

Me trying to make this guy move with the playstation controller. It isn’t going well.

I can tell you that I was not very good at moving the sculptures attached to playstation controller. Apparently moving passed the simple machine of the pulley was too challenging for me. This exhibit was so neat. I loved the art work. The artist that created these sculptures did a wonderful job. What really struck me with this though was that it was an artistic impression of physics, paleontology, and metallurgy. Science isn’t some esoteric field of study that can only be found in the recesses of dusty books; science is in every part of life, allowing us to create beautiful innovations. Whether it is moving dinosaurs or a new app for our smart phones, science can inspire. And the sheer number of adults queued up behind me just to try their hand at making this guy move, is a testament to just how fun expressions of art and science can be.

After playing with dinosaurs we explored the rest of the exhibits and found that there was a display of reptiles. Now, my partner LOVES snakes! (He may have been the adult that I had to point out the line up to.)

The boy and Steve.

The boy and Steve.

Me and Steve.

Me and Steve.

So that is how we met this guy: his name is Steve and he is a rat snake. And if you can’t tell, the look on my partner’s face is his “quick, stick him your purse and make a run for it” look. Of course, we didn’t. It wouldn’t be right. But we did enjoy snuggling with Steve for a few minutes. Snakes are pretty cool.

This date  was so fun. It was different and amazing. It reminded me of why I love science, why I love talking about science, and why it was important for me to start this project in the first place. I love what I am doing with Paracel and Life Science Forensics. I am just having a little trouble in finding that thing called balance. But luckily for me, Telus Spark had a whole display demonstrating balance in the Dinosaurs in Motion exhibit. Hopefully now I can find some.

Thanks Telus Spark: we had a great date!

Heading home after a great date!

Heading home after a great date!