When I first started in the excavation industry, one of my co-workers exposed a medium-sized rock that he noticed was different. He picked it out of the small sight-hole he was digging and washed it off.
It turned out to be a really cool looking fossil.
Though neither of us were paleontologists, the clearly defined grooves and edges made us guess it was probably a fossilized marine plant.
For the next week we were on the lookout. Running a hydrovac truck on the east Edmonton corridor, each dig was another opportunity to add to our bounty. We couldn’t wait to solidify our new careers as fossil treasure hunters.
Of course we never did find another fossil, except for one small chunk of petrified wood.
Small fossils like this are uncovered on a daily basis by excavators and hydrovac trucks around the world, especially in the prairies and badlands of Alberta.
But some are earth-shattering discoveries that make headlines.
These five historic findings by excavation operators were completely by accident, but caused an international sensation.
The Nodosaur Found North of Fort McMurray
In 2011, Shawn Funk was excavating at the Millenium Mine north of Fort McMurray when he hit something.
His excavator had unearthed an incredible find: the completely-preserved body of a large, armored nodosaur that resembled a dragon.
The worksite was halted, and word of the discovery raced like wildfire throughout the Suncor operation. Soon museum technicians were on site examining, excavating, and preparing the massive fossil to be moved to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller.
The discovery made worldwide news, for good reason.
Paleobiologist Jakob Vinther described the armored herbivore as so well-preserved that it “might have been walking around a couple weeks ago”. The thorny armor and two large 20-inch-long spikes protruding from its shoulders were perfectly intact, and traces of scales, skin, and tendons were present. There were microscopic remains of the nodosaur’s original colour, and even the dinosaur’s last meal may have been fossilized in the stomach, according to the museum.
The large, heavy, solitary plant eater had leaf-shaped teeth but lacked the mace-like tail clubs of its more famous close relative. The animal plodded along then-Alberta’s humid shorelines munching on ferns and grazing on other plant life.
This spectacular finding ended up being the oldest dinosaur ever discovered in Alberta. It continues to make headlines around the world as it was only recently put on display in 2017.
The Two Alberta Duckbilled Dinosaurs Found One Month Apart
In 2013, a national buzz was again created when an excavator working for a Tourmaline Oil pipeline crew near Spirit River, Alberta scraped the fossilized remains of a 10-meter-long hadrosaur.
Work on the site was suspended and experts were brought in to work on removing the massive fossil.
Duckbilled dinosaurs roamed throughout western Canada and measured up to 12 meters long; they were also the first dinosaur family to be discovered in North America.
A month later, another duckbilled dinosaur was discovered by an excavator working for Degner Construction in Leduc, just south of Edmonton. Again the worksite was shut down and the fossil recovered and moved to the museum.
Paleontologists from the Royal Tyrrell Museum and Minister of Alberta Culture praised the crews for stopping work and reporting the findings, allowing the museum experts time to safely recover the fossils.
The Massive Long-Necked Dinosaur that Probably Sparked Dragon Legends in Ancient China
In 2006, road construction workers uncovered a series of large neck bones near Qijang City in southern China.
Further excavation by paleontologists from the University of Alberta unearthed more bones. It was soon discovered that they belonged to a gigantic and extremely long-necked dinosaur called Qijanglong, which would have measured around 15 meters long and amazingly, still had the head attached. The large, four-legged, long-necked herbivore is found exclusively in Asia, although similar but smaller-necked dinosaurs have been found the world over.
The Qijianglong had neck vertebrae that were filled with air, making their necks relatively lightweight despite their enormous size.
“Nowhere else we can find dinosaurs with longer necks than those in China. The new dinosaur tells us that these extreme species thrived in isolation from the rest of the world,” explained PhD student Tetsuto Miyashita, who was involved in the excavation.
The Qijianglong finding made international headlines. Miyashita wondered if the ancient Chinese had made other similar discoveries which possibly gave rise to the legends of dragons in China.
The long-necked skeleton is now housed in a local museum in Qijiang.
The Michigan Farmer Who Dug Up a Whooley Mammoth
In 2015, farmer James Bristle was excavating a trench in his wheat field when he dug up a three-foot-long bone.
Believing it may have been a dinosaur bone, the farmer contacted the University of Michigan, which sent a team of paleontologists and students to the site. News of the discovery soon spread as the team unearthed the massive remains of a prehistoric woolley mammoth.
The mammoth’s skull, tusks, and other skeletal remains were hurriedly recovered and driven away on a flatbed trailer and the excavation site was filled in. The find represented one of the more complete sets of woolly mammoth bones ever to be found in the state.
Bristle had given the university only one day to complete the excavation, because of his tight farming schedule tied to the harvest.
Woolley mammoths roamed North America until their disappearance around 11,700 years ago. Roughly the same size as modern African elephants, the woolley mammoth was well adapted to living in freezing environments as it was covered in fur. Incredibly, an isolated population survived on a small Russian island until as recently as 4000 years ago.
This mammoth was likely killed and eaten by humans, according to Paleontologist Dan Fisher.
The Construction Crew that Unearthed a Rare Triceratops Skull in Colorado
In the summer of 2017, a construction crew breaking ground on a new fire and police station near Denver, Colorado unearthed the skull of a triceratops.
The construction crew quickly halted work and contacted the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, who sent paleontologists over to examine the site and confirm the finding. City officials kept the discovery quiet while 24-hour security was put in place, and work soon began on extracting the fossil.
The iconic dinosaur is known for having three horns on its head and a shield-like head plate. Triceratops was a massive creature, comparable in size to an African elephant, with a head among the largest of all land animals. The horns and shield were likely used in combat against other triceratops as well as for visual display for mating.
Dinosaur fossils have been known to be buried beneath Denver for more than a century, but as most of the city is paved, substantial findings are rare, and intact triceratops skulls and even rarer.
Fossil Poachers are Supplying Black Market Collectors
Whenever a discovery is made, especially of a larger find, the location is often kept secret and security is setup to deter thieves and vandals.
A skyrocketing demand for fossils has created a poaching and fossil prospecting boom, especially in the US across the Great Plains and the West.
At auction, dinosaur eggs can fetch $100,000, a mammoth can bring in $400,000, and a T-Rex will bring in $8 million or higher.
So keeping the site secure is a high priority. As interest in fossils and the willingness to pay for them has increased, black-market purveyors have become more brazen.
One criminal case came to light in 2006 when a nearly intact Allosaurus, a close relative of the T-Rex, was illegally excavated in Utah and sold on the black market to a collector in Asia.
Here in Alberta, the rules for collecting and excavating fossils are rigid. It’s nearly impossible to legally keep a fossil. Alberta has some of the most restrictive regulations for fossil collecting in the world.
Parkland is off-limits. Private land requires permission from the owner – and only fossils found on the surface can be removed. Excavating a fossil from the ground for personal gain is illegal.
Luckily, most excavating companies in Alberta follow the rules, shut down the worksite, and call in an expert, preserving fossil discoveries for display in museums.
As for me, I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes out.