Where the last of the dinosaurs roamed, Canada's 'Jurassic Parks' predate Hollywood hoopla

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There the egg had been, sunk in that cold black mud, perhaps three hundred years. But there was no mistaking it. There was the . . . embryo with its bird head and curved back and its heart beating under its throat. . . . Here was I hatching out the eggs of the biggest of all extinct birds. Drumheller, Alberta -- When H. G. Wells described hatching prehistoric eggs to life in his 19th-century story, "Aepyrornis Island," little did he know he was reporting a Canadian news story 100 years ahead of his time.

Inside the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology not far from Drumheller are the most priceless dinosaur eggs in existence. Discovered in 1987 at Devil's Coulee (186 miles from Calgary), more than a dozen dinosaur nests yielded up to 20 cantaloupe-sized eggs each.

Alas, they are millions of years beyond hatching, but this makes them no less exciting, for inside were found the perfectly preserved fetuses of baby duck-billed dinosaurs (herbivores that grew to 33 feet in height).

According to Michael Crichton, author of "Jurassic Park" -- on which the film of the same name, opening this week, is based -- the day will come when genetic biologists can clone dinosaurs from DNA extracted from insects preserved in amber or from fossil fragments such as the eggs at Tyrrell.

Until that time, dinosaur enthusiasts can still visit Canada's first three "Jurassic Parks" to view a landscape where it is believed every known variety of dinosaur once roamed.

Those making their way to the province of Alberta will be able to celebrate that sector of time known as the Mesozoic Era and the three periods within it: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous.

Stop first at the Tyrrell Museum, a $30 million saurian showcase. The museum boasts the largest display of dinosaur specimens in the world, including a rare complete skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex dubbed "Black Beauty."

Some 800 other fearsome fossils are set to life by colorful murals depicting how ancient Earth looked. Fifteen mini-theaters provide continuous shows, and 20 electronic games take visitors on a journey through millions of years of Earth's history. Hands-on computers allow children of all ages to design their own dinosaurs and then find out if the creatures could have survived.

The detail that has gone into each full-scale model is amazing. While excavating an albertasaurus (first cousin to the tyrannosaur) in 1884, Canadian geologist Joseph Tyrrell (the museum's namesake) was fortunate enough to find imprints of dinosaur skin in the soft rock.

From this information, "Lillian," a 26-foot-tall albertasaurus, was literally squeezed into existence, drop by drop from a hand-held syringe, in an exacting effort to duplicate the true texture of her skin.

The museum is also a research facility, where it seems each week a new discovery is made. The eggs discovered at Devil's Coulee, for instance, are giving researchers important clues as to how these dinosaurs lived. Fossil evidence suggests they traveled in herds and were highly protective of their young. Remains of one mother hadrosaur were found, frozen in time, atop eggs she tried to protect from a landslide.

Other recent studies to determine brain size and shape revealed some of these "dimwitted" dinosaurs may have been more intelligent than our modern-day horse.

Turning down another museum passageway, the visitor marvels at the painted casts of triceratops (last of the horned dinosaurs), ankylosaur (last of the armored dinosaurs) and a leptoceratops (perhaps the last remaining dinosaur of all).

'In Memoriam'

The dioramas of dinosaurs end abruptly, as the dinosaurs did themselves. A banner above the hallway reads: "Dinosaurs are dead. All of them. Something happened about 64 million years ago that ended their line." In an alcove to the left there is a plaque that says "In Memoriam" and lists the names of the fallen. It's apt that the memorial exists here, because it is believed the last remaining dinosaur expired in Alberta.

There have been many theories to explain the dinosaurs' sudden demise; the most popular centers on iridium, an element found in platinum ores. Iridium is rare on Earth but common in space. In conjunction with the dinosaur's disappearance, there seemed to a marked increase of iridium on Earth.

Scientists theorize that the fragment of some crumbling asteroid plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico near the Yucatan peninsula, strikingthe water with a force equal to 10 million hydrogen bombs. The impact would have created a dust cloud that would obscure the sun for three months, causing surface temperatures to drop below freezing.

It's a chilling theory to ponder as one enters the museum's Hall of the Ice Age and continues on to the present age.

"Jurassic Park" movie-goers might mistakenly think the great dinosaur rush is just occurring, but it happened in Canada from 1910 to 1917, when 35 new species of "terrible lizards" (what "dinosaur" means in Greek) were discovered in a desolate region that later became the Dinosaur Provincial Park.

The park is located two hours southeast of Drumheller and is the source of the majority of bones inside the Tyrrell Museum. This 16,000-acre tract is generally recognized as the richest fossil bed in the world.

Here in the heart of Canada's most spectacular stretch of badlands, large numbers of dinosaurs once thrived beside a tropical inland sea that has since evolved into a landscape of sculpted, multicolored sandstone.

Virtually one member from every known dinosaur family is entombed here. One dig site alone -- the Centrosaurus Bone Bed -- yields an incredible 60 dinosaur fragments per square yard. More than 300 complete specimens have been unearthed.

The park is so rich in fossils that 90 percent of the grounds are restricted, lest some of the fossils get damaged by visitors. Plan on taking the popular guided bus tour. Along the way, you can see dinosaur finds being prepared in a field station of the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Displays inside the field station depict what it was like on the planet 75 million years ago.

About two hours west, just as one enters Calgary, a terrifying tyrannosaur rises above the highway like a scene from a Godzilla movie. This isthe Calgary Zoo's Prehistoric Park, where 26 life-sized dinosaurs reside among manicured Mesozoic meadows composed of the oldest surviving species of plant life. The leafy survivors of the Carboniferous Period make this park more than just a reproduction of the past.

IF YOU GO

Allow at least four hours to see the Royal Tyrrell Museum and adjacent badlands, and a full day or more to tour the entire "Triassic Triangle."

Admission to the museum and adjacent Midland Provincial Park is $5 for adults, $2 for children.

During July and August, volunteers are invited to join in actual digs, spending a day in a dinosaur quarry minutes from the museum. Digs start at 8:30 a.m. daily, and the price ($75) includes transportation from the museum and lunch. Book early -- 14 is the maximum number of daily participants.

If a day of digging sounds too exhausting, join a 90-minute "Dig Watch" to see an excavation in progress and learn what's being unearthed. Cost: $8. For more information, contact the museum, (403) 823-7707.

* From Drumheller, it's a two-hour drive to Dinosaur Provincial Park, which is located near the town of Brooks. Admission to the park is free. The Royal Tyrrell Museum Field Station is open from 8:15 a.m. until 9 p.m. A two-hour guided bus tour costs $4.50 for adults, $2.25 for children ages 6-15. For more information about the park and camping there, call (403) 378-4342.

* From Dinosaur Provincial Park, it's a two-hour drive to Calgary Zoo's Prehistoric Park. Zoo admission: $5 adults, $2.50 children. For more information, call (403) 232-9372.

For road maps, weather information and brochures on Alberta and the dinosaur parks, contact Travel Alberta, (800) 661-8888.

'GREATEST SHOW UNEARTHED!'

The Dinosaur World Tour, in Edmonton through July 25, is billing itself as "The Greatest Show Unearthed!" It claims to be the largest touring dinosaur showcase ever conceived.

Offering the festive atmosphere of a world's fair, Dinosaur World Tour offers a glimpse of the century's greatest finds from China's Gobi Desert, Canada's high Arctic and Alberta's badlands. Not only does it display never-before-seen dinosaurs, it also features the "Dinosaur World Premiere Festival," an extravaganza of comedy, music, rides and entertainment.

Guests wander through a re-created Gobi Desert paleontologist's base camp, dig for bones, reassemble skeletons, cast dinosaur footprints and participate in "Jurassic Jeopardy," a game show.

Tickets cost $15 for adults and $10 for children ages 5 to 16. Admission is by reservation only, because the show limits attendance to ensure everyone has the opportunity to fully enjoy all exhibits. For information, call (403) 944-0909.

For the do-it-yourself dinosaur enthusiast who prefers to fly and drive, Climax Tours of Calgary offers a six-night, seven-day "Introduction to Paleontology" package.

Guests receive an informative briefing at the airport, then are sent on their way in a mid-sized car (with unlimited mileage), road maps, itinerary and cooler supplied with drinks and juices. Climax Tours makes all arrangements for accommodations, museums and dinosaur digs as well. For information, call (403) 283-1131.

) -- Allen and Ellie Deever

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