WARNER, Alta. — A deep ravine in southern Alberta known as Devil’s Coulee may be about to yield more of its secrets to paleontologists from the Royal Tyrrell Museum.
The area, surrounded by rolling golden grain fields about 10 kilometres west of Warner, has offered up a “motherlode” of dinosaur eggs and nests since it was first discovered by a local teenager in 1987. It’s been six years since the last nest was discovered, but that could change soon.
Francois Therrien, curator of dinosaur palaeoecology at the Royal Tyrrell, believes he has discovered the egg of a duck-billed dinosaur called a hypacrosaurus eroding out of a hill.
“I’ll stay positive. I will say probably 90 per cent — chances are we are dealing with a nest,” said Therrien. “There’s so much eggshell found here and it’s all one type of eggshell. I’m pretty confident.”
The Devil’s Coulee area was once part of an inland sea. It was the first dinosaur nesting ground discovered in Canada and the largest. Layers upon layers of nests have been found by researchers going through the area. It has been the source of four hypacrosaurus nests that have yielded several eggs containing embryonic material. It has changed many of the existing theories about duck-billed dinosaurs.
One of the eggs had a fully developed embryo about 40 centimetres long. It is on display at the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur & Heritage Museum, about 70 kilometres south of Lethbridge.
“There’s nowhere else in the country where you find so many nests, eggs and embryos. I’d say it is probably in the top three best places in North America,” said Therrien, who has been working at the site for years.
Therrien said the significance of the treasure trove of dinosaur eggs can be put into perspective by the fact that only a few egg fragments have been found in the badlands near Drumheller, perhaps Alberta’s most well-known dinosaur site.
“Here we can find 200 pieces of eggshell per square metre, so it’s truly amazing.”
The odds of finding a fully developed embryo are astronomical, said Therrien.
“With embryos the cartilage starts turning to bone quite late during development so you need eggs that are fossilized at or very near the time that the embryos have formed before they are buried. So the odds are against you. Even if you find eggs it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be a baby inside.”
The eggs in the last nest found in 2008 had already hatched.
“It’s been a while so we are due. It was a hatched nest though so the part of the nest was there and the top part was gone but we found some small bones probably from an embryo,” said Therrien.
“We know very little about baby dinosaurs. We know a lot about the adults – the big T-Rex, the big hadrosaurs, but we don’t know where they started.”