Fossil draws scientists’ attention

A fossil of an infant snapping turtle found near Blackfalds will grab more attention from scientists later this year.

A fossil of an infant snapping turtle found near Blackfalds will grab more attention from scientists later this year.

Don Brinkman, preservation and research director for Drumheller’s Royal Tyrrell Museum, said that last September’s discovery of the turtle, estimated to be 60-million-years-old, will be profiled, likely in October, in the specialty publication the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. The shell of the juvenile is the first of its kind in Alberta.

In order to be published, the standard is for peers to review the research.

Brinkman’s research included giving evidence why he thought it was an infant.

Typically, fossil finds are published so that the larger scientific community knows about them, he added.

“It’s one thing to have a specimen, but it’s another to let everyone who works on fossil turtles know you have the specimen,” Brinkman said.

The science article will also contain information on all turtles of that age in Alberta. A second snapping turtle, an adult, was found near the Red Deer water treatment plant and is being profiled in that same piece.

The juvenile shell was found on Sept. 27 when Chris Robak of Lacombe took a group of Grade 3 students from Red Deer’s Gateway Christian School on a field trip within the Paskapoo Formation in Burbank, one km east of Blackfalds. The Paskapoo Formation is part of the Paleocene Age, a geologic epoch that lasted from about 65.5 to 56 million years ago, in the Western Canadian sedimentary basin.

The turtle shell was found as Robak was pulling some fossils out of the wall to show the children.

The fossil was found within two blocks.

Since Robak turned it over to the internationally-renowned museum, staff have working on the specimen, although not all the time because there’s so much field work to do this summer.

“When we first got the specimen, we thought we just had the shell,” said Brinkman. “When we looked at it more closely, the post-cranial skeleton is preserved and that means we could see evidence for limbs and evidence for the shoulder girdle.”

After the basic cleaning, staff could also see the horny scutes, which left an impression in the matrix, or the rock material in which the fossil is embedded. That way, the staff could see the surface of what the living turtle could have looked like. Scutes are made of keratin and are a lot like horn or nail tissue.

Typically, these scutes that cover the shell will rot and disappear before fossilization, Brinkman said.

“The preservation is better than we thought initially,” he said.

Staff hope to glue the two blocks together and then it will be pared down to show the full dorsal surface of the animal. A technician is working on it now.

The infant snapping turtle may be displayed publicly in an area of the museum that will be renovated. Those upgrades are anticipated to happen within five years, Brinkman said.

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