A Q and A on Edmontosaurus and the Danek Bonebed with Michael Burns

December 16, 2014

By Jenny Ryan

Dinosaurs rock! (Earth science pun intended.) But seriously, dinosaur specials are very popular and the current issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences is no exception.  Featuring the ever-charming “urban” Edmontosaurus, an herbivorous, duck-billed dinosaur, the special issue titled “The Danek Edmontosaurus Bonebed: new insights on the systematics, biogeography, and palaeoecology of Late Cretaceous dinosaur communities” was published yesterday. 

Comprising 11 scientific articles and an Introduction by Michael E. Burns, Clive Coy, Victoria M. Arbour, Philip J. Currie,  and Eva B. Koppelhus,  this collection of papers reveals the secrets behind the lives (and deaths) of the amazing dinos that roamed around prehistoric Edmonton.

To get the real “dirt” on Edmontosaurus, I asked Michael Burns, PhD candidate at the University of Alberta and one of the coordinators of this issue, a few questions.
Q: So, what’s so special about Edmontosaurus and the Danek Bonebed? 
Bonebeds are amazing sources of information about fossil vertebrates. In Alberta, we have a wealth of dinosaur-dominated bonebeds, especially in Dinosaur Provincial Park where vast assemblages have been studied since the 1980s. Younger bonebeds farther north in Alberta have received similar attention only recently. Assemblages like the Danek Bonebed offer palaeontological information above and beyond what you can learn from an isolated specimen including an animal’s behavior, ecology, growth, individual variation, etc. Edmontosaurus is a long-recognized hadrosaur known from many specimens, some with rare soft-tissue preservation and gut contents, and several bonebeds. The knowledge gained by studying well-represented animals like Edmontosaurus can be applied to other, less well-known dinosaurian taxa.
Q: Why was it important to showcase the Danek Bonebed in this Special Issue?
The wealth of data available at the Danek Bonebed demands a multidisciplinary approach, which means that expertise from many different fields of study is needed to create a holistic picture of the assemblage and its history. It makes sense, then, to have all of these distinct yet related studies published together in a single volume.  
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the collaborators and colleagues who contributed to this special issue?
This special volume represents a large-scale collaboration, including contributions from many colleagues at the University of Alberta as well as institutions worldwide. The volume was conceived and organized by V. Arbour, P. Currie, E. Koppelhus, and myself. V. Arbour, then a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta and now a postdoctoral fellow in North Carolina, also served as a Guest Editor along with A. Farke (Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology) and M. Ryan (Cleveland Museum of Natural History). 

Our head technician, Clive Coy, also helped organize the volume and provided expertise on the history of the site. Other members of our lab that have contributed include G. Funston (a master’s student), M. Reichel (a former doctoral student), and A. Torices (a postdoctoral fellow). 

Several collaborators started their research as undergraduate projects at the University of Alberta, fleshing them out into full manuscripts, including M. Baert, K. Bramble, S. Kraichy, and E. Vanderven. P. Bell, now a lecturer at the University of New England in Australia, worked extensively on the Danek Bonebed during his time as a doctoral student under Dr. Currie. 

We also have contributions from colleagues in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta: L. Davies, L. Heaman, R. McKellar (now at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum), K. Muehlenbachs, and A. Wolfe. D. Eberth of the Royal Tyrrell Museum provided expertise on stratigraphy. 

International collaborators include N. Campione (Uppsala University), J. Davies (University of Geneva), and J. Wotzlaw (University of Geneva). 

 Phil Currie oversees the field school excavation in 2008. Photo by V. Arbour.

Q: Volunteers have been key to the collection of fossils from the bonebed.  What can citizen scientists and volunteers contribute to this kind of work and how can they get involved? 
The biggest contribution volunteers have made is through our fossil preparation program. The quality and nature of the preservation of material from the site lends itself well to preparation by novices. Beginning on Danek material, regular and long-time volunteers progress to more challenging projects, learning new techniques along the way. The bulk of our nearly 800 catalogued specimens from the site has been prepared and preserved by volunteers. In addition, many have visited the site and have aided in the collection of specimens. 

Anyone is welcome to volunteer with us, needing no prior experience, and may look us up on Facebook (www.facebook.com/DinoLabUAlberta) or contact me directly (mburns@ualberta.ca) for more information.
Q: University of Alberta undergraduate researchers played a big part in the research presented in this issue. Can you tell us a bit about this program?
The ease of access and proximity of the site have made it very convenient for conducting a university course in vertebrate palaeontology field techniques. Each summer, several students learn about excavation, mapping, identifying specimens, collecting, preservation, etc. Each student devises and conducts an original research project as part of the course, but some students turn that small project into a larger work, some of which are published here. The wealth of material also provides a source of data for research projects outside of the field course at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

According to one such former student, Evan Vanderven, "the undergraduate students at the University of Alberta have a unique opportunity to work at, and do research on, these amazing dig sites right here in Edmonton. It has given many of us (myself included) the chance to work with experts in the field and contribute to our first academic publications."

Katherine Bramble, who is now a graduate student in Dr. Currie’s lab, said "having the opportunity to work on the Danek Bonebed has been an invaluable undergraduate research experience, and has lead me to know I want to pursue palaeontological research for a career."

Katherine Bramble published her undergraduate research project in the special issue. She used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to create a digital map of the bonebed. Photo by V. Arbour.
Katherine Bramble published her undergraduate research project in the special issue. She used Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to create a digital map of the bonebed. Photo by V. Arbour.

Note:  The precise location of the Bonebed is kept secret in order to prevent vandalism to this scientifically important site. Fossils in Alberta are protected by the Historical Resources Act, and digging is only allowed by permit – excavating a fossil without one can lead to steep fines or even jail time.

Q: What does the future hold for the Danek Bonebed? 

The Danek Bonebed will continue to form a focal point for dinosaur research at the University of Alberta through the annual field school and resulting research projects. It is the hope of the organizers, that this Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences special volume will promote continued research on the rich fossil resources within the Edmonton area.

Thanks, Michael! 

(Cover image:  Edmontosaurus regalis roamed around what is now Edmonton about 71 million years ago. Image by Michael Skrepnick.)

Read more:
Special issue: The Danek Edmontosaurus Bonebed: new insights on the systematics, biogeography, and palaeoecology of Late Cretaceous dinosaur communities
Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences Volume 51, Number 11

Press Release from CJES: Edmontosaurus regalis and the Danek Bonebed featured in new special issue of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences

Press Release from University of Alberta: Edmonton dinosaur bonebed promotes undergraduate research and citizen science at the University of Alberta

Follow @CanJEarthSci on Twitter

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