Suncor’s Millenium Mine uncovered one of Alberta’s most important dinosaur discoveries

The ankylosaur is the first land dinosaur to be discovered in the Alberta Oil Sands

by Jessica Kirby
The oldest dinosaur found to date in Alberta is this 110-million-year old armoured dinosaur discovered in 2011 during routine mining operations at Suncor in Fort McMurray.

The oldest dinosaur found to date in Alberta is this 110-million-year-old armoured dinosaur discovered in 2011 during routine mining operations at Suncor in Fort McMurray. — Photo courtesy the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology

In March 2011, Shawn Funk, a shovel operator at Suncor’s Millenium Mine, uncovered what experts at the Royal Tyrrell Museum said is one of Alberta’s most important dinosaur discoveries--a fossilized ankylosaur that is likely about 115 million years old.

Alberta’s oil sands, which were once an ancient tropical sea, have held water-loving specimens, but the ankylosaur is the first land dinosaur to be discovered in the mines.

It was around 1:30 in the afternoon when Funk was digging in a type of rock material that comes out in slabs, and he noticed that some of the material sliding down the bank had a distinctive design.

“I’ve seen fossilized wood and stumps of trees that have turned to stone, but nothing with a distinctive pattern like that,” said Funk. “Right away, I called my supervisor and he came out within about 10 minutes.”

Hans Heltke, a geologist for Suncor, said a colleague took some photos and sent them to the Tyrrell Museum. “Within a few hours of that, they said we had found, for sure, a dinosaur,” said Funk.

According to Suncor, the museum immediately dispatched Dr. Don Henderson, curator of dinosaurs, and technician Darren Tanke.

The fossil pieces knocked off of the mine wall were recovered and examined, revealing the importance of the discovery as a fully land-living animal that had been buried out at sea and was 40 to 50 million years older than any other specimen found in Alberta.

Funk’s shovel had just clipped the tail end of the fossil, with up to 80 or 90 per cent of it still encased in a hard concretion up the mine wall, leaving the important question of how to remove it.

Doug Lacey, project manager for Suncor, said the company decided to form a project team to handle the excavation. With plenty of experience digging dirt; moving large objects; and pulling off large, complex events; the team decided it could handle the job.

“It became apparent we had the resources to do this kind of work and the mindset,” said Lacey. “And also, with our culture around safety, we wanted to make sure we stepped up and owned this and made sure we did this properly.”

Suncor’s team--made up of long-time employees--were eager to help and excited to be a part of it, said Lacey, who added that 18- and 22-year-long veteran workers were like “kids at Christmas” at the prospect of involvement in the excavation.

The work began with collecting, sorting, preparing and packing bits of fossil from the foot of the mine wall. Debris was scooped out and spread out in a shallow pile and then every crumb examined. Bone fragments were painted with a stabilizing chemical and packed for shipment, and in the meantime, miners began preparing the mine wall.

Overburden was removed from the top of the wall, and an earthen ramp was prepared at the bottom. Upon closer inspection, it appeared the initial impact from the shovel had fractured the face of the rock, meaning once again work stopped so fragments could be collected, sorted and packed.

Additional cracks in the concretion, the result of age and time, meant Suncor’s best operators had a careful and painstaking job ahead of them, removing centimetres of earth at a time to avoid excessive disruption.

The last few layers of earth were removed by hand, revealing a pedestal of rock containing the ankylosaur and the question of how to get beneath it to move it.

“Where there is a will, there’s a way,” said Henderson.

Fortunately, Suncor’s team had all of the necessary tools available that could only be found in a large mining operation. The answer to getting around the concretion was HVAC--high-pressure water attached to a high-powered vacuum--the perfect assembly for cutting through and removing earth.

The team devised a plan to use HVAC to cut tunnels under the concretion and slide large timbers under the specimen to lift it out, but first, a protective layer of plaster was applied to the exposed face.

The crew was successful in removing the block of stone, which was then wrapped in concrete and burlap in preparation for transport.

The moment of truth arrived. Relishing in the positivity of the experience up to now, and the exhaustion of more than a week’s preparation, the crew stood by to watch the 6,804-kilogram block’s final journey into the transport vehicle. Unfortunately, the strength of the rock could not overcome the weakness of the fractures and brittle bone running through it, and the specimen broke into several pieces when it was hoisted.

Despite the crew’s disappointment, Henderson said the operation was a complete success.
The pieces were collected, prepared and packed for shipment to the museum, where they will undoubtedly be reassembled thanks to large, clean breaks in the fossil material.

“One of the good things about this, believe it or not, is that because it is in smaller pieces it will make preparation a little bit easier,” he said.

“We’ve seen a thousand big rocks get dumped in this mine and this was the first one I really cared about,” said Lacey. “It was a successful project in the end. We delivered right on time, and we were able to sustain our day-to-day production and operation and have a good event happen right beside it and not impact it.”

Henderson said if his team had seen bones poking out a cliff anywhere else, say, in the wilderness, they couldn’t have hoped to tackle the excavation, because the overburden, height and slope would have made the project impossible.

“We get caught up in routine sometimes,” said Lacey. “This was not routine. It was cool to say we were part of something, and it was a real team we developed around this.”

Work on the specimen is ongoing, and it will take years for the museum to uncover everything there is to know about the Millenium Mine ankylosaur.

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