January 30, 2012
About 110 million years ago, an ankylosaur settled on the bottom of a Cretaceous sea. This was no place for a dinosaur. No dinosaurs were adapted to a marine lifestyle, and the heavily armored ankylosaurs were probably the least suited to paddling around in the water. Yet, almost a year ago, shovel operator Shawn Funk found an ankylosaur in the marine, Early Cretaceous sediments at a Suncor mine in northern Alberta. How did the dinosaur get there?
Donald Henderson, curator of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, explained how this dinosaur died, was preserved and was discovered in a recent lecture for the Royal Tyrrell Museum Speaker Series. Almost everything about the discovery was lucky. The dinosaur just happened to settle in a place where sediment quickly covered its body; the carcass was not torn apart by scavengers; the shovel operator who stumbled across the ankylosaur recognized that he found something potentially significant and the discovery of the dinosaur in the mine meant that paleontologists had lots of heavy machinery on hand to help excavate the skeleton.
But the strangest aspect of the find is the ecological context of the dinosaur. This ankylosaur must have lived along the coastline of the great Western Interior Seaway which once split North America into two. But that was many, many miles away from where the skeleton was found. Exactly how the dinosaur died is unknown, but as Henderson notes, the carcass undoubtedly floated upside-down through the sea. The gases from decomposition gave the body enough buoyancy to travel—what paleontologists commonly refer to as a “bloat and float” scenario.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.