It was a discovery that was millions of years in the making.
The skull and other remains from the marine reptile, a plesiosaur, were found at the Syncrude North Mine site near Fort McMurray.
Scott Fisher, a geotechnical instrumentation technician with Neegan Technical Services, discovered the reptile’s skull first in rocks that were in an inactive area at the oilsands site. The site is located about 64 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray.
The remains of the plesiosaur were 60 per cent complete, according to Royal Tyrrell Museum staff.
Dr. Lorna O’Brien, head technician at the Royal Tyrrell, said staff were elated to find a preserved skull from prehistoric times.
“In this case, the skull was the first thing reported to us so that was really nice. Our researchers and technicians got excited right away because they knew it was a plesiosaur from the first photos Syncrude sent to us,” she said.
Donald Henderson, curator of dinosaurs with the museum, travelled to the worksite with other museum staff on June 19 after they were notified of the discovery, according to a Syncrude spokesperson.
The team of experts extracted the fossils and surrounding rock over several weeks. They covered the fossils in glue before covering them with plaster so they could be transported.
This isn’t the first time fossils have been found at a Syncrude worksite. The first major discovery onsite was back in 1992 when ichthyosaur fossils were found.
O’Brien said plesiosaur fossils are relatively common in the Fort McMurray area.
But what makes the northern region of Alberta unique is that it is the only place in the province where rocks from that time period are exposed, said O’Brien.
A temporary exhibit at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, called “Grounds for Discovery,” has a plesiosaur that was previously discovered in the Fort McMurray area.
Scott Persons, a University of Alberta paleontologist, said many of these prehistoric marine reptiles were known for a “serpent-like neck” and “resemble a sea turtle without the shell.”
“Probably not a particularly dangerous animal to go swimming with,” he said.
Plesiosaurs lived during the end of the Mesozoic era, so they weren’t “as old as dinosaurs themselves,” said Persons.
Plans for the fossils
There are no immediate plans to display the plesiosaur found at the Fort McMurray site last month, said O’Brien.
She said the fossils will need to be removed from the rocks. They will then be analyzed by technicians and researchers.
It could take two to three years for the project to be complete, said O’Brien.