The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta: Home to the Largest Collection of Fossils in Canada!

The Royal Tyrrell Museum might just be the most famous dinosaur museum on the planet, and we’re fortunate that it’s in Canada! Hans Tammemagi walks us through what you can expect from your visit, and how learning about the past might offer some insight into the present and future.

Royal Tyrell Museum
It’s hard not to be in awe in this museum. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

After an hour of driving through seemingly endless rolling fields of Alberta grain swaying in the breeze, suddenly the road dove downward. I entered an exposed wound in the earth with layers of sediments weathered into hoodoos, ravines and contorted shapes. The area, less than two-hours from Calgary, is appropriately called, the Badlands. 

An enormous 86-foot-high (26 metres) Tyrannosaurus rex towers over the town of Drumheller, nestled at the bottom of the valley. Dinosaur footprints lead through downtown; shops sell dino souvenirs; instead of pink flamingos, small dinosaurs adorn lawns; you can even munch on a “dinoburger.”

I had arrived in the Dinosaur Capital of the World.

Arriving at the Royal Tyrrell Museum

The Royal Tyrell Museum in Alberta
A visit to the Royall Tyrrell Musuem is like nothing else! Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Crossing the Red Deer River, I headed northwest alongside banks of pancake rocks to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, which opened in 1985. Set amongst hoodoos, the Museum is the world’s best showcase of dinosaurs and, therefore, the ultimate place to learn about these gargantuan beasts. The Museum has been more than successful in attracting tourism (400,000 visitors per year) to the region, as well as helping Drumheller earn its mighty dinosaur reputation.

Who would believe that the past was so different from today with ferocious, enormous monsters roaming the land? Tyrrell’s paleontologists, however, have proven through studies of fossils (many found in the surrounding Badlands), that these monsters did indeed exist during most of the geological era called the Mesozoic – consisting of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, from 252 million to 66 million years ago.

Unlike movie portrayals as in Jurassic Park, humans and dinosaurs never co-existed. After the dinosaurs died out, nearly 65 million years passed before humans appeared on Earth. Dinosaurs also vividly demonstrate the shortness of human existence. The species Homo sapiens has been on the Earth for about 0.1 million years, compared to the approximately 175 million years for dinosaurs. 

Heading Back in Time at the Tyrrell

Going inside, I found the Museum is like an immense boneyard, but with the bones arranged in attractive and dramatic fashion in dioramas of the Mesozoic era. With a roar, a ferocious 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex battles against a triceratops who stabs with its three deadly horns. The battle is epic and bloody, but the T-rex is the ultimate winner.

The museum displays numerous scenes like this. My favourite is a saber-toothed tiger leaping from a cliff onto a wooly mammoth with enormous tusks.

Although only skeletons are shown in most displays, they are powerful and evocative of the conditions millions of years ago, and demonstrate how incredibly different life was then. I was overwhelmed by the variety and size of the dinosaurs, which towered above me. But also, by how readily my imagination ran riot. Too frequently, I pictured the bones with flesh and fangs, and being chased by these ferocious creatures. 

A Canadian Museum With Education at the Forefront

The Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canda
The Museum is also very much a research centre. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Fossil evidence shows that during the 185 million years of their existence, dinosaurs evolved into a large variety of sizes and shapes in response to the changing environment. But then, 66 million years ago, dinosaurs, along with many other animals, went extinct during a quick period of mass annihilation. The exact nature of this catastrophic event is still subject to scientific debate, but the leading cause appears to be a colossal asteroid striking the Earth.

Many children were in attendance at the Museum, and they were captivated by the hulking behemoths. A young girl aged about five casually patted the skull of an enormous triceratops. A staff member described the popular program where kids aged 5 to 13 can stay overnight and sleep next to their favourite dinosaur. Pretty scary, I thought, thankful that I exceeded the age limit. 

Dr. Don Henderson, the Curator of Dinosaurs, led me behind the scenes and described how he and his colleagues reconstruct the past. He showed photos of field trips where fossils are carefully extracted from rocks and soil, often under difficult conditions, and then encased in plaster of Paris for protection during transit back to the Museum.

We visited the preparation lab and saw how dinosaur bones are removed from the plaster and subsequently assembled. The large laboratory had many work benches and many air vacuums and filters to capture the dust from cutting the plaster of Paris and bones.

Two large storage rooms contained numerous shelves, drawers and pallets laden with bones of every size and shape. Dr. Henderson said, “only about 1% of the specimens we have are on display; the rest are archived here. Scientists come from laboratories around the world to study these specimens.”

The Museum, clearly, is also a research centre.

Pointing to a glass case containing an exploded dinosaur (daspletosaurus) skull, he explained, “The skull has 41 separate bones, and for the more fragile ones, we had to digitize them and print them in three dimensions for the display.” As we walked on, he explained how his own research involves biomechanics, that is, mathematical modelling of how dinosaurs move. I was impressed.

Recreating the Past

Before leaving, I entered the Cretaceous Garden, which was lush with ferns, tropical palms and flowering plants, representative of this area about 75 to 66 million years ago when the climate was much warmer. At that time, the landscape was coastal, subtropical and covered with forests, swamps and marshes. I even saw a petrified stump and a dinosaur footprint. The lush plant life was squeezed and, in places, formed into coal. This rich corner of the world was home to fishes, salamanders, turtles, crocodiles, small mammals and, of course, lots of dinosaurs. 

On the north side of the museum, I hiked along the Badlands Interpretive Trail that wound through gulches, buttes and canyons, all eroded from multi-coloured layers of sandstone, mudstone and shale dating back 70 million years. Sparse patches of greasewood, many species of sage and cacti with sharp needles were here and there in the hot, dry badlands. They formed a dramatic contrast to the lavish greenery that grew here during the reign of dinosaurs. 

I sat on a rock and imagined dinosaur bones being excavated in the gully beside me. I thought back to 1884, when Joseph Burr Tyrrell, a young geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, found the skull of a meat-eating dinosaur near here. The dinosaur, which was similar to but slightly smaller than a Tyrannosaurs Rex, was named Albertosaurus sarcophagus for the province. And the Museum is named after the geologist.

The Royal Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology
Who says learning can’t be fun? Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

The RTMP, A Museum for Contemplation

How did dinosaurs evolve to such incredible sizes and shapes, and then disappear? Given such astonishing changes with dinosaurs, what about us humans, I wondered.

How will we evolve and change over the coming eons? If only I could see into the future, as clearly as the Royal Tyrrell Museum provides a picture of the past. 

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