During prehistoric times, what is now known as the Northwest Territories sat at the equator, an underwater world full of colourful coral, primitive fish and our earliest land-walking ancestors.
Dr. Donald Henderson, curator of dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta., traveled between Fort Smith and Hay River last week, researching sites for evidence of dinosaurs and stopping in to share information on the region’s natural history with local enthusiasts.
“I study dinosaurs because they’re big and fierce and dangerous,” said Henderson during his Oct. 21 presentation at Aurora College’s Thebacha campus in Fort Smith. “They’re like monsters that really lived.”
Henderson spent the evening discussing the Devonian era, believed to have lasted from 419 to 359 million years ago. This is the time, he said, when early animals and vegetation started to emerge from the water, creating a tropical forest filled with the first dinosaurs known commonly as “walking fish.”
“This is the part we’re most interested in, when you go from just having a fin to something that’s got an elbow and a knee and a wrist and an ankle,” Henderson said. “We have all the fossils to track this transition. These animals with joints and limbs only evolved once, and all of living land animals today trace their time back to one group.”
Henderson first traveled to Hay River and Enterprise in 2012, when the local Lamalice family contacted him to take a look at some strange imprints and fossils they discovered along Alexandria Falls. Henderson believed they might be footprints of a walking fish, as they resembled evidence of similar fossilized footprints found around the world.
So far, Henderson and his team of researchers have not been able to conclusively categorize the findings, but he said he would continue to travel North as long as he could get funding to pursue the lead.
More than just dinosaurs
During the presentation, organized by the Aurora Research Institute, Henderson mapped out the history of the region for his local audience. Henderson’s expertise as not only a paleontologist, but also as a geophysics major, gives him the tools to tell a complete story of the Earth’s history as it is understood by the scientific community.
He started at the beginning, when what is now known as the Northwest Territories was part of an underwater landmass sitting at the equator. He then explained how shifting tectonic plates pulled apart an existing supercontinent, which traveled towards the North Pole, thanks in part to the gravitational force of the spinning planet and the resistance created by our moon. He said there were more, shorter days in a year during that time period, around 400 compared to our 365.
He talked about the evolution of underwater creatures, from single-celled masses, to coral, to jawless fish with simple bone structures – nothing like the complex finned fish we see today.
Following the presentation, audience members were invited to bring their fossils forward to see what secrets Henderson could uncover from their treasured rocks.
“We see bits and pieces of dinosaurs come in,” Henderson said. “The most interesting thing is people bring in their treasure box of goodies and they have no real idea. We just look at it – oh this piece goes here and this piece goes here – and you end up with a whole thing. That’s nice when you see the light go on and you’re able to inform them of something. Most people are impressed when you tell them how old it is.”
He said he relies on people uncovering fossils to keep his research going.
“Three out of four times, more stuff is brought to us by construction people and miners or hikers. We haven’t got the time to go all over the province,” Henderson said. “Especially with so much industrial activity now, stuff is just leaping out of the ground.”
Henderson had strong advice for fossil finders.
“If you find something that looks really good, please don’t try and pry it out yourself,” he said. “Contact a geology-type person or a biologist, someone who might recognize it. Don’t try to take it out yourself because, yes, they are very heavy but fossils are extremely brittle – think of them as being made of glass. It takes a special care and tools to get them out safely.
“It’s sat in the ground for hundreds of millions of years; it can wait another week.”