It’s about as far from an ocean as you can get, and one of the last places you might expect to discover the remnants of a prehistoric sea monster that once ruled the marine world.
But some of Canada’s richest deposits of marine dinosaurs are found in the sand-like soil of Morden, Man., about 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. It’s here that researchers, families and even school children have unearthed the remains of 80-million-year-old reptiles.
The treasure trove of skeletons discovered just outside the town prompted enthusiasts in 1979 to pool their collection of ancient bones and establish what is now the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre, the country’s largest collection of marine reptile fossils.
The museum is home to “Bruce,” the largest mosasaur in Canada, and other reptiles that were once at the top of the prehistoric food chain at a time when much of Western Canada was under salt water.
“We have some really cool fossils here,” said acting museum curator Joseph Hatcher. “They are large vertebrates like dinosaurs, contemporaries with them — fearsome mosasaurs and plesiosaurs — as well as a lot of large fish, turtles, squid and even some birds.”
The centrepiece of the museum, and the biggest hit with anyone who likes fierce predators, is the mosasaur display, featuring what is sometimes known as “the T-rex of the sea.”
Mosasaurs were huge oxygen-breathing lizards, up to 15 metres long, which propelled themselves though the water by moving their tail from side to side. They also boasted two sets of teeth and a jaw that could dislocate at will, allowing the reptiles to feast on just about anything they wished.
While mosasaurs ruled the sea, plesiosaurs also flourished amid the waves. Described as a “snake threaded through the shell of a turtle,” the plesiosaurs look much like the fabled Loch Ness monster. The remains of these reptiles —some of which measured up to 12 metres — have also been found around Morden.
The sea creatures vanished, along with the terrestrial dinosaurs, around 65 million years ago. The popular theory is an asteroid strike caused the extinction, but Hatcher said that explanation is a bit too simple.
“I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Hatcher said. “Looking through the geological record, there is a lot of drop in diversity and in population preceding that. It looks like they were on their way out anyway.”
Today, families, school groups and other amateur archeologists can book half-day to five-day escorted digs to try their luck at uncovering a mosasaur or plesiosaur of their own. In fact, many of the museum’s finds have been made thanks to young volunteers.
In 2006, a school group from MacGregor, Man., unearthed the backbone, shoulder bone and ribs of a mosasaur at one of the museum’s 30 dig sites. Last summer, a tour group uncovered part of a large mosasaur — called Angus — some 10 metres long.
“Paleontology is one of the few sciences left that an amateur can come out and still make a significant contribution,” Hatcher said. “If we take out 40 PhDs and we take out 40 children, the probability of finding something is pretty much the same. Kids aren’t afraid to get down on the ground and get dirty, so they tend to find stuff.”
If you go …
• Location: 111-B Gilmour St., Morden, Man.
• Phone: (204) 822-3406.
• Admission: Adults $6, students $3, family $12.
• Dig programs: Family dig $40 to $200; one-day dig $75 per person; two-day dig (accommodation not included) $150 to $600; five-day fossil dig adventure (includes meals, supplies except camping gear) $450.
• Website: www.discover-fossils.com