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T.rex Plus

by Dave Yanko

The T.rex Discovery Centre in Eastend opened in 2003 with 'Scotty', one of the finest Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons in the world, its marquee attraction.

T.Rex Discovery Centre
- courtesy Calvin Fehr
The T.rex Discovery Centre at Eastend.

The adjacent Frenchman Formation where Scotty was discovered is a rich source of both creature and plant fossils from the end of the Age of Dinosaurs, about 65 to 67 million years ago.

And the Cypress Hills area about an hour to the west is prime prospecting territory for fossils of the mammals that replaced the dinosaurs when they became extinct.

It's this broad range of resources that makes the centre one of the best places in the world to "see" the transition from dinosaurs to mammals, says Mark Caswell, the facility's new executive director.

"We're able to follow the fossil record, just about completely, for the last 65 million years,'' says Caswell.

Mark Caswell
Mark Caswell

When Scotty roamed the region that's now southwest Saskatchewan it was situated on the western shore of a giant seaway that covered the eastern half of North America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. The climate was humid and sub-tropical. Swamplands and forests of oak, hickory, giant sequoia and magnolia were home to a wide variety of dinosaurs

Meat-eaters like T.rex and the smaller, fleet-footed Troodons and Sauronitholestes ate plant-eating dinosaurs like the bony-shielded Triceratops and the Hadrosaurs, or duckbilled dinosaurs. But then, in what amounted to a snap of the fingers in geological time, the dinosaurs vanished.

It remains a topic of debate whether the asteroid that hit earth 65 million years ago caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, or sped up the process. But there's no question the planet was rocked at that time by a catastrophic impact.

Frenchman River Valley
- courtesy Tourism Saskatchewan
The Frenchman River Valley.

Fallout from this 'extinction event' is visible as whitish clay patches punctuating the hills of the Frenchman River Valley around Eastend. The patches contain iridium, which is shocked quartz and melt droplets that are evidence of that momentous impact.

Scotty's discovery in 1994 brought worldwide attention to Eastend (pop. 650). Once his bones are reassembled for display, he could stand as high as 5.6 metres (more than 16 feet) and measure 15 metres in length (45 feet). An adult T.rex weighed as much as two adult elephants.

The facility housing him is lodged in the side of a hill on the north bank of the Frenchman River Valley, its low-profile fašade overlooking the town. The main display area features a three-stop tour through time beginning in the Age of Dinosaurs and proceeding through the prehistoric mammal period into the present. As they move from one time period to the next, visitors pass through a transition zone representing the events leading to the "age" they're entering.

There's a theatre for video presentations and a laboratory, leased and operated by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, where visitors can watch palaeontologists at work. A nearby "demo lab" lets visitors participate in an indoor fossil hunt by sorting through "matrix", earthen material retrieved from nearby quarry sites. Caswell says it's a hands-on way to learn about the tools and techniques of fossil hunting while assisting with the real work of the centre.

- courtesy Calvin Fehr
The lab is leased and operated by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

For the growing number of people seeking authentic experiences while vacationing, the centre offers dig programs in the field. Groups led by experienced fossil hunters knowledgeable about the natural history of the area spend a day prospecting for fossils at the quarries.

The dig programs—Caswell says multi-day digs can be arranged—offer a bonus inducement in that there's a real chance of discovering something interesting. Maybe even something important. The Frenchman Formation is a relatively "new" fossil resource that palaeontologists only began focusing on in the mid 1970s, and then, in a modest way. They've barely begun to scratch the surface.

Among other important discoveries since Scotty is the first coprolite, or fossilized dung, that can be attributed to a T.rex. While perhaps not as flashy a find as Scotty, palaeontologists hope the coprolite will provide important information about the environment in which T.rex lived as well as insights into his eating habits.

The centre is very much a community project for Eastend—a local debenture issue accounts for a significant portion of its $3.1 million cost. But it's also an important link to southwest Saskatchewan's strong array of cultural, historical and natural attractions, especially Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.

Glaciers that bulldozed much of southern Saskatchewan more than 10,000 years ago sidestepped the hills, leaving fossils of prehistoric mammals near the surface. These palaeontological resources bolster the park's interpretive programming and provide a natural link to the T.rex centre.

In fact, about half of the centre's 7,000 patrons in 2002 came via Cypress Hills park, says Caswell. And that number is expected to jump when a shuttle service is launched in a couple of years.

The T.rex Discovery Centre hopes eventually to attract 35,000 visitors per year and Scotty will be the main attraction as it pursues that goal. But given the facility's location, in an area that's been described as a "supermarket of dinosaur bones", there's every reason to expect his supporting cast will grow larger and more interesting with each passing year.

The centre's daylong dig program costs $75 Cdn. For more information on admission fees and programming, as well as on accommodations and amenities in the Eastend area, visit the Dinocountry website.

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