GLOBE-Net, June 25, 2012 - Syncrude Canada
has hit the mother lode of fossils in its Mildred Lake
operations north of Fort McMurray. Not the mother lode of fossil
fuel bitumen - the company has unearthed a treasure trove of
prehistoric marine fossils.
On Friday, May 11, Syncrude shovel operator Jason Young
(pictured below) was digging into the mine face and uncovered
something of a different colour.
Having taken Syncrude's fossil identification training, he
realized it was fossil material when he got down for a closer look.
"I remember being at the Tyrell Museum when I was younger and
knew what a fossil looks like just from seeing them there. When I
saw this one in the area I was mining, it was pretty
amazing," said Young.
It turned out to be a nearly complete elasmosaur, approximately
112 to 114 million years old.
The elasmosaurs were predatory marine reptiles that gave rise to
extremely long-necked forms some 50 million years later. Another,
less complete elasmosaur specimen was found on May 7.
In November 2011, another fossil skeleton was discovered on the
While the fossil remains are not complete, the November 2011 and
May specimens appear to have 70 to 80 per cent of the skeleton
The May 11 specimen has a partial skull, making it extremely
significant for research and study.
The reason for the high number of fossil finds at Syncrude is
not clear. Syncrude may be mining in the area of an ancient sea bed
where wind and water currents concentrated carcasses of
This is not the first time such ancient fossils have been found
at a Syncrude site. In 2009, a 100-million-year-old piece of
cedar was uncovered at Syncrude's Aurora Mine, one of the most
important geological discoveries to date at the site.
Unlike many discoveries, this old, rare metre-long piece of
wood is preserved but not petrified. Syncrude passed
the artifact to the Royal Tyrrell Museum.
In a related story, a prehistoric marine reptile known as a
plesiosaur discovered in 1994 in a Syncrude mine now has a
name: Nichollsia borealis. It was named in honour of the late
Dr. Elizabeth Nicholls, the former curator of Marine Reptiles
at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.
One of the most complete plesiosaurs ever recovered in
North America, it's also one of the oldest yet found from the
Cretaceous period, about 142 to 65 million years ago. The
skull of the specimen is displayed at the museum, and a
replica is displayed at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre, in
Syncrude Canada has established a
distinct operating practice to be a responsible steward of its
obligation to protect and preserve any fossils discovered
during the earth-moving process.
Dr. Donald Henderson, Curator of Dinosaurs at
the Royal Tyrrell Museum, expects to know more about
this most recent find once he and his team map the fossils' exact
locations, vertically and horizontally, and conduct further
Complete preparation of each of the specimens will require one
to two years, but with the high number of fossil finds over the
past two years, the latest Syncrude specimens may not be ready for
display until 2015.
A collaborative relationship between Syncrude and
the Royal Tyrrell Museum has led to the
recovery of a number of significant fossils. As part of this
relationship, Syncrude's shovel operators are briefed with a
set of protocols for whenever they see anything unusual in the
spaces they are digging.
"We can never find (the fossils) without the mine people," said
Henderson, in an interview published in the Calgary Herald. "We need their eyes. The
shovel operators have to spot it and pay attention. It's good that
they tell us."
For more information on Syncrude's environmental and community
relations policies, visit here.