Experience The Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum
What does the Stay-puft Marshmallow Man, the paranormal monster from the 1984 movie Ghost Busters, have to do with dinosaurs near Grande Prairie? The Canadian-born movie star Dan Aykroyd has hunted them both. Inspired by his 2010 participation in a dig in the area with his dinosaur-obsessed daughter, Danielle, and wife, Donna Dixon, Aykroyd became an ardent supporter of the museum.
The hunt for dinosaurs in Wembley, AB, about a 20-minute drive west of Grande Prairie, starts back in 1974 when school teacher Al Lakusta discovered the Pipestone Creek dinosaur bone bed. Today, Pipestone Creek is shallow, and often dries up in the heat of the summer. However, 75 million years ago it was a different story. Pipestone Creek was a turbulent torrent racing through a land of active volcanoes and hulking dinosaurs. A flash flood swept thousands of these giants down river; their carcasses jammed up in a bend in the river, eventually becoming fossilized skeletons melding into the landscape.
While out for a walk one day with a friend, Lakusta noticed rib fragments in the creek bed. Clambering up the bank, he discovered a seam of fossilized bones, including the remains of what was eventually recognised as a new species of dinosaur, officially christened Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai in honour of his find. At the time of Lakusta’s discoveries, northwestern Alberta was not known for its dinosaur bones. After he sent specimens to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Dr. Philip J. Currie, Alberta’s, and arguably Canada’s pre-eminent paleontologist, began an official excavation of Pipestone Creek in 1986.
The density of bones, up to 100 bones/m2, established the site as one of the richest in Canada. In addition to unearthing thousands of Pachyrhinosaurus bones, Dr. Currie and his colleagues at the UofA discovered bones from flying pterosaurs, armoured nodosaurs, predatory tyrannosaurs, marine plesiosaurs, and duck-billed hadrosaurs.
Given the bone bed is almost football-field size, many more dinosaur fossils and their mysteries have yet to be discovered. One well-preserved hadrosaur fossil caused a stir in 2013 as it contained “mummified” head crest skin impressions from the duck-billed Edmontosaurus regalis – this fossil confirmed the existence of a fleshy head crest, or cockscomb. In March of 2016, Boreonykus certekorum, a new raptor (dromaeosaur), was described by Dr. Phil Bell and Dr. Philip Currie.
Given the value of the Pipestone Creek bone bed to the world of palaeontology, it soon became apparent that a new museum was needed to appropriately house and display the fossil finds. A site was chosen in Wembley, AB. Inaugurated in September of 2015, the Philip J. Currie (PJC) Dinosaur Museum features extensive gallery spaces, two classrooms, the 60-seat Aykroyd Family Theater, research and collections areas, the Dine-OSaur restaurant, an outdoor discovery fossil walk, large outdoor playground, and the Kaleidosaur gift shop.
The permanent exhibits use conventional display methods and modern technology, transporting the visitor 360 million years back to the bone bed and the devastation of the flood plain.
The gallery houses some of the most interactive technology for paleontology. In addition to regularly changing exhibits that focus on regional collectors and artists, the museum also boasts the only National Geographic theatre in Canada, with new films shown several times every day.
Dinosaur fans of all ages and all interest levels find something to engage them, with activities ranging from prehistoric art projects to hands-on fossil preparation. The museum hosts free
lectures from experts in palaeontology and other fields, as well as symposia and other community-oriented events designed to inspire and educate. By expanding its school programs, field trips, day camps, and drop-in programs, the museum is aiming to accommodate more learners in a variety of age groups.
In addition to all the displays and activities available onsite at the museum, the Pipestone Creek bone bed site, located about 18 km from the museum, is open to the public. During the summer, committed enthusiasts can assist the museum staff with fossil excavation in the Palaeontologist for a Day program.
Camping is available at the Saskatoon Island Provincial Park and near the bone bed site at Pipestone Creek Campground. Numerous hotels and motels are available in Grande Prairie for accommodation, and there are hotel packages featured on the museum’s website.
By Dr. Shannon L. Tracey