The humble beginnings of Canadian dinosaur paleontology

     It’s safe to say that Canada has one of the best dinosaur fossil records in the world. But it wasn’t always that way. Whereas dinosaur paleontology took off in England in the early 19th century, and blossomed in the USA by the middle 19th century, the search for dinosaur fossils in Canada didn’t occur until the late 19th century. Names like Lawrence Lambe, Charles Sternberg, and William Parks are often bandied about as examples of early Canadian dinosaur paleontologists, but the first dinosaur fossils collected in Canada were actually recovered by a ragtag bunch working for the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) as part of the Boundary Commission. The crew was headed up by George Mercer Dawson, who would eventually become Director of the GSC, and also included geologists Richard George McConnell, Thomas Chesmer Weston, and Joseph Burr Tyrrell, and botanist John Macoun. These men collectively amassed Canada’s first dinosaur fossils from what is now southern Alberta and Saskatchewan during the 1880s, and although recounts of their expeditions are common (e.g., Russell, 1966; Tokaryk, 1997; Spalding, 1999), illustrated descriptions of what they actually found are nonexistent (except, of course, for two remarkable Albertosaurus skulls collected by Tyrrell and Weston in 1884 and 1889, respectively).

George Mercer Dawson, one of Canada's first dinosaur collectors. (Library and Archives Canada, 48487)

      Thankfully, these historically significant fossils remain in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Nature. The bones are currently being catalogued, photographed, and described by Brigid Christison, a diligent undergraduate student at Carleton University, as part of her coursework there. At first glance, Dawson’s crew appears to have collected a representative sample of Canada’s Late Cretaceous dinosaur fauna, including examples of hadrosaurids, ceratopsids, and tyrannosaurids (turtles and champsosaurs make up the bulk of the non-dinosaur vertebrate component). We’re hoping to eventually crunch some numbers as a way to establish the collecting efforts of those early fossil hunters, particularly in the latest Maastrichtian Frenchman Formation of Saskatchewan. Brigid will publish her findings after completing her course later next year.

A smattering of the fossils collected by Dawson and his crew.


Russell, L. S. 1966. Dinosaur hunting in western Canada. Royal Ontario Museum, Life Science Contribution 70:1-37.

Spalding, D. 1999. Into the Dinosaurs’ Graveyard. Doubleday Canada, Toronto. 305 pp.

Tokaryk, T. 1997. Facing the past: A cursory review of palaeontology in southern Saskatchewan. Canadian Paleontology
      Conference Fieldtrip Guidebook 6:9-28.

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