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Fort Macleod family finds rare dinosaur fossil

leptoceratops

This is a depiction of what a leptoceratops is believed to have looked like when it lived 67-million years ago.

Plourdes fossil

Noel and Sherry Plourde with the rocks containing the leptoceratops fossil they discovered in an undisclosed location near Fort Macleod.

Years of dedicated rock hunting paid off for Noel Plourde when he found a rare dinosaur fossil in the Fort Macleod area.
Plourde discovered the preserved skeleton of a leptoceratops, a small dog-sized herbivore that lived 67-million years ago.
“It’s a really, really rare discovery, especially for small animals like that,” said Francois Therrien, curator of dinosaur paleontology at Tyrrell Museum. “It’s going to be really significant because it’s going to help us learn more about the diversity of small-bodied dinosaurs just before their extinction.”
Plourde and his wife Sherry were fishing in the Fort Macleod area when Noel put down his rod and reel and started looking at rocks.
A dark outline on a rock immediately caught his attention.
“I could distinctly see the pretty good outline of a hip bone,” Noel said.
Closer inspection revealed not only the hip bone but the jaw of what turned out to be a leptoceratops, a dinosaur that weighed 80 to 200 pounds and was the size of a dog.
Noel, Sherry and their son Josh retrieved the rocks containing the fossils and brought them to their Fort Macleod home.
They notified the Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller and three staff members travelled to Fort Macleod to inspect the fossil.
“You should have seen the smiles on their faces,” Noel said with a broad smile of his own.
The leptoceratops were among the last living dinosaurs before the ice age, and the first leptoceratops fossil was not discovered until 1910.
Only a few leptoceratops have been discovered since and the one discovered by the Plourdes is of high quality.
“Ours is said to be in good condition,” Noel said.
Therrien agreed.
“Just like any small dinosaur their bones are extremely fragile and extremely hard to discover,” Therrien said. “It’s really rare to find their skeletons. We’ll find their bones scattered here and there, but finding a complete skeleton with all the bones connected as they were in life, that’s extremely rare.”
Therrien said only three specimens were discovered like that in Alberta, including the first one discovered an hour north of Drumheller that is now in a museum in Ottawa.
Another one was discovered in the Pincher Creek area but the skull is missing.
“The Plourde specimen is perfect,” Therrien said. “We have the skull and we have part of the body. There are a few pieces that are missing but nothing too dramatic.”
Therrien said scientists have evidence of small horned dinosaurs living 10-million years prior to the leptoceratops found by the Plourdes, but there is a gap at the end of the dinosaurs.
“We know of one species, but that species is from way north of Drumheller,” Therrien said. “It’s quite possible that the species from the Crowsnest Pass and Fort Macleod area could be quite different.”
The missing skull on the leptoceratops prevented scientists from making a determination about the species, so the one found by the Plourdes will provide that needed information.
Therrien and his crew took the leptoceratops to Drumheller, where technicians will begin the painstaking process of removing the fossil from the rocks, which could take more than a year.
All the bone will be exposed and fractures will be glued and repaired.
“That’s going to be a long and tedious process because the rock is really hard,” Therrien said. “It’s a curse and a blessing. The rock is really hard so it protected the bones, the fossils really well but it’s going to take time to actually carve away all that rock so only the bones are exposed.”
Therrien has invited the Plourdes to the museum for a behind-the-scenes look as his crew cleans up the leptoceratops.
Years ago the skeleton would have been reconstructed with gaps filled by plaster.
“Over the years we learned that leads to a lot of misconceptions,” Therrien aid. “People believe that what has been reconstructed is the actual fossil so it kind of gives a bias in terms of what we think the animal should look like. Nowadays we try to keep the bone as is, and if there are missing pieces leave them off. Scientists can look and learn from what’s not there.”
The specimen will be displayed with interpretive panels that show what the animal would have looked like if the skeleton was complete.
The Plourdes’ leptoceratops will be used by scientists for research but will also be displayed to the public as it is prepared, and later when the technicians are done their work.
“Visitors to the gallery will get to see up close and personal that skeleton on display,” Therrien said. “They will be able to get a better view of what has been discovered.”
The Plourdes’ discovery has Therrien and his staff excited about what other fossils might be hidden in the Fort Macleod area.
“Definitely after that discovery this year my personal interest is to come back and walk along the Oldman River and see what rock exposures are there, see if there are fossils that can be found,” Therrien said. “If anyone finds fossils they should contact me because we never know — another great discovery might be made by another Fort Macleod resident.”
Therrien will involve the Plourdes when Tyrell Museum staff return to the undisclosed site to recover the rest of the leptoceratops.
“We can actually help them with the dig,” Sherry said.
The Tyrell Museum will also supply the Plourdes with a replica statue of the leptoceratops.
Noel Plourde is pleased that his dedication to rock and artifact hunting paid off with a major discovery.
Plourde stuck to his hobby, even in the face of good-natured teasing from others, including his wife Sherry.
“The feeling was always there that I was going to find something great one day,” Noel said.

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