Philip Currie: That’s Mr. Tyrannosaurus to You!
Paleontologist Philip Currie has dedicated his life to digging up dinosaurs-turning Alberta into a fossil mecca in the process.
The badlands that make up Dinosaur Provincial Park are surreal. Hoodoos, layered rock formations eroded from sediment accumulated over millions of years, sprout from the dusty ground like upended wasp nests. At sunset, choruses of coyotes echo among them. A two-hour drive southeast from Calgary, the park is nestled into the Red Deer River valley and is one of the world’s richest deposits of prehistoric bones. Over 40 species have been identified there, and millions of dinosaur fossils have been found in the park.
In those badlands, during the spring of 2010, Philip Currie set up camp in what was previously a “black hole,” a blank spot where few fossils had been found, north of the Red Deer River that cuts through the park. Currie, a paleontologist and professor at the University of Alberta, had spent the previous 34 years combing Dinosaur Provincial Park for bones. Over his 38-year career, Currie has reinvigorated interest in the province as a fossil minefield, and his desire to just keep digging has made the tall, silver-haired 65-year-old one of the world’s most famous dinosaur paleontologists. His discoveries have changed what we know about evolution and the animal kingdom, helping to piece together sketches of the giant creatures that once roamed the Earth. This time, though, Currie couldn’t shake the feeling that something had been overlooked. He dispatched his team to scour the black hole.
The dig season at the park is just four weeks, and Currie set out early one day to prospect. A paleontologist’s job involves long periods of walking, sometimes up to eight hours a day. As Currie made his way through the hills that morning, he noticed something jutting out from a rock. Probably just a turtle, he thought. Still, he couldn’t leave the fossil. After chipping around for a bit with his awl and realizing he’d landed on part of a dinosaur skull, he headed back to meet his team for lunch. “I found something cool,” he announced.
They followed him out to take a look and, starting at the skull, began to chisel away with dental picks and scalpels, their excitement mounting with every centimetre. This was no turtle, but it also wasn’t a regular find. It was tiny by Dinosaur Park standards, only a metre and a half long. Over three weeks, the team kept clearing until they uncovered the body, and high-fived when they reached the tip of the tail. The skeleton was so complete there were skin impressions on its underside. Currie had made the discovery of a lifetime: an almost-fully preserved fossil of a baby horned dinosaur.
“We just don’t find baby dinosaurs in Dinosaur Park because they’ve been eaten by tyrannosaurs or they weren’t preserved well over time,” says Currie, who calls the fossil Baby. Two years on, he was awarded The Explorers Club Medal, placing him among the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary and Jane Goodall. Now Alberta is giving him a museum of his own.
This December, the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum is set to open in Grande Prairie, Alta. The museum pays homage to Currie, who solidified the province’s status as a dinosaur capital, adding fresh insight to a mythology that, for nearly two centuries, has captivated children the world over. “Dinosaurs are imagined to be the biggest, strongest, meanest, most ferocious animals. They’re the things of dreams and nightmares-yet they were real,” Currie says. As Darren Tanke, a senior technician at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology just outside of Drumheller, Alta., says, not everyone turns a boyhood passion into a 38-year career. “But,” he says, “some of us just never quite grow out of it.”
When Currie was six, living in Port Credit, Ont., he sat down to breakfast, and a Dimetrodon toy tumbled out from the cereal box into his bowl. It was the first time he’d seen a prehistoric animal, and the creature enthralled him-he collected the whole set (and ate a lot of cereal). In 1962, Currie visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto with his family, where he’d noticed on a previous trip that the majority of fossils came from Alberta. His mother, Esther, an artist, recognized that her son’s preoccupation wasn’t going anywhere, and she arranged for him to meet some paleontologists and the museum director. Eventually he’d move to Alberta, he figured, and live among the dinosaurs-a big decision to make at the age of 12. It would turn out to be the defining choice of his life.
Alberta’s crust is home to tens of thousands of dinosaur fossils and is thought to be more populous than other concentrated regions like China’s Gobi Desert and Montana. The region’s lush vegetation and warm weather during the Cretaceous period, between 145 million and 65 million years ago, made the province “a good place to live and a great place to die,” Currie says. Frequent floods washed the bones into the rivers, covering them with sand and mud and preserving them for explorers to find much later.
In the early 1900s, a paleontology wave swelled in Alberta. Known as the Great Canadian Dinosaur Rush, teams from the United States and the Geological Survey of Canada arrived to comb the area for skeletons, living in camps on the badlands and competing with one another for discoveries. By the mid-1970s, the public perception was that everything that was to be found in there had already been discovered. Currie thought otherwise. As a kid, he’d return to his neighbourhood creek virtually every time it rained to see what new specimens had been exposed by erosion. He wanted to apply the same idea in Dinosaur Provincial Park.
In 1976, Currie took a job working for the Provincial Museum of Alberta in Edmonton and began to dig. Within five years, Currie unearthed enough finds to overwhelm the Alberta museum. The provincial government decided to build a new facility, believing dinosaurs could lead to a boost in tourism, and in 1985, the Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology opened its doors. Now called the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, it hosts a massive collection of over 125,000 specimens and is one of the world’s premier research hubs. Over 40 species have been found in Dinosaur Provincial Park alone. “In Canada, Currie was the wedge that broke open the dam of doing dinosaur research,” says Michael Ryan, curator and head of the department of vertebrate paleontology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “His vision turned it into the museum that it is.”
It’s Currie’s ability to harness chaos that makes him a paleontological rock star. When he arrives at a dig, he will have studied the site’s previous discoveries, read all of the field notes and will know the terrain so thoroughly that nothing is a surprise. That allows him to catch anything out of place. “It’s necessary to look at hundreds or thousands of fossils before finding the star,” he says. He often says he’s just lucky. But his precise, methodical approach lays the groundwork for the big, accidental finds that are his signature.
Currie swims or hikes on his lunch hour with his wife, Eva Koppelhus, a palynologist who studies prehistoric environments and plant life. They live in Edmonton, where both work at the University of Alberta. Currie has named a dinosaur after her, the Unescoceratops koppelhusae, and the couple leads a relatively normal life, aside from spending half the year exploring the globe. Currie’s latest project is brewing his own beer and wine in their basement. The name on the labels? Phil’s Fossil Fuel.
Theropods, the lineage that includes gigantic meat eaters like the Tyrannosaurus rex, particularly fascinate Currie. “The Tyrannosaurus rex is the bling-bling of the dinosaur world,” says Wendy Sloboda, a paleontological technician who has worked with him. In December 2013, Currie helped uncover a new raptor species, the Acheroraptor temertyorum, in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. The raptor lived alongside other dinos like Triceratops and is giving researchers a better look at the North American ecosystem right before dinosaurs became extinct. Still, Currie’s not without his mistakes: in 1999, he suggested that National Geographic run a story on the Archaeoraptor, a fossil bought for $80,000 by a Utah couple. He thought it helped showcase the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. The magazine did, but later recanted their piece: the fossil was a forgery. Nonetheless, one of Currie’s earliest interests was the relationship between feathered dinosaurs and birds. Today, it’s widely accepted that birds are living dinosaurs, due in large part to his research. He also partly inspired the adventurous paleontologist Alan Grant in the movie Jurassic Park (in the opening scenes, Grant, played by Sam Neill, crouches over a dig site, searching for clues about Velociraptors).
One theropod continues to elude him: the full skeleton of a Troodon, a dinosaur about the size of a small adult man, with big eyes and an enormous brain. Currie has found isolated teeth and bones over the years, but never a full body. Every year, he digs in Dinosaur Provincial Park, hoping for a repeat of the serendipity that led him to Baby. The logo of Currie’s namesake museum is a Troodon skeleton. He says finding one would be a crowning achievement in his career.
When the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum opens in Grand Prairie, it will attract attention to a region rich in dinosaur bones but not as tourist-heavy as Dinosaur Park to the south. The theory behind the museum is much the same as the Royal Tyrrell-to keep local finds easily accessible to the public instead of shipping them off. Currie’s work began with the drive to collect fossils, but his philosophy on why we should care about them runs deeper. “Dinosaurs dominated the world, and then they died off. What does that say about our own future?” he says. “We need to know about dinosaurs because it may help prevent our own extinction.”
In July, he will travel with Koppelhus, Ryan and Sloboda to Greenland on a project for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, hunting for what could be the first dinosaur to ever be found on the western side of the island. “We’ve only discovered less than one per cent of the dinosaurs that could have roamed the Earth,” he says. The geology on Greenland’s west coast is similar to that of Dinosaur Provincial Park, yet no trace of dinosaurs has been unearthed. The team is looking for signs of how dinosaurs migrated around the globe. It’s another black hole for Currie to delve into, and with a little luck, he’ll dig up answers.