A Terror of Tyrannosaurs

Photo Credit: Facundo Gastiazoro

A Terror of Tyrannosaurs

👤Jo Boxwell 🕔Nov 06, 2017

We drive across the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, the Williston Reservoir stretching out beside us. The immense blue landscape formed by the hydro project gives away nothing of its past. Hidden beneath those still waters are the remains of traditional village sites and hunting grounds occupied by the Kwadacha and Tsay Keh Dene First Nations before they were forced out. Much of the area was forested at that time, but the trees weren’t removed during construction, and trunks have been known to shoot up to the surface of the reservoir like popped corks, finally freed from their rotting roots. Deeper down, at the very bottom of that lake lies a much, much older part of BC history, also sacrificed for the dam. Dinosaur tracks.

My partner and I park at a campsite along a forestry road beyond the dam. We’re looking for another set of tracks we’ve been told are located along the banks of a nearby river. Under the hot sun, we scour the smooth bedrock for signs of prehistoric life. We walk back and forth for a while, scrutinizing every scratch and fissure. We begin to realize just how much history these rocks contain, pitted and stained by their exposure to the elements. Even so, we assume dinosaur footprints, the markings of colossal ancient beasts, would be hard to miss. The heat becomes uncomfortable; no shade falls across the river at this time of day, and we start to wonder if we’re in the right spot. We’re not about to attempt a river crossing, so we are forced to admit defeat. Our first try at locating dinosaur footprints is as unfruitful as staring out at that reservoir and expecting to see its prehistoric tracks burst up to the surface like rotten trees. 

Our journey takes us on to Tumbler Ridge, and an opportunity to ask for some assistance. The town itself and a large swath of the surrounding area has been designated as a UNESCO Global Geopark for its paleontological significance, and their Dinosaur Discovery Gallery introduces us to the animals that once roamed this region. We sign up for the Wolverine Lantern Tour, a nighttime viewing of a dinosaur trackway just outside the town.

Our small group gathers outside the museum as the night draws in. Our guide shows us casts of the types of prints we will be looking for, and we feel somewhat vindicated when he explains that the tracks aren’t always easy to spot, particularly when direct sunlight is beating down on the rocks. Though they do look distinctive, unlike the prints contemporary northern BC creatures might leave behind, they have also become quite well disguised in the crinkles and crevices of the rocks that have preserved them, and those that have been exposed for a long time are often quite faint. Darkness actually makes it easier to spot the tracks because the lantern light can be directed by our expert guide to help us see the ancient impressions.

We drive a short distance out of town and our eyes do what they can to adjust to flickering torchlight as we navigate a narrow trail that leads down to the river. Our other senses become sharper when we can’t see much. All sorts of sounds pop to the surface. Our instinctive uncertainty about being in the dark seems appropriate for viewing the remains of a species that included some of the fiercest predators to have ever roamed the earth. A heavy boot behind me trips over a protruding root, and the undergrowth rustles with the movements of birds or vermin. This is bear country, our guide reminds us, as if he wants to test our anxiety. The night carries its own eeriness, in spite of our bumbling group and the sense of security that comes from travelling in numbers.

When the trail opens up we find ourselves treading carefully on smooth bedrock, flattened and cracked. Right beside us rushes the Wolverine River, tempting someone to take a careless step backwards and fall into it. We gather around to examine the ground beneath us. Our guide places his lantern on the rock and patiently points out its mysteries to our untrained eyes. It is not only dinosaur tracks he locates, but also the markings of ancient tree roots and worm casts, painting a broader picture of how this area used to look. The prehistoric landscape that these dinosaurs wandered through explains why northeastern BC has become a paleontologist’s dream. This area was once very swampy; ideal conditions for capturing prints.

Our guide points out the toes and heel of a long-departed creature, and then traces it back until his lantern light reveals the footstep that preceded it; another heel and set of toes the exact size and shape of the first, showing us the dinosaur’s stride and the direction it was travelling millions of years ago.

Paleontologists can gather a whole host of information from trackways because they are sites where multiple prints from the same dinosaur have been preserved. While our inexperienced eyes may see only outlines against the shadowy rock, experts can figure out details such as which species crossed the trackway first and the speed they were travelling at. Bones are fascinating finds, but they often get displaced over time, so where they are found is not necessarily indicative of where the creature lived or died. Tracks provide an insight into what these species were up to in this very location. The dinosaurs that left their mark in Tumbler Ridge’s Flatbed Valley fall into three groups; ornithopods (wide-footed herbivores with stumpy toes), ankylosaurs (armoured herbivores that walked on all fours) and theropods (speedy meat eaters whose claws can often be seen at the ends of their toe prints). Tyrannosaurs are part of the theropod family, and while the diversity among dinosaur species is partly what makes them so fascinating, no discussion of these animals seems complete without mentioning that impressive hunter.

Tumbler Ridge is home to the world’s first discovered tyrannosaurid trackway, evidence that the brutal ancient predators once terrorized the north of our province (though the prints belong to a smaller relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex). The Tumbler Ridge trackway is also significant because it contains three sets of tyrannosaur tracks running together, suggesting that the iconic predators were pack hunters. The paleontologists decided to celebrate this discovery by coining a collective noun. Should you ever need to put it in a sentence, the correct term for a pack of these particular beasts is a “terror” of tyrannosaurs.

The tracks revealed to us on our tour are given greater depth, thanks to our guide’s stories and his lantern light, and to see these prints in nature, beside an unremarkable stretch of river is surreal. Dinosaurs somehow seem more familiar in movies than in our own backyard. When two boys made the first discovery of a dinosaur trackway in the area in 2000, it took some convincing and the help of a visiting paleontologist for the adults around them to take them seriously.

The boys made the discovery the same year one of the coal mines in the area shut down its operations and took half of the local population with it. Paleontology is not a dead subject in Tumbler Ridge; it is one of several economic diversification efforts they hope will stave off ghost town status for BC’s youngest community.

Multiple trackways, a “dinosaur highway”, bones, fossils and other ancient debris such as mammoth tusks have been discovered in northeastern BC by experts, passionate locals, and visitors alike. If you’re in the area, keep your eyes peeled, take a tour and don’t be afraid to venture out in the dark. Who knows what the lantern light might reveal?