Prairie Sharks: A Tale of Discovery

Mammoth fur is not nearly as wiry as you’d expect it to be. It’s quite soft actually, the 20,000-year-old lock of hair that was preserved, then found, in a retreating glacier in Siberia. About two inches long, fine strands of dark brown, we pass it around, hand to hand, looking at each other in awe. ‘We’re actually allowed to touch this?’ Aside from the mammoth fur, most of the finds in the 1000 drawers in this room are fossils found between Morden and Miami, Manitoba. There are huge, wholly preserved mosasaur vertebrae, entire fish skeletons, ancient birds, bits and pieces of the past stacked on top of each other over and over. “If you find anything today, it will end up in this room,” our guide tells us.
We drive then, through twenty minutes of corn and wheat fields down bumpy gravel roads. Another bluebird day, the temperature is rising quickly around us, and cicadas are humming in a fervor of heat. Growing up, I dreamed of becoming a paleontologist. My parents brought me to see the original Jurassic Park in theaters when I was no older than 4, my blonde hair pigtailed and bouncing around my pink dress. They received many unhappy glances that day but I don’t remember that. I remember seeing dinosaurs, my dream come to life. I remember leaning into them time and time again throughout the movie to whisper ‘I’m not scared yet.’

Out of the van, the six of us tumble, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” rising up around us. We are each given a paintbrush and dental pick; tools for battle against 100-million years of passing time. We walk to a sandy hill and spread out along the bottom. Fossils in this area are found within shale layers, a mix of black mud and sedimentary rock. We slowly dig downwards, avoiding white and orange layers of earth, seeking pink and black. We rotate using the pick and paintbrush in slow succession. Gradually, our holes become larger and larger, pockmarking across the sandy hill. Just last week, a large mosasaur vertebra was found here.

The group of four that join us are young professionals from Winnipeg. They are appropriately wearing t-shirts donning dinosaurs, and the men are digging enthusiastically, certain they will recover a piece of the past. The work bids us to respect the history of millions of years; it is thorough and patient.

I sit back and look up at the deep blue sky above, wondering if somewhere up there, the universe remembers the blue of the warm sea that used to be here, and is reflecting it back to us. The spot that we are sitting on, and all of Winkler-Morden, was covered in some 100 meters of water during the Cretaceous Period. Giant fish, aquatic birds, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs swam here. Sharks stalked their prey directly above where I am sitting, their teeth left behind and unburied often on these digs. It’s mind-bending, thinking of the life that thrived here, in this sprawl which now grows wheat, corn, potatoes, and supports families and industry alike.

We don’t find mosasaur bones during this dig, but we do recover fish vertebrae and scales. It’s rewarding, the swiping back and forth of paintbrushes, the slight pressure of picking apart shale layers, the build-up of questioning which leads to excitement before yelling ‘I found something!’ The abstraction of history turned reality, held in our hands, serves as our reward. Our fish fossils are bagged and labeled, tucked away to be cleaned and stored with thousands of brother and sister fossils.

We return to the Canadian Fossil Discovery Center after our half day tour, hot but satisfied. The group buys t-shirts, hats, reminders of their day. Before we went out in the field, we were given a full VIP tour of the museum, and we walk around again, appreciating the history brought to life by our experience. Visiting Bruce, the record-breaking resident mosasaur, (along with Suzy, and another recent addition!) has already made the Canadian Fossil Discovery Center a wildly popular spot for families and school groups, but few know about the fossil dig tours. You can see the museum-goers interest as we walk around, noticing our fingernails packed with dirt, sweaty t-shirts, overt enthusiasm. Visiting museums is always worthwhile, but the chance to personally uncover fossils makes experiences with the Canadian Fossil Discovery Center unique.

On the beach in Morden, in the farms of Winkler, hiking around town… I am forced now to consider where I am standing. At any point, I could be just a few feet atop the discovery of the next Bruce. And you could be too, the next time you visit.

By: Carmen Faulkner

The Canadian Fossil Discovery Center offers 1/2 day, full day, 3 day, and 5-day dig tours! Learn more about their offerings here:

If you prefer air conditioning but want to get involved, the CFDC is currently accepting fossil-cleaning volunteers! Learn how to clean and preserve real fossils from the field.

If you can’t take a full day for a Dig Tour, I cannot recommend taking a guided tour of the museum enough. The staff are highly knowledgeable, and bring the experience to life! Contact the museum ahead of time to secure a spot on a tour.