The skeleton of Hypacrosaurus at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum.
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Photo by Roland Tanglao, distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
The skeleton of Hypacrosaurus at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum.

Pipeline Excavations Accidentally Uncover Dinosaur

Professional paleontologists aren’t the only people to find dinosaurs. In addition to discoveries made by amateurs, sometimes the especially lucky stumble across dinosaurs entirely by accident. That’s what happened this week when a Tourmaline Oil Corp. backhoe operator working in Alberta, Canada accidentally snapped off part of a dinosaur’s tail.

The CBC story has a nice shot of the dinosaur’s impressive back half. Based on the anatomy of the vertebrae and the ossified tendons, the mostly-complete tail looks to be part of a hadrosaur. But how big was this dinosaur, and what species does this fossil posterior belong to?

Early reports erroneously stated that the dinosaur was 30 meters long, and TIME copied the mistakeTIME copied the mistake to announce the dinosaur’s length as 100 feet. The dinosaur was actually quite a bit shorter. Over Twitter, Royal Tyrrell Museum fossil resource planner Dan Spivak explained that paleontologists have yet to determine exactly how much of the dinosaur there is. From what has been uncovered so far, “30ft is probably max length” for the dinosaur.

The identity of the dinosaur is a mystery, too. Spivak noted that the bones definitely belong to one of the shovel-beaked hadrosaurs that roamed much of North America during the Late Cretaceous. But which species isn’t clear from what has been so far exposed. The rock in which the bones were found is part of Canada’s Wapiti Formation, which has yielded the remains of hadrosaurs at other sites, although it’s unclear whether these fossils represent already-known dinosaurs or new species. Hadrosaur fossils found at one particular site in the Wapiti Formation resembled those of the crested form Hypacrosaurus that trod northern North America around 75 million years ago, so this ornamented herbivore might be a good candidate.

Ultimately, though, the identity of the pipeline hadrosaur will rely upon how much of the dinosaur rests in the rock. A skull would be especially helpful. Differences between groups of hadrosaurs in the posterior skeleton are subtle and hard to pick out, whereas their skulls are distinctive and vary widely. I hope the paleontologists working the site are fortunate enough to find such a Cretaceous cranium and allow us to look at the face of this fortuitously-discovered dinosaur.