A planned paleontological field trip this summer to the Frenchman River Valley in southwest Saskatchewan will hopefully shed new light on a little-known Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.
Ginny the T. rex was discovered 17 years ago, but since then it has remained in the long shadow cast by Saskatchewan’s most famous dinosaur, Scotty the T. rex.
Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM) paleontologist Dr. Emily Bamforth, who works at the T. rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, is planning a field trip to the remote site where Ginny was found in 2004.
The site is located in the badlands of the Frenchman River Valley, about 40 kilometres southwest of Eastend and only about 1.5 kilometres from where Scotty was discovered in 1991.
She has been involved in many field trips and excavations of fossil remains, but the excitement of hunting for dinosaur bones is still as fresh to her as when she started her career.
“I really love the thrill of discovery and of course the fact that it is a T. rex means the stakes are a little higher, just because these are much rarer animals than say our Triceratops or our Edmontosaurus, the other two big dinosaurs in this group of rocks,” she said. “And of course, T. rex has got huge popular interest value as well and it's always exciting to find them. So we're definitely really excited to get out there and see if we can find more.”
Dr. Bamforth made her first public presentation about Ginny the T. rex during an online event hosted by the Town of Eastend, April 27. She also spoke in more detail about Ginny during a telephone interview with the Prairie Post on April 29.
Scotty the T. rex was named after a bottle of Scotch whisky during the excavation and the name simply stuck. Retired RSM paleontologist Tim Tokaryk therefore decided to continue that tradition by simply naming Ginny the T. rex after another alcoholic beverage – gin.
Ginny the T. rex was discovered in 2004 by RSM staff member Wes Long and a fieldwork volunteer Denise Fletcher. They found the lower jaw of a T. rex skull and a few other small bones were collected during another brief RSM field trip to the site in 2011.
Currently the only parts of Ginny in the RMS fossil collection therefore consist of the lower jaw and a few pieces of rib, but the expectation is that more bones will be found on the site.
“The cool thing about Ginny is that when it was found, there was more material coming out of the hill where they were collecting it,” Dr. Bamforth said. “So more of what's called the post crania, basically the skeleton behind the head.”
Although the RSM only possesses a few pieces of Ginny’s skeleton at the moment, it is still significant. T. rex fossils are very rare and only a very small proportion of animals that lived will make it into the fossil record. All the current knowledge about the T. rex dinosaurs is based on about 30 skeletons, and fewer than 10 of these skeletons are more than 65 per cent complete.
“It's incredibly rare to find big pieces of T. rex like this, even though just one piece,” she said about Ginny. “The entire lower jaw is about a meter and a half long, and it's a piece of a skull, and any time we find skull material for any dinosaur it's really significant, because that's a lot of the information about the individual animal that as well contributes to understanding of the species.”
The only other complete lower jaw of a T. rex ever found in Saskatchewan belongs to Scotty. While Ginny was therefore a significant discovery, there are several reasons why it has remained less well-known than Scotty.
“It was not a complete skull or a complete T. rex, and so the wow factor was not quite as intense as Scotty,” Dr. Bamforth explained. “It was also overshadowed by Scotty at the time that it was found. So it's only now that we're kind of looking at some of the other things in our collections and our other T. rex specimens are sort of coming to light.”
Another factor was that Ginny’s lower jaw bone was very fragmented and fragile, because it was found close to the surface and it therefore was exposed to weather conditions and erosion.
“So until it had been prepared and consolidated it was very difficult to actually do research on that specimen,” she said. “Now that it has been prepared as part of the T. rex exhibit for the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, it turns out to be a very nice specimen. So we can now start to ask a few more questions about the individual and the impetus to go back out to the site to see if there's more of the skeleton there is a little more intense now, because we know that the original specimen is actually a very good specimen.”
RSM staff have been unable to return to the site for various reasons. It is remote and can only be reached after leaving the main road and driving for an hour on a farm track. Sometimes this track is not usable due to weather conditions and then it requires a four-kilometre hike to get to the site.
“And the issue that we had getting back out there is the fire risk, because of course you're driving on the grass and it's got associated risk that way,” she explained. “So we're hoping that this summer we'll actually be able to get back out there, whether we have to park and hike or if we can get all the way out there in a vehicle. We're just really desperate to be able to take another look at the site.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been another complicating factor since last year, because it curtailed fieldwork activities.
“It limits our crew size, and then of course we have to make sure we are physically distancing out on the site,” she explained. “If we're camping anywhere, we have to be really careful about our camping arrangements. … We also last summer were not permitted to have volunteers, which make up a huge proportion of our field crew, particularly here in Eastend. And that unfortunately is still the case now. So we're hoping that those restrictions would be lifted so that we're able to go and do some more heavy duty fieldwork and get some more boots on the ground and some more helping hands out there.”
If weather conditions are suitable, they will be able to visit the site during day trips without the need to camp, because the site is close enough to Eastend.
This site was visited for the last time by RSM staff in 2014, and Dr. Bamforth was on that trip. It was the only time she saw the site where Ginny the T. rex was discovered, and she is really eager to return.
“We're hoping that there will be more of the skeleton or the skull in the ground,” she said. “There's no way to tell just from looking at the surface. You do actually have to get in there and dig, and so it could just be that this was an isolated lower jaw and that the rest of the skeleton was either not preserved or is no longer there. It certainly is a possibility, or it's possible that there's more of the skeleton buried underneath where the jaw was found, and there's no way to tell until we start digging there. Of course, we hope that there's going to be more.”