By Anna Foschi Ciampolini
It is a relatively short 110 kilometers long drive from Calgary to the north- east, to reach the Town of Drumheller on the Red Deer River in the Badlands of central-eastern Alberta. A scary, colossal Tyrannosaurus Rex lurks at the south end of the traffic bridge over the Red Deer River at the entrance of the city. Mercifully, the 26-metre-tall prehistoric monster can do no harm: it is made of fiberglass and is the world’s largest reproduction of its kind. Once, Drumheller was the largest coal producing town in Western Canada and now is a thriving tourist location offering plenty of attractions and visits to Atlas Coal Mine and other museums revolving about its coal mining day history. But a visit to Drumheller also means a journey into a prehistoric era, into a long-vanished world, half-dream, half-nightmare. At the edge of Midland Provincial Park, the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology hosts the largest collection of dinosaurs fossils and receives almost 400,000 visitors every year. There are full life-size reconstructions of dinosaurs and prehistoric marine creatures. Well-preserved dinosaur bones, gigantic ammolites, insects and many other animal and vegetal life forms are displayed. The Museum offers a complete sensory experience in recreated environments, allowing the visitors to experience a glimpse of how life unfolded on the primitive planet that we now call Earth. Over one hundred million of years ago, for most of the Cretaceous, Alberta and Canada’s prairie provinces were sitting deep underwater. A giant inland sea, the Western Interior Seaway, surrounded by tropical forests connected the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Enormous creatures thrived, raised to dominance and then met extinction during apocalyptic cataclysms. To the west of the sea, the low-lying subcontinent of Laramidia was a haven for prehistoric life.
There is such an abundance of fossils in Alberta’s Badlands that the provincial government enacted laws to regulate their unearthing. Testimonies of the prehistoric past emerge from the earth like from an open womb: almost intact fossilized remains of large and smaller animals, teeth and bone fragments, intact, delicately woven marine shells, and flowering plants. The Tyrrell Museum shiny display cases host a baby dinosaur still with tufts of feathers and fur, massive eggs that never hatched, and carcasses so well-preserved that patches of skin are still visible. The fossilized remains of hundreds of prehistoric fish that died together because of a drought form an intricate, fascinating pattern on the limestone encasing them, almost like a bas-relief. In the Mesozoic era a catastrophic event caused a mass-extinction. All those powerful, terrifying creatures disappeared forever. Millions of years passed and new life formed on Earth. The fossils remind us that everything is transient on our planet, on finite dimension, on our lives. A visit to the Tyrrell Museum is for many an opportunity for reflection and a humbling experience.