Their purpose might not be the same, but oil companies and palaeontologists share a common quest: uncovering the remains - and the mysteries - of prehistoric creatures hidden beneath the surface the earth.
Obviously, oil companies are pursuing fossil fuels, while palaeontologists are simply pursuing fossils. However, occasionally, the two ambitions cross paths, just as they did on Monday, November 14, when heavy equipment operator Maggy Hovarth found the almost complete skeleton of a Plesiosaur at Syncrude's Mildred Lake site about 35 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.
"We were all really excited," said Syncrude spokesperon Cheryl Robb. "And for the operator who works for us and who actually did find it, I know she was quite excited, and she actually called her son right away to let him know that she had found a fossil. So, it's always really exciting for us to find [fossils]. Because I think there's a four year old kid in all of us. And so when you talk dinosaurs or fossils - prehistoric fossils - it's quite exciting."
The slab of rock containing the specimen has since been excavated under the supervision of staff from the Royal Tyrrell Museum. It will remain on the Syncrude property until spring.
"And then, once the weather turns warm again, we'll go up and plaster it and cut the blocks down to a manageable size and bring it back here," said Don Brinkman, Director of Preservation and Research at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.
At that point they will study the specimen to determine its exact identity.
"We know it's a long-necked Plesiosaur," Brinkman continued. "There's three other specimens that have been collected. One juvenile. And one part of the pelvic and pectoral girdles. And based on that specimen, we know that the plesiosaur that occurs there is different from what occurs anywhere else. So, what we're anticipating is that this will be a better specimen of that kind of Plesiosaur. And we'll get a better idea of what the animal is like and who it's related to, how it lived, that sort of thing. And then we don't have specific plans. It's going to take a couple years to get it prepared once we get it back here. But it is the kind of specimen that will go on exhibit at some point."
This discovery marks the tenth time a fossil has been found at the Syncrude site, the last one being a 110 million year old Cretaceous Ichthyosaur found in 2000.
"For us, it's great," said Brinkman. "Because there's no way any of these would have turned up if they weren't moving that amount of rock. These are obviously very, very rare animals. This is the tenth one, but it's been ten years since they've come up with one. So, they're very rare animals. And there's no way we'd be getting any of these if they weren't doing the work. And Syncrude's been very proactive in terms of ensuring that they're preserved."
Syncrude isn't the only oil company that has uncovered fossils in their pursuit of fossil fuels. Suncor found an armoured dinosaur known as an Ankylosaur in the spring of 2011. CNRL has found invertebrates that are now in the Royal Tyrrell Museum collection. Resource mining industries are responsible for many of the discoveries that have been studied by the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre (PRPRC) in Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia.
"We've had quite a few of our sites that have either been uncovered or discovered by industrial operations in British Columbia," said Richard McCrea, Curator of Palaeontology with the PRPRC, adding that coal mines in Alberta and B.C. have produced numerous large dinosaur track sites.
A track site was found in a coal mine near Tumbler Ridge this year, while the southeast has also had numerous similar discoveries from coal mining operations.
"I know there was at least one site - track site - that was discovered by a seismic survey crew from CCGVeritas a few years ago," McCrea continued. "That was in the area of Tumbler Ridge."
"They just were stringing some seismic lines and were doing creek crossings and things like that," he said. "And they discovered what they thought were dinosaur tracks on a bank of one of the creeks. The seismic stuff is a lot more low impact these days than it was in the past. When they told us they were coming in the area, I wasn't all that concerned about their impact. That must have been about three or four years ago."
Tracks belonging to an Ankylosaur were discovered at a BG Canada gas wellsite in the summer of 2008.
"They turned over a bunch of rocks while preparing a platform for one of their gas wells," McCrea recalled. "And a resident of Tumbler Ridge, actually, recognized that there were footprints on some of these slabs that they'd overturned. And we went and had a look at them. And identified about ten track slabs. Big. Like some that weighed a couple tonnes."
"We contacted BG Canada and asked if they would mind donating those slabs, because it was on their lease," he continued. "And they not only agreed to do that, but they transported them to the museum for us."
Two years ago, Shell Canada donated a bone fossil that they found in one of their borrow pits near the B.C.-Alberta border to the PRPRC. Similar to the recent discovery at the Syncrude site in Alberta, the fossil was uncovered by a heavy equipment operator, Brian Halliday, who works for H.F. Nodes Construction in Pouce Coupe, B.C. The find was part of the tibia of a duck-billed dinosaur known as a Hadrosaur.
"And it had a Tyrannosaur bite mark on it," added McCrea.
Halliday was fairly confident that he had uncovered a fossil, as he regularly treks through the backcountry near Tumbler Ridge with his brother, trips during which they have seen their fair share of prehistoric relics.
"It was just kind of an interesting thing to find," he said of the dinosaur bone, which was identified so quickly that photographs were sent to the office in Calgary within half an our of the discovery.
"Discoveries like this are exciting," said Carson Newby with Community Affairs at Shell.
Newby knows the story well, as he recently wrote an article about the discovery for Shell's own Groundbirch Gazette Newsletter.
"I can confidently say," Newby continued, "if Shell discovered another one today, we'd do the same thing: stop work, find out what we have, and proceed only with the advice and knowledge of staff like those found in the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre."
McCrea noted that the PRPRC has been developing a solid relationship with natural resource industries when it comes to finding and preserving fossil artefacts.
"We have some informal contacts," he said. "People often get in touch with us in industry. Before they come into an area, they ask what the potential is for the discovery of fossils and often ask our advice on how to recognize them so that they can report them in case they come across them."
PRPRC has also been involved in creating palaeontological encounter procedures for resource industry companies operating in the region, including recent work for Capital Power Corporation's Quality Wind project.
"We came up with an encounter procedure that gives them a process to follow in case they come across something that they suspect is of fossil origin," McCrea explained. "And we also did a workshop for them to help them identify such material."
The benefits of this relationship go beyond the recovery of rare artefacts that might not be found if oil and gas companies weren't working on the land in often remote areas where dinosaurs used to roam. Seismic crews have been particularly helpful, according to McCRea.
"We've been able to piggyback on helicopter support with them to undertake projects," he explained. "And they've helped us bring a lot of specimens back to the museum here that we wouldn't have been able to have done otherwise. I mean, one year, we had about $100,000 worth of helicopter support donated to us. So, we have a small museum, but we were able to act like a big one for a little while."
"It's good," McCrea continued, discussing how the natural gas boom in northeast B.C. has helped the cause of the PRPRC. "They've helped out in pretty important ways. Of course, we'd like to see them jump in a little bit more."
McCrea was recently working on a $35 billion liquid natural gas (LNG) project in Australia that required a palaeontological assessment and the company involved immediately offered a $50 million endowment for a museum.
"We don't hear that here," he said. "It's like pulling teeth. They'll help you out with small things, but we haven't seen anything really big.
"Palaeontologists and people in oil and gas, we're kind of looking for the same sort of thing," McCrea concluded. "We're looking for a resource that's in the ground."