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Buster, a dinosaur unique to B.C., comes to life in new exhibit

The size of a sheep with a long lizard tail and big skull with a short, sharp beak, Buster is the star of the Royal B.C. Museum’s newest exhibit, Dinosaurs of B.C.

Buster the dinosaur was about the size of a sheep with a long lizard tail and big skull with a short, sharp parrot-like beak and a long curving jaw bone.

It was a plant eater, probably quite bashful, and lived in burrows or dens among the redwoods and lush fern forests of northern British Columbia about 67 million years ago.

Buster is the first dinosaur species of its kind ever discovered and unique to B.C. — a relative of the triceratops but without the long horns and skull frill, says Victoria Arbour, curator of palaeontology at the Royal British Columbia Museum.

Arbour says the animals probably lived in small groups or pairs. “They’re living in environments with big dinosaurs like T. Rex and triceratops, duck-billed dinosaurs, raptors elsewhere in North America, so I picture them as animals that relied on camouflage and hiding.”

Buster is the star of the museum’s newest attraction, Dinosaurs of B.C., an exhibit curated and designed by museum staff that opened this week. It includes fossils from Vancouver Island and the B.C. Interior, including massive footprints found along riverbanks in the Tumbler Ridge area and inside coal mines in southern B.C.

Buster will be joined in June by SUE the T. Rex from the Field Museum in Chicago. It was found in 1990 in South Dakota and is the most complete skeleton of its kind ever discovered.

Buster was brought to life from “a shoe box of bones” collected in 1971 by retired geologist Ken Larson, who happened upon the fossils while prospecting for minerals along a spur of abandoned railway tracks on the Sustut River between Smithers and Dease Lake.

“Those bones turned out to be some of the very first dinosaur fossils that had ever been found in British Columbia that we know of,” said Arbour. It was later determined to be “a species new to science.”

There were six bones to work with, including parts of the shoulder, arm and leg and two articulated toes on Buster’s hind leg. Arbour deduced it was likely a perfectly preserved skeleton blown apart during construction of the railway, decades before the bones were discovered.

Return visits to the site didn’t produce any more bones, but did reveal part of a fossilized turtle and dozens of leaves. Researchers analyzed pollen fossils to determine that Buster lived there about 67 million years ago.

Arbour first saw Buster’s fossils in 2005 as an undergrad at Dalhousie University, eventually sent them to the Royal B.C. Museum and was reunited with Buster in 2018 when she started work as curator of palaeontology at the museum.

Arbour and David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum examined Buster’s scant remains during extensive research in 2019, comparing bones of closer relatives like the Triceratops, to determine he was related but a separate species never seen before. Buster was officially proclaimed a Ferrisaurus sustutensis, which means Iron Lizard from the Sustut River.

With an incomplete skeleton, the challenge was to to determine what Buster would look like when it roamed northern B.C.

Arbour’s team developed an outline using the bones they had, roughly determining the size and shape, then brought in renowned Calgary-based paleoartist Brian Cooley, whose dinosaur re-creation work appears in the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta and the pages of National Geographic, to bring Buster to life.

Arbour said complete skeletons are available from some of Buster’s closest relatives — Leptoceratops, Montanoceratops and Cerasinops — which allowed her to fill in some of the missing pieces, such as the shape of the skull and length of the tail.

“With a solid knowledge of comparative anatomy, I was able to make some pretty good guesses about the [muscles] that would have held his skeleton together and what his skin would have looked like,” said Arbour.

Cooley created a miniature version first and then a full-scale model, using Buster’s skeleton measurements and those of other Leptoceratopsids to create a steel armature. Layers of clay were added and sculpted to create wrinkles and scales.

Buster’s colours were guesswork, said Arbour, but the patterns are loosely based on the modern caiman lizard. She said Cooley took inspiration from modern animals that need to camouflage themselves from predators, with brighter areas to attract mates.

The Sustut Basin area where Buster was discovered is essentially unexplored, said Arbour. “It means that anything we find here has the potential to be either a new record of dinosaurs found elsewhere in North America in B.C. or has the potential to be species that are completely new to science, like Ferrisaurus. It’s a new frontier that we can go and explore.”

An expedition is planned in July.

The dinosaur fossil record has not been as extensively documented in B.C. as in Alberta, where thousands of discoveries have been made, said Arbour. “So in many ways we’re still in the early phases of exploration in British Columbia … it’s only been in the last 20 years with a much smaller crew of people that we’ve been doing this kind of work.”

Arbour said finding dinosaur bones in B.C. is no easy task given the province’s rough, forest-covered and mountainous terrain, unlike the extensive prairie, deserts and badlands of Alberta, Montana and New Mexico. “Finding dinosaurs in British Columbia means bushwhacking along rivers, hiring jetboats or in the case of our field work, getting dropped off by a helicopter.”

But Arbour said the advantages of hunting fossils here is that dinosaurs lived in B.C. over a long period of geological time, which is unique in Canada.

In Alberta, dinosaur bones are mostly from the past 20 million years, but in B.C., there are dinosaur fossils as old as 145 million years to 68 million years — almost the entirely of the Cretaceous period, when mountains and sea levels were rising, new types of plants were forming and the extinction events what wiped out most of the dinosaurs started to happen.

Arbour said the Peace Region of northeastern B.C. is another hot spot for dinosaur fossils. In fact, more dinosaur footprints are found there than anywhere else in Canada. The new exhibit features tyrannosaur jaws and footprints found near Tumbler Ridge and armoured dinosaur bones and tracks discovered near Chetwynd.

There are also tracks of a long-necked sauropod — the largest dinosaurs to ever walk the Earth — recently discovered in a coal mine in the Elk Valley area, northeast of Fernie.

The series of footprints were discovered on a vertical cliff face of the mine. It was impossible to physically collect the footprint specimens, so workers used a drone to photograph the tracks and technology was used to turn the tracks into a 3-D digital model.

“With 3-D printing and other fabrication technologies we can make physical copies,” said Arbour, adding the tracks are a significant discovery because no sauropod fossils or footprints have ever been found in Canada.

Arbour said long stretches of Vancouver Island’s east coast from Duncan to Campbell River are rich in marine fossils deposited during the Cretaceous period, including coiled ammonites, clams, snails, fish, sharks and marine reptiles. She said the museum has one bone from the Island traced to a dinosaur — a tail bone from an ostrich-like feathered creature called ornithomimus.

“I’m sure there are other dinosaur discoveries to be made on the Island if we look in the right places,” said Arbour, adding the museum is grateful for donations and reports from fossil hunters.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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