Fossilized Saurolophus skin is held by palaeontologist Phil Bell at the Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Monday, February 6, 2012
Credits: AARON HINKS/QMI AGENCY
Dr. Phil Bell, a palaeontologist with the Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative, along with a group of experts from the University of Alberta and volunteers, had spent a week beginning June 15 using jackhammers and hand tools to unearth the remains of a massive Hadrosaur, a duck-billed mammal that lived several million years ago.
They had prepared the fossilized bones to be covered in plaster and moved to an indoor facility for further cleaning and storing before going on display.
"That was actually the biggest find of the year for us. That was where I was focusing all my attention," said Bell, who left the site when they ran out of time with their work crew. He planned to come back a week later to help with the final move.
When he returned on Thursday, he found the skeleton in ruins.
"It was devastating," Bell explained. "When I got back this week the mayhem had happened. They had actually torn off that plaster cover and just destroyed most of the bones that were exposed."
Vandals had torn the exposed part of the specimen - the arm, chest and shoulder section - to pieces and scattered them.
"We normally rely on the fact that these places are typically remote and we don't expect people to go out there. It's akin to just breaking into someone's house because it looks interesting. Why would anyone do that?" he said.
"This was destined to become a major exhibit in the new museum. Of course, now it's really compromised. It's not really a skeleton any more. It's more of a jumble of bones. Maybe there's a few things that are still complete in there but as far as the exhibit was concerned, that's no longer feasible."
The full skeleton, which measures about seven metres long, was going to become one of the main attractions at the soon-to-be-opened Phillip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum.
Bell said the loss is going to have a significant impact on the museum, which is still looking for funding to complete its construction.
"It affects everyone, not just us," he said.
Judging by the destruction, he said whoever was responsible had no idea what they were destroying or the laws they were breaking.
"The point that a lot of people don't realize is that Alberta's laws in regards to fossil collection are actually the tightest in the entire world.
People found illegally poaching fossils, particularly dinosaurs, can face up to $40,000 in fines and a year in prison.
Unfortunately that's not common knowledge. Once that word gets out then people might think twice about messing around," Bell said.
RCMP from Grande Prairie have been working with the University of Alberta and PCDI to try and learn what might have happened. According to the PCDI, the incident is one of at least four in the past month and a half in the Peace Country.
In late May, a display case showcasing other fossilized bones was smashed and in June a vertebra and several rib bones were stolen.
Because of Alberta's strict laws, selling the remains is close to impossible so pieces that are taken are not worth anything to thieves either.
Even if a culprit is found, however, Bell said the damage has been done.
"It's an irreplaceable loss," he said.