Charles M. Sternberg (2022) by Canadian Fossil Discovery CentreCanadian Fossil Discovery Centre
In 1934, palaeontologist Charles M. Sternberg arrived in Morden to collect two fossil specimens reported to him by an engineer. These two specimens, found on Spencer's Farm, were the first complete mosasaurs ever found in Manitoba.
The Manitoba Escarpment (2022) by Canadian Fossil Discovery CentreCanadian Fossil Discovery Centre
Mosasaurs on the Prairies?
Mosasaurs are marine reptiles, which means they lived in the sea. How did their fossilized remains end up in the middle of a landlocked prairie?
During the Cretaceous, two tectonic plates were in the process of subducting beneath the North American Plate. This caused the overlying land to warp and form a large back-arc basin. Ocean water gradually filled this basin, resulting in the Western Interior Seaway.
Formations of Manitoba (2022) by Canadian Fossil Discovery CentreCanadian Fossil Discovery Centre
Location, Location, Location
Morden's location on the edge of the Manitoba Escarpment gives it unique access to different formations of the Cretaceous period (about 145-66 million years ago), as can be seen in this diagram.
Manitoba's Cretaceous seas featured a number of unique marine species including mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, giant turtles, hesperornises, and ancient 'octopuses'. Warmer conditions allowed life to flourish in this shallow sea, providing plenty of food such as plankton, ammonites, and fish.
Clidastes Mosasaur Skull (2022) by Canadian Fossil Discovery CentreCanadian Fossil Discovery Centre
Also known as the "T-rex of the Seas", mosasaurs were the apex predators of the Western Interior Seaway. Their powerful tail moved side-to-side to propel them through the seas, and their impressive jaws acted as double-action hinges that let them trap and swallow prey whole.
Plesi the Plesiosaur (2022) by Canadian Fossil Discovery CentreCanadian Fossil Discovery Centre
Unlike mosasaurs, plesiosaurs navigated the waters primarily with their powerful flippers, and their smaller jaws meant their diet consisted of small prey like fish. Long-necked plesiosaurs used their necks to dart at prey, while short-necks maneuvered using their agile bodies.
Hesperornis Reconstruction (2022) by Canadian Fossil Discovery CentreCanadian Fossil Discovery Centre
Another start of Manitoba's Cretaceous is the flightless bird Hesperornis. It swam and dove to catch prey near the sea's shores.
Remnants of the Sea
Volcanic activity to the west resulted in a series of ash layers, called bentonite, being deposited across the seaway. This organic material helps us determine the age of the fossils we find. Today, the seabed remains preserved in these layers of bentonite and shale.
Henry Isaak (2022) by Canadian Fossil Discovery CentreCanadian Fossil Discovery Centre
The Beginning of a Collection
Since the 1930s, mosasaurs and other marine fossils have been collected by individual landowners, miners, and museum staff. It was in 1972 when two enthusiasts, Henry Isaak and Don Bell, took it upon themselves to recover more than 300 fossils from various mines in the area.
The Bentonite Mines
The mining company Pembina Mountain Clays Ltd. was integral in assisting the museum with fossil discoveries at nearby bentonite quarries. Reports of the fossil finds were passed on to Isaak, and with the assistance of summer students, many fossils were removed from the mines.
Bentonite has many industrial uses, including in petroleum refining, agriculture, and even cosmetics. Bentonite mining occurred in Manitoba from the 1950s until the 1980s, when more easily accessible sources of bentonite were found elsewhere.
Although Isaak and Bell initially stored the fossils at home, the collection soon became too large. They contacted the Morden and District Museum and found some space in the basement of Morden’s old clock tower. With the help of students, they continued to add to the collection.
Many of the CFDC's most significant finds were made during the 1970s. With limited space, however, many of these fossils remained in storage.
Suzy the Mosasaur (2022) by Canadian Fossil Discovery CentreCanadian Fossil Discovery Centre
A New Home
In 1982, the collection found a permanent home in the basement of the Morden Recreation Centre, with several expansions happening over time. This meant that these astonishing finds, including world-record-holding mosasaur “Bruce”, could finally be displayed properly.
A Boon for Research
Also during the 1980s, palaentologist Dr. Elizabeth “Betsy” Nicholls, of the Royal Tyrell Museum, was the first to officially describe the marine fossil collection. Her research contributed significant information to study of marine reptiles.
Mike Waddell (2022) by Canadian Fossil Discovery CentreCanadian Fossil Discovery Centre
In 1999, a new board of directors and curator Mike Waddell revived the organization, moving the museum in the direction of tourism and public outreach. Awareness of the museum was implemented by travelling exhibits, public programming, and new excavation sites.
A New Name
The museum continued to develop throughout the 2000s. It was officially renamed Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre and started focusing exclusively on fossils. New land was obtained in 2005, and palaeontology enthusiasts and students have made exciting new finds every year.
Dave the Shark (2022) by Canadian Fossil Discovery CentreCanadian Fossil Discovery Centre
Today, the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre is home to the largest marine reptile fossil collection in Canada. Many of the specimens have yet to be analyzed by palaeontologists, so stay tuned for more!
Explore our collection: Fossil Discovery (skin-web.org)