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It's a croc... and star of museum

Dauphin area known for fossils

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Norm Williamson stands near the fossil-rich Wilson River.

BILL REDEKOP/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Norm Williamson stands near the fossil-rich Wilson River. Photo Store

DAUPHIN -- The star attraction at the Fort Dauphin Museum didn't wear a coonskin cap, pad around in mukluks or enjoy robust singalongs.

The star of the fur-trade museum crawled on its belly, did a great imitation of a floating log and shed no tears for its victims.

It's Chris Croc, or Chris the Croc, the 100-million-year-old crocodile found near Dauphin. It's named after local legal aid lawyer Chris Tait, an amateur paleontologist who discovered the crocodile's fossilized bones.

"People are very surprised. They come in here expecting the fur trade and find a 20-foot crocodile," said Sheena Sullivan, museum curator.

Or at least they find some of its fossilized bones. The Fort Dauphin Museum doesn't have the budget to pay for a mounted replica of the crocodile, called a Terminonaris, one of only seven found in North America. Neither was the crocodile's skull found, so the remnant leg and feet bones have to do.

Even so, it's a remarkable discovery. It also points to the real star of the whole affair: the Wilson River. The little-known Wilson starts in the Riding Mountain escarpment, south of Grandview, and snakes east before emptying into Lake Dauphin.

Tait wasn't available, but another occasional amateur paleontologist, Norm Williamson, showed the general area on the Wilson River where Tait found the crocodile, near the Wilson River bridge on Highway 5 west of Dauphin.

The amazing thing about the Wilson River is it cuts so deeply into the escarpment. Steep cliffs stretch at least 20 metres high in some parts. In the stratified embankments are streaks of rocks, sands and soils, all of different hues: a virtual catalogue of periods on Earth dating back 100 million years.

By summer, the river is nearly dry. So amateur palaeontologists walk along the riverbed looking into the freshly eroded shoreline cliffs for anything unusual. At a depth of about eye height, you can find fossils from 90 million to 100 million years ago.

That's how Tait found his crocodile in 2007. He was actually looking for fish fossils. He has one such find, the fossil bones of a Xiphactinus, currently stored in his apartment. Xiphactinus is a very recognizable for how its incisors jut up the sides of its mouth, like Chopper in the Tweety Bird cartoons. Fossils from plesiosaurs (Loch Nessie) and shark teeth are also found.

"It provides lots of opportunities to find things," Tait said of the Wilson.

The Western Interior Seaway ran through Manitoba ages ago, but this area was part of a shallows that included islands, ideal for reptiles such as crocodiles to raise families, said Williamson.

What about the climate? Crocodiles can't even withstand frost. Manitoba was so much warmer back then and not due to continental drift. It would have been only one or two degrees farther south.

The very short answer is it had to do with changing ocean currents, said Kevin Campbell, a University of Manitoba biologist and board chairman of the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden. In fact, camel fossils have been found on Ellesmere Island, the northernmost island in Canada, dating back 20 million years ago, said Campbell. That's how warm it once was.

And dating back 50 million years ago, there were not only crocodiles on Ellesmere Island but palm trees. Frost only arrived in the Arctic about seven million years ago. The temperature started to really drop four million years ago, followed by ice ages that started two million years ago.

The Manitoba Heritage Act dictates all fossils found within the province are property of the province and must be turned over to the Manitoba government or a steward of the province, such as a museum.

The Fort Dauphin Museum, founded by legendary outdoorsman Joe Robertson, includes a fossil house of some of the ancient bones found on the Wilson River. The museum also includes items from the oldest Paleo-Indian campsite in Manitoba, found in the Duck Mountains, believed to be up to 8,000 years old from its lancelot projectile points. The museum also displays exhibits of decorated war hero Billy Barker, who was from Dauphin, and Red River settler and surveyor Peter Fidler.

Fort Dauphin was originally established by the son of famous explorer La Vérendrye, Pierre, in 1739, at the mouth of the Mossey River on Dauphin Lake, and was active until the 1830s, said fort manager Adam Hanson.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2014 A4

History

Updated on Monday, May 26, 2014 at 7:35 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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