It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a plesiosaur!

New addition to the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science highlights strength of vertebrate paleontology program.

Jennifer Pascoe - 4 January 2016

Soaring through the sky in the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science swims a Cretaceous sea monster. Spanning 50 feet from head to tail, the Elasmosaurus platyurus belongs to a group of ancient long-necked reptiles-plesiosaurs-that, along with ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs, dominated the world's oceans while dinosaurs ruled the land.

Dean Jonathan Schaeffer wanted something to capture the collective imagination of people passing through CCIS. "We have a spectacular building, and we wanted something that screams science," he says. "We are creating showpieces that serve as conversation starters about the kind of work we do and the strength of our programs, including paleontology amongst so many others." Floor space in the building is at a premium, so he decided to look up instead.

"This kind of fluid medium can be an ocean in the imagination," says Michael Caldwell, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences and professor in paleontology. "The airy space in CCIS was a good place to either hang something like pteranodons, which we do find in Alberta's fossil record, or a marine reptile from when Alberta was covered with the oceans." This animal and its close relatives come from southern Alberta.

The new specimen will not only be a showpiece for the building, but also will be used for teaching undergraduate paleontology courses. Caldwell notes that it is important for students to learn about what was happening in the ocean while dinosaurs were roaming Earth. "People are pretty dino-centric. We are working to show them that the world was far more biodiverse."

Students around the world can learn about ancient marine reptiles with a new mini massive open online course (MOOC) coming to Coursera on Feb. 29. "With Dino 101, we set a high bar for paleontology," adds Schaeffer. With three new paleontology mini MOOCs that are coming out in 2016, we are going to push the bar so high that we will have no pretenders to the paleontology throne."

In addition to the ancient marine reptile MOOC, "Theropod Dinosaurs and the Origin of Birds" launches Jan. 25 and "Early Vertebrate Evolution" launches March 29. To date, more than 70,000 students worldwide have accessed the University of Alberta's paleontology expertise through Dino 101.

Did you know?

The Loch Ness Monster is loosely based on the model of a plesiosaur, just like the one that now hangs in CCIS.