The Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre (CFDC) previously Morden and District Museum currently houses the largest collection of marine vertebrates in Canada. This large fossil collection has led the museum to a continuous need for expansion and improvement, even at the present time.
Since the late 1930's, fossils have been discovered in the Morden and Miami areas of southern Manitoba. Quarrying was being carried out by Pembina Mountain Clays Inc. to mine the mineral bentonite (a form of clay used in many applications for the manufacture of everyday products). These fossils had been merely curiosities and until the 1970's no concerted efforts had been made to collect and study them.
In 1969, a committee was formed and began the organization of the Morden and District Museum. The museum was originally located on the second floor of the old Art Gallery building in downtown Morden. The theme of the museum was initially historical. The committee canvassed the townspeople of Morden for pioneer artifacts to acquire as part of the museum collection.
The Morden and District Museum was officially incorporated and opened in 1971 during the Corn & Apple Festival. The ribbon was cut by Jack Murta, MP of Lisgar at the time.
This image shows one of the more complete specimens excavated and in its original display.
A superb diorama in the Museum gallery provides a glimpse of what the Western Interior Seaway may have looked like in the Cretaceous period. The diorama depicts the local fauna (animal life) and includes plesiosaurs, mosasaurs, sharks, squid, fish, birds, and turtles.
During the Cretaceous Period 80 million years ago the floor of the Western Interior Seaway was rich black clay. Over millions of years, the layers of clay were buried and turned into a rock called shale.
Alternating layers of shale and bentonite represent episodes of volcanic activity from the west coast of North America, primarily from Montana. Bentonite is formed by heat and compaction of volcanic ash. Volcanic ash settled onto the sea floor while small particles of sediment that make up the shale began to accumulate on top of the volcanic ash, forming the alternating layers.
The remains of dead and dying organisms sink down to the seafloor. If the circumstances are ideal, (rapid burial with no oxygen) the skeletal remains may be preserved and turned into a fossil.
Particles settle down, covering the specimen. Over millions of years, the specimen is buried by these tiny particles forming a rock. It is not until a geological event, such as a glacial movement or climatic change occurring that the buried fossil may be exposed to these elements.
A short-necked plesiosaur recovered at the Escarpment is currently displayed in the museum showing the full complete skeleton of an immature plesiosaur. This specimen represents one of the last swimming plesiosaurs in the Western Interior Seaway 80-90 million years ago.
As a result in global temperature change at the end of the Cretaceous period 65M years ago the Western Interior Seaway retreated, leaving behind the organisms that once swam in its waters.
Much later on in history, approximately just 18,000 years ago, the Earth experienced an ice age. A massive sheet of ice covered almost all of Canada, as seen in the image.
Once the glacier retreated, the rock layers which were embedded with the fossils from the Western Interior Seaway were exposed.
In the summer of 1972 word spread from bentonite miners that substantial fossils were being found in the Pembina Hills. Local residents Henry Isaak and Don Bell took the initiative to venture out and see if the tales were true. Indeed they were! Henry Isaak soon became the museum's curator, acquiring grants for summer students and over the next 2 years excavated 30 mosasaur and 20 plesiosaur specimens from the ground where bentonite was being mined.
With the help of the Pembina Mountain Clays mining company, through the previous curator Henry Isaak and volunteer high school students, the CFDC has excavated over 500 specimens.
Originally, the fossil finds were stored in the basement of the Art Gallery building which became a workshop. But each year more and more fossils were discovered with the help of palaeontologists and volunteers from across Canada who turned out to help. The palaeontological collection was rapidly growing and in need of a new venue to display the different specimens.
In 1979, the museum moved to its present location where work was started in January 1978 with 14,000 square feet of space in the basement of the Morden Recreation Centre. The official opening was in May of 1979, but the palaeontological displays were not completed until 1982, when the museum galleries were designed and constructed by technicians from the Manitoba Museum.
This image is at the entrance way into the museum depicting the rock layers and a brief introduction to the unique museum. The museum has currently expanded with new exhibits, featuring some of the original specimens found in the early 1970's. Our most prized exhibit to date features the largest publicly displayed mosasaur in the world, approximately 13 meters (43 feet) in length, first discovered in 1974. We named this mosasaur 'Bruce'.
In the early 1980's, the CFDC's fossil collection attracted a student from the University of Calgary pursuing her PhD thesis on the Morden fauna which abounded in the Western Interior Seaway during the Cretaceous Period.
Elizabeth Nicholls (Betsy) spent three field seasons in the bentonite quarries collecting and conducting research for her thesis, from 1985-1987. With the support of two summer helpers and Henry Isaak (Curator of Morden & District Museum at the time), she helped to bring in numerous specimens, some of which included the huge plesiosaur pelvic girdle currently on display in our gallery.
Dr Nicholls described the CFDC fossil collection as "one of the largest collections of marine reptiles from the seaway in one location".
In 2016, the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre created the Dr Elizabeth ‘Betsy’ Nicholls Award for Excellence in Palaeontology
Many visitors come to view the unique fossil collection that the museum has to offer. In September of 1982, Lieutenant-Governor Pearl McGonigal came to visit the museum. Over the years many other political figures, as well as scientists, have come from the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Royal Ontario Museum and the Royal Saskatchewan Museum to name a few.
The museum is supported by the City of Morden, the provincial government and volunteers. Over the years the Morden and District Museum received generous donations from various individuals and local organizations.
Morden and District Museum president Henry Marshall received a donation in the amount of $5,000 from Don Livingston, president of the Morden Legion, on August 1, 1984.
The museum is continuously growing, offering a wide variety of palaeo programs and learning opportunities both for students and the general public.
The Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre now has a fossil collection which is so unique and abundant, many palaeontologists visit to examine and excavate the material from the Manitoba Escarpment area of the Pembina Hills and some of the old bentonite quarries. The Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Manitoba and the Royal Tyrrell Museum have displays and material on loan from CFDC which was originally recovered from the Pembina Hills area.
The CDFC now owns a fossil-rich area of land extending to 109 acres on the Manitoba Escarpment situated just North West of the City of Morden, Manitoba, where organized digs and palaeo tours are carried out throughout the late spring, summer & early fall seasons.
We have continued our fossil hunting on the Manitoba Escarpment with the prospect of substantial fossil finds always being very likely; notable finds include 'Betsy' (named after Dr Elizabeth Nicholls) a 23-foot long plesiosaur found in a cow pasture in 2004 and recovered in 2005. We are working on the preservation of 'Betsy' in our own laboratory and in laboratories at the University of Winnipeg where the stomach contents of 'Betsy' were reported.