Jane Colwell-Danis (1941- ) has the distinction of being the first formally-trained female vertebrate paleontologist in Canada. She was born in Fort Stockton, Texas in 1941. The family were nature lovers and lived in sparsely populated areas with an abundance of rocks and fossils. From the time she could walk, Jane was an avid hunter of what she called “neat bits”, especially smaller things. This interest in small objects would influence her professional paleontological career later on.

In the late 1950’s, a high school science teacher, aware of her interest in fossils, arranged a tour of the Paleontology Lab at the University of California Berkeley where she decided paleontology was for her. She entered that university and spent six years there, culminating with her Masters degree in 1965; her thesis was on a poorly known group of South American Miocene notoungulate mammals. She presented a paper at a Geological Society of America meeting in Fresno in 1965 on “Dental tubules in the South American family Leontiniidae” and was only one of two female delegates to present their research [Ed: does anyone know the identity of the other trowelblazer at the 1965 GSA? If so, let us know!].

Vertebrate paleontologist Dr. Wann Langston, on sabbatical and visiting Berkeley, encouraged her to consider work outside of California and the United States. In support, he wrote Jane a letter of reference to the Dean of Natural Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. At the time, the vertebrate paleontology program there was brand new. There was no actual job positions being offered, but on the strength of Langston’s letter she was hired as Dr. Richard C. Fox’s assistant.

She prepared delicate fossils for his research and curated the paleontology collection. There she found a matchbox of Late Cretaceous microvertebrate fossils collected in the early 1920’s by George F. Sternberg. The box bore crude locality data, but Jane was still able to relocate the site in Dinosaur Provincial Park  and collected what was then extremely rare Late Cretaceous mammal material such as jaws and tiny teeth. In doing so, she was the first academic to specifically examine microsites in Dinosaur Provincial Park from a research perspective.

She was given the job of looking for additional fossil mammal-bearing sites in the badlands of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. At some localities, the fossil-rich matrix was bulk sampled and wet screened later by the men in the crew, and the concentrate stored for microscope sorting later. While doing this work she met amateur fossil collectors Irene Vanderloh and Hope Johnson [Ed: Posts needed!] with whom she continued a friendship for many years. During this period she found many other fossils, including the complete skull of the crocodile Leidyosuchus. Her working alone in the field caused safety concerns for her male colleagues, after all, she was a woman! Her 17 year-old nephew Chuck joined her the next two summers as an assistant and for “protection”. [Ed: Please join us in a collective side-eye at said male colleagues, however well-intentioned]


Dinosaur Provincial Park, Canada, where Jane Colwell-Danis conducted much of her field work in the 1960s. Photo (c) Darren H. Tanke, Royal Tyrrell Museum.

Dinosaur Provincial Park, Canada, where Jane Colwell-Danis conducted much of her field work in the 1960s. Photo (c) Darren H. Tanke, Royal Tyrrell Museum.

In September 1967, Jane participated in the first ever helicopter lift of a field-jacketed dinosaur skeleton and began preparing that specimen, an ornithomimid. In 1968, she met up with Dale A. Russell of the now named Canadian Museum of Nature in Dinosaur Provincial Park. Jane soon moved to Ottawa and married Russell’s technician. In 1969, she started working as a curatorial assistant to Dr. J.A. Jeletzky of the Geological Survey of Canada on his large fossil invertebrate collection. This work lasted several years and consisted of organizing, sorting, cleaning, repairing and curating the massive collection.

1971-1977 were busy years for Jane.  She authored the Canadian Museum of Nature 36-page poplar booklet The Age of Dinosaurs of Canada (1974) and did field assistance in Alberta in Saskatchewan towards Russell’s book A Vanished World – The Dinosaurs of Western Canada. And alongside her curatorial work and fossil preparation of dinosaur material at the Canadian Museum of Nature, Jane managed to fit in having, and caring for, two daughters.

Jane and family then moved to Edmonton where her husband took a job as a paleontology technician at the Provincial Museum of Alberta. Jane worked there as a tour guide in the Education Department. Keeping active in paleontology, Jane did volunteer work for the Provincial Museum in the summer of 1979, mostly continuing her work on collecting microvertebrate fossils. Jane was later hired and involved in a project involving the integration of the old Dinosaur Provincial Park fossil collection, over 950 specimens, into the Provincial Museum’s collections. She also compiled an updated map of old dinosaur quarries in Dinosaur Provincial Park which has appeared in several publications by others.

In the spring of 1982, it was announced that the Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology would be built in Drumheller, Alberta and Provincial Museum paleontology staff would be transferred there. By now, Jane was the Provincial Museum of Alberta’s full time Paleontology Collections Manager. Forty five THOUSAND invertebrate and vertebrate fossils (both prepared and unprepared material), totalling 110 tons, had to be organized, packed and readied for transfer and storage in temporary facilities in Drumheller. During this hectic time Jane completed revisions on her Master’s thesis in the hopes it would be published — it eventually was, but not until 1997.

In Drumheller, as construction of the Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology reached completion, Jane was involved in packing up the fossils all over again, in preparation of their move to the new building. Between 1985 and 1991 she worked in an integral support role in the Tyrell Museum’s Collections Department, compiling an annotated bibliography of Dinosaur Provincial Park paleontology, fossil identification and sorting, processing specimen loans, and computer searches for in-house staff and the frequent visiting scientists and students. She also produced small reports for Tyrell Museum-hosted conference field guides and assisted another woman with her paleontological fieldwork in Montana.

Toward the end of the 1980’s, Jane joined the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, presenting at their conferences on dinosaur quarry locality preservation and collections storage issues, as well as serving as a conference co-chairman and assisting on tours and technical programming. These were busy and promising times for Jane, but a downturn in the economy and Alberta government downsizing meant her position was cut in January 1991, and at the same time, her marriage was failing and ended in divorce. One of her last jobs with the Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology was participating in an Australian dinosaur dig, run by Tom Rich and Pat Vickers-Rich, both former students from Jane’s Berkeley days.

Soon after being laid off, Jane then began a new and very different career. She became the Seniors Coordinator for the Town of Drumheller. She did this for 17 years and during this time did no paleontology work at all. But after retirement, in 2008, she returned to the Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology as a volunteer, and with a microscope and tweezers, patiently began sorting through microvertebrate fossil concentrate from a site she had originally worked in 1966! Though bothered by arthritis, Jane continues to be a greatly appreciated volunteer at the Tyrell Museum about two hours a day, three mornings a week.

Written by Darren Tanke

Edited by Tori

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One thought on “Jane Colwell-Danis

  1. Sue Turner says:

    Well done, Darren! Excellent article on Jane

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