Fossil Huntress — Palaeo Sommelier
By Fossil Huntress
Fossil Huntress — Palaeo SommelierOct 14, 2020
Vancouver Island Mosasaur
Vancouver Island holds many wonderful fossils and incredible folk excited to explore them. The Dove Creek Mosasaur, which includes the teeth and lower jawbone of a large marine reptile was discovered by Rick Ross of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society, during the construction of the Inland Highway, near the Dove Creek intersection on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Mosasaurs had a hinged jaw that allowed them to swallow prey larger than themselves. They evolved special pterygoid teeth projecting back into the roof of their mouths that acted as guards against escaping prey. The jawbones Rick found were exposed just up to the hinge. Given the size, this toothy fellow could have been as much as seven (7) metres long and weighed up to a tonne.
A Taste for Studies: Tortoise Urine, Armadillos, Fried Tarantula & Goat Eyeballs
Predators and Prey in Devonian Seas
Earth’s First Four-Legged, Air-Breathing Vertebrates
In the late 1930s, our understanding of the transition of fish to tetrapods — and the eventual jump to modern vertebrates — took an unexpected leap forward. The evolutionary a'ha came from a single partial fossil skull found on the shores of a riverbank in Eastern Canada.
Meet the Stegocephalian, Elpistostege watsoni, an extinct genus of finned tetrapodomorphs that lived during the Late Givetian to Early Frasnian of the Late Devonian — 382 million years ago.
Elpistostege watsoni — perhaps the sister taxon of all other tetrapods — was first described in 1938 by British palaeontologist and elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London, Thomas Stanley Westoll. Westoll's research interests were wide-ranging. He was a vertebrate palaeontologist and geologist best known for his innovative work on Palaeozoic fishes and their relationships with tetrapods.
As a specialist in early fish, Westoll was asked to interpret that single partial skull roof discovered at the Escuminac Formation in Quebec, Canada. His findings and subsequent publication named Elpistostege watsoni and helped us to better understand the evolution of fishes to tetrapods — four-limbed vertebrates — one of the most important transformations in vertebrate evolution.
North America’s Rocky Mountain Trench
Oh, Shiny! Pyritized Fossils
We sometimes find fossils preserved by pyrite. They are prized as much for their pleasing gold colouring as for their scientific value as windows into the past. If you have pyrite specimens and want to stop them from decaying, you can give them a 'quick' soak in water (hour max) then wash them off, and dry them thoroughly in a warm oven. Cool, then soak in pure acetone for a couple of days. Then soak in paraloid, a thermoplastic resin surface coating or acetone for a couple of days. Keep them in a sealed container with a desiccant pack afterwards to keep them dry — or leave them out on display to enjoy knowing that the decay will come in time. We do this with cut flowers so why not fossils sometimes? A friend gives her pyrite fossils on display a quick thumb wipe with vaseline or petroleum jelly. I'm not sure if the hydrocarbons there will play nice over time but they will act as a protective barrier.
Bitten and Smitten by the Mineral Bug
This is a blast from the past and the tale of how I was bitten and smitten by the mineral bug. I hope you enjoy this story from my youth growing up on the northern end of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada—and the minerals that can be found there.
Extinct Giants: Woolly Mammoths
Extinct Giants: The Woolly Mammoths. These massive beasts roamed the icy cold tundra of Europe, Asia, and North America from about 300,000 years ago up until about 10,000 years ago making a living by digging through the snow and ice to get to the tough grasses beneath. The last known group of woolly mammoths survived until about 1650 B.C.—over a thousand years after the Pyramids at Giza were built. Will we bring them back? I cannot say for sure but they are a captivating animal in our Earth's history.
Fossil Gear: What to Bring Fossil Collecting
Learn all about the gear you might need out in the field fossil collecting. What you'll need depends on where you collect and what time of year you go but this will get you started and set up for success.
Hunting Ichthyosaurs in the Norwegian Archipelago of Svalbard
Join in for a chilly visit to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard between mainland Norway and the North Pole. This one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas with rugged terrain, glaciers and polar bear. The rocks here house beautiful Triassic ammonoids, bivalves and primitive ichthyosaurs.
To see some of the fossils from here, visit: https://fossilhuntress.blogspot.com/2020/12/ammonoids-and-bivalves-of-svalbard.html
The Weird and the Wonderful: Lessons from the Cambrian
As part of his continuum of Burgess Shale-related research, he is currently pursuing a PhD focusing on the earliest evolution of today’s most diverse animal group: the arthropods.
Link to Video of the Talk on ARCHEA: youtu.be/4UZ-QwgDozk
Welcome to Season Seven
Kirk Johnson — A Lucky Paleontologist & the Tale of Three Splendid Canadian Fossils
Kirk Johnson is a geologist, paleobotanist, and the Sant Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. His research focuses on fossil plants and the extinction of the dinosaurs, and he is known for his scientific articles, popular books, museum exhibitions, documentaries, and collaborations with artists.
Bright, funny and a delightful human being, Kirk Johnson is a leader in his field and beyond. He has collaborated on numerous projects including two recent documentaries, “Making North America” (2015) and “Polar Extremes” (2019).
His recent books include “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline: The Travels of an Artist and a Scientist along the Shores of the Prehistoric Pacific” (2018); “Visions of Lost Worlds, the Paleoart of Jay Matternes” (2019); and “Trees are made of Gas, The Story of Carbon and Climate” (2021). The video version of this talk with visuals will be up on YouTube. Head to www.fossiltalksandfieldtrips.com or www.fossilhuntress.com and click the YouTube link.
Palaeontology Lecture Series — Spring 2022
2022 Palaeontology / Paleontology Lecture Series with all of you. Zoom Link: www.fossiltalksandfieldtrips.com
Kicking off 2022 is Danna Staaf, the Cephalopodiatrist with Cephalopods are the New Dinosaurs, Sun, February 12, 2022 at 2PM PST. Cephalopods, Earth's first truly substantial animals, are still among us. Their fascinating family tree is a whose-who of squid, octopus, cuttlefish, nautilus, and their brethren. Cephalopods number more than 800 species with new species still being found. As the inventors of swimming, cephalopods presided over the sea for millions of years. When fish eventually evolved jaws, the cephalopods had to up their game.
Sunday, March 20, 2022, 2PM — Kirk Johnson — A Lucky Paleontologist & the Tale of Three Splendid Canadian Fossils. Join us for a talk with the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History & Paleontologist who has led expeditions in eighteen US states and eleven countries
Sunday, April 24, 2022, 2PM PST — John-Paul Zonneveld — Brave New World: Recovery from the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction & the Significance of Marine Faunas in Northeastern British Columbia. Hear JP's multidisciplinary approach to questions arising between geological and biological systems as he turns his eye to our world 250 million years ago
Sunday, May 22, 2022, 2PM PST — Russell Shapiro — Stromatolites, Methane Seeps & Metamorphosed Fossils on Mars. Learn about his work as a paleontologist exploring fossils from the present day to over three billion years ago in our deep seas & searching for fossils on Mars for NASA
Sun, June 19, 2022, 2PM PST — Dan Bowen — Struck by Lightning: The Mary Anning Story. Learn about this history of Mary Anning from the Chair of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society
Valley of a Thousand Peaks in the Rocky Mountains
The Rocky Mountain Trench is one of the few geologic wonders we can see from space. It is known as the Valley of a Thousand Peaks or simply the Trench — a large valley on the western side of the northern part of North America's Rocky Mountains.
Solving an 85 Million-Year-Old Puzzle — Excavating An Elasmosaur
A mighty marine reptile was excavated on the Trent River near Courtenay on the east coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The excavation is the culmination of a three-year palaeontological puzzle.
The fossil remains are those of an elasmosaur — a group of long-necked marine reptiles found in the Late Triassic to the Late Cretaceous some 215 to 80 million years ago. In the case of the Trent River, it is closer to 85 million years old. The marine reptile fossil was excavated 10-meters up high on the cliffs that line the river. It took a month of careful planning, building scaffolding, and amassing climbing gear to aid the team of dedicated souls in unearthing this juvenile elasmosaur.
Bits and pieces of him have been eroding out for years — providing clues to the past and a jigsaw puzzle that has finally had the last pieces put together. The first piece of this marine reptile puzzle was found three years ago.
Celebrating 2021 With All of You & Welcoming 2022 With An Epic Fossil Contest
Nothing says Happy 2022 like free prizes. Thank you to each and every one of you who spent time with me in 2021. It is time to wrap up the year and welcome in 2022. I wish you health, happiness and many fossils.... perhaps as prizes. That's right. It is time to celebrate you! We're starting off 2022 with some great giveaways. Head on over to the ARCHEA YouTube Channel to learn how you could add a few nice fossils, some collecting gear and oodles of tasty fossil goodness to your collection in 2022. It is free to enter... and shameless bribery. I look forward to spending time with all of you in the New Year! Head to www.fossilhuntress.com to find all the links you'll need to win.
Love the Wild: Moose / Alces alces
Love the Wild: Moose. One of the most impressive mammals of the Pacific Northwest and the largest living member of the deer family are Moose. They are taller than everyone you know and weighs more than your car. You may encounter them lumbering solo along the edge of rivers and lakes, taking a refreshing swim or happily snacking on short grasses, water plants, woody shrubs and pinecones.
You can often see them in Canada and some of the northern regions of the USA going about their business of eating and swimming. The males are called bulls and make quite a racket during mating season, also known as the Rut, using their bugle-like calls to attract a mate. Their impressive headgear can grow up to six feet and are used in displays of posturing, fighting or self-defence with other bulls — generally regarding a lady-moose or cow.
Females do not have antlers but certainly, notice them. Once a mate is chosen, the new parents will produce one or two babies or calves. Fully grown, their new young will one day be able to run 55 km per hour and have excellent hearing and sense of smell. Their vision is not that good but their other senses make up for it.
The scientific or binomial name for Moose is Alces alces (Linnaeus, 1758). The word moose is borrowed from Algonquian. In Narragansett, moose are called moos and in Eastern Abenaki, this large mammal is called mos. Both are likely derived from moosu, meaning he strips off. The Proto-Algonquian form was mo·swa.
In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest, moose are known as t̕ła̱wa̱l's — and their large crown of antler are known as wa̱t'łax̱.
I had a close encounter on the Bowron Lake Circuit with a mamma moose, her new calf and a fully grown Grizzly chasing them. I can share that whatever the guidebooks say, a motivated mother and calf can outrun a bear. Maybe not always, but they certainly did that time.
Moose are ungulates, mammals with hooves. The first ungulates appear in the fossil record about 50 million years ago. The lineage split, evolving into two groups: those with an even number of toes (Artiodactyls) and those with an uneven number of toes (Perissodactyls).
We see the first proto-deer about 35 million years ago. These are the proto-deer like Syndyoceras who shared features with deer, horses, giraffes and antelopes. They had bony skull outgrowths similar to antlers and were found in North America during the Miocene, some 35 million years ago. Ten million years later, we see the first animals you and I would recognize as deer. Moose first appear in the fossil record during the Upper Pleistocene, a time of global glaciation.
Moose are gentle creatures if unprovoked. They sometimes ramble into town or buildings if they lose their way. We find them enjoying the water from garden sprinklers, randomly making their way into homes, barns and classrooms in Canada — and likely elsewhere. It is worth doing a Google search of their antics to see all that these massive mammals get up to. They are smart enough to know that living in the woods in hunting season can go poorly, so Moose will gather in downtown Banff and Lake Louise, hiding in plain sight to avoid becoming someone's dinner or trophy.
Across Canada today, we live alongside 500,000 to 1,000,000 of their number. Another 200,000 or so live south of us in the northern United States. Across Europe and Asia are another million-plus of their relatives.
Cretaceous Capilano Fossil Field Trip
Fossil Field Trip to the Cretaceous Capilano Three Brothers Formation — Vancouver has a spectacular mix of mountains, forests, lowlands, inlets and rivers all wrapped lovingly by the deep blue of the Salish Sea. When we look to the North Shore, the backdrop is made more spectacular by the Coast Mountains with a wee bit of the Cascades tucked in behind.
If you were standing on the top of the Lion's Gate Bridge looking north you would see the Capilano Reservoir is tucked in between the Lions to the west and Mount Seymour to the east on the North Shore. The bounty of that reservoir flows directly into your cup. If you look down from the reservoir you see the Capilano River as it makes its way to the sea and enters Burrard Inlet.
The Capilano River on Vancouver's North Shore flows through the Coast Mountains and our coastal rainforest down to the Capilano watershed en route to Burrard Inlet. The headwaters are at the top of Capilano up near Furry Creek. They flow down through the valley, adding in rainwater, snowmelt and many tributaries before flowing into Capilano Lake. The lake in turn flows through Capilano Canyon and feeds into the Capilano River.
This area was once the exclusive domain of the Coast Salish First Nations — xʷmə?kʷəyəm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations until the early 1800s. Many things have changed since then, including the Capilano River's path, water levels and sediment deposition. We have Ernest Albert Cleveland to thank for the loss of that salmon but can credit him with much of our drinking water as it is caught and stored by the dam that bears his name. It was his vision to capture the bounty from the watershed and ensure it made its way into our cups and not the sea.
Both the water and a good deal of sediment from the Capilano would flow into Burrard Inlet if not held back by the 91-metre concrete walls of the Cleveland Dam. While it was not Ernest's intention, his vision and dam had a secondary impact. In moving the mouth of the Capilano River he altered the erosion pattern of the North Shore and unveiled a Cretaceous Plant Fossil outcrop that is part of the Three Brothers Formation.
The fossil site is easily accessible from Vancouver and best visited in the summer months when water levels are low. The level of preservation of the fossils is quite good. The state in which they were fossilized, however, was not ideal. They look to have been preserved as debris that gathered in eddies in a stream or delta.
There are Cretaceous species found only in the sandstone. You will see exposed shale in the area but it does not contain fossil material. Interesting, but again not fossiliferous, are the many granitic and limestone boulders that look to have been brought down by glaciers from as far away as Texada Island. Cretaceous plant material (and modern material) found here include Poplar (cottonwood) Populus sp. Bigleaf Maple, Acer machphyllum, Alder, Alnus rubra, Buttercup Ranvuculus sp., Epilobrium, Red cedar, Blackberry and Sword fern.
Capilano Fossil Field Trip:
From downtown Vancouver, drive north through Stanley Park and over the Lion’s Gate Bridge. Take the North Vancouver exit toward the ferries. Turn right onto Taylor Way and then right again at Clyde Avenue. Look for the Park Royal Hotel. Park anywhere along Clyde Avenue.
From Clyde Avenue walk down the path to your left towards the Capilano River. Watch the water level and tread cautiously as it can be slippery if there has been any recent rain. Look for beds of sandstone about 200 meters north of the private bridge and just south of the Highway bridge. The fossil beds are just below the Whytecliff Apartment high rises. Be mindful of high water and slippery rocks.
The Fossils and Geology of Haida Gwaii
The islands have gone by many names. To the people who call the islands home, Haida Gwaii means Island of the People, it is a shortened version of an earlier name, Haadala Gwaii-ai, or taken out of concealment. Back at the time of Nangkilslas, it was called Didakwaa Gwaii, or “shoreward country.” By any name, the islands are a place of beauty and spirit and enjoy a special place in both the natural and supernatural world.
Haida oral history traces the lineage of their families back to the ocean’s origins. Spear points from Huxley Island confirm a date of between 12,500 - 13,500 years ago. Their stories bear witness to the last ice age, great floods, changes in sea levels and the arrival of the first tree – each binding them closer to the land and sea and enriching our understanding of this special place.
The islands form part of Wrangellia, an exotic terrane that includes parts of western British Columbia, Vancouver Island and Alaska. Today, the mist-shrouded archipelago of Haida Gwaii is separated from the British Columbia mainland by Hecate Strait, a 40-mile wide channel of tempestuous water.
Haida oral tradition tells of a time when the strait was mostly dry, dotted here and there with lakes. And indeed, during the last ice age, glaciers locked up so much water that the sea level was hundreds of feet lower than it is today. Soil samples from the seafloor of Hecate Strait contain wood, pollen, and other terrestrial plant materials that tell of a tundra-like environment. Whether or not the strait was ever completely dry during these times, it seems that it did at least contain a series of stepping-stone islands and bridges that remained free of ice.
Fossil Collecting Austria's Triassic Limestones
Fly with me over to Austria in Europe to visit the Hallstatt Limestones. These are the world's richest Triassic ammonite outcrops.
Along with diversified cephalopod fauna — orthoceratids, nautiloids, ammonoids — we also see gastropods, bivalves, especially the late Triassic pteriid bivalve Halobia (the halobiids), brachiopods, crinoids and a few corals. We also see a lovely selection of microfauna represented.
For microfauna, we see conodonts, foraminifera, sponge spicules, radiolaria, floating crinoids and holothurian sclerites — polyp-like, soft-bodied invertebrate echinozoans often referred to as sea cucumbers because of their similarities in size, elongate shape, and tough skin over a soft interior.
Fossil Collecting Wrangellia
Fossil Collecting in the islands of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada. The mist-shrouded islands of Haida Gwaii are at the western edge of the continental shelf and form part of Wrangellia, an exotic terrane of former island arcs, which also includes Vancouver Island, parts of western mainland British Columbia and southern Alaska. This is a trip that takes some level of planning but is well-worth every moment. I consider a visit to these sacred islands a "trip of a lifetime." And if you are lucky, the first of many more!
Harrison Lake Fossil Collecting 101
If you are planning a fossil field trip to Harrison Lake, this is the episode for you! We'll talk about getting there. What to bring and what you'll find.
Drive the 30 km up Forestry Road #17, stopping just past Hale Creek at 49.5° N, 121.9° W: paleo-coordinates 42.5° N, 63.4° W, on the west side of Harrison Lake. You'll see Long Island to your right. The first of the yummy fossil exposures are just north of Hale Creek on the west side of the lake on the west side of the road. Drive just past them and park on your right.
You are looking for the dark grey rock with the fossils showing up either dark grey, grey-brown or black. You will want to look both in the bedrock, in the loose material that gathers in the ditches and for large dark grey boulders the size of dishwashers packed with Buchia — sometimes made entirely of these densely packed bivalves. Buchia populated our Upper Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous waters like a team sport. When they thrived they really thrived, building up large coquinas of the material that make up much of the rock you will find at Harrison and other sites in the Northern Hemisphere.
WHAT TO BRING: As with all trips into British Columbia's wild places, you will want to dress for the weather. This is a good site for hiking boots, raingear, gloves, eye protection and a good geologic hammer and chisel. Fill your gas tank and pack a tasty lunch. You will definitely want to bring your camera for the blocks of Buchia too big to carry. If you take some good photos, I would love to see them.
Wear bright clothing and keep your head covered. If it is a larger group, those collecting below may want to consider hardhats in case of small rock falls. These are most often chunks of rock the size of your fist up to the size of a grapefruit — and they pack a punch. Bring a colourful towel or something to lay your keepers on. Once you set down a rock, it is hard to find that keeper pile again as they often blend in with the surroundings.
I like to wear one of those lightweight yellow construction vests over whatever I am wearing so my crew and cars can spot me. When you have finished for the day, you can compare your various treasures to see which ones you would like to keep. In British Columbia, you are a steward of the fossil, meaning these all belong to the province but you can keep them safe though cannot sell them or ship them outside British Columbia without a permit.
You should be all set to celebrate a glorious day in the beautiful outdoors. I have been asked about collecting four seasons. What do we do about the weather? We live in a rainforest so collecting in sun and rain means your field season is longer. Everyone has a preference. I prefer not to collect in the snow, but I have done. While sunny days are lovely, it can be easier to see the fossil specimens at Harrison when the rock is wet. So, do we do this in the rain? Heck, yeah.
Once you get home you can wash and ID your finds. I have put the scientific names here but if they occur as gobblygook, don't worry. Harrison does not have a huge variety of fossil fauna. Essentially, if your find is coiled and round, it is an ammonite. If it is long and straight, it is a belemnite. And if it looks like a wee fat baby oyster, it is Buchia. That is not always true, but it is mostly true. And, you can proudly say that your new fossil babies are between 164.7 - 161.2 million years old. Wow, right? I know. Mindblowing. If you find something you cannot ID, send me a photo on the Fossil Huntress Facebook page and I will help you to identify it.
Oh, and do be on the lookout for anything that looks like bone. This site is ripe for finding a marine reptile. Think plesiosaur, mosasaur, elasmosaur, you get the idea. Maybe the next Indiana Jones to get a new species named for them is you!
Welcome to the Fossil Huntress Podcast: Season Five
Welcome to Season Five of the Fossil Huntress Podcast. If you love palaeontology, you will love this stream. Ammonites, trilobites, you’ll find them all here. Think of it as dead sexy science for your ears. Have a listen!
British Columbia’s Iconic Spirit Bears
Visiting the Great Bear Rainforest takes planning and is well worth the trip. You will want to book a guide to lead you through this 6.4 million hectare wilderness on British Columbia's north and central coasts. I recommend searching www.indigenousbc.com for some wonderful knowledgeable First Nation partners on your excursion. This is a journey, an experience you will never forget, so savour every part.
As you enter your footfalls are muffled by lush undergrowth, a crush of salal, fallen needles and wood debris that make up this rich, fertile soil.
In this temperate rainforest live some of the oldest and largest stands of timber on the planet. This is sacred ground, hallowed ground — though one could say that for every place on Earth — this feels different somehow, older, deeper.
This is a forest that whispers secrets for those with ears to hear — in the language of the trees, streams and hidden within every bit of underbrush, every perfectly formed Deer fern (Struthiopteris spicant) and Western sword fern, (Polystichum muntum) as you gently bushwhack your way through — honouring a leave no trace ethos.
As you explore deeper, each breath you take is filled with moist air mingled with the smells of decaying vegetation and fresh growth, new rain and the deep earthy musk of fungi busily at work on the forest floor. The forest itself has a leave no trace mentality in part.
Every visible bit of life is a mix of old and new, the fungi breaking down the plant and animal remains, repurposing their life-giving nutrients. It is because of this that we find so few fossils within a rainforest. They are here but not in the way we might think to look for them, at least not with our eyes in the macro-world. Their lineage lives on at the micro-level, bits and pieces embedded within the trees, animals and soil — they form this regions' goût de terroir, the essence of an abiding woodland sphere.
The animals that call this forest home live amidst multistoried canopies of Sitka spruce (Picea stichensis), western red cedar (Thuja plicata), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), amabilis fir (Abies amabilis) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) — each of these pillars of the forest are woven together by salal, lichen and a rich mycorrhizal network beneath the ground. The trees here talk to one another using these fungal networks that connect individual trees and plants together to help transfer water, carbon, nitrogen, nutrients and minerals from the earth to needle and leaf.
You are walking through time, literally — each footfall retracing history and those that have come before you, both human and animal.
As you explore deeper you come across a vision so remarkable it takes your breath away. Deep in this ancient forest where moss overflows every surface and wilderness abounds, British Columbia's Spirit Bear — Ursus americanus kermodei — reigns supreme.
Our Palaeontological History: From Fish to Tetrapods
In the late 1930s, our understanding of the transition of fish to tetrapods — and the eventual jump to modern vertebrates — took an unexpected leap forward. The evolutionary a'ha came from a single partial fossil skull found on the shores of a riverbank in Eastern Canada.
Meet the Stegocephalian, Elpistostege watsoni, an extinct genus of finned tetrapodomorphs that lived during the Late Givetian to Early Frasnian of the Late Devonian — 382 million years ago. Elpistostege watsoni — perhaps the sister taxon of all other tetrapods — was first described in 1938 by British palaeontologist and elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London, Thomas Stanley Westoll. Westoll's research interests were wide-ranging.
He was a vertebrate palaeontologist and geologist best known for his innovative work on Palaeozoic fishes and their relationships with tetrapods. As a specialist in early fish, Westoll was asked to interpret a single partial skull roof discovered at the Escuminac Formation in Quebec, Canada. His findings gave us the publication that would name Elpistostege watsoni and helped us to better understand the evolution of fishes to tetrapods — four-limbed vertebrates — one of the most important transformations in vertebrate evolution. Hypotheses of tetrapod origins rely heavily on the anatomy of a few tetrapod-like fish fossils from the Middle and Late Devonian, 393–359 million years ago. These taxa — known as elpistostegalians — include Panderichthys, Elpistostege and Tiktaalik — none of which has yet revealed the complete skeletal anatomy of the pectoral fin.
None until 2010, that is when a complete 1.57-metre-long articulated specimen was described by Richard Cloutier et al. in 2020. The specimen helped us to understand the origin of the vertebrate hand. It revealed a set of paired fins of Elpistostege containing bones homologous to the phalanges (finger bones) of modern tetrapods and is the most basal tetrapodomorph known to possess them. Once the phalanges were uncovered, prep work began on the fins.
The fins were covered in scales and lepidotrichia (fin rays). The work was tiresome, taking more than 2,700 hours of preparation but the results were thrilling. We could now clearly see that the skeleton of the pectoral fin has four proximodistal rows of radials — two of which include branched carpals — as well as two distal rows organized as digits and putative digits.
Despite this skeletal pattern — which represents the most tetrapod-like arrangement of bones found in a pectoral fin to date blurring the line between fish and land vertebrates — the fin retains lepidotrichia (those wee fin rays) distal to the radials. This arrangement confirmed an age-old question — showing us for the first time that the origin of phalanges preceded the loss of fin rays, not the other way around. This was evidence for the origins of the vertebrate hand that you and I use today.
Fossil Field Trip to the Oregon Coast
The Oregon Coast on the western edge of the USA is a wonderful place to collect fossils. The area has been known for its wonderful fossil fauna since the 1830s. Here we find middle Miocene (along with a wee bit of Eocene) outcrops with delicious fossil whale bone, fish teeth, turtle shell, and a magnificent assortment of molluscs — the gastropods Chlorostome pacificum, Turritella oregonensis, Crepidula, Cryptontica oregonensis, Polinices canalis, Neverita, Sinum scopulosum and the large and lovely Liracassis petrosa. Some bits of terrestrial material are sometimes washed into the mix and give us some insights into the local tree fauna at that time. We also find lovely wee foraminifera, so well worth bringing a hand lens.
I had mentioned connecting with Kathryn Abbott, Spino Queen during the episode. You can find her at @kathronodon on Instagram or as co-host on the podcast @dinosaurpostcast. She is a delight and I highly recommend you connect with her!
Burgess Shale Biota: Life in Middle Cambrian Seas
High up in the Canadian Rocky Mountains there are mysteries more than half a billion years old. These are the outcrops of the Burgess Shale Biota — more than 150 species that provide a window into life in our Cambrian seas.
Charles Doolittle Walcott will be forever remembered for his extraordinary discovery of the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale of Yoho National Park in southeastern British Columbia — delivering to the world one of the most important biota of soft-bodied organisms in the fossil record. Here we find a fairly complete look at an ancient ecosystem with algae, grazers and filter feeders, scavengers and active predators. Remarkably, soft-bodied organisms make up 98% of individuals and 85% of the genera. These animals lived and died in the deep waters at the base of what would later become known as the Cathedral Escarpment.
Love the Wild: Gentle Gentoo Penguins
Gentoo Penguins with their black, white natural colouring akin to formal wear — are some of my favourite animals.
They are foraging predators — dining on crustaceans, fish and squid in the cold nearshore waters of the Antarctic Peninsula, Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Sandwich Islands. South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands and the Falklands are inhospitable British Overseas Territories in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
The first scientific description of these romantic seabirds was done by Johann Reinhold Forster in 1781. He used the Falkland Islands population for both the type specimen and locality. These diminutive penguins are in the genus Pygoscelis, and are most closely related to their penguin cousins — the Adélie and Chinstraps.
The gentoo penguin is one of three species in the genus Pygoscelis. Mitochondrial and nuclear DNA evidence suggests the genus split from other penguins around 38 million years ago, about 2 million years after the ancestors of the genus Aptenodytes.
In turn, the Adelie penguins split off from the other members of the genus around 19 million years ago, and the chinstrap and Gentoo finally diverged around 14 million years ago. Two subspecies of this penguin are recognised: Pygoscelis papua papua (the subantarctic Gentoo) and the smaller Pygoscelis papua ellsworthi (the Antarctic Gentoo).
We will likely need to reclassify the gentle Gentoos into a species complex of four morphologically similar but separate species: the northern gentoo penguin (P. papua sensu stricto), the southern gentoo penguin (P. ellsworthi), the eastern gentoo penguin (P. taeniata), and the newly-described South Georgia gentoo penguin (P. poncetii).
We find breeding colonies of gentoo penguins on ice-free surfaces either directly on the shoreline or far inland. They prefer shallow coastal areas and often nest between tufts of grass. In South Georgia, breeding colonies are 2 km inland. In colonies farther inland, where the penguins nest in grassy areas, they shift location slightly every year because the grass will become trampled over time.
Gentoos breed on many sub-Antarctic islands. The main colonies are on the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and Kerguelen Islands; smaller colonies are found on Macquarie Island, Heard Islands, Crozet Islands, South Shetland Islands, and the Antarctic Peninsula. Their breeding populations number well over 600,000 birds. Once a breeding pair decide that their romance is a go, they stay together for life — and infidelity is frowned upon. Punishment is banishment from the colony — strict but these birds know how to draw a firm line in the pebbles.
Nests are usually made from a roughly circular pile of stones and can be quite large — up to 20 cm (7.9 in) high and 25 cm (9.8 in) in diameter. The chosen rocks are prized and jealously guarded. Just who owned which pebble is the subject of many noisy debates — some escalating to nasty physical altercations between disagreeing parties. "That rock is mine. Mine!"
The pebbles are especially prized by the females, to the point that a male penguin can woo his lady love and secure a lifetimes' devotion by proffering a particularly choice stone — not unlike some human females.
Earth’s Earliest Atmosphere: Cyanobacteria
We owe a huge nod of gratitude to the wee photosynthetic microbes known as cyanobacteria for their work in helping to create the first oxygen to enter our atmosphere and make you and I — & indeed all life on Earth — possible.
When the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, it was an inhospitable place. Even with a Sun some 25 per cent weaker than it is today, ours was a molten world that needed to undergo a long period of cooling before the conditions for life would arise.
And arise they did. On the planet's surface, volcanoes spewed lava and volatile gasses into what would become our earliest atmosphere.
It looked very different from the one we know today — nitrogen, carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane and small amounts of water vapour made up the gassy soup surrounding our world.
But that first water would change everything. As the water vapour condensed, it came back to the surface bit by bit. Over a very long period of time, those waters pooled and gathered and became our first oceans. It was in this early ocean some 2.7 billion years ago that cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, wonderous photosynthetic microbes, would take up that weakened sunlight and water vapour to process the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, producing other chemical compounds and oxygen as a by-product.
Fool’s Gold: Betting On Gold Prospects
When I was little, maybe 5 or 6 years old, I struck gold! Well, it wasn't real gold, but I was most convinced.
Someone had dumped a tailings pile near the woods where I lived and in the sun, those crushed pieces of rock sparkled. I had already been bitten by the love of minerals and fossils and so naturally I filled my pockets and brought as much home as a youngster can carry.
Where I was told that it was Fool's Gold.
But, still... it was so compelling and just so gold-like. So, secretly I continued my forays and dragged as many of those lovely sparkly bits home as I could. The pile soon amassed to what could not be concealed in a youngsters room — those socks have to live somewhere. So we struck a bargain. My folks would let me keep my gold if I kept it under the house. I suspect it is still there to this day.
I did eventually find gold up in Atlin, British Columbia — and loads of it — but none that I could keep. I met a fellow who pans for it and had built out a sluicing system to great success. He showed me an ice cream bucket full of gold nuggets that I still ponder to this day.
So, what exactly is Fool's Gold? Is it gold mixed with another mineral or something else altogether? Turns out it is pyrite which has a brass-yellow colour and metallic lustre similar to gold, but pyrite is brittle and will break rather than bend as gold does.
A good field test is to give it a streak test. Gold leaves a yellow streak, while pyrite’s streak is brownish-black.
Pyrite is named from the Greek word for fire (pyr) because it can create sparks for starting a fire when struck against metal or stone — also fun to try in the field. Pyrite was once a source of sulfur and sulfuric acid, but today most sulfur is obtained as a byproduct of natural gas and crude oil processing.
We sometimes see pyrite sold as a novelty item or made into costume jewellery. But pyrite does have its uses beyond amusing youngsters dreaming of their own gold rush.
Pyrite can sometimes help you find real gold because the two form together under similar conditions. Gold can even occur as inclusions inside pyrite, sometimes in mineable quantities depending on how effectively the gold can be recovered.
Fool’s Gold is truly pyrite or iron sulfide (FeS2) and is one of the most common sulfide minerals. Sulfide minerals are a group of inorganic compounds containing sulfur and one or more elements.
I still have a fondness for it and share a wry smile when I find it out in the field. It is remarkably common. And, I do still want it to be real gold even though my grown-up brain knows it is not.
When I am very lucky, however, I find pyritized fossils — even better than gold!
José Bonaparte: Master of the Mesozoic
One of the most delightful palaeontologists to grace our Earth was José Fernando Bonaparte (14 June 1928 – 18 February 2020). He was an Argentinian paleontologist who you'll know as the discoverer of some of Argentina's iconic dinosaurs — Carnotaurus (the "Bull" dinosaur we've talked about in a previous episode), along with Amargasaurus, Abelisaurus, Argentinosaurus and Noasaurus. His first love was mammals and over the course of his career, he unearthed the remains of some of the first South American fossil mammals from the Mesozoic.
Between 1975 and 1977, Bonaparte worked on excavation of the Saltasaurus dinosaur with Martín Vince and Juan C. Leal at the Estancia "El Brete." Bonaparte was interested in the anatomy of Saltasaurus, particularly the armored plates or osteoderms embedded in its skin. Based on this discovery, together with twenty examples of Kritosaurus australis and a lambeosaurine dinosaur found in South America, Bonaparte hypothesized that there had been a large-scale migration of species between the Americas at the end of the Mesozoic period.
The supercontinent of Pangea split into Laurasia in the north and Gondwana in the south during the Jurassic. During the Cretaceous, South America pulled away from the rest of Gondwana. The division caused a divergence between northern biota and the southern biota, and the southern animals appear strange to those used to the more northerly fauna. Bonaparte's finds illustrate this divergence. His work is honoured in his moniker given to him by paleontologist Robert Bakker — "Master of the Mesozoic"
The Great Karoo of South Africa
The Great Karoo was formed in a vast inland basin starting 320 million years ago, at a time when that part of Gondwana which would eventually become Africa, lay over the South Pole. The Karoo records a wonderful time in our evolutionary history when the world was inhabited by interesting amphibians and mammal-like reptiles — including the apex predators of the day, the Gorgons.
Gorgons or Gorgonopsia were sabre-toothed therapsids who roamed our ancient Earth from the Middle to Upper Permian — 265 to 252 million years ago — with their long claws, lizard eyes and massive canines.
I learned about the Karoo, and indeed the Gorgons, by a book of the same name by the deeply awesome Peter Ward. His introduction to what life and fieldwork are like in the arid, inhospitable ancestral home of the Gorgons made me laugh out loud in glee. I highly recommend you read it, too.
Marble Canyon: Stromatolites in Limestone
Marble Canyon in British Columbia, Canada is a lovely place to hike. Here you can see some of the oldest freshwater stromatolites on Earth and one of our oldest lifeforms. The canyon's name comes from the brilliant limestone of its walls. The bedrock is microcrystalline limestone (sedimentary rock) rather than marble (metamorphic rock). The rocks found here tell of the forming of British Columbia. Marble Canyon was once part of a chain of Pacific Islands originating far to the southwest of the coast of ancient BC. They rode their way north and were eventually caught up between the North American Plate and the edge of the Pacific Plate, then slowly crushed between the large islands of the Insular Supperterrane of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Most of the pacific islands were entirely crushed, but Marble Canyon is made of bits and pieces of the islands that survived.
Love the Wild: Australia’s Fossil Megafauna
Australia has always held appeal as a country with weird and wonderful wildlife. This is as true today as it was back in the Pleistocene — 2.5 million years ago to 11,500 years ago.
The Shifting Earth: Plate Tectonics
Plate tectonics looks at Earth’s outer layer. It is made up of large, moving pieces called plates. All of Earth’s land and water sit on these plates. The plates are made of solid rock. Under the plates is a weaker layer of partially melted rock. The plates are constantly moving over this weaker layer.
Think of the Earth as an egg. The outer hard shell is the lithosphere or "hard rock" and the next layer or egg white is the mantle. The central core has two parts: the outer is more liquid and the centre is more solid. Much like a convection oven, the heat from our core shifts these pieces to form the Earth we know and love today.
Amber: Fossilized Tree Resin
Amber is fossilized tree resin that has been appreciated for its colour and natural beauty since the Neolithic. We find amber around the globe, generally in rocks that are Cretaceous or younger.
Tree resin or sap is essential to a tree. Roots take up water and nutrients, and these need to be spread throughout the tree. Sap is the viscous liquid that carries these yummy minerals and nutrients to areas where they are most needed. Tree leaves produce simple sugars that must get transported through the tree's fibres.
If some of that sap or resin gets covered and then has extreme heat and pressure applied, amber is formed.
Ammonite Valentine: Upper Cretaceous Brannen Lake Motorcross Pit
One of the classic Vancouver Island fossil localities is the Santonian-Maastrichtian, Upper Cretaceous Haslam Formation Motocross Pit near Brannen Lake, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.
The quarry is no longer active as such though there is a busy little gravel quarry a little way down the road closer to Ammonite falls near Benson Creek Falls. Today it is an active Motocross site. Beneath the crisscrossing tire tracks, it remains one of the classic localities of the Nanaimo Group. We find well-preserved nautiloids and ammonites — Canadoceras, Pseudoschloenbachia, Epigoniceras — the bivalves — Inoceramus, Sphenoceramus— gastropods, and classic Nanaimo Group decapods — Hoploparia, Linuparus. We also find fossil fruit and seeds which tell the story of the terrestrial history of Vancouver Island.
It was John Fam, Vice-Chair, Vancouver Island Paleontological Society (VanPS), who originally told me about the locality. John is one of the most delightful and knowledgeable people you'd be well-blessed to meet. While he lived on Vancouver Island, he was an active member of the VanPS back when I was Chair. Several of the best joint VIPS/VanPS paleontological expeditions were planned with or instigated by his passion for fossils. I tip my hat to him for his passion and shared love of all things paleo.
John grew up 15 minutes from the motocross locality and used to collect there a few times a week with his father. John has wonderful parents and since marrying his childhood sweetheart, the amazing Grace, those excellent genetics, curiosity and love of fossils are now being passed to a new generation. It's lovely to see John and Grace continuing tradition with two boys of their own. I'm wishing them and you a wonderful Valentine's Day!
Love the Wild: Koala Bears / Marsupials
Koala, Phasscolarctos cinereus, are truly adorable marsupials native to Australia. These cuddly "teddy bears" are not bears at all.
Koalas belong to a group of mammals known as marsupials. Fossil remains of Koala-like animals have been found dating back to 25 million years ago. As the climate changed and Australia became drier, ancient vegetation evolved to what we know as eucalyptus, becoming the Koalas food source.
Koalas have pouches on their bellies where their newborns develop. Their wee newborns are called joeys and are born blind and earless. They use their strong sense of touch and smell to guide them instinctively up into their mother's pouch when they are born and live here for about six months.
When they are a little stronger and braver, they get curious, foraging about. They also like to ride on their mother's back until they are about a year old, seeing the world from the safety of Mamma. Adult Koalas love eucalyptus trees and spend their leisurely days eating and napping amongst the foliage.
Furry, Fuzzy, Polar, Panda — Bears: Ursidae
Bears are one of my favourite mammals. Had they evolved in a slightly different way, we might well have chosen them as pets instead of the dogs so many of us have in our lives today. For them and for us, I think things worked out for the best that they enjoy the rugged wild country they call home. Bears are carnivoran mammals of the family Ursidae. They are classified as caniforms or doglike carnivorans.
Although only eight species of bears are extant, they are widespread, appearing in a wide variety of habitats throughout the Northern Hemisphere and partially in the Southern Hemisphere — making a home in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.
The relatives of our black and brown bears, a dog-bear, entered the fossil record about 20 million years ago. We've found polar bear bones that tell us more about when they split off in the lineage.
DNA from a 110,000–130,000-year-old polar-bear fossil has been successfully sequenced. The genome, from a jawbone found in Svalbard, Norway, in 2004, indicates when polar bears, Ursus maritimus, diverged from their nearest common relative, the brown bear — Ursus arctos.
Because polar bears live on ice and their remains are unlikely to be buried in sediment and preserved, polar-bear fossils are very rare. So the discovery of a jawbone and canine tooth — the entirety of the Svalbard find — is impressive.
But far more important, is that when molecular biologist Charlotte Lindqvist, then at the University of Oslo's Natural History Museum and now at the University at Buffalo in New York, drilled into the jaw, she was able to collect intact mitochondrial DNA. Yes, a bit Jurassic Park-esque.
Mitochondria — organelles found in animal cells — have their own DNA and can replicate. And because there are many mitochondria per cell, mitochondrial DNA is easier to find in fossils than the nuclear DNA.
Lindqvist wondered whether this mitochondrial DNA could illuminate the evolutionary history of how and when polar bears diverged from brown bears. To find out, she worked with Stephan Schuster, a molecular biologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, and a team of colleagues to sequence the genetic material she had collected and was successful.
It is the oldest mammalian mitochondrial genome yet sequenced — about twice the age of the oldest mammoth genome, which dates to around 65,000 years old. From their work we have learned that polar bears are a relatively young evolutionarily young species that split off from brown bears some 150,000 years ago and evolved rapidly during the Late Pleistocene, adapting to the cold, arctic regions of our planet.
Fossil Field Trip to Sooke
The upper Oligocene Sooke Formation that outcrops on southwestern Vancouver Island, British Columbia is a wonderful place to collect and especially good for families. As well as amazing west coast scenery, the beach site outcrop has a lovely soft matrix with well-preserved fossil molluscs, often with the shell material preserved (Clark and Arnold, 1923). While the site has been known since the 1890s, my first trip here was in the early 1990s as part of a Vancouver Paleontological Society (VanPS) fossil field trip.
By the Oligocene ocean temperatures had cooled to near modern levels and the taxa preserved here as fossils bear a strong resemblance to those found living beneath the Strait of Juan de Fuca today. Gastropods, bivalves, echinoids, coral, chitin and limpets are common-ish — and on rare occasions, fossil marine mammals, cetacean and bird bones are discovered.
Back in 2015, a family found the fossilized bones from a 25-million-year-old wing-propelled flightless diving bird while out strolling the shoreline near Sooke. Not knowing what they'd found but recognizing it as significant, the bones were brought to the Royal British Columbia Museum to identify.
The bones found their way into the hands of Gary Kaiser. Kaiser worked as a biologist for Environment Canada and the Nature Conservatory of Canada. After retirement, he turned his eye from our extant avian friends to their fossil lineage. The thing about passion is it never retires. Gary is now a research associate with the Royal British Columbia Museum, published author and continues his research on birds and their paleontological past.
Kaiser identified the well-preserved coracoid bones as the first example from Canada of a Plotopteridae, an extinct family that lived in the North Pacific from the late Eocene to the early Miocene. In honour of our First Nations communities who settled the Sooke area, Kaiser named the new genus and species Stemec suntokum. Avian fossils from the Sooke Formation are rare. We are especially lucky that the bird bone was fossilized at all. These are delicate bones and tasty. Scavengers often get to them well before they have a chance and the right conditions to fossilize.
Doubly lucky is that the find was of a coracoid, a bone from the shoulder that provides information on how this bird moved and dove through the water similar to a penguin. It's the wee bit that flexes as the bird moves his wing up and down.
Picture a penguin doing a little waddle and flapping their flipper-like wings getting ready to hop near and dive into the water. Now imagine them expertly porpoising — gracefully jumping out of the sea and zigzagging through the ocean to avoid predators. It is likely that the Sooke find did some if not all of these activities.
Rene Savenye: Friendship & Fossil Bees
This is a tale of friendship, tragic loss and fossil bees — and an introduction to one of the most delightful paleo enthusiasts to ever walk the planet — Rene Savenye. Rene and I enjoyed many years of waxing poetic about our shared love of palaeontology and natural history.
Rene was a mountain goat in the field, stalking the hills in his signature red t-shirt. He was tremendously knowledgeable about the natural world and delighted in it. For many years, he was Chair of the White Rock and Surrey Naturalists, while I was Chair of the Vancouver Paleontological Society. Together, we would plan and often co-lead field trips to many of the wonderful fossil outcrops in British Columbia and Washington state.
In 2002, we were planning a very exciting round of field trips. I was offered a fully paid trip to India with Karen Lund to hike to the headwaters of the Ganges, a trip which I was to forgo in favour of a hike up to the outcrops of the Cathedral Escarpment and Burgess Shale and then to yummy Lower Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous, Albian, outcrops accessed only by boat in Haida Gwaii.
Rene and I had talked about "walking in the shoes" of Joseph Whiteaves, the GSC's chief palaeontologist in Ottawa. He published a paper in 1876 describing the Jurassic and Cretaceous faunas of Skidegate Inlet and spent a significant portion of his career working out the fossil fauna of the Burgess Shale. Combining these two sites within the same field season was a fitting homage.
John Fam, Vancouver Paleontological Society (VanPS) and Dan Bowen, Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society (VIPS), did much of the planning for that Haida Gwaii trip, they too being inspired by Whiteaves papers and the work of James Richardson and George Dawson — as a whole, we were giddy with the prospect of the year ahead.
Rene and I had planned to do both, but in the end, I had to give up the hike to Burgess that year and Rene never made it back to join me in Haida Gwaii. In the days before the official trip to Burgess, Rene did some solo hiking in the mountains and hills near Field, British Columbia. He was excited to explore Wapta Mountain, Mount Field and Mount Stephen, ever mindful of collecting only with his camera.
He walked through the hallowed footsteps of Joseph Whiteaves and Charles Doolittle Walcott over ground that should have been named La Entrada de Dios, The Gateway of God, for each footfall brought him closer to meeting the big man. While a naturalist, Rene held to the belief that once his days were done on this Earth, he would be breaking bread in heaven above.
Rene started with clear skies and a pack full of geology hammers, maps and chisels. As the day went on, the skies filled with rolling clouds, then thunder. Grey sheets of rain covered the landscape. Seeing the danger of being solo in darkening weather, he started back to his car but never made it. On the afternoon of July 28th, he was struck and killed by lightning — a tragic loss.
Geologic Time & the Periodic Table
Part of our ability to date the rock sequences we see in the world and determine which are older and which younger has to do with simple observation. We see that older rocks contain trilobites and a wee bit above those we see ammonites, then clams and oysters in newer sediments. For a long time, this simple observation held us in good stead. We had a relative timescale for the Earth and this allowed us to piece together the biologic and geologic picture much clearer.
To understand and date rock in absolute terms required advances in science, in chemistry in particular, that we achieved in large part by 1895. This was the beginning of our understanding of distinct elements and the periodic table of elements. To many, the table is a memory of science classes from our youth and long forgotten. But in the period table, we find both the tremendous history of human achievement and the aha moments that help us to understand simple yet complex concepts like radioisotope decay — the genius tool we use for the absolute dating of rocks and fossils.
To that end, I highly recommend Sam Kean's book, The Disappearing Spoon. It is a tasty romp through madness, love and the history of the world through the eyes of the periodic table. You may find that within the stories that the table becomes more real for you and that the mysteries it holds are more easily within your grasp.
The Map that Changed the World
Our World has shifted dramatically over time. Our great land masses and oceans have moved, grown, shrunk, come together and pulled apart over the Earth's history. It is the fossils that have helped shape our understanding of this tremendous story of upheaval. Part of understanding fossils has been simple observation. We find fossilized shells on mountain tops — quite unexpectedly — and this makes us question how this could be possible.
As we learn about plate tectonics and palaeogeography, we also observe collections of fossils and what they tell us about ancient climates, distribution of species and life on Earth over time. I find textbooks very useful as a means to gain an understanding of these concepts. I also love a great story and highly recommend the work of Simon Winchester. He's written many a great tale. I thought you might enjoy one of them on the life of William Smith, the father of modern geology — The Map that Changed the World.
Dinosaur Hunting: Alberta Fossil Field Trip
Alberta is a gorgeous province in western Canada that borders British Columbia & Saskatchewan. Here you can see the glorious Canadian Rocky Mountains, Beautiful Wildlife & the Badlands with their Dinosaur remains at Dinosaur Provincial Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site near the town of Brooks), and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller.
Dinosaur Provincial Park contains some of the most important fossil specimens discovered from the “Age of Dinosaurs” period of Earth’s history. The property is unmatched in terms of the number and variety of high quality specimens which, to date, represent more than 44 species, 34 genera and 10 families of dinosaurs, dating back 75-77 million years. The park contains exceptional riparian habitat features as well as badlands of outstanding aesthetic value.
Fossils Deep in the North Sea
Brown Bank in the North Sea is a treasure trove of Miocene and Pleistocene Fossil Mammal material. It is also a great place to unearth archaeological remains. Until sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, between 8-10,000 years ago, an area of land connected Great Britain to Scandinavia and the continent. Here our relatives lived their lives, hunted local animals and all species left remains behind.
This region is now underwater in the Brown Bank section of the North Sea. The North Sea is a sea of the Atlantic Ocean located between the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. An epeiric sea on the European continental shelf, it connects to the ocean through the English Channel in the south and the Norwegian Sea in the north. Trawl nets are used to scoop up fish and often turn up interesting fossils and artefacts from the deep seabed.
Palaeontology: Mass Extinction Events
We live on a beautiful and ever-evolving planet — both in its geography, living and extinct species. Whether you study palaeontology (Brits & Canadians) or paleontology (USA and much of the rest of the world...) much of our Earth's history is dramatic in its changing role call for living and extinct species. We have had Five Mass Extinction Events in the Earth's 3.5 billion year history. These are cataclysmic events where more than 75% of the Earth's species have become extinct. The most recent of these is the Cretaceous mass extinction where we lost the dinosaurs, our mighty marine reptiles and beloved ammonites. The loss of the dinosaurs gave rise to the age of mammals and eventually, the world you and I know today.
Geologic Time & Radioisotope Dating
We live on an amazing planet with a 4.5 billion year history of life evolving from a single cell to multicellular life to the sheer volume of diversity of species we see through time and walking the Earth today. How do we know the timeline for this? How do we date the rock units and mountains and stones beneath our feet?
We use simple observation out in the field to look at rock and observe that generally speaking, older rock units tend to be deeper than the younger rock on top. We use index fossils like ammonites or Triassic paperclams to help give us a better understanding. We also turn to chemistry and use the decay rates of radioisotopes to help give us a time stamp on a rock unit. We use Carbon-14 for rock younger than 50 thousand years or Potassium-40 or Uranium for rock older than 50 thousand years. It was through the decay rate of uranium that we arrived at a relative age of the Earth of 4.5 billion years.
We have new techniques evolving out of various fields of science to help us gain a deeper understanding of the Earth. Donald Prothero has been taking deep-sea drilling cores which tell us of shifts in the magnetic field of the Earth. His work will let us date the fossils we find to within 100,000 years — a significant insight over the plus or minus 2-million-year dating that radioisotopes give us.
Cam Muskelly vs Megalodon
For the ARCHEA blog post on Megalodon, I wanted to choose a human to give that mighty shark a true sense of scale. And in choosing a human, I thought I'd choose a truly awesome one to introduce to all of you. Everyone, meet Cam Muskelly.
Cam Muskelly is an award-winning Avocational Palaeontologist & Geologist in Georgia, in the southeastern United States. Cam is a Science Writer, Fossil Hunter, Tweeter & YouTuber with ASD. He gives talks on a number of subjects related to palaeontology & geology — all of which are a delight!
In tomorrow's ARCHEA blog post, you can get a sense of the scale of Cam vs Megalodon in the Scuba vs Shark image. Cam is a respectable five feet, five inches tall or 1.65 metres tall. Otodus megalodon is more than ten times larger. Now, Cam is a brave man and reached his hand out in the image as an act of solidarity to this beautiful shark from ancient seas, but fortunately for him (and you and I) there is 20-million-years separating his hand and those chompers. Megalodon had more than 276 teeth in their cage-like mouths and produced a nasty bite!
If you would like to check out a talk by the deeply awesome Cam Muskelly, visit: https://youtu.be/I-pXdzeLAMI
Join him for a fun, short chat about two important Permian fossils from his personal collection, which he uses for education and outreach across his home state. He shared this talk as part of the Discovery Day: National Fossil Day for the KU Natural History Museum.
Cam Muskelly Paleo 101 YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCq-68CrGM398gd3NFXfX87w
Cam Muskelly on Twitter: @PaleoCameron / He's a good man that Cam. You should follow him. I do and love his posts!
Palaeontology: The Mighty Megalodon
23-million-years ago to just over 3-million-years ago, the apex predator of the seas was the hulking cousin to today's Great White Shark. That big beastie was Otodus megalodon — the largest shark to ever swim our seas and the largest fish as well.
This big boy swam in at a whopping fifty-tonnes and grew to 18 metres in length — twice the size of an ankylosaur or triceratops and larger than a Tyrannosaurs rex but a wee bit smaller than a brontosaurus.
From our modern oceans and their modern cousins, that is a full three times larger Deep Blue, the 2.5 tonne, 6-metre long shark found off Oahu's south shore in 2019. Deep Blue weighed the equivalent of two Stonehenge Sarsen stones or half a house. Picture your house, now add another half and that is the size of Otodus megalodon. It truly puts their size in perspective.
We often estimate the size of animals and what they ate by the size and shape of their teeth. Megalodon had large serrated teeth up to 18 centimetres long — perfect for dining on dolphins and humpback whales — and they had loads of them. Their mouths were lined with up to 276 teeth and these packed a punch with one of the most powerful bites on record. We have a rather paltry bite force of around 1,317 Newtons (N) when we chomp down with gusto.
In 2012, we learned that the most powerful bite recorded from a living animal belongs to the saltwater crocodile. Gregory Erickson of Florida State University in Tallahassee compared 23 crocodilian species and discovered that the largest saltwater crocodiles can bite with an impressive 16,414N. That is more than 3.5 times the crushing force of the previous record-holder, the spotted hyena. Still, our aquatic friends beat that, if only slightly. A great white shark does indeed have a mightier bite than a crocodile.
We have known the estimated bite force of a great white a while longer. In 2008, Stephen Wroe of the University of New England in Australia and his colleagues used computer simulations to estimate the chomping pressure of a great white. Not surprisingly, great white sharks chomp in at an impressive 18,216N — greater than a saltwater crocodile but a full ten times less than Otodus.
But all those bites pale in comparison to Otodus megalodon — this beastie takes the cake — or the whale — with a bite force of 182,201N.
It is amazing to think of something as large and majestic as a whale being on any creatures menu but feast they did. Megalodon could open their toothy jaws 3.4 metres wide — that is wide enough to make a meal of a whale or swallow you and a friend whole. I added a brave — or very foolish — scuba diver to an image I will post on the ARCHEA blog to give you a sense of scale.
Otodus megalodon was a bit blunt-nosed in comparison to a great white. They hail from a different lineage that broke off deeper in their hereditary history around 55-million-years ago. We now know that Otodus megalodon was the last of their lineage and the great grandbaby of Otodus obliquus and possibly Cretalamina appendiculata, who cruised our ancient seas 105 million years ago.