Wednesday, 22 March 2023


Scleractinian Fossil Coral, Florida
The delicate wintery beauty you see here is a Scleractinian coral we find first in the fossil record in the Mesozoic. 

Corals first appeared in the Cambrian about 535 million years ago. Fossils are extremely rare until the Ordovician period, 100 million years later, when rugose and tabulate corals became widespread. 

Palaeozoic corals seem to make friends wherever they live and often contain numerous endobiotic symbionts.

Tabulate corals occur in limestones and calcareous shales of the Ordovician and Silurian periods, and often form low cushions or branching masses of calcite alongside rugose corals. 

Their numbers began to decline during the middle of the Silurian period, and they became extinct at the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago.

Rugose or horn corals became dominant by the middle of the Silurian and became extinct early in the Triassic period. The rugose corals existed in solitary and colonial forms and were also composed of calcite.

The famous Great Barrier Reef is thought to have been laid down about two million years ago. If you have had the pleasure of scuba diving near it to take in its modern wonders, perhaps you will be interested to learn how it was formed. Over long expanses of time, the corals here have broken up, fragmented and died. Sand and rubble accumulate between the corals, and the shells of clams and other molluscs decay to form a gradually evolving calcium carbonate structure to what you view today. 

Coral reefs are extremely diverse marine ecosystems hosting over 4,000 species of fish, massive numbers of cnidarians, molluscs, crustaceans, and many other animals.

Tuesday, 21 March 2023


If you frequent the eastern coast of North America north of Maine to the western tip of Europe, along the coast of Norway near Svalbard you may have glimpsed one of their chubby, dark silver-grey and white residents. 

Hooded seals, Cystophora cristata, are large phocid seals in the family Phocidae, who live in some of the chilliest places on Earth, from 47° to 80° N in latitude. 

These skilled divers are mainly concentrated around Bear Island, Norway, Iceland, and northeast Greenland. 

In rare cases, we find them in the icy waters in Siberia. They usually dive depths of 600 m (1,968 ft) in search of fishy treats but can go as deep as 1000 m (3,280 ft) when needed. That is deep into the cold, dark depths of our oceans. Sunlight entering the sea may travel as deep as 1,000 m (3,280 ft) under the right conditions, but there is rarely any significant light beyond 200 meters (656 ft). This is the dark zone and the place we find our bioluminescent friends. 

Hooded seals have a sparse fossil record. One of the first fossils found was a Pliocene specimen from Anvers, Belgium discovered in 1876. In 1983 a paper was published claiming there were some fossils found in North America thought to be from Cystophora cristata. Of the three accounts, the most creditable discovery was from a sewer excavation in Maine, the northeasternmost U.S. state, known for its rocky coastline, maritime history and nature areas like the granite and spruce islands of Acadia National Park. A scapula and humeri were found among other bones and thought to date to the post-Pleistocene. 

Of two other accounts, one was later reassigned to another species and the other left unsolved. (Folkow, et al., 2008; Kovacs and Lavigne, 1986; Ray, 1983)

The seals are typically silver-grey or white in colour, with black spots that vary in size covering most of the body. 

Hooded seal pups are known as, Blue-backs as their coats are blue-grey on the back with whitish bellies, though this coat is shed after 14 months of age when the pups moult.


In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest, seal are known as migwat — and fur seals are known as x̱a'wa.

Hooded seals live primarily on drifting pack ice and in deep water in the Arctic Ocean and North Atlantic. Although some drift away to warmer regions during the year their best survival rate is in colder climates. They can be found on four distinct areas with pack ice: near Jan Mayen Island, northeast of Iceland; off Labrador and northeastern Newfoundland; the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and the Davis Strait, off midwestern Greenland. 

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador is home to the Inuit, the Innu, the Mi'kmaq L'nu and the Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut, formerly the Labrador Inuit-Metis. The Hooded Seals that visit their traditional territory were a welcome source of food and clothing. In Mi'kmaw, the language spoken in Mi'kma'ki, the territory of the Mi'kmaq L'nu, the word for seal is waspu.


Males are localized around areas of complex seabeds, such as Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, and the Flemish Cap. Females concentrate their habitat efforts primarily on shelf areas, such as the Labrador Shelf. 

Females reach the age of sexual maturity between two and nine years old and it is estimated that most females give birth to their first young at around five years of age. Males reach sexual maturity a little later around four to six years old but often do not mate until much later. Females give birth to one young at a time through March and April. The gestation period is 240 to 250 days. 

Blue-back, Hooded Seal Pup
During this time the fetus, unlike those of other seals, sheds its lanugo — a covering of fine soft hair that is replaced by thicker pelage — in the uterus. 

These young are precocious and at birth are able to move about and swim with ease. They are independent and left to fend for themselves immediately after they have been weaned.

Hooded seals are known to be a highly migratory species that often wander long distances, as far west as Alaska and as far south as the Canary Islands and Guadeloupe. 

Prior to the mid-1990s, hooded seal sightings in Maine and the east Atlantic were rare but began increasing in the mid-1990s. From January 1997 to December 1999, a total of 84 recorded sightings of hooded seals occurred in the Gulf of Maine, one in France and one in Portugal. 

From 1996 to 2006, five strandings and sightings were noted near the Spanish coasts in the Mediterranean Sea. There is no scientific explanation for the increase in sightings and range of the hooded seal.

Cystophora means "bladder-bearer" in Greek and pays homage to this species' inflatable bladder septum on the heads of adult males. The bladder hangs between the eyes and down over the upper lip in a deflated state. 

The hooded seal can inflate a large balloon-like sac from one of its nostrils. This is done by shutting one nostril valve and inflating a membrane, which then protrudes from the other nostril. 

I was thinking of Hooded seals when contemplating the nasal bladders of Prosaurolophus maximum, large-headed duckbill dinosaurs, or hadrosaurid, in the ornithischian family Hadrosauridae. Perhaps both species used these bladders in a similar manner — to warn predators and attract mates.

Hooded seals are known for their uniquely elastic nasal cavity located at the top of their head, also known as the hood. Only males possess this display-worthy nasal sac, which they begin to develop around the age of four. The hood begins to inflate as the seal makes its initial breath prior to going underwater. It then begins to repetitively deflate and inflate as the seal is swimming. 

The purpose of this is acoustic signaling. It occurs when the seal feels threatened and attempt to ward off hostile species when competing for resources such as food and shelter. It also serves to communicate their health and superior status to both other males and females they are attempting to attract. 

In sexually mature males, a pinkish balloon-like nasal membrane comes out of the left nostril to further aid it in attracting a mate. This membrane, when shaken, is able to produce various sounds and calls depending on whether the seal is underwater or on land. Most of these acoustic signals are used in an acoustic situation (about 79%), while about 12% of the signals are used for sexual purposes.

References: Ray, C. 1983. Hooded Seal, Cystophora cristata: Supposed Fossil Records in North America. American Society of Mammalogists, Vol. 64 No. 3: 509-512; Cystophora cristata, Hooded Seal", 2007; "Seal Conservation Society", 2001; Kovacs and Lavigne, 1986.

Mi'kmaq Online Dictionary:

Monday, 20 March 2023


One of the now rare species of oysters in the Pacific Northwest is the Olympia oyster, Ostrea lurida, (Carpenter, 1864).  

While rare today, these are British Columbia’s only native oyster. 

Had you been dining on their brethren in the 1800s or earlier, it would have been this species you were consuming. Middens from Port Hardy to California are built from Ostrea lurida.

These wonderful invertebrates bare their souls with every bite. Have they lived in cold water, deep beneath the sea, protected from the sun's rays and heat? Are they the rough and tumble beach denizens whose thick shells tell us of a life spent withstanding the relentless pounding of the sea? Is the oyster in your mouth thin and slimy having just done the nasty—spurred by the warming waters of Spring? 

Is this oyster a local or was it shipped to your current local and, if asked, would greet you with "Kon'nichiwa?" Not if the beauty on your plate is indeed Ostrea lurida

Oyster in Kwak'wala is t̕łox̱t̕łox̱
We have been cultivating, indeed maximizing the influx of invasive species to the cold waters of the Salish Sea for many years. 

But in the wild waters off the coast of British Columbia is the last natural abundant habitat of the tasty Ostrea lurida in the pristine waters of  Nootka Sound. 

The area is home to the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations who have consumed this species boiled or steamed for thousands of years. Here these ancient oysters not only survive but thrive — building reefs and providing habitat for crab, anemones and small marine animals. 

Oysters are in the family Ostreidae — the true oysters. Their lineage evolved in the Early Triassic — 251 - 247 million years ago. 

In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest and my family, an oyster is known as t̕łox̱t̕łox̱

I am curious to learn if any of the Nuu-chah-nulth have a different word for an oyster. If you happen to know, I would be grateful to learn.

Sunday, 19 March 2023


One of my favourite pairs of earrings are a simple set of pearls. I have worn them pretty much every day since 2016 when I received them as a gift. What is it about pearls that makes them so appealing? I am certainly not alone in this. 

A simple search will show you a vast array of pearls being used for their ornamental value in cultures from all over the world. I suppose the best answer to why they are appealing is just that they are

If you make your way to Paris, France and happen to visit the Louvre's Persian Gallery, do take a boo at one of the oldest pearl necklaces in existence — the Susa necklace. It hails from a 2,400-year-old tomb of long lost Syrian Queen. It is a showy piece with three rows of 72 pearls per strand strung upon a bronze wire. 

A queen who truly knew how to accessorize

I imagine her putting the final touches of her outfit together, donning the pearls and making an entrance to wow the elite of ancient Damascus. The workmanship is superb, intermixing pure gold to offset the lustre of the pearls. It is precious and ancient, crafted one to two hundred years before Christ. Perhaps a gift from an Egyptian Pharaoh or from one of the Sumerians, Eblaites, Akkadians, Assyrians, Hittites, Hurrians, Mitanni, Amorites or Babylonian dignitaries who sued for peace but brought war instead. 

Questions, good questions, but questions without answers. So, what can we say of pearls? We do know what they are and it is not glamorous. Pearls form in shelled molluscs when a wee bit of sand or some other irritant gets trapped inside the shell, injuring the flesh. As a defensive and self-healing tactic, the mollusc wraps it in layer upon layer of mother-of-pearl — that glorious shiny nacre that forms pearls. 

They come in all shapes and sizes from minute to a massive 32 kilograms or 70 pounds. While a wide variety of our mollusc friends respond to injury or irritation by coating the offending intruder with nacre, there are only a few who make the truly gem-y pearls. 

These are the marine pearl oysters, Pteriidae and a few freshwater mussels. Aside from Pteriidae and freshwater mussels, we sometimes find less gem-y pearls inside conchs, scallops, clams, abalone, giant clams and large marine gastropods.

Pearls are made up mostly of the carbonate mineral aragonite, a polymorphous mineral — the same chemical formula but different crystal structure — to calcite and vaterite, sometimes called mu-calcium carbonate. These polymorphous carbonates are a bit like Mexican food where it is the same ingredients mixed in different ways. Visually, they are easy to tell apart — vaterite has a hexagonal crystal system, calcite is trigonal and aragonite is orthorhombic.

As pearls fossilize, the aragonite usually gets replaced by calcite, though sometimes by vaterite or another mineral. When we are very lucky, that aragonite is preserved with its nacreous lustre — that shimmery mother-of-pearl we know and love.  

Molluscs have likely been making pearls since they first evolved 530 million years ago. The oldest known fossil pearls found to date, however, are 230-210 million years old. 

This was the time when our world's landmass was concentrated into the C-shaped supercontinent of Pangaea and the first dinosaurs were calling it home. In the giant ancient ocean of Panthalassa, ecosystems were recovering from the high carbon dioxide levels that fueled the Permian extinction. Death begets life. With 95% of marine life wiped out, new species evolved to fill each niche.  

While this is where we found the oldest pearl on record, I suspect we will one day find one much older and hopefully with its lovely great-great grandmother-of-pearl intact. 

Saturday, 18 March 2023


Look how epic this little guy is! 

He is a crab — and if you asked him, the fiercest warrior that ever lived. While that may not be strictly true, crabs do have the heart of a warrior and will raise their claws, sometimes only millimetres into the air, to assert dominance over their world. 

Crabs are decapod crustaceans of the Phylum Arthropoda. 

In the Kwak'wala language of the Kwakwaka'wakw of the Pacific Northwest, this brave fellow is ḵ̓u'mis — both a tasty snack and familiar to the supernatural deity Tuxw'id, a female warrior spirit. Given their natural armour and clear bravery, it is a fitting role.

They inhabit all the world's oceans, sandy beaches, many of our freshwater lakes and streams. Some few prefer to live in forests.

Crabs build their shells from highly mineralized chitin — and chitin gets around. It is the main structural component of the exoskeletons of many of our crustacean and insect friends. Shrimp, crab, and lobster all use it to build their exoskeletons.

Chitin is a polysaccharide — a large molecule made of many smaller monosaccharides or simple sugars, like glucose. 

It is handy stuff, forming crystalline nanofibrils or whiskers. Chitin is actually the second most abundant polysaccharide after cellulose. It is interesting as we usually think of these molecules in the context of their sugary context but they build many other very useful things in nature — not the least of these are the hard shells or exoskeletons of our crustacean friends.

Crabs in the Fossil Record

The earliest unambiguous crab fossils date from the Early Jurassic, with the oldest being Eocarcinus from the early Pliensbachian of Britain, which likely represents a stem-group lineage, as it lacks several key morphological features that define modern crabs. 

Most Jurassic crabs are only known from dorsal — or top half of the body — carapaces, making it difficult to determine their relationships. Crabs radiated in the Late Jurassic, corresponding with an increase in reef habitats, though they would decline at the end of the Jurassic as the result of the decline of reef ecosystems. Crabs increased in diversity through the Cretaceous and represented the dominant group of decapods by the end.

We find wonderful fossil crab specimens on Vancouver Island. The first I ever collected was at Shelter Point, then again on Hornby Island, down on the Olympic Peninsula and along Vancouver Island's west coast near Nootka Sound. They are, of course, found globally and are one of the most pleasing fossils to find and aggravating to prep of all the specimens you will ever have in your collection. Bless them.

Friday, 17 March 2023


The East Kootenay region on the south-eastern edge of British Columbia is a land of colossal mountains against a clear blue sky. 

That is not strictly true, of course, as this area does see its fair share of rain and temperature extremes — but visiting in Autumn every view is a postcard of mountainous terrain.

Rocks from deep within the Earth's crust underlie the entire East Kootenay region and are commonly exposed in the areas majestic mountain peaks, craggy rocky cliffs, glaciated river canyons, and rock cuts along the highways. Younger Ice Age sediments blanket much of the underlying rock.

I've been heading to the Cranbrook and Fernie area since the early 1990s. My interest is the local geology and fossil history that these rocks have to tell. I'm also drawn to the warm and welcoming locals who share a love for the land and palaeontological treasures that open a window to our ancient past.  

Cranbrook is the largest community in the region and is steeped in mining history and the opening of the west by the railway. It is also a stone's throw away from Fort Steele and the Lower Cambrian exposures of the Eager Formation. These fossil beds rival the slightly younger Burgess Shale fauna and while less varied, produce wonderful examples of olenellid trilobites and weird and wonderful arthropods half a billion years old. 

Labiostria westriopi, McKay Group
The Lower Cambrian Eager Formation outcrops at a few localities close to Fort Steele, many known since the early 1920s, and up near Mount Grainger near the highway. 

Further east, the Upper Cambrian McKay Group near Tanglefoot Mountain is a palaeontological delight with fifteen known outcrops that have produced some of the best-preserved and varied trilobites in the province — many of them new species. 

The McKay Formation also includes Ordovician outcrops sprinkled in for good measure.

Other cities in the area and the routes to and from them produce other fossil fauna from Kimberley to Fernie and the district municipality of Invermere and Sparwood. This is an arid country with native grasslands and forests of semi-open fir and pine. Throughout there are a host of fossiliferous exposures from Lower Cretaceous plants to brachiopods. 

The area around Whiteswan Lake has wonderful large and showy Ordovician graptolites including Cardiograptus morsus and Pseudoclimacograptus angustifolius elongates — some of our oldest relatives. A drive down to Flathead will bring you to ammonite outcrops and you can even find Eocene fresh-water snails in the region. 

The drive from Cranbrook to Fernie is about an hour and change through the Cambrian into the Devonian which flip-flops and folds over revealing Jurassic exposures. 

Fernie Ichthyosaur Excavation, 1916
The Crowsnest Highway into Fernie follows Mutz Creek. From the highway, you can see the Fernie Group and the site along the Elk River where an ichthyosaur was excavated in 1916. 

The Fernie Formation is Jurassic. It is present in the western part of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin in western Alberta and northeastern British Columbia. 

It takes its name from the town of Fernie, British Columbia, and was first defined by W.W. Leach in 1914. The town of Fernie is rimmed by rugged mountains tipped with Devonian marine outcrops. In essence, all these mountains are upside down with the oldest layers flipped to the top and a good 180 million years older than those they sit upon. 

Before they were mountains, these sedimentary rocks were formed as sediment collected in a shallow sea or inland basin. About 360 million years ago, the rocks that you see in Fernie today were down near the equator. They road tectonic plates, pushing northeast smashing into the coastline of what would become British Columbia. A little push here, shove there — compression and thrust faulting — and the rock was rolled over on its head — repeatedly. But that is how mountains are often formed, though not usually pushed so hard that they flip over. But still, it is a slow, relentless business. 

Cretaceous Plant Material, Fernie, BC
Within Fernie, there are small exposures of Triassic and Jurassic marine outcrops. East of the town there are Cretaceous plant sites, and of course, the Jurassic 1.4-metre Titanites occidentalis ammonite up on Coal Mountain.

The regional district's dominant landform is the Rocky Mountain Trench, which is flanked by the Purcell Mountains and the Rocky Mountains on the east and west, and includes the Columbia Valley region. The southern half of which is in the regional district — its northern half is in the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District. 

The regional district of Elk Valley in the southern Rockies is the entryway to the Crowsnest Pass and an important coal-mining area. 

Other than the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers, whose valleys shape the bottomlands of the Rocky Mountain Trench, the regional districts form the northernmost parts of the basins of the Flathead, Moyie and Yahk Rivers. 

The Moyie and Yahk are tributaries of the Kootenay, entering it in the United States, and the Flathead is a tributary of the Clark Fork into Montana.

Photo One: Tyaughton Mountain, Mckay Group; Photo Two: Labiostria westriopi, Upper Cambrian McKay Group, Site ML (1998); John Fam Collection; Photo Three: Ichthyosaur Excavation, Fernie, British Columbia, 1916; Photo Four: Cretaceous Plant Fossils, east of Fernie towards Coal Mountain. The deeply awesome Guy Santucci as hand-model for scale. 

Thursday, 16 March 2023


Nunatsiarmiut Mother and Child, Baffin Island, Nunavut
Warm light bathes this lovely Nunatsiarmiut mother and child from Baffin Island, Nunavut. 

They speak Inuktitut, the mother tongue of the majority of the Nunatsiarmiut who call Baffin Island home. 

Baffin is the largest island in the Arctic Archipelago in the territory of Nunavut in Canada's far north. 

As part of the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut, Baffin Island is home to a constellation of remote Inuit communities each with a deep cultural connection to the land—Iqaluit, Pond Inlet, Pangnirtung, Clyde River, Arctic Bay, Kimmirut and Nanisivik. 

The ratio of Inuit to non-Inuit here is roughly three to one and perhaps the reason why the Inuktitut language has remained intact and serves as the mother tongue for more than 36,000 residents. Inuktitut has several subdialects—these, along with a myriad of other languages—are spoken across the north.  

If you look at the helpful visual below you begin to get a feel for the diversity of these many tongues. The languages vary by region. There is the Iñupiaq of the Inupiatun/Inupiat; Inuvialuktun of the Inuinnaqtun, Natsilingmiutut, Kivallirmiutut, Aivilingmiutut, Qikiqtaaluk Uannanganii and Siglitun. Kalaallisut is spoken by many Greenlandic peoples though, in northwest Greenland, Inuktun is the language of the Inughuit.

We use the word Inuktitut when referring to a specific dialect and inuktut when referring to all the dialects of Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.

Northern Language Map (Click to Enlarge)
Should you travel to the serene glacier-capped wilds and rolling tundra of our far north, you will want to dress for the weather and learn a few of the basics to put your best mukluk shod feet forward. 

The word for hello or welcome in Inuktitut is Atelihai—pronounced ahh-tee-lee-hi. And thank you is nakurmiik, pronounced na-kur-MIIK.  

Perhaps my favourite Inuktitut expression is Naglingniq qaikautigijunnaqtuq maannakautigi, pronounced NAG-ling-niq QAI-kau-ti-gi-jun-naqtuq MAAN-na-KAU-ti-gi. This tongue-twister is well worth the linguistic challenge as it translates to love can travel anywhere in an instant. Indeed it can. 

So much of our Indigenous culture is passed through stories, so language takes on special meaning in that context. It is true for all societies but especially true for the Inuit. Stories help connect the past to the present and future. They teach how to behave in society, engage with the world and how to survive in the environment. They also help to create a sense of belonging. 

You have likely seen or heard the word Eskimo used in older books to refer to the Inuit, Iñupiat, Kalaallit or Yupik. This misnomer is a colonial term derived from the Montagnais or Innu word ayas̆kimewnetter of snowshoes. It is a bit like meeting a whole new group of people who happen to wear shoes and referring to them all as cobblers—not as a nickname, but as a legal term to describe populations from diverse communities disregarding the way each self-refer. 

Inukshuk / Inuksuk Marker Cairn
For those who identify as Inupiaq or Yupik, the preferred term is Inuit meaning people—though some lingering use of the term Eskimo lives on. The Inuit as a group are made up of many smaller groups. 

The Inuit of Greenland self-refer as Kalaallit or Greenlanders when speaking Kalaallisut. The Inupiat of Alaska, or real people, use Yupik as the singular for real person and yuk to simply mean person.

When taken all together, Inuit is used to mean all the peoples in reference to the Inuit, Iñupiat, Kalaallit and Yupik. Inuit is the plural of inuk or person

You likely recognize this word from inuksuk or inukshuk, pronounced ih-nook-suuk — the human-shaped stone cairns built by the Inuit, Iñupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic regions of northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska—helpful reference markers for hunters and navigation. The word inuksuk means that which acts in the capacity of a human, combining inuk or person and suk, to substitute

A World of Confusion

You may be disappointed to learn that our northern friends do not live in igloos. I remember answering the phone as a child and the fellow calling was hoping to speak to my parents about some wonderful new invention perfect for use in an igloo. 

He was disappointed to hear that I was standing in a wooden house with the standard four walls to a room and a handy roof topping it off. "Well, what about your neighbours? Surely, a few of them live in igloos..." 

It seems that some atlases in circulation at the time, and certainly the one he was looking at, simply blanketed everything north of the 49th parallel in a snowy white. His clearly showed an igloo sitting proudly in the centre of the province.

My cousin Shawn brought one such simplified book back from his elementary school in California. British Columbia had a nice image of a grizzly bear and a wee bit further up, a polar bear grinned smugly. British Columbia's beaver population would be sad to know that they did not inhabit the province though there were two chipper beavers with big bright smiles—one in Ontario and another gracing the province of Quebec. Further north, where folk do build igloos, their icy domes were curiously lacking. 

Igloos are used for winter hunting trips much the same way we use tents for camping. The Inuit do not have fifty words for snow—you can thank the ethnographer Franz Boas for that wee fabrication—but within the collective languages of the frozen north there are more than fifty words to describe it. And kisses are not nose-to-nose. To give a tender kiss or kunik to a loved one, you press your nose and upper lip to their forehead or cheek and rub gently. 

Fancy trying a wee bit of Inuktitut yourself? This link will bring you to a great place to start:

Inuit Language Map:  By Noahedits - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. If you want to the image full size, head to this link:

Wednesday, 15 March 2023


A gull cries in protest at not getting his share of a meal

Gulls, or colloquially seagulls, are seabirds of the family Laridae in the suborder Lari. 

The Laridae are known from not-yet-published fossil evidence from the Early Oligocene — 30–33 million years ago. 

Three gull-like species were described by Alphonse Milne-Edwards from the early Miocene of Saint-Gérand-le-Puy, France. 

Another fossil gull from the Middle to Late Miocene of Cherry County, Nebraska, USA, has been placed in the prehistoric genus Gaviota

These fossil gulls, along with undescribed Early Oligocene fossils are all tentatively assigned to the modern genus Larus. Among those of them that have been confirmed as gulls, Milne-Edwards' "Larus" elegans and "L." totanoides from the Late Oligocene/Early Miocene of southeast France have since been separated in Laricola.

Gulls are most closely related to the terns in the family Sternidae and only distantly related to auks, skimmers and distantly to waders. 

A historical name for gulls is mews, which is cognate with the German möwe, Danish måge, Swedish mås, Dutch meeuw, Norwegian måke/måse and French mouette. We still see mews blended into the lexicon of some regional dialects.

In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest and my family, gulls are known as t̕sik̕wi. Most folk refer to gulls from any number of species as seagulls. This name is a local custom and does not exist in the scientific literature for their official naming. Even so, it is highly probable that it was the name you learned for them growing up.

If you have been to a coastal area nearly everywhere on the planet, you have likely encountered gulls. They are the elegantly plumed but rather noisy bunch on any beach. You will recognize them both by their size and colouring. 

Gulls are typically medium to large birds, usually grey or white, often with black markings on the head or wings. They typically have harsh shrill cries and long, yellow, curved bills. Their webbed feet are perfect for navigating the uneven landscape of the foreshore when they take most of their meals. 

Most gulls are ground-nesting carnivores that take live food or scavenge opportunistically, particularly the Larus species. Live food often includes crab, clams (which they pick up, fly high and drop to crack open), fish and small birds. Gulls have unhinging jaws which allow them to consume large prey which they do with gusto. 

Their preference is to generally live along the bountiful coastal regions where they can find food with relative ease. Some prefer to live more inland and all rarely venture far out to sea, except for the kittiwakes. 

The larger species take up to four years to attain full adult plumage, but two years is typical for small gulls. Large white-headed gulls are typically long-lived birds, with a maximum age of 49 years recorded for the herring gull.

Gulls nest in large, densely packed, noisy colonies. They lay two or three speckled eggs in nests composed of vegetation. The young are precocial, born with dark mottled down and mobile upon hatching. Gulls are resourceful, inquisitive, and intelligent, the larger species in particular, demonstrating complex methods of communication and a highly developed social structure. Many gull colonies display mobbing behaviour, attacking and harassing predators and other intruders. 

Certain species have exhibited tool-use behaviour, such as the herring gull, using pieces of bread as bait with which to catch goldfish. Many species of gulls have learned to coexist successfully with humans and have thrived in human habitats. Others rely on kleptoparasitism to get their food. Gulls have been observed preying on live whales, landing on the whale as it surfaces to peck out pieces of flesh. They are keen, clever and always hungry.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023


Weyla (Nielsen, 1963) New York Canyon, Nevada
A lovely example of the large bivalve, Weyla (Nielsen, 1963), from the earliest known Jurassic Ferguson Hill Member (Hettangian and Sinemurian) of the Sunrise Formation in the New York Canyon area of west-central Nevada, USA.

The end-Triassic mass extinction was global, severe, and accompanied by worldwide disturbance to carbonate ramp and platform sedimentation. We see the effects played out in the Ferguson Hill Member of the Sunrise Formation. These outcrops are the result of the earliest known Jurassic carbonate ramp produced in the back-arc basin along NE Panthalassa following the extinction event to determine the biotic constituents and timing of local ecological recovery.

The Ferguson Hill Member (Hettangian and Sinemurian) of the Sunrise Formation in the New York Canyon area of west-central Nevada, USA has a lovely counterpart in the Rockies of British Columbia, Canada, explored over three field seasons in the early 2000s before being closed off as a provincial park.

In the Hettangian, post-extinction biosiliceous sedimentation extended to the inner ramp, where an ooid and grapestone shoal marked the outermost extent of a narrow belt of carbonate sedimentation. An early recovery phase in the late Hettangian is characterized by widespread, laterally homogeneous, demosponge-dominated level-bottom sedimentation across the mid- to inner-ramp, in addition to limited trophic tiering (sessile epifaunal suspension-feeding and mobile infaunal deposit-feeding), substantial ramp aggradation, and poor settling conditions for competitive benthic colonizers (e.g., corals, crinoids, infaunal bivalves).

Within 1.6–2 Myr after the extinction (in the early Sinemurian), a late recovery phase is recognized by the appearance of epifaunal grazers (gastropods, echinoids) and suspension feeders (crinoids, solitary scleractinian corals), phototrophic microbialites (oncoids, and possibly photosymbionts within corals), and infaunal deposit or suspension feeders (bivalves).

Although the late recovery faunas included more trophic levels than pre-extinction carbonate ramp habitats, development and progradation of the first Jurassic carbonate ramp still relied heavily on sponge, microbialite, and abiotic mineralization.

Monday, 13 March 2023


Time Slows at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park
Around half past five, as the first flush of dawn appears, our group was up and ready to visit a site that has been on my bucket list for some time.

High on the hillside up a long entry road sits the entrance to Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in central Nevada. It is a short 2-hour drive from our lodgings through orange-hued grasslands and low sloping hills.

A worn American flag and sun-bleached outbuildings greet you on your way to the outcrops. Away from the hustle and bustle that defines the rest of Nevada this place feels remarkably serene. Your eyes squint against the sun as you search for ammonoids and other marine fossil fauna while your nose tends to the assault from the bracing smell of sagebrush.

This site holds many stories. The interpretive centre displays wonderful marine reptiles, ichthyosaurs in situ, as you might expect from the name of the park — but it also showcases years of history lovingly tended. This stretch of dry golden low hills dappled with the yellow of creosote and desert grasses is an important locality for our understanding of the Carnian-Norian boundary (CNB) in North America.

The area is known worldwide as one of the most important ichthyosaur Fossil-Lagerstätte because of the sheer volume of remarkably well-preserved, fully articulated (all the sweet bones laid out all in a row...) specimens of Shonisaurus popularis.

Rich ammonoid faunas outcrop in the barren hills of the Upper Triassic (Early Norian, Kerri zone), Luning Formation, West Union Canyon, Nevada. They were studied by N. J. Silberling (1959) and provide support for the definition of the Schucherti and Macrolobatus zones of the latest Carnian — which are here overlain by well-preserved faunas of the earliest Norian Kerri Zone. 

The genus Gonionotites, very common in the Tethys and British Columbia, is for the moment, unknown in Nevada. The Upper Carnian faunas are dominated by Tropitidae, while Juvavitidae are conspicuously lacking. 

Middle Triassic Ammonoids
Despite its importance, no further investigations had been done at this site for a good 50 years. That changed in 2010 when Jim Haggart, Mike Orchard and Paul Smith — all local Vancouverites — collaborated on a project that took them down to Nevada to look at the conodonts and ammonoids. They did a bed-by-bed sampling of ammonoids and conodonts in West Union Canyon during October of that year.

October is an ideal time to do fieldwork in this area. There are a few good weeks between screaming hot and frigid cold. It is also tarantula breeding season so keep your eyes peeled. Those sweet little burrows you see are not from rodents but rather largish arachnids. 

The eastern side of the canyon provides the best record of the Macrolobatus Zone, which is represented by several beds yielding ammonoids of the Tropites group, together with Anatropites div. sp. 

Conodont faunas from both these and higher beds are dominated by ornate metapolygnthids that would formerly have been collectively referred to Metapolygnathus primitius, a species long known to straddle the CNB. Within this lower part of the section, they resemble forms that have been separated as Metapolygnathus mersinensis. Slightly higher, forms close to Epigondolella' orchardi and a single Orchardella n. sp. occur. This association can be correlated with the latest Carnian in British Columbia.

Higher in the section, the ammonoid fauna shows a sudden change and is dominated by Tropithisbites. Few tens of metres above, but slightly below the first occurrence of Norian ammonoids Guembelites jandianus and Stikinoceras, two new species of conodonts (Gen et sp. nov. A and B) appear that also occur close to the favoured Carnian/Norian boundary at Black Bear Ridge, British Columbia. Stratigraphically higher collections continue to be dominated by forms close to M. mersinensis and E. orchardi after BC's own Mike Orchard.

The best exposure of the Kerri Zone is on the western side of the West Union Canyon. Ammonoids, dominated by Guembelites and Stikinoceras div. sp., have been collected from several fossil-bearing levels. Conodont faunas replicate those of the east section. The collected ammonoids fit perfectly well with the faunas described by Silberling in 1959, but they differ somewhat from coeval faunas of the Tethys and Canada. 

The ammonoid fauna paints a compelling picture of Tethyan influence with a series of smoking guns. We see an abundance of Tropitidae in the Carnian, a lack of Pterosirenites in the Norian, copious Guembelites, the Tethyan species G. philostrati, the stratigraphic position of G. clavatus and the rare occurrence of Gonionotites. Their hallelujah moment was likely finding an undescribed species of the thin-shelled bivalve Halobia similar to Halobia beyrichi — the clincher that perhaps seals this deal on Tethyan influence. 

I'll take a boo to see what Christopher McRoberts published on the find. A jolly good idea to have him on this expedition as it would have been easy to overlook if the focus remained solely on the conodonts and ammonoids. McRoberts has published on the much-studied Pardonet Formation up in the Willison Lake Area of Northeastern, British Columbia. He knows a thing or two about Upper Triassic Bivalvia and the correlation to coeval faunas elsewhere in the North American Cordillera, and to the Boreal, Panthalassan and Tethyan faunal realms. 

If you fancy a read, they published a paper: "Towards the definition of the Carnian/Norian Boundary: New data on Ammonoids and Conodonts from central Nevada," which you can find in the proceedings of the 21st Canadian Paleontology Conference; by Haggart, J W (ed.); Smith, P L (ed.); Canadian Paleontology Conference Proceedings no. 9, 2011 p. 9-10.

Fig. 1. Location map of Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park

Marco Balini, James Jenks, Riccardo Martin, Christopher McRoberts, along with Mike Orchard and Norman Siberling, did a bed by bed sampling in 2013 and published on The Carnian/Norian boundary succession at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park (Upper Triassic, central Nevada, USA) and published in January 2014 in Paläontologische Zeitschrift 89:399–433. That work is available for download from ResearchGate. The original is in German, but there is a translation available.

After years of reading about the correlation between British Columbia and Nevada, I had the very great pleasure of walking through these same sections in October 2019 with members of the Vancouver Paleontological Society and Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society. It was with that same crew that I'd originally explored fossil sites in the Canadian Rockies in the early 2000s. Those early trips led to paper after paper and the exciting revelations that inspired our Nevada adventure.

If you plan your own adventure, you'll want to keep an eye out for some of the other modern fauna — mountain lions, snakes, lizards, scorpions, wolves, coyotes, foxes, ground squirrels, rabbits, falcons, hawks, eagles, bobcats, sheep, deer and pronghorns.

Figure One: Location map of Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. A detailed road log with access information for this locality is provided in Lucas et al. (2007).

Sunday, 12 March 2023


A new species of trilobite from the upper Cambrian McKay Group was introduced in March of 2020: Aciculolenus askewi.  The species is named after Don Askew, an avid fossil hunter of Upper Cambrian trilobites from Cranbrook, British Columbia, Canada, who has discovered several new species in the East Kootenays. 

Don was the first to brave the treacherous cliffs up the waterfall on the west side of the ravine below Tanglefoot mountain. That climb led to his discovery of one of the most prolific outcrops in the McKay Group with some of the most exciting and best-preserved trilobites from the region. 

The faunal set are similar to those found at site one — the first of the trilobite outcrops discovered by Chris New and Chris Jenkins — an hours hike through grizzly bear country.

The specimens found at the top of the waterfall are not in calcite wafers, as they are elsewhere, instead, these exceptionally preserved specimens are found complete with a thin coating of matrix that must be prepped down to the shell beneath. 

Askew was also the skill preparator called upon to tease out the details from the 'gut trilobite' recently published from the region. In all, this area has produced more than 60 new species — many found by Askew — and not all of which have been published yet.

I caught up with Don last summer on a trip to the region. He was gracious in openly sharing his knowledge and a complete mountain goat in the field — a good man that Askew. Not surprising then that Brian Chatterton would do him the honour of naming this new species after him. 

Chatterton, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta, is an invertebrate palaeontologist with a great sense of humour and a particular love of trilobites. Even so, his published works span a myriad of groups including conodonts, machaeridians, sponges, brachiopods, corals, cephalopods, bivalves, trace fossils — to fishes, birds and dinosaurs.

Brian Chatterton has been visiting the East Kootenay region for many years. In 1998, he and Rolf Ludvigsen published the pivotal work on the "calcified trilobites" we had begun hearing about in the late 1990s. There were tales of blue trilobites in calcified layers guarded by a resident Grizzly. This was years before logging roads had reached this pocket of paleontological goodness and hiking in — bear or no bear — was a daunting task. 

In his Cambridge University Press paper, Chatterton describes the well-preserved fauna of largely articulated trilobites from three new localities in the Bull River Valley. 

The Dream Team at Fossil Site #15, East Kootenays
All the trilobites from these localities are from the lower or middle part of the Wujiajiania lyndasmithae Subzone of the Elvinia Zone, lower Jiangshanian, in the McKay Group. 

Access is via a bumpy ride on logging roads 20 km northeast of Fort Steele that includes fording a river (for those blessed with large tires and a high wheelbase) and culminating in a hot, dusty hike and death-defying traipse down 35-degree slopes to the localities.

Two new species were proposed with types from these localities: Aciculolenus askewi and Cliffia nicoleae. The trilobite (and agnostid) fauna from these localities includes at least 20 species that read like a who's who of East Kootenay palaeontology: 

Aciculolenus askewi n. sp., Agnostotes orientalis (Kobayashi, 1935), Cernuolimbus ludvigseni Chatterton and Gibb, 2016, Cliffia nicoleae n. sp., Elvinia roemeri (Shumard, 1861), Grandagnostus? species 1 of Chatterton and Gibb, 2016, Eugonocare? phillipi Chatterton and Gibb, 2016, Eugonocare? sp. A, Housia vacuna (Walcott, 1912), Irvingella convexa (Kobayashi, 1935), Irvingella flohri Resser, 1942, Irvingella species B Chatterton and Gibb, 2016, Olenaspella chrisnewi Chatterton and Gibb, 2016, Proceratopyge canadensis (Chatterton and Ludvigsen, 1998), Proceratopyge rectispinata (Troedsson, 1937), Pseudagnostus cf. P. josepha (Hall, 1863), Pseudagnostus securiger (Lake, 1906), Pseudeugonocare bispinatum (Kobayashi, 1962), Pterocephalia sp., and Wujiajiania lyndasmithae Chatterton and Gibb, 2016.

Chris New, pleased as punch atop Upper Cambrian Exposures
It has been the collaborative efforts of Guy Santucci, Chris New, Chris Jenkins, Don Askew and Stacey Gibb that has helped open up the region — including finding and identifying many new species or firsts including Pseudagnostus securiger, a widespread early Jiangshanian species not been previously recorded from southeastern British Columbia. 

Other interesting invertebrate fossils from these localities include brachiopods, rare trace fossils, a complete silica sponge (Hyalospongea), and a dendroid graptolite. 

The species we find here are more diverse than those from other localities of the same age in the region — and enjoy much better preservation. 

The birth of new species into our scientific nomenclature takes time and the gathering of enough material to justify a new species name. Fortunately for Labiostria gibbae, specimens had been found of this rare species had been documented from the upper part of Wujiajiania lyndasmithae Subzone — slightly younger in age. 

Combined with an earlier discovery, they provided adequate type material to propose the new species — Labiostria gibbae — a species that honours Stacey Gibb and which will likely prove useful for biostratigraphy.


Photo One: Aciculolenus askewi by Chris Jenkins, Cranbrook, British Columbia
Photo Two: L to R: Dan Bowden, Guy Santucci, Chris Jenkins, Dan Askew and John Fam at Fossil Site #15, East Kootenay Region, British Columbia, Canada, August 2, 2020.
Photo Three: Chris New pleased as punch atop of Upper Cambrian Exposures in the East Kootenay Region, British Columbia, Canada

Saturday, 11 March 2023


The partial specimen you see here is an Olenellus trilobite from the Eager Formation near Cranbrook, British Columbia.

It was exciting to crack open the rock and find a specimen, many specimens, more than half a billion years old. It is something we so rarely do but the opportunity is all around us in the many sedimentary rocks that outcrop near the surface around the globe. 

Near Cranbrook, the Eager Formation outcrops at several locations just outside of town. This particular lovely is from the Rifle Range locality and is in my collection at 98-CR-EF042 — meaning it was collected in 1998 and the 42nd find of the day. This is a prolific site and with diligent collecting, you can find many wonderful specimens of scientific and aesthetic value in the course of a day.

The Rifle Range locality sits on the Silhouette Rifle Range — which is literally on a rifle range where folks go to shoot at things.

The fossils we find here are just a shade older than those found at the Burgess Shale. Burgess is Middle Cambrian and the species match the Eager fauna one for one but the Eager fauna are much less varied. 

Olenellus is an extinct genus of redlichiid trilobites, early arthropods, that litter this glorious Cambrian site. Olenellus is the only genus currently recognised in the subfamily Olenellinae. The sister group called the Mesonacinae consists of the genera Mesonacis and Mesolenellus.

Olenellus range in size but are about 5 centimetres or 2.0 inches long on average. They lived during the Botomian and Toyonian stages, Olenellus-zone, 522 to 510 million years ago, in what is currently North America in what was part of the paleocontinent of Laurentia.

Olenellus are both common in and restricted to Early Cambrian rocks — 542 million to 521 million years old — and thus a useful Index Fossil for the Early Cambrian. 

Olenellus had a well-developed head, large and crescentic eyes, and a poorly developed, small tail. The fellow you see had a bit of his tail crushed as he turned to stone.

Trilobites were amongst the earliest fossils with hard skeletons. While they are extinct today, they were the dominant life form at the beginning of the Cambrian and it is what we find as the primary fossil in the fauna of the Eager Formation. 

A slightly crushed lingulida brachiopod
The Eager Formation has produced many beautifully preserved Wanneria, abundant Olellenus and a handful of rare and treasured Tuzoia and Anomalocaris claws. The shale matrix lends itself to amazing preservation. 

The specimens of Wanneria from here are impressively large. Some are up to thirteen centimetres long and ten centimetres wide. You find a mixture of complete specimens and head impressions from years of perfectly preserved moults.

From July 21 to 31, 2015, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), under the direction of Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron carried out a palaeontological dig at an exposure of the Eager Formation that outcrops between Cranbrook and  Fort Steele in the East Kootenay Region of British Columbia. 

The team included David George (APS), Dr. Bob Gaines (Pomona College), Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron (ROM), Dr. Gabriela Mangano (University of Saskatchewan), Maryam Akrami (ROM), Darrell Nordby (APS), Joe Moysiuk (University of Toronto), and local, Guy Santucci (APS and project field co-ordinator), and Dr. Mark Webster (University of Chicago).

Dr. Caron was interested in the fauna of the Eager Formation as there is an overlap with the Burgess Shale species — the Eager is a window into time 513 million years ago — 8 million years earlier than the Burgess. 

Lower Cambrian Brachiopod
They found the usual suspects, including multiple specimens of Wanneria dunnae and Olenellus ricei along with the rarer genus Mesonacis, in addition to specimens of the elusive Tuzoia

They also found a block with at least 112 individual trilobites (mostly moulted cephalons) of Olenellus ricei and Wanneria dunnae

The most exciting of their finds included a sponge, Anomalocaris, Morania (a cyanobacterial growth), and a hyolithid similar to the Burgess Haplophrentis.

They also found many trace fossils. There was a particularly fetching 30 cm trace fossil, likely from a large Wanneria, that I hope Dr. Mángano or one of her graduate students lend their gaze — Gabriela is a particularly good writer. 

She is co-editor of Palaios, in addition to being a member of the editorial board of a number of journals, including Journal of Paleontology, Paleontologia Electronica, Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology, Ameghiniana, and Revista Brasilera de Paleontologia. Gabriela is a member of the Scientific Board of the UNESCO International Geoscience Program (IGCP), member of the SEPM Board, and Treasurer of the International Ichnological Association. Add all that to extensive fieldwork and supervising over fifteen graduate students and postdoctoral fellows — she's an amazing woman.

Their excavation of the site was thorough — reducing all of the potentially fossil-bearing strata to pieces the size or smaller than a dinner plate. The 2015 team used a backhoe to take off the weathered top layer and get down to the bedrock below.

It has been six years since their visit and we will hopefully see some worthy publications from their efforts. There had been talk of multiple publications stemming from the spectrum of species, a comparison to the Burgess fauna and papers on the trace fossils. I checked in with Joe Moysuik from the University of Toronto who had been on the dig in 2015. To his knowledge, no new papers have yet to be published — though, Caron has been a busy bee on a sexy new nektobenthic suspension feeder from the Burgess material. I am rather hoping their team sorts out the naming of some of the species and gets them to publication so we can finally put them to bed.

Days after my correspondence with Moysuik, Chris Jenkins, a Cranbrook local and huge contributor to our knowledge of Upper Cambrian trilobites, shared an exciting find. 

He and Don Askew had ventured out together for their first fossil field trip of 2021 — and made a rather auspicious start to the year. 

The two had met some 10 years previous when Don, an avid outdoorsman and Jenkins' neighbour, had wandered over to see what all the rocks were about in Jenkins' yard. 

Tales of trilobites and a lifelong friendship ensued. It was also the beginnings of shared fieldwork. This time, it was to outcrops of the Eager Formation just outside of Cranbrook. Together, the two unearthed a three-foot-wide band of Eager Formation bedrock. Not unusual in and of itself — but instead of the usual trilobites — this rock revealed several varieties of Lower Cambrian brachiopods. 

Jenkins shared photos of at least three different types of brachiopods — potentially new fauna for the Eager. Although they superficially resemble the molluscs that make modern seashells, they are not related. Brachiopods were the most abundant and diverse fossil invertebrates of the Paleozoic — over 4500 genera known; the number of species is far greater. So, naturally, we had expected to find brachiopods in the Eager Formation as they were abundant in Lower Cambrian seas — but so far they had eluded us.

And, interestingly, the rock containing the brachiopods is devoid of any trilobite specimens — not a one. Have they found a wee slip of the Eager Formation that records a nearshore environment or have they stumbled across a segment that records another time period altogether?

The brachiopods you see in the photos above are roughly 1/4 inch to 3/4 inches. Should Caron and team return to the site, these new brachiopods will be of great interest as they look to rewrite the geology and palaeontology of the site and region. 

Friday, 10 March 2023


Qikiqtania wakei, a fishapod & relative to tetrapods
You will likely recall the amazing tetrapodomorpha fossil found on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic in 2004, Tiktaalik roseae

These were advanced forms transitional between fish and the early labyrinthodonts playfully referred to as fishapods — half-fish, half-tetrapod in appearance and limb morphology. 

Up to that point, the relationship of limbed vertebrates (tetrapods) to lobe-finned fish (sarcopterygians) was well known, but the origin of significant tetrapod features remained obscure for the lack of fossils that document the sequence of evolutionary changes — until Tiktaalik

While Tiktaalik is technically a fish, this fellow is as far from fish-like as you can be and still be a card-carrying member of the group. 

Interestingly, while Neil Shubin and crew were combing the icy tundra for Tiktaalik, another group was trying their luck just a few kilometres away. 

A week before the eureka moment of Tiktaalik's discovery, Tom Stewart and Justin Lemberg unearthed material that we now know to be a relative of Tiktaalik's. 

Meet Qikiqtania wakei, a fishapod and close relative to our dear tetrapods — and cousin to Tiktaalik — who shares features in the flattened triangular skull, shoulders and elbows in the fin. 

Qikiqtania (pronounced kick-kick-TAN-ee-ya)
But, and here’s the amazing part, its upper arm bone (humerus) is specialised for open water swimming, not walking. 

The story gets wilder when we look at Qikiqtania’s position on the evolutionary tree— all the features for this type of swimming are newly evolved, not primitive. 

This means that Qikiqtania secondarily reentered open water habitats from ancestors that had already had some aspect of walking behaviour. 

And, this whole story was playing out 365 million years ago — the transition from water to land was going both ways in the Devonian.

Why is this exciting? You and I descend from those early tetrapods. We share the legacy of their water-to-land transition and the wee bony bits in their wrists and paddles that evolved to become our hands. I know, mindblowing!

Thomas Stewart and Justin Lemberg put in thousands of hours bringing Qikiqtania to life. 

The analysis consisted of a long path of wild events— from a haphazard moment when it was first spotted, a random collection of a block that ended up containing an articulated fin, to a serendipitous discovery three days before Covid lockdowns in March 2020.

Both teams acknowledge the profound debt owed to the individuals, organizations and indigenous communities where they had the privilege to work — Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay— Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, the largest and northernmost territory of Canada. 

Part of that debt is honoured in the name chosen for this new miraculous species. 

Aerial View of Ellesmere Island
The generic name, Qikiqtania (pronounced kick-kick-TAN-ee-ya), is derived from the Inuktitut words Qikiqtaaluk and Qikiqtani which are the traditional place name of the region where the fossil was discovered. 

The specific name, wakei, is in memory of the evolutionary biologist David Wake — colleague, mentor and friend. 

He was a professor of integrative biology and Director and curator of herpetology at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley who passed away in April 2021. 

Wake is known for his work on the biology and evolution of salamanders and vertebrate evolutionary biology. 

If you look at the photo on the left you can imagine visiting these fossil localities in Canada's far north.

Qikiqtania was found on Inuit land and belongs to the community. Thomas Stewart and his colleagues were able to conduct this research because of the generosity and support of individuals in the hamlets of Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord, the Iviq Hunters and Trappers of Grise Fiord, and the Department of Heritage and Culture, Nunavut.

To them, on behalf of the larger scientific community — Nakurmiik. Thank you! 

Here is the link to Tom Stewart's article in The Conversation & paper in Nature that dropped yesterday:

  1. Stewart, Thomas A.; Lemberg, Justin B.; Daly, Ailis; Daeschler, Edward B.; Shubin, Neil H. (2022-07-20). "A new elpistostegalian from the Late Devonian of the Canadian Arctic". Naturedoi:10.1038/s41586-022-04990-wISSN 0028-0836.
  2. Stewart, Thomas. "Meet Qikiqtania, a fossil fish with the good sense to stay in the water while others ventured onto land" The Conversation. Retrieved 2022-07-20.

Image One: An artist’s vision of Qikiqtania enjoying its fully aquatic, free-swimming lifestyle. Alex Boersma, CC BY-ND

Image Two: A new elpistostegalian from the Late Devonian of the Canadian Arctic, T. A. Stewart, J. B. Lemberg, A. Daly, E. B. Daeschler, & N. H. Shubin.

A huge shout out to the deeply awesome Neil Shubin who shared that the paper had been published and offered his insights on what played out behind the scenes!

Thursday, 9 March 2023


This lovely Lower Miocene nautiloid is Aturia angustata collected on the foreshore near Clallam Bay, Olympic Peninsula, northwestern Washington. 

I have been exploring Washington State for many years. It is rugged, windswept and has amazing fossil exposures all along its northern edge. The area goes by the name of the Olympic Peninsula and it is a wilderness playground. The sites I usually visit are Majestic Beach for its rare but prized fossil whale bone.

Further west are the beach exposures that have fossil echinoids in matrix and Ghost shrimp claws in concretion. There is a clay mine that holds wonderful nautiloids like the creamy Aturia you see here. Sometimes they are cemented together and come out whole. Sometimes calcified and show yellow, brown and white when you hold them to the light. Further up are the beach exposures along Clallam Bay.

Aturia is an extinct genus of Paleocene to Miocene nautilids within Aturiidae, a monotypic family, established by Campman in 1857 for Aturia Bronn, 1838, and is included in the superfamily Nautilaceae in Kümmel, 1964.

Aturia is characterized by a smooth, highly involute, discoidal shell with a complex suture and subdorsal siphuncle. 

Their shells are rounded ventrally and flattened laterally; the dorsum is deeply impressed. The suture is one of the most complex within Nautiloidea. It has a broad flattened ventral saddle, narrow pointed lateral lobes, broad rounded lateral saddles, broad lobes on the dorso-umbilical slopes, and a broad dorsal saddle divided by a deep, narrow median lobe. 

The siphuncle is moderate in size and located subdorsally in the adapical dorsal flexure of the septum. Based on the feeding and hunting behaviours of living nautiluses, Aturia most likely preyed upon small fish and crustaceans. It is well worth exploring the exposures at Clallam Bay. The local clay quarry is on private land so you would need to seek permission. I have also seen calcified beauties of this species collected from river sites within the Olympic Peninsula range, though I have not explored these myself.

Wednesday, 8 March 2023


Oligocene Fossil Whale Vertebrae, Olympic Peninsula
These lovely water-worn specimens are difficult to ID to species with certainty but they likely hail from an early baleen whale.

Found amongst the beach pebbles on the Olympic Peninsula, they are definitely cetacean and very likely baleen as this area is home to some of the earliest baleen whales in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1993, a twenty-seven million-year-old specimen was discovered in deposits nearby that represents a new species of early baleen whale. 

It is especially interesting as it is from a stage in the group’s evolutionary history when baleen whales transitioned from having teeth to filtering food with baleen bristles. Visiting researcher Carlos Mauricio Peredo studied the fossil whale remains, publishing his research to solidify Sitsqwayk cornishorum (pronounced sits-quake) in the annals of history.

Baby Gray Whale, Eschrichtius robustus
The earliest baleen whales clearly had teeth, and clearly still used them. Modern baleen whales have no teeth and have instead evolved baleen plates for filter feeding. I've included a rather good close-up of a baby Gray Whale here that shows the baleen to good effect.

The baleen is the comb-like strainer that sits on the upper jaw of baleen whales and is used to filter food.

We have to ponder when this evolutionary change —moving from teeth to baleen — occurred and what factors might have caused it. Traditionally, we have sought answers about the evolution of baleen whales by turning to two extinct groups: the aetiocetids and the eomysticetids.

The aetiocetids are small baleen whales that still have teeth, but they are very small, and it remains uncertain whether or not they used their teeth. In contrast, the eomysticetids are about the size of an adult Minke Whale and seem to have been much more akin to modern baleen whales; though it’s not certain if they had baleen. Baleen typically does not preserve in the fossil record being soft tissue; generally, only hard tissue, bones & teeth, are fossilized.

Photo: Oligocene Fossil Whale vertebrae from Majestic Beach, Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, USA.