Friday, 28 January 2022

OH, CORONICERAS!

Coroniceras sp. from Sayward, British Columbia
This yummy Jurassic ammonite with the creamy dark chocolate colouring is from an all but inaccessible site in Sayward, Bonanza Group, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. 

I passed through Sayward this past week on the way to northern Vancouver Island. It is much as I remember it — rugged, remote and beautiful. Think trees and valleys for as far as the eye can see. 

This area is home to the We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum First Nations and lands of the K'omoks whose culture thrives and reflects the natural rugged beauty of the central island region.

He's a Coroniceras sp. with a truly marvellous keel.

By the time these ammonites were being buried in sediment, Wrangellia, the predominately volcanic terrane that now forms Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii, had made its way to the northern mid-latitudes.

Within the basal part of the sequence, sedimentary beds are found interbedded with lapilli and crystal tuffs. Here you'll see maroon tuffaceous sandstone, orange-grey sandstone, granule sandstone and conglomerate. Within them we find ammonites nestled in with gastropods and pelecypods. 

While the fossiliferous outcrop is quite small, the Bonanza group is much larger, estimated to be at least 1000 metres thick. The site is quite small and in an active logging area, so the window to collect was limited. The drive up the mountain was thrilling as there had just been heavy rains and the road was washed out and narrowed until it was barely the width of our wheelbase and very, very steep. Closer to the top it narrowed to be just shy of the width of the vehicle — thrilling, to say the least. 

So scary that my passengers all got out as there was a high probability of going head-first over the edge. I was navigating by some handwritten field notes and a wee map on a paper napkin that should have read, "park at the bottom and hike up." 

Did we park at the bottom and hike up? No, we did not. 

The torrential rains of the Pacific Northwest had been working their magic on the hillside and slowly washing out the road until it slowly became more of a trail.

At the base of the hillside all looked well. Giddy for the fossils to come, we ventured off with a truck full of enthusiasm. Within 15 minutes of steep elevation gain, we had a wonderful view of the valley below. We were halfway up the mountain before I realized the error of my ways. The road twisted and turned then slowly narrowed to the width of my tires. Too narrow to turn around, so the only way was up. 

Graham Beard from Qualicum Beach was the fellow who showed me the site and drew the wee map for me. I cannot recall everyone on the trip, but Perry Poon was there — he shot a video of the drive up that he described as thrilling. I have never seen it but would like to one day — and so was Patricia Coutts with her lovely Doberman. 

She and I had just done a trip up to Goldbridge where the cliff we were on had turned into a landslide into a ravine so she was feeling understandably cautious about the power of Mother Nature. Picture the angle, the hood of my jeep riding high and hiding what remained of the road beneath and a lovely stick shift that made you roll backwards a wee bit with every move to put it into gear. So, without being able to see the very narrow path beneath, I had to just keep going. 

Both Perry and Patricia helped with filling in the potholes so my tires would have something to grip. I bent the frame on the jeep heading up and had some explaining to do when I returned it to the car rental place. 

In the end, we found what we were looking for. Memekay yields a mix of ammonites, gastropods and bivalves. 

Many of them are poorly preserved. It was a hell of a ride but well worth the effort as we found some great fossils and with them more information on the palaeontology and geology of Vancouver Island. Just look at the keel on this beauty.

I would share the site information but it is now covered over with debris and inaccessible. One day, this whole region will be developed and the site will be opened up again. Until then, we'll have to enjoy what has been unearthed.

Thursday, 27 January 2022

NIOBE SCHMIDTI OF NORWAY

Niobe schmidti (Balashova, 1976)
This gorgeous trilobite is an exceptionally well-preserved Niobe schmidti (Balashova, 1976) from middle Ordovician limestone deposits of the Huk Formation, Lysaker member near Oslo, Norway. 

The limestones of the Huk Formation have an extreme geological history and fossils from this formation are usually very difficult to prepare. 

The beige/grey limestones are often heavily cemented to the shelly material, which can be quite fragile.

The rich chocolate coloured specimen you see here was no exception. It presented many challenges in its 26 hours of preparation but each of these was overcome by the patience and skill of Paul Freitag Wolvers at Freitag Fossils. 

I have added a link below with a series of photos so you can walk through the preparation process step by step with Paul. If you have a special specimen you would like prepped, I highly recommend you contact him. His work is outstanding.

Superb prep of this Niobe schmidti (Balashova, 1976)
The shell was partly hollow, very fragile and stuck firmly to the matrix. The positive was assembled from two pieces and much of the shell of the left half of the trilobite had to be transferred over from the negative — no small feat. 

Despite these challenges, the final result is superb. This Niobe schmidti is a museum-quality specimen with exquisite preservation. You can clearly see the lovely terrace lines, pores and eye lenses are excellent to study.  

This specimen hails from the middle Ordovician. The Ordovician lasted almost 45 million years, beginning 488.3 million years ago and ending 443.7 million years ago. 

It was the time in our Earth's history when the area north of the tropics was almost entirely underwater and most of the world's land was collected into the southern supercontinent of Gondwana. Throughout the Ordovician, Gondwana slowly shifted towards the South Pole and much of it remained submerged under an ancient ocean.

Niobe schmidti (Balashova, 1976)
At the time that this fellow was making a living in our ancient seas, he would have been joined by a diverse community of marine invertebrates —graptolites, fellow trilobites, brachiopods and the early vertebrate conodonts. 

These marine communities were joined by red and green algae, primitive fish, cephalopods, corals, crinoids, and gastropods. 

We also find stunning tetrahedral spores similar to those of primitive land plants which tell us who was living on the land at the time.

One of the first specimens of this lovely species I had the pleasure to see was from the Voybokalo Quarry near St. Petersburg in Russia. These outcrops are part of the Kunda Horizon, Lower Ordovician, Asaphus expansus zone and run roughly 468 million years old. 

From the Lower to Middle Ordovician, the Earth was enjoying a mild, humid climate — the weather was warm and the atmosphere contained a significant amount of moisture. 

Once Gondwana finally settled on the South Pole during the Upper Ordovician, massive glaciers formed. These drained the shallow seas and ocean levels dropped. By the end of the Ordovician, 60% of all marine invertebrates and 25% of all life on Earth disappeared as part of the Ordovician mass extinction event. We enjoy many of those species now only as fossils and if we are lucky, preserved in remarkable detail.

Photos & collection: Mark Wolvers. Preparation: Paul Freitag, Freitag Fossils. Specimen: 5.5 cm (2.16 inches). You can see some amazing photos of the transformation of this trilobite throughout Paul's preparation process here: https://freitag-fossils.com/en/niobe-schmidti/

If you click on any of the images, you can see them enlarged to take in all the wonderful detail. 

Reference: UCMP Berkeley / https://ucmp.berkeley.edu

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

TRENT RIVER FOSSIL TURTLE

The Trent River near Courtenay, British Columbia is a hotbed of 85-million-year-old fossil fauna immortalized in stone. 

The bedrock of the Trent River has yielded both marine and terrestrial fossils. 

While you might just gloss over that tidbit of information with a casual nod, consider how unlikely this particular fossil site is. We find fossils of species that lived on the land just metres from those who lived in our ancient oceans — remarkable!

We have found a nearly complete terrestrial helochelydrid turtle, the bones of a juvenile elasmosaur marine reptile and the caudal vertebrae of a Hadrosauroid dinosaur who munched on plants, all within spitting distance of one another.

If you stroll along the Trent solo or as part of a guided tour through the Courtenay Museum, you can walk right up to the Hadrosaur site. It was here many years ago that Mike Trask (whose name may ring a bell as he found the first elasmosaur on the Puntledge River) found bones from a duck-bill dinosaur. Now in Alberta, the province just east of British Columbia, there are areas where if you throw a rock, you'll hit a duck-bill bone, but in British Columbia, they were unheard of. This was not just the first duck-billed dinosaur, it was also the first dinosaur found on Vancouver Island — ever.   

Let's park that little bit of goodness for now and hold your awe and applause for the bounty of the Trent and walk just a wee bit down from the hadrosaur site where you come to the greyish bedrock that looks so plain it seems hardly worth noting, but it was once the resting place of a fossil ratfish, one of the ocean's oddest fish.  

If you head a wee bit upriver, you come to the delineation zone marking the contact between the dark grey marine shales and mudstones of the Haslam Formation where they meet the sandstones of the Comox Formation. 

Fossilized material in the Comox sandstones is less abundant but still well worth a look. If you look closely you begin to see fossilized wood and identifiable fossil plant material. So, hadrosaur, terrestrial, ratfish, marine, then terrestrial plant material. This river just keeps on giving.

Further upstream, there is a small tributary, Idle Creek, where you can find more of this terrestrial material in the sandy shales. A little further up the river, you see more identifiable fossil plants beneath your feet and jungle-like, overgrown snarly trees all around you.

Mesopuzosia sp.; Collection of Rick Ross
If you started your journey at the Trent River Falls and walked west, you pass the infamous Ammonite Alley, where you can find Mesopuzosia sp. and Kitchinites sp. of the Upper Cretaceous (Santonian), Haslam Formation. 

I have included one of the yummy, chocolate coloured Mesopuzosia sp. ammonite found, prepped and photographed by the deeply awesome Rick Ross of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society for you to enjoy. 

You are now in the Polytychoceras vancouverense zone. Continuing west, we reach the first of two fossil turtle sites on the river — one terrestrial and one marine. I thought I would share a bit about the terrestrial turtle found here as it is one of my favourite discoveries — after the excitement of the elasmosaur excavated last summer.   

Helochelydrids are a group of poorly known turtles from Late Jurassic to Late Cretaceous deposits in North America and Europe. It is the only known North American member of Helochelydridae.

Naomichelys is known from numerous specimens throughout western North America, most notably the holotype partial shell from the Early Cretaceous Cloverly Formation of Montana and a complete skeleton from the Antlers Formation of Texas. The Cloverly Formation includes a number of vertebrate fossils including a diverse assemblage of dinosaur fossils. the site was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1973.

Naomichelys is a member of the family Helochelydridae. We find their fossilized remains in Late Jurassic to Late Cretaceous deposits in North America and Europe. Within North America, only the species Naomichelys speciosa is known from relatively complete material which makes comparisons between specimens from other localities challenging. The delightful Phil Currie along with co-authors Matthew J. Vavrek, Derek W. Larson, Donald B. Brinkman and Courtenay's own Joe Morin described the new species of Helochelydrid terrestrial turtle and put the Trent River near Courtenay, British Columbia on the palaeontological map once again.

The new genus and species of helochelydrid turtle were based on the relatively complete shell from the bedrock of the Trent. This area is a section of the marine Haslam Formation (Santonian) of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

The new species is characterized by several distinctive shell features, notably a forward curving process on the anterior portion of the hyoplastra, strongly distinguishing it from N. speciosa

The shell is relatively small — and much smaller than one might expect — but does appear to be from a fully grown individual and not a juvenile, suggesting that the species was generally much smaller than other known helochelydrids.

Previously most records of helochelydrids in North America had been assigned to N. speciosa, regardless of actual diagnosable characters. 

The presence of an additional species of helochelydrid from North America tells us that a greater diversity of the taxon was present than was previously recognized. While the interspecific relationships of helochelydrids remain difficult to fully assess, due to the lack of well-preserved specimens, this new species provides additional geographic and phylogenetic data that aids our understanding of this enigmatic group.

As the rock of the Trent River slowly erodes away, it will be interesting to see what it reveals next. We have now found both marine and terrestrial reptiles along with plants, ammonites and other fossil goodies. Tis a story — and river — to keep an eye on!

What to Know Before You Go — Trent River Walk

The full Trent River Walk is 14.8 kilometres of moderate hiking on a well-maintained trail. You may choose to enjoy the wide, flat beginning section of the loop and leave off the narrower sections of the trail where you need to navigate roots and rock. Dogs on leash are welcome. 

You can do this as a family year-round. The trail provides access to the many collecting areas of the river. Be mindful of slippery rocks and keep your eyes peeled for fossils. To enter the trail and find parking, set 375 Hatton Road, Courtenay, British Columbia, into your GPS. Enjoy!   

Tuesday, 25 January 2022

FOSSIL SALMON OF SKOKOMISH

This toothy specimen is an Oncorhynchus nerka, a Pleistocene Sockeye Salmon from outcrops along the South Fork Skokomish River, Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, USA.

The area is home to the Skokomish — one of nine tribes of the Twana, Coast Salish First Nations in the northern-mid Puget Sound area of western Washington state in the United States. 

Each of the Tribal Nations are known by their locations — Dabop, Quilcene or salt-water people, Dosewallips, Duckabush, Hoodsport, Skokomish or Skoko'bsh, Vance Creek, Tahuya, and Duhlelap or Tule'lalap. The name Skokomish means river people or people of the river in the language of the Twana, sqʷuqʷóbəš or sqWuqWu'b3sH.

Closer to my home farther north in the Pacific Northwest on northern Vancouver Island are the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala. Here, sockeye salmon are known as ma̱łik. You would likely recognize these fossils' modern counterparts from their distinctive red bodies and greenish heads. 

Their descendants had been absent from the Skokomish River for more than a decade up to 2014 when construction to augment the negative impact of the Cushman Reservoir was undertaken to restore their natural habitat.

The fossil specimens include individuals with enlarged breeding teeth and worn caudal fins. It is likely that these salmon acted very similar to their modern counterparts with males partaking in competitive and sneaky tactics to gain access to the sexiest (large and red) females who were ready to mate. These ancient salmon had migrated, dug their nests, spawned and defended their eggs prior to their death. For now, we're referring to the species found here as Oncorhynchus nerka, as they have many of the characteristics of sockeye salmon, but also several minor traits of the Pink Salmon, Oncorhynchus gorbuscha.

I had expected to learn that the locality contained a single or just a few partial specimens, but the fossils beds are abundant with large, 45–70 cm, four-year-old adult salmon concentrated in a beautiful sequence of death assemblages.

Oncorhynchus nerka, Pleistocene Sockeye Salmon
Gerald Smith, a retired University of Michigan professor was shown the specimens and recognized them as Pleistocene, a time when the northern part of North America was undergoing a series of glacial advances and retreats that carved their distinctive signature into the Pacific Northwest.

It looks as though this population diverged from the original species about one million years ago, possibly when the salmon were deposited at the head of a proglacial lake impounded by the Salmon Springs advancement of a great glacier known as the Puget lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet. 

Around 17,000 years ago, this 3,000 foot-thick hunk of glacial ice had made its way down from Canada, sculpting a path south and pushing its way between the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. The ice touched down as far south as Olympia, stilled for a few hundred years, then began to melt.

After the ice began melting and retreating north, the landscape slowly changed —  both the land and sea levels rising — and great freshwater lakes forming in the lowlands filled with glacial waters from the melting ice. The sea levels rose quite considerably, about one and a half centimetres per year between 18,000 and 13,000 years ago. The isostatic rebound (rising) of the land rose even higher with an elevation gain of about ten centimetres per year from 16,000 to 12,500 years ago.

Around 14,900 years ago, sea levels had risen to a point where the salty waters of Puget Sound began to slowly fill the lowlands. Both the land and sea continued to rise and by 5,000 years ago, the sea level was about just over 3 meters lower than it is today. The years following were an interesting time in the geologic history of the Pacific Northwest. The geology of the South Fork Skokomish River continued to shift, undergoing a complicated series of glacial damming and river diversions after these salmon remains were deposited.

Today, we find their remains near the head of a former glacial lake at an elevation of 115 metres on land owned by the Green Diamond Company. The first fossil specimens were found back in 2001 by locals fishing for trout along the South Fork Skokomish River.

Upon seeing the fossil specimens, Smith teamed up with David Montgomery of the University of Washington, Seattle, along with N. Phil Peterson and Bruce Crowley, a Late Oligocene Mysticete specialist from the Burke Museum, to complete fieldwork and author a paper.

The fossil specimen you see here is housed in the Burke Museum collection. They opened the doors to their new building and exhibitions in the Fall of 2019. These photos are by the deeply awesome John Fam from a trip to see the newly opened exhibits this year. If you fancy a visit to the Burke Museum, check out their website here: https://www.burkemuseum.org/.

David B. Williams did up a nice piece on historylink.org on the Salmon of the Puget lowland. You can find his work here: https://www.historylink.org/File/20263

If you'd like to read more of the papers on the topic, check out:

  • Smith, G., Montgomery, D., Peterson, N., and Crowley, B. (2007). Spawning sockeye salmon fossils in Pleistocene lake beds of Skokomish Valley, Washington. Quaternary Research, 68(2), 227-238. doi:10.1016/j.yqres.2007.03.007.
  • Easterbrook, D.J., Briggs, N.D., Westgate, J.A., and Gorton, M.P. (1981). Age of the Salmon Springs Glaciation in Washington. Geology 9, 87–93.
  • Hikita, T. (1962). Ecological and morphological studies of the genus Oncorhynchus (Salmonidae) with particular consideration on phylogeny. Scientific Reports of the Hokkaido Salmon Hatchery 17, 1–97.

If you fancy a read of Crowley's work on Late Oligocene Mysticete from Washington State, you can check out:  Crowley, B., & Barnes, L. (1996). A New Late Oligocene Mysticete from Washington State. The Paleontological Society Special Publications, 8, 90-90. doi:10.1017/S2475262200000927

Monday, 24 January 2022

CRINOIDS — UNDERWATER FLOWERS OR LIVING ANIMALS?

Agaricocrinus splendens
This lovely is Agaricocrinus splendens, an aptly named and wonderfully preserved fossil crinoid. , an aptly named and wonderfully preserved fossil crinoid.

Crinoids are one of my favourite echinoderms. It is magical when all the elements come together to preserve a particularly lovely specimen in such glorious detail. 

Crinoids are unusually beautiful and graceful members of the phylum Echinodermata. They resemble an underwater flower swaying in an ocean current. 

But make no mistake they are marine animals. Picture a flower with a mouth on the top surface that is surrounded by feeding arms. Awkwardly, add an anus right beside that mouth. 

Crinoids with root-like anchors are called sea lilies. They have graceful stalks that grip the ocean floor. Those in deeper water have longish stalks up to 3.3 ft or a meter in length. Then there are other varieties that are free-swimming with only vestigial stalks. They make up the majority of this group and are commonly known as feather stars or comatulids. 

Unlike the sea lilies, the feather stars can move about on tiny hook-like structures called cirri. It is these same cirri that allow crinoids to latch to surfaces on the seafloor. Like other echinoderms, crinoids have pentaradial symmetry. The aboral surface of the body is studded with plates of calcium carbonate, forming an endoskeleton similar to that in starfish and sea urchins.

These make the calyx somewhat cup-shaped, and there are few, if any, ossicles in the oral (upper) surface, an area we call the tegmen. It is divided into five ambulacral areas, including a deep groove from which the tube feet project, and five interambulacral areas between them. 

Crinoids are alive and well today. They are also some of the oldest fossils on the planet. We have lovely fossil specimens dating back to the Ordovician — if one ignores the enigmatic Echmatocrinus of the Burgess Shale. And they can be quite plentiful. Crinoid fossils, and in particular disarticulated crinoid columnals, can be so abundant that they at times serve as the primary supporting clasts in sedimentary rocks.

Saturday, 22 January 2022

CANADA'S FIRST SABRE-TOOTHED CAT: SMILODON

This fierce predator with the luxurious coat is Smilodon fatalis — a compact but robust killer that weighed in around 160 to 280 kg and was 1.5 - 2.2 metres long.

Smilodon is a genus of the extinct machairodont subfamily of the felids. It is one of the most famous prehistoric mammals and the best known saber-toothed cat. Although commonly known as the saber-toothed tiger, it was not closely related to the tiger or other modern cats.

Up until a few years ago, all the great fossil specimens of this apex predator were found south of us in the United States. That was until some interesting bones from Medicine Hat, Alberta got a second look.

A few years ago, a fossil specimen caught the eye of researcher Ashley Reynolds as she was rummaging through the collections at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. 

Back in the 1960s,  University of Toronto palaeontologist C.S. Churcher and his team had collected and donated more than 1,200 specimens from their many field seasons scouring the bluffs of the South Saskatchewan River near Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Churcher is a delightful storyteller and a palaeontologist with a keen eye. I had the very great pleasure of listening to many of his talks out at the University of British Columbia and a few Vancouver Paleontological Society meetings in the mid-2000s. 

"Rufus" was a thoroughly charming storyteller and shared many of his adventures from the field. 

He moved out to the West Coast for his retirement, first to Gabriola Island then to Victoria, but his keen love of the science kept him giving talks to enthralled listeners keen to hear about his survey of the Dakhleh Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt, geomorphology, stratigraphy, recent biology, Pleistocene and Holocene lithic cultures, insights learned from Neolithic Islamic pottery to Roman settlements.

The specimens he had collected had been roughly sorted but never examined in detail. Reynolds, who was researching the growth patterns and life histories of extinct cats saw a familiar-looking bone from an ancient cat's right front paw. That tiny paw bone had reached through time and was positively identified as Canada's first Smilodon.

These Apex Predators used their exceptionally long upper canine teeth to hunt large mammals. 

Isotopes preserved in the bones of S. fatalis in the La Brea Tar Pits in California tell us that they liked to dine on bison (Bison antiquus) and camels (Camelops) along with deer and tapirs. Smilodon is thought to have killed its prey by holding it still with its forelimbs and biting it. And that was quite the bite!

Their razor-sharp incisors were arranged in an arch. Once they bit down, the teeth would hold their prey still and stabilize it while the canine bite was delivered — and what a bite that was. They could open their mouths a full 120 degrees.

Smilodon died out at the same time that most North and South American megafauna disappeared, about 10,000 years ago. Its reliance on large animals has been proposed as the cause of its extinction, along with climate change and competition with other species. 

Friday, 21 January 2022

AVES: LIVING DINOSAURS

Cassowary, Casuariiformes
Wherever you are in the world, it is likely that you know your local birds. True, you may call them des Oiseaux, pássaros or uccelli — but you'll know their common names by heart.

You will also likely know their sounds. The tweets, chirps, hoots and caws of the species living in your backyard.

Birds come in all shapes and sizes and their brethren blanket the globe. It is amazing to think that they all sprang from the same lineage given the sheer variety. 

If you picture them, we have such a variety on the planet — parrots, finches, wee hummingbirds, long-legged waterbirds, waddling penguins and showy toucans. 

But whether they are a gull, hawk, cuckoo, hornbill, potoo or albatross, they are all cousins in the warm-blooded vertebrate class Aves. The defining features of the Aves are feathers, toothless beaked jaws, the laying of hard-shelled eggs, a high metabolic rate, a four-chambered heart, and a strong yet lightweight skeleton. The best features, their ability to dance, bounce and sing, are not listed, but it is how I see them in the world.

These modern dinosaurs live worldwide and range in size from the 5 cm (2 in) bee hummingbird to the 2.75 m (9 ft) ostrich. 

There are about ten thousand living species, more than half of which are passerine, or "perching" birds. Birds have wings whose development varies according to species; the only known groups without wings are the extinct moa and elephant birds.

Wings evolved from forelimbs giving birds the ability to fly
Wings, which evolved from forelimbs, gave birds the ability to fly, although further evolution has led to the loss of flight in some birds, including ratites, penguins, and diverse endemic island species. 

The digestive and respiratory systems of birds are also uniquely adapted for flight. Some bird species of aquatic environments, particularly seabirds and some waterbirds, have further evolved for swimming.

Wee Feathered Theropod Dinosaurs

We now know from fossil and biological evidence that birds are a specialized subgroup of theropod dinosaurs, and more specifically, they are members of Maniraptora, a group of theropods that includes dromaeosaurs and oviraptorids, amongst others. As palaeontologists discover more theropods closely related to birds, the previously clear distinction between non-birds and birds has become a bit muddy.

Recent discoveries in the Liaoning Province of northeast China, which include many small theropod feathered dinosaurs — and some excellent arty reproductions — contribute to this ambiguity. 

Still, other fossil specimens found here shed a light on the evolution of Aves. Confuciusornis sanctus, an Early Cretaceous bird from the Yixian and Jiufotang Formations of China is the oldest known bird to have a beak.

Like modern birds, Confuciusornis had a toothless beak, but close relatives of modern birds such as Hesperornis and Ichthyornis were toothed, telling us that the loss of teeth occurred convergently in Confuciusornis and living birds.

The consensus view in contemporary palaeontology is that the flying theropods, or avialans, are the closest relatives of the deinonychosaurs, which include dromaeosaurids and troodontids.

Together, these form a group called Paraves. Some basal members of this group, such as Microraptor, have features that may have enabled them to glide or fly. 

The most basal deinonychosaurs were wee little things. This raises the possibility that the ancestor of all paravians may have been arboreal, have been able to glide, or both. Unlike Archaeopteryx and the non-avialan feathered dinosaurs, who primarily ate meat, tummy contents from recent avialan studies suggest that the first avialans were omnivores. Even more intriguing...

Avialae, which translates to bird wings, are a clade of flying dinosaurs containing the only living dinosaurs, the birds. It is usually defined as all theropod dinosaurs more closely related to modern birds — Aves — than to deinonychosaurs, though alternative definitions are occasionally bantered back and forth.

The Earliest Avialan: Archaeopteryx lithographica

Archaeopteryx lithographica, from the late Jurassic Period Solnhofen Formation of Germany, is the earliest known avialan that may have had the capability of powered flight. However, several older avialans are known from the Late Jurassic Tiaojishan Formation of China, dating to about 160 million years ago.

The Late Jurassic Archaeopteryx is well-known as one of the first transitional fossils to be found, and it provided support for the theory of evolution in the late 19th century. Archaeopteryx was the first fossil to clearly display both traditional reptilian characteristics — teeth, clawed fingers, and a long, lizard-like tail—as well as wings with flight feathers similar to those of modern birds. It is not considered a direct ancestor of birds, though it is possibly closely related to the true ancestor.

Unlikely yet true, the closest living relatives of birds are the crocodilians. Birds are descendants of the primitive avialans — whose members include Archaeopteryx — which first appeared about 160 million years ago in China.

DNA evidence tells us that modern birds — Neornithes — evolved in the Middle to Late Cretaceous, and diversified dramatically around the time of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 66 mya, which killed off the pterosaurs and all non-avian dinosaurs.

In birds, the brain, especially the telencephalon, is remarkably developed, both in relative volume and complexity. Unlike most early‐branching sauropsids, the adults of birds and other archosaurs have a well‐ossified neurocranium. In contrast to most of their reptilian relatives, but similar to what we see in mammals, bird brains fit closely to the endocranial cavity so that major external features are reflected in the endocasts. What you see on the inside is what you see on the outside.

This makes birds an excellent group for palaeoneurological investigations. The first observation of the brain in a long‐extinct bird was made in the first quarter of the 19th century. However, it was not until the 2000s and the application of modern imaging technologies that avian palaeoneurology really took off.

Understanding how the mode of life is reflected in the external morphology of the brains of birds is but one of several future directions in which avian palaeoneurological research may extend.

Although the number of fossil specimens suitable for palaeoneurological explorations is considerably smaller in birds than in mammals and will very likely remain so, the coming years will certainly witness a momentous strengthening of this rapidly growing field of research at the overlap between ornithology, palaeontology, evolutionary biology and the neurosciences.

Reference: Cau, Andrea; Brougham, Tom; Naish, Darren (2015). "The phylogenetic affinities of the bizarre Late Cretaceous Romanian theropod Balaur bondoc (Dinosauria, Maniraptora): Dromaeosaurid or flightless bird?". PeerJ. 3: e1032. doi:10.7717/peerj.1032. PMC 4476167. PMID 26157616.

Reference: Ivanov, M., Hrdlickova, S. & Gregorova, R. (2001) The Complete Encyclopedia of Fossils. Rebo Publishers, Netherlands. p. 312

Thursday, 20 January 2022

LOVE THE WILD: BRITISH COLUMBIA'S ICONIC SPIRIT BEARS

As you walk through British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest your footfalls are muffled by lush undergrowth, a crush of salal, fallen needles and wood debris that make up this rich, fertile soil. 

This is not a place to escape the world, but to enter it more deeply.  

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.

In this temperate rainforest live some of the oldest and largest stands of timber on the planet. 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, each footfall retracing history and those that have come before you, both human and animal. 

British Columbia's Spirit Bears

Deep in this ancient forest where moss overflows every surface and wilderness abounds, British Columbia's Spirit Bear — Ursus americanus kermodei — reigns supreme. 

Spirit Bears are a subspecies of American Black Bear that lives in the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia, Canada. And as we've learned, they are not always black. They come in red, rust, brown and cinnamon. And a few of their number are a lovely cream tinged white that make them look like they have been dusted with honey. 

There are roughly 650,000 black bears of all colours roaming our forests, swamps and streams — meaning there is a good chance of running into them if you spend any amount of time in the wild. Full-grown, they can run 48 kilometres (30 miles)  an hour and smell food up to 32 kilometres (20 miles) away.

With their excellent hearing, black bears usually know you are near well before you realize the same and generally take care to avoid you. While most spend their days in the wilds of our province far from the hum and thrum of civilization, those that come in contact with humans often tend to want to check our garbage and hiking supplies for tasty snacks — hey, a free meal is a free meal.    

In British Columbia, we share our province with nearly half of all black bears and grizzly bears that reside in Canada. Both bear families descend from a common ancestor, Ursavus, a bear-dog the size of a raccoon who lived more than 20 million years ago. Seems an implausible lineage given the size of their very large descendants.

These intelligent, long-lived mammals (up to 28 years) hold a special place within our culture and in First Nation mythology in particular — celebrated in art, dance and song. 

In the Language of the Kwakwaka'wakw

In the Kwak'wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, the word for black bear is t̕ła'yi. I will ask the word for Spirit Bears as I do not know it.

These beautiful Brown Bears are not brown at all, as you have seen, but pale. Not albino but lacking in pigment. Their colouring stems from a recessive mutant gene — meaning that if they receive two copies it triggers a single, nonsynonymous nucleotide substitution that halts all melanin production. Think of it as turning off the tap that gives these bears their colour. 

Pale but not colourless, they have pigmented eyes and skin but no colour in their fur. These gentle giants are the Official Provincial Mammal of British Columbia and for good reason. Their distinctive coats make them the perfect ambassador for our province.  

Spirit Bears live in the Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia's north and central coast alongside the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation who call the Kermode moskgm’ol or white bear. The Kitasoo/Xai’xais have a legend that tells of Goo-wee, Raven making one in every ten black bears white to remind us of the time glaciers blanketed the land then slowly retreated — and their thaw giving rise to the bounty we harvest today.   

Visiting British Columbia's Great Bears

If you are interested in viewing British Columbia's Great Bears, do check out Indigenous Tourism BC's wonderfully informative website and the culturally-rich wildlife experiences on offer. You will discover travel ideas and resources to plan your next soul-powered adventure. To learn more about British Columbia's Great Bears and the continuing legacy of First Nation stewardship, visit: 

Indigenous Tourism BC: https://www.indigenousbc.com

Great Bear Lodge has been offering tours to view the majestic animals of the Pacific Northwest. They keep both the guests and the animals' comfort and protection in mind. I highly recommend their hospitality and expertise. To see their offerings, visit: www.greatbeartours.com

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

ARTURIA OF THE PACIFIC

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.

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

UNESCOCERATOPS KOPPELHUSAE

Unescoceratops koppelhusae, Julius Csotonyi
A very sweet small leptoceratopsid dinosaur, Unescoceratops koppelhusae — a new species in the collections of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta.

The colourful and beautifully detailed painting you see here is by the very talented Julius Csotonyi who captured the magnificence of form, texture and palette to bring this small leptoceratopsid dinosaur to life.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, named in honour of Joseph Burr Tyrrell, is a palaeontology museum and research facility in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada. 

This jaw is the holotype specimen of this small leptoceratopsid dinosaur. Only a handful of isolated fossils have been found from this species, including a jaw that is the holotype specimen now in collections at the Royal Tyrell. 

The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, named in honour of Joseph Burr Tyrrell, is a palaeontology museum and research facility in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada. 

Unescoceratops koppelhusae, RTMP Collections
The rusty chocolate jaw bone you see here is the puzzle piece that helped all of the research come together and help us to better understand more about the diminutive leptoceratopsid dinosaurs from Alberta. 

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History's Michael Ryan and David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto recently determined that the specimen was a new genus and species. 

Unescoceratops is a genus of leptoceratopsid ceratopsian dinosaurs known from the Late Cretaceous (about 76.5-75 million years ago) of Alberta, Canada. Unescoceratops is thought to have been between one and two meters long and less than 91 kilograms. A plant-eater, its teeth were the roundest of all Leptocertopsids.

Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada
The genus name acknowledges the UNESCO  World Heritage Site, Dinosaur Provincial Park, where the fossil was found. 

In addition to its particularly beautiful scenery, Dinosaur Provincial Park – located at the heart of the province of Alberta's badlands – 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.

The creamy honey, beige and rust coloured hills around the fossil locality are outstanding examples of major geological processes and fluvial erosion patterns in semi-arid steppes — think glorious! 

The scenic badlands stretch along 26 kilometres of high quality and virtually undisturbed riparian habitat, presenting a landscape of stark but exceptional natural beauty.

The species name honours Dr. Eva Koppelhus, who has made significant contributions to vertebrate palaeontology and palynology. 

The genus is named to honour the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the locality where the specimen was found and from the Greek “ceratops,” which means 'horned face'. 

Dr Michael Ryan explained that he meant to honour UNESCO's efforts to increase understanding of natural history sites around the world.

© Julius T. Csotonyi An illustration of Unescoceratops koppelhusae, a plant-eating dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous period that lived approximately 75 million years ago shared with his gracious permission. 

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Dr. Julius Csotonyi is a Vancouver-based scientific illustrator and natural history fine artist. He has a scientific background in ecology (MSc) and microbiology (PhD) which has taken him to study sensitive ecosystems, from sand dunes in the Rocky Mountain parks to hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. 

These experiences have fuelled his strong resolve to work toward preserving our Earth’s biota. Painting biological subjects is one means that he uses to both enhance public awareness of biological diversity and to motivate concern for its welfare.   

He paints murals and panels that have appeared in numerous museums including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, press release images for scientific publications, books, stamp sets — including the outstanding 2018 “Sharks of Canada” set for Canada Post — and coins for the Royal Canadian Mint. To view more of Julius Csotonyi's exquisite work visit: https://csotonyi.com/

Monday, 17 January 2022

FOSSIL DETECTIVES WANTED: HARRISON LAKE

Located three hours east of Vancouver, most folks head to Harrison Lake to enjoy its crisp waters, soak in the hot springs, camp or four-wheel-drive immersed in rugged scenery, or look for the elusive Sasquatch reported to live in the area. 

But there are some who come to Harrison Lake and miss the town entirely. Instead, they favour the upper west side of the lake and the fossiliferous bounty found here.

Indeed, this is the perfect location for local citizen scientists to strut their stuff. Harrison is a perfect family day trip, where you can discover wonderful marine fossil specimens as complete or partially crushed fossilized shells embedded in rock. 

It is truly amazing that we can find them at all. These beauties range in age from Jurassic to Cretaceous, with most being Lower Callovian, meaning the ammonites here swam our ancient oceans more than 160 million years ago. 

The area around Harrison Lake has been home to the Sts’ailes, a sovereign Coast Salish First Nation for thousands of years. Sts’ailes’ means, “the beating heart,” and it sums up this glorious wilderness perfectly. They describe their ancient home as Xa’xa Temexw or Sacred Earth. 

With the settling of Canada, Geologists began exploring the area in the 1880s, calling upon the Sts’ailes to help them look for coal and a route for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Coal was the aim, but happily, they also found fossils. Sacred Earth, indeed.  

Belemnite Fossils
In my favourite outcrops, you can find large, smooth inflated Jurassic ammonites along with their small grey and brown cousins. 

Further up the road, you will see Cretaceous cigar-shaped squid-like cephalopods called Belemnites, and the bivalve (clam) Buchia — gifts deposited by glaciers. Here are the most common.

Ammonites

Almost all of the ammonite specimens found near Harrison Lake are the toonie sized Cadoceras (Paracadoceras) tonniense with well-preserved outer whorls but flattened inner whorls. We find semi-squished elliptical specimens here, too. If you see a large, smooth, inflated grapefruit-sized ammonite, you are holding a rare prize — a Cadoceras comma ammonite, the macroconch or female of the species.  

Ammonites were predatory, squid-like creatures that lived inside coil-shaped shells. Like other cephalopods, ammonites had sharp, beak-like jaws inside a ring of squid-like tentacles that extended from their shells. They used these tentacles to snare prey — plankton, vegetation, fish and crustaceans — similar to the way a squid or octopus hunts today.

Within their shells, ammonites had a number of chambers called septa filled with gas or fluid, and they were interconnected through a wee air tube. By pushing air in or out, they were able to control their buoyancy. 

These small but mighty marine predators lived in the last chamber of their shell and continuously built new shell material as they grew. As they added each new chamber, they would move their squid-like body down to occupy the final outside chamber.

Interestingly, ammonites from Harrison Lake are quite similar to the ones found within the lower part of the Chinitna Formation near Cook Inlet, Alaska, and Jurassic Point, Kyuquot, on the west coast of Vancouver Island — some of the most beautiful places on Earth. 

Buchia (bivalve) Clams

The bivalve or clam Buchia are commonly found at Harrison Lake. You will see them cemented together en masse. . They populated Upper Jurassic–Lower Cretaceous waters like a team sport. When they thrived, they really thrived, building up large coquinas of material. Large boulders of Buchia cemented together en masse hitched a ride with the glaciers and were deposited around Harrison Lake. Some kept going and we find similar erratics or glacier-deposited boulders as far south as Washington state. 

Buchia is used as Index Fossils. Index fossils help us to figure out the age of the rock we are looking at because they are abundant, populate an area en masse, and then die out quickly. In other words, they make it easy to identify a geologic time span.

So what does this mean to you? Now, when you are out and about with friends and discover rocks with Buchia, or made entirely of Buchia, you can say, “Oh, this looks to be Upper Jurassic or Lower Cretaceous. Come take a look! We're likely the first to lay eyes on this little clam since dinosaurs roamed the Earth.” 

You will impress the pants off them — very high-five worthy.

Fossil Collecting at Harrison Lake Fossil Field Trip — Getting there

This Harrison Lake site is a great day trip from Vancouver or the Fraser Valley. You will need a vehicle with good tires for travel on gravel roads. Search out the route ahead of time and share your trip plan with someone you trust. If you can pre-load the Google Earth map of the area, you will thank yourself. 

Heading east on from Vancouver, it will take you 1.5-2 hours to reach Harrison Mills. 

Access Forestry Road #17 at the northeast end of the parking lot from the Sasquatch Inn at 46001 Lougheed Hwy, Harrison Mills. From there, it will take about an hour to get to the site. Look for signs for the Chehalis River Fish Hatchery to get you started. 

Drive 30 km up Forestry Road #1, and stop 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 will 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 road. Keep in mind that this is an active logging road, so watch your kids and pets carefully. Everyone should be wearing something bright so they can be easily spotted.

How to Spot the Fossils

The fossils here are easily collected—look in the bedrock and in the loose material that gathers in the ditches. Specimens will show up as either dark grey, grey-brown or black. Look for the large, dark-grey boulders the size of smart cars packed with Buchia. 

And while you are at it, be on the lookout for anything that looks like bone. This site is also ripe for marine reptiles—think plesiosaur, mosasaur and elasmosaur. As a citizen scientist and budding palaeontologist, you might just find something new!

What to Know Before You Go

Fill your gas tank and pack a tasty lunch. As with all trips into British Columbia's wild places, dress for the weather. You will need hiking boots, rain gear, gloves, eye protection, and a good geologic hammer and rock (cold) chisel. 

Wear bright clothing and keep your head covered. Slides are common, and you may start a few if you hike the cliffs. If you are with a group, those collecting below may want to consider hardhats in case of rockfall — chunks of rock the size of your fist up to the size of a grapefruit. They pack a punch. 

Bring a colourful towel or something to put your keepers on. Once you set rock down, it can be hard to find again given the terrain. I take the extra precaution of spraying the ends of my hammers and chisels with yellow fluorescent paint, as I have lost too many in the field. You will also want to bring a camera for the blocks of Buchia that are too big to carry home. 

Identifying Your Treasures

When you have finished for the day, compare your treasures to see which ones you would like to keep. In British Columbia, you are a steward of the fossil, which means they belong to the province, but you can keep them safe. You are not allowed to sell or ship them outside British Columbia without a permit. 

Once you get home, wash and identify your finds. Harrison Lake does not have a large variety of fossil fauna, so this should not be difficult. 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. This is not always true, but mostly true.

What about collecting fossils in all seasons?. Everyone has a preference. I prefer not to collect in the snow, but I have done it. While sunny days are lovely, it can also be easier to see the specimens when the rock is wet. So, do we do this in the rain? Heck, yeah! 

In torrential rain? 

Yes — once you are hooked, but for your casual friends or the kiddos, the answer is likely no. Choose your battles. They may come with you, but a cold day getting soaked is no fun. 

In time, you will find your inner fossil geek — probably with your first find. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. First, it will be you, then your kids, your friends and then your neighbour. Once you start, it is easy to get hooked. Fossil addiction is real, and the only cure is to get out there and do it some more. You've got this!

References and further information:

A. J. Arthur, P. L. Smith, J. W. H. Monger and H. W. Tipper. 1993. Mesozoic stratigraphy and Jurassic palaeontology west of Harrison Lake, southwestern British Columbia. Geological Survey of Canada Bulletin 441:1-62

R. W. Imlay. 1953. Callovian (Jurassic) ammonites from the United States and Alaska Part 2. The Alaska Peninsula and Cook Inlet regions. United States Geological Survey Professional Paper 249-B:41-108

An overview of the tectonic history of the southern Coast Mountains, British Columbia; Monger, J W H; in, Field trips to Harrison Lake and Vancouver Island, British Columbia; Haggart, J W (ed.); Smith, P L (ed.). Canadian Paleontology Conference, Field Trip Guidebook 16, 2011 p. 1-11 (ESS Cont.# 20110248).


Sunday, 16 January 2022

WASHINGTON'S PILLOW BASALT RHINOCERAS

The Miocene pillow basalts from the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area of central Washington hold an unlikely fossil. 

What looks to be a rather unremarkable ballooning at the top of a cave is actually the mould of a small rhinoceros, preserved by sheer chance as its bloated carcass sunk to the bottom of a shallow lake just prior to a volcanic explosion.

We have known about this gem for a long while now. The fossil was discovered by hikers back in 1935 and later cast by the University of California palaeontologists in 1948. 

The Dirty Thirties & The Great Depression

These were the Dirty Thirties and those living in Washington state were experiencing the Great Depression along with the rest of the country and the world. Franklin D. Roosevelt was President of the United States, navigating the States away from laissez-faire economics. 

Charmingly, Roosevelt would have his good name honoured by this same park in April of 1946, a few years before researchers at Berkeley would rekindle interest in the site.

Both hiking and fossil collecting was a fine answer to these hard economic times and came with all the delights of discovery with no cost for natural entertainment. And so it was that two fossil enthusiast couples were out looking for petrified wood just south of Dry Falls on Blue Lake in Washington State. While searching the pillow basalt, the Frieles and Peabodys came across a large hole high up in a cave that had the distinctive shape of an upside-down rhinoceros.

This fossil is interesting in all sorts of ways. First, we so rarely see fossils in igneous rocks. As you might suspect, both magma and lava are very hot. Magma, or molten rock, glows a bright red/orange as it simmers at a toasty 700 °C to 1300 °C (or 1300 °F to 2400 °F) beneath the Earth's surface.

A Rhinoceros Frozen in Lava

During the late Miocene and early Pliocene, repeated basaltic lava floods engulfed about 63,000 square miles of the Pacific Northwest over a period of ten to fifteen million years. After these repeated bathings the residual lava accumulated to more than 6,000 feet.

As magma pushes up to the surface becoming lava, it cools to a nice deep black. In the case of our rhino friend, this is how this unlikely fellow became a fossil. Instead of vaporizing his remains, the lava cooled relatively quickly preserving his outline as a trace fossil and remarkably, a few of his teeth, jaw and bones. The lava was eventually buried then waters from the Spokane Floods eroded enough of the overburden to reveal the remains once more.

Diceratherium tridactylum (Marsh, 1875)
Diceratherium (Marsh, 1875) is known from over a hundred paleontological occurrences from eighty-seven collections.

While there are likely many more, we have found fossil remains of Diceratherium, an extinct genus of rhinoceros, in the Miocene of Canada in Saskatchewan, China, France, Portugal, Switzerland, and multiple sites in the United States.

He has also been found in the Oligocene of Canada in Saskatchewan, and twenty-five localities in the United States — in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.  

Diceratherium was a scansorial insectivore with two horns and a fair bit of girth. He was a chunky fellow, weighing in at about one tonne (or 2,200 lbs). That is about the size of a baby Humpback Whale or a walrus.

Back in the Day: Washington State 15 Million-Years Ago

He roamed a much cooler Washington state some 15 million years ago. Ice dams blocked large waterways in the northern half of the state, creating reservoirs. Floodwaters scoured the eastern side of the state, leaving scablands we still see today. In what would become Idaho, volcanic eruptions pushed through the Snake River, the lava cooling instantly as it burst to the surface in a cloud of steam. 

By then, the Cascades had arrived and we had yet to see the volcanic eruptions that would entomb whole forests up near Vantage in the Takama Canyon of Washington state. 

Know Before You Go

You are welcome to go see his final resting site beside the lake but it is difficult to reach and comes with its own risks. Head to the north end of Blue Lake in Washington. Take a boat and search for openings in the cliff face. You will know you are in the right place if you see a white "R" a couple hundred feet up inside the cliff. Inside the cave, look for a cache left by those who've explored here before you. Once you find the cache, look straight up. That hole above you is the outline of the rhino.

If you don't relish the thought of basalt caving, you can visit a cast of the rhino at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington. They have a great museum and are pretty sporting as they have built the cast sturdy enough for folk to climb inside. 

The Burke Museum 

The Burke Museum recently underwent a rather massive facelift and has re-opened its doors to the public. You can now explore their collections in the New Burke, a 113,000 sq. ft. building at 4300 15th Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98105, United States. Or visit them virtually, at https://www.burkemuseum.org/

Photo: Robert Bruce Horsfall - https://archive.org/details/ahistorylandmam00scotgoog, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12805514

Reference: Prothero, Donald R. (2005). The Evolution of North American Rhinoceroses. Cambridge University Press. p. 228. ISBN 9780521832403.

Reference: O. C. Marsh. 1875. Notice of new Tertiary mammals, IV. American Journal of Science 9(51):239-250

Saturday, 15 January 2022

FOSSIL FIELD TRIP: CRETACEOUS CAPILANO RIVER

Cretaceous Plant Material / 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.

Capilano Watershed & Reservoir
Sacred First Nations Land

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. 

The Musqueam First Nation are traditional hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ speaking people who number a strong and thriving 1,300. Many live today on a wee slip of their traditional territory just south of Marine Drive near the mouth of the Fraser River. 

The Secwepemc or Shuswap First Nations are a collective of 17 bands occupying the south-central part of British Columbia. Their ancestors have lived in the interior of BC, the Secwepemc territories, for at least 10,000 years.

The Coast Salish First Nations have lived in this region for thousands of years — from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon to north of Bute Inlet.  

It is to the Squamish Nation that we owe the name of Capilano. In Sḵwx̱wú7mesh snichim or Skwxwú7mesh, their spoken language, Kia'palano/Capilano means “beautiful river. Chief Kia'palano (c. 1854-1910) was the Chief of the Squamish Nation from 1895-1910, known as Sa7plek.
 
The Cleveland Dam — Capilano River Regional Park

Many things have changed since then, including the Capilano River's path, water levels and sediment deposition. For the salmon who used this path to return home and those who depended on them, life has been forever altered by our hands.

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.

Capilano River Canyon & Regional Park
Know Before You Go

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 fossils 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.

Visiting the Capilano Watershed and Reservoir:

Visitors can see the reservoir from Cleveland Dam at the north end of Capilano River Regional Park. You can also visit the Capilano River Hatchery, operated below Cleveland Dam since 1971.


Friday, 14 January 2022

ANCIENT OCTOPUS: KEUPPIA

A sweet as you please example of Keuppia levante (Fuchs, Bracchi & Weis, 2009), an extinct genus of octopus that swam our ancient seas back in the Cretaceous — and perhaps my favourite fossil. 

The dark black and brown area you see here is his ink sac which has been preserved for a remarkable 95 million years.

This cutie is in the family Palaeoctopodidae, and one of the earliest representatives of the order Octopoda. These ancient marine beauties are in the class Cephalopoda making them relatives of our modern octopus, squid and cuttlefish.

There are two species of Keuppia, Keuppia hyperbolaris and Keuppia levante, both of which we find as fossils. We find their remains, along with those of the genus Styletoctopus, in Cretaceous-age Hâqel and Hjoula localities in Lebanon. 

For many years, Palaeoctopus newboldi (Woodward, 1896) from the Santonian limestones at Sâhel Aalma, Lebanon, was the only known pre‐Cenozoic coleoid cephalopod believed to have an unambiguous stem‐lineage representative of Octobrachia fioroni

With the unearthing of some extraordinary specimens with exquisite soft‐part preservation in the Lebanon limestones, our understanding of ancient octopus morphology has blossomed. The specimens are from the sub‐lithographical limestones of Hâqel and Hâdjoula, in northwestern Lebanon. These localities are about 15 km apart, 45 km away from Beirut and 15 km away from the coastal city of Jbail. Fuchs et al. put a nice little map in their 2009 paper that I've included and referenced here.

Palaeoctopus newboldi had a spherical mantle sac, a head‐mantle fusion, eight equal arms armed with suckers, an ink sac, a medially isolated shell vestige, and a pair of (sub‐) terminal fins. The bipartite shell vestige suggests that Palaeoctopus belongs to the octopod stem‐lineage, as the sister taxon of the Octopoda, the Cirroctopoda, is characterized by an unpaired clasp‐like shell vestige (Engeser 1988; Haas 2002; Bizikov 2004).

It is from the comparisons of Canadian fauna combined with those from Lebanon and Japan that things really started to get interesting with Octobrachia. Working with fossil specimens from the Campanian of Canada, Fuchs et al. (2007a ) published on the first record of an unpaired, saddle‐shaped shell vestige that might have belonged to a cirroctopod. 

Again from the Santonian–Campanian of Canada and Japan, Tanabe et al. (2008) reported on at least four different jaw morphotypes. Two of them — Paleocirroteuthis haggarti (Tanabe et al., 2008) and Paleocirroteuthis Pacifica  (Tanabe et al ., 2008) — have been interpreted as being of cirroctopod type, one of octopod type, and one of uncertain octobrachiate type. 

Interestingly Fuchs et al. have gone on to describe the second species of Palaeoctopus, the Turonian Palaeoctopus pelagicus from limestones at Vallecillo, Mexico. While more of this fauna will likely be recovered in time, their work is based solely on a medially isolated shell vestige.

Five new specimens have been found in the well-known Upper Cenomanian limestones at Hâqel and Hâdjoula in Lebanon that can be reliably placed within the Octopoda. Fuchs et al. described these exceptionally well‐preserved specimens and discuss their morphology in the context of phylogeny and evolution in their 2008 paper (2009 publishing) in the Palaeontology Association Journal, Volume 51, Issue 1.

The presence of a gladius vestige in this genus shows a transition from squid to octopus in which the inner shell has divided into two parts in early forms to eventually be reduced to lateralized stylets, as can be seen in Styletoctopus.

The adorable fellow you see here with his remarkable soft-bodied preservation and inks sack and beak clearly visible is Keuppia levante. He hails from Late Cretaceous (Upper Cenomanian) limestone deposits near Hâdjoula, northwestern Lebanon. The vampyropod coleoid, Glyphiteuthis abisaadiorum n. sp. is also found at this locality. This specimen is about 5 cm long.

Fuchs, D.; Bracchi, G.; Weis, R. (2009). "New octopods (Cephalopoda: Coleoidea) from the Late Cretaceous (Upper Cenomanian) of Hâkel and Hâdjoula, Lebanon". Palaeontology. 52: 65–81. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4983.2008.00828.x.

Photo one: Fossil Huntress. Figure Two: Topographic map of north‐western Lebanon with the outcrop area in the upper right-hand corner. Fuchs et al, 2009.  

Thursday, 13 January 2022

LOVE THE WILD: DECAPODA / KU'MIS

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 Kwakiutl First Nations 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.