Sunday, 28 July 2019

MCABEE FOSSIL BEDS

Eocene Fossil Feather / McAbee Fossil Beds
The McAbee fossil beds are known for their incredible abundance, diversity and quality of fossils including lovely plant, insect and fish species that lived in an old lake bed setting 52 million years ago.

I was sharing with some friends, Lawrence and Shivinder (hello you two!) about the site earlier this evening. It is one of the best local sites in the province to experience a fossil dig first-hand. It's an easy 4 hour drive from Vancouver and easily done as a daytrip. The site was designated a Provincial Heritage Site under British Columbia's Heritage Conservation Act in July of 2012, then promptly closed to the public.

It's recently been reopened to public collecting (as of June 21, 2019), with plans to build out a visitor's centre and educational programs. The Province is committed to providing access to the site to scientists and the lay public. The direction on what happens next at McAbee is being driven by the Heritage Branch in consultation with members of the Shuswap Nation and Bonaparte Band. Bonaparte traditional territory is located within the Shuswap Nation and includes the area known as McAbee.

Local members of the Bonaparte Band are Secwepemc. They want to share the spiritual significance of the area from a First Nations perspective and see McAbee as an indigenous tourism destination. So it looks like it will be paleontology, archaeology with a cultural focus to add spice. In any case, collection of fossils will continue with oversight to ensure significant fossil finds make their way to science.

While the area is referred to as the Okanagan, the term is used in a slightly misleading fashion to describe an arc of Eocene lakebed sites that extend from Smithers in the north, down to the fossil site of Republic Washington, in the south. The grouping includes the fossil sites of Driftwood Canyon, Quilchena, Allenby, Tranquille, McAbee, Princeton and Republic.

Fossils from the Okanagan highlands, an area centred in the Interior of British Columbia, provide important clues to our ancient climate. The fossils range in age from Early to Middle Eocene. McAbee had a more temperate climate, slightly cooler and wetter than other Eocene sites to the south at Princeton, British Columbia, Republic in north central Washington, in the Swauk Formation near Skyomish and the Chuckanut Formation of northern Washington state.

The McAbee fossil beds consist of 30 metres of fossiliferous shale in the Eocene Kamloops Group.
The fossils are preserved here as impressions and carbonaceous films. We see gymnosperm (16 species); a variety of conifers (14 species to my knowledge); two species of ginkgo, a large variety of angiosperm (67 species); a variety of insects and fish remains, the rare feather and a boatload of mashed deciduous material. Nuts and cupules are also found from the dicotyledonous Fagus and Ulmus and members of the Betulaceae, including Betula and Alnus.

We see many species that look very similar to those growing in the Pacific Northwest today. Specifically, cypress, dawn redwood, fir, spruce, pine, larch, hemlock, alder, birch, dogwood, beech, sassafras, cottonwood, maple, elm and grape. If we look at the pollen data, we see over a hundred highly probable species from the site. Though rare, McAbee has also produced spiders, birds (and lovely individual feathers) along with multiple specimens of the freshwater crayfish, Aenigmastacus crandalli.

For insects, we see dragonflies, damselflies, cockroaches, termites, earwigs, aphids, leaf hoppers, spittlebugs, lacewings, a variety of beetles, gnats, ants, hornets, stick insects, water striders, weevils, wasps and March flies. The insects are particularly well-preserved. Missing are the tropical Sabal (palm), seen at Princeton and the impressive Ensete (banana) and Zamiaceae (cycad) found at Eocene sites in Republic and Chuckanut, Washington.

My first trips up there were as a teenager, dragging my mother, sister and pretty near anyone else I could convince to hike up. This was in 1986-87, years before Dave Langevin and John Leahy, mineral rights/lease-holder and resident curator, respectively, began working at the site. I think Dave put in his mineral claim in 1991ish. Once they did a whole new world opened up with their efforts. Much of the overburden was removed and new exposures revealed. John also used to leave a jeep at the base of the hill with a bit of gas in it that we'd hot wire and use to avoid the hike heading up and pack down fossils heading back. Good man, John. He was an avid collector and meticulous in his curation. Both of those gents have now passed and are sorely missed. Most of their personal collection is now in the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, and much of Dave is still at the site as his ashes were sprinkled there.

McAbee is located just east of Cache Creek, just north of and visible from Highway 1/97. 14.5 km to be exact and exactly the distance you need to drink one large coffee and then need a washroom. You'll be pleased to know they have installed one at the site. McAbee is a site for hiking boots, hand, head and eye protection. Keep yourself safe and well-hydrated.

As you drive up, you'll see telltale hoodoos on the ridge to let you know you've reached the right spot. If you have a GPS, pop in these coordinates and you're on your way. 50°47.831′N 121°8.469′W.