Sunday, 14 February 2021


Steller's Jay, Cyanocitta stelleri
One of the classic Vancouver Island fossil localities is the Santonian-Maastrichtian, Upper Cretaceous Haslam Formation Motocross Pit near Brannen Lake, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.

The quarry is no longer active as such though there is a busy little gravel quarry a little way down the road closer to Ammonite falls near Benson Creek Falls.

Today it is an active motocross site and remains one of the classic localities of the Nanaimo Group. We find well-preserved nautiloids and ammonites — Canadoceras, Pseudoschloenbachia, Epigoniceras — the bivalves — Inoceramus, Sphenoceramus— gastropods, and classic Nanaimo Group decapods — Hoploparia, Linuparus. We also find fossil fruit and seeds which tell the story of the terrestrial history of Vancouver Island.

Upper Cretaceous Haslam Formation Motocross Pit near Brannen Lake
It was John Fam, Vice-Chair, Vancouver Island Paleontological Society (VanPS), who originally told me about the locality. John is one of the most delightful and knowledgeable people you'd be well-blessed to meet.

While he lived on Vancouver Island, he was an active member of the VanPS back when I was Chair. Several of the best joint VIPS/VanPS paleontological expeditions were planned with or instigated by his passion for fossils. I tip my hat to him for his passion and shared love of all things paleo.

John grew up 15 minutes from the motocross locality and used to collect there a few times a week with his father. John has wonderful parents and since marrying his childhood sweetheart, the amazing Grace, those excellent genetics, curiosity and love of fossils are now being passed to a new generation. It's lovely to see John and Grace continuing tradition with two boys of their own.

I met John way back then and did an overnight at his parent's house the Friday before a weekend field trip to Jurassic Point. It was a joy to have him walk me through his collections and tell his stories from earlier years. After learning about the site from John, I headed up to the Motocross Pit with my Uncle Doug. He was a delightful man who grew up on the coast and had explored much of it but not the fossil site just 10-minutes from his home. It was wonderful to walk through time with him so many years ago and then again solo this past year with sadness in my belly that one of the best I've ever known has left this Earth.

Upper Cretaceous Haslam Formation Motocross Pit near Brannen Lake
There were some no trespassing signs up but no people around, so I walked the periphery looking for the bedrock of the Haslam.

The rocks we find here were laid down south of the equator as small, tropical islands. They rode across the Pacific heading north and slightly east over the past 80 million years to where we find them today.

Jim Haggart and Peter Ward have done much to increase our understanding of the molluscan fauna of the Nanaimo Group. Personally, both personify the charming Indiana Jones school of rugged manly palaeontologists you picture in popular film. Professionally, their singular contributions and collaborative efforts have helped shape our understanding of the correlation of Nanaimo Group fauna to those we find in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia and down in the San Juan Islands of Washington State.

Their work builds on the work of Usher (1952), Matsumoto (1959a, 1959b) and Mallory (1977). A healthy nod goes out to the work of Muller and Jeletzky (1970) for untangling the lithostratigraphic and biostratigraphic foundation for our knowledge of the Nanaimo Group.

Candoceras yokoyama, Photo: John Fam, VanPS
As I walked along the bedrock of the Haslam, a Steller's Jay, Cyanocitta stelleri, followed me from tree to tree making his guttural shook, shook, shook call. Instructive, he seemed to be encouraging me, timing his hoots to the beat of my hammer. Vancouver Island truly has glorious flora and fauna.

Fancy some additional reading? Check out a paper published in the Journal of Paleontology back in 1989 by Haggard and Ward on new Nanaimo Group Ammonites from British Columbia and Washington State.

In it, they look at the ammonite species Puzosia (Mesopuzosia) densicostata Matsumoto, Kitchinites (Neopuzosia) japonicus Spath, Anapachydiscus cf. A. nelchinensis Jones, Menuites cf. M. menu (Forbes), Submortoniceras chicoense (Trask), and Baculites cf. B. boulei Collignon are described from Santonian--Campanian strata of western Canada and northwestern United States.

Stratigraphic occurrences and ranges of the species are summarized and those taxa important for correlation with other areas in the north Pacific region and Late Cretaceous ammonite fauna of the Indo-Pacific region. Here's the link:

Peter Ward is a prolific author, both of scientific papers and more popularized works. I highly recommend his book Gorgon: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth's History. It is an engaging romp through a decade's research in South Africa's Karoo Desert.

Photo: Candoceras yokoyamai from Upper Cretaceous Haslam formation (Lower Campanian) near Nanaimo, British Columbia. One of the earliest fossils collected by John Fam (1993). Prepared using only a cold chisel and hammer. Photo & collection of John Fam, VIPS.