Saturday, 31 October 2020


An adorable example of Keuppia levante (Fuchs, Bracchi & Weis, 2009), an extinct genus of octopus that swam our ancient seas back in the Cretaceous. The dark black and brown area you see 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 north‐west 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 fossil 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 to 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 in two 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.  

Friday, 30 October 2020


A cool morning breeze keeps the mosquitoes down as we pack our kayaks and gear for today’s paddling journey. 

It is day four of our holiday, with two days driving up from Vancouver to Cache Creek, past the Eocene insect and plant site at McAbee, the well-bedded Permian limestone near Marble Canyon and onto Bowron Provincial Park, a geologic gem near the gold rush town of Barkerville.

The initial draw for me, given that collecting in a provincial park is forbidden and all collecting close at hand outside the park appears to amount to a handful of crushed crinoid bits and a few conodonts, was the gorgeous natural scenery and a broad range of species extant. It was also the proposition of padding the Bowron Canoe Circuit, a 149,207-hectare geologic wonderland, where a fortuitous combination of plate tectonics and glacial erosion have carved an unusual 116-kilometre near-continuous rectangular circuit of lakes, streams and rivers bound on all sides by snowcapped mountains. From all descriptions, something like heaven.

The east and south sides of the route are bound by the imposing white peaks of the Cariboo Mountains, the northern boundary of the Interior wet belt, rising up across the Rocky Mountain Trench, and the Isaac Formation, the oldest of seven formations that make up the Cariboo Group (Struik, 1988). 

Some 270 million-plus years ago, had one wanted to buy waterfront property in what is now British Columbia, you’d be looking somewhere between Prince George and the Alberta border. The rest of the province had yet to arrive but would be made up of over twenty major terranes from around the Pacific. The rock that would eventually become the Cariboo Mountains and form the lakes and valleys of Bowron was far out in the Pacific Ocean, down near the equator.

With tectonic shifting, these rocks drifted north-eastward, riding their continental plate, until they collided with and joined the Cordillera in what is now British Columbia. Continued pressure and volcanic activity helped create the tremendous slopes of the Cariboo Range we see today with repeated bouts of glaciation during the Pleistocene carving their final shape.

We brace our way into a headwind along the east side of the fjord-like Isaac Lake. Paddling in time to the wind, I soak up the view of this vast, deep green, ocean-like expanse that runs L-shape for nearly 38 kilometres, forming nearly half of the total circuit. The rock we paddle past is primarily calcareous phyllite, limestone and quartzite, typical of the type locality for this group and considered upper Proterozoic (Young, 1969), the time in our geologic history between the first algae and the first multicellular animals. It is striking how much this lake fits exactly how you might picture pristine wilderness paddling in your mind’s eye. No powerboats, no city hum, just pure silence, broken only by the sound of my paddle pulling through the water and the occasional burst of glee from one of the park’s many songbirds.

We’ve chosen kayaks over the more-popular canoes for this journey, as I got to experience my first taste of the handling capabilities of a canoe last year in Valhalla Provincial Park. The raised sides acted like sails and kept us off course in all but the lightest conditions. This year, Philip Torrens, Leanne Sylvest, and I were making our trek in low profile, Kevlar style. One single & one double kayak would be our faithful companions and mode of transport. They would also be briefly conscripted into service as a bear shield later in the trip.

Versatile those kayaks.

The area is home to a variety of plant life. Large sections of the forest floor are carpeted in the green and white of dogwood, a prolific ground cover we are lucky enough to see in full bloom. Moss, mushrooms and small wildflowers grow on every available surface. Yellow Lily line pathways and float in the cold, clear lake water. Somewhere I read a suggestion to bring a bathing suit to the park, but at the moment, I cannot imagine lowering anything more than my paddle into these icy waters. To reach the west side of the paddling route, we must first face several kilometres portaging muddy trails to meet up with the Isaac River and then paddle rapids to grade two.

At the launch site, we meet up with two fellow kayakers, Adele and Mary of Victoria, and take advantage of their preceding us to watch the path they choose through the rapids. It has been raining in the area for forty plus days, so the water they run is high and fast. Hot on their heels, our short, thrilling ride along the Isaac River, is a flurry of paddle spray and playing around amid all the stumps, silt and conglomerate. 

The accommodation gods smile kindly on us as we are pushed out from Isaac River and settle into McLeary Lake. An old trapper cabin built by local Freddie Becker back in the 1930s, sits vacant and inviting, providing a welcome place to hang our hats and dry out. From here we can see several moose, large, lumbering, peaceful animals, the largest members of the deer family, feeding on the grass-like sedge on the far shore. The next morning, we paddle leisurely down the slower, silt-laden Cariboo River, avoiding the occasional deadhead, and make our way into the milky, glacier-fed Lanezi Lake.

Like most mountainous areas, Bowron makes its own weather system and it appears you get everything in a 24-hour period. In fact, whatever weather you are enjoying seems to change 40 minutes later; good for rain, bad for sun. 

Wisps of cloud that seemed light and airy only hours early have become dark. Careful to hug the shore, we are ready for a quick escape from lightning as thundershowers break.

Paddling in the rain, I notice bits of mica in the water, playing in the light and the rock here changes to greywacke, argillite, phyllite and schist. Past Lanezi, we continue onto Sandy Lake, where old-growth cedars line the south-facing slopes to our left and grey limestone, shale and dolostone line the shore. 

Mottled in with the rock, we sneak up on very convincing stumps posing as large mammals. Picking up the Cariboo River again, we follow it as it flows into Babcock Lake, an area edged with Lower Cambrian limestone, shale and argillite. At the time these rocks were laid down, the Earth was seeing our earliest relatives, the first chordates entering the geologic scene.

As we reach the end of Babcock Lake and prepare for our next portage I get my camera out to take advantage of the angle of the sun and the eroded rounded hilltops of the Quesnel Highlands that stand as a backdrop.

Leanne remarks that she can see a moose a little ways off and that it appeared to be heading our way. Yes, heading our way quickly with a baby moose in tow. I lift my lens to immortalize the moment and we three realized the moose are heading our way in double time because they are being chased by a grizzly — at top speed. 

A full-grown moose can run up to fifty-six kilometres per hour, slightly faster than a Grizzly. They are also strong swimmers. Had she been alone, Mamma moose would likely have tried to outswim the bear. Currently, however, this is not the case. From where we stand we can see the water turned to white foam at their feet as they fly towards us.

We freeze — bear spray in hand.

In seconds the three were upon us. Mamma moose, using home-field advantage, runs straight for us and just reaching our boats, turned 90 degrees, bolting for the woods, baby moose fast on her heels.

The Grizzly, caught up in the froth of running and thrill of the kill, doesn’t notice the deke, hits the brakes at the boats and stands up, confused. Her eyes give her away. This was not what she had planned and the whole moose-suddenly-transformed-into-human thing is giving her pause. Her head tilts back as she gets a good smell of us.

Suddenly, a crack in the woods catches her attention. Her head snaps around and she drops back on all fours, beginning her chase anew. Somewhere there is a terrified mother moose and calf hoping the distance gained is enough to keep them from being lunch. I choose to believe both moose got away with the unwitting distraction we provided, but I’m certainly grateful we did.

The Lakes are at an elevation of over 900 m (3000 ft) and both grizzly and black bear sightings are common. 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 having just met one of the larger descendants. While we’d grumbled only hours earlier about how tired we were feeling, we now feel quite motivated and do the next two portages and lakes in good time. 

Aside from the gripping fear that another bear encounter is imminent, we enjoy the park-like setting, careful to scan the stands of birch trees for dark shapes now posing as stumps. Fortunately, the only wildlife we see are a few wily chipmunks, various reticent warblers and some equally shy spruce grouse.

The wind favours us now as we paddle Skoi and Spectacle Lake, even giving us a chance to use the sails we’ve rigged to add an extra knot of oomph to our efforts. Reaching the golden land of safety-in-numbers, we leap from our kayaks, happy to see the smiling faces of Mary and Adele.

Making it here is doubly thrilling because it means I am sleeping indoors tonight and I can tell the bear story with adrenaline still pumping through my veins. Tonight is all about camaraderie and the warmth of a campfire. Gobbling down Philip’s famous pizza, Leanne impresses everyone further by telling of his adventures in the arctic and surviving a polar bear attack.

This is our first starlit night without rain, a luxury everyone comments on, but quietly, not wanting to jinx it. We share a good laugh at the expense of the local common loons — both Homeo sapien sapien and Gavia immer. The marshy areas of the circuit provide a wonderful habitat for the regions many birds including a host of sleek, almost regal black and white common loons.

Their cool demeanour by day is reduced to surprisingly loud, maniacal hoots and yelps with undignified flapping and flailing by night. It seems hardly possible that these awful noises could be coming from the same birds and that this has been going for nearly 65 million years, since the end of the age of dinosaurs, as loons are one of the oldest bird families in the fossil record.

A guitar is pulled out to liven the quiet night while small offerings, sacred and scare this late in our journey, are passed around. Tonight is a celebration that we have all, both separately and together, made our way around this immense mountain-edged circuit.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020


Crocus Flowers: Saffron & Dye
The earliest flowering plants show up in the fossil record 130 million years ago. These beauties became the dominant type of forest plant by about 90 million years ago. One of their number, the genus Crocus, is a particular favourite of mine.

Crocus — the plural of which is crocuses or croci — is a genus of flowering plants in the iris family and includes 90 species of perennials growing from corms. A corm is a short, swollen underground plant stem that helps plants survive summer drought and other less favourable conditions. The name Crocus is derived from the Latin adjective crocatus, meaning saffron yellow. The Greek word for "saffron" is krokos, while the Arabic word saffron or zafaran, means yellow. 

Many are cultivated for their flowers appearing in autumn, winter, or spring. The spice saffron is obtained from the stigmas of Crocus sativus, an autumn-blooming species.

Each crocus flower plucked gently by hand yields three vivid strands of saffron with an acre of laborious work producing only a few pounds.

The challenge of harvesting saffron from crocus and its high-market value dates back to 2100-1600 BC as the Egyptians, Greeks, and the Minoans of Crete all cultivated crocus not as a spice, but as a dye. 

Roman women used saffron to dye their hair and textiles yellow. The crocus corm has a history of trade throughout Europe that a few pounds of corms served as a loan of gold or jewels. It made it's way into the writing of the Greeks as early as 300 BC where it originated. 

The precious flower travelled to Turkey and then all the way to Great Britain in the 1500s before making their way to the rest of the world. The first crocus in the Netherlands came from corms brought back from the Roman Empire in the 1560s. A few corms were forwarded to Carolus Clusius at the botanical garden in Leiden. By 1620, new garden varieties had been developed, such as the cream-coloured crocus similar to varieties we see in flower markets and local gardens today. 

Sunday, 25 October 2020


A rare and very beautifully preserved Cretaceous Hadrosaur Tooth. This lovely specimen is from one of our beloved herbivorous "Duck-Billed" dinosaurs from 68 million-year-old outcrops near Drumheller, Alberta, Canada, and is likely from an Edmontosaurus.

When you scour the badlands of southern Alberta, most of the dinosaur material you'll find are from hadrosaurs. These lovely tree-less valleys make for excellent-searching grounds and have led us to know more about hadrosaur anatomy, evolution, and paleobiology than for most other dinosaurs.

We have oodles of very tasty specimens and data to work with. We've got great skin impressions and scale patterns from at least ten species and interesting pathological specimens that provide valuable insights into hadrosaur behaviour. Locally, we have an excellent specimen you can visit in the Courtenay and District Museum on Vancouver Island, Canada. The first hadrosaur bones were found on Vancouver Island a few years back by Mike Trask, VIPS, on the Trent River near Courtenay.

The Courtenay hadrosaur is a first in British Columbia, but our sister province of Alberta has them en masse. Given the ideal collecting grounds, many of the papers on hadrosaurs focus on our Canadian finds. These herbivorous beauties are also found in Europe, South America, Mexico, Mongolia, China, and Russia. Hadrosaurs had teeth arranged in stacks designed for grinding and crushing, similar to how you might picture a cow munching away on the grass in a field. These complex rows of "dental batteries" contained up to 300 individual teeth in each jaw ramus. But even with this great number, we rarely see them as individual specimens.

They didn't appear to shed them all that often. Older teeth that are normally shed in our general understanding of vertebrate dentition, were resorped, meaning that their wee osteoclasts broke down the tooth tissue and reabsorbed the yummy minerals and calcium.

As the deeply awesome Mike Boyd notes, "this is an especially lucky find as hadrosaurs did not normally shed so much as a tooth, except as the result of an accident when feeding or after death. Typically, these fascinating dinosaurs ground away their teeth... almost to nothing."

In hadrosaurs, the root of the tooth formed part of the grinding surface as opposed to a crown covering over the core of the tooth. And curiously, they developed this dental arrangement from their embryonic state, through to hatchling then full adult.

There's some great research being done by Aaron LeBlanc, Robert R. Reisz, David C. Evans and Alida M. Bailleul. They published in BMC Evolutionary Biology on work that looks at the histology of hadrosaurid teeth analyzing them through cross-sections. Jon Tennant did a nice summary of their research. I've included both a link to the original journal article and Jon Tennant's blog below.

LeBlanc et al. are one of the first teams to look at the development of the tissues making up hadrosaur teeth, analyzing the tissue and growth series (like rings of a tree) to see just how these complex tooth batteries formed.

They undertook the first comprehensive, tissue-level study of dental ontogeny in hadrosaurids using several intact maxillary and dentary batteries and compared them to sections of other archosaurs and mammals. They used these comparisons to pinpoint shifts in the ancestral reptilian pattern of tooth ontogeny that allowed hadrosaurids to form complex dental batteries.


LeBlanc et al. (2016) Ontogeny reveals function and evolution of the hadrosaurid dinosaur dental battery, BMC Evolutionary Biology. 16:152, DOI 10.1186/s12862-016-0721-1 (OA link)

To read more from Jon Tennant, visit:

Photo credit: Derrick Kersey. For more awesome fossil photos like this from Derrick, visit his page:

Saturday, 24 October 2020


Hornby is a delightful island off the east coast of Vancouver Island in Georgia Strait. The geology we find here is part of the southern Comox basin. The island lies just east of Denman Island. Texada and Lasqueti lie just to the west.

To reach Hornby, you take a ferry from Buckley Bay on Vancouver island across Baynes Sound to the west side of Denman. You cross this small island and take an even smaller ferry to Hornby.
Hornby is home to about 1,000 residents made up of artists, retirees and those wanting to enjoy the quiet, island community-oriented lifestyle.

Hornby Island is formed from sediments of the upper Nanaimo Group which are also widely exposed on adjacent Denman Island and the southern Gulf Islands. 

Peter Mustard, a geologist from the Geologic Survey of Canada, did considerable work on the geology of the island. It has a total stratigraphic thickness of 1350 m of upper Nanaimo Group marine sandstone, conglomerate and shale. These are partially exposed in the Campanian to the lower Maastrichtian outcrops at Collishaw Point on the northwest side of Hornby Island. Four formations underlie the island from oldest to youngest, and from west to east: the Northumberland, Geoffrey, Spray and Gabriola.

During the upper Cretaceous, between ~90 to 65 Ma, sediments derived from the Coast Belt to the east and the Cascades to the southeast poured seaward to the west and northwest into what was the large ancestral Georgia Basin. This major forearc basin was situated between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia.

The island's soils have developed from marine deposits of variable texture. This is the case for most of Hornby with the exception of the higher elevations and steeper slopes where weathered clastic sedimentary rock provides the parent material. 

Most of Hornby's soils are sandy or gravelly, but some deep black loams occur on the northwestern part of the island. Many of the sands at the southern end have loam-textured topsoils.

Podzols are common and the bleached sand grains associated with their eluvial (A2, Ae or E) horizons lend a salt-and-pepper appearance to many forest trails. 

Podzols are infertile acidic soils that have a white or grey subsurface layer resembling ash. If you look below you'll see that the minerals have been leached into a lower dark-coloured layer. We typically find them under temperate coniferous woodland. 

All of the island's soils on Hornby are strongly acidic. The exception are those which have developed on the shoreline where alkaline shells from shell middens have penetrated the soils.

And it is to the shore that many are drawn — locals, tourists, geologists and palaeontologists alike. Hornby is a wonderful place to explore. The island is beautiful in its own right and the fossils from here often keep some of their original shell or nacre which makes them quite fetching.

The Nanaimo Group as a whole represents largely coarse-grained units deposited in deep-sea fan systems. In this environment, deeper channels continuously cut through successive shale and sandstone bodies. The channels funnelled density currents into the basin, while also building levee deposits. Turbidity currents travelled down the channels, and also overtopped the levees spilling across backslope areas. The sequential sediment formations, from significantly coarse-grained sandstones and conglomerates to fine silts and shale units of the Nanaimo Group, are considered to be partly due to eustacy, but more significantly related to relative sea-level changes induced by regional tectonics in an active forearc setting.

The Northumberland Formation consists of a massive, dark-grey mudstone which is locally interlaminated and interbedded with siltstone and fine-grained sandstone.

There are abundant calcium carbonate concretions, parallel and current ripple laminations, clastic dikes and folded layers due to slumping. 

In the Gulf Islands to the south, this formation has been found to contain abundant and diverse foraminifera indicating marine paleodepths of 150-1200 m. Foraminifera are members of a phylum or class of amoeboid protists characterized by streaming granular ectoplasm for catching food. Forams have lovely shells that look amazing under a microscope and are hugely useful as wee biostratigraphic markers.

The more resistive Geoffrey Formation is made up of thick-bedded sandstone and conglomerate. It is highly channelized, and some sandstone has exposed parallel and ripple laminations. The Spray Formation exposed on the east end of the island is a massive olive-grey mudstone with interlaminations of sandstone.

Furthest to the east, the youngest exposures on Hornby Island are from the Gabriola Formation, which outcrops on the eastern peninsula. This is again a thick-bedded and channelized sequence of conglomerates and massive sandstone with minor mudstone interbeds. South, in the Gulf Islands, this formation has contained ammonites, gastropods, corals, scaphopods and pelecypods. Some of the nostoceratids previously assigned to Anisoceras cooperi have been divided into five species, two of which are new.

Note: Paleowater-depth from foraminiferal assemblages has been set at 200 m.

Katnick, D.C. and P.S. Mustard (2001): Geology of Denman and Hornby Islands, British Columbia (NTS 92F/7E, 10); British Columbia Geological Survey Branch, Geoscience Map 2001-3.

England, T.D.J. and R. N. Hiscott (1991): Upper Nanaimo Group and younger strata, outer Gulf Islands, southwestern British Columbia: in Current Research, Part E; Geological Survey of Canada, Paper 91-1E, p. 117-125.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020


Yesterday, on the Fossil Huntress Podcast, we wrestled with the question of whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded. It is an excellent question and there is good evidence on both sides of that debate.

Many dinosaurs stood upright — a warm-blooded trait. They are also the ancestors of birds who are warm-blooded. Dinosaurs often began life with porous bones, moving to denser bones later in life. This is as much a mark of growth rate as it is for the warm-cold debate. 

And, dinosaurs had small brains relative to body size — a trait of our cold-blooded animals. So, which is it? Cold or warm? My money is on the latter, but we'll likely have some time to wait before we have enough evidence to say for sure one way or the other. One thing we do know to be true is that we see a trend of the Earth's animals moving from cold-bloodedness to warm-bloodedness over time. 

What was the driver for that adaptation? One of the drivers looks to be the Permian-Triassic mass extinction event some 250 million years ago. It was a catastrophic event that killed ninety-five percent of all life on Earth. The remaining species were left to fight for survival against an inhospitable planet and one another. The few surviving species found themselves in a turbulent world —repeatedly hit by ice ages, rapid warming and ocean acidification cycles.

Through all of that, two main groups of tetrapods survived; the synapsids and archosaurs, ancestors of mammals and birds. The ancestors of both mammals and birds became warm-blooded at the same time.

Warm-bloodedness, or endothermy, is the ability to regulate your body temperature using your metabolism rather than relying on the external environment. Humans are endothermic. We eat food and wear warm sweaters to guard against the cold. Warm-bloodedness is key for both survival and reproductive fitness.

There is evidence of warm-bloodedness, including a diaphragm and whiskers in the synapsids as far back as the Triassic. This is supported by a more porous bone structure in both synapsids and archosaurs. Warm-blooded animals tend to have highly vascularized bone tissue. Cold-blooded animals have a denser bone structure that even exhibits annual growth rings. 

Dinosaurs show both traits. They start off life with highly vascularized bone which becomes denser as they mature. This move from vascular to dense bone may have more to do with growth rates than to whether the animals were warm or cold-blooded. 

Another factor in warmth is hair. We know that mammal ancestors had hair from the beginning of the Triassic. More recently, we have learned that archosaurs had feathers from 250 million years ago. Archosaurs are a group of diapsids and are broadly classified as reptiles. The living representatives of this group are birds and crocodilians. It also includes all extinct dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and extinct close relatives of crocodilians. 

Medium-sized and large tetrapods switched from sprawling to erect posture right at the Permian-Triassic boundary. As you know, most warm-blooded animals have an erect or upright posture and our cold-blooded friends tend to walk on all fours. 

The mass posture change and early origin of hair and feathers all speak to the beginning of a species arms race. In ecological terms, an arms race occurs when predators and prey compete on an escalated scale for survival. This pressure caused a rapid change in their evolution as their adaptations escalate. 

When we look at our world today, warm-blooded animals populate all areas of the Earth. They have fewer offspring and show intense parental care, taking months or years to care for their young before they become independent. These adaptations give birds and mammals an edge over amphibians and reptiles and we see this in their domination of the ecosystems in our world.

This revolution in ecosystems was triggered by the independent origins of endothermy in birds and mammals. This particular adaptation lives on as these species survive and thrive in an Earth that can be fickle in terms of environmental conditions.

Reference: Benton, Michael J. The origin of endothermy in synapsids and archosaurs and arms races in 
the Triassic, Gondwana Research, School of Earth Sciences, Life Sciences Building, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TH, UKThe evolution of main groups through the Triassic. Image: Nobu Tamura

Tuesday, 20 October 2020


The Fernie ammonite, Titanites occidentalis, from outcrops on Coal Mountain near Fernie, British Columbia, Canada. 

This beauty is the remains of a carnivorous cephalopod within the family Dorsoplanitidae that lived and died in a shallow sea some 150 million years ago.

If you would like to get off the beaten track and hike up to see this ancient beauty, you will want to head to the town of Fernie in British Columbia close to the Alberta border. 

Driving to the trail base is along an easy access road just east of town along Fernie Coal Road. There are some nice exposures of Cretaceous plant material on the north side (left-hand side) of the road as you head from Fernie towards Coal Creek. I recently drove up to Fernie to look at Cretaceous plant material and locate the access point to the now infamous Late Jurassic (Tithonian) Titanites (S.S. Buckman 1921) site. While the drive out of town is on an easy, well-maintained road, the slog up to the ammonite site is a steep 3-hour push.

The first Titanites occidentalis was about one-third the size and was incorrectly identified as Lytoceras, a fast-moving nektonic carnivore. The specimen you see here is significantly larger at 1.4 metres (about four and a half feet) and rare in North America. 

Titanites occidentalis, the Western Giant, is the second known specimen of this extinct fossil species. The first was discovered in 1947 in nearby Coal Creek by a British Columbia Geophysical Society mapping team.

In the summer of 1947, a field crew was mapping coal outcrops for the BC Geological Survey east of Fernie. One of the students reported finding “a fossil truck tire.” Fair enough. The similarity of size and optics are pretty close to your average Goodridge. 

A few years later, GSC Paleontologist Hans Frebold described and named the fossil Titanites occidentalis after the large Jurassic ammonites from Dorset, England. The name comes from Greek mythology. Tithonus, as you may recall, was the Prince of Troy. He fell in love with Eos, the Greek Goddess of the Dawn. Eos begged Zeus to make her mortal lover immortal. Zeus granted her wish but did not grant Tithonus eternal youth. He did indeed live forever — aging hideously. Ah, Zeus, you old trickster. It is a clever play on time placement. Dawn being the beginning of the day and the Tithonian being the latest age of the Late Jurassic. Clever Hans!

Hiking to the Fernie Ammonite

From the town of Fernie, British Columbia, head east along Coal Creek Road towards Coal Creek. The site is 3.81 km from the base of the Coal Creek Road to the trailhead as the crow flies. I've mapped it here for you in yellow and added the wee purple GPS marker for the ammonite site. There is a nice, dark grey to black roadcut exposure of Cretaceous plants on the north side of the dirt road that is your cue to pull over and park.  

You access the trailhead on the south side of the road. You'll need to cross the creek to begin your ascent. There is no easy way across the creek and you'll want to tackle this one with a friend when the water level is low. The beginning of the trail is not clear but a bit of searching will reveal the trailhead with its telltale signs of previous hikers. This is a 2-3 hour moderate 6.3-kilometre hike up & back bush-whacking through scrub and fallen trees. Heading up, you'll make about a 246-metre elevation gain. You won't have a cellular signal up here but if you download the Google Map to your mobile, you'll have GPS to guide you. 

If you're coming in from out of town, the closest airport is Cranbrook. Then it is about an hour and change to Fernie and another 15-minutes or so to the site.

You'll want to leave your hammers with your vehicle (no need to carry the weight) as this site is best enjoyed with a camera. If you'd like to see the ammonite but are not keen on the hike, a cast has been made by fossil preparator Rod Bartlett and is on display at the Courtenay Museum in Courtenay, Vancouver Island, Canada. 

Fernie Ammonite Palaeo Coordinates: 49°29'04"N 115°00'49"W

Monday, 19 October 2020


A bright, beautiful young mind asked the question, "does Earth's mass decrease when we burn fossil fuels? And if it does, is it measurable? Do we know how much of the Earth’s mass has been lost so far?"

Well, Melaina, the Earth’s mass does decrease when fossil fuels are burnt. But not in the sense you were probably imagining, and only to a very, very small degree.

There is no decrease in chemical mass. Burning fossil fuels rearranges atoms into different molecules, in the process releasing energy from chemical bonds, but in the end, the same particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — remain, so there is no decrease in mass there.

But energy is released, and some of that energy is radiated out into space, escaping from the Earth entirely. Einstein's Theory of Relativity tells us that energy does have mass: E=mc2. When a chemical bond that stores energy is formed, the resulting molecule has a very tiny bit more mass than the sum of the masses of the atoms from which it was formed, so a net gain. Wait, what?

Again, this is an exceedingly tiny bit. In very rough numbers, worldwide energy consumption is about 160,000 terawatt-hours per year, and about 80% of that comes from fossil fuels. That is about 450,000,000 TJ/year (tera-joules/year). The speed of light is 300,000,000 meter/s; dividing 450,000,000 TJ by (300,000,000 m/s)^2 gives a decrease in mass of 5000 kilograms per year.

That is an exceedingly small fraction — 50 billionths of one percent — of the approximately 10,000,000,000,000 kilograms of fossil fuels consumed per year. And as far as making the Earth lighter, it’s a tenth of a billionth of a billionth of a percent of the Earth’s mass.

Of course, the energy in fossil fuels originally came from the Sun, and in absorbing that sunlight the Earth’s mass increases slightly. I picture the Earth expanding and contracting, taking a deep breath, then exhaling. We don't see this when we look, but it is a great visual for imaging this never-ending give and take process. I'm not sure how we'd measure the small changes to the Earth's net mass on any given day. The mass of the Earth may be determined using Newton's law of gravitation. It is given as the force (F), which is equal to the Gravitational constant multiplied by the mass of the planet and the mass of the object, divided by the square of the radius of the planet.

Newton's insight on the inverse-square property of gravitational force was from an intuition about the motion of the earth and the moon. The mathematical formula for gravitational force is F=GMmr2 F = G Mm r 2 where G is the gravitational constant. I know, Newton’s law could use some curb appeal but it is super useful when understanding what keeps the Earth and other planets in our solar system in orbit around the Sun and why the Moon orbits the Earth. We have Newton to thank for his formulas on the gravitational potential of water when we build hydroelectricity dams. Newton’s ideas work in most but not all scenarios. When things get very, very small, or cosmic, gravity gets weird... and we head on back to Einstein to make sense of it all.

There was a very cool paper published in September 2020 by King Yan Fong et al. in the journal Nature that looked at heat transferring in a previously unknown way — heat transferred across a vacuum by phonons — tiny, atomic vibrations. The effect joins conduction, convection and radiation as ways for heating to occur — but only across tiny distances. The heat is transferred by phonons — the energy-carrying particles of acoustic waves, taking advantage of the Casimir effect, in which the quantum fluctuations in the space between two objects that are really, really close together result in physical effects not predicted by classical physics. This is another excellent example of the universe not playing by conventional rules when things get small. Weird, but very cool!

But the question was specifically about the mass of the Earth and the burning of fossil fuels, and that process does decrease the mass.

So it is mostly true that the Earth’s mass does not decrease due to fossil fuel burning because the numbers are so low, but not entirely true. The fuel combines with oxygen from the atmosphere to produce carbon dioxide, water vapour, and soot or ash. The carbon dioxide and water vapour go back into the atmosphere along with some of the soot or ash, the rest of which is left as a solid residue. The weight of the carbon dioxide plus the water vapour and soot is exactly the same as the weight of the original fuel plus the weight of the oxygen consumed. In general, the products of any chemical reaction whatsoever weigh the same as the reactants.

There is only one known mechanism by which Earth’s mass decreases to any significant degree: molecules of gas in the upper atmosphere (primarily hydrogen and helium, because they are the lightest) escape from Earth’s gravity at a steady rate due to thermal energy. This is counterbalanced by a steady rain of meteors hitting Earth from outer space (if you ever want to hunt them, fly a helicopter over the frozen arctic, they really stand out), containing mostly rock, water, and nickel-iron. These two processes are happening all the time and will continue at a steady rate unchanged by anything we humans do. So, the net/net is about the same.

So, the answer is that the Earth's mass is variable, subject to both gain and loss due to the accretion of in-falling material (micrometeorites and cosmic dust), and the loss of hydrogen and helium gas, respectively. But, drumroll please, the end result is a net loss of material, roughly 5.5×107 kg (5.4×104 long tons) per year.

The burning of fossil fuels has an impact on that equation, albeit a very small one, but an excellent question to ponder. A thank you and respectful nod to Les Niles and Michael McClennen for their insights and help with the energy consumption figures.

Sunday, 18 October 2020


Puntledge Elasmosaur found by Mike Trask
This lengthy beauty is an elasmosaur, a large marine reptile now housed in the Courtenay and District Museum on Vancouver Island.

This specimen was found by Mike Trask and his daughter in the winter of 1988 while fossil collecting along the Puntledge River. While he couldn't have known it at the time, it was this discovery and those that followed that would spark a renewed interest in palaeontology on Vancouver Island and the province of British Columbia.

Mike had foraged ahead, adding chalk outlines to interesting fossil and nodules in the 83 million-year-old shales along the riverbank. His daughter, Heather, was looking at the interesting features he had just outlined when they both noticed some tasty blocks and concretions in situ just a few meters away. Taking a closer look, they were thrilled to discover that they held the bones of a large marine reptile.

Unsure of what exactly they'd discovered but recognizing them as significant, Mike reached out to Dr. Betsy Nicholls at the Royal Tyrell Museum.

It was Betsy who'd written up the incomplete specimen of fossil turtle, Desmatochelys cf. D. lowi — Reptilia: Chelonioidea — found by Richard Bolt, VIPS, in the shales of the Trent River Formation along the Puntledge River in the early 1990s. Dr. Nicholls wrote up the paper and published in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences in 1992.

At that time, it was the first documented account of a Cretaceous marine vertebrate from the Pacific coast of Canada, which shows you how much we've learned about our Pacific coast in just the last few years.

The Desmatchelys find inspired the 1999 BCPA Symposium conference logo. Every second year, the BCPA hosts a symposium. The 1999 conference at UBC was the first time the Vancouver Paleontological Society had hosted a BCPA conference. The conference abstract was graced with a trilobite embedded within a turtle, celebrating recent significant contributions to Canadian palaeontology.

Elasmosaur skull and teeth found by Mike Trask
When Mike showed her the bones he'd found, Betsy confirmed them to be that of an elasmosaur, a large marine reptile with a small head, razor-sharp teeth and a long neck  — and the first discovery of an elasmosaur west of the Canadian Rockies — another first. It was one of those moments that lights up and inspires a whole community.

When the bones were fully excavated, this 15-meter marine beauty underwent a year of preparation to reveal the skeleton you see here. You can visit the fully prepped specimen and see the articulated bones beneath a glass case in the Courtenay Museum on Vancouver Island.

The Puntledge Elasmosaur has graced the cover of Canada's stamps and was voted as British Columbia's Provincial Fossil in 2019. This honour has the Puntledge Elasmosaur cozied up to other provincial symbols and emblems that include the Pacific Dogwood, Jade, the Steller's Jay, Western Red Cedar, Spirit Bear and Pacific Salmon. The runner-up for BC's Provincial Fossil was Shonisaurus sikanniensis, a massive 21-metre ichthyosaur found in Triassic outcrops in northern British Columbia. That beauty is a worthy reminder of what hunted in our ancient oceans some 220 million years ago.

BCPA Symposium / Heidi Henderson, Mike Trask, Adam Melzak
Since that first moment of discovery, many wonderful events transpired. In the Fall of 1991, Mike Trask was teaching a course on paleontology at the North Island College.

Two of his students were Ann and Joe Zanbilowitz. With the classroom portion of the course finished up, the group set out for a fossil expedition on the Puntledge River. Within five minutes of their search, Joe found a few small articulated vertebrae that we now know to be the type specimen of the mosasaur, Kourisodon puntledgensis. That find, along with some of the other paleontological goodies from the area, prompted the formation of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society from an idea to a registered society in 1992. By 1993 membership had grown from a dozen to 250.

In 1992, the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society passed a motion to encourage the formation of a provincial umbrella group to act as an advocate to promote interaction amongst various paleontological organizations. Through the efforts of Mike Trask, Dan Bowen, Rolf Ludvigsen and others, the first meeting of the Board of Directors of the B.C. Paleontological Alliance was held in 1993.

Mike Trask hiking up at Landslide Lake, British Columbia
In 1994 the membership of the VIPS split into three regional societies, the original VIPS, the new VanPS in Vancouver, and the new VIPMS, the Vancouver island Paleontological Museum Society based in Qualicum.

In 1995, the Victoria Palaeontological Society, the VicPS, was formed. This was followed by the Tumbler Ridge Foundation (TRMF) and opening of the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery in Tumbler Ridge.

The British Columbia Paleontological Alliance and various regional societies, particularly the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society (VIPS), continue to make significant contributions to paleontology. We've now found the fossil remains of an elasmosaur and two mosasaurs along the banks of the Puntledge River, says Dan Bowen, Chair of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society.

The first set of about 10 mosasaurs vertebrae (Platecarpus) was found by Tim O’Bear and unearthed by a team of VIPS and Museum enthusiasts led by Dr. Rolf Ludvigsen. Dan Bowen and Joe Morin of the VIPS later prepped these specimens for the Museum.

In 1993, just a few years later, a new species of mosasaur, Kourisodon puntledgensis, a razor-toothed mosasaur, was found upstream of the elasmosaur site by Joe Zembiliwich on a field trip led by Mike Trask. A replica of this specimen now calls The Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden home.
What is significant about this specimen is that it is a new genus and species. At 4.5 meters, it is a bit smaller than most mosasaurs and similar to Clidastes, but just as mighty.

Comox Valley Elasmosaur / Dino Stamps of Canada
Interestingly, this species has been found in this one locality in Canada and across the Pacific in the basal part of the Upper Cretaceous — middle Campanian to Maastrichtian — of the Izumi Group, Izumi Mountains and Awaji Island of southwestern Japan. We see an interesting correlation with the ammonite fauna from these two regions as well.

The Courtenay and District Museum, the community surrounding it and allied organizations like the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society (VIPS), have a lot to be proud of. Their outreach and educational programs continue to inspire young and old alike. These discoveries led to the expansion of the local museum, the elasmosaur excavation area becoming a provincial heritage site and the impetus for many, many teaching programs since.

Oh, and Mike Trask — he continues to be deeply awesome, intuitive and exceptionally observant. The good Master Trask went on to find the first hadrosauroid in the province. While Alberta is littered with them, a Hadrosauroid dinosaur is a rare occurrence in this part of Canada and further evidence of the terrestrial influence in the Upper Cretaceous, Nanaimo Group of Vancouver Island. Perhaps one day we'll be seeing a duck-billed dinosaur from British Columbia gracing Canada's stamps. Fancy that.

References: Nicholls, E. L. and Meckert, D. (2002). Marine reptiles from the Nanaimo Group (Upper Cretaceous) of Vancouver Island. Canadian Journal of Earth Science 39(11):1591-1603.
Tanimoto, M. (2005). "Mosasaur remains from the Upper Cretaceous Izumi Group of Southwest Japan" (PDF). Netherlands Journal of Geosciences. 84: 373–378. doi:10.1017/s0016774600021156.
Ferocious new mosasaur skeleton coming to Morden | CBC News". CBC. Retrieved 2018-07-16.

BCPA Regional Paleontology Societies:

Friday, 16 October 2020


Dancing Chilkat by Heidi Henderson
Heidi Henderson is a Norwegian-Canadian Kwagu'ł Kwakwaka'wakw & proud citizen of the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida of Alaska living in British Columbia. 

Heidi grew up in Tsaxis, Fort Rupert, on northern Vancouver Island and is a direct blood descendant of Anisalaga, Master Chilkat Weaver and Raven of Tongass.

She is a science communicator who shares about the Pacific Northwest, the plants and animals who live there, where they show up in the fossil record and, where possible, how to refer to them in Kwakwala, the First Nation language of the Kwakwaka'wakw of the west coast.

When she is not writing about natural history or filming it for television, she works in oil, acrylic, watercolour, Sterling Silver, wood, digital and other mixed media. 

Along with her visual designs, she also designs clothing, jewellery and 3D sculptures. 

Thursday, 15 October 2020


Stunning preservation on this lovely microconch of the ammonite, Indosphinctes (Elatmites) aff. submutatus (Nikitin, 1881), from Jurassic, Middle Callovian outcrops of the Kosmoceras jason zone near the Oka River. The exposures are near the city of Elatma in the Ryazan Region of central Russia. 

This specimen is 70 mm at the widest part of the ammonite and is the smaller male form of this species. 

Ryazan Oblast borders Vladimir Oblast (N), Nizhny Novgorod Oblast (NE), the Republic of Mordovia (E), Penza Oblast (SE), Tambov Oblast (S), Lipetsk Oblast (SW), Tula Oblast (W), and Moscow Oblast (NW).

Ryazan Oblast lies in the central part of the Russian Plain between the Central Russian and Volga uplands. The terrain is flat — with the highest point being no more than 300 m above sea level. The soils here are podzolic and boggy on the banks of the Oka. further to the south, they become more fertile with podzolic and leached black-earths. This specimen is in the collection of the deeply awesome Emil Black. 

Wednesday, 14 October 2020


A Devonian fish mortality plate showing all lower shields of Zenaspis podolica (Lankester, 1869) and Stensiopelta pustulata (and potentially Victoraspis longicornualis) from Lower Devonian deposits of Podolia, Ukraine.

Zenaspis is an extinct genus of jawless fish which thrived during the early Devonian. Being jawless, Zenaspis was probably a bottom feeder, snicking on debris from the seafloor.

The lovely 420 million-year-old plate you see here is from Podolia or Podilia, a historic region in Eastern Europe, located in the west-central and south-western parts of Ukraine, in northeastern Moldova. Podolia is the only region in Ukraine where Lower Devonian remains of ichthyofauna can be found near the surface.

For the past 150 years, vertebrate fossils have been found in more than 90 localities situated in outcrops along banks of the Dniester River and its northern tributaries, and in sandstone quarries. At present, the faunal list of Early Devonian agnathans and fishes from Podolia number 72 species, including 8 Thelodonti, 39 Heterostraci, 19 Osteostraci, 4 Placodermi, 1 Acanthodii, and 1 Holocephali (Voichyshyn 2001a, modified).

In Podolia, Lower Devonian redbeds strata (the Old Red Formation or Dniester Series) are up to 1800 m thick and range from Lochkovian to Eifelian in age (Narbutas 1984; Drygant 2000, 2003). In their lower part (Ustechko and Khmeleva members of the Dniester Series) they consist of multicoloured, mainly red, fine-grained cross-bedding massive quartz sandstones and siltstones with seams of argillites (Drygant 2000).

We also see fossils of Zenaspis in the early Devonian of Western Europe. Both Zenaspis pagei and Zenaspis poweri can be found up to 25 centimetres long in Devonian outcrops of Scotland.

Reference: Voichyshyn, V. 2006. New osteostracans from the Lower Devonian terrigenous deposits of Podolia, Ukraine. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 51 (1): 131–142. Photo care of the awesome Fossilero Fisherman.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020


After much thinking and dreaming — the Fossil Huntress Podcast is now live. This is pure geeky goodness from the Fossil Huntress in personal bite-sized bits. 

If you love palaeontology, you'll love this podcast. Learn about fossils, head out on some virtual fossil field trips and palaeontological excavations, meet some truly awesome palaeo folk and share in the passion of fossils. 

We'll talk about what fossils are, who collects them and how to tell if you've found a fossil. You'll also learn the palaeontological history of the province of British Columbia, our regional societies and how the Huntress found her passion.

You can listen on Google Podcasts, Apple iTunes, Anchor, Spotify, Breaker, RadioPublic, Overcast and Pocket Casts right now. If you have ideas for an episode, feel free to send me a message on the Fossil Huntress page on Facebook or drop me a DM on Twitter or Instagram. I'm super excited to share all kinds of geeky goodness with you. I hope it lifts you up and gets you curious about the world so you'll join me on many exciting adventures.

Podcast Link: Fossil Huntress — Paleo Sommelier:

Sunday, 11 October 2020


A lovely example of Trilacinoceras norvegicum (Sweet, 1958), a nektonic carnivorous cephalopod from Ordovician outcrops on Helgö Island, Hovindsholm, Helgøya, Lake Mjosa, Norway.

This has been a site of human habitation for more than 5,000 years. Vikings, kings, traders, farmers —  and geologists have walked these fields.

To give that timeframe a bit of context, that's about the age of Skara Brae, the Neolithic settlement in Orkney, Scotland — and older than Stonehenge which clocks in at 3000 BC to 2000 BC and the Great Pyramids — built around 2560 BC.

For my friend, Gale Bishop, that's about 469 km west or a good 7-hour drive from your ancestral home in Ask, just north of Bergen and just south of Knarvik where many of my relatives live — Hei du!

The fossils found here are part of the Engervik Member, Elnes Formation, Aseri, and date back to the Middle Ordovician, 463.5 - 460.9 million years ago. W. C. Sweet did fossil fieldwork here in the 1950s and published a paper on the Middle Ordovician of the Oslo Region, Norway 10. Nautiloid Cephalopods. Norsk Geologisk Tidsskrift 38:1-178.

Deservedly, Sweetoceras boreale is named for him and is one of the most delightful species names of all time. In the 1960s, Yochelson picked up where Sweet left off, continuing the survey of the Middle Ordovician of the Oslo region. I chose this Trilacinoceras for a holiday post because their curly tops remind me of a wee Norwegian gnome, or Nisse from the Norse niðsi, a dear little relative. My Swedish relatives call them Tomte, a throwback to Saint Birgitta of Sweden in the 1300s.

Helgøya is an island in Mjøsa located in the Ringsaker municipality of Hedmark county, Norway. It was formerly a part of the Nes municipality. And long before that, it was the ruling centre for the Kings in Hedmark, where bold men and women held great blót celebrations to Odin and planned raids and expansion into Europe and Russia — roughly A.D. 793 — the beginning of the Viking Age.

Today, it is lush and green and easy to explore — or fish. Mjøsa is Norway's largest lake, as well as one of the deepest lakes in Norway and in Europe. Battles have been fought on its waters and its depths hold interesting archaeological and paleontological secrets. They also hold a goodly amount of large and tasty trout, pike, perch, burbot and graylings.

Helgøya is the largest freshwater island in Norway at 18.3 km². The island is delightful to explore and home to 32 farms. One of the most beautiful of these is the Hovinsholm manor. You can visit the farm in both summer and winter (both equally beautiful) and enjoy a café, workshop or their Christmas market. They have lush gardens and some very friendly horses you can pet — or spoil with apples, as you do. The property is massive at 2012 acres, divided into grain, potatoes and forest. It has been home to kings and court. It was a monastery in the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th century. Today, Tolle Hoel Slotnæs, and his wife, Charlotte Holberg Sveinsen own and run the manor with their three daughters.

Hovinsholm, Helgøya, Lake Mjosa, Norway
Helgøya means, "Holy Island," in Norwegian. There is a lovely double meaning here and such layered history. The manor, in its various iterations, has been on this site since the 1500s. They had their own Christian manor church until 1612.

On the southern tip of the island, there is an old pagan temple to the Norse Gods, Thor, Frigg, Loki, Hod, Heimdall, Tyr, and Baldur.

Here, farmers of the area would gather at four blót sacrifices a year that followed the seasons, one for each of the winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice and autumn equinox. Animals would be sacrificed, their blood splattered on altars, walls and folk around them. Toasts were made. The first was in honour of Thor or Odin, “to the king and victory.” Odin, although nominally chief of the gods, was more the god of aristocrats. If a king were toasting, particularly a Danish King, it would be for Odin. If you look at place names in Scandinavia, you'll see him conspicuously absent in favour of Thor, the god of the common man.

When the farmers at Helgøya were shouting "Skål," it was likely for Thor. The toasting and drinking continued with cups emptied for Njörd and Freyr and Freyja in the hope of securing a prosperous future. Finally, personal pledges (and beer-soaked boasts) would be made to undertake great exploits, Valknut — to die well in battle — and finally to kinsmen laid to rest now drinking with the gods in Valhalla. Weapons, jewellery and tools were thrown into the lake as offerings.

If they were gathering for Jol (Old Norse), Jul (Norwegian) or the Yule blót, they'd also make a large sun wheel (picture a circle with a cross in the middle), carve it up with runes, set it on fire and roll it down a hill. It was quite a celebration with the festivities going on for three days and nights. With the formalities over, people did as people do  — drink, sing, boast, play games and find someone to bed down with — Gods be good.

Thor and Odin are still going strong nearly 1,000 years after the end of the Viking Age. You'd think that the old Nordic religion — the belief in the Norse gods — disappeared with the introduction of Christianity. That is not the case. There are still folk in Denmark (Odin-lovers) and Norway (Thor's their guy) who follow the old Norse religion and worship its ancient gods — right down to the splatter.

If you visit Norway at Christmas, Jul (Yule), you'll find much more of the pagan than the Christian in the festivities. King Haakon, old Haakon the Good, Hákon Góði or Håkon den Gode,  moved the Winter Solstice or Yule, Jul, Jol blót over to match up with the Christian holiday (December 25th) in his attempts to introduce Christianity in the 10th century but both traditions are still celebrated but without an overtly religious tone.

Old traditions run deep, animals are still sacrificed (but without all the splatter), bread is baked, houses cleaned, beer is abundant and fires warmth the hearth.

After all the drinking, toasting and feasting at the Jul blót, leftover food was not cleaned up but left overnight for the little relatives. Though shy, Nisse like a good feast and failing to offer them their tithe brings ill-fortune.

But we started this journey together admiring a lovely (and oddly festive) Ordovician cephalopod. Go on, picture him in red and white with a little beard. If you fancy a visit to the Ordovician outcrops, you can find them at Nes-Hamar, Norway. 60.0° N, 11.2° E: paleo-coordinates 33.7° S, 10.3° W. Look for gastropods (five known species) and cephalopods (at least 15 species).

If you'd like to visit the burial mound of Haakon the Good, you'll want to head to Seim, Hordaland, about 10 km north of Knarvik. Good 'ol Haakon may have tried to bring Christianity to Norway but he died full Viking — taking an arrow at the Battle of Fitjar. Many of my rellies live in Knarvik. We've spent many a sunny afternoon feasting at the Håkonarspelet summer festivals and exploring Haakon's burial mound at Håkonhaugen in Seim.

If you're more of the manor type, you can stop by Hovinsholm gård, Helgøyvegen 850, 2350 Nes på Hedmarken, Norway. If you're curious and want to see the farmstead, head on over to: If you need to square things up with Odin, you're on your own.

E. L. Yochelson. 1963. The Middle Ordovician of the Oslo Region, Norway. 15. Monoplacophora and Gastropoda. Norsk Geologisk Tidsskrift 43 (2):133-213.

Saturday, 10 October 2020


Barnacles All Closed Up
One of the most interesting and enigmatic little critters we find at the seashore are barnacles. They cling to rocks at the waters' edge, closed to our curiosity, their domed mounds like little closed beaks shut to the water and the world.

They choose their permanent homes as larvae, sticking to hard substrates that will become their permanent homes for the rest of their lives. It has taken us a long time to find how they actually stick or what kind of "glue" they were using.

A clever fellow from Duke University's Marine Laboratory in Durhan, North Carolina finally cracked that puzzle. Instead of chopping up barnacles to see what makes them stick, he observed and collected the oozing glue from some Amphibalanus amphitrite as they secreted it.

Remarkably, the barnacle glue sticks to rocks in a similar way to how red cells bind together. Red blood cells bind and clot with a little help from some enzymes. These work to create long protein fibres that first blind, clot then form a scab. The mechanism barnacles use, right down to the enzyme, is very similar. That's especially interesting as about a billion years separate our evolutionary path from theirs.

So, with the help of their clever enzymes, they can affix to most anything – ship hulls, rocks, and even the skin of whales. If you find them in tidepools, you begin to see their true nature as they open up, their delicate feathery finger-like projections flowing back and forth in the surf.

Barnacle Cirri Seeking Tasty Plankton
Those wee feather-like bits you see are called cirri. Eight pairs of these thoracic limbs help barnacles to filter tasty bits of plankton from the surrounding water into their mouths.

Barnacles are cirripedes, a kind of crustacean that is covered with hard plates of calcium carbonate. Named for their cirri, they live stuck to hard surfaces in and around our world's oceans. While they do not look like crustaceans, they are definitely part of this taxonomic grouping that includes crab, lobster, crayfish, prawn, krill, and woodlice.


In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest, barnacles are known as k̕wit̕a̱'a and broken barnacle shells are known as t̕sut̕su'ma.


They have an old history. Their ancestors can be traced back to animals such as Priscansermarinus that lived during the Middle Cambrian – some 510 to 500 million years ago. I found my first barnacle fossil at a fossil site called Muir Creek on the south end of Vancouver Island. The fossil exposures at Muir are Oligocene, 20-25 million years old. This is about the time that barnacles can be found more readily as skeletal remains.

One of the reasons for the limited number of barnacle remains in the fossil record is their preferred habitat – high energy, shallow ocean environments. These tend to see a lot of tidal action that leads to erosion and barnacles being broken apart, slowly eroded down to bits too small to recognize for what they are.

One of the fossil remains we do find are not the barnacles themselves, but trace fossils of acrothoracican barnacle borings from Rogerella. These are commonly found in the fossil record beginning in the Devonian right up to today. Rogerella is a small pouch-shaped boring (a type of trace fossil) with a slit-like aperture currently produced by acrothoracican barnacles. These crustaceans extrude their legs upwards through the opening for filter-feeding (Seilacher, 1969; Lambers and Boekschoten, 1986). They are known in the fossil record as borings in carbonate substrates (shells and hardgrounds) from the Devonian to the Recent (Taylor and Wilson, 2003).

Barnacle Ancestry Goes Back to the Middle Cambrian

Barnacles were originally classified by Linnaeus and Cuvier as Mollusca, but in 1830 John Vaughan Thompson published observations showing the metamorphosis of the nauplius and cypris larvae into adult barnacles. He noted how these larvae were similar to those of crustaceans.

In 1834 Hermann Burmeister published further information, reinterpreting these findings. The effect was to move barnacles from the phylum of Mollusca to Articulata, showing naturalists that detailed study was needed to reevaluate their taxonomy.

Charles Darwin took up this challenge in 1846 and developed his initial interest in a major study published as a series of monographs in 1851 and 1854. Darwin undertook this study, at the suggestion of his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, to thoroughly understand at least one species before making the generalizations needed for his theory of evolution by natural selection.


Barnacles are suspension feeders, sweeping small food into their mouth with their curved 'feet'. They are cemented to rock (usually), and covered with hard calcareous plates, which they shut firmly when the tide goes out. The barnacles reproduce sexually and produce little nauplius larvae that disperse in the plankton. Eventually, the larvae change into cypris form and attach on other hard surfaces to form new barnacles.

Friday, 9 October 2020


This lovely fellow perched in the mist is a Puffin. They hunt and munch on small fish, eels, herring, hake and capelin. 

Their diet varies to their geographic location — and like any good foodie — depends on what's in season. 

Puffins are any of three small species of alcids or auks in the bird genus Fratercula with a brightly coloured orange beak during the breeding season. 

Their sexy orange beaks shift from a dull grey to bright orange when it is time to attract a mate. While not strictly monogamous, most Puffins choose the same mate year upon year producing adorable chicks or pufflings from their mating efforts. 

Female Puffins produce one single white egg which the parents take turns to incubate over a course of about six weeks. Their dutiful parents share the honour of feeding the wee pufflings five to eight times a day until the chick is ready to fly. Towards the end of July, the fledgeling Puffins begin to venture from the safety of their parents and dry land. Once they take to the seas, mom and dad are released from duty and the newest members of the colony are left to hunt and survive on their own.

These are pelagic seabirds that feed primarily by diving in the water. They breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, nesting in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil. Two species, the tufted puffin and horned puffin are found in the North Pacific Ocean, while the Atlantic puffin is found in the North Atlantic Ocean. This lovely fellow, with his distinctive colouring, is an Atlantic Puffin or "Sea Parrot" from Skomer Island near Pembrokeshire in the southwest of Wales. Wales is bordered by Camarthenshire to the east and Ceredigion to the northeast with the sea bordering everything else. It is a fine place to do some birding if it's seabirds you're after.

These Atlantic Puffins are one of the most famous of all the seabirds and form the largest colony in Southern Britain. They live about 25 years making a living in our cold seas dining on herring, hake and sand eels. 

Some have been known to live to almost 40 years of age. They are good little swimmers as you might expect, but surprisingly they are great flyers, too! The evolutionary gods were not kind in their flight design. They are hindered by short wings, making flight a bit of a challenge but still possible. Once they get some speed on board, they can fly up to 88 km an hour.

The oldest alcid fossil is Hydrotherikornis from Oregon dating to the Late Eocene while fossils of Aethia and Uria go back to the Late Miocene. Molecular clocks have been used to suggest an origin in the Pacific in the Paleocene. Fossils from North Carolina were originally thought to have been of two Fratercula species but were later reassigned to one Fratercula, the tufted puffin, and a Cerorhinca species. Another extinct species, Dow's puffin, Fratercula dowi, was found on the Channel Islands of California until the Late Pleistocene or early Holocene.

The Fraterculini are thought to have originated in the Pacific primarily because of their greater diversity there; there is only one extant species in the Atlantic, compared to two in the Pacific. The Fraterculini fossil record in the Pacific extends at least as far back as the middle Miocene, with three fossil species of Cerorhinca, and material tentatively referred to that genus, in the middle Miocene to late Pliocene of southern California and northern Mexico.

Although there no records from the Miocene in the Atlantic, a re-examination of the North Carolina material indicated that the diversity of puffins in the early Pliocene was as great in the Atlantic as it is in the Pacific today. This diversity was achieved through influxes of puffins from the Pacific; the later loss of species was due to major oceanographic changes in the late Pliocene due to closure of the Panamanian Seaway and the onset of severe glacial cycles in the North Atlantic.

Wednesday, 7 October 2020


Manatee and calf
Female manatees usually have one calf every two to five years. The calf swims alongside his Mamma for two years or more, munching on greenery. 

Once full-grown at a whopping 5,44 kilograms or 1,200 pounds, this little fellow will eat ten percent of his body weight in plant mass every day. 

Calves nurse from their mother’s teats, which are found right where the forward limbs meet the body. The calves also can start nibbling on plants at only a few weeks old.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020


This adorable aquatic vacuum is a dugong. I had always grouped the dugongs and manatees together. There are slight differences between these two but both belong to the order Sirenia. 

They shared a cousin in the Steller's sea cow, Hydrodamalis gigas, but that piece of their lineage was hunted to extinction by our species in the 18th century. 

Dugongs have tail flukes with pointed tips — similar to whales — and manatees have paddle-shaped tails, similar to a Canadian Beaver.

Both of these lovelies from the order Sirenia went from terrestrial to marine, taking to the water in search of more prosperous pastures, as it were. They are the extant and extinct forms of the oddball manatees and dugongs.

We find dugongs today in waters near northern Australia and parts of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. 

They inhabit rivers and shallow coastal waters, making the best use of their fusiform bodies that lack dorsal fins and hind limbs. I have been thinking about them in the context of some of the primitive armoured fish we find in the Chengjiang biota of China, specifically those primitive species that were also fusiform.

They favour locations where seagrass, their food of choice, grows plentiful and they eat it roots and all. While seagrass low in fibre, high in nitrogen, and easily digestible is preferred, dugongs will also dine on lower grade seagrass, algae, and invertebrates should the opportunity arise. They have been known to eat jellyfish, sea squirts, and shellfish over the course of their long lives. 

Some of the oldest dugongs have been known to live 70+ years, which is another statistic I find surprising. They are large, passive, have poor eyesight, and look pretty tasty floating in the water; a defenceless floating buffet. Their population is in decline and yet they live on.