Sunday, 28 February 2021

HEROES, VILLAINS AND TYRANTS: HORNBY ISLAND HISTORY

Villains, tyrants and heroes alike are all immortalized in the scientific literature as researchers don each new species a unique scientific name. 

If you pick through the literature, it's a whose who of monied explorers literally making a name for themselves, sometimes at great cost to their rivals. This truth plays out on British Columbia's West Coast and gulf islands. And on Hornby Island, in particular.

Hornby is a mix of beach and meadow, forest and stream. While I often walk the lower beachfront, this island boasts a mixed forest that covers its higher ground. 

If you explore here, off the beaten path, you will see a lovely mix of large conifers, Western red cedar, western hemlock, grand fir and lodgepole pine on the island. You also see lovely examples of the smaller Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, a small evergreen that is used by First Nations carvers for bows and paddles for canoes.

Many spectacular specimens of arbutus, Arbutus menziesii, grow along the water's edge. These lovely evergreens have a rich orange-red bark that peels away in thin sheets, leaving a greenish, silvery smooth appearance and a satiny sheen. Arbutus, the broadleaf evergreen species is the tree I most strongly associate with Hornby. Hornby has its fair share of broadleaf deciduous trees. Bigleaf maple, red alder, black cottonwood, Pacific flowering dogwood, cascara and several species of willow thrive here.

There are populations of Garry oak, Quercus garryana, with their deeply lobed leaves, on the southern end of the island and at Helliwell Provincial Park on a rocky headland at the northeast end of Hornby. Only about 260 acres (1.1 km2) of undisturbed stands of older forests have been identified on Hornby. They amount to roughly 3.5% of the island's area. There are roughly 1,330 acres (540 ha) of older second-growth stands on the island, which is roughly 19% of the island.

Most of the trees you see on the island are Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, an evergreen conifer species in the pine family. The common name is a nod to the Scottish botanist, David Douglas, who collected and first reported on this large evergreen.

George Vancouver's Commission to Lieutenant
Sadly for Douglas, it is Archibald Menzies, a Scottish physician, botanist, naturalist — and David's arch-rival, whose name is commemorated for science. 

He's also credited with the scientific name for our lovely arbutus trees. Menzies was part of the Vancouver Expedition (1791–1795) a four-and-a-half-year voyage of exploration commanded by Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy.

Their voyage built on the work of James Cook. Cook was arguably the first ship's captain to ensure his crew remained scurvy free by implementing a practice of nutritious meals — those containing ascorbic acid also known as Vitamin C — and meticulous standards for onboard hygiene. 

Though he did much to lower the mortality rate amongst his crew, he made some terrible decisions that led to his early demise. Cook was attacked and killed in 1779 during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific while attempting to kidnap the Island of Hawaii's monarch, Kalaniʻōpuʻu. 

During the four and a half year Vancouver Expedition voyage, the crew and officers bickered amongst themselves, circumnavigated the globe, touching down on five continents. Little did they know, for many of them it would be the last voyage they would ever take. 

The expedition returned to a Britain more interested in its ongoing war than in Pacific explorations. Vancouver was attacked by the politically well-connected Menzies for various slights, then challenged to a duel by Thomas Pitt, the 2nd Baron of Camelford. The fellow for whom the fair city of Vancouver is named never did complete his massive cartographical work. With health failing and nerves eroded, he lost the dual and his life. It was Peter Puget, whose name adorns Puget Sound, who completed Vancouver's — and arguably Cook's work on the mapping of our world.

If you'd like to explore more of the history of eponymous naming from Linnaeus to Darwin, to Bowie himself, take a boo at a new book from Stephen B. Heard, "Charles Darwin's Barnacle and David Bowie's Spider. It's fresh off the press this month and chock full of historical and pop-culture icons.

References: The City of Vancouver Archives has three George Vancouver documents:
  • The Commission, dated July 10, 1783, appointing him fourth Lieutenant of the HMS Fame (this is the official document confirming a field commission given to him May 7, 1782)
  • A letter to James Sykes (a Navy Agent in London) written from the ship Discovery (not the same Discovery used by Cook) while in Nootka Sound near the end of Vancouver’s exploration of the West Coast, October 2, 1794. Vancouver states that they have determined that the Northwest Passage does not exist, which was one of the main goals of his voyage
  • A letter to James Sykes written from Vancouver’s home in Petersham, England, after his voyage, October 26, 1797
Napolean's Buttons, Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreson. 

Saturday, 27 February 2021

GULF ISLANDS GREEN ISLE

Arbutus tree, Arbutus menziesii, reaching out to sea, Hornby Island
Hornby is a very green island, both in the practices of those who live here and in the mixed forest that covers the land. We see the large conifers, Western red cedar, western hemlock, grand fir and lodgepole pine on the island.

You also see lovely examples of the smaller Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, a small evergreen that is used by First Nations carvers for bows and paddles for canoes.

 Many spectacular specimens of arbutus, Arbutus menziesii, grow along the water's edge. These lovely evergreens have a rich orange-red bark that peels away in thin sheets, leaving a greenish, silvery smooth appearance and a satiny sheen. Arbutus, the broadleaf evergreen species is the tree I most strongly associate with Hornby. Hornby has its fair share of broadleaf deciduous trees. Bigleaf maple, red alder, black cottonwood, Pacific flowering dogwood, cascara and several species of willow thrive here.

There are populations of Garry oak, Quercus garryana, with their deeply lobed leaves, on the southern end of the island and at Helliwell Provincial Park on a rocky headland at the northeast end of Hornby. Only about 260 acres (1.1 km2) of undisturbed stands of older forests have been identified on Hornby. They amount to roughly 3.5% of the island's area. There are roughly 1,330 acres (540 ha) of older second-growth stands on the island, which is roughly 19% of the island.

Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii
Most of the trees you see on the island are Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, an evergreen conifer species in the pine family. The common name is a nod to the Scottish botanist, David Douglas, who collected and first reported on this large evergreen.

Sadly for Douglas, it is Archibald Menzies, a Scottish physician, botanist, naturalist — and David's arch-rival, whose name is commemorated for science. He's also credited with the scientific name for our lovely arbutus trees.

Menzies was part of the Vancouver Expedition (1791–1795) a four-and-a-half-year voyage of exploration commanded by Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy.

Their voyage built on the work of James Cook. Cook was arguably the first ship's captain to ensure his crew remained scurvy free by implementing a practice of nutritious meals (those containing ascorbic acid also known as Vitamin C) and meticulous standards for onboard hygiene. Though he did much to lower the mortality rate amongst his crew, he made some terrible decisions that led to his early demise. Cook was attacked and killed in 1779 during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific while attempting to kidnap the Island of Hawaii's monarch, Kalaniʻōpuʻu.

During the four and a half year Vancouver Expedition voyage, the crew and officers bickered amongst themselves, circumnavigated the globe, touching down on five continents. Little did they know, for many of them it would be the last voyage they would ever take. The expedition returned to a Britain more interested in its ongoing war than in Pacific explorations. Vancouver was attacked by the politically well-connected Menzies for various slights, then challenged to a duel by Thomas Pitt, the 2nd Baron of Camelford.

The fellow for whom the fair city of Vancouver is named never did complete his massive cartographical work. With health failing and nerves eroded, he lost the dual and his life. It was Peter Puget, whose name adorns Puget Sound, who completed Vancouver's — and arguably Cook's work on the mapping of our world.

Friday, 26 February 2021

PTEROSAURS OF HORNBY ISLAND

If you were to fly our ancient skies, you would see massive pterosaurs — huge, winged flying reptiles of the extinct clade or order Pterosauria — cruising along with you. They soared our skies during most of the Mesozoic — from the late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous (228 to 66 million years ago). 

By the end of the Cretaceous, they had grown to giants and one of their brethren, Quetzalcoatlus, a member of the family Azhdarchidae, boasts being the largest known flying animal that ever lived. They were the earliest vertebrates known to have evolved powered flight. Their wings were formed by a membrane of skin, muscle, and other tissues stretching from the ankles to a dramatically lengthened fourth finger.

We divide their lineage into two major types: basal pterosaurs and pterodactyloids. Basal pterosaurs (also called 'non-pterodactyloid pterosaurs' or ‘rhamphorhynchoids’) were smaller animals with fully toothed jaws and long tails. Their wide wing membranes connected to their hind legs. This would have allowed them some manoeuvrability on the ground, but with an awkward sprawling posture. They were better climbers with flexible joint anatomy and strong claws. Basal pterosaurs preferred to dine on insects and small vertebrates.

Later pterosaurs (pterodactyloids) evolved many sizes, shapes, and lifestyles. Pterodactlyoids had narrower wings with free hind limbs, highly reduced tails, and long necks with large heads. On the ground, pterodactyloids walked better than their earlier counterparts, manoeuvring all four limbs smoothly with an upright posture. They walked standing plantigrade on the hind feet and folding the wing finger upward to walk on the three-fingered "hand." These later pterosaurs were more nimble. They could take off from the ground, run and wade and swim. Their jaws had horny beaks and some of these later groups lacked the teeth of earlier lineages. Some groups developed elaborate head crests that were likely used to attract mates' sexy-pterosaur style.

So can we or have we found pterosaurs on Hornby Island? The short answer is maybe.

Collishaw Point, known locally as Boulder Point, Hornby Island
Hornby Island is a lovely lush, island in British Columbia's northern Gulf Islands. It was 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 rocks you find here originated far to the south in Baja California and are the right age and type of sediment for a pterosaur find. But are we California dreaming?

Upper Cretaceous Nanaimo Group Fossil Concretion
Well, truth be told, we were with the initial potential pterosaur from Hornby. It wasn't just hopeful thinking that had the west coast in a paleo uproar many ago when Sharon Hubbard of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society found what looked very much like a pterosaur.

Victoria Arbour, a Canadian evolutionary biologist and palaeontologist working as a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and Royal Ontario Museum, certainly thought so. While Arbour is an expert on ankylosaurs, our lumbering armoured dinosaurs friends, she has studied pterosaurs and participated in the naming of Gwawinapterus from Hornby Island. But here's the thing — bony material encased in stone and let to cement for millions of years can be tricky.

While this fossil find was initially described as a very late-surviving member of the pterosaur group Istiodactylidae, further examination cast doubt on the identification. Once more detail was revealed the remains were published as being those of a saurodontid fish, an ambush predator with very sharp serrated teeth and elongate, torpedo-like bodies that grew up to two meters. Not a pterosaur but still a massively exciting find. Arbour was very gracious at the renaming, taking it in stride. She has since gone on to name a partial ornithischian dinosaur from Sustut Basin, as well as the ankylosaurs Zuul, Zaraapelta, Crichtonpelta, and Ziapelta. But she may have another shot at a pterosaur.

Dan Bowen, Chair, VIPS. Photo: Deanna Steptoe Graham
In 2019, Dan Bowen, Chair of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society and a truly awesome possum, found some very interesting bones in concretion on Hornby. The concretion was nestled amongst the 72 million-year-old grey shales of the Northumberland Formation, Campanian to the lower Maastrichtian, part of the upper Cretaceous, from Collishaw Point.

The site is known as Boulder Point to the locals and it has been a popular fossil destination for many years. It is the same site where Sharon made her find years earlier.

The concretion contains four articulated vertebrae that looked to be fish at first glance. Jay Hawley, a local fossil enthusiast was asked to prep the block to reveal more details. Once the matrix was largely removed the vertebrae inside were revealed to be bird bones, not fish and not another saurodontid as originally thought. Palaeontologist Victoria Arbour was called back in to put her keen lens on the discovery. 

You'll appreciate that she took a good long look at the specimen and confirmed it to be a bird or a pterosaur. We still do not have confirmation on which it is as yet. The delicate bony material is very flattened with a very shallow u-shape on the bottom but will need additional study to confirm if the skies above California were once home to a great pterosaur who died, was fossilized then rode our tectonic plates to now call Hornby home. It's a great story and one that I'm keen to follow.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

DELICATELY RIDGED PORPOCERAS

An exquisite specimen of the delicately ridged ammonite, Porpoceras verticosum, from Middle Toarcian outcrops adjacent the Rhône in southeastern France.

Porpoceras (Buchman, 1911) is a genus of ammonite that lived during the early and middle Toarcian stage of the Early Jurassic. We see members of this genus from the uppermost part of the Serpentinum Zone to Variabilis Subzone. These beauties are found in Europe, Asia, North America and South America.

Ammonites belonging to this genus have evolute shells, with compressed to depressed whorl section. The flanks are slightly convex and the venter has been low. The whorl section is sub-rectangular. 

The rib is pronounced and somewhat fibulate on the inner whorls — just wee nodes here — and tuberculate to spined on the ventrolateral shoulder. It differs from Peronoceras by not having a compressed whorl section and regular nodes or fibulation. Catacoeloceras is also similar, but it has regular ventrolateral tubercles and is missing the classic nodes or fibulation of his cousins.

This specimen hails from southern France near the Rhône, one of the major rivers of Europe. It has twice the average water level of the Loire and is fed by the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps at the far eastern end of the Swiss canton of Valais then passes through Lake Geneva before running through southeastern France. This 10 cm specimen was prepared by the supremely talented José Juárez Ruiz

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

HOMARUS OF LEBANON

An artfully enhanced example of Homarus hakelensis, an extinct genus of fossil lobster belonging to the family Nephrophidae. Homarus is a genus of lobsters, which include the common and commercially significant species Homarus americanus (the American lobster) and Homarus gammarus (the European lobster).

The Cape lobster, which was formerly in this genus as H. capensis, was moved in 1995 to the new genus Homarinus.

Lobsters have long bodies with muscular tails and live in crevices or burrows on the seafloor. Three of their five pairs of legs have claws, including the first pair, which are usually much larger than the others.

Highly prized as seafood, lobsters are economically important and are often one of the most profitable commodities in coastal areas they populate. Commercially important species include two species of Homarus — which looks more like the stereotypical lobster — from the northern Atlantic Ocean, and scampi — which looks more like a shrimp — the Northern Hemisphere genus Nephrops and the Southern Hemisphere genus Metanephrops. Although several other groups of crustaceans have the word "lobster" in their names, the unqualified term lobster generally refers to the clawed lobsters of the family Nephropidae.

Clawed lobsters are not closely related to spiny lobsters or slipper lobsters, which have no claws or chelae, or to squat lobsters. The closest living relatives of clawed lobsters are the reef lobsters and the three families of freshwater crayfish. This cutie was found in Cretaceous outcrops at Hâdjoula. The sub‐lithographical limestones of Hâqel and Hâdjoula, in north‐west Lebanon, produce beautifully preserved shrimp, fish, and octopus. The localities are about 15 km apart, 45 km away from Beirut and 15 km away from the coastal city of Jbail. 

Monday, 22 February 2021

SHORT-BEAKED ECHIDNA

This chunky monkey is a Short-beaked Echidna, Tachyclossus aculeatus, which grows to about the size of an overweight cat. They are native to Australia and New Guinea. 

Echidnas are sometimes called spiny anteaters and belong in the family Tachyglossidae (Gill, 1872). They are monotremes, an order of egg-laying mammals. There are four species of echidnas living today. They, along with the platypus, are the only living mammals who lay eggs and the only surviving members of the order Monotremata. 

Superficially, they resemble the anteaters of South America and other spiny mammals like porcupines and adorable hedgehogs. They are usually a mix of brown, black and cream in colour. While rare, there have been several reported cases of albino echidnas, their eyes pink and their spines white. Echidnas have long, slender snouts that act as both nose and mouth for these cuties. The Giant Echidna we see in the fossil record had beaks more than double this size.  

Like the platypus, they are equipped with electro sensors, but while the platypus has 40,000 electroreceptors on its bill, the long-beaked echidna has only 2,000. The short-beaked echidna, which lives in a drier environment, has no more than 400 at the tip of its snout.

Echidnas evolved between 20 and 50 million years ago, descending from a platypus-like monotreme. Their ancestors were aquatic, but echidnas have adapted to life on land. Today, they weigh in at about 7 kg today but back in the Pleistocene, they were much larger. The Giant Echnida, Megalibwilia ramsayi was about 10% larger at 10 kg and Zaglossus hacketti was a whopping 30 kg. 

Fossil remains are relatively rare and sadly, incomplete, but they tell us potentially two other species of Echidna thriving in the Pleistocene. We also find Robust Echidna, Zaglossus robustus, in slightly older Miocene aged outcrops in a goldmine in Australia. The Giant Echnida's we find in the fossil record are relatives of the Long-Beaked Echidnas who live in New Guinea today.      

Sunday, 21 February 2021

PLAZA DE ESPANA, SEVILLE

The Plaza de España is a plaza in the Parque de María Luisa, in Seville, Spain. It was built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. 

It is a landmark example of Regionalism Architecture, mixing elements of the Baroque Revival, Renaissance Revival and Moorish Revival styles of Spanish architecture. You can stroll through the grounds and explore each of the buildings. There is amazing tile work.

The Plaza de España, designed by Aníbal González, was a principal building built on the Maria Luisa Park's edge to showcase Spain's industry and technology exhibits. González combined a mix of 1920s Art Deco and Spanish Renaissance Revival, Spanish Baroque Revival and Neo-Mudéjar styles. The Plaza de España complex is a huge half-circle; the buildings are accessible by four bridges over the moat, which represent the ancient kingdoms of Spain. In the centre is the Vicente Traver fountain.

Many tiled alcoves were built around the plaza, each representing a different province of Spain. Each alcove is flanked by a pair of covered bookshelves, now used by visitors in the manner of a "Little Free Library". Each bookshelf often contains works with information about each province. Visitors have also donated favourite novels and other books for others to read.

Today the buildings of the Plaza de España have been renovated and adapted for use as offices for government agencies. The central government departments, with a sensitive adaptive redesign, are located within it. Toward the end of the park, the grandest mansions from the fair have been adapted as museums. The most distant museum contains the city's archaeology collections. The main exhibits are Roman mosaics and artefacts from nearby Italica.

The Plaza de España has been used as a filming location, including scenes for Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The building was used as a location in the Star Wars movie series Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) — in which it featured in shots of the City of Theed on the Planet Naboo. It also featured in the 2012 film The Dictator.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

CERECINOS DE CAMPOS: DEINOTHERIUM

This partial specimen of Deinotherium giganteum hails from Middle-Upper Miocene, c. 15.97-5.33 Million Years outcrops near Cerecinos de Campos, Zamora Castile and León, northwestern Spain.

Deinotherium means "terrible beast," which feels a bit unkind to this vegetarian — though he was one of the largest elephants to walk this Earth. 

They are relatively recent in the evolutionary story of the Earth. They first appeared 17 million years ago, had a short run of it and became extinct relatively recently — just 1.6 million years ago. This fellow's cousin, Deinotherium bozasi would likely have interacted with some of our oldest relatives. 

One of the distinguishing features of Deinotherium is their curved tusks inserted only in the jaw. One of the tusks from this fellow, on display at the Museo Nacional De Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, Spain, while incomplete, was preserved rather nicely and shows the detail of where the tusk meets the jaw. Deinotherium could reach a height of over 3.5 meters. Its structure and size are similar to those of the present-day elephant. 

Friday, 19 February 2021

MEGATHERIUM: SLOTH

In 1788, this magnificent specimen of a Megatherium sloth was sent to the Royal Cabinet of Natural History from the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata.

The megaterios were large terrestrial sloths belonging to the group, Xenarthra. These herbivores inhabited large areas of land on the American continent. Their powerful skeleton enabled them to stand on their hind legs to reach leaves high in the trees, a huge advantage given the calories needed to be consumed each day to maintain their large size.

Avocados were one of the food preferences of our dear Giant ground sloths. They ate then pooped them out, spreading the pits far and wide. The next time you enjoy avocado toast, thank this large beastie. One of his ancestors may have had a hand (or butt) in your meal.

In 1788, Bru assembled the skeleton as you see it here. It is exhibited at the Museo Nacional De Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, Spain, in its original configuration for historic value. If you look closely, you'll see it is not anatomically correct. But all good palaeontology is teamwork. Based upon the drawings of Juan Bautista Bru, George Cuvier used this specimen to describe the species for the very first time.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

EL TORCAL DE ANTEQUERA

El Torcal de Antequera
El Torcal de Antequera is a nature reserve in the Sierra del Torcal mountain range south of the city of Antequera, in Andalusia, Spain. 

From the tops of the hillsides, you can see far into the fertile grazing lands of the province of Málaga. 

There are numerous hiking routes throughout the park, some for serious walkers and climbers, as well as for those who might prefer a more gentle meander. 

El Torcal is known for its unusual landforms and is regarded as one of the most impressive karst landscapes in Europe. Karst topography forms from the dissolution of soluble rocks like limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. It often has underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves. 

Water loves to dissolve the softer rocks but it works its erosional magic on harder, more weathering-resistant quartzites given the right conditions. El Torcal has many wonderful caves and thousands of chasms for the small animals living in this area to call home. Some are quite small, while others are large enough to be explored. The rock we see at El Torcal formed over several hundred million years. 

About 200 million years ago, much of Europe and the Middle East were submerged under the Tethys Sea. 

This was a time of carbonate sedimentation as the skeletons, shells and shells of small marine animals lived and died, depositing their remains at the bottom of the sea. 

Over vast amounts of time, these wee bits of marine matter built up until 175 million years later, the sediments have built up and compacted to form strat thousands of metres deep. 

Towards the Middle Miocene, the Iberian plates to the north of the Tethys Sea and the African plates to the south, compressed, deformed and fractured those sediments. This process is slow and continuous and still continues today. Water, wind and ice continue to shape the landscape and present the continually eroding karst landscape you can hike through today at El Torcal de Antequera.

El Torcal Natural Park is a UNESCO site. Hiking through the hills, you can see the large mushroom-shaped folds, with a very wide upper part and horizontal layers, and short and abrupt flanks. Karst acts as a large sponge, storing rainwater and releasing it within the rock to encourage the limestone to dissolve. 

Gravity pulls the water down and it trickles out again as streams along the edge of the cliffs. One of the sites that the water gathers is in the Nacimiento de La Villa spring on El Torcal's north side.

El Torcal, Karst Topography

Along with its distinct hoodoos, sprinkled amongst the limestones, you will find a wealth of interesting plants and wildlife. Look for lilies, red peonies, wild rose trees and thirty varieties of orchid.  

The many species of reptiles include the Montpellier snake and ocellated lizard, both endemic to El Torcal. 

Other wildlife to look for are the resident Griffon vultures and Spanish Ibex, Andalusian mountain goats, voles, fox and rabbits. If you are here in the evening, look for some of the nocturnal mammals who call these hills home — badgers and weasels.

The park has an excellent Visitor Centre which makes a natural starting point for your exploration of the reserve. There you will find details about the park, parking and walking routes. Guided walks are available, including the popular ‘Route of the 5 Senses’, a night-time ‘El Torcal Under Moonlight’ walk and a fossil-hunting walk, Route of the Ammonites. The visitor centre includes a very reasonably priced restaurant which offers a good selection of traditional food, all made with locally sourced ingredients.

For those who might enjoy some sightseeing in the heavens, this area of Spain has extremely favourable conditions for stargazing and astronomy. The Astronomical Observation of El Torcal (OAT) is located within the park. They host regular observation evenings that take advantage of the lack of light pollution in this region.  

Places to Stay: Finca Gran Cerros Rural Retreat: The epitome of tranquil, rural Spain, Finca Gran Cerros nestles into the Andalusian hillside just a few minutes drive from the traditional white villages’ of Álora and Valle de Abdalajis. Visit them: https://www.fincagrancerros.com. Fina Gran Cerros is about 30 km south of El Torcal de Antequera nature reserve in the Sierra del Torcal mountains.


Wednesday, 17 February 2021

OLD HABITS: DULCES AND SALMOREJO

A group of nuns stepping out in Córdoba, Spain. The nuns of the Convento de Santa Isabel make sweets and cookies from centuries-old recipes passed down from the Romans and Moors. 

It is a lost art as fewer and fewer nuns take their vows. living selling sweets and confections using recipes handed down from the Romans and Moors.  

Have a bit of a sweet tooth? You will appreciate their efforts. Head to the Calle Santa Isabel with Euros on you. Once you enter the convent you'll not see any of the nuns, but will find yourself quite alone in a smallish room with a lazy Susan installed on the wall. 

While I did see some nuns in the street, many do not leave the cloister or appear in public. You never see the nun with whom you do the transaction since these are cloistered nuns who do not look upon the outside world.

On the wall, you will see a price list. Once you have chosen your goodies, you ring the buzzer. A lovely voice will ask you what you would like to enjoy. Many of these egg yolk and sugary treats are sold by the box and offerings range from 11-88 Euros.

You place your verbal order, set the monies on the lazy Susan and give it a spin. And la voila, your sweets arrive. Beyond the tasty baking, you may want to try salmorejo. It is famous in the region and owes its origins to Moorish cuisine. The dish is a thick, cold, tomato-based soup made with garlic, sherry vinegar and sometimes topped with a hard-boiled egg or jamón. The tomatoes are a recent addition to the recipe, but this region grows some of the best so I can see the appeal. Think gazpacho only tastier. Simple and delicious.

Roman Bridge on Guadalquivir River, Córdoba
The entire city is walkable and a picture postcard from every view. It is also a lovely testament to Roman engineering and building structures that last. Most of the bridges in Spain and certainly those in Córdoba all hail from Roman times.

The Convento de Santa Cruz, a convent n the historic centre, barrio de San Pedro, Córdoba, Andalusia, Spain, is well worth a visit. It was founded in 1435, by Pedro de los Ríos y Gutiérrez de Aguayo and his wife, Teresa Zurita. 

The building has maintained close ties to the Ríos family who have worked to maintain it. They have added to the complex to interesting effect. It is notable for its originality, its architecture, and the artistic setting. These include the cloister, convent, church, house of the novices of the eighteenth century, and courtyard. In the main structure, there are architectural elements in Roman, Muslim, Moorish and Baroque styles, which witness the historic and artistic development of Córdoba. The retablos which decorate the church interior, tiling, and paintings are of note. It was declared a Bien de Interés Cultural site in 2011.

Photos: Nuns taking a stroll & the Roman Bridge on the Guadalquivir River and The Great Mosque — Mezquita Cathedral — at twilight in the city of Córdoba, Andalusia, Spain.

Foodie? You are welcome to drool over at https://spanishsabores.com/12-must-try-foods-in-cordoba-eat-like-a-local-in-cordoba/

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

NEOCOMITES: AMMONITE ESPANA

This lovely burnt-orange ammonite is Neocomites (Teschenites) found on a fossil field trip to Hauterivian, Early Cretaceous deposits in the Baetic Cordillera this past year. 

The Baetic Cordillera is one of the main systems of mountain ranges in Spain along the southern and eastern Iberian Peninsula. There are several productive outcrops here that yield lovely Cretaceous ammonites and other marine species.

Neocomites are flucticulus a fast-moving nektonic carnivorous ammonite (Thieuloy, 1977) known from about a dozen offshore marine deep subtidal Cretaceous deposits in France, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine.

The photo and specimen you see here sharing a large boulder with a delicate heteromorph straight-shelled ammonite Bochianites are the first Neocomites I have seen come out of fossil deposits in Spain. It was found and prepped by the talented Manuel Peña Nieto of Córdoba, Spain.

Monday, 15 February 2021

ANDALUSIA: ARCHITECTURE AND FOSSILS

Córdoba’s Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral
Andalusia is a gorgeous region of hills, creamy-beige rock, rivers and farmland bordering Spain’s southern coast. 

As you explore the region, you see the influence of Roman and Islamic conquest. It was under Moorish rule from the 8th-15th centuries, a legacy that shows in its architecture, particularly at sites like the Alcázar Castle in Seville and Córdoba’s Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral and Granada’s Alhambra palace in southern Spain. 

If you look closely, there is a lovely echinoderm fossil about the size of your hand embedded within the masonry stones of the Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral.  

Fossils are common in the ashlars and masonry in Córdoba. Despite having other limestone and granite quarries nearby, the calcarenites limestones with their embedded macrofossils were the most sought after because of the ease with which they could be worked and their relative lightness.

This is one of my favourite places to visit, both for the wonderful architecture, intense human history and the wonderful Hauterivian, Early Cretaceous fossil outcrops in the Baetic Cordillera. 

The Sierra Nevada range, which boasts Spain’s highest peak, Mulhacén (3479m), is 75 kilometres of snowcapped peaks sprinkled with quaint Alpujarras villages lost in time. 

Echinoid Fossil in the Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba
Each of these shows the juxtaposition of Muslim and Christian architecture and none more so than the especially stunning, and oh so grand Mosque-Cathedral in Córdoba. 

It was originally a small temple of Christian Visigoth origin then expanded again and again to reach a grand scale which speaks to its unusual and collaborative history. 

In 711, Muslims invaded and conquered Spain over the course of seven years. History is a tricky business to sort fact from fancy. One tale about the origins of the Muslim invasion mentions an oppressed Christian Chief, Julian, who wanted to get out from under the thumb of the tyrannical Visigoth rule. 

While powerful, the Visigoths made up only 1-2% of the population and had ruled for more than 300 years. |Their grip over the country and its growing rebellious population was already starting to crack. Julian resented King Roderic, the ruler of Spain and sought the aid of Musa ibn Nusair, the governor of North Africa to help him wage war. Musa was happy to oblige and sent the young general Tariq bin Ziyad with an army of 7,000 troops. 

Alhambra Palace, Granada, Spain
The Rock of Gibraltar — the massive monolithic limestone formed from Early Jurassic limestones and dolomites that grace the southwestern tip of Europe on the Iberian Peninsula — owes its name to Jabal At-Tariq — Arabic for 'Rock of Tariq' — the place where those first Muslim troops landed. 

Tariq did invade Spain but was driven as much by greed and conquest as by Julian's alleged appeal for help. The seasoned Muslim army defeated the Visigoths handily and King Roderic lost his life in the process at the Battle of Guadalete. I visited King Roderic's home city of Toledo, on the banks of the Tagus River. 

The city was the seat of a powerful archdiocese for much of its history and has some of my favourite feats of architecture — the Gothic Cathedral, the Catedral Primada de España ("The Primate Cathedral of Spain"), and a long history in the production of bladed weapons and lovely pottery dishes.

The Muslims — or Moorish — went on to conquer most of Spain and Portugal with ease. They washed across the land and by 720 Spain was largely under Muslim control. The combined Arab-Berber forces crossed the Pyrenees into Septimania and occupied territory in Gaul until 759. Their ultimate intension was the conquest of Constantinople, but their chosen path was through Spain.

Margocalizas del Jurásico Inferior
The churches and palaces you visit today are a visual memory of that piece of history lost in time. The mosque-cathedral was divided into Muslim and Christian halves. This sharing arrangement lasted until 784, when the Christian half was purchased by the Emir 'Abd al-Rahman I, who then demolished the original structure to build the grand mosque of Córdoba on its ground.

Córdoba returned to Christian rule in 1236 during the Reconquista, and the building was converted to a Roman Catholic church, culminating in the inclusion of a Renaissance cathedral nave in the 16th century. 

If you are visiting Andalusia, it is well worth a trip. Bring your camera and comfortable shoes. 

There is a converted convent that is now a boutique hotel with a rooftop terrace — the Balcon de Córdoba — that I highly recommend. It is on Calle Encarnacion 8, 14003. If you are planning a stay, give them a jingle and enjoy their Old World style. Tel: +34 957 49 84 78.

Photo: The specimen you see here of the Lower Jurassic ammonite Margocalizas sp. is in the collections of the deeply awesome Manuel Peña Nieto of Córdoba, Spain.

Photo: Echinoid in the masonry of Córdoba’s Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral: Miguel López Pulido


Sunday, 14 February 2021

HASLAM FORMATION NEAR BRANNEN LAKE

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: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1305358?seq=1

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.

Saturday, 13 February 2021

TORVOSAURUS: SAVAGE LIZARD

This toothy fellow is Torvosaurus tanneri and he hails from Late Jurassic outcrops in the Carnegie Quarry at Dinosaur National Monument, Morrison Formation, western United States — where we have found a single bone, his humerus telling us about his mighty size. 

The specimen you see here is currently on display at the Museo Nacional De Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, Spain.

Torvosaurus were one of the largest and most robust carnivores of the Jurassic. 

These "savage lizards," were true to their name. They were skilled bipedal hunters who weighed over two tons. They had powerful dentition, large, sharp teeth and strong claws on their forelegs — ferocious predators of the Upper Jurassic. He would have roamed alongside the mighty Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus and Allosaurus.

Palaeontologist Earl Douglass, 1909
Fossil specimens of Torvosaurus have been found in the Lourinha Formation near Lisbon, Portugal. Here, he would have towered over the smaller Allosaurus of the region who were just over eight metres or 27 feet on average, while he towered at over ten metres or 35 feet. 

This was not the case for the Allosaurus — famed brontosaur hunters — who roamed the fern-covered floodplains of the Jurassic west and what would one day become the United States. Here they grew massive, passing twelve metres or 40 feet in length and towering over the local Tovosaurus. Allosaurus had a large bite, their jaws opening up very wide, making them capable of taking very big bites and positioning them as the top carnivores of the Late Jurassic.

Still, both of these hunters had to contend with Sauophaganax, the largest Jurassic theropod at a whopping twelve to thirteen metres — making it the largest Allosaurus and maybe even a wee bit larger than the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex roaming around western North America back when it was the island continent of Laramidia. This would have been fearsome land to roam as the juvenile of any species as all of these brutes would have the skill, speed and teeth to take you down. 

Photo One: Tovosaurus tannerion display at the Museo Nacional De Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, Spain.

Photo Two: Palaeontologist Earl Douglass digging up the remains of a Brontosaurus at the Carnegie Quarry, 1909. To learn more about this fossil site, visit: https://carnegiemnh.org/celebrated-fossil-quarry/

Friday, 12 February 2021

KOURISODON PUNTLEDGENSIS

Kourisodon Puntledgensis
Mosasaurs were large, globally distributed marine predators who dominated our Late Cretaceous oceans.  Since the unearthing of the first mosasaur in 1766 (Mulder, 2003) we've discovered their fossil remains most everywhere around the globe — New Zealand, Antarctica, Africa, North and South America, Europe and Japan.

One of my favourite specimens is a juvenile on display at the Royal Tyrell Museum in Alberta. That particular mosasaur is smaller than many of the marine reptiles in their collection but wonderfully preserved with his last meal — a metre-long lizardfish. 

After this fellow died, he drifted to the bottom of the Bearpaw Sea, an ancient body of water that connected the Gulf of Mexico and Hudson's Bay, splitting North America in two. Once settled, sharks scavenged his remains but left enough for quite a view into our Cretaceous seas. The fossil was excavated in 2008 from 71 million-year-old outcrops in the Korite Ammonite Mine in Alberta, Canada.

The specimen was prepped by the Royal Tyrell's talented technician, Mark, who cheekily nicknamed the specimen Mister Sinister because of its toothy evil grin. 

We have found marine reptile remains on Vancouver Island and in northern British Columbia. Since the first find of a marine reptile on the Puntledge River, members of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society have made many significant paleontological finds. Found the fossil remains of an elasmosaur and two mosasaurs along the banks of the Puntledge River and this past summer, a juvenile elasmosaur was excavated on the Trent River.

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 Rolf Ludvigsen. Dan Bowen and Joe Morin of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society prepped the specimens for the Museum.

In 1993, a new species of mosasaur, Kourisodon puntledgensis, a razor-toothed mosasaur, was found upstream from 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. Kourisodon ("razor tooth") is a genus of mosasaur that has been found from Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, as well as from the Izumi Group of Japan.

Kourisodon Puntledgensis
These finds date back to the late Santonian stage and the late Campanian to the late Maastrichtian, respectively, of the Late Cretaceous. Kourisodon was originally described as a member of the Leiodontini, more recently as a Clidastine.

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.

In 2005, a fragmentary skeleton from exposures of the Izumi Group on Shikoku Island, Japan, was assigned to Kourisodon sp.

The Japanese specimen had longer maxillary teeth along with a few other differences from K. puntledgensis, which the authors interpreted to mean that this individual belonged to a second species, although this new species has not yet been formally named. Other fragmentary remains from the Izumi Group have been tentatively assigned to K. sp., some of which represent juvenile animals.

Until recently, mosasaur remains from the Izumi Group (Upper Cretaceous) in southwest Japan comprised only scattered finds. Recently, additional fossil material has been unearthed from the upper Campanian Hiketa Formation in Kagawa Prefecture.

A new Kourisodon sp. has just been recorded, on the basis of portions of skull and mandible which has small and laterally compressed teeth. A few teeth of the same or similar type have previously been described from the Maastrichtian Mutsuo Formation in Osaka Prefecture. A report of Mosasaurus sp. A, which resembles M. missouriensis and M. dekayi, is based on some cranial and mandible remains, inclusive of numerous teeth and a few well-preserved cervical and two incomplete dorsal vertebrae, from the Maastrichtian Mutsuo Formation in Osaka Prefecture.

There's still a bit of sorting to do to tease out the lineage of these lovely marine reptiles. A slender tooth of Mosasaurus sp. from the Mutsuo Formation has since been reassigned to Platecarpus (Plioplatecarpinae) yet may indeed be a species of Mosasaurus. It is currently recorded as Mosasaurus sp. B. Many smaller specimens of mosasaurids have been found in the Izumi Group. It may have been that these are juvenile mosasaurs or smaller-sized, Kourisodon-like animals. Recent finds of Kourisodon sp. from the upper Campanian Hiketa Formation and the Maastrichtian Mutsuo Formation suggests that we are seeing Kourisodon-like animals and a strong correlation with our own Pacific fauna from the Nanaimo Group.

What we do not see is a correlation between our Pacific fauna and those from our neighbouring province to the east. Betsy Nicholls and Dirk Meckert published on the marine reptiles from the Nanaimo Group (Upper Cretaceous) of Vancouver Island in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences in 2002. What we see in our faunal mix reinforces the provinciality of the Pacific faunas — though a  strong correlation with Cretaceous Japanese fauna — and their isolation from contemporaneous faunas in the Western Interior Seaway.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

PUNTLEDGE ELASMOSAUR

This toothy beauty is an elasmosaur, a large marine reptile who cruised our ancient oceans 80-million years ago. 

We have one now housed in the Courtenay and District Museum on Vancouver Island thanks to the keen eyes of  Mike Trask and his daughter. 

They found this mighty marine reptile 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., inspire the creation of the Vancouver Palaeontological Society, the BC Paleontological Alliance & change the face of palaeo in the province.

Mike had forged 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 a lovely researcher at the Royal Tyrell Museum.

It was Betsy who had written up the incomplete specimen of fossil turtle, Desmatochelys cf. D. lowi — Reptilia: Chelonioidea — found by Richard Bolt, Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society, 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.

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 cosied 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.

Since that first moment of discovery, many wonderful events transpired. In the Fall of 1991, Mike Trask was teaching a course on palaeontology at the North Island College.

Heidi Henderson, Mike Trask & Adam Melzac, BCPA Symposium
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 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 and a BCPA Symposium held every two years thereafter.

If you like podcasts, check out the Fossil Huntress — Palaeo Sommelier Podcast at https://anchor.fm/fossil-huntress

Fossil Huntress Geeky Goodness on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUerL9urNX8fHb6nHc_vrBQ


Wednesday, 10 February 2021

A PASSION FOR PALAEONTOLOGY

An old friend connected via social media to ask how he can best support his seven-year-old daughter's love of palaeontology. That is a question I love to hear! Now, my personal response is a bit of a tidal wave — buy her books, and rocks and a rock tumbler... take her out on fossil field trips, bring her to museums — fuel the flames of that passion for palaeo. Take no prisoners. Get her good and hooked! 

A love of palaeontology spills over to other areas of science and will help spark an interest in biology, ecology and natural history. In a perfect storm, the whole family catches the bug and summer field trips turn to trips from March to October or as soon as the snow clears.

If you are looking to purchase some fossils — be mindful not to purchase Canadian specimens — then Etsy is a good general source. Since we are living in the new normal of Covid, I would also turn to Amazon as a book source and take a boo at their starter rock collections and rock tumblers.

Local museums are a wonderful source of inspiration and tend to favour local fossil specimens. I particularly like the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta and the Courtenay and District Museum on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Seeing these is useful as it gives you the visual aid you'll need when collecting out in the field.  

Eyewitness Books: Fossils

If you are looking for resources and are readying this from a laptop, you'll see a column down the right-hand side of the page with a whole host of yummy options from books to gear. It is targeted at a slightly older audience, but I'll add some titles that might appeal to a younger audience. 

Ashley Hall did up quite a good children's book targeted for those aged 6-8 years old: Fossils for Kids: A Junior Scientist's Guide to Dinosaur Bones, Ancient Animals, and Prehistoric Life on Earth. It is available on Amazon and includes some wonderful images and covers all the introductory topics one would want to see in a first book on fossils. She also has a nice homage to her parents who inspired and encouraged her love of palaeontology. Dean Lomax and Darren Naish have published some worthy books that make a great addition to the family library.

Eye Witness has produced some wonderfully visual books on fossils. They are general, but that is the perfect place to start. Some folk love dinosaurs, others are into shark's teeth. Myself, I love all the wee invertebrates.  I love a good visual with a bite-size bit of information so you can digest it easily. I have sliced more than one Eyewitness book apart to laminate a section for use in kid's palaeontology courses. 

Some of these topics were touched upon in Season One of the Fossil Huntress Podcast. There is a wee cast on the legal side of palaeo that is worth a listen if you are planning to head out collecting or find yourself tempted to purchase Canadian specimens.

One of the best things about palaeontology is that it can be enjoyed at any age and everyone can contribute to science. Young, old, rich, poor, boy, girl, professional or vocational — fossils do not discriminate. You can be in elementary school and find a new dinosaur or marine reptile species. 

Some of the most significant finds in Canada and around the world are credited to youngsters — from the likes of Mary Anning to British Columbia's first marine reptile and dinosaur finds. The first elasmosaur in British Columbia was found by a young girl and her father. The dinosaurs up near Tumbler Ridge were found by two boys tubing along a river. 

Families and friends out for a stroll have found fossil bits and bones from many new species. The pterosaur Vectidraco was found by a four-year-old, who was honoured through the species name V. daisymorrisae. The Late Jurassic herbivorous dinosaur, Chilesaurus diegosuarezi, from Chile, was discovered by a seven-year-old while his parents briefly distracted — a lucky bit of timing for us all.  

So, if you're reading this, JD, I'm thrilled for you! Fuel the flames. Encourage her love of fossils, science and the natural world.

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

THE EARLIEST FLOWERING PLANTS

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. 

Monday, 8 February 2021

METASEQUOIA GLYPTOSTROBOIDES

Metasequoia, Dawn Redwood, is a fast-growing, deciduous tree native to Lichuan county in Hubei province in central China. It is the sole living species of Metasequoia glyptostroboides and one of three species of conifers known as redwoods.

Metasequoia has experienced morphological stasis for the past 65 million years, meaning they have not changed much. The modern Metasequoia glyptostroboides looks identical to its late Cretaceous ancestors.

They are remarkably similar to and sometimes mistaken for Sequoia at first glance but are easily distinguishable if you look to their needles. Metasequoia has paired needles that attach opposite to each other on the compound stem. Sequoia needles are offset and attach alternately. Think of the pattern or jumping versus walking. Metasequoia needles are paired as if you were jumping forward, one print beside the other, while Sequoia needles have the one-in-front-of-the-other pattern of walking.

Although the least tall of the redwoods, it grows to at least Sixty meters (200 feet) in height. Local villagers refer to the original tree from which most others derive as Shui-sa, or "water fir", which is part of a local shrine. Since its rediscovery in 1944, the dawn redwood has become a popular ornamental tree in the Pacific Northwest.

Metasequoia fossils are known from many areas in the Northern Hemisphere. And folk love naming them. More than twenty fossil species have been named over time —  some even identified as the genus Sequoia in error — but for all their collective efforts to beef up this genus there are just three species: Metasequoia foxii, Metasequoia milleri, and Metasequoia occidentalis.

Alder & Metasequoia Fossils from McAbee
During the Paleocene and Eocene, extensive forests of Metasequoia thrived as far north as Strathcona Fiord on Ellesmere Island and sites on Axel Heiberg Island (northern Canada) at around 80° N latitude.

We find lovely examples of Metasequoia occidentalis in the Eocene outcrops at McAbee near Cache Creek, British Columbia, Canada. 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 52-53 million years ago.

The McAbee fossil beds are 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. By far, we see the lovely Metasequoia the most.

Metasequoia was first described as a fossil from the Mesozoic Era by Shigeru Miki in 1941. Later in 1944, a small stand of an unidentified tree species was discovered in China in Modaoxi (磨刀溪; presently, Moudao (谋道), in Lichuan County, Hubei province by Zhan Wang.

Hubei province, central China.
While the find was exciting, it was overshadowed by China's ongoing conflict. In 1937, a clash between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge, just outside Beijing, led to an all-out war.

A year later, by mid-1938, the Chinese military situation was dire. Most of eastern China lay in Japanese hands: Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan. Many outside observers assumed that China could not hold out, and the most likely scenario was a Japanese victory over China.

Yet the Chinese hung on, and after Pearl Harbor, the war became genuinely global. The western Allies and China were now united in their war against Japan, a conflict that would finally end on September 2, 1945.

With World War II behind them, the Chinese researchers were able to re-focus their energies on the sciences. In 1946, Wan Chun Cheng and Hu Hsen Hsu went back to examine the trees from Lichuan County. Two years later, they published a paper describing a new living species of Metasequoia. That same year, Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University sent an expedition to collect seeds and, soon after, seedling trees were distributed to various universities and arboreta worldwide for growth trials.