Thursday, 30 September 2021

TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION

Indian Residential Schools (Click to Enlarge)
More than 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Metis children were forced to attend Indian Residential Schools. 

This was not to give them an education but to strip them of their culture. It was not lost as a by-product of attending — it was the sole reason for their attending.

Impossible you say. Well, it happened. And we are reaping the fall out to this day.

The legal term Indian is both political & racist. Canada's Indigenous population are First Nation, Métis & Inuit. 

Today, all Canadians share in a historic time of healing, thoughtful dialogue, and helping to bring forth the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

Friday, 24 September 2021

THE MIGHTY MARINE REPTILES

This well-preserved partial ichthyosaur was found in the Blue Lias shales by Lewis Winchester-Ellis in 2018. The vertebrae you see are from the tail section of this marine reptile.

The find includes stomach contents that tell us a little about how this particular fellow liked to dine.

As with most of his brethren, he enjoyed fish and cephalopods. Lewis found fishbone and squid tentacle hooklets in his belly. Oh yes, these ancient cephies had grasping hooklets on their tentacles. I am picturing them wiggling all ominously. The hooklets were the only hard parts of the animal preserved in this case as the softer parts of this ancient calamari were fully or partially digested before this ichthyosaur met his end.

Ichthyosaurus was an extinct marine reptile first described from fossil fragments found in 1699 in Wales. Shortly thereafter, fossil vertebrae were published in 1708 from the Lower Jurassic and the first member of the order Ichthyosauria to be discovered.

To give that a bit of historical significance, this was the age of James Stuart, Jacobite hopeful to the British throne. While scientific journals of the day were publishing the first vertebrae ichthyosaur finds, he was avoiding the French fleet in the Firth of Forth off Scotland. This wasn’t Bonnie Prince Charlie, this was his Dad. Yes, that far back.

Though not often referenced in the literature, the very first well-articulated ichthyosaur skeleton was discovered in 1749 by the German physician, Albert Mohr. Mohr found the fossil specimen near Bad Boll in Upper Swabia, a municipality in the district of Göppingen in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. But at the time, Mohr did not realize exactly what he had found. He thought the bones to be those of a fish — possibly a shark or ray. Georg Friedrich Jaeger wrote up a monograph in 1824 celebrating — and slightly inflating the interpretation of Mohr's work — though Jaeger's manuscript was produced in Latin so not often referenced in an ever Anglicized field of science.

Not long after Mohr's discovery, another fairly well-articulated skeleton was discovered by Mary Anning & her brother Joseph along the Dorset Jurassic Coast. Joseph had mistakenly, but quite reasonably, taken the find for an ancient crocodile. Mary excavated the specimen a year later and it was this and others that she found that would supply the research base others would publish on.

Mohr does not often get credited — those accolades usually go to Mary Anning. Mary's find was described by a British surgeon, Sir Everard Home, an elected Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1814. The specimen is now on display at the Natural History Museum in London bearing the name Temnodontosaurus platyodon, or “cutting-tooth lizard.”

In 1821, William Conybeare and Henry De La Beche, a friend of Mary's, published a paper describing three new species of unknown marine reptiles based on Anning's finds.

The Rev. William Buckland would go on to describe two small ichthyosaurs from the Lias of Lyme Regis, Ichthyosaurus communis and Ichthyosaurus intermedius, in 1837.

Lithography from William Buckland's 1824 Paper
Remarkable, you'll recall that he was a theologian, geologist, palaeontologist AND Dean of Westminster. It was Buckland who published the first full account of a dinosaur in 1824, coining the name, Megalosaurus

Here is an image from that 1824 publication showing a lithograph of the anterior extremity of the right lower jaw of the Megalosaurus from Stonesfield near Oxford. 

The Age of Dinosaurs and Era of the Mighty Marine Reptile had begun. Ichthyosaurs have been collected in the Blue Lias near Lyme Regis and the Black Ven Marls. More recently, specimens have been collected from the higher succession near Seatown. Paddy Howe, Lyme Regis Museum geologist, found a rather nice Ichthyosaurus breviceps skull a few years back. A landslip in 2008 unveiled some ribs poking out of the Church cliffs and a bit of digging revealed the ninth fossil skull ever found of a breviceps, with teeth and paddles to boot.

Specimens have since been found in Europe in Belgium, England, Germany, Switzerland and in Indonesia. Many tremendously well-preserved specimens come from the limestone quarries in Holzmaden, southern Germany.

Ichthyosaurs ranged from quite small, just a foot or two, to well over twenty-six metres in length and resembled both modern fish and dolphins.

Dean Lomax and Sven Sachs, both active — and delightful — vertebrate palaeontologists, have described a colossal beast, Shonisaurus sikanniensis from the Upper Triassic (Norian) Pardonet Formation of northeastern British Columbia, Canada, measuring 3-3.5 meters in length. The specimen is now on display in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Alberta, Canada. It was this discovery that tipped the balance in the vote, making it British Columbia's Official Fossil. 

Ichthyosaurs have been found at other sites in British Columbia, on Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii but Shonisaurus tipped the ballot. The first specimens of Shonisaurus were found in the 1990s by Peter Langham at Doniford Bay on the Somerset coast of England. 

Roy Chapman Andrews, AMNH 1928 Expedition to the Gobi Desert
Dr. Betsy Nicholls, Rolex Laureate Vertebrate Palaeontologist from the Royal Tyrrell Museum, excavated the type specimen of Shonisaurus sikanniensis over three field sessions in one of the most ambitious fossil excavations ever ventured. 

Her efforts from 1999 through 2001, both in the field and lobbying back at home, paid off. Betsy published on this new species in 2004, the culmination of her life’s work and her last paper as we lost her to cancer in the autumn of that year. 

I recently connected with John-Paul (JP) Zonneveld, Professor, Palaeontologist, Sedimentary Geologist and Field Scientist at the University of Alberta, who worked with Betsy on the original Shonisaurus sikanniensis site many years ago. "She was an awesome person, a dear friend and an outstanding field scientist." I could not agree more. Betsy was delightful.

Charmingly, Betsy had a mail correspondence with Roy Chapman Andrews, former director of the American Museum of Natural History, going back to the late 1950s as she explored her potential career in palaeontology. Do you recall the AMNH’s sexy paleo photos of expeditions to the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia in China in the early 20th century? You would remember if you had seen them. Roy Chapman Andrews was the lead on that trip. His photos are what fueled the flames of my own interest in palaeontology.

Shonisaurus popularise
We have found at least 37 specimens of Shonisaurus in Triassic outcrops of the Luning Formation in the Shoshone Mountains in northwestern Nye County of Nevada, USA. The finds go back to the 1920s. They were later brought back into the spotlight by the collecting efforts of Margaret Wheat of Fallon and Dr C. L. Camp, UCMP, in the 1950s.  

The aptly named Shonisaurus popularis became the Nevada State Fossil in 1977. Our Shoni got around. Isolated remains have been found in a section of sandstone in Belluno, in the Eastern Dolomites, Veneto region of northeastern Italy. The specimens were published by Vecchia et al. in 2002. And for a time, Shonisaurus was the largest ichthyosaurus known.

Move over, Shoni, as a new marine reptile find competes with the Green Anaconda, Eunectes murinus, and the Blue Whale, Balaenoptera musculus, for size at a whopping twenty-six (26) metres. The find is the prize of fossil collector turned co-author, Paul de la Salle, who — you guessed it — found it in the lower part of the intertidal area that outcrops strata from the latest Triassic Westbury Mudstone Formation of Lilstock on the Somerset coast. He contacted Dean Lomax and Judy Massare who became co-authors on the paper.

The find and conclusions from their paper put the dinosaur bones from the historic Westbury Mudstone Formation of Aust Cliff, Gloucestershire, UK site into full reinterpretation.

And remember the Ichthyosaur communis the good Reverend Buckland described back in 1837? Dean Lomax was the first to describe a wee baby. A wee baby ichthyosaur! Awe. I know, right? He and palaeontologist Nigel Larkin published this adorable first in the journal of Historical Biology in 2017.

They had teamed up previously on another first back in 2014 when they completed the reconstruction of an entire large marine reptile skull and mandible in 3D, then graciously making it available to fellow researchers and the public. The skull and braincase in question were from an Early Jurassic, and relatively rare, Protoichthyosaurus prostaxalis. The specimen had been unearthed in Warwickshire back in the 1950s. Unlike most ichthyosaur finds of this age, it was not compressed and allowed the team to look at a 3D specimen through the lens of computerized tomography (CT) scanning. 

Another superb three-dimensional ichthyosaur skull was found near Lyme Regis by fossil hunter-turned-entrepreneur-local David Sole and prepped by the late David Costain. I am rather hoping it went into a museum collection as it would be wonderful to see the specimen studied, imaged, scanned and 3D printed for all to share. 

Lomax and Sven Sachs also published on an embryo from one of the largest ichthyosaurs known, a new species named Ichthyosaurus somersetensis. Their paper in the ACTA Palaeontologica Polonica from 2017, describes the third embryo known for Ichthyosaurus and the first to be positively identified to species level. The specimen was collected from the Lower Jurassic strata (lower Hettangian, Blue Lias Formation) of Doniford Bay, Somerset, UK and is housed in the collection of the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum (Lower Saxony State Museum) in Hannover, Germany.

We have learned a lot about them in the time we've been studying them. We now have thousands of specimens, some whole, some as bits and pieces. Many specimens that have been collected are only just now being studied and the tools we are using to study them are getting better and better.

While they resembled fish and dolphins, Ichthyosaurs were large marine reptiles belonging to the order known as Ichthyosauria or Ichthyopterygia. In 2018, Benjamin Kear and his team were able to study ichthyosaur remains at the molecular level, Their findings suggest ichthyosaurs had skin and blubber quite similar to our modern dolphins.

While ichthyosaurs evolved from land-dwelling, lung-breathing reptiles, they returned to our ancient seas and evolved into the fish-shaped creatures we find in the fossil record today.

Their limbs fully transformed into flippers, sometimes containing a very large number of digits and phalanges. Their flippers tell us they were entirely aquatic as they were not well-designed for use on land. And it was their flippers that first gave us the clue that they gave birth to live young; a find later confirmed by fossil embryo and wee baby ichy finds.

They thrived during much of the Mesozoic era; based on fossil evidence, they first appeared around 250 million years ago (Ma) and at least one species survived until about 90 million years ago into the Late Cretaceous.

During the early Triassic period, ichthyosaurs evolved from a group of unidentified land reptiles that returned to the sea. They were particularly abundant in the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic before being replaced as a premier aquatic predator by another marine reptilian group, the Plesiosauria, in the later Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

In the Late Cretaceous, ichthyosaurs were hard hit by the Cenomanian-Turonian anoxic event. As the deepest benthos layers of the seas became anoxic, poisoned by hydrogen sulphide, deep water marine life died off. This caused a cascade that wreaked havoc all the way up the food chain. At the end of that chain were our mighty predaceous marine reptiles. Bounty turned to scarcity and a race for survival began. The ichthyosaurs lost that race as the last lineage became extinct. It may have been their conservative evolution as a genus when faced with a need for adaptation to the world in which they found themselves and/or being outcompeted by early mosasaurs.

There are promising discoveries coming out of strata from the Cretaceous epeiric seas of Texas, USA from Nathan E. Van Vranken. His published paper from 2017, "An overview of ichthyosaurian remains from the Cretaceous of Texas, USA," looks at ichthyosaurian taxa from the mid-Cretaceous (Albian–Cenomanian) time interval in North America with an eye to ichthyosaurian distribution and demise.

Image One: The find and photos are all credited to Lewis Winchester-Ellis. Thank you for sharing your tremendous specimen with us. Lewis did much of the preparation of the specimen, removing the majority of the matrix. The spectacular final prep is credited to Lizzie Hingley, Stonebarrow Fossils, Oxfordshire. Her skill with an air scribe is unparalleled.

Link to Lomax Paper: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article…

Link to Nathan's Paper: https://www.tandfonline.com/…/10.1080/03115518.2018.1523462…

Nicholls Paper: E. L. Nicholls and M. Manabe. 2004. Giant ichthyosaurs of the Triassic - a new species of Shonisaurus from the Pardonet Formation (Norian: Late Triassic) of British Columbia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 24(4):838-849 [M. Carrano/H. Street]

Image Two: Lithography from William Buckland's "Notice on the Megalosaurus or great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield", 1824. Anterior extremity of the right lower jaw of the Megalosaurus from Stonesfield near Oxford. Mary Morland (later Buckland; 1797–1857) - Plate 40 (XL) of William Buckland: Notice on the Megalosaurus or great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield. Transactions of the Geological Society of London. Series 2, vol. 1, no. 2, 1824, S. 390–396 (digital copy at geolsoc.org.uk).

HOME, E. (1814) Some Account of the Fossil Remains of an Animal more nearly allied to Fishes than any of the Other Classes of Animals. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 104, 571- 577.

JAEGER, G.F. (1824) De Ichthyosauri sive Proteosauri fossils speciminibus in Agro Bollensi in Wurtembergia repertis. Stuttgart.

LHUYD, E. (1699) Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographia. London.


Wednesday, 22 September 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 can 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.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

BLUE JAY: KWASKWAS

If you live in North American, there is a high probability that you have seen or heard the bird song of the Blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata (Linnaeus, 1758).

Blue Jays are in the family Corvidae — along with crows, ravens, rooks, magpies and jackdaws. They belong to a lineage of birds first seen in the Miocene — 25 million years ago. 

These beautifully plumed, blue, black and white birds can be found across southern Canada down to Florida. The distinctive blue you see in their feathers is a trick of the light. Their pigment, melanin, is actually a rather dull brown. The blue you see is caused by scattering light through modified cells on the surface of the feather as wee barbs.

Blue jays like to dine on nuts, seeds, suet, arthropods and some small vertebrates. 

If you are attempting to lure them to your yard with a bird feeder, they prefer those mounted on trays or posts versus hanging feeders. They will eat most anything you have on offer but sunflower seeds and peanuts are their favourites. 

They have a fondness for acorns and have been credited with helping expand the range of oak trees as the ice melted after the last glacial period.  

Their Binomial name, Cyanocitta cristata means, crested, blue chattering bird. I might have amended that to something less flattering, working in a Latin word or two for shrieks and screams — voce et gemitu or ululo et quiritor. While their plumage is a visual feast, their bird chatter leaves something to be desired. Their cries are quite helpful if you are an animal living nearby and concerned about predators. 

In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest, a Blue Jay is known as kwa̱skwa̱s. The Kwak’wala word for blue is dzasa and cry is ḵ̕was'id. For interest, the word for bird song in Kwak'wala is t̕sa̱sḵwana


Monday, 20 September 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, 19 September 2021

OKANAGAN HIGHLAND LOCALITIES OF BRITISH COLUMBIA

Fossils from the Okanagan Highlands, an area centred in the Interior of British Columbia, provide important clues to our ancient climate. 

Okanagan Highlands refers to an arc of Eocene lakebed sites that extend from Smithers in the north, down to the fossil site of Republic Washington. 

The grouping includes the fossil sites of Driftwood Canyon, Quilchena, Allenby, Tranquille, McAbee, Princeton and Republic.

These fossil sites range in time from Early to Middle Eocene, and the fossil they contain give us a snapshot of what was happening in this part of the world because of the varied plant fossils they contain.

We can infer the difference in climates between the sites. McAbee was not as warm as some of the other Middle Eocene sites, a fact inferred by what we see and what is conspicuously missing. In looking at the plant species, it has been suggested that the area of McAbee had a more temperate climate, slightly cooler and wetter than other Eocene sites to the south at Princeton, British Columbia and Republic and Chuckanut, Washington. Missing are the tropical Sabal (palm), seen at Princeton and the impressive Ensete (banana) and Zamiaceae (cycad) found at Republic in north-central Washington, in the Swauk Formation near Skykomish and the Chuckanut Formation of northern Washington state.

Friday, 17 September 2021

FOSSIL SEED FERN

These lovely fossil seed ferns are plentiful examples of Neuropteris sp. from Carboniferous outcrops in the Llewellyn Shales of St. Clair, a small, impoverished borough in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. 

They are members of the Order Medullosales — closely related to modern-day cycads.

These extinct ferns lived 310 million years ago during the Great Coal Age — a timeframe that includes the Pennsylvanian and Mississippian periods when much of the Earth's coal was formed. 

As ferns, trees and other plant matter decayed, vast deposits of peat accumulated. Floodwaters brought silt deposits, covering and intermingling with the decaying peat. Time and pressure turned that mixture to the coal we mine today. 

Back when they were alive, Pennsylvania was largely a tropical swamp with ferns towering at more than 50 feet high. They dominated the landscape, lived and died a full 185 million years before the first of our lovely flowering plants had even arrived.  

Thursday, 16 September 2021

NORTH SEA DOLPHIN VERTEBRAE: HATSAWE'

A lovely 17 cm deep chocolate brown fossil Bottlenose Dolphin, Tursiops sp. vertebrae found in the Brown Bank area of the North Sea, one of the busiest seaways in the world.

Bottlenose dolphins first appeared during the Miocene and swam the shallow seas of this region. 

We still find them today in warm and temperate seas worldwide though unlike narwhal, beluga and bowhead whales, Bottlenose dolphins avoid the Arctic and Antarctic Circle regions. 

Their name derives from the Latin tursio (dolphin) and truncatus for their characteristic truncated teeth. In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest — and part of my heritage — dolphin are hatsawe'. 

On the north end of Vancouver Island, we have pods of 50-100 Pacific White-Sided dolphins, cousins of the Bottlenose, who frolic and jump alongside your boat if you are out on the water. Similar to their southern cousins, Pacific White-Sided dolphins feed on salmon, herring, pilchards, anchovies, needlefish, squid, shrimp, pollock, sablefish, rock cod and other small fish — a tasty menu that reflects my own. 

Bottlenose dolphins are the most common dolphin species in the Pacific Northwest but do not often venture farther north than Oregon. We have two populations of bottlenose dolphins here, the California coastal population and those that prefer to live offshore. It is as exciting to see them playing in our oceans today as it is to see the fossil remains of their ancestors from the Brown Bank sediments of the North Sea. 

Brown Bank, North Sea, Pleistocene Dredging Area
There are two known fossil species from Italy that include Tursiops osennae (late Miocene to early Pliocene) from the Piacenzian coastal mudstone, and Tursiops miocaenus (Miocene) from the Burdigalian marine sandstone.

Many waterworn vertebrae from the Harbour Porpoise Phocoena sp., (Cuvier, 1816), Bottlenose dolphin Tursiops sp. (Gervais, 1855), and Beluga Whale, Delphinapterus sp. (Lacépède‎, 1804‎) are found by fishermen as they dredge the bottom of the Brown Bank, one of the deepest sections of the North Sea.  

The North Sea is a sea of the Atlantic Ocean located between the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. An epeiric sea on the European continental shelf, it connects to the ocean through the English Channel in the south and the Norwegian Sea in the north.

The fishermen use small mesh trawl nets that tend to scoop up harder bits from the bottom. This technique is one of the only ways this Pleistocene and other more recent material is recovered from the seabed, making them relatively uncommon. The most profitable region for fossil mammal material is in the Brown Bank area of the North Sea. I have circled this area on the map below to give you an idea of the region.

Found by Fishermen in the North Sea. Using a small mesh trawl net is often the only time these come up from the seabed, hence they are uncommon. ​Size: 17.0cm. Age: 30-40,000 Years old. 

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

FISHING IN ANCIENT SEAS

If you could cast a fishing line into our ancient seas, it is likely that you would hook an ammonite, not a fish. When we find them, it is their hugely varied fossilized shells that we see. 

Rarely is the very soft, squid-like fellow inside preserved so we can easily forget what the entire animal looked like. 

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

Catching a fish with your hands is no easy feat, as I am sure you know. But the Ammonites were skilled and successful hunters. They caught their prey while swimming and floating in the water column. 

Within their shells, they had a number of chambers, called septa, filled with gas or fluid that were interconnected by a wee air tube called a siphuncle. By pushing air in or out, they were able to control their buoyancy in the water column.

They lived in the last chamber of their shells, continuously building new shell material as they grew. As each new chamber was added, the squid-like body of the ammonite would move down to occupy the final outside chamber.

We find ammonite fossils, and plenty of them, in sedimentary rock from all over the world. They were prolific breeders that evolved rapidly. 

In some cases, we find rock beds where we can see evidence of a new species that evolved, lived and died out in such a short time span that we can walk through time, following the course of evolution using ammonites as a window into the past. 

For this reason, they make excellent index fossils. An index fossil is a species that allows us to link a particular rock formation, layered in time with a particular species or genus found there. Generally, deeper is older, so we use the sedimentary layers of rock to match up to specific geologic time periods, rather like the way we use tree rings to date trees.

Monday, 13 September 2021

FOSSIL FAUNA OF HAIDA GWAII

This lovely slate grey and beige ammonite with the fine ribbing is Brewericeras hulenense (Anderson 1938) — a fast-moving, nektonic (no idle floating here!) carnivorous ammonite from the Lower Cretaceous (Albian) of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada.

This specimen is just over 12cm in length, a little under the average of 13.4cm. There are several localities in the islands of Haida Gwaii where Brewericeras can be found — six that I know of and likely plenty more.

The islands of Haida Gwaii lay at the western edge of the continental shelf due west of the central coast of British Columbia. 

They form Wrangellia, an exotic tectonostratigraphic terrane that includes Vancouver Island, parts of western British Columbia and Alaska.

It is always interesting to see who was making a living and co-existing in our ancient oceans at the time these fossils were laid down. 

We find multiple beautifully preserved specimens of the spiny ammonite, Douvelleiceras spiniferum along with Brewericeras hulenense (shown here), Cleoniceras perezianum and many cycads in concretion.

The Lower Jurassic ammonite faunas found at Haida Gwaii are very similar to those found in the Eastern Pacific around South America and in the Mediterranean. 

The strata exposed at Maple Island, Haida Gwaii are stratigraphically higher than the majority of Albian localities in Skidegate Inlet. The macrofossil fauna belonged to the Upper part of the Sandstone Member of the Haida formation.

The western end of the island contains numerous well-preserved inoceramids such as Birostrina concentrica and a few rare ammonites of Desmoceras bearskinese

The eastern shores are home to unusual ammonite fauna in the finer-grained sandstones. Here we find the fossils as extremely hard concretions while others were loose in the shale. Species include Anagaudryceras sacya and Tetragonites subtimotheanus. A large whorl section of the rare Ammonoceratites crenucostatus has also been found here. 

Saturday, 11 September 2021

STYXOSAURUS: ELASMO-TERROR OF ANCIENT SEAS

Styxosaurus, one of the large plesiosaurs in the family Elasmosauridae, takes on a giant octopus. 

Styxosaurus was an elasmosaur that appeared in the Late Cretaceous. 

The holotype specimen of Styxosaurus snowii was described by S.W. Williston from a complete skull and 20 vertebrae. Elasmosaurs typically have a neck that is at least half the length of the body, composed of 60-72 vertebrae.

They were very successful hunters, outcompeting ichthyosaurs who thrived in the Triassic but were replaced in the Jurassic and Cretaceous by these new aquatic beasties. 

Our ancient seas teemed with these predatory marine reptiles with their long necks and barrel-shaped bodies. Styxosaurus was around 11 metres (36 ft) long — and true to its family Elasmosauridae — about half of the length being composed of its 5.25 metres (17.2 ft) neck. Its sharp teeth were conical and were adapted to puncture and hold rather than to cut; like other plesiosaurs. 

Styxosaurus preferred to gulp down their food whole. They may have taken bits and pieces of a giant octopus similar to the one depicted but would have likely preferred a smaller prey that could be swallowed in one go.

Friday, 10 September 2021

ANCIENT MARINE PREDATORS: PLESIOSAURS

Plesiosaurus were a large, carnivorous air-breathing marine reptile with strong jaws and sharp teeth that moved through the water with four flippers. 

We see them arise in the fossil record some 203 million years ago and then go extinct 66 million years ago.

We had originally thought that this might not be the most aerodynamic design but it was clearly effective as they used the extra set to create a wee vortex that aided in their propulsion. 

In terms of mechanical design, they have a little something in common with an unlikely favourite of mine — dragonflies.

We have recreated plesiosaur movements and discovered that they were able to optimize propulsion to make use of their own wake. As their front flippers paddled in big circular movements, the propelled water created little whirlpools under their bellies. The back flippers would then paddle between these whirlpools pushing the plesiosaur forward to maximal effect. This use of air currents is similar to how dragonflies move through the air. 

They were very successful hunters, outcompeting ichthyosaurs who thrived in the Triassic but were replaced in the Jurassic and Cretaceous by these new aquatic beasties. 

Our ancient seas teemed with these predatory marine reptiles with their long necks and barrel-shaped bodies. Plesiosaurs were smaller than their pliosaur cousins, weighing in at about 450 kg or 1,000 lbs and reaching about 4.5 metres or 15 feet in length. For a modern comparison, they were roughly twice as long as a standard horse or about as long as a good size hippo.

Thursday, 9 September 2021

CANADOCERAS YOKOYAMAI: HASLAM FORMATION

A lovely chunky slate grey handful of an ammonite is Canadoceras yokoyamai from Upper Cretaceous (Early Campanian) outcrops in the Haslam Formation of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. 

This gorgeous ammonite was found by Tim O'Bear and is now in the collections of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society (VIPS), a regional paleontological society based in Courtenay.

This meaty cephalopod swam and hunted in our ancient oceans 80-84 million years ago and was once a leading candidate as the provincial fossil of British Columbia — an honour won by Shonisaurus sikanniensis.

The species is named for Matajirō Yokoyama, Professor of Geology and Palaeontology at the Imperial University of Tokyo, Japan. 

Yokoyama was born in the Nagasaki Prefecture on the 14th of June 1860 — the day slavery was abolished in the Neth Indies and the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States — a move that would lead to the beginning of the US Civil War the following year.

During his early life, the Meiji Restoration would begin the process of transforming Japan into a global imperial power. During the Restoration, Japan rapidly industrialized, adopting Western ideas and production methods. This shift in the cultural focus of his nation allowed him to pursue his studies in science — something encouraged in an emerging nation.

Matajirō Yokoyama (1860-1942)
Yokoyama did some wonderful work on the Cretaceous of Japan and opened up our understanding of the species on Vancouver Island. 

Through his research, we learned of the Japanese fauna and the extent of their occurrence. The range of Canadoceras yokoyamai extended from Alaska, the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, California to Santonian outcrops in the Yezo Group of Hokkaido in Japan’s northern islands. 

Within the Yezo Group, we find Canadoceras yokoyami amongst other ammonites, bivalves — and some wonderful marine reptiles — both mosasaurs and marine turtles.

Given that Canadoceras yokoyami arose, lived and died in a relatively short time frame — geologically speaking — they make excellent Index fossils. They can act as guides as to the age of the rocks in which they are preserved. This is helpful in the field. 

If you were to find a fossil in a rock of unknown age, you can look at the species and guess with relative certainty what age that rock likely is. 

References:

Matsumoto, T., 1954a [for 1953]: The Cretaceous system in the Japanese islands., pp. i–xiv + 1–324, pls. 1–20. The Japanese Society for the Promotion of Scientific Research, Ueno, Tokyo. (Reference No. 0219)

Tanabe, K., Ito, Y., Moriya, K. and Sasaki, T., 2000: Database of Cretaceous ammonite specimens registered in the Department of Historical Geology and Paleontology of the University Museum, University of Tokyo. The University Museum, The University of Tokyo, Material Reports, no. 37, pp. i–iv + 1–509. (Reference No. 0879)

Photo: Matajirō Yokoyama, Professor of Geology, Palaeontology and Mineralogy. 日本語: 横山又次郎 地質学古生物学及鉱物学教授 Tokyo Teikoku Daigaku (Imperial University of Tokyo). Ogawa Shashin Seihanjo, 1900 (reprint, Ryūkei Shosha, 2004).

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

OCEAN SUNFISH: MOLA MOLA

Mola mola (Linnaeus, 1758)
The massive docile ocean sunfish or common mola, Mola mola (Linnaeus, 1758) is one of the two heaviest known bony fish in the world — the other being the southern sunfish of the same genus. 

As a family, Molidae emerged between 45 million and 35 million years ago, well after the dinosaurs disappeared and at a time when whales still had legs. 

A group of pufferfishes — the kissing cousins to the Mola we know today and built like little tanks — left the safety of the coral reefs for the open ocean. 

They evolved and gave rise to Mola about 23 – 20.4 million years ago. These were followed by their still extant cousins, the Ranzania, 16 – 13.8 million years ago. The third genus of extant sunfish, Masturus, has not been identified in the fossil record (Carnevale et al. 2020) though we will keep looking and put that puzzle piece in its place in time.

When they are born, dozens would fit in the palm of your hand — each roughly the size of a pea. When they are youngsters, they are very curious and will swim up to you to take a wee nibble to figure out what you are. My mother had such a harmless bite when she was travelling as a girl. The bite left a tooth embedded in her leg that worked its way out a few weeks later. Not in any way perturbed, she speaks of her encounter fondly. 

As they grow, Mola take on a very roundish look and grow to a massive 247 to 1,000 kg (544 to 2,204 lbs) — that's one and a half times the size of a typical cow and bigger than a Grizzly Bear. The heaviest specimen on record is a bump-head sunfish, Mola alexandrini, caught off Kamogawa, Chiba, Japan, in 1996. It weighed 2,300 kilograms (5,070 pounds) and measured 2.72 metres (8 feet 11 inches) long.

The sheer size and thick skin of an adult of the species deter many smaller predators, but younger fish are vulnerable to predation by bluefin tuna and mahi-mahi. 

Adults are often consumed as tasty snacks by orca, sharks and sea lions — and sadly, by humans, particularly those from Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Fortunately, the EU has banned the sale of common mola and others within the family Molidae. 

Of all the fish we have in our oceans, the common mola or sunfish has the most names I have ever come across. 

Many of the sunfish's various names allude to its round, flattened, moonish or millstone shape. Its scientific name, mola, is Latin for millstone. It is a rather good choice as the fish resembles a millstone you might use for grinding grain, in part because of its grey colour, rough texture, and rounded body. 

Its English name, sunfish, refers to the animal's habit of enjoying the sun's rays as it basks near the surface. Its common names in Dutch, Portuguese, French, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Russian, Greek, Norwegian, and German — maanvis, peixe lua, Poisson lune, pez luna, peix lluna, Pesce luna, рыба-луна, φεγγαρόψαρο, månefisk and Mondfisch, respectively — mean moonfish, in reference to its round moonish shape. 

In German or auf Deutsch, the common mola is also known as Schwimmender Kopf or swimming head. In Polish, it is named samogłów, meaning head alone or only head, because it lacks a true tail. In Swedish, Danish and Norwegian it is known rather unflatteringly as klumpfisk, in Dutch klompvis, in Finnish möhkäkala — all of which mean lump fish

The Chinese translation of its name is fān chē yú 翻車魚, meaning toppled wheel fish — perhaps as a wee homage to the original Latin mola or millstone. 

By any name, we find these gentle giants cruising through tropical and temperate waters around the world where they have thrived for many millions of years.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

PHRAGMOTEUTHIS CONOCAUDA

Phragmoteuthis conocauda
A superb specimen of Phragmoteuthis conocauda, (Quenstedt, 1846-49). These ancient marine lovelies had an internal phragmocone and ten arms.

Phragmoteuthis is a genus of extinct coleoid cephalopod known from the late Triassic to the Lower Jurassic. Its soft tissue has been preserved wonderfully. Some rare specimens contain intact ink sacs, arm hooks, and others, gills.

There are some wonderful specimens from the Carnian, Late Triassic outcrops near Lunz, in Lower Austria with wee arm hooks and ink sacs, though the ink now looks like an agglomerate of grains. 

In Toarcian deposits in Southwestern Germany, we find fragments of Phracmoteuthis concocauda with bits of gill preserved. They look remarkably like the gills of octopod and vampyromorph colcoids.

Palaeontologist Jurji (Jura) Jeletzky characterized phragmoteuthids as having a large tripartite, fanlike pro-ostracum forming the longest portion of the shell, attached to about three-quarters of the circumference of a comparatively small breviconic phragmocone with short camerae and superficially belemnitid-like siphuncle.

Add that to an absent or much-reduced rostrum at the apical part of the phragmocone, belemnite-like arm hooks, an ink sack, beaks resembling those of recent teuthids, and a muscular mantle.

Think early squid. These are their great great grandparents. 

This specimen is in the collections of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum, Norway's oldest and largest museum of natural history in the lovely neighbourhood of Tøyen near Grünerløkka in Oslo. If you visit, check out the nearby Munch Museum to see some of Edvard Munch's work.

Monday, 6 September 2021

Sunday, 5 September 2021

FIRST NATION POLES IN STANLEY PARK

Totem, Welcome & Mortuary Poles at Stanley Park
If you visit Brockton Point in Stanley Park, there are many carved red cedar First Nation poles for you to admire.  

What you are viewing are replicas of First Nation welcome and totem poles that once stood in the park but have been returned to their homes within the province's diverse First Nation communities — or held within museum collections. 

Some of the original totems came from Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, near the Port McNeill on the north coast of Vancouver Island. Others came from communities in Haida Gwaii — and still more from the Wuikinuxv First Nations at Rivers Inlet on British Columbia's central west coast — home of the Great Bear Rainforest with her Spirit Bears.

The exception is the most recent addition carved by Robert Yelton in 2009. Robert is a First Nation carver from the Squamish Nation and his original welcome pole graces Brockton Point, the original settlement site of a group of Squamish-Portuguese settlers.  

If you look at the photo above, the lovely chocolate, red and turquoise pole on the right is a replica of the mortuary pole raised to honour the Raven Chief of Skedans or Gida'nsta, the Haida phrase for from his daughter, the title of respect used when addressing a person of high rank. Early fur traders often took the name of the local Chief and used it synonymously as the place names for the sites they visited — hence Skedans from Gida'nsta.

Chief Skedans Mortuary Pole
Chief Skedans, or Qa'gials qe'gawa-i, to his children, lived in Ḵ’uuna Llnagaay, or village at the edge, in Xaayda Kil — a village on the exposed coast of Louise Island — now a Haida Heritage Site.  

There are some paintings you may have seen by Emily Carr of her visits to the site in 1912, She used the phonetic Q'una from Q:o'na to describe both the place name and title of her work. 

Carr's paintings of the totems have always looked to me to be a mash-up — imagine if painter Tamara de Lempicka and photographer Edward Curtis had a baby — not pretty, but interesting.

Some called this area, Huadju-lanas or Xu'adji la'nas, which means Grizzly-Bear-Town, in reference to resident grizzly bear population and their adornment of many totems and artwork by the local artists.

Upon Chief Skedan's death, the mortuary pole was carved both to honour him and provide his final resting place. Dates are a bit fuzzy, but local accounts have this as sometime between 1870-1878 — and at a cost of 290 blankets or roughly $600 in today's currency. 

The great artistry of the pole was much admired by those in the community and those organizing the celebrations for the 1936 Vancouver Golden Jubilee — witnessed by  350,000 newly arrived residents.

Negotiations were pursued and the pole made its way down from Haida Gwaii to Stanley Park in time for the celebrations. The original totem graced Stanley Park for a little over twenty years before eventually making its way back to Haida Gwaii. It was returned to the community with bits of plaster and shoddy paint marring the original. These bits were scraped off and the pole welcomed back with due ceremony. 

In 1964, respected and renowned Northwest Coast master carver, Bill Reid, from the Kaadaas gaah Kiiguwaay, Raven/Wolf Clan of T'anuu, Haida Gwaii and Scottish-German descent, was asked to carve this colourful replica. 

Mountain Goat Detail, Skedans Mortuary Pole
Reid carved the totem onsite in Stanley Park with the help of German carver Werner True. Interestingly, though I looked at length for information on Werner True, all I can find is that he aided Bill Reid on the carving for a payment of $1000.

Don Yeomans, Haida master carver, meticulously recarved the moon crest in 1998. If you have admired the totem pole in the Vancouver Airport, you will have seen some of Yeoman's incredible work. 

The crest is Moon with the face, wings, legs and claws of a mighty and proud Thunderbird with a fairly smallish hooked beak in a split design. We have Moon to thank for the tides and illuminating our darkest nights. As a crest, Moon is associated with transformation and acting as both guardian and protector.

The original pole had a mortuary box that held the Chief's remains. The crest sits atop a very charming mountain goat. I have included a nice close-up here of the replica for you to enjoy. 

Mountain Goats live in the high peaks of British Columbia and being so close to the sky, they have the supernatural ability to cross over to the sky world. They are also credited as being spirit guardians and guides to First Nation shamans.

I love his horns and tucked in cloven hooves. There is another pole being carved on Vancouver Island that I hope to see during its creation that also depicts a Mountain Goat. With permission and in time, I hope to share some of those photos with you. 

Mountain Goat is sitting atop Grizzly Bear or Huaji or Xhuwaji’ with little human figures placed in his ears to represent the Chief's daughter and son-in-law, who raised the pole and held a potlatch in his honour. 

Beneath the great bear is Seal or Killer Whale in his grasp. The inscription in the park says it is a Killer Whale but I am not sure about that interpretation — both the look and lore make Seal more likely. Perhaps if Killer Whale were within Thunderbird's grasp — maybe

Though it is always a pleasure to see Killer Whale carved in red cedar, as the first whales came into being when they were carved in wood by a human — or by Raven — then magically infused with the gift of life.

Siwash Rock on the northern end of Third Beach, Stanley Park
The ground these totems sit upon is composed of plutonic, volcanic and sedimentary layers of rock and exhibits the profound influences of glaciation and glacial retreat from the last ice age. 

Glacial deposits sit atop as a mix of clay, sand, cobbles and larger boulders of glacial till. 

There are a few areas of exposed volcanics within the park that speak to the scraping of the glaciers as they retreated about 12,500 years ago. 

The iconic moss and lichen coated Siwash Rock on the northern end of Third Beach is one of the more picturesque of these. It is a basaltic and andesitic volcanic rock — a blend of black phenocrysts of augite cemented together with plagioclase, hornblende and volcanic glass.

Images not shown: 

Do check out the work of Emily Carr and her paintings of Q:o'na from the 1940s. I'll share a link here but do not have permission to post her works. http://www.emilycarr.org/totems/exhibit/haida/ssintro.htm

Saturday, 4 September 2021

STANLEY PARK: HIDDEN HISTORY

Anavitrinella pampinaria / Dan Bowden Photography
A Common grey moth of the family Geometridae. We begin to see them in the fossil record some 200 million years ago. 

These lovelies live in North America from Mexico to Alaska and do a wonderful job at camouflage. 

While not a perfect hiding spot, this fellow has chosen to settle in for the evening on a young yellow cedar tree, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, in Vancouver's Stanley Park — a 405-hectare urban forest in Vancouver, B.C. that became a provincial park in 1887. 

This area was once the exclusive domain of the Coast Salish First Nations —  xʷmə?kʷəyəm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations until the early 1800s. 

Blending into that mix in the mid-1800s was a group of mixed Portuguese-Squamish settlers who called the eastern shores of the park at Brockton Point home from the mid-1800s to the 1930s. 

Brockton Point. City of Vancouver Archives, CVA 677-228
On the park's northern shores, there were well established Squamish First Nations villages — Whoi Whoi known today as Lumberman's Arch and Chaythos, which we now call Prospect Point. 

There was also a well-established Hawaiian settlement at Kanaka Ranch closer to the park's entrance near Coal Harbour. 

Many individuals from Vancouver's growing Chinese population lived peacefully alongside squirrels, coyotes, racoons and other wildlife within the natural beauty of the park. Enticed to British Columbia by the lure of gold but finding the riches far less than expected, they took to the forest in Stanley Park to make out of the way homes for themselves. That, of course, did not last. All of the residents in and around the newly minted park were ousted with ill regard for their welfare. 

You may know of one of the families, Khatsahlano, from whence my community of Kitsilano gets its name. August Jack Khatsahlano (July 16, 1877 – June 5, 1971), lived in Whoi Whoi alongside eleven other families. August Jack Khatsahlano or X̱ats'alanexw, was born in the village of Xwayxway on the peninsula that is now Stanley Park, Vancouver/Chaythoos, British Columbia.

He was the son of Supple Jack "Khay- Tulk" of Chaythoos and Sally "Owhaywat" from the Yekwaupsum Reserve north of Squamish, British Columbia. His grandfather was Chief Khahtsahlano of Senakw (Snauq or Sun'ahk) who migrated from his home at Toktakanmic on the Squamish River to Chaythoos, from whence he inherited his name. The suffix lan-ogh means man. In an interview with Vancouver's first archivist, Khatsahlano recounts:

Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC
“When they make [the] Stanley Park road, we were eating [breakfast] in our house. Someone make noise outside; chop our house. We were inside the house when the surveyors came along, and they chop the corner of our house while we were eating inside.”

You can imagine taking just what you can carry and walking into the unknown of where you will sleep that night and make a home in the future. It saddens me that we treat people so poorly, historically and now. 

We also treat our wildlife poorly. There are plans to capture and kill the coyotes in Stanley Park today as they are a nuisance to those visiting the park. We might consider that we are a nuisance to them. 

The only real winners in Stanley Park are the trees, birds and insects, including lovelies like this grey moth. In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest and part of my heritage, yellow cedar is dixw, and a moth is ma̱stła̱ḵ̕wa or ma̱stła̱ḵ̕wani

The thin, greyish-brown and scaly bark provides a pretty good cover. He was caught unawares and photographed beautifully by the hugely talented, Dan Bowden on a visit to the city.

Friday, 3 September 2021

HETEROMORPH AMMONITE: AINOCERAS

A wee baby deep chocolate Ainoceras sp. heteromorph ammonite from Vancouver Island. This adorable corkscrew-shaped ammonite is an extinct marine mollusc related to squid and octopus.  

Within their shells, they had a number of chambers, called septa, filled with gas or fluid that were interconnected by a wee air tube. By pushing air in or out, they were able to control their buoyancy in the water column. These little cuties were predators who hunted in Cretaceous seas.

They lived in the last chamber of their shells, continuously building new shell material as they grew. As each new chamber was added, the squid-like body of the ammonite would move down to occupy the final outside chamber. 

Not all ammonites have this whacky corkscrew design. Most are coiled and some are even shaped like massive paperclips. This one is so remarkable, so joyously perfect my internal thesaurus can’t keep up.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

ABALONE: GWA'LIT'SA

Abalone is the common name for a group of large marine snails — gastropod molluscs in the genus Haliotis, family Haliotidae.

Haliotis once contained six subgenera but these are now grouped together as alternate representations of Haliotis

In the Pacific Northwest, our rocky shores are home to the Northern or Pinto abalone, Haliotis kamtschatkana. In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest, abalone are known as gwa'lit̕sa.

They range from Mexico to Alaska and are the only abalone species found in Washington state, British Columbia and Alaska. Abalone prefer to live amongst the cold waters and high surf of rocky reef habitats. They are easily harvested as their sweet spot is water between 3-18 meters or 10-60 feet deep.  

The shells of abalones have a low, open spiral structure, and are characterized by several open respiratory pores in a row near the shell's outer edge. The thick inner layer of the shell is composed of nacre or mother-of-pearl. Their iridescent nacre is gorgeous and runs from white to blue to green. Both their meat and their shells are highly prized. 

The Northern or Pinto abalone is protected today. Those looking to use the shell for decorative purposes must now look to California or New Zealand. The California abalone is more colourful than its northern cousin and has long been preferred by First Nations artists, particularly for the large earrings favoured by women of rank amongst First Nation clans.