Saturday, 30 October 2021

DANCING ATOMS: VANCOUVER AURORA

If you live in the northern hemisphere, you stand a very good chance of seeing the aurora borealis this evening. Those glorious dancing lights will be most visible from 11PM-4AM PST today and early tomorrow with their brilliance tapering off over the next few days.

Even with a fair bit of light pollution, you can see the colours quite clearly. Tonight's best showing is in the late afternoon to early evening. I am excited to see what we will see. 

The Earth has a magnetic field with north and south poles. The lights we see are the result of severe storms that push protons past their normal threshold around these two polar regions.  

The magnetic field of the Earth is surrounded by the magnetosphere which keeps most of the particles from the Sun from hitting the Earth. Some of these particles from the solar wind enter the atmosphere at one million miles per hour. The auroras occur when highly charged electrons from the solar wind interact with elements in the Earth's atmosphere and become trapped in the Earth's magnetic field. 

We see them as an undulating visual field of red, yellow, green, blue and purple dancing high in the Earth's atmosphere — about 100 to 400 kilometres above us. The green is the result of millions of oxygen atoms dancing like gleeful children as they decay back to their original state. 

The red is also caused by oxygen atoms but because those atoms are higher up in the atmosphere we register much of their vivid colour as green or reddish-green because of our poorly developed eyesight and lower red light emissions. 

Nitrogen atoms are a bit more standoffish. They get in on the action but only if the storm winds are very strong as it takes quite a hard hit to excite them. 

If you have been in the quiet northern regions for an aurora storm, you can hear their clapping sounds. On cold, clear nights, with light wind, a temperature inversion can form. This happens when a layer of relatively warm air creates a blanket over a shallow layer of cold air. 

Solar winds excite the atoms in the inversion layer, with opposite charges building up in the colder layer near the ground. When the aurora increases in intensity, geomagnetic disturbances travel down through the atmosphere causing the two layers to spark. 

We hear that electric discharge or spark as a click, click, click, clapping or banging sound. 

All science aside, what we see from these rare energetic interactions is one of the most beautiful of all-natural phenomena — Earth's polar lights, the aurora borealis in the north and the aurora australis, near the south pole. Vancouver had a wonderful surprise viewing a few weeks ago and tonight looks like it will provide another. 

The aurora borealis is best viewed in the north, of course, and many of my relatives have a bird's-eye view. To the Tlingit First Nation of Alaska, the aurora is Gis'óok. In Norway, the aurora is Nordlys — and by any name, spectacular. 

WHERE TO WATCH:

Ideally, you want to be somewhere with minimal light pollution far away from the city with a good view to the north. But since we live in a city, I would try for an unobstructed view or high viewing location.

Spanish Banks will be a gong show of people and lights but provide great viewing. If you can find a quiet spot on the northern edge of Stanley Park or Belcarra, these would make great bases for wonderful photos. 

I am going to try my luck at Queen Elizabeth Park, the highest viewing platform in Vancouver. If you are watching for them, good luck!  

AURORA CAM

Explore.org have a live Aurora Cam and a ton of others that are equally interesting. To view, visit their site at: https://explore.org/livecams/zen-den/northern-lights-cam / Aurora Watch: https://auroraforecast.com/

Interested to learn more about the Sound of the Aurora? Give Meteorologist Michael Karow's thoughts a gander: https://weatherology.com/trending/articles/Sound-Aurora.html

Friday, 29 October 2021

BITS OF HISTORY: CANADA / A GEOLOGIC GEM IN THE MAKING

Canada's early history, like all nations, is written in her rock. The ground we walk upon includes some of the oldest rocks on the planet. 

While you and I were not there to witness it, our planet formed a little over 4.5 billion years ago when a massive collection of dust and gas, the leavings of our newly formed Sun, swirled and spun, gathering into a molten liquid sphere.    

Half a billion years later, our planet began to cool, the molten crust hardening into the first of our tectonic plates. 

These giant puzzle pieces moved together and separated over vast expanses of time to form, pull apart and reform into a series of supercontinents divided by ancient oceans. 

As you explore Canada, you can see evidence of our planet's early history. Canadian geology spans four billion years of Earth history. Four. Billion. Years. Yes, that is quite a bit to process for our young minds. The oldest rocks are preserved in the stable Archean crustal blocks of which the largest include the Superior, Slave, Hearne and North Atlantic cratons. These blocks are also the repository for much of Canada’s gold, copper, iron, zinc and diamonds. 

The Archean cratons were stitched together by Paleoproterozoic mountain belts that resulted in supercontinent Nuna and host important deposits of nickel, copper and platinum group elements. The Mesoproterozoic is dominated by the Grenville orogen another old mountain belt that extends from central Ontario to Labrador. Sedimentary basins of these ages are prominently represented on the opposite (northwest) margin of the Canadian Shield in the Northwest Territories.

The modern geometry of Canada has its origins in the breakup of the supercontinent Rodinia. Neoproterozoic rifting led to new ocean basins and to trailing continental margins now prominently represented in the Appalachians, western Cordillera and Arctic Islands. 

Plate tectonics in the lower Paleozoic introduced oceanic crust to the rock record of Newfoundland and southern Quebec and accretion of exotic crustal fragments in Atlantic Canada and the High Arctic. 

Similarly, warm ocean conditions in Cambrian to Devonian time produced widespread carbonate platforms over the St. Lawrence Lowlands, the Western Interior, Mackenzie Corridor, Hudson Bay and the southern Arctic.

Events of the Mesozoic are prominently represented by the accretion of continental fragments to the western margin of North America — the landmass referred to as Turtle Island by many First Nation, . This remained a tectonically active region into Eocene time and during this interval produced important deposits of copper, lead, zinc, molybdenum, gold, silver, tungsten and other commodities. 

The depositional record of these events is partly recorded in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin which is a prolific producer of oil, gas and coal. Hydrocarbons are also an important part of the sediment accumulation story since the Jurassic off the East Coast. Likewise, the tectonically active Cretaceous to Eocene record in the Arctic Islands relates to the origin of the Arctic Ocean and the independent plate motions of Greenland.

About 80 million years ago, North America separated from Europe, Australia began to rift away from Antarctica, and India broke away from Madagascar. 

Our northern and southern edges abut the United States. Interestingly, at their nearest points, Alaska and Russia are separated by only 4 kilometres (2.5 miles).

Thursday, 28 October 2021

AUTUMN MUSHROOM BOUNTY

Dappled light caresses this mature Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, mushroom caught unaware beneath a bit of camouflaging foliage. 

These iconic toadstool denizens of our Oak and coniferous forests are both fetching and poisonous. 

You can eat them as hazardous haute cuisine with a bit of preparation — parboil them twice, each time with fresh water then nibble carefully before you go all in — but they are arguably better utilized as a photographic subject.

Folk will do what they do, but I place these colourful mushrooms firmly in the do not eat category. If you break them apart and put them in any type of liquid that attracts flies, the flies will die from ibotenic acid poisoning — hence the mushroom's common name, Fly Agaric. 

In Latin, they are Amanita muscaria, with musca meaning a fly. Albertus Magnus (c. 1200 – 15 November 1280), known as Saint Albert the Great or Albert of Cologne, was a German Catholic Dominican friar, philosopher, scientist, and bishop and arguably the greatest German philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages. 

Magnus was the first to record it in his work De vegetabilibus sometime before 1256, commenting "vocatur fungus muscarum, eo quod in lacte pulverizatus interficit muscas," which translates to: "it is called the fly mushroom because it is powdered in milk to kill flies."

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

ETHELDRED'S HOPLITES

Hoplites (Hoplites) bennettiana (Sowerby, 1826)
A beautiful example of the ammonite, Hoplites (Hoplites) bennettiana (Sowerby, 1826), from Early Albian localities in the Carrière de Courcelles Villemoyenne, Région de Troyes, near Champagne in northeastern France.

The species name is a homage to Etheldred Benett, an early English geologist often credited with being the first female geologist — a fossil collector par excellence.

She was also credited with being a man  —  the Natural History Society of Moscow awarding her membership as Master Etheldredus Benett in 1836. The confusion over her name — it did sound masculine — came again with the bestowing of a Doctorate of Civil Law from Tsar Nicholas I.

The Tsar had read Sowerby's Mineral Conchology, a major fossil reference work that contained the second-highest number of contributed fossils of the day, many of the best quality available at the time. Forty-one of those specimens were credited to Benett. Between her name and this wonderous contribution to a growing science, the Russian Tsar awarded the Doctorate to what he believed was a young male scientist on the rise. He believed in education, founding Kyiv University in 1834, just not for women. He was an autocratic military man frozen in time — the thought that this work could have been done by a female unthinkable. Doubly charming is that the honour from the University of St Petersburg was granted at a time when women were not allowed to attend St. Pete's or any higher institutions. That privilege arrived in 1878, twenty years after Nicholas I's death.

Benett took these honours (and social blunders) with grace. She devoted her life to collecting and studying fossils from the southwest of England, amassing an impressive personal collection she openly shared with geologist friends, colleagues and visitors to her home. Her speciality was fossils from the Middle Cretaceous, Upper Greensand in the Vale of Wardour — a valley in the county of Wiltshire near the River Nadder.

Etheldred Benett was born on 22 July 1775 at Pyt House, Tisbury, Wiltshire, the eldest daughter of the local squire Thomas Benett.

Etheldred's interest was cultivated by the botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert (1761-1842), a founding member of the Linnean Society. Benett's brother had married Lucy Lambert, Aylmer's half-sister. Aylmer was a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Society of the Arts. He was also an avid fossil collector and member of the Geological Society of London. The two met and got on famously.

Aylmer kindled an interest in natural history in both of Benett's daughters. Etheldred had a great fondness for geology, stratigraphy and all things paleo, whilst her sister concentrated on botany. Etheldred had a distinct advantage over her near contemporary, the working-class Mary Anning (1799-1847), in that Benett was a woman of independent wealth who never married — and didn't need to — who could pursue the acquisition and study of fossils for her own interest.

While Anning was the marine reptile darling of the age, she was also greatly hindered by her finances. "She sells, seashells by the seashore..." while chanted in a playful spirit today, was not meant kindly at the time.

Aylmer's encouragement emboldened Etheldred to go into the field to collect for herself — and collect she did. Profusely.

Benett’s contribution to the early history of Wiltshire geology is significant. She corresponded extensively with the coterie of gentlemen scientists of the day —  Gideon Mantell, William Buckland, James Sowerby, George Bellas Greenough and, Samuel Woodward. She also consorted with the lay folk and had an ongoing correspondence with William Smith, whose stratigraphy work had made a favourable impression on her brother-in-law, Aylmer.

Her collections and collaboration with geologists of the day were instrumental in helping to form the field of geology as a science. One colleague and friend, Gideon Mantell, British physician, geologist and palaeontologist, who discovered four of the five genera of dinosaurs and Iguanadon, was so inspired by Benett's work he named this Cretaceous ammonite after her — Hoplites bennettiana.

Benett's fossil assemblage was a valuable resource for her contemporaries and remains so today. It contains thousands of Jurassic and Cretaceous fossil specimens from the Wiltshire area and the Dorset Coast, including a myriad of first recorded finds. The scientific name of every taxon is usually based on one particular specimen, or in some cases multiple specimens. Many of the specimens she collected serve as the Type Specimen for new species.

Fossil Sponge, Polypothecia quadriloba, Warminster, Wiltshire
Her particular interest was the collection and study of fossil sponges. Alcyonia caught her eye early on. She collected and recorded her findings with the hope that one of her colleagues might share her enthusiasm and publish her work as a contribution to their own. Alas, no one took up the helm — those interested were busy with other pursuits (or passed away) and others were less than enthusiastic or never seemed to get around to it.

To ensure the knowledge was shared in a timely fashion, she finally wrote them up and published them herself. You can read her findings in her publication, ‘A Catalogue of Organic Remains of the County of Wiltshire’ (1831), where she shares observations on the fossil sponge specimens and other invert goodies from the outcrops west of town.

She shared her ideas freely and donated many specimens to local museums. It was through her exchange of observations, new ideas and open sharing of fossils with Gideon Mantell and others that we gained a clearer understanding of the Lower Cretaceous sedimentary rocks of Southern England.

In many ways, Mantell was drawn to Benett as his ideas went against majority opinion. At a time when marine reptiles were dominating scientific discoveries and discussions, he pushed the view that dinosaurs were terrestrial, not amphibious, and sometimes bipedal. Mantell's life's work established the now-familiar idea that the Age of Reptiles preceded the Age of Mammals. Mantell kept a journal from 1819-1852, that remained unpublished until 1940 when E. Cecil Curwen published an abridged version. (Oxford University Press 1940). John A. Cooper, Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, published the work in its entirety in 2010.

I was elated to get a copy, both to untangle the history of the time and to better learn about the relationship between Mantell and Benett. So much of our geologic past has been revealed since Mantell's first entry two hundred years ago. The first encounter we share with the two of them is a short note from March 8, 1819. "This morning I received a letter from Miss Bennett of Norton House near Warminster Wilts, informing me of her having sent a packet of fossils for me, to the Waggon Office..." The diary records his life and the social interactions of the small connected community of the scientific social elite — pure delight.

Though a woman in a newly evolving field, her work, dedication and ideas were recognized and appreciated by her colleagues. Gideon Mantell described her as, "a lady of great talent and indefatigable research," whilst the Sowerbys noted her, "labours in the pursuit of geological information have been as useful as they have been incessant."

Benett produced the first measured sections of the Upper Chicksgrove quarry near Tisbury in 1819, published and shared with local colleagues as, "the measure of different beds of stone in Chicksgrove Quarry in the Parish of Tisbury.” The stratigraphic section was later published by naturalist James Sowerby without her knowledge. Her research contradicted many of Sowerby’s conclusions.

She wrote and privately published a monograph in 1831, containing many of her drawings and sketches of molluscs and sponges. Her work included sketches of fossil Alcyonia (1816) from the Green Sand Formation at Warminster Common and the immediate vicinity of Warminster in Wiltshire.

Echinoids and Bivalves. Collection of Etheldred Benett (1775-1845)
The Society holds two copies, one was given to George Bellas Greenough, and another copy was given to her friend Gideon Mantell. This work established her as a true, pioneering biostratigrapher following but not always agreeing with the work of William Smith.

If you'd like to read a lovely tale on William's work, check out the Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester. It narrates the intellectual context of the time, the development of Smith's ideas and how they contributed to the theory of evolution and more generally to a dawning realization of the true age of the earth.

The book describes the social, economic or industrial context for Smith's insights and work, such as the importance of coal mining and the transport of coal by means of canals, both of which were a stimulus to the study of geology and the means whereby Smith supported his research. Benett debated many of the ideas Smith put forward. She was luckier than Smith financially, coming from a wealthy family, a financial perk that allowed her the freedom to add fossils to her curiosity cabinet at will.

Most of her impressive collection was assumed lost in the early 20th century. It was later found and purchased by an American, Thomas Bellerby Wilson, who donated it to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Bits of her collection made their way into British museums. Leeds City Museum, the British Museum in London, Bristol Museum and the University of St. Petersburg all house her specimens. These collections contain many of the first fossils found of their kind — some with the soft tissues preserved. When Benett died in 1845, it was Mantell who penned her obituary for the London Geological Journal.

Etheldred Benett (1776-1845)
In 1989, almost a hundred and fifty years after her death, a review of her collection had Arthur Bogen and Hugh Torrens remark that her work has significantly impacted our modern understanding of Porifera, Coelenterata, Echinodermata, and the molluscan classes, Cephalopoda, Gastropoda, and Bivalvia. A worthy legacy, indeed.

Her renown lives on through her collections, her collaborations and through the beautiful 110 million-year-old ammonite you see here, Hoplites bennettiana. The lovely example you see here is in the collection of the deeply awesome Christophe Marot.

Spamer, Earle E.; Bogan, Arthur E.; Torrens, Hugh S. (1989). "Recovery of the Etheldred Benett Collection of fossils mostly from Jurassic-Cretaceous strata of Wiltshire, England, analysis of the taxonomic nomenclature of Benett (1831), and notes and figures of type specimens contained in the collection". Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. 141. pp. 115–180. JSTOR 4064955.

Torrens, H. S.; Benamy, Elana; Daeschler, E.; Spamer, E.; Bogan, A. (2000). "Etheldred Benett of Wiltshire, England, the First Lady Geologist: Her Fossil Collection in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and the Rediscovery of "Lost" Specimens of Jurassic Trigoniidae (Mollusca: Bivalvia) with Their Soft Anatomy Preserved.". Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. 150. pp. 59–123. JSTOR 4064955.

Photo credit: Fossils from Wiltshire.  In the foreground are three examples of the echinoid, Cidaris crenularis, from Calne, a town in Wiltshire, southwestern England, with bivalves behind. Caroline Lam, Archivist at the Geological Society, London, UK. http://britgeodata.blogspot.com/2016/03/etheldred-benett-first-female-geologist_30.html

Photo credit: Fossil sponges Polypothecia quadriloba, from Warminster, Wiltshire. The genus labels are Benett’s, as is the handwriting indicating the species. The small number, 20812, is the Society’s original accession label from which we can tell that the specimen was received in April 1824. The tablet onto which the fossils were glued is from the Society’s old Museum.

https://www.strangescience.net/ebenett.htm

Tuesday, 26 October 2021

STRENGTH AND BEAUTY: ORCA MAX'INUX

One of the iconic animals of the Pacific Northwest are Orca or Killer Whales. These playful giants hunt and play in our local waters and all the oceans of the world. In the Kwak̓wala language of the Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala, of the Pacific Northwest, orca are known as max̱'inux̱.

They are toothed whales who hunt our waters for fish, squid, birds and aquatic mammals. They are also the largest member of the Dolphin family who hunt and live amongst their family groups or pods. 

These large marine mammals are easily distinguished by their black-and-white colouration, large dorsal fin and a sleek, streamlined body. You can often get a peek at their top fin and just enough of their distinctive white eye patch to identify them from a distance.

Up close, their colouring is equally lovely. When I was little, a few resident orcas would come up to our float house and rub up against the side to give themselves a good scritch. We used to offer to help them with this by lowering a deck broom and rubbing it along them. They would roll around playfully and seemed to enjoy it much the same way dogs and cats appreciate a good scratch. 

They show curiosity and intelligence when they look at you and understand that your intention was to help not hurt when the broom was offered. One of them did give the broom a gentle nibble and carried it off a ways but very politely returned it a few minutes later. 

Across their back and along their pectoral flippers is a nice glossy black, The exception is their saddle, a wee patch of greyish white just behind their dorsal fin.  

Whales breathe through their nostril or blowhole that sits in the centre of their forehead. The blow of mist you see in the photo above is this fellow breathing and pushing air out through his blowhole and some seawater along with it. 

Killer whales have a white patch under their heads (lower jaw), under each fluke and a patch along their rear edge as you move towards the tail. While these patches of white make them easier for us to see and identify them, they act as camouflage to those they are hunting in the water.

Their large bodies are streamlined (hydrodynamic), like a submarine, for moving through the water. Whales have flukes or a tail used for swimming. The flukes are moved in an up-and-down motion to accelerate. The dorsal fin acts like the keel of a boat; it keeps the whale from rolling side to side while swimming. They have pectoral flippers just behind the head. These pectoral flippers are used for steering, turning, and stopping.

Live in coastal and offshore waters; resident pods may frequent localized waterways (bays, sounds, etc.) whereas transient pods tend to cover more extensive, varied areas.

An extended clan of orcas, known as the Southern Resident Orca community, socialize and forage in the inland waters of Washington State and British Columbia. The population grows and lessens in relation to the overall Chinook salmon abundance. J. Cogan and his team have been tracking this population since 1970. I will pop a link below for you to see this precious communities ebb and flow to their current state as endangered.

Females (cows) reach reproductive maturity quite late in life at around 14 to 15 years. They give birth every three to ten years, following a 17-month pregnancy. In our local waters, these young join the pod and stay together their whole lives.

At birth, the 2.6 m long calves arrive able to swim and dive and grow quickly feasting on their mothers' milk for the first year of their lives. 

The newborns stay close to mamma, feeding and learning from her and from the close-knit members of the pod. Over the course of their lives, these newborns will grow from 120 to 160 kg up to 3,600 to 7,250 kg.

Like all dolphins, orcas use sophisticated biological sonar, called echolocation. Echolocation enables them to locate and discriminate objects underwater.

The vocalizations within whale communities vary and each are different from those in other communities. The calls also bring the pods together over large areas of water when it is not possible for the whales to see each other.

Some males have been known to live into their 40s and perhaps up to 60+ years old. Females have been known to live up to 90+ years old.

Orca Network: https://www.orcanetwork.org/Main/index.php?categories_file=Babies

Friday, 22 October 2021

HOLLARDOPS: LE MAÎTRE

Hollardops sp. Devonian Trilobite
Hollardops is a genus of trilobite in the order Phacopida that lived during the Eifelian of the Middle Devonian. It was described by Le Maître in 1952 under type species Metacanthina mesocristata

The genus underwent reclassification in 1997 and emerged as Hollardops. We find this extinct arthropod in present-day Morocco. They share similarities with Greenops of New York and Canada but are generally larger than most Greenops species.

Hollardops have schizochroal eyes and a glabella that is slightly raised on the surface of the cephalon. Genal spines extend from the cephalon and extend to approximately the 6th thoracic segment.

Hollardops has eleven thoracic segments and also has five pairs of spines extending from the segments of the pygidium. Length ranges from approximately 3 to 9 cm.

Palaeo Coordinates — If you are a keen bean to head out in search of this lovely yourself, head to the Tazoulait Formation at Jbel (Jebel) Oufatène 30.8374368°N 4.9018067°W and Issimour 30.9669834°N 5.0373266°W SE of Alnif, western of Oued Alnif, Ma'ider region, Morocco.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

HEROES, VILLAINS AND TYRANTS: HORNBY ISLAND HISTORY

Villains, tyrants and heroes alike are immortalized in the scientific literature as researchers don each new species a unique scientific name — and rename geographic sites with a settlers' mindset. 

If you pick through the literature, it is a whose who of monied European 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. 

The beautiful island of Hornby is in the traditional territory of the Pentlatch or K’ómoks First Nation, who call it Ja-dai-aich, which means the outer island — a reference to Hornby being on the outside of Denman Island off the east coast of Vancouver Island. 

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

If you explore here, off the beaten path, you will see a mix of large conifers — Western Hemlock, Grand Fir and Lodgepole Pine on the island. Of these, the Western Red Cedar, Thuja plicata, is the most prized by First Nations. It is the Tree of Life that provides bountiful raw materials for creating everything from art to homes to totems and canoes. 

If you explore these forests further, you will also see wonderful examples of the smaller Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, a wee evergreen that holds a special place in the hearts of First Nations whose carvers use this wood 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. 
Local First Nations fire-managed these stands of Garry oak, burning away shrubs and other woody plants so that the thick-barked oaks and nutritious starch-rich plants like great camas, Camassia leichtlinii, could thrive without any nutrient competitors. 

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 surface area. There are roughly 1,330 acres (540 ha) of older second-growth stands on the island, 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. My Uncle Doug recognized this tree species because of how much the bark looks like bacon — a food he loved. The common name is a nod to the Scottish botanist, David Douglas, who collected and first reported on this large evergreen.

Captain 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 is also credited with the scientific naming of 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 was 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.

And while it is now called Vancouver the city has many names as it falls within the traditional territory of three Coast Salish peoples — the Squamish (Sḵwxwú7mesh), Tsleil-waututh and Xwméthkwyiem ("Musqueam"—from masqui "an edible grass that grows in the sea"), and on the southern shores of Vancouver along the Fraser River, the Xwméthkwyiem.

If you would 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 is fresh off the press and chock full of historical and pop-culture icons.

References: The City of Vancouver Archives has three George Vancouver documents of note:
  • 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 

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

HORNBY ISLAND FOSSIL COLLECTING

Pachydiscus suchiaensis ID: 18-08-CP-002
Hornby is a glorious place to collect. It is family and dog friendly. You need to dress for beach collecting preferably with rubber boots, eye protection and clothing for both sun and rain. 

I like to bring a 5-gallon bucket or hard plastic bottomed backpack for my finds. Whatever you bring is going to get wet, muddy and laced with sand. 

As well as a rock hammer, I bring a 2-4 pound sledgehammer and rock pick for collecting and cracking open the concretions here. If you are lucky, when you split them you see a fossil hidden within. 

While that is not always the case, the rewards are well-worth. One such beauty from a glorious day of collecting on Hornby is the beautiful ammonite you see here.

It is nestled amongst the seaweed and modern oysters clinging to the grey shales of the Northumberland Formation is the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) ammonite Pachydiscus suchiaensis. This is one of my favourite species and is treasured both for its beauty and the fossil site it hails from. 

This darling was found in situ in the 72 million-year-old sediments at Collishaw Point on the northwest side of Hornby Island, southwestern British Columbia.

The island is beautiful in its own right and the fossils from here often keep some of their original shell or nacre which makes them quite fetching. This fellow is found amongst gastropods, shark teeth, fossil crabs, baculites and other bivalve fossils. 

Many of the fossils found at this locality are found in concretions rolled smooth by time and tide. The concretions you find on the beach are generally round or oval in shape and are made up of hard, compacted sedimentary rock. 

These past few years, many new and wonderful specimens have been unearthed — particularly by members of the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society (VIPS). 

Two particular finds are jaw-droppers — a Diploceras (think one-metre long paperclip, except it is a heteromorph ammonite) longer than your arm and Actinosepia gladius — internal hard body part found in many cephalopods — of a Vampyropod, a member of the proposed group Vampyropoda — equivalent to the superorder Octopodiformes — which includes vampire squid and octopus. 

Not all of these beauties come out in one piece and as well as amazing collecting skill, the VIPS boasts some of the best Fossil Preparators in British Columbia. A nod of respect to both Jason Hawley and Rick Ross in this regard. Rick is a skilled collector and found a rather nice and rare pachydiscid ammonite at Hornby this past year that I had never seen before. It has been a good year for collecting at Collishaw Point. Another notable find was the decapod, Archaeopus vancouverensis (Woodward 1896), found by Adam Melzak this past summer. If you are looking to get out and about, fossil collecting on Hornby Island is the perfect day trip or weekend getaway.

Where to View the Fossils:

The Courtenay Museum, Qualicum Museum and Pacific Museum of the Earth have delightful collections of specimens from the Upper Cretaceous of Hornby Island. This lovely heteromorph ammonite, Nostoceras hornbyense (Whiteaves, 1895) is a classic. The photo below is courtesy of John Fam, Vice-Chair of the Vancouver Paleontological Society (VIPS) on a recent visit to poke through the collections at the Pacific Museum of the Earth. 

It is a classic example of the heteromorph specimens found at Hornby. Bob Copeman found the best Nostoceras hornbyense I have ever seen from these outcrops. Lucky for you, a replica of that specimen has been made is available to be purchased from the VIPS. Always a nice addition to the collection — especially if you keep a teaching collection where specimens need to be handled by younger, rougher hands.

Nostoceras hornbyense (Whiteaves, 1895)
The main topographic feature on Hornby Island is an arcuate mountain of the resistant cliff-forming Geoffrey formation. Near Shingle Spit about half a mile from the coast is Mt. Geoffrey 920-foot peak; from there the mountain gradually drops in elevation to the southeast and to the north.  

It is 700-feet of conglomerate in a homocline striking N 20° W and dipping to the northeast at a shallow angle of about 6°. 

The apex of the arcuate mountain belt points to the southwest. The coast of Hornby is probably a rising shoreline, as indicated by the almost perpendicular cliffs along its periphery. A hundred (100) foot cliffs of Lambert shale extends from Shingle Spit to Phipps Point, while from the latter to Boulder Point, the cliffs are not as steep and are covered in many places by vegetation.

Behind the mountain and almost enclosed by it is the fertile, green Strachan Valley. On the large peninsula which extends in a southeast direction from the north of the island towards St. John’s Point, the Hornby Formation outcrops form the cliffs on the east side of Tribune Bay. The highest of these is about 200 feet. The argillaceous Lambert and Spray formations form the subdued lowlands of the island.

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

HARRISON LAKE FOSSIL COLLECTING

Cadoceras (Paracadoceras) tonniense
Most folk headed to Harrison Lake are venturing the three hours east of Vancouver to enjoy the hot springs, play out on the lake or take in the rugged scenery. A few also come to look for the elusive Sasquatch reported to live here.

But there are some who come and miss the town completely, instead favouring the upper west side of the lake and their fossiliferous bounty.

It is here that many wonderful marine fossil specimens can be found. When you look through the outcrops, what you will find embedded in the rock are their often warped or partially crushed fossilized, mineralized shells — millions of years old. 

It is truly amazing that we find them at all. These beauties are from the Lower Callovian — meaning, they swam our ancient oceans 164.7 - 161.2 million years ago. 

A wee handful — This lovely partially crushed ammonite is Cadoceras (Paracadoceras) tonniense (Imlay, 1953). 

These small, often incomplete brown and grey ammonites can be found at one of my favourite outcrops in the Jurassic macrocephalites macrocephalus ammonoid zone of the Mysterious Creek Formation near Harrison Lake, British Columbia. 

It is interesting that almost all of the ammonite specimens found here have well preserved outer whorls but flattened inner whorls. It makes one suspect if it is related to what was filled with sediment and what was open space within the shell at the time of burial. 

Elliptical specimens are found here, too — showing evidence for the depth and tectonic strain the rocks were subjected to. Take a good look at the photos to set your search image. You are looking for the dark grey rock with the fossils showing up either dark grey, grey-brown or black.

Ammonites were predatory, squidlike creatures that lived inside coil-shaped shells. 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.
Harrison Lake, Forestry Road #17

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. 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.

Interestingly, the ammonites from the Harrison Lake locality are quite similar to the ones found within the lower part of the Chinitna Formation, near Cook Inlet (Tanaina: Tikahtnu; Sugpiaq: Cungaaciq) Alaska and Jurassic Point, Kyuquot, on the west coast of Vancouver Island — some of the most beautiful places on Earth. 

Geologic Hammer for Harrison's Hard Matrix
Most folk visiting Harrison are here for the hot springs or to kayak the crisp waters of the lake. I venture the three-hours east of Vancouver for the rock and the fossils they contain. 

The area you are exploring for geology and palaeontology around Harrison Lake has been home to the Xa'xtsa First Nation for thousands of years. 

Theirs is a band government of the In-SHUCK-ch Nation, a subgroup of the larger St'at'imc — also referred to as Lower Stl'atl'imx. Xa'xtsa is made up of two communities: Port Douglas, situated at the northern end of Little Harrison Lake, and Tipella, on the west side of the Lillooet River.

These species are from Callomon's (1984) Cadoceras comma Fauna B8 for the western Cordillera of North America, which is equivalent in part to the Macrocephalus Zone of Europe of the Early Callovian. 

The faunal association at locality #17 near Harrison suggests a more precise correlation to Callomon's zonation; namely, the Cadoceras wosnessenskii Fauna B8(e) found in the Chinitna Formation, southern Alaska (Imlay, 1953b). The type specimen is USNM 108088, from locality USGS Mesozoic 21340, Iniskin Peninsula, found in a Callovian marine siliciclastic in the Chinitna Formation of Alaska.

Exploration of the geology around Harrison Lake has a long history with geologists from the Geological Survey of Canada studying geology and palaeontological exposures as far back as the 1880s. They were probably looking for coal exposures and where to route the planned Canadian Pacific Railway — or perhaps sought a glimpse of the wily but shy local Sasquatch — but happily, they found fossils.

The paleo outcrops were first mentioned in the Geological Survey of Canada's Director's Report in 1888 (Selwyn, 1888), then studied by Whiteaves a year later. Whiteaves identified the prolific bivalve Aucella (now Buchia) from several specimens collected in 1882 by A. Bowman of the Geological Survey of Canada. 

The first detailed geological work in the Harrison Lake area was undertaken in a doctoral study by Crickmay (1925), who compiled a geological map, describing the stratigraphy and establishing the formational names, many of which we still use today. Crickmay went on to interpret the palaeogeography and structure of the region. 

Click to Enlarge
Around Harrison Lake, Callovian beds of the Mysterious Creek Formation are locally overlain disconformably by 3,000 feet of the Early Oxfordian conglomerate. Here we find the cigar-shaped squid-like cephalopod Belemnites, the bivalve Buchia and the ammonite Cadoceras tonniense, as well as others. 

Interestingly, we also find Cadoceras tonniense at nine localities hundreds of kilometres north of here along the Alaska Peninsula and within the Cook Inlet region of the United States.

If you would like to visit the site at Chinitna Bay, you'll want to hike into 59.9° N, 153.0° W: paleo-coordinates 31.6° N, 86.6° W.

If you're a keen bean for the Canadian site, you can drive the 30 km up Forestry Road #17, stopping just past Hale Creek at 49.5° N, 121.9° W: paleo-coordinates 42.5° N, 63.4° W, on the west side of Harrison Lake. You'll see Long Island to your right. 

If you can pre-load the Google Earth map of the area you will thank yourself. This site is a great day trip from Vancouver or the Fraser Valley. 

You will need a vehicle with good tires for travel on gravel roads. Search out the route ahead of time and share your trip plan with someone you trust telling them where you are going and when you plan to be back. 

Access Forestry Road #17 at the northeast end of the parking lot from the Sasquatch Inn at 46001 Lougheed Hwy, Harrison  Mills. Look for signs for the Chehalis River Fish Hatchery to get you started. NTS: 92H/05NW; 92H/05SW; 92H/12NW; 92H/12SW. 

The first of the yummy fossil exposures (that are easily collected) are just north of Hale Creek on the west side of the road. There is active logging here so be very careful with kids and pets on the roadcut. Slides are also fairly common — and you may start a few if you hike the cliffs — so watch out for those below. Wear something brightly coloured so cars and trucks can see you. 

You will want to look both in the bedrock, in the loose material that gathers in the ditches and for large dark grey boulders the size of dishwashers packed with Buchia — sometimes made entirely of these densely packed bivalves. 

Buchia populated our Upper Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous waters like a team sport. When they thrived they really thrived, building up large coquinas of the material that make up much of the rock you will find at Harrison and other sites in the Northern Hemisphere. 

We use them as Index Fossils, fossils helpful for dating the age of rock because of their abundance and relatively short stratigraphic range, ie. they lived well, populated an area en masse then died out quickly — the ideal biostratigraphic index fossil.

What does that mean to you? Well, when you are out and about with friends and discover rocks with Buchia or made entirely of Buchia, you can casually say, "oh, this looks to be Upper Jurassic or Lower Cretaceous. Guys, come take a look. We're likely the first to lay eyes on this little clam for more than 160 million years." You'll impress the pants off them. Very high-five worthy.

And on a geeky language note, know that it gets easier. If you had never seen an apple and overhead folk talking about Granny Smith, Ambrosia, Gala or Honeycrisp, your eyes might glaze over. But consider how much knowledge you have that is specialized. You didn't study for it but just picked it up because you find it interesting. 

Think of your knowledge of sports teams, boats, cars, Star Wars or the Marvel Universe. You know things, so many things. You'll find your inner fossil geek in time — probably with your first find. And that's the tip of the iceberg; first you, then your kids, your friends, your neighbour. Once you start is it easy to get hooked on the goodness. Fossil addiction is real and the only cure is to embrace your geek, get out there and do it. You've got this!

WHAT TO BRING:

As with all trips into British Columbia's wild places, you will want to dress for the weather. This is a good site for hiking boots, raingear, gloves, eye protection and a good geologic hammer and chisel. Fill your gas tank and pack a tasty lunch. You will definitely want to bring your camera for the blocks of Buchia too big to carry. If you take some good photos, I would love to see them. 

Wear bright clothing and keep your head covered. If it is a larger group, those collecting below may want to consider hardhats in case of small rock falls. These are most often chunks of rock the size of your fist up to the size of a grapefruit — and they pack a punch. 

Bring a colourful towel or something to lay your keepers on. Once you set down a rock, it is hard to find that keeper pile again as they often blend into the surroundings. I take the extra precaution of spraying the ends of my hammers and chisels with yellow fluorescent paint as I have set down too many and ended up leaving them in the field. I also always throw one of those lightweight yellow construction vests over whatever I am wearing so my crew and cars can spot me.

When you have finished for the day, you can compare your various treasures to see which ones you would like to keep. In British Columbia, you are a steward of the fossil, meaning these all belong to the province but you can keep them safe though cannot sell them or ship them outside British Columbia without a permit. You should be all set to celebrate a glorious day in the beautiful outdoors.

I have been asked about collecting four seasons. What do we do about the weather? We live in a rainforest so collecting in sun and rain means your field season is longer. Everyone has a preference. I prefer not to collect in the snow, but I have done. While sunny days are lovely, it can be easier to see the fossil specimens at Harrison when the rock is wet. So, do we do this in the rain? Heck, yeah. 

Torrential rain? You, yes, once you're good and hooked. A casual friend or your kids, no. Choose your battles. A solid eight hours in the rain is on the losing end. They may come, but they'll likely never join you again — or speak to you.

Once you get home you can wash and ID your finds. I have put the scientific names here but if they occur as gobblygook, don't worry. Harrison does not have a huge variety of fossil fauna. Essentially, if your find is coiled and round, it is an ammonite. If it is long and straight, it is a belemnite. And if it looks like a wee fat baby oyster, it is Buchia. That is not always true, but it is mostly true. 

If you find something you cannot ID, send me a photo on the Fossil Huntress Facebook page and I will help you to identify it.

Oh, and do be on the lookout for anything that looks like bone. This site is ripe for finding a marine reptile. Think plesiosaur, mosasaur, elasmosaur, you get the idea. Maybe the next Indiana Jones to get a new species named for them is you!

  • A. J. Arthur, P. L. Smith, J. W. H. Monger and H. W. Tipper. 1993. Mesozoic stratigraphy and Jurassic palaeontology west of Harrison Lake, southwestern British Columbia. Geological Survey of Canada Bulletin 441:1-62
  • R. W. Imlay. 1953. Callovian (Jurassic) ammonites from the United States and Alaska Part 2. The Alaska Peninsula and Cook Inlet regions. United States Geological Survey Professional Paper 249-B:41-108
  • An overview of the tectonic history of the southern Coast Mountains, British Columbia; Monger, J W H; in, Field trips to Harrison Lake and Vancouver Island, British Columbia; Haggart, J W (ed.); Smith, P L (ed.). Canadian Paleontology Conference, Field Trip Guidebook 16, 2011 p. 1-11 (ESS Cont.# 20110248).

Sunday, 17 October 2021

FURRY KAMIKAZE PILOTS: FLYING TREE SQUIRRELS

Mammals can walk, hop, swim and fly; a few, like marsupial sugar gliders, can even glide. 

With 52 species scattered across the Northern hemisphere, flying squirrels are by far the most successful group that took to the skies.

While not true flyers per se, these wee marsupials know how to skedaddle, coasting from tree to tree one giant leap of faith at a time. 

And they are pretty cute if you look past their teeth and claws. Think adorable kamikaze pilot snugged inside a paper aeroplane with just enough Freddie Kruger to keep it interesting.

Their airborne manoeuvres are made possible by a half-plane, half-parachute body design — a bat-suit style membrane that puffs up into a parachute their feet and hands. They have evolved teensy but sturdy wrists strong enough to support long cartilaginous rods, making their personal brand of flight possible. Their wee specialized wrist bones are a distinctive feature as they do not share them with their non-flying brethren. 

The origin of flying squirrels is a point of contention: while most genetic studies point towards the group splitting from tree squirrels about 23 million years ago, the oldest remains – mostly cheek teeth – suggest the animals were already soaring through forests 36 million years ago. 

Troublesome are the findings from studies that show the dental features used to distinguish between gliding and non-gliding squirrels may actually be shared by the two groups.

In 2002, the digging of a dumpsite in Barcelona, Spain unearthed a peculiar skeleton. As the bones were extracted one by one they found first a tail, then two thigh bones — big enough that they initially thought they might belong to a small primate. 

Once they were all removed and re-articulated, you could see that they belonged to a rodent. 

As the specimen was being prepared and the associated matrix screen-washed for loose bits, they discovered the wee wrist bones. From the mud emerged the minuscule specialized wrist bones that confirmed this was the skeleton of Miopetaurista neogrivensis, an extinct flying squirrel.

Fossil flying squirrel Miopetaurista neogrivensis
Casanovas-Vilar et al. described the 11.6 million years old Spanish fossil — the oldest squirrel ever found. The wrist bones reveal that the animal belongs to the group of flying squirrels that have large sizes. 

Evolutionary analyses — the sexy science combining molecular and paleontological data — told a new story, flying squirrels evolved from tree squirrels as far back as 31 to 25 million years ago, and possibly even earlier. 

We also confirmed that Miopetaurista is closely related to Petaurista, a modern group of giant flying squirrels. 

Their skeletons are so similar, in fact, that the large extant species that inhabit the tropical and subtropical forests of Asia today should be considered living fossils.

Molecular and paleontological data are often at odds, but this fossil shows that they can be reconciled and combined to retrace history. 

There is still more to be done to tease out the lineage of these gliding mammals. Discovering older fossils, or even transitional forms could help to retrace how flying squirrels took a leap from the rest of their evolutionary tree.

Flying squirrels are the only group of gliding mammals with remarkable diversity and a wide geographical range. However, their evolutionary story is not well known. Thus far, the identification of extinct flying squirrels has been exclusively based on dental features, which, contrary to certain postcranial characters, are not unique to them. 

While best efforts are made, fossils attributed to this clade may indeed belong to other squirrel groups. The oldest fossil skeleton of a flying squirrel (11.6 Ma) displays the gliding-related diagnostic features shared by extant forms and allows for a recalibration of the divergence time between the tree and flying squirrels. 

Phylogenetic analyses combining morphological and molecular data generally support older dates than previous molecular estimates (~23 Ma), being congruent with the inclusion of some of the earliest fossils (~36 Ma) into this clade. They also show that flying squirrels experienced little morphological change for almost 12 million years.

Image: The fossil flying squirrel Miopetaurista neogrivensis

(a) Reconstruction of the skeleton based in the partial skeleton IPS56468 from Abocador de Can Mata. Missing elements are based on extant giant flying squirrel Petaurista petaurista and are coloured in blue. 

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.39270.001 / https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.39270.002

Saturday, 16 October 2021

SHACKLETON: STROMNESS WHALING STATION

Stromness Whaling Station
A cautious seal pokes up his head to greet you as you walk the ground of Stromness, an abandoned whaling station on the northern coast of South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic. 

Snuggled at the centre of three harbours on the west side of Stromness Bay, South Georgia, this famous site was the destination of Sir Ernest Shackleton's rescue journey in 1916.

In 1907, a floating factory was built in Stromness Harbour and a land station was added in 1912. 

From 1912 until 1931, Stromness operated as a whaling station — not the proudest moments of our marine overtures. It was later converted into a ship repair yard, machine shop and foundry. From the mid-1930s to 1961, Stromness did minor repairs for a small local customer base then closed down completely, letting nature take back the land and the local animal inhabitants run amock.

The site would gain worldwide recognition with the 1916 landing of Ernest Shackleton and his small crew on the unpopulated southern coast of South Georgia at King Haakon Bay. 

The landing was a Hail Mary moment for the hypothermic men — cold, wet and shivering from an arduous sea voyage in their 22-foot (6.7 m) lifeboat, the James Caird — this was do or die.

Shackleton was on his grandly titled Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, an ambitious and hazardous journey he would embark on in early September 1914, shortly following the outbreak of World War One. This wasn't the ooh-la-la luxurious travel we enjoy today. This was pure rough and tumble — massive ocean swells and bone-shattering storms endured by the hearty. 

Whether or not the aptly named Ernest ever placed his prophetic ad, the words ring true for what the crew endured: "Men Wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success." 

Truth in advertising? Generally, we share only the bright blue sky of possibilities, this was the exception to the rule. The adventure was to be a high-risk manoeuvre that could pay off spectacularly — or kill you dead.

He set sail on the Endurance from South Georgia for the Weddell Sea on 5 December, heading for Vahsel Bay. As the ship moved southward navigating through the ice. Deep in the Weddell Sea, conditions gradually grew worse until, on 19 January 1915, Endurance became frozen fast in an ice floe and was abandoned. 

Shackleton refused to pack supplies for more than four weeks, knowing that if they did not reach South Georgia within that time, the boat and its crew would be lost. Shackleton, along with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley, rowed to Elephant Island. Their small craft, the James Caird, was launched on 24 April 1916; during the next fifteen days, it sailed through the waters of the southern ocean, at the mercy of the stormy seas, in constant peril of capsizing. 

On 8 May, thanks to Frank Worsley's navigational skills, the cliffs of South Georgia came into sight. Hope was within sight. Hurricane-force winds prevented the possibility of landing. The party was forced to ride out the storm offshore, in constant danger of being dashed against the rocks.

Finally able to land, the waterlogged men then trekked across South Georgia's mountainous and glaciated interior in an effort to reach help on the populated northern shore of the island.

After 36 hours of crossing the interior, they arrived at the Stromness administration centre, also was the home of the Norwegian whaling station's manager. This building has been dubbed the Villa at Stromness because it represents relative luxury compared to its surroundings. 

Shackleton immediately sent a boat to pick up the three men from the other side of South Georgia while he set to work to organise the rescue of the Elephant Island men. His first three attempts were foiled by sea ice, which blocked the approaches to the island. 

He appealed to the Chilean government, which offered the use of the Yelcho, a small seagoing tug from its navy. Yelcho, commanded by Captain Luis Pardo, and the British whaler Southern Sky reached Elephant Island on 30 August 1916, at which point the men had been isolated there for four and a half months, and Shackleton quickly evacuated all 22 men.

In the decades following its closure, Stromness has been subject to damage from the elements and many of its buildings have been reduced to ruins. 

However, recent efforts have been made to restore the "Villa" and clean up debris from the rest of the site in order to make it safe for visitors. Outside of Stromness is a small whalers' cemetery with 14 grave markers.

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

URSUS NURSERY: BLACK BEARS / TLA'YI

Look at how this protective mamma bear holds her cub in her arms to give him a bit of a wash. 

Her gentle maternal care is truly touching. This mamma has spent late Autumn to Spring in a cave, having birthed them while still hibernation and staying in the den to feed them on her milk.

Black bear cubs stay with their mamma for the first one to three years of their lives while she protects them and teaches them how to thrive in the wild using their keen sense of smell, hearing, vision and strength. Once they are old enough, they will head off into the forest to live solo until they are ready to mate and start a family of their own. 

Mating is a summer affair with bears socializing shoulder to shoulder with potential mates. Once they have mated, black bears head off on their own again to forage and put on weight for their winter hibernation. If the black bear lives in the northern extent of their range, hibernation lasts longer — they will stay in their dens for seven to eight months longer than their southern counterparts. For those that enjoy the warmer climes in the south, hibernation is shorter. If food is available year-round, the bears do not hibernate at all.

The American black bear, Ursus americanus, is native to North America and found in Canada and the United States. 

They are the most common and widely distributed of the three bear species found in Canada. 

There are roughly 650,000 roaming our forests, swamps and streams — meaning there is a good chance of running into them if you spend any amount of time in the wild. 

Full-grown, these fuzzy monkeys will be able to run 48 kilometres (30 miles)  an hour and smell food up to 32 kilometres (20 miles) away.

With their excellent hearing, black bears usually know you are near well before you realize the same and generally take care to avoid you. Those that come in contact with humans often tend to want to check our garbage and hiking supplies for tasty snacks — hey, a free meal is a free meal.    

In British Columbia, we share our province with nearly half of all black bears and grizzly bears that reside in Canada. The 120,000 - 150,000 black bears who live in the province keep our Conservation Officers busy. They account for 14,000 - 25,000 of the calls the service receives each year. Most of those calls centre around their curiosity for the tasty smells emanating from our garbage. They are omnivores with vegetation making up 80-85% of their diet, but they are flexible around that — berries and seeds, salmon or Doritos — bears eat it all. 

And, as with all wild animals, diet is regional. In Labrador, the local black bear population lives mostly on caribou, rodents and voles. In the Pacific Northwest, salmon and other fish form a large part of the protein in their diet versus the bees, yellow jackets and honey others prefer. The braver of their number have been known to hunt elk, deer and moose calves — and a few showy bears have taken on adults of these large mammals. 

Bears hold a special place within our culture and in First Nation mythology in particular — celebrated in art, dance and song. In the Kwak'wala language of the Kwakiutl First Nations of the Pacific Northwest, the word for black bear is t̕ła'yimother is a̱bas and łaxwa̱lap̓a means to love each other

Kermode or Spirit Bear, Ursus americanus kermodei
From the photos here you can see that black bears are not always black —  ranging in colour from cinnamon to brown, tan, blonde, red — and even white. 

The Kermode or Spirit Bear, Ursus americanus kermodei, a subspecies of black bear found only in British Columbia — and our official provincial mammal — is a distinctive creamy white. 

They are not albinos, their colouring stems from a recessive mutant gene — meaning that if they receive two copies it triggers a single, nonsynonymous nucleotide substitution that halts all melanin production. Well, not all. They have pigmented eyes and skin but no colour in their fur. The white colour is an advantage when you are hunting salmon by day. Salmon will shy away from their black cousins knowing their intention is to enjoy them as a tasty snack. 

Spirit Bears live in the Great Bear Rainforest on British Columbia's north and central coast alongside the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation who call the Kermode moskgm’ol or white bear.

The Kitasoo/Xai’xais have a legend that tells of Goo-wee, Raven making one in every ten black bears white to remind us of the time glaciers blanketed the land then slowly retreated — and their thaw giving rise to the bounty we harvest today.  

Black bears of any colour are a wee bit smaller than their brown bear or grizzly bear cousins, with males weighing in at 45 to 400 kilograms (100 to 900 pounds) and females ranging from 38 to 225 kilograms (85 to 500 pounds). 

Small by relative standards but still very large animals. And they are long-lived or at least can be. Bears in captivity can live up to 30 years but those who dwell in our forests tend to live half as long or less from a mixture of local hazards and humans. 

Reference: Wild Safe BC: https://wildsafebc.com/species/black-bear/


Sunday, 10 October 2021

LANDLOCKED SOCKEYE SALMON: MALIK

Salmon permeate First Nations mythology and have been a prized food source for thousands of years — fresh, dried, boiled, steamed or smoked — the bones carefully returned to the river or sea to continue the lifecycle of these immortal beings. 

In the Kwak'wala language of the Kwakiutl First Nations of the Pacific Northwest — or Kwakwaka'wakw, speakers of Kwak'wala — sockeye salmon are known as ma̱łik

For the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, people of the confluence, of the Interior of British Columbia, near Kamloops, salmon was the most important of the local fishing stock and the salmon fishing season was a significant social event that warranted the nomination of a Salmon Chief who directed the construction of the hooks, weirs and traps and the distribution of the catch.

In the Interior of the province, archaeological evidence dates the use of salmon as a food source back a mere 3,500 years. While the First Nation groups have an oral history telling us they have lived here since always, 3,500 years falls short of the mark. 

The truth, it seems, needed to be teased from the rock. Sheri Burton and Catherine Carlson were able to isolate and amplify mitochondrial DNA from the salmon remains at archaeological sites near Kamloops. The DNA came from the species as Oncorhynchus nerka or Sockeye salmon, preserved in concretion and collected along the southern shores of Kamloops Lake.

The concretions were originally dated as Miocene (24 – 5.5 million years old) by the Geological Survey of Canada, based on pollen grain analysis. However, many local experts, including UBC geology professor W.R. (Ted) Danner (my mentor), W.H. Mathews and Richard Hughes, suspected the remains were much more recent, perhaps the Late Pleistocene. It was a topic that provided lively debate for many years and much pounding on tables during dinner. But it was not until the early 1990s that Catherine Carlson and Ken Klein found definitive proof of this.

Oncorhynchus nerka
By good luck, the fish remains in the Kamloops Lake concretions had not been completely replaced by minerals — enough of the original organic bone collagen remained for radiocarbon dating. 

For those on either side of the debate, the results were startling — 18,000 years. It is likely that erosion during the time of deposition had carried pollen down from Miocene layers in surrounding hills, to be deposited around the dead fish, causing the initial over-estimation of the age of the concretions.

This lovely specimen is Oncorhynchus nerka, a Late Pleistocene Fossil Sockeye Salmon, from the fine-grained, silty clays on the south shore of Kamloops Lake, British Columbia, Canada. The site was originally collected in the 1970s by the late geologist and palaeontologist Richard Hughes. I was introduced to the site much later after its rediscovery by Catherine Carlson and Kenneth Klein in the fall of 1991 with the help of local and gracious host, Bill Huxley.

They later wrote up and published a chapter in Rolf Ludvigsen's "Life in Stone: A Natural History of British Columbia's Fossils." It was Huxley who shared its location with John Leahy — a local Kamloops resident and avid fossil hunter — and him with me. 

This specimen was collected by John in the 1990s, his tenth partial salmon from this site and the sole one in my collection.

An age of 18,000 plus years sets the fossils firmly as the only salmonids of the Late Pleistocene in North America, a very significant find. The date also changed our ideas about the early climate of the Interior; the Thompson Valley could not have been covered by glacial ice for as long as originally thought. Indeed, it makes the Interior ice-free only 2,000 years after the Last Glacial Maximum and some 4,000 years before our western continental coastline and the Rocky Mountain Foothills.  

It has long been accepted that the most recent series of ice ages began approximately 1.6 million years ago, beginning as ice accumulations at higher altitudes with the gradual cooling of the climate. Four times the ice advanced and receded, most recently melting away somewhere around 10,000 years ago. Ice retreated from southwestern British Columbia and the Puget Sound area around 15,000 years ago. 

In the southern Interior, ice built up first in the northern Selkirk Mountains, then slowly flowed down into the valleys. Once the valleys were filled, the depth of the ice increased until it began to climb to the highlands and finally covered most of the Interior of British Columbia. Between ice advances, there were times when the Kamloops area was ice-free and the climate warm and hospitable. 

Glacial ice was believed to have initiated its most recent retreat from the South Thompson area around 11,000 to 12,000 years ago, but salmon remains from 18,000 years ago suggest that it may have actually begun its northwest decline much earlier — and presenting the possibility of a much warmer climate in the Interior than archaeologists or geologists had originally thought.

Eighteen thousand-year-old salmon also challenge the archaeological notion that the First Nation people of the Interior have had access to salmon as a significant protein source for only a few thousand years. 

In the popular view, people living in the Okanagan and Thompson Valleys were felt to have moved to settlements that were semi-permanent about 4,500 years ago. By that time they would have had a seasonally regulated diet composed primarily of salmon and supplemented by local game — deer, elk, small mammals — and available shellfish, birds and plant foods, roots and berries. If salmon were present much earlier, it is possible that this pattern of food utilization may have arisen earlier than thought.

Richard Hughes had originally identified the fossilized Kamloops salmon as Oncorhynchus nerka or Sockeye salmon, the same species found in the 3,500-year-old archaeological sites. But, using the carbon-13 isotope ratio, Klein and Carlson were able to determine that these salmon did not feed on protein from a marine source and relied solely on a freshwater diet. 

In other words, they could not have spent part of their life in the ocean, as modern Sockeye salmon do. Based on the specimens’ smaller heads and stunted bodies, the longest measuring in at a pint-sized 11.5 cm, Klein and Carlson feel that the fossils are likely Kokanee — a modern landlocked variety of Sockeye.

If you are wondering about the traditional First Nation use of salmon, this McGill University link is outstanding:http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/fish/searun-fish/page.aspx?id=6446