Tuesday, 24 January 2023


White Eared Puffbird, Nystalus chacuru
Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park 

Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park covers 23 hectares of the Bulkley River Valley, on the east side of Driftwood Creek, a tributary of the Bulkley River, 10 km northeast of the town of Smithers in northern British Columbia. 

Wet'suwet'en First Nation

The parklands are part of the asserted traditional territory of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation which includes lands around the Bulkley River, Burns Lake, Broman Lake, and François Lake in the northwestern Central Interior of British Columbia. 

The Wetʼsuwetʼen are part of the Dakelh or Carrier First Nation, and in combination with the Babine First Nation are referred to as the Western Carrier. They speak Witsuwitʼen, a dialect of the Babine-Witsuwitʼen language which, like its sister language Carrier, is a member of the Athabaskan family.

Their oral history or kungax recounts a time when their ancestral village, Dizkle or Dzilke, once stood upstream from the Bulkley Canyon. This cluster of cedar houses on both sides of the river was said to be abandoned because of an omen of impending disaster. The exact location of the village has been lost but their stories live on. 

The neighbouring Gitxsan people of the Hazelton area have a similar tale, though the village in their version is referred to as Dimlahamid or Temlahan. Their house groups include the Gilseyhu or Big Frog Clan, the Laksilyu or Small Frog Clan, the Tsayu or Beaver Clan, the Gitdumden or Wolf and Bear Clan and the Laksamshu or Fireweed and Owl Clan.

Driftwood Canyon Fossil Beds

Driftwood Canyon's Fossil Beds record life in the earlier portion of the Eocene when British Columbia — and indeed our world — was much warmer than it is today. This site is recognized as one of the world’s most significant fossil beds. It provides us with a fascinating opportunity to understand the area’s evolutionary processes of both geology and biology. The park was created in 1967 by the donation of the land by the late Gordon Harvey (1913–1976) to protect fossil beds on the east side of Driftwood Creek. The beds were discovered around the beginning of the 20th century. 

Metasequoia, the Dawn Redwood
We have found plant, fish and insect fossil here including Metasequoia, the Dawn Redwood, alder, fossil salmon, wasps, water striders and vertebrate material. Bird feathers are infrequently collected from the shales; however, two bird body fossils have been found here.

In 1968, a bird body fossil was collected in the Eocene shales of the Ootsa Lake Group in Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park by Pat Petley of Kamloops. Pat Petley donated the specimen in 2000 to the Thompson Rivers University (TRU) palaeontology collections. This fossil bird specimen is tentatively identified as the puffbird, Piciformes Bucconidae, of the genus Primobucco.

Primobucco is an extinct genus of bird placed in its own family, Primobucconidae. The type species, Primobucco mcgrewi, lived during the Lower Eocene of North America. It was initially described by American paleo-ornithologist Pierce Brodkorb in 1970, from a fossil right-wing, and thought to be an early puffbird. However, the discovery of a further 12 fossils in 2010 indicate that it is instead an early type of roller.

Related fossils from the European Messel deposits have been assigned to the two species P. perneri and P. frugilegus. Two specimens of P. frugilegus have been found with seeds in the area of their digestive tract, which suggests that these birds were more omnivorous than the exclusively predaceous modern rollers. The Driftwood specimen has never been thoroughly studied. If there is a grad student out there looking for a worthy thesis, head on down to the Thompson Rivers University where you'll find the specimen on display.

Another fossil bird, complete with feathers, was collected at Driftwood Canyon in 1970, This one was found by Margret and Albrecht Klöckner who were travelling from Germany. Theirs is a well-travelled specimen, having visited many sites in BC as they toured around, then to Germany and finally back to British Columbia when it was repatriated and donated to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. I'm not sure if it is still on display or back in collections, but it was lovingly displayed back in 2008. There is a new grad student, Alexis, looking at Eocene bird feathers down at the RBCM, so perhaps it is once again doing the rounds. 

This second bird fossil is of a long-legged water bird and has been tentatively identified by Dr. Gareth Dyke of the University of Southampton as possibly from the order Charadriiformes, a diverse order of small to medium-ish water birds that include 350 species of gulls, plovers, sandpipers, terns, snipes, and waders. Hopefully, we'll hear more on this find in the future.

Tapirs and Tiny Hedgehogs

The outcrops at Driftwood Canyon are also special because they record a record of some of the first fossil mammals ever to be found in British Columbia at this pivotal point in time. Wee proto-hedgehogs smaller than your thumb lived in the undergrowth of that fossil flora. They shared the forest floor with an extinct tapir-like herbivore in the genus Heptodon that looked remarkably similar to his modern, extant cousins but lacked their pronounced snout (proboscis). I'm guessing that omission made him the more fetching of his lineage.

In both cases, it was a fossilized jaw bone that was recovered from the mud, silt and volcanic ash outcrops in this ancient lakebed site. And these two cuties are significant— they are the very first fossil mammals we've ever found from the early Eocene south of the Arctic.

How can we be sure of the timing? The fossil outcrops here are found within an ancient lakebed. Volcanic eruptions 51 million years ago put loads of fine dust into the air that settled then sank to the bottom of the lake, preserving the specimens that found their way here — leaves, insects, birds, mammals.

 As well as turning the lake into a fossil making machine (water, ash, loads of steady sediment to cover specimens and stave off predation...) the volcanic ash contains the very chemically inert (resistant to mechanical weathering) mineral zircon which we can date with uranium/lead (U/Pb). 

The U/Pb isotopic dating technique is wonderfully accurate and mighty helpful in dating geologic events from volcanic eruptions, continental movements to mass extinctions. This means we know exactly when these lovelies were fossilized and, in turn, their significance.

What To Know Before You Go

If you fancy a visit to Driftwood Canyon Park, the park is accessible from Driftwood Road from Provincial Highway 16. You are welcome to view and photograph the fossils found here but collecting is strictly forbidden. 

Driftwood Canyon is recognized as one of the world’s most significant fossil beds. It provides park users with a fascinating opportunity to understand the area’s evolutionary processes of both geology and biology. The day-use area is open from May 15 to September 2. There is a short, wheelchair-accessible interpretative trail that leads from the parking are to the fossil beds. Pets are welcome on leash. Signs along the trail provide information on fossils and local history. 

Below a cliff face at the end of the trail is a viewing area that has interpretive information and viewing area overlooking Driftwood Creek.

This park proudly operated by Mark and Anais Drydyk
Email: kermodeparks@gmail.com / Tel: 1 250 877-1482 or 1 250 877-1782

Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park Brochure: