Fossils in James Bay
By John Heddle
Fossils in James Bay, you say? Yes, and not plump grey-haired two-legged survivors with walkers, either. No, there are 18,000 new actual fossils at the Royal BC Museum which have been donated recently by the McAbee Fossil Beds Heritage Site. These were collected by John Leahy and David Langevin near Cache Lake and are about 50 million years old. They are important for their remarkable detail which shows legs, scales, and leaves beautifully, as you can see in the photographs provided by the Royal BC Museum. Some of the one thousand specimens that the museum had before this donation were collected by famous figures such as Lady Amelia Douglas, wife of the first governor of British Columbia.
BC is rich in fossils. There are dinosaurs in Tumbler Ridge. It was there that the most complete fossil of the Tyrannosaurus rex, found so far, was discovered. Typically, dinosaur skeletons are composites constructed from bones found in a heap of many skeletons and, possibly, many different places, so it was a special discovery.
Even more important than the McAbee beds and Tumbler Ridge is the Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park. The Burgess Shale, a UNESCO world heritage site, is famous for the incredible detail that can be seen in the fossils, as in the McAbee site which you can see in these photographs (all taken the Royal BC Museum’s Flickr account, with permission). And in the case of the Burgess fossils, for the astonishing variety of soft-bodied animals from 500 million years ago, many of them unlike any living species. Biologists were astonished at this demonstration of such advanced life forms when almost no older ones of any complexity have been found. Such ancient organisms were largely soft and very rarely preserved. More traditional fossils of bones and shell are also found here in Victoria, on Haida Gwaii, the Gulf Islands, and Nanaimo.
Both the newly acquired McAbee fossils and those of the Burgess Shale owe their preservation to very unusual conditions when they were buried. They were preserved in the bottom sediments of lake in which there was no oxygen at the bottom. This prevented their destruction by oxidation, decay, and consumption by other organisms and thus permitted the preservation of imprints of soft and fragile structures. Such fossils are not the actual remains of the organisms, but very exact replicas produced when minerals were deposited in them.
It is unknown when the new fossils will be on display here in James Bay at the Royal BC Museum. But the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre in Tumbler Ridge reopened recently as more financing was secured. About 200 Km NW from Tumbler Ridge, near Williston Lake, the “dinosaur highway” is open to the public. Found in 2000, it has thousands of footprints of both of herbivorous (plant-eating) and carnivorous dinosaurs.