Bison rubbing stones are icons of the prairies. These large stones were originally transported south by Ice Age glaciers, then left behind on the prairies when the glaciers melted and receded roughly 12,000 years ago. They are therefore considered to be a form of fieldstone, and such large blocks of fieldstone are commonly called glacial erratics.
In the millennia since the glaciers left this region, rubbing stones have undergone a lengthy and intensive polishing process. These are boulders that were tall enough that they were made use of by itchy bison, who needed to shed their heavy winter coats or scratch after being bitten by flies and mosquitoes. The rubbing by bison over such a long time interval, along with the oils from the animals’ hides, gives rubbing stones a distinctive patina, and a rubbing stone is typically surrounded by a ring of flattened, eroded earth.
For our new Prairies Gallery, we knew that we wanted to include this sort of defining prairie element as a full-sized touchable piece, but we also knew that a cast or sculpted stone just wouldn’t do it. We had to acquire a real stone, and it had to be light enough that it could be moved into our gallery and placed safely on the gallery floor for an indefinite period of time. Since the gallery’s weight allowance is quite limited, how could this possibly be done?
As was the case for our fieldstone wall, we discussed this with stonemason Todd Braun quite early in the gallery development process. Although we thought that there should be a real boulder in the gallery, we also knew that it could not be a recognized rubbing stone, as those are heritage objects that should be left undisturbed in their original locations. Instead, Todd suggested that he could acquire a boulder of suitable size and rock type from gravel pits in the Morden area, and that he would prepare the boulder so that it could meet the floor loading limits and other requirements for placement in our gallery.
Todd located the stone in late 2019, and we first saw it during a visit to his workshop in February, 2020. It is a very substantial boulder of migmatite, a high-grade metamorphic rock with aligned layers of minerals, which was formed under great heat and pressure deep in the Earth. Todd explained how he planned to cut off one end of the boulder so that it would be lighter and so that it would be stable standing on the floor. He would then use cutting and grinding power tools to hollow out the stone, starting from that flat end. It would therefore still look like a large solid boulder, but it would actually be more like a thick-shelled egg, with much of its internal mass replaced by air.
Once we had a plan in place, the boulder had to wait until Todd had the time to prepare it. He was busy completing the fieldstone wall for our gallery, and was not able to turn his attention to the boulder until the fall of 2020. The cutting and hollowing of the stone turned out to be very labour intensive; the rock was very hard, and Todd was also afraid that fractures might develop if he tried to remove too much rock at once, or pushed too hard on it. It would have been a disaster to have the boulder go to pieces at this stage!
Todd told us that we were getting our money’s worth, since the job was more work than he had anticipated, but the hollowing out was completed by late November. He was also able to put a bit of a polish on the outer surface of the stone, to mimic the effect of rubbing by thousands of bison.
Todd used his tractor to lift the boulder into the back of his truck. Very early one morning, he drove to Winnipeg before there was significant traffic on the roads. The truck was backed into our loading dock, the hoist was attached to the heavy-duty straps that Todd had placed beneath the boulder, and the stone was lifted very smoothly onto a pallet jack. We were grateful at this stage that the boulder had lost so much of its original weight!
We had a crew of four on hand to assist Todd with moving the boulder into the gallery: an expert construction manager, and three curators to provide the grunt labour. Since we had measured all the doorways and halls in advance of this move, we knew that there would be a few tricky spots during the stone’s travel through the building, but that it should just fit through all of those.
First, we trundled it down a long corridor and through the Museum’s workshops, then out into the Welcome Gallery. Since there was new flooring in the galleries, we had to begin laying down sheets of board when we left the workshop space. There were several large plywood sheets, so it was a matter of laying down a row of boards along the planned path, then lifting each board after we passed over it, and moving it to the front of the other boards so that there would always be a safe surface for the pallet jack.
The stone turned out to have a bit of a “mind of its own” when it came to the direction our route would take, and there was some manoeuvring required to get it lined up with the doorway that would take us into the Winnipeg Gallery area. This gallery was another tight spot, and after some discussion and changing of direction, the boulder slipped through. We then had a clear run to its final location by the Pronghorn Diorama.
The pallet jack was rolled to the location that had been selected for the boulder’s final position, and the stone was gently (VERY gently!) shifted onto some large wedges that Todd had brought along for the task. By levering with heavy pry bars, the wedges could be gradually removed and the boulder settled into place.
The next time you are in our new Prairies Gallery, I hope you will take a good look at the rubbing stone and other exhibits. Many Museum exhibits may look like simple things, but the stories behind them are often quite complicated!
Beginning in 2012, The Museum’s curators worked together to plan exhibits for the Bringing Our Stories Forward project (BOSF). As we travelled around the grasslands region to prepare ideas for our new Prairies Gallery, we developed a list of topics that would be essential for a representation of this region. We rapidly agreed on some things that had to go into the Gallery: prairie vegetation, the importance of wind, Indigenous prehistory (and most particularly mound-building cultures), and several other topics. One of these was fieldstone.
What is fieldstone, and why did we think it was essential?
When European settlers arrived on the prairies, they wanted to build permanent houses and other buildings. They were now in a region where there were almost no trees away from the river valleys, so material for wooden houses could be scarce. Many settlers came from parts of Europe where houses were built from stone that was quarried from solid bedrock, but on the Manitoba prairie the bedrock was either buried far below the land surface, or it was soft Cretaceous shale that was useless as a building stone.
There was however, a building stone resource that was readily available: loose fieldstone boulders, which lay on the land surface or could be readily found by digging near riverbanks. Fieldstone is a mixture of many kinds of stone. These stones formed as bedrock at different times, under varied conditions, and include igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rock types.
Like the settlers, fieldstone had immigrated to the prairies. During the Ice Age (Pleistocene Epoch), huge glaciers covered Manitoba. Glacial ice flowed southward, pulling blocks of stone out of solid bedrock. Blocks (glacial erratics), left behind when the ice melted, are used as fieldstone. Most fieldstone thus originated far to the north of where it is found today.
Since fieldstone was a distinctive natural material seen across many parts of the prairies, and since it was used by settlers when they built many of the early buildings, it was clear to us that the fieldstone story should be included in our Prairies Gallery. We already planned to build an exhibit about the Brockinton National Historic site, a significant precontact bison kill site in the Souris Valley south of Melita, so it made sense that we also create an adjacent exhibit that would represent a wall of the Brockinton house, a late 19th century structure that sits at the top of the slope above the archaeological site.
But how could we build this exhibit? Stone is really dense, and a mass of solid stone would have been far too heavy to be supported by the floor in our gallery space. Stone is also not really a topic that would have been suited to an animated video like our beautiful Prairies Mural Wall, and a flat panel display would have been just that: flat. We needed some way to allow visitors to observe and touch the genuine stone, in a setting that imitated a real fieldstone wall.
Fortunately, in our various travels around southern Manitoba we had met Todd Braun, a stonemason who works in the Altona area. By consulting with Todd and with our exhibit design team, a plan took form: a frame would be fabricated from steel clad in plywood, and Todd would prepare the stones to attach to that frame, reducing their weight by slicing them thin.
Todd and I selected stones to represent the great variety of fieldstone seen in southwestern Manitoba. Many of these came from boulders and cobbles that Todd had found during his visits to various gravel pits. A few were rocks that we found together, and in one or two instances I went to other geologists to request examples of very particular rock types.
Once we had agreed on the stones to be used, Todd prepared them using traditional techniques, breaking each rock with a hammer until it had a blocky shape. These blocks were laid out in their approximate relative positions for the wall. After a fitted layout was achieved, Todd patiently took each block and trimmed it with a saw so that the visible surface was effectively a “veneer” with only a few centimetres of thickness. These veneers were then attached to the steel and plywood frame using adhesives and metal hardware, and the space between them was covered in traditional mortar. The “corner stones” were a particular challenge, since they had to be cut in such a way that they would look like solid three dimensional blocks once the wall was assembled.
To allow the wall to be assembled in Todd’s workshop prior to its installation in our gallery, the frame was actually built in three sections. This made each piece light enough to be readily moved, and small enough to fit through the smallest doorway between the Museum’s loading dock and our new Prairies Gallery. Very early one morning, Todd arrived at the Museum with the completed wall sections on his trailer. These were hoisted into the loading dock, and rolled through the Museum to the wall’s permanent gallery location. Todd and our construction team had created an ingenious hoist system that would allow each upper wall section to be lifted into position on the base section. Once the wall sections were in place, they were bolted together, and Todd covered the joins with fresh mortar.
The finished wall looks very much like the walls you can see at Brockinton House and on other buildings in southwest Manitoba, and it beautifully demonstrates both fieldstone construction and the geological variety of this fascinating material. As is the case for some other Museum exhibits, there is no evidence of the incredibly complicated and lengthy development and construction process that allowed this structure to “look like the real thing.”
This year, our Museum foyer has featured an exhibit of unusual fossils in the New Acquisitions Case. This exhibit, Finding the Impossible: Unique Tropical Fossils from William Lake, Manitoba, included a video “slide show” that documented the expeditions during which we collected these fossils. My colleague remarked to me the other day that this slide show should be shared widely using the Museum blog; this post, and some subsequent ones, will do just that!
The exhibit panel’s text gives a brief outline of the project:
How does an animal become a fossil? How is a fossil jellyfish even possible? Only bones, teeth and shells are commonly fossilized, while soft tissues rot or are eaten by scavengers. Jellyfish and other soft tissue fossils are not quite impossible, but they are very rare, preserved only in unusual environments.
The fossils at William Lake are 445 million years old, dating from the Ordovician Period of geological time. They represent creatures that lived along a tropical shore when Manitoba straddled the equator. The remarkable preservation resulted from low oxygen and high salt levels in lagoons.
These specimens were collected by a Manitoba Museum research team, collaborating with scientists from the Royal Ontario Museum and University of Saskatchewan, and students from the University of Manitoba. During fieldwork in central Manitoba in 2000, we discovered the first of these soft-tissue fossils. Through hard on-the-ground work, we located the site. We travelled there numerous times, excavating thin dolostone (limestone) layers to extract the specimens displayed here.
The first part of the accompanying slide show provided some background on Manitoba limestones, and shared the experience of travel to the Grand Rapids Uplands of northern Manitoba. I hope you will enjoy these images (please click on any image if you wish to see it full size).
To be continued . . . next time I will talk about the fossil collecting process, with many graphic images of dusty and hot, or cold and wet paleontologists!
As we have worked our way through the pliosaur exhibit project, we have come up against a series of problems that have required novel solutions. About a month ago we carried out a very strange task, and one that none of us had ever had to do before: we needed to move the glyptodont.
Before I explain how we did this, perhaps I had better backtrack a bit, as you probably have some questions at this point: “What is a glyptodont, anyway? Where did the Museum get its glyptodont and why did you need to move it?”
Glyptodonts were creatures that lived during the Ice Age, that have been described as “fridge-size armadillos,” although the largest ones could perhaps have been called “armadillos the size of Volkswagen Bugs.” They were heavy, armoured creatures that weighed up to two tonnes. They spent their time lumbering around the forests and plains of South America and southern North America, eating trees and grasses. Glyptodonts became extinct about 10,000 years ago during the “Quaternary Extinction Event,” at about the same time as giant ground sloths and other large mammals, probably as a result of climate change and hunting by humans.
Our particular glyptodont is a replica of a fossil that belonged to the genus Glyptodon, and like our ground sloth it came to the Museum by a long and circuitous route. The glyptodont and the ground sloth were among the earliest casts of big vertebrate fossils, produced during the late 19th century by Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York. Our ground sloth (Megatherium) was supplied to the Redpath Museum in Montreal in time for the opening of that institution in 1882, while the glyptodont joined it in Montreal some years later.
By the 1960s, the Redpath was renovating, and these immense casts were removed and needed a home. The Manitoba Museum was under construction, so the casts were transferred to us and shipped to Winnipeg. They were assembled when the Earth History Gallery was constructed, and were there in time for the gallery opening in 1973. For the forty-plus years since then, both of these huge and historic casts have stood in place on the platforms that had been constructed for them.
Now, in 2016, we are renovating that part of the gallery so that we can install our exciting fossil pliosaur, and to make space we have had to move the glyptodont. Since this replica had been in place since long before any of us worked here, we did not have any advance knowledge of how it should be handled, and since it is an irreplaceable artefact dating from over a century ago, we considered this move with some trepidation. Since it turned out that the glyptodont is also immensely heavy, having been constructed of plaster, wood, and iron in the best 19th century fashion, our trepidation was well placed.
As has been the case with handling the plesiosaur specimen, our technical staff love this sort of challenge, and Bert Valentin and Sean Workman had come up with solutions in the best “jury rigged” manner. Back when we installed our mineral exhibit, Bert had modified an engine hoist so that we could move our giant amethyst specimen, which weighs close to half a tonne. Now, with a fossil cast that weighs about the same amount (we weren’t able to weigh it, so this is a best guess), Bert re-modified that hoist as a glyptodont-lifter. The following sequence of photographs shows how it went – the process was much more nerve-wracking than it appears here!
As you may know if you look at this page occasionally, for the past couple of years we have been working with a beautiful fossil of a pliosaurid plesiosaur, which was collected by Wayne Buckley from western Manitoba. We are now at the stage of preparing a permanent exhibit of the fossil, which will be installed in the Earth History Gallery this summer. So we have been very busy in the past little while!
Much of my own work involves the planning of the exhibit: writing copy for the panels, selecting images and graphics, collaborating with the designer, and working with grants and budgets to ensure that everything is on track. While I am doing this, some of the other staff are carrying out very creative and exciting work: the designer, of course, but also those who are building cases, engineering hanging mounts for a skeletal reconstruction, and figuring out lighting and other technical issues.
As these photos show, one of the most creative tasks is that of artist Debbie Thompson, who is making an artificial stone (shale) bed that will surround the original fossils so that they will look almost the same as they did when they were first discovered. When Debbie’s work is done, I think that many visitors will mistake her “rock” for the real thing, but as these photos show, this is only achieved through tremendous focus and patience.
The plesiosaur skull, as it appeared in our temporary exhibit last winter.
It is exciting and interesting to work with the fossils of large vertebrate creatures, but this is a field with many complexities. During the fossilization of most vertebrates, the bone was replaced by other minerals, which makes the skeletal components both heavier and more brittle than they were during the animal’s life. For those of us working in the “back rooms” of museums, it can be very tricky to move these large, weighty, and fragile fossils as we prepare them, study them, or mount them for exhibit.
A few weeks ago, we had to perform one of the trickiest tasks associated with big vertebrates: flipping a skull. The large pliosaurid plesiosaur that was donated to the Museum by Wayne Buckley had been fully prepared by Wayne, so that the bones are completely removed from bedrock; their weight is supported by mounts or cradles (structures similar to the plaster field jackets). This makes the fossil much easier to exhibit or study, but it means that we have to ensure that we are fully supporting the skull whenever we move it, so that it doesn’t collapse or break. Since this particular specimen is unique and scientifically important, and since it has survived the past 90 million years or so in remarkably good condition, it is imperative that we take extra care!
In late September, we were visited by Dr. Tamaki Sato (Tokyo Gakugei University) and Dr. Xiao-Chun Wu (Canadian Museum of Nature), who spent several days here studying the skeleton for a scientific publication. Before they arrived, Debbie Thompson had been making the final exhibit mount for the plesiosaur; to allow her to do that work, the skull was resting in a temporary support cradle, with its “back” side (the side hidden during exhibit) facing up. We knew that Tamaki and Xiao-Chun would want to thoroughly examine both sides of the skull, and that at the midpoint of the week we would need to flip it so that they could study the “front” side.
Knowing this in advance, Debbie had prepared a second cradle that would fit onto the the side that was currently up, making this support out of wood, plaster, burlap, and other materials. Unfortunately for us, Debbie was on vacation when the visiting scientists were here, so it was left to the rest of us to ensure that the cradle was used as she had intended.
On the Wednesday afternoon, Collections Specialist Janis Klapecki and I went to the room where the plesiosaur is laid out, and with Tamaki and Xiao-Chun we fitted Debbie’s second cradle over the skull. The fit was perfect, so we wrapped sturdy packing straps around the two cradles, then tightened them until there was no give and the wood supports were flexing a bit. This tightness would ensure that the bones would move as little as possible during the flip.
When we were ready, we were joined by several of our curatorial colleagues, who had kindly volunteered their assistance. The skull and cradles were not immensely heavy, but the operation had to be done very steadily and smoothly, so it was best to have two or three people on each end of it. Once we had everything in place, and once we had discussed how we would do it, it only took a couple of moments to actually flip the skull.
When we removed the straps and exposed the skull, it was clear that the planning had paid off: the fragile fossil had survived it perfectly. Tamaki and Xiao-Chun could continue their scientific study, and the rest of us could return to our many other tasks. But we aren’t quite done with this sort of work yet: we will have to flip the skull at least a couple more times before it goes into a new permanent gallery exhibit next year.
Last week was the Museum’s “cleaning week”, during which we were closed to the public so that we could focus on getting our house in order. There was much recycling of paper, moving of old furniture, and scrubbing of walls in many parts of the Museum. Here in the Geology and Paleontology lab, we decided that this was the ideal time to file some of the fossils that had been catalogued in the past few months. Most particularly, we put away several hundred Ordovician age trilobites from the Stony Mountain Formation at Stony Mountain, just north of Winnipeg.
How did the Museum end up with hundreds of trilobites that needed cataloguing? Stony Mountain is one of the really important sites in southern Manitoba dating from the Late Ordovician Period, about 445-450 million years ago. During this time central North America was covered by tropical seas, and at Stony Mountain the limestone deposits are tremendously rich in fossils of marine invertebrates: corals, brachiopods (lamp shells), trilobites, and many other kinds of creatures.
Staff and volunteers from this Museum and its predecessor have collected fossils at Stony Mountain since the 1930s; over the years thousands of specimens have been catalogued to our collections, but very few of these were trilobites. A museum always collects more samples than can be catalogued quickly, and the Stony Mountain trilobites are somewhat complicated and consist mostly of small pieces*, so we had been holding onto them until there was time to consider which ones belonged in the permanent collection.
We knew that the Stony Mountain trilobites had been gradually “stacking up”, and volunteer extraordinaire Ed Dobrzanski and I had decided that we would devote some serious time and space to this project when we could. A few months ago the lab was looking relatively clear, so we laid out the hundreds of trilobites in trays and decided which ones were good enough to go into the permanent collection. I identified quite a few of them, but it fell to Ed to carry out the laborious, repetitive work of cataloguing each specimen.
When he was done, there were some 150 catalogued batches, all neatly laid out and padded. Once I had reviewed his records (we always double-check everything for accuracy!), we still had to find space in the collections, shifting the drawers in several cabinets to free up a block so that the trilobites could all be together and organized.
Finally, last week, we put the trilobites away! This may seem like a very big job for some small old fossils, but it means that many potentially important specimens are now properly recorded and stored, with the trilobites and their data readily available for future research or exhibits.
*These trilobites are almost all incomplete because most trilobite fossils are from pieces of exoskeleton left behind when the animals moulted in ancient tropical seas. For the fossils at Stony Mountain, wave and current action on the ancient seafloor caused further abrasion and breakage.
If you think about how Museum paleontologists get fossils, you might guess that we go out and find where the fossils are, extract all of them from the rock and sediment, and return them to the Museum. Certainly that is what we do where fossils are scarce, but in many instances our job really consists of deciding what to leave behind. Our specialists at the Manitoba Museum are called curators, and a curator by definition has to be able to select what is needed for collections and exhibits.
This fact was really brought home to me in the past couple of weeks, as we revisited sites in Airport Cove, the stretch of shoreline north of the airport at Churchill. Airport Cove covers a large area, with many patches of bedrock spread across the shoreline. These patches of rock allow us to sample many different sedimentary beds from the end of the Ordovician Period and the beginning of the Silurian Period, roughly 445-435 million years ago.
The rocks in the cove were deposited as sediment in warm tropical seas, so fossils are plentiful in many of them. With such an embarrassment of riches we have to be selective every time we go out in the cove; if I collected every decent fossil, we would need an entire freight train to get them to Winnipeg! And then, where could we possibly store them?
As a result of our previous work here, many examples of the “standard” fossils from Airport Cove are already resident in the Museum’s collections, and this time we were looking for very specific and rare things. So we would walk around the cove each day, considering and photographing the more common sorts of fossils. Some of these are old friends, on blocks of stone that I can remember being in the same place ten or fifteen years ago. Others were new to me, but I can hope to see them again if I get back here. And then there are the few fossils that are so good that they must go to the Museum; one of these is shown at the end of this piece.
If you are ever in the Churchill area and wish to go looking for fossils, please follow all guidelines on polar bear safety! We had to leave our work area at Airport Cove twice last week as there were bears nearby, and on one occasion a mother and cub walked right through our site very shortly after we got into the truck.
Those of us who live in Winnipeg know that fossils are never far away. Many Winnipeg structures feature surfaces clad in Tyndall Stone, a fossil-rich dolomitic limestone of Late Ordovician age (about 450 million years old). Tyndall Stone covers public buildings such as the Manitoba Legislative Building and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and commercial buildings in the downtown core, but it can also be seen in thousands of homes in Winnipeg: in walls, steps, and fireplaces.
Thus, it is hardly surprising that the Museum and the adjacent Centennial Concert Hall both use Tyndall Stone inside and out. Of course Tyndall Stone fossils are represented in our Earth History Gallery, but if you think about it, it is odd that there are so many more “museum-grade specimens” exposed to the weather on the outside of the building. On the inside, as these photos show, we sometimes cover up beautiful fossils with the detritus of everyday existence: signs, fountains, alarms, and thermostats. In part, this is because the fossils are so abundant that it is hard to avoid them when placing objects, but it may also be that they are so commonplace here that people ignore them and take them for granted.
Maybe someday we will add interpretative signage to some of the better and more accessible fossils on and in the Museum, but that would be a big project to undertake. In the meantime, here is a sampling of a few of the good ones.
In my last blog post, introducing our plesiosaur exhibit, I promised to follow up with some of the story of how the collectors found, extracted, and prepared the fossils. When I was assembling the exhibit I interviewed Kevin Conlin and Wayne Buckley, since they tell these stories so much better than I ever could. Here are the interviews, which are also on the panels within the exhibit.
Kevin Conlin is a ceramic artist in western Manitoba who has worked with various museums, collecting and participating in scientific research. He collects fossils under permits from the Manitoba Historic Resources Branch, and has collected significant specimens now in the collections of The Manitoba Museum.
How did you get into fossil collecting?
It goes back to Grade 3, on a school trip to the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. I took my lunch money and purchased three trilobites from the gift shop. From there, I began to look into what fossils were, and started a long life of keeping my head down whenever I was out where there were rocks or gravels that could contain fossil material.
How do you find the fossils?
When I first got into collecting I didn’t know much about rock types. After taking some geology in school and university I began to recognize and distinguish rocks that would house fossils – the types of sediments or fossils in the area really dictate how you find fossils. I look for the odd shapes, textures, any variations in the surface of matrix or sediment which could indicate something other than just mud, sand or sedimentary rock. It could be anything from a pin prick to the size of a 200-pound boulder!
What do you do to prepare the fossils?
Depending on the fossil and its fragility, I use a special glue. For cleaning and preparing fossils, miniature jackhammers and a miniature sandblasting unit are used to remove sediment. It all depends on the fragility. Some fossils come naturally cleaned by the elements. Others still encased in rock can take hundreds of hours of preparation.
Among the fossils you have found so far, which one is your favourite?
I like all fossils. They all bring great enjoyment – trilobites, birds, a Carboniferous collection that I really enjoy. I have no real favourites.
What do you think is the most pleasurable part of fossil collecting?
The most pleasurable part of fossil collecting to me is relaxation. Even though the work can be difficult, finding the fossil and knowing that you are the first human to see it brings a great deal of pleasure.
Why do you collect fossils? Why is it important to do this?
I collect fossils for the mystical quality from ancient worlds and the beauty they project. I also collect fossils for the purpose of preservation. It is important to preserve this material because nature will destroy it over time through erosion. Being a ceramic artist, a large part of my fossil collecting becomes an inspiration for my work. The interesting thing about being a clay artist is that many fossils are found in clay!
Wayne Buckley is a retired agricultural research scientist in western Manitoba. He collects fossils under permits from the Manitoba Historic Resources Branch and has donated significant specimens to The Manitoba Museum.
How did you get into fossil collecting?
As kids, my cousin and I had an interest in collecting rocks. We had heard that you might be able to find fossils at a place we were camping, so we went looking and we found this beautiful ammonite. I remember being struck that it was possible for someone like me to find beautiful and interesting things like that. I was hooked for life!
What do you have to do to pull out a fossil you have found? What sorts of tools do you use?
I suppose the most important tool is a shovel; we do a lot of digging! Then we get the picks and crowbars to lever out big chunks of shale. As we get further into the rock it becomes quite hard, and I use a small jackhammer. Once the fossil is exposed, we need to prepare a trench around it, then cover it with a burlap and plaster cast. We’ve used various techniques to get fossils out of the bush. Early on it was mainly inner tubes with a piece of plywood – we would drag and float it out. Later I made a skid that would float and we could haul that behind an Argo (an amphibious vehicle).
Among all the fossils you have found so far, which one is your favourite?
That’s easy. That plesiosaur that I just donated [to the Museum] is certainly my favourite.
What do you think is the most pleasurable part of fossil collecting?
Well, I guess there are really two things that come to mind. First of all, there’s the thrill of making a discovery. That, however, is fairly rare. Probably just as important is that I enjoy being out in the bush. I really enjoy the relaxation that comes with eating my lunch on a vantage point, listening to the silence and watching the birds and other animals.
What sorts of sources do you use to identify the fossils?
There’s a great website called Oceans of Kansas. It describes many of the fossils that we find in Manitoba, because they are also found in Kansas. Also, as I have a background in science, I am quite comfortable with searching the scientific literature and ultimately going to the original research papers where new species were named.
Why do you collect fossils? Why is it important to do this?
I have a passion for fossils. I think collecting them is important because we don’t have a complete record of the early life that was in Manitoba during the Cretaceous Period. I feel that we are able to make significant scientific contributions. It’s also important to save the fossils; erosion is very rapid where we are collecting and fossils simply erode away.