Close-up of a swirled Maclurina manitobensis fossil in a rock.
August 25, 2015

Left Behind in Airport Cove

Left Behind in Airport Cove 

By Dr. Graham Young, past Curator of Palaeontology & Geology


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. 

Photo looking out over a rock landscape with low pools of water. A group of indviduals are scattered around looking at the rocks

Our field group, walking across dolostone beds in the Silurian part of the cove.  

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. 

Landscape view over a rocky stretch of ground leading to the open water in the distance.

In the cove, the rock seems to go on almost forever. 

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? 

Close-up on rock surface with two shell fossils embedded in it. A size scale card is placed in frame along the bottom.

Two examples of the large Silurian brachiopod (lamp shell) Virgiana decussata.

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. 

Close-up photo of a section of rock with many small fossil pieces embedded in it. A size scale card is placed in frame along the top.

Abundant pieces of auloporids, Silurian “organ pipe” corals, in a dolostone bed low in the modern intertidal zone.

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. 

Photograph of a section of rock with an elongated tube-shaped fossil in the surface. A size scale card is placed on the rock beside the fossil.

Old friends: we have been walking past this block of Ordovician stone for the past fifteen years or more. The elongate fossil on the left is the central tube (siphuncle) of a nautiloid cephalopod, while that on the right is an tall aulacerid stromatoporoid (sponge). 

Close-up photo of a section of rock with a curved U shaped fossil in the surface. A size scale card is placed in frame along the top.

The pygidium (tail) of the Ordovician trilobite Isotelus.

Close-up photo of a section of rock with dark lichens growing on the surface. Two fossils are embedded in the rock, on round and swirled, the other rounded on one side. A size scale card is placed in frame along the left edge.

Another example of the gastropod Maclurina manitobensis (lower), with an unidentified fossil that might be a stromatoporoid sponge.

A section of rock with half of a round, swirled fossil embedded in it. A quarter is placed on the rock’s surface for scale.

The one we couldn’t leave behind: this beautiful Ordovician coiled nautiloid cephalopod is now in transit to Winnipeg, along with the other fossils we collected. 

Landscape photograph looking out over a rocky shoreline at the water’s edge.

The end of the cove.