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.
The Old Plesiosaur and the Sea Exhibit, Open November 14th-April 6th
Tomorrow morning we will be opening our new Discovery Room exhibit, The Old Plesiosaur and the Sea. Some Discovery Room exhibits show exciting or previously unseen objects from the Museum’s collections, while others feature collaborations with the community. This exhibit will do both: some of the beautiful specimens have been donated over the past few years by two remarkable fossil collectors, but many of the other specimens are being loaned by those collectors, just for this exhibit.
The collectors, Wayne Buckley and Kevin Conlin, spend much of their spare time collecting and preparing fossils from Cretaceous rocks in the Manitoba escarpment. These fossils include large marine reptiles, beautiful fishes, and many other forms of sea life. The exhibit is intended to share with the public some of the fossils Wayne and Kevin have collected, along with the story of how and why they have carried out this difficult and complicated work.
The exhibit itself is partly tied to a donation to the Museum. This spring, Wayne Buckley very generously donated a plesiosaur, the skeleton of a huge swimming reptile that he had collected, prepared, and studied over a period of several years (hence the name of this exhibit). We are planning a major new gallery exhibit that will feature this fossil, but we wanted to share it with the Museum’s visitors as soon as possible, and this temporary exhibit seemed like a wonderful opportunity to also display some of Wayne and Kevin’s other fossils.
The photos below simply show parts of the exhibit, and some of the behind-the-scenes work that was required to put the specimens there. I will try to follow up in a week or so with some of the very interesting story of Wayne and Kevin’s fossil collecting.
Travels in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, August, 2014
Manitoba is an immense place, very slightly larger than France. If you look at the map, you will see that roads here are concentrated in the southernmost part of the province. The farther north you go, the fewer areas you will find that are easy to visit. Those of us who work in field-based sciences occasionally get to some of the more out-of-the way places, but most of us have still seen only a small fraction of what this province has to offer. The Manitoba landscapes that are familiar to us are either the parts that we have seen (such as the prairies and the big lakes), or those that are regularly depicted in photographs and tourist brochures (such as a few places in the boreal forest and the rocky shoreline around Churchill).
This fact was really brought home to me during the last week of August, as I was invited to participate in some northern fieldwork organized by my colleagues at the Manitoba Geological Survey. I have seen a good few parts of southern and central Manitoba, but in the northern third of the province I really only know the Churchill area. Nevertheless, I thought I had a good feel for what the areas away from Churchill might be like. Our plan for this trip was to visit some of the geological sites in the Churchill area, but also to take advantage of funding support for helicopter time, which would allow us to visit a few places far up the Churchill River, 100 kilometres from any road and far from the Hudson Bay Railway.
The helicopter travel turned out to be an eye-opening experience. The up-river sites had received some study from scientists working with the Geological Survey of Canada, who visited this area 50 to 60 years ago, so I knew something of what I would see in terms of the rocks and fossils: the bedrock exposures are very good, and many of the fossils are superb (though they are not generally as abundant as I had anticipated).
More than a decade ago we had overflown a few of these up-river sites when we had a bit of helicopter time in Churchill, so I should have really known what it would be like there, but seeing them from the ground was quite different. The Churchill River landscape has a tremendous sweep and grandeur. The river is very wide and flows swiftly, sometimes in an almost straight line, more often with gentle bends. Some downstream areas have bars of gravel and cobbles, but farther upstream there are several sets of treacherous-looking rapids. The valley walls steepen as you travel upstream, from the flat lowlands south of Churchill to a substantial height of land 100 kilometres upstream where the valley walls are cliffs of Ordovician bedrock, resting on the Precambrian granitic rock that makes up the river bed.
Portage Chute, Bad Cache Rapids, Surprise Creek, Caution Creek, Chasm Creek . . . the place names alone should be enough to tell you that you aren’t on the prairies any more. Honestly, if I had been somehow sedated and delivered into the ravine of Chasm Creek without any awareness of how I arrived there, I would have thought that it had to be somewhere in the Yukon or perhaps the Northwest Territories.
The valley of the Churchill River is a literally awesome place, breathtaking in its grandeur, its scale, and in the variety of landforms and organisms. It is absolutely a northern place, a place that Manitobans should be aware of, a place to celebrate!