BC’s fossil sites include an astonishing diversity of past life spanning the entire interval of complex organisms on Earth. Some of the oldest fossils in the RBCM collection are over 550 million years old. These are the Ediacaran fossils from Mount Robson Provincial Park. Some of the youngest fossils in the collection include clams and other invertebrates from the Victoria area that are only a few thousand years old.
Our fossils represent many different ancient environments—the oceans, lakes and land where plants and animals once lived and died. We have examples from the deep ocean, where unusual marine reptiles, fishes, invertebrates and single-celled organisms once lived; coastlines, where diverse communities of shelled creatures thrived in the ancient past; lake bottoms and shorelines, where plants provided shelter and food for a myriad of fish and insects; and forests and wetlands full of plants, where small and large vertebrates once skittered and roamed.
BC has one of the most complicated geological settings on Earth. Ancient island terranes rising from the ocean floor collided with the North American continent, where they were squeezed upwards to build the mountains of BC. The past life preserved in these rocks is now visible as fossils, which help us understand the deep history of BC and its geologic past. Fossils have played an important role in BC’s economy, helping to locate mineral deposits, oil and gas. Many fossils contain particular chemicals; change in the character of such compounds can reveal the history of the deposit containing the fossils and give us clues to the location and nature of resource deposits. Fossil layers can also assist us in placing rock layers in relation to each other and figuring out their age.
Fossils are primarily found in sedimentary rocks from many basins in the province. Volcanic rocks, such as ash, also may preserve fossils. BC has some of the most important fossil localities in the world such as the Burgess Shale (a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing fossils from the Middle Cambrian period), Mount Robson Provincial Park (containing Ediacaran fauna), Wapiti Lake Provincial Park (fossil fishes and ichthyosaurs), northeastern BC (diverse invertebrates, vertebrates, track ways), Haida Gwaii (diverse mollusks 220–20 million years old), the Nanaimo Group on Vancouver Island and in the Gulf Islands (marine vertebrates and mollusks), the McAbee and other Eocene beds in the BC interior (plants, insects, fishes and other vertebrates) and Cenozoic invertebrates and vertebrates in coastal and southern Vancouver Island.
Pre-1900 Collection History
Over 2000 specimens are part of the museum’s early collections from before 1900. Many of these were collected by Dr. Charles Newcombe, a notable BC naturalist and historian. Other early fossil finds were made by some intriguing figures from BC’s past, among them George Mercer Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada; Lady Amelia Douglas, the wife of Sir James Douglas who was appointed governor of the Colony of British Columbia in 1858; Captain John Devereux, the dockmaster at Esquimalt harbour 1886–1906; and Captain Gardner, a local sea captain of some renown. Many of the fossils were identified and mentioned in volumes on Mesozoic Fossils (1876-1903) by Joseph Frederick Whiteaves, who joined the paleontology branch of the Geological Survey of Canada at Montreal in 1875. We still regularly refer to these volumes to initiate identification of fossils from Haida Gwaii, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. These older collections are important to show changes in the original sites as they eroded and revealed different fossils over time.
The museum’s paleontology collections have grown from about 2000 specimens in the late 1800s to over 60,000 specimens today. Much growth has occurred over the last ten years, mainly from donations and from research and field collection. Fossils are the museum’s most rapidly growing collection at this time and are frequently the basis for new scientific papers. Today, many of BC’s fossils remain in museums, institutions and private collections outside the province (in Edmonton, Calgary, Drumheller, Ottawa, Toronto, Washington DC and London, England, among other locations). One of our goals is to develop the fossil collections through donations and research to more completely represent the diversity of past life found in BC rocks over its long and complex geological history.
In 2008, a donation of over 20,000 specimens was accepted by the Royal BC Museum. A second large collection arrived in late 2010. The majority of these fossils were collected from Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands (Nanaimo Group rocks) and they are about 70-80 million years old. This second large collection was declared a National Treasure. The anonymous donor had collected the fossils over 35 years. The largest fossil is about 1 metre across and the smallest less than 1 cm. Examples of the marine fossils include ammonites, bivalves, gastropods, crustaceans (crabs and lobsters) and vertebrate bones (e.g. birds, marine reptiles). The fossils represent offshore marine and near-shore life that existed when the dinosaurs lived on land to the east on the North American continent. The climate was warmer than today, and some of the vegetation included palms and cycads.
Citizens of British Columbia play an important role in donating fossils to BC museum and institutions. Many new species and rare specimens have been collected by the public. To date, most of the fossil collection has been donated by the public. Careful documentation of find site locations, the fossil's association with other fossils and the type of rock it was found in greatly increase the scientific value of a fossil.
Over 100 type specimens are stored separately in the fossil type cabinet. Several of the new genera/species are named after local collectors for their significant finds and contributions to paleontology. This is a great honour for a collector. Some examples of recent additions to the type collection include:
- Acila (Truncacila) grahami Squires and Saul, 2006 (holotype and paratypes, bivalves, Nanaimo Group), donated by R. Graham
- Cidarina grahami Squires and Saul, 2003 (holotype, gastropod, Nanaimo Group), donated by R. Graham
- Gwawinapterus beardi gen. et sp. nov. Arbour and Currie, 2011 (holotype, pterosaur, Nanaimo Group), donated by Sharon Hubbard
- Miettia salientensis gen. et sp. nov. Hofmann and Mountjoy, 2010 (holotype, Ediacaran fossil), collected by P. Hofmann
- Opis (Hesperopsis) holzana Squires and Saul, 2009 (paratype, bivalve, Nanaimo Group), donated by G. Beard
- Pyropsis grahami Squires 2011 (holotype & paratype, gastropods, Nanaimo Group), donated by R. Graham
Fossil identifications are completed by staff, research associates, visiting researchers and expert volunteers. Important to the collection is research literature and web information. We compile current information and old literature to assist with identifications. Some of the literature is from the nineteenth century, and this needs to be properly conserved but while remaining accessible for future reference. In paleontology, original species descriptions and illustrations are frequently referred to for identifications, and therefore this information needs to be archived. Sometimes the literature has been scanned and can be read on the computer, but this does not match the quality seen in an original publication. To further assist with identifications, we are building keys that organize and prioritize diagnostic characteristics and features of fossils that can be used to differentiate species.
The research fossil collection is organized according to geologic age, the name of the rocks (group and formation) containing the fossils, the location where the fossils were found and their biological classification. A separate and small paleontology teaching collection is used for public programs at the museum.
Fossils are stored in metal cabinets or on shelving, in plastic fossil trays or Durphy boxes padded with conservation high-quality foam. A catalogue number is applied to each fossil matrix which provides a link to data files about each matrix and specimen.
Imaging and Illustrating Fossils
The quality of digital imaging has improved greatly. Today, it is very easy to photograph a fossil and have an instant image result. An image is useful to assist with identifications and building identification catalogues. To describe and image a new fossil species in research literature, higher quality images are needed that may require special preparation of the fossil and techniques to enhance the details of the fossil. Plans for paleontology preparation and image labs are underway.
Drawing fossils is still an important part of paleontological science. Artists work with paleontologists to provide evidence-based interpretations on the biology of an organism that once lived. For example, mobility, colour and group behavior may be added to create an image of what life might have been like in the past. Sometimes the interpretation involves several specimens to view parts preserved on one fossil but not another and then create a composite image. Currently, we have a volunteer artist working on specimen illustrations of fossils from the Cambrian Burgess Shale site.
Two stunning paintings of ancient landscapes in the Natural History galleries were imagined on the basis of our fossils collections. One shows the reconstruction of the late Cretaceous shoreline of Vancouver Island covered in palms, cycads and subtropical plants such as breadfruit. Fossils of these plants are in our collections.
Opposite the Woolly Mammoth, the ice age landscape is covered in beautiful wildflowers. We know what grew at this time from the study of tiny fossil pollen grains in our collections.
Volunteers are vital to the successes of all aspects of the paleontology program. They are involved in research, field programs, specimen identifications, applying catalogue numbers and mounting specimens, preparing specimens, compilation of data and information, data entries, illustration of fossils, photography and editing, literature compilation and lists, public programs and tours, and education activities.