Tag Archives: palaeontology

Heritage Dinosaurs?


Closeup of the skull and teeth of Vancouver Island's Puntledge River elasmosaur. Source: BCfossils.ca

Only occasionally does this space turn its eye to fossils, but there’s been quite a bit of press this last week about the perceived lack of protection of fossil sites in British Columbia, some of which are alleged to be ground up for “kitty litter” (archive, etc).  In that CBC report the Minister of Agriculture and Lands lists a whole variety of ways that fossil sites are, indeed, protected, in response to the general position of the paleontologists that there was no such legal protection. I believe this page summarizes the government’s position (which does indeed explicitly allow commercial exploitation in principle, though they are not currently taking kitty litter applications.  The page is a virtual museum of weasel words and contradictory information and frankly, makes almost no coherent sense).

Anyhow,  the most direct and obvious way that such sites are, in my opinion, already protected, or the way they could be: by the Heritage Conservation Act (HCA).

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A Saanich Peninsula short-faced bear

Post removed by request.

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Christopher Locke’s modern fossils.

Egosiliqua malusymphonicus

Christopher Locke is an artist whose work includes a number of fun “modern fossils“, like his palaeofuturistic rendering of an iPod (Egosiliqua malusymphonicus), above, or a Nintendo game controller (Dominaludus sexagentaquad) below.  I take the work to be a slightly sarcastic commentary on the work of palaeontologists and archaeologists as well as on the flukey preservation of ephemera – see his specimen notes alongside each piece at his website.

They are also very reasonably priced — tempting!

Dominaludus sexagentaquad.

Raven-Walking & Geological Transformation

Haida History starts at least 14,500 years ago. (Image credit: Daryl Fedje).

Three things we know about Haida Gwaii:

1.  About 14,500 calendar years ago it was a temperate tundra environment, with no trees.  The first trees, pine, appear about 14,000 years ago and there is progressive forest infilling thereafter, with the modern species mixture in place by about 3,000 years ago.

2. It has an impoverished suite of large land mammals – historically, these were limited to black bear, caribou, marten, ermine, a vole and a shrew.  We know that 13,000 years ago there were also deer and brown bear on the islands, and quite likely other species as well.

3.  It used to be much larger than in the present.  With lower sea levels at the end of the last ice age, Hecate Strait was largely dry land, exposing a large, unglaciated, coastal plain that became rapidly flooded.

It seems to me that we can add a fourth thing we know:

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Seward Peninsula Mastodon Tusk – “too old”, therefore Too Old.

Worked 35,000 year old mammoth tusk from Alaska. Note scale! Source: Gelvin-Reymuller et al.

This is getting a little out of the area, but I’ve just run across a report by Gelvin-Reymuller et al.  (download PDF) on the finding of a worked mammoth tusk from the north side of the Seward Peninsula.  That is on the west-central Alaska coast near the closest approach to Asia, and hence smack in the middle of Beringia.  The tusk is interesting in its own right, of course, but doubly so when we see that it was dated to well before the last glacial maximum:

Though the age of the tusk is only peripherally relevant to the significance of the reduction described in this paper, the tusk was sampled for dating. A single bone collagen sample from the tusk was dated by Beta Analytic, Inc. following standard pretreatment and analytical procedures. A 5.2 g of sample was first removed from an inner area, well beneath a surficial treatment of Elmer’s Glue-All which the tusk’s discoverer had initially applied to the surface. The resultant AMS date was 35,150 +/- 530 BP (Beta-189092). …… The latest mammoth remains in mainland Alaska are dated to around 11,400 BP.   Since the age of this tusk places it beyond the range of initial human habitation in the New World, as currently understood, we posit that the tusk was worked by later inhabitants of the area.

The authors note that it is possible to diagnose from the reduction strategies used whether ivory was worked when fresh/green or when already subfossilized,  though curiously they draw no such conclusions about this particular piece.  I find it intriguing how a central Beringian artifact made on a 35,000 year old material is so readily characterized as a recent manufacture.  While this piece would pre-date the earliest known record of extreme NE Asia and while I wouldn’t second-guess the authors nor impugn their motives and while it is certainly possible that a fossil mammoth tusk was worked at a much later date, I’m, uh, just sayin’.   This paper is interesting on a number of levels, not least as an example of stickhandling around competing paradigms.

Detail of working method of Alaskan tusk. Source: Gelvin-Reymuller et al

Another snag for “Clovis First”

Mastodon! From: Science 20 November 2009

Abundant megafauna are important to the Clovis-First model of the peopling of the Americas because the mechanism for what was considered to be an exceptional event or series of events was overkill of these large, naive, critters .  Overkill led first to localized extirpations (moving the Clovis folks along on a bow-wave of blood) and ultimately to megafaunal extinctions across the hemisphere.

Sad, then, for that particular story and its storytellers, to see recently reported results in Science which track (through samples of dung fungus) a millenium-long decline in mastodon and other megafauna before the arrival of Clovis.  This decline might relate to climate change or to the influence of pre-Clovis humans – it’s too early to say.  But as the graph below shows, the decline set in pre-Clovis at about 14,800 cal B.P., and by the time of Clovis (ca. 13,500 cal B.P.), far from being hyperabundant, herbiferous megafauna seem to have been at a historically low level of population.  Vegetation change (often used to track climate) was a result of this die-back, not the cause of it.   Perhaps this remnant megafauna population was then finished off by Clovis, but that is hardly a bow-wave of blood scenario, but rather a “mopping up” of increasingly scarce game.  Has there ever been as misunderstood an archaeological concoction as the Clovis Culture?

Update: The Guardian has coverage, incongruously illustrated by the RBCM’s life-sized mammoth model.

Reference:

Jacquelyn L. Gill, John W. Williams, Stephen T. Jackson, Katherine B. Lininger, Guy S. Robinson.

Pleistocene Megafaunal Collapse, Novel Plant Communities, and Enhanced Fire Regimes in North America.

Science 20 November 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5956, pp. 1100 – 1103

DOI: 10.1126/science.1179504

Pre-Clovis decline of large herbivores. Source: Science 20 November 2009

Meanwhile in Dinosaur Land

White Cedar fossil from McAbee Fossil Beds.

White Cedar fossil from McAbee Fossil Beds.

It’s not just petroglyphs that have a hard time getting protected in this province.  PalaeoBlog raises the issue of the unusual, exceptionally rich, 50 million year old McAbee Eocene fossil beds near Cache Creek, in the BC interior.  It seems the BC Government has reneged on a deal to help protect and manage these beds, which are exposed in a highway cut.  This deal involved the B.C. Paleontological Society, the RBCM, and Thompson Rivers University.  The Kamloops News has the story.  Once again, the Powers that Be are shown to be Philistines in shark’s clothing.  Maybe if someone told them that Adam and Eve lived in those ancient meadows, frolicking with dinosaurs, they would have a little more interest.  The Fossil Museum has a nice page which makes the importance of the McAbee beds quite clear.