Prehistoric Pursuit

Paleontologists gather for Canada’s annual fossil conference

Science | by Gregory Beatty

The abstracts were still being submitted for the Canadian Paleontology Conference in Saskatoon when I spoke with local organizer Michael Cuggy of the University of Saskatchewan’s Geology department, but you can bet interesting topics will be discussed.

That’s because first off, paleontology — the study of ancient plant and animal life, including dinosaurs — is supercool.

Second, when it comes to paleontological research, Canada is a world leader.

The city hosts the conference from Sept. 21–24. There will be a public lecture at the University of Saskatchewan on Sept. 22 at 4:30 p.m. (see sidebar).

As for Canada being a world leader, says Cuggy, “It’s mostly due to the sheer size of our land mass, so most of the geologic time scale is preserved in one part of Canada or another. Plus, we have a long enough history of paleontologists and geologists doing mapping that we know enough to find some of the better sites.”

PALEONTOLOGY 101

When we think of paleontology, we usually think of, yes, dinosaurs. But the discipline is much broader than that.

Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and evidence suggests life got going pretty early — microbes at first, then single and multi-celled organisms.

It wasn’t until the Cambrian explosion around 550 million years ago that truly advanced plant and animal life emerged. That led to dinosaurs, which first appeared around 235 million years ago and lasted 170 million years until an asteroid strike 66 million years ago triggered a global extinction event.

Then came the Age of Mammals, which continues into present day.

So yeah, paleontology covers a lot of ground.

Cuggy says paleontology can be divided into three main areas.

“You have vertebrate paleontology, which is dinosaurs, mammals, fish, birds and reptiles,” says Cuggy. “That’s the charismatic one people most often get excited about. Then you have invertebrate paleontology, which is all the animals without backbones — so that includes corals, clams, snails and trilobites.

“The other big group is what we call micro-fossils, which are microscopic shells of largely single cell organisms — both plants and animals. That part has been very useful because you can get so many of them for dating the age of rocks,” says Cuggy.

Paleobotany is a smaller sub-category devoted to plants. There’s also paleoichnology, which looks at trace fossils — such as the footprints, burrows and trails that animals made in their daily lives.

“That helps with our understanding of behaviour, which you can’t get almost any other way,” says Cuggy. “It’s also useful because when you look at a dinosaur, coral or trilobite fossil in a museum, it’s their hard parts. So it’s animals that had bones, teeth or shells. Lots of animals, such as worms, don’t have hard parts but their burrows in the mud preserve just as well. So it helps us fill in the picture of what life was like then.”

CANADA DIGS

Canada, as a country, has existed for 151 years. As a land mass, though, its past stretches back billions of years as it cycled through a series of supercontinents that formed and then broke apart.

“For fairly recent times, even back to the [Cretaceous Period] 100 million years ago, Canada was roughly in the same place as it is today,” says Cuggy.

“But if you go back to the Paleozoic Era, which is beyond 250 million years ago, most of what is now Canada would’ve been in the tropics and rotated on its side compared to now,” he says. “So the equator would’ve run through what’s now Hudson’s Bay and southern Manitoba into the U.S. We were sitting in a shallow tropical sea with small islands looking something like the Bahamas, but on the equator.”

Even 100 million years ago, when Canada was in its current position, conditions were much different than today, says Cuggy.

“When we get the Cretaceous dinosaurs in western Canada such as Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops, there was an inland sea that split North America in half.

“Saskatchewan was on the edge, so there are periods where we have marine animals that lived in the sea, then we have a slice of dinosaurs, then some more marine animals. At its peak, the sea ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean by Alaska.”

That diversity in terms of location, climate and geography has given Canada a rich fossil record.

One final factor working in the country’s favour as a paleontological hotbed are the several periods of glaciation over the last 20 or 30 million years.

“The ice sheets covered virtually all of Canada,” says Cuggy. “They would’ve scraped off and carried south all the surface sediments.”

That wrought havoc on Canada’s more recent fossil record for mammals. On the prairies, for example, they’re pretty much limited to the high ground of Cypress Hills, which glaciers were forced to detour around.

“On the other hand, the glaciers scraping off the younger rock exposed the older rock,” says Cuggy. “That’s why we have things like the tyndalstone you see on buildings in Regina and Saskatoon. It’s limestone that’s 400 million years old.

“So it helps or hurts, depending on what you’re looking for,” he says.

The end result, says Cuggy, is that Canada has some of the world’s most important fossil sites. Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, for instance, boasts the world’s oldest fossils of complex multicellular organisms. They date back 565 million years.

Similarly, the Burgess Shale in B.C. has a famous deposit of Cambrian soft-bodied animals that’s 500 million years old.

“There’s a slightly older, and fairly similar in quality place in China,” says Cuggy. “But other than those two, no other country comes close. As well, Cretaceous dinosaurs from Alberta and Saskatchewan are some of the best in the world. We don’t have major deposits of Jurassic rocks, but there are a number of globally significant fossil sites in Canada.”


Sidebar

In Synchrotron

A field trip and public lecture are CPC conference highlights | Gregory Beatty

While the Canadian Paleontology Conference will mostly focus on scientific presentations, conference organizer Michael Cuggy says there’s one interesting outing for attendees — a field trip to the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron.

Why the Synchrotron? “It basically uses light to work like a microscope,” says Cuggy. “That allows you to see very small things, or penetrate into the rock like a super-powerful x-ray.

“With the tour, it’s partly to help researchers learn what things they might be able to use the synchrotron for,” he says. “In Europe, I know, they’ve been able to look at feathers from extinct birds and feathered dinosaurs to reconstruct what colour they were.”

Information like that can be hugely valuable to paleontologists, says Cuggy.

“Almost all the fossils we end up finding are missing so much information,” he says. “So if there is a new way of imaging them — which is what the synchrotron allows us to do — it might let us see details we couldn’t see otherwise.”

During the conference, in fact, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum’s Ryan McKellar will give a public talk on the innovative work he and his Chinese and American colleagues have done using fossilized amber from the Cretaceous Period to study dinosaurs, toothed birds and snakes. See artsandscience.usask.ca for details.