Significant Canadian fossils – 150 things about Canadian palaeo, part 11

For those that haven’t been following this post, here’s a brief recap. This year on July 1 is Canada’s 150th birthday. To celebrate, I’m writing 150 things about Canadian palaeontology, ranging from sites to people to museums.

This post is going to focus on some of the important fossils that have been found in Canada, important either for exceptional preservation, or representing the first of something, or being important in evolution. Starting at 79/150:

79. The largest trilobite ever found is a specimen of Isotelus rex, found in northern Manitoba, along Hudson Bay. The animal was more than 70 cm long, and lived approximately 445 million years ago, during the Ordovician Period. The specimen can be found at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg.

80. A few years ago, a nearly complete baby Chasmosaurus skeleton was found by Phil Currie in Dinosaur Provincial Park, missing only it’s front limbs. Baby dinosaurs, and small dinosaurs in general are extremely rare in Dinosaur Provincial Park, making this find even more remarkable. It lead to new understanding of the growth of ceratopsian dinosaurs, and will be studied for years to come.

Baby Chasmosaurus, from Currie et al. 2016

81. For years, dinosaur fossils have been coming out of China with compressions or imprints of feathers from the Early Cretaceous. In 2011, the first 3D North American dinosaur feathers were described. The specimens are encased in amber from southern Alberta, and were deposited around 80 million years ago. The amber shows several different types of feathers, ranging from simple filaments to more complex branched feathers like in modern birds. The preservation in amber allows for the full range of shapes to be seen, instead of just impressions, allowing for a better understanding of their evolution.

82. Tiktaalik roseae is perhaps one of the most important and famous fossils to come out of Canada. Found on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut in 2004 and described in 2006, Tiktaalik represents one of the key transitions in the evolution of animals and moving from water to land. It shows a mosaic of characters, some more typical of fish (like gills), some in the transitional ‘fishapod’ form (like limb bones that are half-fish and half-tetrapod like), and some clear tetrapod characters (such as a mobile neck and pectoral girdle). Tiktaalik and other closely related animals show us how animals started to evolve and move from water onto land. While it’s been on display at the Field Museum in Chicago since it’s discovery, the original Tiktaalik fossils were returned to Canada in 2015, and are now part of the collections at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Original Tiktaalik roseae fossils on display in Chicago. Image by E. Sola

83. In 2015, nearly 20 years after it’s original discovery, Erpetonyx arsenaultorum was described from Prince Edward Island, a place not known for its fossils. The animal represents the only reptile ever found from this time period, approximately 300 million years ago, making it extremely important in understanding reptile evolution.

84. The palaeontology community (or at least the Mesozoic community) is anxiously awaiting the formal description of the Suncor nodosaur (a type of ankylosaur dinosaur) discovered in a Suncor mine in northern Alberta in 2011. Fossils come out of this mind not infrequently, representing marine reptiles like plesiosaurs or ichthyosaurs, so the discovery of a dinosaur here was quite surprising. This specimen was preserved perfectly in 3D, uncrushed, and complete, including all of the armour still in place. Unfortunately, this animal is preserved in extremely hard rock, meaning that it’s taking a long time to get prepared. Whenever it gets described, it promises to be a great piece and important in ankylosaur finds.

85. Another significant find that has received substantially less press (maybe because of when it was found), but I still think is great, is that the first ever fossil tardigrade (water bear) was found in Canada. The specimen came from a piece of Cretaceous amber from Manitoba, and was described in 1964. It looks not unlike modern tardigrades, and was named Beorn, after the magical bear in The Hobbit. Awesome.

The fossil tardigrade Beorn. Image from Cooper, 1964

This is just a few significant fossils that have come out of Canada over the years, but there are many many more. If you have a favourite important or significant Canadian fossil, let me know and I might do another feature, especially if they are not dinosaurs, or even better, not vertebrates, since I tend to miss out on those!

The series:

Part 1: Intro

Part 2: The Burgess Shale

Part 3: Early Canadian Palaeontologists

Part 4: Canadian Fossil Names

Part 5: Dinosaur Provincial Park

Part 6: Marine Fossils

Part 7: Current Canadian Palaeontologists (1)

Part 8: Dinosaur Fossil Localities

Part 9: Palaeontology Museums

Part 10: Joggins Fossil Cliffs


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