Museum tries to solve mystery of sea turtle fossil found in Island River
Staff at the Royal BC Museum will meticulously clean up the remains of an ancient sea turtle discovered this year on the Puntledge River in hopes of determining whether it is a new species.
The fossilized turtle is believed to have existed around 84 million years ago, based on the age of other nearby fossils.
It could be one of the two known species from this region or something completely new.
“Either way, this discovery is a victory for paleontology in British Columbia,” said Derek Larson, director of the museum’s paleontology collections. “If the fossil is a known species, we will learn a lot of new information about this species because these specimens are rare and, so far, incomplete.
“If the fossil turns out to be a species new to science, it could exponentially advance our understanding of marine ecosystems millions of years ago.”
The fossil was discovered in January by Russell Ball of Courtenay on the Puntledge River in what is known as the Trent River Formation. After spotting the fossil, Ball contacted the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society, who agreed it was likely a turtle.
He then contacted the Royal BC Museum, the Provincial Repository of Significant Fossil Finds, and the British Columbia Fossil Management Office, which is responsible for the protection and management of fossils in British Columbia.
“Russell Ball and the Vancouver Island Palaeontological Society did everything right,” Larson said. “They recognized the significant scientific value of the find and immediately got to work to ensure the fossil ended up where everyone in British Columbia could access and study it.
Professional paleontologists and amateur fossil hunters know that the Puntledge River often reveals fossils. But vertebrate fossils are rarer than invertebrate ones, Larson said.
He said the turtle fossil was not the only one in the museum’s collection, but the only one from the Trent River Formation.
The fossil is enclosed in what is called mudstone or siltstone, and Larson estimates that it weighs around 90 kilograms. A sled was used to transport him out of the area.
A pneumatic plotter – a miniature pneumatic jackhammer – will be used to chisel the rock around the fossil, millimeter by millimeter.
The amount of preserved turtle is not yet known, Larson said.
What is known is that the turtle is disarticulated, which means it does not have all of its bones in a realistic position, he said, noting that when such animals are buried, events can affect the amount of retention.
The oval-shaped fossil is about a meter long, which could have been the size of the turtle, or it could have been a bit smaller when alive, Larson said.
He said there were several bones, with different parts of the shell preserved.
The oval shape is largely the rock containing the fossils, he said, while the shell is in pieces.
The turtle used to live in the ocean but it is not closely related to modern sea turtles, Larson said.
BC Hydro helped remove the fossil, working with Larson to ensure the river water was at a low level so it was not underwater when it was removed from the site. The British Columbia Heritage Branch partnered with the museum on the project.
Larson said the discovery demonstrates the value of citizen science. “Without Ball and the other volunteers who helped out, we might not have found this specimen and we certainly could not have extracted the fossil so quickly.
He encourages everyone to keep an eye out for fossils, but cautions that novice fossil hunters should review provincial fossil collecting laws before embarking on their search.
To view the fossil collection rules, go to: gov.bc.ca/gov/content/industry/natural-resource-use/fossil-management/collection-and-use.
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