Benson hike uncovers ammonite fossil

NANAIMO: Hikers discover possibly the biggest ammonite fossil found to date on Vancouver Island.

Graham Beard

Graham Beard

You never know what you might stumble across when you’re out for a walk on Vancouver Island.

And every so often, someone stumbles across a big find.

Elke Wohlleben and her son, Enzo, of Nanaimo, were out for a hike on Mount Benson recently when they discovered a huge ammonite impression in a dried out creek bed.

“Elke was walking ahead of her son Enzo and she stepped right over it and didn’t even notice what it was,” said Graham Beard, a paleontologist in Qualicum. “He said, ‘Mom, did you see this?’ and then of course she got very excited when she saw what he was talking about.”

The creature that made the impression sported a shell about one metre across when it died about 70 million years ago. It’s one of the biggest Beard has ever seen and possibly the largest ever discovered on the Island.

The Wohllebens took a photo of their find and called Beard who, in turn, called Rod Bartlet, who works for the Geological Survey of Canada, and together they went to the site to make a cast of the impression.

Beard has yet to identify the species of ammonite that made its mark in history.

“We could see there are a lot of details in the coarse ribbing and the fine ribbing on the shell,” Beard said. “So it’s got a lot of important details of the external shell, which I’m sure the paleontologists will have a field day working with and, of course, that’s important for trying to identify the species also.”

The site is being kept secret to protect it from collectors or vandals.

The creek’s water level has since risen to cover the impression, but Beard estimates exposure to the elements will likely destroy it in another 10 years or so.

“I’m guessing, because I couldn’t see any chisel marks on the rock, that the fossil (that formed the impression) probably got washed away over the years,” he said.

Many of the Island’s fossils are discovered in sedimentary rock called the Haslam Formation, created about 70 million years ago. The soft rock erodes easily.

The ammonite impression casting will be worked on in space donated by the  Kwalikum Secondary School.

The impression could be a rare example of a large adult ammonite.

“On Mount Benson there are tons of ammonites and many different species, so that could be the adult of one of these other ones that we find,” he said. “Most of them are quite small.”

Ammonites arose about the same time as the dinosaurs, surviving several mass extinctions over hundreds of millions of years, but failed to survive the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.

The fossil record indicates the nautilus-like ammonites are more closely related to octopus than to today’s nautilus.

One of the world’s largest octopus species live in the waters around Vancouver Island. Females produce thousands of eggs in each breeding cycle, but only a small percentage of those live to be adults.

Females only live about three years, growing to their full adult size in that time, Beard said, and die after completing their breeding cycle. Octopus live on the seabed in the shallower waters of the continental shelf like the ammonite once did.

An ammonite the size of the one that made the Mount Benson impression would have been a formidable predator. It’s parrot-like beak, based on other fossilized beaks found on Mount Benson believed to have come from similarly-sized animals, might have been five centimetres wide.

“Any smaller fish and even larger reptiles might have a problem tackling an animal that size,” Beard said. “We don’t know for sure, but perhaps these things could have even had a poisonous bite because many cephalopods that live today do have a poisonous bite. But, again, that’s just me speculating.”

The glass fibre cast of the impression is in the process of being trimmed and will be kept at the Qualicum Beach Museum for scientific study and as a master mold to make latex rubber casts that can be used for experimentation or displays.

Beard said there is a huge diversity of fossilized animals, plants, spores and pollens to be found on the Island.

“That’s why I love paleontology,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

To discover more about Vancouver Island paleontological history, please visit the Qualicum Beach Historical and Museum Society website at www.qbmuseum.net.

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