BC Provincial Fossil


Jim Haggart, British Columbia Paleontological Alliance, Vancouver
Tom Cockburn, British Columbia Paleontological Alliance, Saanichton
Ted Danner, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

British Columbia's rich, modern biodiversity has been well documented (Harding and McCullum, 1994) and is partially responsible for its international reputation as the 'supernatural' province of Canada. At the Earth Summit of 1992, Canada, along with 160 other nations, agreed to a Global Convention on Biodiversity, an accord which recognized the significance of sustainable development to the life of Planet Earth. Representing the Canadian province with the richest biodiversity, the government of British Columbia has worked hard to balance human needs and desires with the conservation of its wide diversity of natural ecosystems, which are maintained by complex physical and biological interactions.

As with all natural phenomena, today's "Living Landscape" of British Columbia has a long history of development through time. We know that the life of British Columbia has changed over the millennia, and that what we see today is the end-product of millions of years of evolution and adaptation to ongoing changes in the environment. We know also that British Columbia was built by great tectonic forces, the accretion of exotic geologic terranes, faulting and folding, volcanism, and mountain building (Yorath, 1990), that massive glaciers covered much of the province as late as 13 000 years ago, and that the proximity of the Pacific Ocean moderates the province's climate.

The ancient biological heritage of British Columbia is preserved in the form of fossils, which, like living organisms, show an amazing diversity over great spans of time (Ludvigsen, 1996). Until recently, the story of British Columbia's fossils was not generally well-known. However, recent discoveries of huge marine reptiles, ammonites, ancient fish, and plants in various regions of British Columbia have sparked great public interest in the ancient life of our province (Ludvigsen and Beard, 1997). One outgrowth of this strong public interest has resulted in the formation of the seven regional paleontological societies of the BCPA.

Fortunately for British Columbia, all 13 of Earth's major, life-bearing geological systems, from Vendian to Quaternary, are represented in our province, spanning the last 600 million years. Examples of British Columbia fossils range from trilobites, conodonts (early relatives of backboned animals), gastropods and bivalves, corals, early fish, ammonites, dinosaurs and their tracks, huge sea reptiles, sharks, ferns, cycads, conifers, early flowering plants, palms, salmon, insects, bison, musk ox, and mammoths - spectacular samples of the diversity of ancient life that has walked across British Columbia's varied landscapes and lived in its oceans.


Under the heading 'Fossils' in the Encyclopedia of British Columbia, there is an excellent statement describing the significance of fossils (Ludvigsen, 2000), which is summarized here. Fossils are fascinating, richly informative, and important for dating rock units (which in turn is essential for extraction of gas, coal, petroleum, metals, and other minerals). Fossils are utilized to gauge the passage of time, and they provide direct evidence of ancient environments, giving us deeper insights into the composition of past plant and animal communities. They are the best direct information of the history of life on Planet Earth and the course of evolution. They are often collected and admired for their beauty as natural forms and sculptures.

The fossil heritage of British Columbia is presented and preserved in a number of provincial and district museums throughout the province, as well as in university and geological survey collections. Examples of designated fossil sites in British Columbia include:

  1. the Burgess Shale (animals of the 'Cambrian Explosion' in Yoho National Park);
  2. the Wapiti Lake site (Triassic fossil fish; designated a Goal 1 Protected Area under the provincial Dawson Creek Land and Resource Management Plan);
  3. the Peace River Ichthyosaur Fossils and Dinosaur Tracks sites, as well as the Puntledge River Cretaceous Elasmosaur Site (designated as Provincial Heritage Sites under the Heritage Conservation Act);
  4. the Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park (Tertiary fish, leaves, and insects).


British Columbia has a number of provincial symbols and has celebrated its rich natural heritage through designation of a Provincial Flower (Pacific Dogwood), a Provincial Bird (Stellar Jay), a Provincial Tree (Western Red Cedar), and a Provincial Gemstone (BC Jade).

In Canada, Alberta has designated Petrified Wood as its Provincial Stone and Ammolite as its Provincial Mineral, but only Nova Scotia has designated an official Provincial Fossil. The Nova Scotia Provincial Fossil Act designated the oldest known reptile in the world, Hylonomus lyelli as the official fossil of that province in May, 2002.

Of the 50 states of the U.S.A., 40 have designated Official State Fossils. The following western states all have State Fossils:

Alaska: Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), Pleistocene age
Arizona: Petrified Wood (Araucarioxylon arizonicum), Triassic age
California: Saber-toothed Cat (Smilodon fatalis), Pleistocene age
Colorado: Ornithischian Dinosaur (Stegosaurus stenops), Jurassic age
Idaho: Hagerman Horse (Equus simplicidens), Pliocene age
Montana: Duck-billed Dinosaur (Maiasaura peeblesorum), Cretaceous age
Nevada: Ichthyosaur (Shonisaurus popularis), Triassic age
New Mexico: Early Dinosaur (Coelophysis bauri), Triassic age
Utah: Theropod Dinosaur (Allosaurus fragilis), Jurassic age
Washington: Columbian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), Pleistocene age

Despite the unique diversity and abundance of fossil life forms preserved in the rocks of our province, British Columbia's citizens have yet to have an official fossil honouring that wealth. The time has come to remedy this deficiency and establish an official British Columbia Provincial Fossil!


Through its membership, the BCPA has established the following criteria for the selection of an official Provincial Fossil for British Columbia:

  1. The fossil should be well-known by the paleontological community through research and scientific study.
  2. The fossil should be more-or-less unique to the Province of British Columbia, and not already in use by an adjacent jurisdiction.
  3. The fossil should reflect the unique geography of British Columbia as the westernmost province of Canada.
  4. The fossil should serve as an educational vehicle through which the biology, ecology, and geology of the time it represents can be made clear.
  5. The fossil should be capable of wide appeal to a general audience (including students, tourists, and the general public).
  6. The fossil should be amenable to designs for letterheads, posters, displays, advertising, logos, pins, T-shirts, etc.
  7. The fossil itself should be readily available to the citizens of British Columbia as an advertised logo, written material, and actual fossil or cast at sites such as those along the Great Canadian Fossil Trail.


Discussions amongst the membership and individual paleontological societies of the BCPA have resulted in a short-list of four fossils which we believe best fit the criteria listed above. The four candidate fossils represent a variety of animal types, each group of which has had a significant impact on the development of life on Earth and in British Columbia. We recommend these to the Province of British Columbia as a starting point to begin the selection of an official fossil for the province. Descriptions of the four candidates for the official Provincial Fossil follow - which is your favourite? Why not write to your MLA and encourage him or her to work towards finally establishing a Provincial Fossil for British Columbia?!

The Permian Fusulinid Yabeina columbiana

Fusulinids are an extinct type single-celled, mostly tiny, animals, that have lived in the Earth's oceans since about 2.6 billion years ago. The fusulinids evolved about 345 million years ago and were extinct by about 250 million years ago, at the end of the Permian Period during the great end-Paleozoic extinction. Foraminifers of the genus Yabeina had very complex and beautiful internal shell structures and different species of the genus are identified by the differences in their shell structures. The shells were constructed of the mineral aragonite or calcite (calcium carbonate). The species Yabeina columbiana itself lived for only about 10 million years. Individual Yabeina specimens probably lived like tiny snails, crawling along the shallow, warm sea bottom. Their numbers must have been in the billions as accumulations their shells today form entire beds of blue limestone rock.

Permian fusulinids were first collected in British Columbia in 1872 by the geologist A.R.C. Selwyn of the Geological Survey of Canada and his assistant James Richardson. Fusulinids were not well known at that time and the specimens were misidentified as the genus Loftusia, and formally described by the geologist G.M. Dawson in 1879 as Loftusia columbiana. Its name was changed to Yabeina columbiana in 1942 by paleontologists M.L. Thompson and Harry Wheeler, after they recognized the similarity of the British Columbia forms with the Japanese genus Yabeina.

Yabeina is an Asiatic fusulinid, being described from Japan, China, and Siberia, and its occurrence in North America is thus rare and unusual. In British Columbia, Yabeina is found in the Marble Canyon Limestone of Marble Canyon, Hat Creek, and north in the Marble Range, to as far north as Atlin. This belt of rocks is called the Cache Creek terrane, after the typical exposures around Cache Creek. Geologists and paleontologists come from all over the world to study these rocks and their contained fossils, especially Yabeina columbiana. When Yabeina columbiana lived, those parts of British Columbia that contain the fossils were located far out in the Pacific Ocean and near the equator. These lands did not become part of British Columbia until much later in geological time, during the Jurassic Period, about 170 million years ago, when the Cache Creek terrane collided with ancestral North America. As the British Columbia Provincial Fossil, Yabeina columbiana would represent an exciting period in the history of the formation of the west coast of North America. It is also abundant enough that everyone could collect a specimen.

The cliffs of Marble Canyon, home of the Permian fusulinid <i>Yabeina</i>

The cliffs of Marble Canyon, home of the Permian fusulinid Yabeina

A hand sample specimen of limestone from Marble Canyon showing <i>Yabeina</i> specimens

A hand sample specimen of limestone from Marble Canyon showing Yabeina specimens

A photomicrograph of a specimen of <i>Yabeina columbiana</i> from Marble Canyon, enlarged about 10 times

A photomicrograph of a specimen of Yabeina columbiana from Marble Canyon, enlarged about 10 times

The Cretaceous Ammonite Canadoceras yokoyamai

Ammonites were a type of cephalopod mollusks that went extinct about 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were also decimated. Ammonites had a long evolutionary history, but they were exceptionally abundant and diverse during the Cretaceous Period, and they lived in all of the world's oceans during this time. As mollusks, the ammonites were related to the clams and snails, and they have a distant relative living today in the oceans of the southwest Pacific - the pearly Nautilus.

Like the Nautilus, the ammonite animal consisted of soft tissues housed in an external chambered shell. These soft tissues were characterized by an abundance of tentacles, and the animal, without its shell, probably looked much like an octopus. The ammonite propelled itself through the ocean waters by shooting water out of a tube in its tentacle system, much like a rocket propelling itself through the skies. The chambered ammonite shell was used for buoyancy, like a modern submarine, and by modifying the amount of fluid in the chambers of the shell, the ammonite could maintain neutral buoyancy in the water column. The simple logarithmic spiral shape of the ammonite shell is easily drawn and can be readily incorporated into graphic designs; it is a popular component of fossil art.

Ammonite fossils are near-ubiquitous across British Columbia. They are exceptionally abundant in the Cretaceous rocks preserved on the west coast of British Columbia as well as in the northeastern part of the province; still others are also known from the Intermontane region, between the Rocky Mountains on the east and the Coast Mountains on the west. The ammonite Canadoceras yokoyamai, sometimes called the "Canadian horn," is known from rocks about 80 million years old that are preserved along the eastern side of Vancouver Island. You might have guessed that the genus name of this fossil, Canadoceras, is named for Canada - and you are correct. The species name, yokoyamai, is named after the Japanese paleontologist Yokoyama and examples of the species are also known from Japan. This fossil is also known from many other regions of the Pacific Rim, including California, Alaska, and Far East Russia. Like the Permian fusulinid foraminifer Yabeina columbiana, Canadoceras yokoyamai also emphasizes the geological similarities of western British Columbia and Asia.

The ammonite <i>Canadoceras yokoyamai</i>The ammonite <i>Canadoceras yokoyamai</i>

The ammonite Canadoceras yokoyamai

The Cambrian Lace Crab - Marrella splendens

Tucked along a precipitous mountain face in Yoho National Park in southeastern British Columbia, is an excavated pit which has produced some of the most important fossils the world has ever found. This is the famous Burgess Shale quarry pit, which exposes sedimentary rocks that accumulated during the Cambrian Period early in the Paleozoic Era, approximately 530 million years ago. The animal life preserved in the Burgess Shale pit, called the "Burgess Shale Fauna," is important as it documents an abundance of soft-bodied life-forms (that is, animals lacking shells) that represent a veritable explosion of evolutionary activity early in the history of large-scale life on Earth. Prior to this "Cambrian Explosion," the world's seas were seemingly the domain of simple life-forms, such as jellyfish and sponges. But around the time of the Burgess Shale, an abundance of new, unusual, and unique life forms appeared.

The Burgess Shale quarry was initially found by the great American paleontologist Charles Walcott in 1909 while he was looking for fossil trilobites in the Canadian Rockies. Walcott returned over a number of seasons and excavated a many specimens of the Burgess Shale fauna, which were then sent to the Smithsonian Institution for safekeeping. Walcott subsequently described many of these forms in scientific papers as arthropods, as they appeared to show segmented bodies typical of such animal forms, which include the crabs, spiders, and insects.

One of the most abundant and fascinating of these Burgess Shale forms is the "lace crab," or Marrella splendens. Marrella has wispy appendages and unusual morphologic features which led paleontologists starting in the 1970s to question the identification of many of the Burgess Shale fossils with the traditional arthropod groups to which they had been assigned. In fact, many of these forms were found to represent life forms which have no modern counterpart in the modern Earth biota. It was only then that the true importance of the Burgess Shale fauna became clear: the site preserves a record of many experimental life-forms that evolved early in the Paleozoic Era, in the early beginnings of multicellular life, many of which proved to be evolutionary dead-ends which soon went extinct. Given its importance for the history of Life on Earth, the Burgess Shale quarry has been designated a World Heritage site.

Specimen of <i>Marrella splendens</i> from the Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park (courtesy of Geological Survey of Canada)

Specimen of Marrella splendens from the Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park (courtesy of Geological Survey of Canada)

Reconstruction of <i>Marrella splendens</i> (image courtesy of Yoho-Burgess Shale Foundation)

Reconstruction of Marrella splendens (image courtesy of Yoho-Burgess Shale Foundation)

The Cretaceous Elasmosaur or 'Swan Lizard'

The elasmosaurs, giant marine reptiles, lived in the ancient seas along the west coast of British Columbia during the Cretaceous Period, approximately 80 million years ago. The elasmosaurs were members of the Class Reptilia, a group that includes lizards, turtles, and alligators. Like the dinosaurs, elasmosaurs also went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period, 65 million years ago. Elasmosaurs had streamlined bodies, flattened flippers for locomotion in the ocean, and a long, extended neck and small skull with numerous teeth, used for feeding on fish. They were built for speed and were fearsome predators of marine life, the Tyrannosaurus rex of the seas. Other than ocean-going sea turtles, there are no reptiles that live in the oceans today, so the elasmosaurs occupied a niche that has been taken today up by the larger mammals, such as sharks and whales.

While individual pieces of elasmosaur specimens have been found at various localities in British Columbia, the most complete elasmosaur by far is the specimen on display in the Courtenay and District Museum and Palaeontology Centre on Vancouver Island. This elasmosaur specimen was found by an amateur paleontologist and his daughter, who were looking for fossils along the Puntledge River one fine Fall afternoon in 1988. Expecting to find the usual ammonites and clam fossils that are mostly found in these rocks, the father and daughter team was surprised to find what appeared to be vertebral fragments sticking out of the strata in a rock wall along the river. Subsequent collecting over the next several weekends turned up numerous teeth and bone fragments which eventually were found to be part of a complete jaw and skull. Once the significance of the find was established, the Courtenay Museum organized a major scientific excavation of the fossil specimen, which galvanized local community attention. Literally hundreds of persons turned out to help over the several months of work, firing the interest of many in the science of paleontology. As a result of all this activity, one of British Columbia's first paleontological societies was formed, in Courtenay.

The Puntledge River elasmosaur (courtesy of Courtenay and District Museum)

The Puntledge River elasmosaur (courtesy of Courtenay and District Museum)

Closeup of the skull and teeth of the Puntledge River elasmosaur

Closeup of the skull and teeth of the Puntledge River elasmosaur

Closeup of the skull and teeth of the Puntledge River elasmosaur


Harding, L.E. and E. McCullum, 1994. Biodiversity in British Columbia. Our Changing Environment. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 426 pp.

Ludvigsen R. (ed.), 1996. Life in Stone. A Natural History of British Columbia's Fossils. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 310 pp.

Ludvigsen, R. and G. Beard, 1997. West Coast Fossils. A Guide to the Ancient Life of Vancouver Island (2nd ed.). Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, British Columbia, 216 pp.

Ludvigsen, R., 2000. Fossils. In Francis, D., ed., Encyclopedia of British Columbia, pp. 266-267. Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, British Columbia.

Yorath, C., 1990. Where Terranes Collide. Orca Book Publishers, 231 pp.