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Pique'n Yer Interest

Past, present, future

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An animal dies. Lying where it falls, it's washed over with sediment, mineralized, converted to rock and pushed down into the earth. Eons later, when the graveyard of streambed, or lakeshore or sea floor is exposed through mountain building and erosion, these remnants of ancient life reappear on the surface. A human - the only creature for which the past appears to have meaning - encounters this fractured forma, recognizing in it not only the long-vanished template of subsequent change, but also certain connection. This is the dialectic of a fossil: we don't go back in time, but time comes back to us.

 

The human relationship with fossils, in fact, is far more complex, going beyond simple biology and geology to something that sees both scientific information and objets d'art bought, sold, stolen and fought over. This commodification of preserved imagination not only drives people into the countryside with picks and hammers and delusions of grandeur, but also leads tourists to plunder declared World Heritage sites simply for their cachet, as notably made the news this past summer when some thieves ran off with specimens from the bizarre, one-of-a-kind Cambrian era fauna of Canada's famed Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park. But there's yet another parallel arc - that of the professional.

 

As children, dinosaurs impress us simply for being super-sized and cool looking (Barney notwithstanding). At some point, however, these creatures morph from distorted caricatures of the nature we know to vanguards of the nature we will never know, touchstones to an unfathomable dimension of history. Lost in the sleepy folds of deep time, dinosaurs become the monsters under evolution's bed, forever lovable in the mind's eye - albeit due mostly to the immunity 65 million post-extinction years brings. For some folks, fascination with this organic machinery turns to consideration of what it took to run it, the ecology that supported it, and its legacy of design. Which brings us to paleontologists like Richard McCrea.

 

In September, 2010, a team led by McCrea discovered a massive deposit of untouched dinosaur remains deep in the Northern Rockies near Tumbler Ridge, adding to a growing body of data showing that these animals were abundant in the area during the middle part of the Cretaceous (a lengthy span covering 144 - 65 mybp). But elation was dampened by the B.C. government's attitude toward protecting heritage lands and artifacts. And here the two arcs meet: McCrea - who runs a locally supported museum in Tumbler Ridge dedicated to the area's fossil riches-won't reveal details of his finds because there are no solid laws in the province to protect them from commercial fossil-hunters.

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