Friday, May 1, 2015

Interview: Lisa Buckley

The world is constantly in flux. Nature's erosive forces expose and then deteriorate the traces of prehistoric life. Human communities meet their practical needs by reshaping the natural environment. And though it would be lovely if human concerns only ever preserved fossil resources, it doesn't always work out that way. Such was the case in the Peace Region of British Columbia, when two hydroelectric dams were built on the Peace River in the 1970s, inundated important fossil exposures. While palaeontologists were able to rescue some of the fossils, they could not get everything before the water of the new Dinosaur Lake covered them. Sadly, this included tracksites discovered by Charles M. Sternberg four decades prior.

Fast forward another few decades, when a new, extensive tracksite was discovered by a local resident - a resident who thankfully appreciated the importance of the site to our shared natural heritage. They reported the discovery to the researchers at the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre who were excited to begin documenting the first major tracksite in the province since Sternberg's sites were lost.

The Williston Lake Tracksite. Image from the Indiegogo campaign page.

Time is of the essence; not all of our fellow citizens respect prehistoric sites. To save the tracks from vandals and profiteers, the team at PRPRC needs to document the site fully. This is where we all come in. Via the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, the museum is raising funds to engage in fieldwork at the site. The effort is represented online by palaeontologist Lisa Buckley, who you may know from her blog and Twitter. She graciously agreed to an interview about this campaign, the importance of ichnology in general, and the fossil heritage of British Columbia.



To start, can you give a brief introduction to the field of ichnology to readers who may be unfamiliar?

Ichnology, for its basic definition, is the study of any traces left by an organism: burrows, trails, borings, footprints, bite marks, nests... it's the study of how a moving, breathing, living organism interacts with, reacts to, and shapes its environment. It's another window into the lives of extinct organisms. In terms of dinosaurs, which is vertebrate ichnology (study of traces left by vertebrates), it tells us what the animals actually did while they were alive: it compliments what we know from skeletal paleontology. Skeletons give us what the animals looked like and what they might be capable of doing, and ichnology tells us what they did do... as long as it fossilizes.

What was your path to ichnology?

I was first seriously introduced to ichnology when I went up to Tumbler Ridge in the summer of 2003 to help colleague (and now fellow researcher at the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre) Rich McCrea. That summer we were working on British Columbia's first dinosaur bone excavation, but he had been researching dinosaur footprints in the Peace Region since the mid 1990s. On days when we were not on the dig site, he showed me the dinosaur footprints sites in the region. It fascinated me the amount of information that could be gathered from footprints, and how, like modern animal footprints, you can use those footprints to identify what animals were in the area. For a province like British Columbia that was historically dinosaur bone poor but dinosaur footprint rich, these footprints provided the ONLY records for what dinosaurs once lived in BC.

My personal research focus is now a blend of skeletal anatomy and ichnology. My doctoral thesis is looking at the correlations between bird foot anatomy and the skeletal features that can possibly show up in bird footprints. Being introduced to trace fossils has given me a much better appreciation for fossils as living organisms with habits, environmental preferences, and complex behaviors.

Stepping back a bit further, what experiences first sparked an interest in natural history when you were younger?

I have to thank my great-aunt Molly for my interest in natural history. She was always interested in natural history, but growing up in the Depression in a poor family made it impossible for her to go to college. Regardless, she read everything she could find on dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, and flying reptiles. I remember her telling me that they very first book she had the money to buy when she was 12 was a dinosaur book. One of my earliest memories of her is from when I was preschool age, and she was reading to me from a book on extinct mammals. She was showing me the pictures of Eohippus, the saber-toothed cats, and the giant ground sloths. I must have asked her "how do they know these were real?" because she told me that we know about these animals because people dig them up and study them, and I knew then that was what I wanted to do. Molly is the reason I'm doing what I do today. She has since passed away, but she was alive to see me enter the field of paleontology and help establish the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre, and I kept her updated on all of our discoveries. I am very happy I had that opportunity.

Burgess Shale Discovery Site with Mount Burgess
The Burgess Shale Discovery Site by Edna Winti, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Most of us will be familiar with the Burgess Shale - what other important palaeontological sites are in BC?

I'll admit I had a bit of a chuckle regarding "most people being familiar with the Burgess Shale" - I have no doubt that most paleontologists, paleoartists, and paleo-enthusiasts (and readers of your blog!) are familiar with the Burgess Shale, but when I ask people not involved with paleontology if they have ever heard of the amazing Burgess Shale fossils near Yoho, it comes as a complete surprise to them! Fossils haven't been part of BC's cultural heritage in the same way that they are in Alberta, and it has taken some time and a lot of public outreach to introduce people to BC's fossil heritage. Slowly but surely we are making progress!

Here are the top five sites that pop in my mind when I think of significant fossil sites in BC. A classic BC fossil locality is Wapiti Lake Provincial Park. In this park are outcrops of Triassic-age marine deposits, and this is from where our classic Triassic marine fish like Bobasatrania, Albertonia, Birgeria, and the iconic coelacanth are recovered, along with marine reptiles like ichthyosaurs and thalattosaurs. Andrew Wendruff described an entirely new family, genus, and species of coelacanth, Rebellatrix divaricerca, from collections we made from other Wapiti Lake-equivalent outcrops in other parts of the Peace Region. This story is great because the holotype specimen was discovered by a (then) 11 year old girl who used to live in Tumbler Ridge.

With marine reptiles in mind, the Pink Mountain site is from where the late Dr. Elizabeth Nicholls with the Royal Tyrrell Museum recovered the giant ichthyosaur Shastasaurus sikanniensis. That site is in the BC Peace Region near Fort St. John. That ichthyosaur is a monster of a beast!

Turning back to dinosaurs, we are planning for continuing our excavation of BC's first (mostly) complete dinosaur skeleton. This is Late Cretaceous in age (late Campanian-early Maastrichtian), and it is a site that contained an articulated skeleton of a lambeosaurine hadrosaur. The helicopter airlift of the skeleton is featured in Episode 2 of "Dino Hunt Canada". We need to return to that site, because in 2013 we discovered that there is more than one skeleton preserved. We may be dealing with a hadrosaur bonebed.

One of my favorite sites is the BC tyrannosaur tracksite. The site is late Campanian - early Maastrichtian in age, and shows three beautifully preserved trackways of the same type of large theropod, walking in the same direction and roughly spaced evenly from one another. The sediment even preserved skin impressions with the footprints. This paper came out in PLoS One in 2014 (A Terror of Tyrannosaurs). Preserved at this site are more beautifully preserved footprints of hadrosaurs, medium-sized theropods, and ankylosaurs. This is another track surface that needs excavating: all of the tyrannosaur trackways continue on the track surface under a steep, high hill. We need to expose more of that track surface to see what other tyrannosaur behaviors might be preserved.

Last but not least, we have the dinosaur tracksites from within the boundaries of the newly established Tumbler Ridge Global Geopark. We have an impressive range of dinosaur track-bearing rocks ranging from 140 million years old to 73 million years old. That's 67 million years of dinosaur history in BC, and for a great deal of geologic time in western Canada, for which there is a sketchy body fossil record. Every terrestrial formation we have examined within the Geopark boundaries contains footprints from vertebrates, which gives us a great picture of how dinosaur communities were changing from the Early Cretaceous to the Late Cretaceous in western Canada.

A detail of the tracksite, featuring large bird tracks. Photo from the campaign page.

What about the new site, Williston Lake Tracksite, excites you most?

The Williston Lake Tracksite represents something that we never thought we would have the opportunity to do, and that's return to the start of dinosaur paleontology in British Columbia. Dinosaur tracks were first documented from the Peace River Canyon near the community of Hudson's Hope in 1930 by Charles M. Sternberg. The tracks were from the Gething Formation (around 115 million years old, Early Cretaceous) and in 1932 he named several new footprint types from the Peace River Canyon: small-, medium-, and large-sized theropod tracks, ornithopod tracks, and one of our favorites, Tetrapodosaurus borealis, ankylosaur tracks. This was the first ever description of an ichnofauna (a relationship of footprints and footprint-making animals in an environment) for Cretaceous footprints. Anyone working on Cretaceous footprints needs to refer back to Sternberg's 1932 works. It would be better still if they could visit the localities of these prints, but they can't - no one can.

Although the Province of British Columbia granted the Peace River Canyon tracksites Provincial Heritage Resource status (the highest protective status available at the time) in 1930, all of these historically and scientifically important tracksites were flooded when the Peace River Dam went online in 1979. All of these sites are now entombed under what is now called Dinosaur Lake. There was a huge salvage effort done between 1976-1979 by the Provincial Museum of Alberta (now the Royal Alberta Museum), but no where near all of the tracks could be saved.

The Williston Lake Tracksite is the first large track-bearing surface from the Gething Formation that has been exposed in 36 years. This site is the closest thing we have to revisiting the classic Sternberg localities, and the first chance we've had to seriously update Sternberg's 1932 track descriptions using footprints from the same formation and in the same region. We never thought we would have the opportunity in our lifetimes to continue Sternberg's work in this formation.

Do you know the approximate age of the new tracksite, or if it preserves the same ichnofauna as Sternberg's site?

The new tracksite is from the Gething Formation, which is approximately 115 million years old. This is the same formation that Sternberg documented. From what is exposed at the site, we can see that some of the ichnofauna Sternberg documented and named are present: we see the large theropod prints Irenesauripus, and the ankylosaur prints Tetrapodosaurus. So far this is what we would expect to see from the Gething Formation, but there is only a small portion of the tracksite exposed right now. The exciting finds will happen when we uncover large surfaces and examine them in detail. Personally, I'm hoping for more bird footprints from the Gething Formation! Aquatilavipes (small shorebird) was described by Currie in 1981, and we recovered Limiavipes (large wading bird) from close to the area in 2005. The Early Cretaceous was a hotbed for shorebird diversity in Asia - I want to see how similar (or different!) the bird footprint diversity was in similarly-aged deposits in North America.



The Williston Lake trackway is certainly a fossil site worthy of proper study. I love the fact that the team at PRPRC is working with the local community to secure the location, including plans to build an interpretive center at the site. The financial mountain the team has to climb is a tall one, though - see the project budget detailed at Indiegogo. So please share this interview and links to the campaign page far and wide. And, of course, donate as you are able. Thanks to Lisa for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish the team the best of luck in reaching their goal!

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