When asked what the most interesting thing he has learned from the McAbee Fossil Beds is, paleo-entomologist Dr. Bruce Archibald says it’s really hard to say. “It’s kind of like saying which one of your kids is your favourite. They’re all my favourite. The McAbee is important because it’s the prime site within this region. The region is very good [for fossil sites]; it’s like we’ve got the NHL of fossil sites for that time period, and the McAbee is Wayne Gretzky.”
Archibald has been studying the McAbee Beds for decades, and will be coming to Cache Creek, Ashcroft, and Kamloops for a series of talks about the site from June 20 to 22. His last visit to the area to talk about McAbee drew more than 60 people anxious to learn more about the site, a 53-million-year-old fossil bed from the Eocene epoch.
“I’m very excited by the individual fossils I find, and what they might tell, but I’m also perhaps more interested by the overall concepts and big pictures about the world that it tells.”
He says that in 2005 he and two other scientists published a story about a very rare specimen of scorpion fly that was found at McAbee, and which was very similar to one found in Pacific-coastal Russia at about the same time. “At that time there was land straight across the Bering Sea, and forests; you could walk through forests from McAbee to Vladivostok. It was very interesting to find, and it speaks to the interchange that was going on around that time.”
He adds that the same genus of scorpion fly has also been found at a younger site (33 million years old) in Colorado. “It seems that they were spread out quite a ways, back then in the Eocene. But today, the whole family is represented by one single relictual species that lives in Central Chile.”
Archibald points out that 53 million years ago one could have walked from Ashcroft to Berlin, or Madrid, through forests without getting your feet wet, because of lower water levels and the continents being in different positions. This has led to more similarities being discovered between fossils at McAbee and those in other, far-flung, parts of the world.
“I visited some of the collections of fossil insects of similar age in Denmark last fall, and there I saw some things that were very close to what we have here at McAbee in our fossil record, like large ants. What we’re seeing at this time is a big interchange between Europe and North America and east Asia. And those large ants we see at both McAbee and in Denmark, today exclusively live in Australia.
“There’s a lot left to figure out, to try to understand about how the distribution of animals and plants across the globe has changed since 53 million years ago. That’s part of the challenge, and part of what can be learned at McAbee.”
Archibald says that McAbee has a wonderful record of insects, plants, fish, and sometimes feathers, which can also be found at a variety of other sites. “The thing to me that makes McAbee really special is its fossil insect record, which is stunningly diverse. The diversity found at McAbee is most similar to the diversity found in a tropical jungle today.
“There are a variety of places around the world where you can find fossil insects that are very good and of this age, but I don’t know of any place where there’s this tremendous diversity that has been established at this time. It’s a very important time in our history, not too long after the great extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago.
“Here we are [at McAbee] at 53 million years ago. I know that might seem like a long time, but geologically that’s the blink of an eye. The extinction event wiped out a lot of things, particularly in our part of the world, and it took quite a long time to bounce back. What we’re seeing [at McAbee] is the world becoming modern in many important ways. Plants and animals are appearing that weren’t here before, so we’re seeing the beginning of our times.”
Archibald says that the important thing about the insect fossils at McAbee is that they can be used in the same way that a detective uses fingerprints, to piece together a bigger story. “That story is ‘How did our modern world come to be? Why are plants and animals distributed in the way they are?’ Those questions can be very well addressed by the fossils at the McAbee.”
Archibald notes that there is a wonderful series of fossil sites in B.C., extending south from Smithers into northwestern Washington State. “Each of those fossil sites is like a window into an ancient world, but McAbee is a very, very clear window. The other sites are good in their own ways, but it can be difficult to see through them in some ways. McAbee has this tremendous record, this tremendous diversity.
“In a couple of weeks of collecting there I’ve found hundreds of new species, never before seen or defined scientifically. I’ve had the pleasure to name a lot of species from the site, and there’s a tremendous amount more to be discovered.”
Archibald says that it took some time for people to appreciate the importance of the McAbee beds. While other, more accessible, sites in the western part of North America were visited and studied starting in the mid-nineteenth century, McAbee remained hard to get to.
“The interior of British Columbia was very inaccessible, at least until ‘Flying’ Phil Gaglardi started making highways, so it was one of the last temperate mid-latitude coastal regions in the world to be thoroughly explored. During the first part of the 20th century, if you wanted to go up into the Interior of B.C., it was quite a daunting task.
“That fact alone left our fossil sites less known, and people didn’t realize the potential for understanding the world from them, because they were concentrating on those that were more easily accessible. Our fossils—people haven’t really known they’re as great as they are. I think a lot of the reason for that is that they didn’t receive a lot of attention for a long time.
“What the McAbee tells is a story of how our modern world came to be the way that it is, and that’s the intriguing aspect of the McAbee that I can see. When I look at the fossil insects I’m not just looking at a tiny little dot in the rock; I’m stepping back and seeing the globe, I’m seeing the world, I’m seeing how climate affects communities and how continental connections affect communities, and that’s why the McAbee is important to me; because of the big picture it makes.”
Archibald emphasizes that there is a lot still to be discovered at the McAbee site. “I see this as the beginning of the setting up of basic knowledge about the site. People of this area should be very proud of this site as something that’s important world-wide. People sometimes don’t understand the wonderful thing that’s in their own backyard.”
Archibald will be speaking about the McAbee Fossil Beds in in Cache Creek (Tuesday, June 20 at 7 p.m., Cache Creek Community Hall); Ashcroft (Wednesday, June 21 at 7 p.m., Ashcroft HUB); and Kamloops (Thursday, June 22, main library, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.). There is no charge for the talks, which are sponsored by the Village of Ashcroft, the Village of Cache Creek, and Tourism Kamloops.