Fossil hunter with a taste for trilobites is foraging in the Rockies

If you see a guy licking rocks in the mountains this summer, he just might be a paleontologist.

University of Calgary paleontologist uses his tongue as a guide to finding specimens

A paleontologist from Alberta is scouring the Rockies for ancient trilobite fossils like this one recovered from the Manuels River in Newfoundland. (CBC)

A University of Calgary paleontologist says he will be out in the mountains licking rocks this summer to track down fossils.

Chad Morgan, a PhD candidate with the geoscience department at the University of Calgary, is on the hunt for fossilized bugs — better known as trilobites — at B.C.'s Stanley Glacier. 

"They're often described as the sort of beetles of the Paleozoic," Morgan told the Calgary Eyeopener. "They kind of look like pill bugs ... but these guys lived in the oceans."

Morgan says trilobites were aquatic creatures that lived in prehistoric oceans during the Cambrian Period more than 500 million years ago. Their shells are now scattered across the Rocky Mountains.

'Stuck in the past'

Morgan says there are two main types of trilobites — smaller scavengers about the size of a peanut and much larger "predatory" ones.

Morgan admits he is "still stuck in the past" and favours a "map and pencil and pencil crayons" over computers when it comes to his trade.

A trilobite fossil nearly 30 centimetres long, or larger than the diameter of a basketball, was found beside a Toronto creek by two teenage boys. (Royal Ontario Museum)

Even more interesting, Morgan said he uses his sense of taste for clues on where to start looking for fossils.

"Geologists taste the rock a lot, so a lot of the time we end up tasting the Cambrian to see some of these things," Morgan says. 

"If you see a weird guy licking rocks in the Rockies, it might just be a paleontologist."

Tracking down trilobites

Trilobites were arthropods and had a hard exoskeleton around their body. Because the creatures used to shed their skeleton so often there are plenty of trilobite fossils to be found.

A hiker discovered the fossils at the Stanley Glacier in the 1980s. The site just east of Highway 93, about 15 kilometres southwest of Castle Junction, has become a trilobite buffet for paleontologists like Morgan.

Morgan says the fossils near the glacier absorbed calcite from limestone and are better preserved compared to fossils found at other sites that are predominantly made up of shale.

Paleontologist Chad Morgan says identifying trilobites from multiple fossil sites helps 'age bracket' the rocks and the fossils trapped inside. (CBC)

Morgan is a stratigraphic paleontologist, meaning he collects full sections of rock to identify the different species in the rock layers.

By examining and identifying the different trilobites in the rock from multiple fossil sites, Morgan says he can "age bracket" the rocks and the fossils trapped inside.

"We use all of this to figure out the environment (trilobites) were living in 500-million years ago, and also figure out their evolution and use that to try to time the rate of the fossil record in the area."

With fossil sites at the Stanley Glacier, Castle Mountain and a third in Yoho National Park, Morgan will be hard at work analysing fossils and licking rocks all summer long.