Calgary

Outdoor Report: Hunting for trilobite fossils in the Rockies

Long before the dinosaurs roamed the earth, what is now Alberta was deep under the ocean. And the tiny, 500-million-year-old creatures known as trilobites that lived in those waters are now being closely studied in the Canadian Rockies.

Creatures lived up to 500 million years ago

Outdoor Report fossil hunting

6 years ago
Duration 1:55
The Outdoor Report heads to Stanley Glacier to search for fossils

Long before the dinosaurs roamed the earth, what is now Alberta was deep under the ocean.

And the tiny, 500-million-year-old creatures known as trilobites that lived in those waters are now being closely studied in the Canadian Rockies.

For this week's Outdoor Report, Paul Karchut went out on a guided hike to find out more and told The Calgary Eyeopener all about it.

Tell us about these little creatures you went looking for?

Well, of course we all know that Alberta is a hotbed for dinosaur fossils, Dinosaur Provincial Park and Drumheller, but these beasts, dinosaurs, were traipsing around about 230 million to 65 million years ago.

So long, long before that, these tiny, often just 15-millimetre-long [trilobites] lived in the waters that would've covered all of our favourite hiking spots in the Rockies.

This time was called the Cambrian explosion, and it's these little creatures that can be traced back to 95 per cent of life on earth as we know it — even humans.

And it's this zone through Kootenay and Yoho National Parks that makes up the Burgess Shale fossil bed.

Now, this was a guided hike. Who invited you out?

Parks Canada, actually. For quite some time now, Parks [Canada] has been offering public trips to the Burgess Shale zone above Emerald Lake, just outside of Field, B.C.

But another zone was discovered in 2008, so still very fresh, along Highway 93 south on the road toward Radium and many, never before seen species have been discovered there since.

So now Parks is also offering trips up toward the Stanley Glacier area — about a two-hour drive from Calgary — and that's where we went.

Kristie Beech was our interpretive guide and she was so knowledgeable, not just about fossils but everything from the geology of the area to the history of the forest fires that have ripped through there to mountain weather patterns as well, so a really fascinating person to go on a hike with.

But once we got to the actual fossil site, I was amazed at how many beautifully preserved these fossils were that we were finding. I joked with Kristie that we were practically tripping over them.

What do these little creatures look like?

This is the amazing part. They are so well preserved, in fact while there are examples of these fossils also showing up in China, they're not nearly as in tact or clear as what we have here.

And this is because this thick sediment in the water would perfectly encase these creatures on the ocean floor. Now, as the Rocky Mountains are crumbling, our glaciers are melting, and we get these slabs of rock exposing themselves, so you see these tracks, where their little bodies would've scooted along the ocean floor.

Or, in some cases, even see what creatures they've eaten and still have in their bellies.

It's wild to run your fingers across these little rocks and touch something half a billion years old that looks like it could practically climb off the rock and into your hand.

Fossil hunters look for fossils of trilobites, 500 million year old creatures. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

If people want to go and see these fossils for themselves, what do they need to know?

Well, unlike the fossil beds around Field in Yoho National Park, this Stanley glacier area that we went into isn't restricted, so anyone can walk right up to where we were fossil hunting and do the same thing. But unless you have a trained eye for this sort of thing, you might have a hard time finding what you're looking for.

If these guided trips sound interesting to you, it's $65 for the day and they're offered for just a couple more weeks before the program shuts down until next summer.

Guided or not, just remember that it's illegal to take things from a national park. So look, explore, but leave them where you found them.

Now, I'd only ever explored the Stanley Glacier area on my skis in the winter, but as a hike, this is a great choice for families.

It's not too long or difficult — it's 10-kilometre round trip with a 400-metre elevation gain.


With files from The Calgary Eyeopener

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