80-million-year-old bird fossil named after 82-year-old Manitoba farmer

A pair of Japanese paleontologists have named a marine bird species after a Thornhill, Man., homeowner after an 80-million-year-old fossil was dug up on his property.

Flightless ancient marine avian predator fed on fish, will be on display in Morden, Man., museum

Hesperornis lumgairi, an ancient marine bird fossil discovered in Thornhill, Man., is now on display at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden. (Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre)

A pair of Japanese paleontologists have named a marine bird species after a Thornhill, Man., homeowner after an 80-million-year-old fossil was dug up on his property.

Kei-ichi Aotsuka and Tamaki Sato's paper on their southern Manitoba findings was published in the journal Cretaceous Research on March 10.

The flightless bird lived in the water and hunted fish in the Western Interior Seaway of North America, the paleontologists' paper says. It was also likely on the dinner plate of aquatic predators such as Bruce and Suzy, two resident mosasaurs found in southern Manitoba and on display in the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre collection in Morden, Man.

Rather than name the bird after themselves, the researchers dubbed the species Hesperornis lumgairi after David Lumgair. The bones were found on the 82-year-old Thornhill, Man., resident's property in the mid-1970s.

"It has been very gratifying to have been able to further scientific research in this area to such a degree," Aotsuka and Sato said in a statement.

"To have discovered and been able to name a new species was a great honour. We thank Mr. Lumgair, CFDC and all those who supported our research. The pleasant memories of the days we spent in Morden have encouraged us very much."

The bones were pulled from the ground in 1978, just north of where Bruce was uncovered in 1974 on Lumgair's pasture, museum field and collection manager Victoria Markstrom said.

The unnamed Hesperornis lumgairi bone was cleaned with toothbrushes and picks and examined and filed away in one of the museum's many drawers. That's where it stayed for almost 40 years. 

The Japanese researchers spent three recent summers going through the collection and identified the Hesperornis lumgairi as a new species.

"They were very well-adapted to water and hunting in water. Specifically, their hind legs were very robust and quite long, which allowed them to propel through the water very well," Markstrom said.

"They also had these peg-like teeth to help them snatch up fish, something that birds don't have today."

Four other species in the genus Hesperornis were also discovered during the research.

'I've suggested they call him George'

Lumgair is grateful to have a species named after him, although he suggested to museum staff something more casual and less Latin-sounding would also be great, so the bird would fit in with Suzy and Bruce.

For years I've asked, "What can we learn from a dinosaur, from these fossils?"- David Lumgair

"I've suggested they call him George, which is my second name," he said, laughing.

In the late 1930s, there was a bentonite mining operation on a farm just north of Lumgair's pasture. Bentonite is an absorbent clay used in oil refinery and lining and waterproofing ditches and canals.

Bruce (left) and Suzy together in the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre’s Mosasaur Hall. (Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre)

"The poorer quality stuff, they use that for kitty litter," Lumgair said.

In the early '70s, the operation moved from the Shannon Creek valley to the Thornhill Cooley valley, Lumgair said.

Lumgair got his first taste of paleontological discovery in 1974, when he accompanied a scientist on a dig on his property.

"They had moved the overburden and got down to the Bentonite. [Bruce] was scratched away there, and they found a jaw bone," Lumgair said.

"My first question was, 'What is a fence post doing almost 20 feet down in the ground?' Of course, I knew very well it wasn't a fence post.… You could see the teeth in it. That's how it all started."

Life lessons from the dead

In the decades since then, Lumgair has taken an interest in dinosaurs.

"I don't seem to have the patience, but I do have interest," he said.

Although he's never gone out looking for bones on his own, the retired farmer has reflected on the old bones and what humans can learn from their story.

"For years I've asked, 'What can we learn from a dinosaur, from these fossils?'… It's taken a long time, and I think we can learn that extinction is possible, extinction is likely," he said. 

"It seems that I am thinking the god, whatever god you think there is of the universe, has given man an expanding ability to seek knowledge and be creative. If we don't use our brains in the correct way, we are going to [accelerate] our extinction."

Organizers hope to have Hesperornis lumgairi on display this spring at the museum in Morden, about 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?