Quirks and Quarks

Searching for dinosaurs in BC's rockies — and finding grizzly bears instead

Lisa Buckley was used to finding traces of big carnivores, but these were millions of years too fresh

Lisa Buckley was used to finding traces of big carnivores, but these were millions of years too fresh

Lisa Buckley had never had a grizzly bear encounter in her nearly two decades working as paleontologist in the heart of BC's bear country. That changed this summer. (Lisa Buckley)

Quirks & Quarks is devoting its first episode of the season to the challenges and adventures of scientists working in the field.

Lisa Buckley has spent nearly two decades travelling in remote areas of British Columbia's Rocky Mountains, searching for fossils of dinosaurs and other ancient animals. In all that time she'd never had a an encounter with the region's most dangerous inhabitant. She made up for it in a single moment this summer when four adult grizzlies came her way.

Buckley is a vertebrate paleontologist who specializes in the study of the tracks and traces animals from the Cretaceous, 145 million years ago to 66 million years ago.

Dinosaur trackways, or footprints, on exposed rock in British Columbia. (Richard McCrae)

British Columbia's Rocky Mountains are perfect for paleontologists looking for exposed fossils. The formation of the mountains has resulted in different ages of fossil-containing rock being uplifted or pushed to the surface. Over the years she has found dinosaur and other vertebrate bones, including crocodile, turtle and birds in every rock formation that was once a terrestrial environment. 

However the bones are only part of the story. Buckley is also fascinated by the fossil trackways — preserved footprints — that these animals leave behind which preserve a record of many aspects of their behaviour, including how they walked and how fast they moved.

Buckley and her colleague Richard McCrea spent much of this summer in the mountains. 

There first expedition was to Six Peaks, where a dinosaur track site dating to 115 to 117 million years ago is preserved. They were interested in whether the site would be impacted by a proposed dam project. Fortunately it will not.

Next came a survey of the dinosaur track site in Kakwa Provincial Park. These are 130 million year old tracks on a 60 degree slope. Here they re-surveyed tracks of small, medium and large theropods and ankylosaurs, as well as small ornithopods. 

Dinosaur footprint in B.C. (Richard McCrae)

After that trip, they re-visited a dinosaur bone site from 74 million years ago on the BC-Alberta border that they had last visited in 2010. This is a large site, with a fossil-bearing rock formation that extends into north-east BC for about 40 kilometres.

The most recent site Buckley visited this summer was actually the first they she and her partner had not previously explored. It is a rock exposure from the Early Triassic, around 250 million years old, in north eastern British Columbia. This was a marine site and they found fragments of ribs from marine reptiles and ammonites. 

But this site was also where their observations of animals switched from long-extinct to all-too-alive.

At the end of a day of surveying, Buckley spotted what she described as four, big, brown furry things lurking slightly farther down the mountain they'd been exploring. A moment later they realized that this was four massive adult grizzly bears - likely a mother and three grown cubs, and they were heading towards them. All that separated them from the bears was a scree slope about a kilometre long.

Lisa Buckley's map shows her location - the red X at the top, the location of four grizzly bears less than 1 kilometre away - the red X half-way down the map, and their camp - the gold X. Getting to camp meant going past the last known location of the bears. (Lisa Buckley)

Fortunately the grizzlies did not act aggressively, and may not even have realized humans were nearby. The meandering bears turned away and down the slope, and disappeared into some trees. Unfortunately, the bears were now headed in the direction of Buckley's camp site.

Evening was setting in, and temperatures were dropping, with a sub-zero night coming on, which meant staying on the mountain was not an option. They decided to make their way along a ridge over-looking their camp, and set off noise-making 'bear bangers' periodically all the way down.

Paw print of one of four grizzly bears that came within 50 metres of Lisa Buckley's camp site. (Lisa Buckley)

With their camp site in view, they released a drone to survey the area. The drone revealed the grizzlies were no longer in the vicinity, but they had been close. They saw grizzly tracks 50 metres from their tent, going in both directions. The bears had walked past once, then returned and walked past going the other way.

Dinosaur trackway documentary featuring Lisa Buckley