SSU Geology Students Study Prehistoric Life in the Canadian Rockies

geologyvertical.jpgTwelve hearty souls from the SSU geology department took a six-day field trip in early September to the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia and Alberta to explore the world-renown Burgess Shale, a UNESCO world heritage site widely lauded as the most important fossil locality in the world.

This field trip ran in conjunction with the upper level Geology elective course, GEL321: Burgess Shale Paleontology, a class taught since 2003 by paleontologist Matt James.

The fossils of Burgess Shale were discovered in 1909 during construction of the Trans-Canadian Railway. These 505-million-year-old fossils, remnants of creatures that once lived in a shallow sea, are the best record of the period of time after the appearance of modern hard-shelled multicellular animals and have proved pivotal to the study of paleontology. They are located in the majestic Canadian Rockies on the eastern border of British Columbia, surrounded by stunningly beautiful mountains shaped by numerous glaciers--in short, a geologist's heaven!

After a day of travel to their home base in Field, British Columbia, the first full day in the field was spent traversing the massive Athabasca Glacier with a mountaineering guide. The Athabasca Glacier is a six kilometer long sheet of blue-green ice that slowly cascades down a valley connected to the Columbia Icefield, transporting massive sediment loads as it travels nearly 30 meters a year. On an all-day six-mile hike up the glacier, students learned about glaciology, saw fantastic examples of a landscape carved by glaciers, and witnessed firsthand the effects of climate change as the ice retreated up the valley.

Next on the agenda were two days exploring the Burgess Shale on guided hikes to the Walcott Quarry and the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds. This meant a strenuous 13-mile hike, starting at a waterfall and heading uphill through beautiful forests, followed by traversing a mountain with stunning alpine scenery to the most important of fossil sites, the historic Walcott Quarry, where the Burgess Shale fossils were first discovered. Along the way students learned of exotic Cambrian animals such as the fearsome Anomalocaris, the five-eyed Opabinia, and the otherworldly Hallucigenia.

"The Burgess Shale is also extremely important because it contains our earlier ancestor, the worm fossil Pikaia," said SSU student Sean Storey, who was on the trip. "It may seem like a stretch, but this worm is the first animal in the fossil record that has a backbone--the earliest vertebrate."

The next day featured a steep 5-mile hike up Mount Stephen where there were so many trilobite fossils that we couldn't help but step on them! At both of these sites, students were rewarded for their physical effort with amazing fossil finds and breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.


The last full day of the trip brought students into the world of mountains, faults and glaciers with a hike around the gem of the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise. A six-mile hike brought students to a fantastic lunch at the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea Hut, a charming, historic and primitive restaurant only accessible by foot.

With bellies full of tea and hot scones, the intrepid geologists continued up the valley to a scenic overlook and discussion of the tectonic formation of western North America. With weary legs, the group hiked down and enjoyed a wonderful sendoff dinner, sampling meat from the characteristic terrestrial megafauna of a North America (Buffalo, Caribou, Elk, etc.) at the Emerald Lake Lodge.

"What I got out if it most was experiencing geology in an exotic location," said Storey. "We walked on the Athabaska glacier and were able to witness geology on a much faster time frame because the ice is basically a more viscous rock mineral."

The sixth day was for travel, but along the way students were treated to a private tour of the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta. With a behind the scenes tour by a resident paleontologist, they learned about all the hard work that goes into the preservation of fossils, explored the back room archives and enjoyed a private tour of the main exhibits of the museum.

With more than 30 miles of hiking packed into four full days, students traveled back to campus tired, in markedly better shape than when they began, and with a renewed vigor to continue their geologic education at SSU. There is no substitute for fieldwork and hands-on learning in the natural classroom of the Earth. Students had a great time on this trip, were exposed to beautiful and world-famous geology, and made memories to last a lifetime.

--Phil Mooney

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