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Alberta

Petrified Buffalo Hearts, Indian Maiden Breasts, Stalagmites and 70 Million Year Old Worm Poop

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photo of Rosselia Worm

I recently attended the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Awards in Maskwacis, Alberta. I was fortunate to meet Dr. Russ Schnell. He is the Deputy Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Global Monitoring Division, in the United States. He grew up in the Battle River region and shared a fascinating story about discovering 70 million year old “Rosselia Worm Fossils” in 1958 in the bed of Castor Creek at the confluence of the Battle River.  

Dr. Schnell was kind enough to allow me to publish a story he had written some years ago.  I shot the video of Dr. Schnell as he was telling the story of how the fossils were formed.  

The following story is adapted from the book “Stories from Life: Beauty Everyday As It happens”, 2016, Jane Ross ed., ISBN:978-0-9695841-2-4, Friesens Books, Altona, Manitoba, 325 pages (for a copy contact: Jane Ross <[email protected]>).

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Petrified Buffalo Hearts, Indian Maiden Breasts, Stalagmites and 70 Million Year Old Worm Poop

By Dr. Russ Schnell,  B.Sc., Ph.D., Dr.Sci. (Hons).

It was a Saturday in August 1958.  The summer day was hot up on the open prairie in east-central Alberta. The air was much cooler in the narrow valley, especially in the shadows.  And most of the valley was in shadows from trees growing on the rims above the sandstone cliffs.

The rock was stored in my parent’s garage for 50 years until I brought it to Colorado, USA, where I now live.

About 1:00 PM, the noon wiener roast was over and we had waited the obligatory one hour after eating before going swimming.  Everyone knew that you would get cramps and drown otherwise!  No matter that the water was only 4 feet deep at the deepest, and then only behind the beaver dams.   And that the water was to cold to do much other than dip a few times, dog paddle for 10 feet, then shout out that it was “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”1 and splash to shore and stand around a smoky campfire of poplar branches. It was too early in the day for mosquitoes, and even if they had been out, the eye-burning smoke would have kept them away from our tender, lily white bodies. Only our faces, necks and arms were tanned from spending every possible hour outside playing, hiking, swimming and riding bikes over the 20 square mile area of grasslands and creek valleys we considered our “territory”.

On this day, walking in the water bare footed on the bedrock, we would occasionally feel smooth, rounded, tapered stones under the water.   We recovered some of these “stones” which were very heavy for their size and that appeared to be composed of iron.  At least they looked the colour of rusted iron! 

No one seemed too concerned that the sparks from the fire could ignite the surrounding dry grass and possibly spread for miles.  Hey, we were six 9-12 years old boys, friends since toddlers, invincible, girls yet to be discovered, having another boy’s day out along the creek, 2 miles from Castor town.   We stood naked, dripping and shivering, occasionally stirring the fire back to life to keep warm while roasting (flaming) marshmallows on slender willow switches we had cut and peeled earlier on which to roast the wieners.

 1. “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” is possibly an old naval saying. A monkey was a brass plate with holes in which iron cannon balls were stacked. When it got very cold the brass would contract more than the iron cannon balls and therefore the balls would pop out and roll off the brass monkey!  Of course we did not know that then.  We had heard older boys make the “brass monkey” statement when they were around girls who would giggle, so we thought it was “big” to talk like that. 

 Before roasting the wieners, we had played “stretch”, a game where two boys stand facing each other then throw a hunting knife to stick no more than 2 inches to the side of an opponent’s bare foot.  If the knife stuck in the ground and was not more than the allowed 2 inches away, the recipient of the thrown knife moved his foot to touch the blade and then took a turn throwing his hunting knife to stick near the foot of the first thrower.  The game ended when one person’s legs could no longer stretch further apart, and that person was declared the loser.  There were always losers, never winners!    All boys carried hunting knives in hip scabbards that summer.  It was the thing to do.

A more imaginative member of the group said they felt like fossil Indian maiden breasts.

Now, to a pivotal juncture in this story.  One reason we played in this particular part of the valley was that the creek had cut through to bedrock making it easy to cross on a solid rock footing.  In most other stretches of the creek, the bottom was soft mud into which you would sink up to your knees or deeper.   On this day, walking in the water bare footed on the bedrock, we would occasionally feel smooth, rounded, tapered stones under the water.   We recovered some of these “stones” which were very heavy for their size and that appeared to be composed of iron.  At least they looked the colour of rusted iron!  They were conical in shape and every one had a well formed, round indentation on the apex. On the broad end there was generally (but not always) a finger size hole near the centre.  The stones varied in size from a large potato to a small watermelon.

Since we found the heart shaped rocks at the base of a cliff we “knew” was an Indian buffalo jump, some of us thought they were petrified buffalo hearts. Supporting this supposition was the fact that one of the group had found a black, perfectly shaped, sharp, fluted arrowhead near the creek on a sandy path worn by deer coming down the valley wall to cross the creek.  A more imaginative member of the group said they felt like fossil Indian maiden breasts, not that any of us could confirm how a maiden’s breast felt. One such “petrified buffalo heart”, presented upside down, is shown below.

This “petrified buffalo heart” is 8 inches tall and weighs 8 pounds.  It appears to be made of iron but is not magnetic. These fossils wash out of 70 million year old seashore sediments and settle onto bedrock in a small creek in east-central Alberta.  Photo by Ed Ries, Castor, Alberta, 2009.

I took one of the “buffalo hearts” home in my backpack wondering, occasionally, over the hour hike back to town, why I was carrying a rock that was so heavy.  The rock was stored in my parent’s garage for 50 years until I brought it to Colorado, USA, where I now live.

But, I digress from the timeline.  On the hike back to town our ragtag group diverted to look at the body of a dead cow lying in a pasture.  We had discovered it a few days earlier and were interested in looking at it again.  On the discovery visit, the cow must have been dead for only a few days.  It was bloated like an overextended balloon, there were flies buzzing around the mouth, eyes and anus, but otherwise the cow was as if sleeping on its side like a horse.  On this second visit, the carcass was less bloated, but to our great surprise had been completely hollowed out from the rear.

There were no intestines, no lungs, no heart, no stomach, no blood. The interior cavity was dry as dust, the hide was intact and the “roasts” were still on the thighs.  We surmised that coyotes had devoured the soft insides by chewing from the butt end into the body cavity.

Within a few minutes, he printed out a copy of a scientific paper on ancient marine worms that made burrows in the seafloor and left imprints of their existence. 

Before leaving the carcass we convinced, cajoled or otherwise enticed the youngest boy, who wanted to be part of the “big boys” group, to play “coyote” and crawl into the interior of the cow.  He did so to our great amusement as we beat on the hide covered ribs stretched taut like a large reddish drum.  When we returned to the carcass a week or so later, it was picked apart and remnants were being pecked at by magpies. What meat remained was a seething mass of white maggots.

Fast forward 50 years to 2008.  By this time I knew that the conical rock was not a petrified buffalo heart or a maiden’s breast. I was a slow learner!  I was now convinced though that the rock was a stalagmite formed by iron rich water that had dripped onto a cave floor over thousands of years.  I looked on the Internet for similar stalagmites, but did not find any.  Still, sure of my analysis, I wrote a letter to the director of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta enclosing photos, and described where these “stalagmites” were found and asking how old they were.   I wrote the letter on heavy, expensive looking stationary with an official U.S. government letterhead festooned with gold embossed logos, and signed with a number of titles.  I figured that might get his attention and a response.

A few weeks later I received an email thanking me for the letter and photos, and suggesting that the “stalagmite” was possibly a random iron accretion. Although not a paleontologist or geologist, I still believed that this rock was made by a deliberate, not random process.  After further correspondence, Dr. David Eberth, Senior Research Scientist, Royal Tyrrell Museum, agreed to meet in Castor, Alberta in late June, 2009, and to come to the valley to look at what I still believed were stalagmites.   I flew up from Colorado and David, myself, a sister and 5 friends from Castor proceeded out to the valley now owned by another friend from toddler days.  He took us to an area of the creek where there were many of the “stalagmites” and we each collected a few specimens.  David asked to see an exposed cliff so he could possibly find some of these iron rocks embedded in their natural habitat. Gary Dunkle, the land owner, duly took us to such an embankment and David found a few of the conical rocks imbedded in a loose, grey, alkaline soil in an exposed cliff face.

Then he told us that a world authority on such creatures was Professor Murray Gingras ’95 B.Sc., ’99 Ph.D., Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science, University of Alberta.

To my great surprise, the “stalagmites” were oriented conical point down in the cliff face.  This is not how stalagmites form!  David now lost some of his prior cool composure, as he convinced me that my earlier conjectures were incorrect, that we were looking at a 70 million year old seashore deposit, and these iron accretions had probably once been made by something related to the seashore.

In a humorous throwback to events 50 years earlier, one of the fossils that David had excavated became dislodged and rolled down the steep cliff splashing into the creek behind a beaver dam.  We convinced Eric Neilson ’88, B.Sc. Agriculture and ’09, B.Ed. and now a local school teacher, to wade into the water and retrieve the fossil.  The water was over four feet deep and Eric had to fully submerge to finally locate and recover the fossil that was embedded in silt.  There was no fire to get warm and dry beside this time!

We returned to the insurance and real-estate offices of Dale Emmett, one of the members on this current expedition, where David used a computer to begin looking up something called “Rosselia” on the Internet.  Within a few minutes, he printed out a copy of a scientific paper on ancient marine worms that made burrows in the seafloor and left imprints of their existence.  Then he told us that a world authority on such creatures was Professor Murray Gingras ’95 B.Sc., ’99 Ph.D., Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science, University of Alberta.  Small world!

We departed the office in triumph and sojourned to a nearby bar where Ed Ries, a local rancher and another member of the days’ expedition, bought us a round of beer to toast our success.  While at the bar, Brenda Scott ’73, B.Ed. (sister, also on the excursion) brought out some perfectly preserved fossil snails that she had collected the day prior in a nearby fossil bed. David was quite interested, as these were fresh water snails that rarely fossilize into such perfect iron accretions.  He wanted to know where they are found, but we declined to tell him as only a few members of our family know the location, and we do not want the location to be picked over.  Someday we might show him, but that will be another story.

So how did worms living in the sediment in a 70 million old marine seashore make 8 pound “petrified buffalo hearts?”  First, the worm is not like the garden variety earthworm one finds digging in Alberta garden soil. Instead it was thought be an elongated creature (let us say about one foot long) living vertically in seabed sediment with tentacles that could spread out over the seafloor to capture small organic particle or small creatures touching the tentacles.  A stylized depiction of the worm and its burrow is shown below.

Rosselia worms lived in a burrow at the bottom of ancient marine seashores and captured food with tentacles spread around the entrance to the hole.  They packed their poop into a bulbous structure within the hole.  Eventually the organic material in the poop was replaced with dissolved iron producing the conical imprint shown above.  (Drawing adapted from Masakazu Nara, Rosselia socialis: a dwelling structure of a probable terebellid polychaete,  Lethaia, vol. 28, pp.171-178, 1995.)

The fossilized worm burrow lay at the bottom of the ocean for eons becoming covered by many feet of sediment.

The worm would slide down into its burrow to digest its meals, to poop and to get away from predators.  To accommodate the poop, it would push out the sides of its vertical tube home which was probably easy to do as it was living is soft sediment.  Eventually the worm would die or move on to a new home leaving the organic evidence of its existence within its seabed home.

Now for the rare events that produced the “petrified buffalo hearts” and exposed them for observation today.  At some point 70 million years ago, the organic-rich waste in the worm hole was brought into sustained contact with a freshwater stream carrying dissolved iron compounds.  This iron slowly fossilized the poop and food detritus.  The fossilized worm burrow lay at the bottom of the ocean for eons becoming covered by many feet of sediment.

Eventually the land rose and the fossils were exposed by the Castor Creek that eroded through an uplifted area of the former beach.  Some of the exposed fossils settled on bedrock where they are found today.  Others are still slowly sinking in the muck at the bottom of the creek.

70 million year old fossilized poo from a Rosselia worm found in the Castor Creek near the confluence with the Battle River, September 18, 2019.

The Castor Rosselia fossils are rather rare in that they are well formed, well preserved iron accretions, and in the words of Dr. Gingras in an email to Dr. Eberth and copied to me, he states:  “Rosselia are normally much smaller than the cannon-balls you show”.

And so we come full circle in a small valley in East-Central Alberta; cannon-balls to cannon-balls.

Dr, Russ Schnell

Dr. Russ Schnell, Deputy Director, NOAA, Global Monitoring Division, Boulder, CO

Russ was born and raised in Alberta, Canada and educated at the Universities of Alberta; Newfoundland; Hawaii; Wales; Wyoming and Colorado. He holds degrees in Biology, Chemistry, Atmospheric Resources and Atmospheric Science.

Dr. Schnell discovered biological ice nuclei in 1970 now used in ski hill snowmaking worldwide, and by their removal on plants, prevention of frost damage to -3C. These nuclei are important in precipitation formation with papers from around the globe now being published on the topic.

His research, as Director of the Arctic Gas and Aerosol project in the 1980s, established that Arctic Haze was air pollution from Eastern Europe.  For 7 years he was director of the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, where the steady global increase in carbon dioxide that forms the backbone of the greenhouse gas atmospheric warming, was established.

He has conducted research on ozone destruction in the Arctic and Antarctic, ozone production from fossil fuel production and on the changing chemical composition of the atmosphere driving climate change.

He has published 125 scientific papers, nine of them in Nature, a premier scientific journal, and holds patents in plant science and biochemistry.

Russ has lived, traveled or worked in 92 countries, and on every continent including the North and South Poles.

In 2002, he received the NOAA Administrator’s Award for his work as director of the Mauna Loa Observatory.

In 2007, Dr. Schnell was recognized as one of the co-recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In 2008, he was awarded the U.S. Department of Commerce Silver Medal the highest honorary recognition the Department bestows and in 2011 both the NOAA Distinguished Career and the NOAA OAR Outstanding Science Communicator Awards.

Dr. Schnell’s non-work interests include building wooden trains for children, “Little Free Libraries” for donation and real-estate investing.

He grew up near the Battle River in East Central Alberta. I met him while attending the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Awards held in Maskwacis, AB on September 21, 2019.

President Todayville Inc., Honorary Colonel 41 Signal Regiment, Board Member Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Arts Award Foundation, Director Canadian Forces Liaison Council (Alberta) musician, photographer, former VP/GM CTV Edmonton.

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Alberta

Beehives and goat farms: Lacombe school shortlisted in global environmental contest

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Taylor Perez says she learned more about her passions while tending beehives, goats and fruit trees at her central Alberta high school than sitting through lessons in a classroom.

“These are all skills we don’t learn in regular classes,” says the 18-year-old student at Lacombe Composite High School.

“You’re not going to learn how to collaborate with community members by sitting in a classroom learning about E = mc2.”

Perez and her classmates are buzzing with excitement after their school’s student-led beekeeping program, goat farm, fruit orchard, tropical greenhouse and other environmental projects were recognized in a global sustainability contest among 10 other schools.

It’s the only North American school to be shortlisted by T4 Education, a global advocacy group, in its World’s Best School Prize for Environmental Action contest.

“The projects are coming from the students’ own hearts and passion for taking care of the environment,” says Steven Schultz, an agriculture and environmental science teacher who has been teaching in Lacombe since 1996.

“They are going to be our community leaders — maybe even our politicians — and for them to know what the heartbeat of their generation is (is) extremely important.”

Schultz says the projects are pitched and designed by students in the school’s Ecovision Club, to which Perez belongs, and he then bases a curriculum around those ideas.

The school of about 900 students began reducing its environmental footprint in 2006 when a former student heard Schultz say during a lesson on renewable energy that “words were meaningless or worthless without action,” the 56-year-old teacher recalls.

“She took that to heart and a year later she came back and told me that she wanted to take the school off the grid.”

Schultz and students watched a fire burn down solar panels on the school’s roof in 2010, an event that further transformed his approach to teaching.

“As their school was burning, my students gathered in tears. That day I realized that students really care about the environment and they really care about the projects that they were involved in.”

Since then, 32 new solar panels have been installed, and they produce up to four per cent of the school’s electricity. After the fire, students also wanted to clean the air in their classrooms so they filled some with spider plants, including one in the teachers’ lounge.

More recently, students replaced an old portable classroom on school property with a greenhouse that operates solely with renewable energy. It’s growing tropical fruits, such as bananas, pineapples, and lemons, and also houses some tilapia fish.

Two acres of the school are also covered by a food forest made up of almost 200 fruit trees and 50 raised beds where organic food is grown.

The school also works with a local farm and raises baby goats inside a solar-powered barn that was built with recycled material.

“They breed and milk them at the farm because there are really tight regulations,” says Schultz.

“We take the excrement from the goats and the hay and use it as mulch and fertilizers for our garden. The goats also chew up the grass and allow us not to have to use lawn mowers and tractors”

Perez said her favourite class is the beekeeping program with 12 hives that produce more than 300 kilograms of honey every year.

“I love that they have different roles in their own little societies,” Perez says of the bees.

She says while working with local businesses and groups as a part of her curriculum, she learned she’s passionate about the environment and wants to become a pharmacist so she can continue giving back to her community.

James Finley, a formerly shy Grade 10 student, says the Ecovision Club and environment classes have helped get him out of his comfort zone.

“I made friends, which was a hard thing for me in the beginning. But now I have, like, hundreds,” says the 16-year-old, who enjoyed the lessons he took on harvesting.

“Taylor and Mr. Schultz were the main people that made me stay.”

Schultz says the winners of the contest are to be announced in the fall.

A prize of about $322,000 will be equally shared among five winners.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sunday, July 3, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Missing 13-year-old Edmonton girl found alive in Oregon, 41-year-old man arrested

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EDMONTON — Police say a 13-year-old Edmonton girl missing for more than a week has been found alive in the United States.

She was located following a week-long search that began when she was seen arriving at her junior high school but didn’t show up for class.

Edmonton Police Insp. Brent Dahlseide says the girl, who was reported missing June 24, is currently in an Oregon hospital for a precautionary examination after being found safe in the state early Saturday morning.

Dahlseide says a 41-year-old Oregon man will be charged with child luring and is expected to face additional charges in Canada and the U.S.

He says Edmonton police received assistance from other agencies in Canada, as well as from the FBI and other police services in the U.S.

Dahlseide says it’s believed the suspect came to Edmonton, but it’s not yet clear how he initially made contact with the girl or how she crossed the U.S. border.

“We would be speculating to say they crossed the border together, but I do know that they were located together, again, in the U.S. once they gained entry,” Dahlseide told reporters during an online news conference Saturday, noting he believed the two had been communicating online.

“I don’t know how long they may have been in contact with one another. I do know that the reason we’re going with a child-luring charge at this point is that it’s one we can support because of some of the online history.”

Photos of the girl have appeared on billboards and posters across Alberta this past week asking people to be on the lookout for her and contact police with tips.

Dahlseide said an Amber Alert was not issued because investigators lacked a description of a suspect or a suspect vehicle. He said police got that information on Friday and were drafting the alert that afternoon when they learned from Canada Border Services the suspect had crossed into the U.S.

At that point the suspect was no longer in Canadian jurisdiction, Dahlseide explained, which is another criteria for an Amber Alert. He said they made a deduction about where the suspect was going and alerted authorities on the U.S. side.

Dahlseide said he believed the arrest was made outside Gladstone, Oregon, just south of Portland, away from the suspect’s residence. He said the suspect’s name would not be released until charges are formally laid.

He said the girl’s family were informed early Saturday she’d been found safe and they are making arrangements to bring her home.

“I’m sure we likely woke them up, showing up at their door so early,” Dahlseide said.

Canadian investigators have not had a chance to speak with the girl or the suspect yet, Dahlseide said, and other questions remain.

He said investigators believe the suspect was in Mission, B.C. for three to four days, so they’ll be asking RCMP there to speak to people who may have seen him or the girl during that time. The FBI will also be able to help supply bank or credit card information to piece together the suspect’s movements, he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 2, 2022

Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press

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