Petrified Buffalo Hearts, Indian Maiden Breasts, Stalagmites and 70 Million Year Old Worm Poop
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]>).
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
Canada under pressure to produce more food, protect agricultural land: report
Canada’s agricultural land is under increasing pressure to produce more food as demand grows domestically and internationally, while the industry grapples with limited resources and environmental constraints, a new report found.
“We need to grow more food on less land and in a volatile climate,” said Tyler McCann, managing director of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.
The report by the institute released Thursday looks at the pressures on Canada’s agricultural land to produce more food while also mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, said McCann.
Despite Canada being a big country, it doesn’t have as much agricultural land as people might think, said McCann, with the report noting that agricultural land makes up only around seven per cent of the country.
Because of that, we can’t take what we do have for granted, he said. “We need to be really thoughtful about how we are using our agricultural land.”
In 2020, Canada was the eighth largest country in terms of cropland area, the report said, with that cropland decreasing by seven per cent over the previous two decades.
Canada is a major producer and net exporter of agriculture and agri-food products, the report said, exporting $91 billion in products in 2022, and one of the top 10 exporters of wheat, canola, pulses, pork and beef.
In the coming years, Canada will face increased demand from countries whose populations are growing, the report said.
“With population growth on one side and climate change on the other, Canada will be amongst an increasingly smaller number of countries that is a net exporter,” said McCann, noting that Canada’s own population is growing, and farmland also needs to be protected against urban sprawl.
The wildfires clouding Canadian skies this week are a “vivid reminder” of the pressure that extreme weather and the changing climate are putting on the agricultural sector, said McCann.
“We need to clearly mitigate … agriculture’s impact on climate change. But we also need to make sure agriculture is adapting to climate change’s impacts,” he said.
One of the ways the world has responded to demand for increased agricultural production over time is to create more agricultural land, in some cases by cutting down forests, said McCann. But that’s not a viable option for Canada, which doesn’t have a lot of land that can be sustainably converted into farmland — and even if it could, doing so could have a variety of adverse environmental effects, he said.
Some of the practices used to reduce emissions and sequester carbon in agriculture can also improve production output on existing farmland, the report found, such as precision agriculture and no-till practices.
However, intensifying the production of current agricultural land also comes with potential environmental downsides, the report said.
For example, McCann said fertilizer is an important part of sustainable agriculture, but there’s a balance to be struck because excessive use of fertilizer can quickly turn food production unsustainable.
“We need to be a lot more thoughtful about the inputs that we’re using,” he said, adding the same can be said about the use of technology in agriculture and the policies and programs put in place to encourage sustainable intensification of Canadian agriculture.
The report recommends that Canada adopt policies that provide financial incentives and technical assistance to farmers and develop regulatory frameworks promoting sustainable land use, as well as promoting education and awareness campaigns, so that the country can “ensure the long-term sustainability of its agricultural sector while protecting the environment.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.
Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press
Lawyer tells Alberta’s highest court review board biased in de Grood’s case
A family member of five slain students holds a heart sign with their names on it following a court decision in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Alberta’s highest court is being asked to overturn a review board decision on the stabbing deaths of five young people at a Calgary house party that confined a man to a supervised Edmonton group home. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
By Ritika Dubey in Edmonton
Alberta’s highest court is being asked to overturn a review board decision that confined a man to a supervised Edmonton group home after the stabbing deaths of five young people at a Calgary house party.
The lawyer representing Matthew de Grood argued Wednesday the review board’s decision was biased, citing what she described as political interference from Alberta’s former justice minister.
“The appellant says, ‘I think the conclusion about me is wrong. The board’s conclusion is incorrect and not supported by evidence,”’ Jacqueline Petrie said before the Alberta Court of Appeal. “He says there’s no significant evidence that he’s a risk.”
De Grood, 31, was found not criminally responsible in 2016 for the killings two years earlier of Zackariah Rathwell, Jordan Segura, Kaitlin Perras, Josh Hunter and Lawrence Hong because he was suffering from schizophrenia at the time. Petrie said de Grood has been stable on medication, is at low risk to reoffend and should be allowed to live with his parents while being monitored under a full warrant.
She argued the review board misunderstood medical evidence during the September 2022 review, which deemed de Grood a significant risk despite the assessment showing improvements. She said the board is supposed to recommend the least onerous disposition compatible with public safety and did not do that for de Grood.
The defence lawyer has said the review had been influenced by former justice minister Doug Schweitzer, who weighed in on de Grood’s case in October 2019 after the panel allowed de Grood to transition from institutional care to a supervised group home.
He has been under supervision at a group home. His case is reviewed by the Alberta Review Board yearly to see whether he can transition back into the community while maintaining public safety.
Petrie pointed at de Grood’s “exemplary record,” and that he has been “compliant to the (medical) treatment team.”
“Nobody knew he had schizophrenia (at the time of the stabbings) and needed medication.”
Crown prosecutor Matthew Griener said the board considered a conditional discharge but dismissed it, citing a relapse in schizophrenia symptoms in 2021.
Griener said de Grood’s relapses were brief and happened at the hospital, providing an early window for medical professionals to intervene.
Justice Kevin Feehan said de Grood may be low-risk, but the consequences of even one relapse could be significant.
Reading from an expert’s report, Feehan said: “A low risk to offend doesn’t mean the reoffence would not be severe.”
Some family members of the victims drove from Calgary for the hearing.
Segura’s mother, Patty, said the last nine years have been about de Grood and his rights.
“He should be thankful that he ended up NCR (not criminally responsible) rather than end(ing) with five life sentences for murdering five people,” she said. “He should not be appealing.”
Hunter’s father, Barclay, opposed a potential full release.
“The idea that he wouldn’t be monitored for the rest of his life seems to defy logic, it doesn’t make any sense,” said the father.
Hunter’s mother, Kelly, said the family has had “no healing.”
“We do this every year, at least once. Now, this is the second appeal,” she said. Barclay
Hunter said although there are attempts to reintegrate de Grood into society, he hopes the man is not left on his own with an absolute discharge.
“Regardless of what they say, he killed five people. If that doesn’t stand on its own as a risk factor, then I don’t know what does.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.
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