Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied

Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied

Courtenay fossil hunter finds ancient turtle on local river

The specimen will now make its home at the Royal BC Museum

Some 80 million or so years ago, a sea turtle died at what now makes up the banks of a Comox Valley river.

Now, the animal has been unearthed by a local fossil hunter.

Courtenay’s Russ Ball has looked for fossils for about 30 years, starting when he and his family lived in Alberta, and he would take his kids to Drumheller. Moving to Vancouver Island 21 years ago, he had to learn about a different climate for fossils, and in that time he’s made a number of discoveries, but the large turtle came as a bit of a surprise, especially as vertebrates can be hard to come by. The Comox Valley though is no stranger to important fossil finds.

“The number of creatures is amazing,” Ball said.

Ball made the discovery in January and contacted Dan Bowen from the Vancouver Island Paleontological Society, who agreed it was likely a turtle. The next step was to contact the Royal BC Museum, which is a repository for fossil finds in the province.

“They got back to me, and they’re kind of excited about it,” Ball said.

From there, the museum’s curator of paleontology, Victoria Arbour, put Ball in touch with Derek Larson, a graduate student working on turtles and who is the paleontology collection manager at the museum.

With all indications pointing to a turtle, perhaps of a different species than a couple of others found in the region, Ball and his team were out at a site at the Puntledge River this past week digging up more evidence.

With time needed to get Larson approved to visit as well as work by BC Hydro, they had to wait until now before starting and spent the week chipping carefully at the specimen, planning to remove the whole piece of rock for later fossil extraction.

“Turtle fossils are very fragile,” Ball said. “You take the whole block with all the fossils in it.

The team had been working with BC Hydro on helping to control water levels during the dig. As well, they relied on the cooperation of landowners for providing access and help with the work. Ball credits many volunteers, in particular, Stewart McIntosh whose bailing efforts helped keep the waters at bay, so they could continue to work on the specimen.

By Thursday, they had applied a plaster cast over the rock to protect exposed areas of the fossil. The plan for Friday was to remove the block, finish casting it and pull it up a steep ridge above the Puntledge River.

The recent hot weather almost put the project on hiatus as snowmelt led to higher river levels. On Thursday they had been able to walk in along the river, through the water, from a nearby farm, but on Friday, the water level was too high, which meant a steep climb down switchbacks to the site on the riverbank.

Through much of the morning, there was some doubt about getting the specimen removed. They were able to bail out enough water to get the specimen finished and lifted out from the riverbed in order for it to be delivered to the Royal BC Museum, where staff will carefully remove rock to extract what remains of the turtle inside.

Ball, who collects fossils and rocks, knows the museum is the right place for a specimen the size of a turtle and is happy he can contribute to the ongoing story of Vancouver Island’s ancient past. By day’s end Friday, Ball sent a text message with an update: “The fossil bone I discovered is on its way to the museum in Victoria. Where it belongs.”

Larson described the turtle as likely being “disarticulated,” meaning its bones are spread apart at the site, or as Ball likes to describe it, “turtle roadkill.”

There is still work to do at the museum, as the researchers aim to find all the remains in the rock and identify the turtle. Larson expects the creature, estimated to be at least 80 million years old, could be up to a couple of feet in length. The hope is that, like the other ancient turtles found in the Comox Valley, this one will again turn out to be something new.

“We don’t yet know if it’s a different species,” Larson said. “It might be completely new to science. We’re very excited.”

***

The Comox Valley is the western-most location on the Canadian Fossil Trail. You can learn more at the Courtenay and District Museum and Paleontology Centre, located in downtown Courtenay. Highlights include its late Cretaceous marine fossils, including the 13-metre-long elasmosaur and the new species and genus of mosasaur, Kourisodon puntledgensis.

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