A Needle in the Haystack

model of the skull of Puijila darwini

model of the skull of Puijila darwini

Sometimes research is like finding a needle in a haystack. It can be like that for paleontologists. They might know where specific geological formations are. They might understand the Earth history that caused it and have vivid ideas about what might have died there and may still exist in fossil form. But they almost never have one of those paleo-movie experiences where the scientist readily stumbles onto the large, complete fossil skeleton sticking out of the ground, then finishes unearthing it by brushing away some soft sediments. Almost never.

When a team of paleobiology experts led by Dr. Natalia Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature arrived at Haughton Crater on Devon Island in the summer of 2007, they stared across the barren 20 km divot and must have felt a little overwhelmed. They were convinced that the ancient shallow waterway that existed 20M – 25M years earlier contained a rich aquatic ecosystem and would yield fossils.  When a 4 wheeler ran out of gas they had one of those movie moments. A piece of fossil bone was right there. With some persistence, and digging and sifting, the majority of a skeleton came together. This needle in the haystack would become known as Puijila darwini, a new genus and species and a generous advance on our scientific thinking about the evolution of seals, sea lions and walrus. This and many other fossils from the area are adding to our knowledge of what had developed in far northern reaches when the climate was warmer. These discoveries have stimulated many more scientific questions, and have provided rich material for public consumption.

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