any last words

andrew malcolm's 2007 portfolio

Author's Notes

Unearthing the past was written after many trips to the Trent River, and many conversations with Pat Trask of the Courtenay and District Museum and Paleontology Centre. Over those few weeks I discovered a world within the Comox Valley I had not known before; a world shelved along the banks of its rivers.

Unearthing • the • Past

originally published by in•focus magazine, august/september 2007 issue

••• Full Article (PDF)

– Selected Passage –

Combing the Trent River for FossilsTrask leads his group from the slide show to the museum’s fossil displays, telling stories along the way. When you say the name of a dinosaur you’re not speaking English, you’re speaking Latin or Greek. A Japanese Paleontologist was here the other day. I don’t speak any Japanese, and he didn’t speak any English, but when he said Capulus corrugatus I knew exactly what he was looking for – a snail shell. That’s the beauty of scientific names.

He stops in front of the museum’s model of the elasmosaur, hanging triumphantly from the roof. So…you guys are from Ottawa? he asks a family from the group. Have you been to the Museum of Nature? You know the elasmosaur there? That’s our elasmosaur…how’s it lookin’?Fossilized shells embedded beneath the Trent River

Display cases line the museum, full of ammonites, ridged and swirling with iridescent colours, shark teeth that look like shards of broken beer bottle glass, fossilized shells, crabs, and the impressions of pre-historic plants. To the casual observer, these are cases filled with treasures. For a paleontologist, however, each one is a story of the life-long dedication and hard work that went into revealing that single clue to the origins of life.

For every discovery, someone has spent countless years searching for bones in the cracks of our continent. For every fossil, someone spent countless days grinding their knees into rocks, chipping away at microscopic pebbles. Each one was cleaned of every spec of sand; laboured over until the contours, colors, and details became as apparent as possible. Every fossil is identified, sometimes requiring a specialist from halfway around the world, and sometimes requiring a scientist to describe and declare it as a new species, a tedious process in itself.Pat Trask of the Courtenay and District Museum and Paleontology Centre

Two researchers from Japan have recently discovered new species of giant squid and octopus in Comox Valley’s fossil deposits. Not until March 2008, however, will they be named and welcomed into the scientific world. First, those researchers must publish a peer-reviewed paper describing every detail of the species possible. The paper must also declare a name, which is more complicated than simply finding the most appropriate Greek or Latin words.

Scientific names are meant to represent the evolutionary tree of life. In full form, a scientific name has seven words. Only one species can have the final word – that’s its species name. Different species can share the same name for the preceding six words, however. If a scientist decides to give their discovery a name that is shared with another species, though, that means they’re suggesting those two species have a common ancestor.The south-side-cliffs and north-side-forest of the Trent River

When the Japanese researchers first discovered an oversized beak in the rocks, they would have instantly known that fossil’s name would include the word cephalopoda – a word that all squids, octopuses, and cuttlefish share, although the common ancestor these animals come from is unclear – and the word oegopseda, shared by all squid. Applying a name that relates their find to other giant squid, however, is incredibly difficult. Most species of squid went extinct with the dinosaurs. The giant squid of today are so elusive that scientists don’t know much more about them than they do about their extinct counterparts.

Which species have common ancestors? And which ones are the ancestors that gave rise to the great diversity of giant squid? These are the questions researchers must face. If the species is on a branch of its own, though, only the scientist’s imagination (and the accepted Latin or Greek suffix) is the limit. If you discover a new species, Trask tells his audiences, you may be able to help the scientist name it.