SOURCE: University of Calgary

University of Calgary

May 28, 2015 12:00 ET

Routine basement excavation uncovers important fossil discovery

Early representatives of modern fish discovered in Northwest Calgary

CALGARY, AB--(Marketwired - May 28, 2015) - For Edgar Nernberg it was just another day on the job site but little did he know that once his excavator began to rip through the ground below, a snap-shot from the past would soon be revealed.

Nernberg, who works for a local excavation company, was busy digging a basement for a new home in the northwest community of Evanston when he noticed something.

"The something I noticed was quite extraordinary, I knew right away that this was different from the other fossils I have uncovered in my many years of excavating and collecting fossils," says Nernberg who also happens to have a keen interest in fossils dating back to his childhood growing up on a farm in Manitoba.

"The first seashell fossils I saw were shown to me by my father in the rocks we had to pick off of our farmland in Manitoba, and I've been watching for and collecting fossils ever since."

Since moving to Calgary 12 years ago, Nernberg has had the opportunity to excavate hundreds of basements in Calgary and surrounding communities. "In that process I've occasionally come across clams, snails, leaf impressions and wood remains embedded in the sandstone. When the five fish fossils presented themselves to me in the excavator bucket the first thing I said was you're coming home with me, the second thing was I better call a paleontologist."

The unearthing was astounding, as five near perfect fish fossil specimens were concealed in a block of sandstone in the Paskapoo Formation, a roughly 60 million-year-old rock formation that underlies Calgary.

Nernberg contacted Darla Zelenitsky, paleontologist and assistant professor in the geoscience department at the University of Calgary.

"Because complete fossils are relatively rare from this time period in Alberta, any such discoveries are significant as they shed light on the nature and diversity of animals that lived not long after the extinction of the dinosaurs," says Zelenitsky. "These fossil fish are important because they are very primitive representatives of a large group of bony fish known today."

This latest find will allow researchers to appreciate and learn more about a time period following a major mass extinction that occurred around 66 million years ago that killed off 75% of species, including the dinosaurs.

While this discovery is key for further research, the fact that the fossils were reported is also significant.

"It's really important that fossil findings be brought to the attention of a paleontologist at a major university or museum so they can be assessed, cleaned and properly cared for," says Zelenitsky. "Although sometimes fossils can be difficult to recognize while embedded in rock, significant finds can be made by anyone virtually anywhere in the province."

It is important to note that there are two methods of collecting fossils in the province, surface collection and excavation.

"Picking fossils up from the ground surface, or surface collection, is allowed in Alberta only with land owner permission," says Zelenitsky. "However, removing or excavation of fossils from the ground can only be done by a professional paleontologist with a permit."

All fossils in Alberta are the property of the province, not of the landowners or the individuals who find them.

The specimens will now make their way to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta where they will be curated, cleaned up, and potentially go on display.

About the University of Calgary
The University of Calgary is a leading Canadian university located in the nation's most enterprising city. The university has a clear strategic direction to become one of Canada's top five research universities by 2016, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university's Gaelic motto, which translates as 'I will lift up my eyes.’

For more information, visit ucalgary.ca. Stay up to date with University of Calgary news headlines on Twitter @UCalgary. For details on faculties and how to reach experts go to our media center at ucalgary.ca/news/media.

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