Russ Ball (left) and another team member work to extract an ancient turtle fossil from along the Puntledge River in January 2021. (Credit: Derek Larson)

Russ Ball (left) and another team member work to extract an ancient turtle fossil from along the Puntledge River in January 2021. (Credit: Derek Larson)

84-million-year-old turtle fossil being studied at Royal B.C. Museum

Discovery made by fossil hunter in Courtenay in January

An approximately 84-million-year-old fossil discovered in Courtenay earlier this year may be an entirely new species of ancient sea turtle.

The Puntledge River, which runs for 49 kilometres at the north end of Courtenay before flowing into the Courtenay River, is a well-known site for fossils, and a favourite spot of fossil hunter Russ Ball. In January, Ball was examining the area when he found what looked like a sea turtle that could be a couple feet in length.

While many fossils have been found along the river, it is rare to find vertebrate ones. Vertebrates are animals that have a backbone, like birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. Invertebrates, on the other hand, include insects, spiders, worms, crustaceans, mollusks and coral.

But, backbone or no, after 84 million years the fossil had to be handled extremely carefully.

READ ALSO: Courtenay fossil hunter finds ancient turtle on local river

The ancient turtle fossil is estimated to be 84 million years old.(Credit: Derek Larson)

“Turtle fossils are very fragile,” Ball told Black Press Media in April. “You take the whole block with all the fossils in it.”

Now housed at the Royal B.C. Museum, palaeontology collections manager Derek Larson says it may be one of two known species of ancient sea turtle from the area, or – more excitingly – a newly discovered species.

“Either way, this discovery is a win for palaeontology in B.C.,” Larson said. “If the fossil is a known species, we’ll learn a lot of new information about that species because these specimens are rare and, so far, incomplete. If the fossil turns out to be a species that is new to science, that could exponentially advance our understanding of marine ecosystems millions of years ago.”

Studying the fossil is a priority for the palaeontology team, but Larson cautioned it can take time. Having determined the age of the turtle based on the fossil shells located nearby, it’s now time to chisel away the rock surrounding it. The millimetre by millimetre process is done with the help of a miniature air-powered jackhammer, called a pneumatic air scribe.

Larson said the discovery speaks to the value of citizen science, noting that they may never have found the turtle specimen if it wasn’t for Ball and other volunteers. He encourages everyone in B.C. to keep an eye out for fossils, but says fossil collection laws should be reviewed first.

READ ALSO: Punjabi dining set added to Royal B.C. Museum’s ‘100 Objects of Interest’ collection

With files from Mike Chouinard


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