Dig into the fossil world at the Qualicum Beach Museum

Fossils are precious gifts from the geologic past: signs and remains of ancient living things preserved in the Earth’s crust. The word has a Latin origin, from fossilis meaning “dug up,” and that remains the key attribute of what we label as fossils. Most people, when they think of fossils, picture skeletons of animals or leaves and wood from plants, all turned to stone. But geologists have a more complicated view, and you can dig into the subject here at the Qualicum Beach Museum.


Click here to see our Interactive 3D Virtual Walrus Skull Cast!

A primary draw to the Museum, centers around our Paleontology Exhibit, a collection which was assembled and is curated by the internationally known fossil collector and researcher, Graham Beard, in conjunction with the Vancouver Island Paleontology Museum Society. Vancouver Island is recognized as one of the best fossil collection areas in the world and Beard’s many years spent exploring these rich fossil beds has resulted in a vast collection of more than 20,000 pieces. The present exhibit displays many important specimens from this valuable collection.

The Museum’s Paleontology Exhibit is recognized as one of world-class stature by paleontologists from all over the world. British Columbia is home to some of the richest fossil beds in the world, most of which are located on Vancouver Island and the Northern Gulf Islands – especially Hornby Island, which lie along the geologically active “ring of fire” encompassing the Pacific Ocean. The Museum’s collection was assembled and is curated by the internationally known fossil collector, Graham Beard, who has spent more than 45 years exploring the Island’s rich fossil beds, accumulating a vast collection of more than 20,000 pieces. The stature of Graham Beard’s collection has prompted other collectors to make contributions to the museum’s paleontology exhibit, resulting in a valuable assortment of quality specimens from different parts of the globe.
Vancouver Island’s rich fossil beds and the reputation of Graham Beard also attract international researchers, scientists and students in the field to study and learn from our outstanding collection. The museum’s paleontology Exhibit spans the range of geologic time, from the Precambrian Era – 545 million years ago to the Pleistocene Era of 13,000 years ago. The incredible variety of fossils on display represent a range of fossil organisms from the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic Periods including plants, insects, ginko and fish, some dinosaur and early reptiles as well as bones and skulls from the early mammals of the Eocene Epoch (about 45 million years ago). Many of the fossils cannot be seen anywhere else, including the Cretaceous flower fossils from the Nanaimo area, as well as the first trilobites discovered on Vancouver Island.

We invite you to explore this exhibit and discover …

“Thunder”, the cave bear (Ursus speclacus). The cave bear was about three times as large as the modern brown bear, and is between 50,000 and 70,000 years old. Our cave bear skeleton is a composite, made up of many cave bear bones found in a cave in the Ural Mountains of Russia.

“Rosie”, the walrus

(Odobenus Rosmarus). The skull on display is from a 60,000 year old Pliestocene Walrus skeleton, discovered in 1979 by Mr. Bill Waterhouse while he was collecting shellfish, 10 km northwest of Qualicum Beach. Noticing tusks protruding out the sand, Mr. Waterhouse tugged on them removing part of the skull. His daughter took the skull to her biology teacher, Mr. Graham Beard, who over the next few weeks returned to excavate the rest of the specimen. “Rosie” is now at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa where the Pliestocene Walrus has been used in an Ice Age display. The Canadian Museum of Nature has given back to our museum a resin cast of Rosie’s head, and it is used as an excellent teaching tool as it visually differentiates the bones of the skull that was recovered in the excavation and those that were never found.

The only trilobite fossils ever found on Vancouver Island Trilobites are arthropods or “Animals in Armor,” which refers to their decay-resistant calcite exoskeletons, which are shed every so often and commonly found fossilized. Arthropods include insects, spiders, crabs, scorpions, lobsters, millipedes and barnacles.

Fossils from the Cranberry Arms Site – One of the most important plant fossil locations ever found on Vancouver Island. In August 1996, during the construction of the road to the ferry terminal at Duke Point, a wealth of plant fossils of the Protection Formation Age (Upper Cretaceous) was discovered in Cedar, near the Cranberry Arms pub. Thanks to a keen eye and hours of careful collecting by Mr. J. Whittles, a number of fossil flowers were found here. Flowers very rarely form fossils and so those found by Mr. Whittles should add greatly to our understanding of angiosperm (flowering plants) evolution.

Our Exhibit also includes:

  • One of the first reptiles (Captorhinomorph) from the Carboniferous
  • A large Permian amphibian from Germany
  • A large collection of Oligocene vertebrate and invertebrate fossils from Washington State
  • Ice Age fossils of Pliestocene Bison and Mammoth found in the Yukon
  • Numerous Paleozoic fossils from Eastern Canada
  • A complete skeleton of a Psittacosaurus from Mongolia
  • A large collection of dinosaur bones from Alberta
  • Jurassic fossils from Solnhofen, Germany
  • Eocene plant, vertebrate and invertebrate fossils from Cache Creek and Vancouver Island
  • A large fossil collection of recent vertebrate from Vancouver Island
  • Nautiloids – species living today (octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus) as well as extinct, from the Paleozoic and Mesozoic, such as Ammonites
  • Many excellent Mesozoic ammonite fossils
  • Dinornis ingens (Moa) bone from New Zealand

Prehistoric Fossils of North America

Evolution of the Dinosaur

Fossils of the Triassic Period (175 to 215 Million years ago)

Much of North America was desert during the 40 million years of this period, as shown in the red oxidized sandstones that make up New Mexico’s and Arizona’s magnificent scenery. The Triassic Period was the first period in the “Age of Reptiles”, for it was then that the reptiles became dominant over all other land animals, being so evolutionarily advanced as to squeeze out the once dominant labyrinthodont amphibians. The opening of the Mezoic Era with the Triassic period saw the appearance of many new groups of marine life. Invertebrates continued to develop, losing some groups and evolving new ones. From the corals developed the hexacorals which still exist today. The brachiopods persisted abundantly at first, as new kinds like the Rhynchonellids and the Terebratullids, appeared and flourished, only to diminish later at the end of the period. Clams and oysters becames numerous and larger than ever before. Among the cephalopods, the ammonites continue in abundance, increasing in size and developing shells with marginally frilled partitions. However, most forms of ammonite dies out near the end of this period, possibly due to attacks by the new marine reptiles. Extinct relative of the cuttlefish, the bullet-like belemnids flourished.

Fossils of the Jurassic Period (135 – 175 Million years ago)

Eastern North America was gradually eroded during the Jurassic period. During this period, the area now occupied by the mighty Rocky Mountains was a long seaway tonguing up from Mexico and down from Canada. This deluge was followed eventually by the beginning of the Sierra Nevada uplift. The climate was generally mild, even sub-tropical over wide areas, most humid, producing fewer desert areas than the Triassic.

Fossils of the Cretaceous Period (70 – 135 Million years ago)

The Cretaceous Period was the third and last period in the Mesozoic Era. During the early part of this period, the final great continental submergence took place before the rise of the Rocky Mountains. The mountainous uplift, called the Laramide Revolution, may have been responsible for the extinction of many of the great reptilian orders at the close of the Cretaceous, for it was not just a local geological event, but one of world significance. Climates were altered to such an extent as to affect almost all life. Mighty seaways drained, setting off a chain reaction of extinctions. A general lifting of the western plateaus, while the seas retreated southward, accompanied the rise of the Rockies and the Sierras. The climate gradually became colder, especially in the West, though over vast areas it remained comparatively mild. On the Pacific Coast, the great island of Cascadia poured rivers into shallow seas where now is dry land. In the warm, shallow seas, invertebrate evolution saw the arrival of nearly all the modern orders, with mollusks dominant, especially the bivalves, gastropods, and the ammonites.

The brachiopods were disappearing, with fossils found in only a few North American localities, such as the deposits near Tombstone, Arizona. The bivalves (clams, scallops, etc.) began to assume strange shapes and take more massive sizes. Some forms like Exogyra, had a spiral shape like ram horns, while others, such as Grypnea, became extremely large. The largest and most abundant marine fossils were the ammonites, which are often used as index fossils to determine the age of rocks. While mostly of the coiled type, during the middle cretaceous the ammonites became straight (Baculites) or partly coiled (Acanthoscaphites). By the end of the Upper Cretaceous the ammonites and the squid-like belemnites became extinct. Crabs, lobsters, and floating crinoids (sea lilies) were common among the muddy sea beds of America, while in Europe they inhabited mainly the chalky sea beds. Mosasaurs (scaled marine reptiles that could extend their mouths as snakes do to swallow large animals) soon took the place of Icthyosaurs of the Jurassic, but the long-necked and clumsy Plesiosaurs are still numerous. Both preyed on the abundant boney fishes, similar to our present-day rays, sharks, herrings and others.

The end of the Cretaceous was marked by what has been called the “great dying”. Of the millions upon millions of dinosaurs which had lived during the Mesozoic, none survived. The ammonites and some other important vertebrates also began to disappear. A change in climate, due to the Larmide Revolution may well have caused this decline, but it is also a likely that competition from more advanced animals (such as eating of dinosaur eggs by mammals) contributed to the decline, as did the Chixacub meteorite impact near what is now known as the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

What is a fossil?

Fossils can include ancient remains, the actual bodies of ancient life. These can occur frozen in glaciers or polar permafrost. They can be dry, mummified remains found in caves and salt beds. They can be preserved over geologic time inside pebbles of amber or sealed within dense beds of clay. These represent the ideal fossil, nearly unchanged from their time as a living organism.

Body fossils, or mineralized organisms — dinosaur bones, petrified wood and everything else like them — are the best known kind of fossil. These can include even microbes and grains of pollen (microfossils, as opposed to macrofossils) where the fossilization conditions have been ideal.

The tracks, nests, burrows and feces of ancient organisms are another category, the trace fossils or ichnofossils. These are exceptionally rare, but have special value because they are relics of an organism’s behaviour.

Finally the chemical fossils, or chemofossils, are remains that are composed merely of organic compounds or proteins found in a body of rock. Most books overlook this type of fossil, but petroleum and coal, the fossil fuels, are very large and widespread examples of chemofossils. Chemical fossils are also important in scientific research into well-preserved sedimentary rocks.

What Becomes a Fossil?

If fossils are things dug up, then they must begin as whatever can be buried. If you look around, though, you will see that very little that is buried lasts long. Soil is an active, living ecosystem in which dead plants and animals are broken down and recycled. To escape this round of breakdown, an organism must be buried, and removed from all oxygen soon after death.

When geologists say “soon,” however, they can mean many years. Hard parts such as bones, shells and wood are what turn to fossils the great majority of the time. But even these need exceptional circumstances to be preserved. Usually they must be quickly buried in clay or other fine sediment. For skin and other soft body parts to be preserved requires even rarer conditions, such as a sudden change in water chemistry, or decomposition by mineralizing bacteria.

Despite all this, some amazing fossils have been found: 100-million-year-old ammonoids with their mother-of-pearl nacre intact, leaves, embedded in Miocene rocks, still showing their autumn colors, and Cambrian jellyfish, two-celled embryos from half a billion years ago. There are a handful of exceptional places where the Earth has been gentle enough to preserve such fossils in abundance; these sites are called lagerstätten.

How are Fossils Formed?

Once buried, organic remains enter a long and complex process by which their substance is changed into fossil form. The study of this process is called taphonomy (a term derived from the Greek word taphos, meaning burial). It overlaps with the study of diagenesis, the set of processes that turns sediment into rock.

Some fossils are preserved as films of carbon under the heat and pressure of deep burial. On the large scale, this is what creates coal beds.

Many fossils, especially seashells in young rocks, undergo some recrystallization in groundwater. In others their substance is dissolved, leaving open space (a mold) that is refilled with minerals from their surroundings or underground fluids (forming a cast).

True petrification (or petrifaction) is when the fossil’s original substance is gently and completely replaced with another mineral. The result can be either lifelike or, if the replacement is agate or opal, not lifelike but spectacular.

Graham Beard, Paleontology Curator

A primary draw to the Museum centers around our Paleontology Exhibit, a collection which was assembled and is curated by the internationally known fossil collector and researcher, Graham Beard, in conjunction with the Vancouver Island Paleontological Museum Society.

Graham Beard himself is a recognized international expert in paleontology and is a long-standing member of the Qualicum Beach community. Even as a young teenager, Graham was drawn to the wonders of natural history, collecting fossils and reptiles to display in his own private museum set up in the basement of his family home. A trip to Drumheller with his father was a highlight for the blossoming paleontologist who went on to become a biology teacher. Having discovered many new species of animals and plants, and even a new genus of walnut, the Geology Department of Vancouver Island University has made him an honorary research associate. His 40 years of field work have earned him a reputation as an authority and he continues to lecture on his years of research and ancient discoveries, attracting scientists and students in the field to study and learn from his vast collection, and to explore the area themselves. Graham also continues to donate considerable time to activities in the community that ensure his wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm for paleontology is shared with museum visitors and recipients of our outreach. His dedication to the quality of the Paleontology Exhibit sets our museum apart from other community museums.

Graham has coauthored a book titled West Coast Fossils: A Guide to the Ancient Life of Vancouver Island, containing photographs of more than 200 fossils, many from his collections here at the QB Museum.