McAbee Fossil Beds show start of the modern world

The beds may be 53 million years old, but they shed valuable light on the world we live in today.

“Nadine, you have a bee in here,” I say to the owner of UniTea, watching warily as the black-and-yellow creature bumbles its way through the open door of the tea room and begins exploring. My companion, paleoentomologist Dr. Bruce Archibald, quickly corrects me; not pedantically, but because the insect ties in with what we’ve been talking about.

“It’s a hornet,” he explains. “They’re social insects. They band together for protection, for food, to repel threats. And we see that starting at the McAbee fossil beds.”

He’s referring to the site east of Cache Creek that has been under provincial government administration, and closed to the public, since July 2012, when it was declared a provincial heritage site. At 53 million years old, the McAbee beds represent a crucial turning point in the Earth’s history.

“It’s exciting to me,” says Archibald of the site, which he has been studying for many years. “Dinosaurs are great, but they were extinct 66 million years ago. By the time of the McAbee beds, about 12 or 13 million years later, the Earth had regained diversity. It was like hitting the reset button on a computer. The Earth was fixing itself, and it was the start of the modern world. You had spruce and maple here—things you’d recognize—but with a twist. The average yearly temperature here was like it is on the coast now, so you had a stable temperature like in the tropics, only cooler.

“At McAbee there was the diversity of a modern tropical rain forest, and you had palms and spruce in the same setting. When we see things mixed up in a different way, modern things in odd locations, we ask ‘How did they act?’ We’re figuring out the modern world by seeing it through the past.”

And that’s where the hornets—and bees, and wasps, and ants—come in. “They were all diversifying at that time. We don’t have dinosaurs [at McAbee], but we have plants and insects, and the story they tell is a big part of the story of the creation of the modern world. It helps us understand how our modern world works.”

Archibald is, not surprisingly, in favour of seeing the McAbee site developed. “I’d like to see a detailed, well-curated collection here. Collections are good; they last forever. To build and create a good collection of McAbee fossils would be a legacy that would be a strong and lasting thing. I hope to see that happen here.”

There are also economic spin-offs. The John Day fossil beds in a remote region of northeast Oregon attract 100,000 visitors a year, and Archibald sees no reason why the McAbee beds—adjacent to the Trans-Canada Highway—would not attract a substantial number of visitors from around the world as a dedicated destination. “The regional economic impact would be sustainable forever; but the site needs our care and protection.” He’s “very positive” that there will be developments at the McAbee site, sooner rather than later. “I feel an optimism I wouldn’t have felt a few years ago.”

Ideally, he says, there would be programs at the site tailored to the needs of different groups: students, seniors, First Nations. “Models have already been created at some sites. I look at what’s been created and say ‘Why can’t we do that?’ And there’s no reason why we can’t. Interpretive walks, and programs for students: there should be an opportunity for people to be hands-on.

“And I really want to see First Nations people involved in a deep and profound way. Getting young First Nations people enthusiastic about being involved, and learning about that part of the past, is great. There’s a lot of benefit to people in the area in various ways, and I’d like First Nations to be a big part of that.

“The McAbee beds would be a destination for people from far afield, and would create spin-offs for other events. And it’s completely sustainable. It’s not based around natural resource extraction, and isn’t dependent on outside forces. It’s a significant contributor to world culture and knowledge, which is no small thing.”

At a talk in Ashcroft that he gave last December, Archibald was asked why, if the McAbee beds are so important, people in the area hadn’t heard about them. He acknowledges that it’s an excellent question.

“My access to communities has mostly been through naturalist societies that invite me to speak,” he says. “Places like Williams Lake, Smithers, Terrace, Hazelton, Princeton, Kitimat, Kamloops; there’s a network of societies, but there isn’t one here, and I didn’t know how to make that happen. It took a long time to make the connection here. Now that the Villages [of Ashcroft and Cache Creek] are on board, I have that connection.”

Archibald is keen to return and do another presentation. “I enjoyed the enthusiasm of the audience [in December], and the depth of the questions. An informed public is the best thing in the world. A project can’t go ahead without people being informed, and part of the process.

“People say to me about McAbee ‘I didn’t know this was a big deal, that it was famous worldwide.’ They’re always pleased to hear that it is.”