One Shell of a Secret in Fernie

Back when Fernie, British Columbia, lay beneath a shallow sea, giant carnivorous squid were amongst the prehistoric killers. One of them never left.

Some things lost, stay that way forever. Others rematerialize when and where you least expect them. Take Fernie, British Columbia’s ammonite for example. This 1.4-metre (five-foot), carnivorous cephalopod, which resembled a giant squid stuffed inside a curved shell, died in a shallow sea about 150 million years ago. It is assumed decomposition gases buoyed its massive shell, floating the corpse to a shoreline, where it was buried, deeply and literally, by the sands of time.

This giant fossil is located near Fernie, but good luck finding it. Dave Quinn photo.

Then, in July 1947, geologists stumbled upon the ammonite fossil while mapping coal seams in Fernie’s Coal Valley. The discovery of a “fossil truck tire” in the sandstone by Coal Creek was reported, and Chuck Newmarch, a geologist with the British Columbia Geological Survey, was sent to investigate. He recognized it as a giant specimen of ammonite, a long-lost relative of the modern-day, shelled nautilus, which is in the cephalopod family that includes the octopus, the squid and the cuttlefish. (There are only six nautilus species alive today: and ocean-lovers everywhere will be relieved to know they are usually smaller than 20 centimeters or eight inches.)

The prehistoric, giant ammonites had hard beaks, similar to octopuses, and they hunted in shallow, warm waters around the globe between 400 million and 65 million years ago, before disappearing with the rest of the dinosaurs.

The Fernie specimen is unofficially Canada’s largest ammonite fossil and is tentatively named Titanites occidentalis, after ammonites of similar size found elsewhere. However, in order to officially claim a name and record, the original must be transported to a recognized museum or institution. The Coal Creek specimen is simply too big and too remote to chisel out and remove without destroying it. And besides, Fernie locals are very protective of their giant secret. Fossil fiends can expect to brave sketchy directions, through thick rainforest, to a steep, slippery creek bed trail, in order to find this lost giant.

Author / Contributor

Dave Quinn

Born in Cranbrook, British Columbia, Dave is a wildlife biologist, educator, wilderness guide, writer and photographer whose work is driven by his passion for wilderness and wild spaces. His work with endangered mountain caribou and badgers, threatened fisher and grizzly, as well as lynx and other species has helped shape his understanding of the Kootenay backcountry and its wildlife, and help ...

Share your thoughts on this post