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A glimpse at B.C.’s rich biodiversity

Biologists Bruce Archibald and Rolf Mathewes (right) studied the fossil record of B.C. and northern Washington State, - Colleen Flanagan/The News
Biologists Bruce Archibald and Rolf Mathewes (right) studied the fossil record of B.C. and northern Washington State,
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

A pair of Simon Fraser University evolutionary biologists have found that the biodiversity patterns found in modern tropical regions existed in B.C. 50 million years ago.

Maple Ridge resident Rolf Mathewes, his SFU colleague Bruce Archibald and Brandon University biologist David Greenwood painted a more complete picture of what Canada may have looked like some 15 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

At that time it was a much different planet. India was an island, North and South America were not joined, and the warm, consistent climate of the eocene period is colloquially referred to as the Greenhouse World.

For a more detailed picture of the time, they went to the fossil record of B.C. and northern Washington State.

Their project started in 2007, and researchers worked in fossil beds at Driftwood Canyon in the north, Horsefly near Williams Lake, McAbee near Cache Creek, Quilchena near Merritt and in Republic, Wash. They covered 1,000 km of ancient mountains.

Mathewes’  expertise is in botany, and Archibald’s is paleoentomology.

Mathewes said the study required often painstaking work.

“You spend a lot of time splitting the rocks, and seeing if you have impressions of leaves and insects,” he explained.

Archibald enjoys the payoff – even though he is sometimes looking at the wing fragments of insects which were only millimeters in size.

“Field work is actually kind of fun – it’s scratch and win.”

They found the plant communities were extremely diverse, like mountain ranges in a modern tropical rain forest, and a huge variety of insects. Archibald continues to write up the bugs.

“I’ll die not having described all of them,” he said.

Mathewes explained that when you go into the wilds of B.C. today, you generally see many of the same plant and animal species across various regions. However, their work showed that 50 million years ago, there was tremendous biodiversity.

“The implication is there was greater global biodiversity,” explained Archibald.

The key to this richness in species is a low seasonality – consistent temperatures year-round, without frost to kill insects and seedlings. The temperature was not as high as the modern tropics, but it was even, creating biodiversity on a par with tropical mountain ranges today.

“This implies that ... it’s the seasonality now found in the modern tropics, not where the climate is situated globally, that affects this biodiversity pattern,” said Archibald in a press release. “Sometimes it helps to look to the ancient past to better understand how things work today.”

Mathewes said their research will fit into discussions about the effects of climate change and global warming.

“It’s an opportunity to look at how a rapid warming affect does affect plant and animal species.”

Their work is still relatively new, and may be questioned and challenged by other biologists.

“So far I haven’t heard any complaints,” he said. “It’s an interesting set of data. It will still take years to work through it all.”

Mathewes was a charter student when SFU opened in 1965, and is an expert in pollen analysis. He spent 11 years as the university’s associate dean of science, but has stepped down from that position.

Because of his occasional work helping police departments to identify where plant parts may have come from, he is sometimes known on campus as the forensic botanist. He has been called upon to testify during murder trials.

At 66 years of age, the professor is not considering retirement.

“As long as I’m keen and enjoying it, why retire?”

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