Tumbler Ridge – The Home of the Rebellatrix, the Amazing Fossil Fish

Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation

Rebellatrix, by renowned artist Michael Skrepnick

The cover story of the May 2012 issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology features a sensational fossil fish discovery that emanated from the mountains of the Peace Region. The ensuing national and international media attention, complemented by a University of Alberta press release by the authors of this research, and CBC Radio interviews, once again places Tumbler Ridge favourably in the international spotlight.

The fish in question is a coelacanth. Such fish were thought to have gone extinct along with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, until a discovery off the coast of South Africa in 1938 led to the understanding that some coelacanths are still alive, and live deep in the Indian Ocean.

That fossil coelacanths are found on the mountain summits south of Tumbler Ridge has been known since 1947. What is new is the discovery of three specimens of a previously unknown type. Coelacanths were thought to have changed very little over the eons, and previously known coelacanths were typically well balanced but sluggish; good at waiting for and then lunging at their prey, but generally slow-moving. The new discovery is of a fish up to a metre long, streamlined with a forked tail (like a tuna) and therefore likely a fearsome fast-swimming predator of the Triassic seas 240 million years ago. The discovery has turned scientists’ understanding of coelacanths on its head.

The Rebellatrix paratype found by Maynard Bergh in the 1960s, and donated to the PRPRC by Roy Christie in 2004.

This coelacanth is not just a new species or a new genus; it is so unique it has been assigned a whole new family. Its name is Rebellatrix divaricerca, the “fork-tailed rebel fish.”

For the past eight seasons volunteers from the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation have led expeditions into the mountains south of Tumbler Ridge to look for and recover fish and marine reptile fossils of incredible beauty and importance. The result is that fifteen hundred such specimens are now accessioned in the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre (PRPRC), one of the largest such collections in the world.

Thanks to the efforts of these volunteers, and PRPRC palaeontologists Rich McCrea and Lisa Buckley, North American expert scientists began to take note of this burgeoning collection, and to visit. One such scientist was Andrew Wendruff of University of Alberta and currently of Ohio State University. He recognized the critical importance of these fish, and worked with fellow-palaeontologist Mark Wilson for the past four years to fully document this ground-breaking discovery, culminating in this month’s journal article.

Each of the three specimens (the holotype and two paratypes) has its own story. One was actually found in the 1960s in what is now Wapiti Lake Provincial Park by pilot Maynard Bergh. In turn he gave it to his good friend Roy Christie in Fort St John. It resided there in a basement for decades until the Christies heard of what the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation and PRPRC were trying to do for British Columbia’s heritage and fossils. The Christies journeyed to Tumbler Ridge in 2004 to donate the specimen. At some point in its history it had fragmented into a dozen pieces, and McCrea and Buckley patiently glued it back together. The Christies are now delighted that their donation has borne such rich dividends, and that the identity and importance of this treasured fish is now clear.

The holotype of Rebellatrix, discovered by Sheen Walkley in 2006.

The other two specimens were found on more recent TRMF trips into the mountains. The holotype is the most important. This near-complete fish of great beauty was found in 2006 by Sheena Walkley as part of an expedition by the Byren, Helm and Walkley families, in which hundred-pound  rock-filled backpacks were packed out of the mountains (yielding at least one hernia). The third specimen was found on a similar trip by Linda Helm in 2007, of a splendidly preserved forked tail, complete with its counterpart. This time an in-kind helicopter donation from CGG Veritas allowed it to be flown out.

The specimens are now back in Tumbler Ridge and are already on exhibit in the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery. A more comprehensive exhibit explaining their importance is being developed.

Chris Walker, who conducted the CBC interview with the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation, concluded by saying: “If you get a chance to go to the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery in Tumbler Ridge, there are great specimens and it’s really worthwhile  – I’ve been there and it’s fantastic… if you’re in Tumbler Ridge, be sure to visit it.” This type of welcome endorsement is good for the region and its economic diversification through tourism.

The second paratype of Rellatrix, discovered by Linda Helm in 2007.

This exciting discovery, yet another globally significant find from the Peace Region, underlines the value of the research program of the PRPRC. Without the research, the importance and nature of the fossil finds would not be understood. With it, the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery becomes a live entity, always with the promise of something new and fascinating on display.  

PRPRC Curator Rich McCrea indicates that more announcements and releases of an equally important nature can be expected over the next few months, one of which will be of cosmic significance. The Peace Region remains the epicentre of vertebrate palaeontology in British Columbia, and despite its name the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery is clearly about far more than dinosaurs.