Fossil Friday #5 – Parker Ridge: Columbia Icefield Parkway

I’ve been on the go for most of August, with outreach commitments, holidays, and field work in the States, so I’ve missed a few Fossil Fridays.  But even while on holidays, I was documenting some neat stuff that I discovered.

Our family went on a road trip through the Canadian Rockies (which I highly recommend), starting in Edmonton, then out the Jasper, down through the Columbia Icefields and Icefields Parkway, through Lake Louise, Banff, and Canmore, and ending in Cochrane.  We had a blast, and spent most of our time hiking mountain trails (I’m hugely proud of both of my parents for keeping up with my sister, husband, and myself).  As Canadians, we sometimes forget the amazing places we can holiday right in our own backyard.  Not to mention, there are incredible geologic features everywhere in the Rockies…

At the top of Whilsters Mountain, Jasper, AB

One of my favourite hikes was Parker Ridge Trail (Banff National Park), just a few kilometres south of the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre (which, by the way, has a really awesome little hotel).  The trail itself was about a 5 km round trip, with switchbacks up to the top of Parker Ridge, and then a couple of trails to explore along the top of the ridge.  You are rewarded at the top with some pretty spectacular views, including Mount Athabasca to the North, and the Saskatchewan Glacier and valley.

Map of the Icefield Parkway and the first part of Parker Ridge Trail. Image credit:
parker ridge pano
View from the top of Parker Ridge (Saskatchewan Glacier and mouth of the North Saskatchewan River).

I had been on the hunt for good fossils the entire trip, but despite visiting units that I knew were fossiliferous, I had come up mostly empty handed (except for a few really scrappy gastropods).  Within a few hundred metres of starting out on Parker Ridge Trail, I finally started seeing fossils.  Lots of them.  Most were a type of branching rugose coral of the family Phillipsasteidae (likely Thamnophyllum), with a smattering of another group of corals called favositids (I think maybe Thamnopora and/or Alveolites).  There was also the occasional gastropod (snail).

Typical rugosan corals (likely Thamnophyllum)
massive coral
Another “massive” rugose coral.
A different branching coral (maybe a favositid?)
Some cut-through (transverse) views of gastropods.

From the look of the rock (limestone), and types of corals, I was pretty sure we were in the Devonian (who would have thought that fieldwork and grad school would pay off in accurate hunches!).  And so began my hunt for the one type of fossil that would convince me of the age of the rock: atrypide brachiopods.  If you’ve been reading my blog, you might remember that I did my undergrad and master’s theses on atrypide brachiopods (check out my post on brachiopods, and another on my favourite little fossil, the Champ).

We were about two thirds of the way back down, and in a hurry because it had started to rain, when I basically tripped over them.  Two little atrypide brachs, which I’m pretty sure were Desquamatia (Independatrypa) independensis (and when I say pretty sure, I will admit that I might be totally wrong about the coral IDs, but just trust me that I’m one of about 10 people that can ID atrypide brachiopods, because they are really darn hard to ID).

Finally!  Some brachiopods!  (Desquamatia (Independatrypa) independensis)

Given all of the fossils, the rock would be from the Upper Devonian (Frasnian), making the formation about 380 – 370 million years old.  I later looked up some AGS maps and other papers to confirm (see references below).  Bascially, Parker Ridge Trail is great for fossil and hiking enthusiasts alike, and you should add it to your list of spots to visit.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It is illegal to remove or damage rocks or fossils in Canada’s national parks, so you can look, but not take.

Rocks, glaciers, and fossils = happy vacationing palaeontologist


McLean, R. 2005. Phillipsastreid corals from the Frasnian (Upper Devonian) of Western Canada: taxonomy and biostratigraphic significance. National Resource Council of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

Pana, D.I. and Elgr, R., comp 2013. Geology of the Alberta Rocky Mountains and Foothills. Energy Resources Conservation Board, ERCB/AGS Map 560, scale 1:500 000.

Smith, S. 1945. Upper Devonian corals of the Mackenzie River region Canada. Geological Society of America Special Papers. 59:1-121.



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