It isn’t every day a farmer is asked if a fossil can be named after him.
But that was exactly what staff from the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre were asking retired southern Manitoba farmer David Lumgair earlier this month.
Paleontologists had discovered a new species from a fossil found on his farm in 1978. They wanted to know if they might add ‘lumgairi’ to its name.
He readily agreed, but was modest about it and his contribution to the discovery. “Why and what for?” was his initial reaction, said Lumgair.
“A lot of other people had a lot more input into it than me,” he said. “I just happened to give consent into the digging of the bentonite.”
‘The bentonite’ is a site on his farm, now a quiet pasture, but once a bentonite mine where the absorbant clay was removed in the 1930s. For tens of millions of years, it has also been the final resting place of the fossilized remains of creatures that once swam across the Western Interior Seaway when that waterway intersected North America.
The fossil, Hesperornis lumgairi, is from an ancient flightless marine bird that lived in that environment. But it’s not the first to be found on Lumgair’s land west of Morden. This is where ‘Bruce’ the world’s largest sea predator, the mosasaur, was also found in the 1970s. Shortly after that a smaller mosasaur, now named ‘Suzy,’ was also found nearby.
Allowing digs on his land has significantly advanced scientists’ understanding of the Cretaceous period and the scientists wanted to recognize him for that, said staff at the CFDC.
“They wanted to name it lumgairi to pay tribute to the Lumgair family for helping them with their explorations and allowing excavations on his land,” Victoria Markstrom, field and collection manager at the CFDC said.
Hesperornis lumgairi’s 10-centimetre fossilized leg bone was initially thought to belong to a previously known species of Hesperornis, and after being unearthed in 1978, it wound up stored in a drawer at the discovery centre, she explains. Then two Japanese paleontologists Kei-ichi Aotsuka and Tamaki Sato visiting Manitoba in 2011 and for two successive summers after that did a much closer inspection of it. The scientists published their research this month in the scientific journal Cretaceous Research concluding that this fossil represents an entirely new species of Hesperornis.
“It was a diving bird during the Cretaceous period,” said Markstrom. “It was highly adapted for being in water and catching fish. It had teeth, and powerful back legs.
Paleontologists speculate it probably laid eggs on islands in the seaway and its ever-shifting coastline.
Lumgair never saw the fossil until recently. “I saw it just the other day,” he said.
But he vividly recalls when ‘Bruce,’ the 13-metre marine reptile that ended up in Guinness World Records, was being uncovered.
That was in the spring and Lumgair remembers being out seeding wheat that year, passing the site where the paleontologists were working. Finally, his curiosity piqued, he stopped the tractor and went to take a look. The site of the mosasaur’s jawbone in the earth sure made him stop and think, said Lumgair.
“To be looking at a fossil that represents life 80 million years ago and then saying, ‘hey I’ve got to get back to my seeding and thinking about how the crop that I’m seeding is going to be harvested in 90 or 100 days… it was quite ironic, if that’s the right word,” he said.
Sometime later, he and a couple of hired hands on the farm would take a dip in the same ravine after it filled up from a heavy rainstorm. “That’s when we said, ‘we’re swimming with Bruce,’” he says with a chuckle.
The now 82-year-old farmer says fossils found on his farm have given him much to think about over the years. He’s constantly reminded of the passage of time, he said. The farm has the beaches of Lake Agassiz of 8,000 years ago to the east, and evidence of life 80 million years ago on the other. The elderly farmer said he often wonders what the future holds for life on earth too.
“Fossils represent a life that became extinct,” says Lumgair. “If we don’t figure out how to live a life that’s favourable to the environment we will be accelerating our speed towards extinction as well. ”
Hesperornis lumgairi is now on display at the CFDC alongside its two resident mosasaurs.