James MacEachern, Trace Fossil Detective    

James studies trace fossils and the rocks they are preserved in to help work out the kinds of environments that existed long ago. He looks for and studies the tracks, trails and burrows  left behind from animals living in their ancient environments.    

Click here for James's research website.

What got you into doing this research?

My grandparents Henry and Tillie Edelmayer were amateur fossil collectors. I loved dinosaurs and they would take me to interesting places to collect fossils with them. By the time I was 10, I knew that I wanted to study fossils and Earth history.  Trace fossils were just a logical outgrowth of that interest, as they are one of the most common fossils in marine rocks, but hardly anyone knows how to interpret them to understand ancient environments.

Why is this research important?

Trace fossils are unique as fossils, because they record the activity of animals while they were alive. The way they behave is a good indicator of the environment and the different kinds of stresses operating in the environment.  As a result, if one is interested in understanding the ancient depositional environments and how they have changed with time, trace fossils provide unique and valuable data.  From a practical, applied perspective, most oil and gas reservoirs and water aquifers are hosted in sedimentary rocks.  Trace fossils provide important information, helping geologists and engineers to develop more efficient exploration and development strategies.  

What do you love about it?

Well, what's not to love?  You look at amazing rocks with fantastic fabrics and amazing fossils and then you begin to think about the kinds of animals that lived in the environment, how they lived, and why things changed with time.  By looking at the rock, you can begin to visualize what the world looked like millions and hundreds of millions of years ago.  You can actually see how a particular organism millions of years ago responded to a major storm, or to a river flood, or to the activity of another animal.  You can pick up a piece of rock, look at the sedimentary structures and the trace fossils, the fabric the two produced and say "This was deposited in a high-energy beach, just like what we see today at Tofino", or "This was deposited on a sandy tidal flat kind of like Boundary Bay". People are always amazed that so much can be understood just from a piece of rock".  As they say - Saxa loquuntur (rocks speak), but in a language that must be deciphered!

Any other stories?

“Well, I remember that when I was about 12, I realized that my grandpa always seemed to know where to look to find the best fossils. We would struggle up the hill slopes in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan, where my grandfather would select a sedimentary layer that he would say "looks just right".  I never could tell how HE could tell; the ones he selected always seemed to look about the same as the others.  However, he'd take his hand trowel and dig into the layer, turning up the sediment to dry in the sun.  I found that it was pretty profitable from my own collecting to wait about 5 minutes and then follow behind him picking up the nice fossils. I don't think he realized what I was up to, because later that day he looked back behind him and saw me pilfering his exposed fossils.  With a HUGE laugh and a smile in his eyes, he declared "You little rotter; so THAT'S why I haven't been turning up any good fossils today".  We spent the next decade laughing about that day!  And from then on, he kept a close eye on where I was prospecting for fossils!”

Moving or feeding trails left by animals in muddy or sandy seabeds.