Even in the most intense pitched battles, moments of cooperation can occur. A prominent Alberta creationist found an outstanding fossil, and while he disagrees with scientists on its age by quite a few million years they've cooperated to safely retrieve and clean the discovery.
Edgar Nernberg's faith that the world is only a few thousand years old may be in contradiction to most of what we know about geology, biology and astronomy but he does the hard yards, looking out for fossils as he helps to dig basements while working for a Calgary excavation company. He writes frequently to the Calgary Sun, in which he is described as “the greatest promoter of creationism in Alberta”.
Most of Nernberg's finds have been fairly standard, including “clams, snails, leaf impressions and wood remains,” but recently he came across one that paleontologist Dr Darla Zelenitsky of the University of Calgary described as “10 out of 10 for significance.”
“Because complete fossils are relatively rare from this time period in Alberta, any such discoveries are significant as they shed light on the nature and diversity of animals that lived not long after the extinction of the dinosaurs,” says Zelenitsky. “These fossil fish are important because they are very primitive representatives of a large group of bony fish known today.”
The find led to four more at the same site. Alberta is rich in dinosaur fossils but has few rocks dating from the period shortly after their extinction, which could reveal the process of recovery, enhancing the value of these.
One of the other fossilized fish found at the site of Nernberg's discovery. Credit: Dr Darla Zelenitsky, University of Calgary.
Law relating to removing fossils varies by nation, state and province. “Picking fossils up from the ground surface, or surface collection, is allowed in Alberta only with landowner permission,” says Zelenitsky. “However, removing or excavation of fossils from the ground can only be done by a professional paleontologist with a permit.” Albertan fossils belong to the province, so finders cannot sell them to the highest bidder.
Nernberg's discoveries will go to the Royal Tyrrell Museum for cleaning and display. It is here that things get tricky. The Museum intends to include a plaque identifying the fish as 60 million years old, and placing them in the osteichthye family tree. Nernberg is on the board of the Big Valley Creationist Museum, which claims that dinosaurs co-inhabited the Earth with humans, and the fossils he found could not be more than 6000 years old.
Nernberg has expressed the hope that the Tyrrell Museum will provide a second plaque, giving his account of the find's origins, in keeping with his efforts to get creationism on the school curriculum. However, he is living up to Canadian stereotypes with the good-humored way he is going about it, laughing at the irony that his find will be used by the paleontologists with whom he argues to consolidate their evolutionary understanding,
The scientific side is being equally generous, with Zelenitsky telling the Calgary Sun, “Most people would have overlooked these – when these were uncovered, Edgar right away recognized them.”