Student helps discover ancient Amazon River Dolphins used to swim off the coast of B.C.


This Week in History:

The Royal BC Museum is known for its exciting exhibits, but behind the scenes, there is endless amounts of research happening. In addition to museum staff, post-secondary students often help with the research.

Former UVic student, Elizabeth Rohlicek was one of those students. To her surprise, she helped make several discoveries alongside her mentor Dr. Victoria Arbour, Curator of Palaeontology.

“It kind of just started with ‘Here’s a handful of fossils’ and then a few months later, Victoria said, ‘I have some more fossils. Do you wanna look at those?'” Rohlicek said.

Before long, Rohlicek helped discover just how diverse the waters off the ancient coast were.

“I was able to identify three different kinds of whales that were swimming around Vancouver Island, about 23 million years ago which is kind of a big deal because we don’t really know very much about the whales that were off of the coast at that time,” Rohlicek said.

She helped solidify that the whale population then, was far more diverse than it is now.

The fossils Rohlicek and Arbour studied are from the RBCM collection. Many of the bones were found on the west coast of Vancouver Island from Tofino to Shirley.

Rohlicek picks up a bumpy neck bone, “These knobs here on this Atlas bone is a distinctive feature of the ancient River Dolphin.”

With the help of other researchers, she was able to help identify that an ancestor of the Amazon River Dolphin swam off the ancient Westcoast, something which had never been documented before.

“It’s kind of crazy to think that the Amazon River Dolphins that are swimming in the freshwater rivers of the Amazon, their ancestors, were swimming around in the north Pacific off of Vancouver Island.”

Dr. Victoria Arbour was impressed with her student’s efforts, “I’m just so thrilled that Elizabeth was willing to take on these specimens. These are definitely challenging fossils to be working on.”  Arbour says most of the bones were just small broken fragments.

Rohlicek says her discoveries were only made possible by citizen scientists.

“All of these fossils were actually donated to the museum by people who go out and their hobby is to look for fossils.”

Many enthusiasts find fossils at Muir Creek and Kirby Creek just west of Sooke.

“Without those people donating, we wouldn’t have access to these fossils and I wouldn’t have kind of moved on with this project like I was able to,” Rohlicek said.

Rohlicek is currently drafting her research with hopes it will be published in a scientific journal soon.

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