Trouble with pterosaurs
It may have breathed its last some 70 million years ago, but a small flying reptile is causing a big stir in Oceanside.
The remains of a fossil pterosaur, a flying reptile form the Cretacious period, sparked controversy this week when the person who discovered the fossil, Parksville resident Sharon Hubbard, cried foul over being ignored when it came time to give credit for the discovery.
Hubbard said she made the find in May of 2004 at Collishaw Point on Hornby Island while on a fossil hunting expedition with local amateur paleontologist Graham Beard.
Knowing she had something far more exciting than the ammonites and other marine fossils often found on Hornby, Hubbard took a photo of her discovery and then showed it to Beard.
Seeing the 50 teeth encased in the rock, Beard at first thought Hubbard had found a dinosaur. Equally excited, Beard sent the fossil to Dr. Philip Currie, who heads up the department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta.
That’s where things start to get murky.
The fossil was put into storage and then forgotten. It remained there for six years, until a PhD student, Victoria Arbour, took an interest.
Arbour was intrigued by the discovery and was eventually able to identify it as the remains of a pterosaur, a species of flying reptile, with a wing span of about three metres. She also identified it as an entirely new species, about 70 million years old.
Arbour wrote a scientific paper with Currie, which was published online in December.
The newly discovered creature was named Gwawinapterus beardi, which marries the Kwak’wala word for raven and Beard, for making the discovery.
That infuriated Hubbard, who was referred to in one news report only as “a woman on the Gulf Island.” She was given virtually no recognition at all for making the discovery — and she’s blaming Beard.
“He left me out totally,” she said. “I admired him and this is hugely disappointing. I should have been given credit for being the person who found it in the research paper. I would have been happy to have been co-named in it, but to be completely ignored, that’s just wrong.”
Beard is equally adamant however that he had absolutely nothing to do with the error.
“I had nothing to do with the publishing of the paper,” he said. “The first I heard of it was in the newspapers and on the Internet. She is right to be upset, but I don’t understand how, after she read the paper, that she could still blame me for all of this.”
Beard stressed he made a point of giving Hubbard credit whenever the subject of the fossil came up.
“Everyone I spoke to, I gave Sharon credit as the finder and I treated her with respect,” he said. “I had nothing to do with the naming of it or the fact she was not put down in the paper. Phil admits it was a mistake that was entirely his.”
Beard noted he already has several species named after him and he has little interest in having another.
Hubbard said she has been in contact with Dr. Currie, who apologized and promised to try to rectify the situation by adding an erratum to the paper, noting the name of the true discoverer.
The name can’t be changed however, to Hubbard’s preferred Hornbyensis humbardii under the conventions of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature.
“Other than the publishing of the error in the scientific paper, which they are going to do, I guess there’s nothing else that can be done,” Beard said. “I’m sorry she was left out of the paper, but it was entirely out of my control.”
Although bitter at being left out of the paleontological limelight, Hubbard said she has no intention of giving up on her fossil collecting, which she began as a youngster as she picked up rocks in a farm field in Alberta.
“I had to pick rocks in front of the tractor and, to make it bearable, I looked for fossils,” she said. “When I came here 13 years ago, I was on the west coast, hunting fossils, within two weeks. The opportunity for fossil hunting is huge here.”