The head of Rosie comes home

Ancient walrus skeleton remains in Ottawa, but Qualicum Beach gets second best

Graham Beard shows off the resin cast of Rosie the Ice Age walrus at the Qualicum Beach museum.

Graham Beard shows off the resin cast of Rosie the Ice Age walrus at the Qualicum Beach museum.

Graham Beard had been expecting to see his old friend, Rosie, but  the sight that met his gaze last week at the Qualicum Beach Museum was not Rosie at all.

It was just her head.

“I was kind of surprised,” Beard, the museum’s paleontologist, said. “We were actually expecting a small replica of the entire skeleton, not a life-sized cast of her head.”

Rosie, the fossil of an ancient walrus, had been discovered in 1978 partially exposed in the mud near Qualicum Beach by the late Bill Waterhouse. Together with Beard and other local fossil fans, the nearly complete skeleton was carefully excavated over the next few weeks and taken to Beard’s private museum in his home, where it languished for several years.

“Dick Harrington, who is the Pleistocene paleontologist from the natural History Museum in Ottawa came by on a trip back from the Yukon and heard about the walrus and asked what I was going to do with it,” Beard said.

“I said it was too valuable to stay in my home and suggested it should go to the national museum.”

The fossilized remains were sent to Ottawa, where the fragments of the beast were painstakingly pieced together. Then Rosie was put in storage until Beard and his team convinced the museum to send her back to the Qualicum Beach museum on loan.

For the next 11 years the prehistoric walrus was a centerpiece for the museum’s ice age display, sharing top billing with the museum’s cave bear skeleton, dubbed Thunder.

“Eventually they said they wanted it back for a new Ice Age display and last year we shipped her back,” Beard said. “We really wanted to keep her and at one point we thought we would get her back on permanent loan, but that never came to fruition.”

Museum manager Netaja Waddell picks up the story at that point.

“I think they were feeling kind of guilty about taking Rosie,” she said. “They said they were going to send us a small display and we thought it was going to be a small scale model of Rosie, so when we opened up the crate, we were really surprised.”

Along with the resin cast of Rosie’s head and the professionally-mounted display case it came in was one piece of her original rib.

“That will probably have to go back at one point, because it’s part of the actual animal,” Beard said.

Although both Beard and Waddell would have been happier to have all of their old friend back, they said the new display actually has a few advantages over the full skeleton.

“It leaves us with more room for other displays,” Beard said. “As well, in the original they painted it all one colour and so you couldn’t tell what was bone and what was resin cast. In this one they left what had been the resin parts uncoloured, so you can see what was real bone and what was not. This way, we can explain about how when scientists are reconstructing an animal and they don’t get all of it, they use resin to fill in the missing parts. It’s a good  educational tool because you can talk about the reconstruction of fossils.”

Waddell, who was born in Quebec, had another reason to be pleased.

“The display has bilingual explanations on both sides,” she said.

Although the original walrus skeleton was insured for $35,000, Waddell said the cast is worth much less than that, noting as well that the Canadian Museum of Nature not only paid for the  cast, the mounting and the display, they also paid all the shipping to have the head sent to Qualicum Beach.

“We can’t complain about that at all,” she said.