Thursday, October 7, 2010

Risks and Rewards of the Fossil Hunt – Evolution of a Cautionary Tale

Last week, roofers began work on a house up the street.  They moved easily along the peaks and valleys of the roof, a dangerous dance to the staccato of nail guns and the steady hum of a compressor.  They also prompted the reflection that life carries risks, some activities decidedly riskier than others.

The risks of hunting for fossils?  It certainly doesn’t rank up there with such avocational activities as free-style mountain climbing, the sport of scaling mountainsides without ropes and the other tools used by climbers more concerned about gravity.  (Tragically, a week ago, a star of this world, Kurt Albert, lost his life in a fall.)  Still, the risks of the fossil hunt, though modest, are not zero.

When I first started hunting for fossils in a serious way, I heard a cautionary tale that was then making the rounds of the local amateur paleontology clubs.  An experienced collector here on the East Coast was digging into a hillside when the soil above him collapsed, burying and killing him.  Tellers of this tale highlighted that he was collecting in a quarry alone and without permission.  They made it clear that the risks of digging deeply into a hillside went almost without saying.  He was a good man, they noted in passing.

Over time I’ve heard several other such tales of dire events on the hunt for fossils.  Yes, these stories may be salutary if they change risky behavior, but the more I’ve thought about them, the more depressing I find them because, in the telling, these accounts typically leave the life led to that point as an afterthought.

And then I found a few items on the web about Rene Savenye.  Though his story might well have the ingredients of a cautionary tale (so it began in my eyes), the more I learned about him, the more his story reassured me, reaffirmed the value of the life led, putting the events of his passing into proper perspective.

Savenye, a retired high school science teacher in British Columbia, was the quintessential citizen-scientist, a man excelling at his many and widely varied scientific interests.  He was, among many other things, an environmentalist, a mycologist (studier of fungi) and, of course, a committed amateur paleontologist.  Savenye, over his lifetime, amassed a rich and extensive collection of fossils, gaining recognition for the 1995 find of what is the second oldest fossil of a bee on record (early Eocene epoch), and the first found in Canada.  (A nice piece on Savenye appears in the online Victoria travel guide.)

On July 26, 2002, the 63 year old Savenye, hiking alone near Lake Louise and on the hunt for fossils, was struck and killed by lightning.  [Later edit:  I relied on the stories I found on the web, but see comment below for the likelihood that he was not actually hunting fossils.]  As an obituary put it, "he left us exactly the way he would have wanted, wearing his hiking boots, on top of a mountain (Mount Fairview near Lake Louise)."  (From a tribute to Savenye by the Vancouver Mycological Society.)

But, no, this is not just a cautionary tale about the weather and mountain tops.  Rather, his is a story that continues to remind me of the life, not the death.  Among the legacies he left are a dedicated cadre of former students.  Over 3,000 fossil specimens, about a third of Savenye’s first-rate fossil collection, are now a valued part of the holdings of the Royal British Columbia Museum).  In Blackie Spit Park (Surrey, British Columbia) where he worked to remove invasive plant species, he is memorialized by the Savenye Environmentally Sensitive Area.  A monument to him there reads:
A man who cared, a man who shared.
And his name lives on in another way.  That early Eocene fossil bee?  It’s a new species named in early 2003 by M.S. Engel and S.B. Archibald as Halictus? savenyei.  (The Canadian Entomologist, January/February 2003, abstract .)  Bruce Archibald, one of the authors, kindly sent me a copy of the journal article.  Its warm acknowledgement to Rene Savenye is another apt memorial:

We are grateful to the late R. Savenye for the donation of the specimen reported herein.  Rene was a well-known and loved British Columbian naturalist and avid [a]vocational paleontologist.  He donated and loaned a number of significant fossil specimens for study.  One of us (SBA) spent many pleasurable days collecting fossils with Rene.  It is a great pleasure to name this species in his honour, and we are grateful that he learned of this before his passing.  This contribution is dedicated to his memory.


  1. Nice item, Tony.

    "On July 26, 2002, the 63 year old Savenye, hiking alone near Lake Louise and on the hunt for fossils, was struck and killed by lightning."

    A minor correction (hopefully not nit-picking). Yours is not the first report I've seen noting that Mr. Savenye was "on the hunt for fossils" when he was killed, a statement which has potential (however unwittingly) to taint Mr. Savenye's memory in some eyes.

    I have two reason for doubting the statement: 1) Mount Fairview is in Banff National Park, where collecting of anything (especially fossils) is illegal. I never knew Mr. Savenye (though I remember the event well, from news coverage), but from what I've heard of him, I believe he would have abhorred illegal collecting in a national park. And 2) the rocks on and around Mt. Fairview (a popular day-hike from Lake Louise; I've hiked to the summit several times myself, and highly recommend it) are Lower Cambrian quartzites and depressingly unfossiliferous. No, Mr. Savenye was not fossil hunting when he died, he was just enjoying a brisk hike and a damned fine view.

    Howard Allen (Calgary, AB)

  2. Howard: Thanks for the comment. No, it's not nit-picking. I certainly found several sources saying that Rene Savenye was on a fossil hunt when he died. But, actually, being wrong in that key fact expands on the theme of this posting in an interesting way. Not only do the cautionary tales forsake the person for the event, they may even get the very event wrong. Thanks. Tony

  3. The first few lines remind me of a roofer in Vancouver that I used to know. But as for Savenye I think he really did pursue what he loved to the very end. He accomplished much, and many will remember him.


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