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Text: "Puijila" in Inuktitut. Puijila: A Prehistoric Walking Seal. Photo collage: Scheuchzer's cotton-grass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri), the research team at work in the field, a reconstruction of the Puijila darwini fossil, an ejector block in the Haughton Crater, two palaeontologists shaking a dry screen.
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Home > In the Field > The Story of the Discovery

The Story of the Discovery

Image 2) Map of northern North America, with Devon Island, Nunavut, Canada, marked.

It had been an uneventful day in 2007 for the field team on Devon Island, who were heading back to camp on their all-terrain vehicle when all of a sudden the back tires sank into the mud!

Image 1) Liz Ross with one leg sunk in mud to the knee, and the ATV sunk to its axle.

Liz Ross and that phenomenal mud!











When Liz pushed on the throttle in an attempt to move forward, the engine sputtered to a stop. The gas gauge was broken and it seemed that nobody had checked the gas tank at the beginning of the day and they were now stranded several kilometres from camp. Natalia and Martin offered to walk back to camp and get a can of gas, while Mary and Liz waited with the ATV.

Image 3) Natalia Rybczynski, Liz Ross and Mary Dawson digging in the ground.

Natalia Rybczynski, Liz Ross and Mary Dawson (left to right), excavating the Puijila fossil.

Mary and Liz decided to take advantage of the time they had on their hands by searching a nearby outcrop in hopes of one last discovery for the day. To Liz's surprise, as she was scuffing her toes in the dirt out of frustration for not having filled the gas tank, she unearthed a shiny black bone.

When she picked up the bone, the unconsolidated matrix fell away and revealed what was later determined to be the top end of a tibia (a lower leg bone). Liz jumped up in excitement and called Mary over. The two unearthed many more pieces of bone in the immediate area, including vertebrae, toe bones and a portion of the skull.

Image 4) Fingers holding a thumb-length bone. Puijila darwini, collection number NUFV405.

2007: Mary inspects the first Puijila bone discovered—the top of a tibia (lower leg bone). The rest of the bone was recovered in 2009.

When Natalia and Martin returned they were surprised to find Mary and Liz on their hands and knees with an ever-growing pile of bones beside them. Over the next couple of hours and several days, the team searched a 1.5 m by 5 m area and screened approximately 250 kilograms of matrix.

Image 5) Natalia Rybczynski, Liz Ross.

Natalia and Liz, sorting the results of some wet screening.

The first evening after the discovery was the most exciting for the team because it was only when they started to piece the bones together and look at the teeth more closely that they realized they had found something entirely new. As the days passed, and more bones of this single individual came out of the screen-washing, their excitement grew when they recognized that this was a swimming mammal of uncertain ancestry.

Image 6) Natalia Rybczynski holding the braincase of Puijila darwini (collection number NUFV405).

A delighted Natalia holds the braincase.

When the team departed on the Twin Otter plane two days later, they were looking forward to returning to the lab for a better look at the bones, but they were also starting to think about returning the next summer in hopes of finding any missing pieces of the skeleton.

Of the first day of the 2008 field season, the unexpected happened again: immediately upon arriving at the 2007 excavation site, Martin spotted a likely shape, picked up the palm-sized rock, handed it to Natalia and asked, "Is this anything?" Indeed it was! He had discovered the very thing they'd hoped to find: the braincase! Such is the nature of field palaeontology: making opportunities for luck to strike.


Image 9) Mary Dawson, Liz Ross, Natalia Rybczynski sitting around a table outside the kitchen/work tent.