It was a hobby that went “berserk.”
That’s how David Langevin’s wife Linda Langevin describes the collection of 18,000 fossils her late husband and his colleague John Leahy discovered just outside Cache Creek, B.C.
The pair had met in a Kamloops-based rock club and travelled to McAbee Fossil Beds Heritage Site on an expedition. Now, almost two decades later, the 52-million-year-old specimens comprised of plants, insects and fish the pair painstakingly preserved have been donated to the Royal BC Museum.
“It took over the house, it took over the home, it took over the family, it took over them, but in a positive and good way,” Linda says of the pair’s dedication to the project.
“To crack open a plain old looking rock and see laying there a gorgeous bug or flower exposed for the first time in 50 million years – they just thought that was the most amazing thing,” she recalled.
McAbee, a provincial heritage site, is home to fossils from the early Eocene Epoch, making them some of the most important in the world for their diversity and quality, says Richard Hebda, curator emeritus at the Royal BC Museum.
Much of what they found had been preserved naturally, having been driven down to the bottom of an old lake bed, explains Hebda, who on occasion found himself scaling the site’s rock walls with Leahy – a teacher who died in 2015 – who was as fearless as he was enthusiastic.
“Collecting fossils with John was just a wonderful exercise,” Hebda says. “His eye was so fantastic. He could look right at a slab and see what was important that was there.”
|The late John Leahy, photographed against the McAbee Fossil Beds Heritage Site outside Cache Creek, B.C. Photo contributed|
The Eocene Epoch is characterized by how warm the planet was then and Hebda draws the conclusion that these specimens could provide a model for what might happen with global climate change going forward, one more reason the findings are so unique.
“It’s rare to have fossils in such numbers, so well preserved, and in such diversity,” he says, because the preservation has occurred at the cellular level.
A closer look at the fossils reveals the layers of hundreds of thousands of years of history.
“The site is like nowhere else on Earth,” Hebda says, and for that reason he and Leahy often discussed what the future would hold for both the fossils, and the site.
“As an institution we’re able to hold complex collections like that, especially with specimens that are going to be new to science,” says Hebda, who expects new species to be discovered from the fossils. “They need to be in a place where their access can be managed and their care can be carried out for centuries.”
Different people will come a hundred years from now and find different things, he adds.
|The late David Langevin holds the fagus langevenius, a fossil named for him, discovered at the McAbee Fossil Beds Heritage Site outside Cache Creek, B.C. Photo contributed|
In the 80’s, Langevin was “horrified” to learn a mining company from Alberta had dug up part of the site for kitty litter, Linda says. He and a friend went and staked a mineral claim; the action ended up ensuring the site was provincially protected.
Along with the tours Leahy would give to interested school groups and tourists, the former schoolteacher photographed and scanned his finds in detail, mailing the images to scientists across North America. Many scholarly paleontological papers were written as a result, relying upon both the samples and imagery that Leahy provided as a “citizen scientist.”
|Richard Hebda (right) of the Royal Bc Museum embraces Linda Langevin (left) whose late husband David Langevin uncovered 52 million-year-old-fossils donated to the RBCM Thursday. Kristyn Anthony/VICTORIA NEWS|
Two years after Leahy passed away, Hebda came to the family home to survey what had been collected, the scope of which blew him away, says Bernita Wienhold-Leahy, John’s widow. “He just shook his head and said, ‘I can’t believe the work he did.’”
“John and Dave’s passion was to share the McAbee site with school groups, scientists, anyone that would be interested in finding and discovering their own little piece of history,” she adds. “This is the natural place for them to be.”