A discovery in the Big Muddy Badlands near Bengough has been making scientific headlines around the world, as it helps to answer some of the questions about insects at the time of the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs.  

For the first time, insect fossils in an amber deposit were found in Saskatchewan. The deposit, which is from around 67 million years ago, is helping to fill in a gap in the fossil record from around the extinction period, which came at the end of the Cretaceous period.  

“What makes it special is that it’s about a million years before the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs,” explained Dr. Ryan McKellar. He is the Curator of Paleontology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. “There’s about a 16 to 17 million year period where we don’t have many amber deposits, and unfortunately it straddles that extinction event, so we don’t really have a good idea what happened to insects around the time of the extinction, and this helps us get a little bit closer to that extinction event.” 

Amber is fossilized tree resin and is often found where ancient forests once stood. The location where the amber deposit was found was once a swampy redwood forest roughly a million years before the dinosaurs went extinct.  

While there was definitely excitement over finding the fossils in an amber deposit, there was even more excitement when compared to the fossil record, and another deposit recently located south of the border. 

“There’s another paper we’re working on, on amber from North Carolina which is about 77 million years old,” McKellar explained. “Basically, the stuff from North Carolina shows the last ants that are very characteristic of the Cretaceous, and then in the Big Muddy amber, we’re seeing groups of insects for ants and also wasps and flies, where they all belong to modern groups, so it’s sort of a final turnover, if you will, or a bit more of an extinction, and it’s not related to the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs.” 

Now, the work will begin on finding out how the insect extinction at the end of the Cretaceous happened, and if it would have played a role in other extinctions that happened around the same time. McKellar noted the changes in the insects 77 to 67 million years ago are a good indicator of bigger things that were happening, and how there could be parallels to problems happening today with insects, and how we depend on them in some instances.  

“Dinosaurs would have depended on them too, and at the same time this was happening for insects, I think what we’re actually seeing is the change from cone-bearing plants to plants that use flowers to reproduce,” McKellar elaborated. The change over from cone-bearing plants to flower-bearing plants near the end of the Cretaceous would have been a major ecological change and would have led to a chain of events.  

While McKellar thanked his team for the work, particularly students who work with the museum, he also thanked the residents of the area they are doing the research. 

“We’re really reliant on help from landowners, particularly ranchers in the areas that are involved, so it’s been a fun set of discoveries, but we really rely on the people in Saskatchewan to help us out with this stuff.” 

McKellar also pointed out where amber deposits are most commonly found, which means there could be more major discoveries coming in the southeast in the years to come.  

“Basically anywhere that you find coal, there’s a pretty good chance of finding amber, because the coal is the remains of ancient swamp deposits, and amber is really just the resin that was preserved alongside that wood.”