A few months ago, ammolite was officially recognized as Alberta’s provincial gemstone. It was an appropriate choice, with a lot of discussion around the economic and cultural importance of ammolite to Albertans. But what about the animals that gave us this iridescent gemstone to begin with?
Ammonites are a type of cephalopod--the mollusk class that also contains squids, octopuses, and other tentacle-bearing creatures. They lived in shells and swam around in prehistoric oceans until the extinction that also killed most of the dinosaurs. In Alberta, most ammonites come from the Bearpaw Formation, a rock deposited when Western Interior Seaway--which divided North America at the time--rose and covered most of eastern Alberta. Ammonites thrived in this sea, which is why they’re commonly found and commercially mined to this day.
Fossils are technically rocks, and our provincial rock is an abundant one--petrified wood. Thanks to fossilized wood, leaves, pollen, and seeds we know about many different plant species that once grew here, many of which were conifers like modern redwoods. And while we don’t have a formally recognized prehistoric dinosaur yet, the Albertosaurus now appears on our driver’s licenses.
As for modern plants, our provincial tree is the lodgepole pine, which grows in dry areas of the foothills and mountains, as well as the western boreal forest. This tree grows fast, large, and straight, which made it useful for tipi poles. The lodgepole can also live for a long time, up to 200 years, so old trees that might still be alive today were saplings during the final years of the fur trade.
The prickly wild rose is our provincial flower. This common shrub grows in both prairie and forest areas, and its classic soft-pink flowers are hard to miss. The fleshy red fruits are rich in vitamin C and other medicinal perks, as Indigenous peoples have known for centuries. Don’t eat them raw, though- the seeds inside itch terribly on the way out (or so I’m told).
There’s our official grass species, the rough fescue. It’s a type of bunchgrass, meaning it grows in tufts in areas throughout the province. The Northern Fescue Natural Subregion east of Red Deer is a reliable place to see rough fescue.
Beneath the water, our provincial fish is the bull trout. This char species was once abundant, but anglers of the past saw this predator as competition for other sport fish. These days, the bull trout is protected in Alberta, found in mountain and foothill waters in the western part of the province. Other native char and trout can look similar, but you can tell a bull by the absence of dark spots on the dorsal fin.
Our provincial mammal, bighorn sheep, is an icon of our rugged high country. The spiraling horns of the rams used in headbutting competitions are always impressive. Sheep graze on grassy slopes and hang out by roadsides, especially when there’s salt on the asphalt to be licked. As a frequent visitor to Jasper National Park, I most often see them along Highway 16 northeast of town.
Our provincial bird is one few people see very often. The great horned owl lives just about anywhere trees and prey can be found, but with its cryptic colour and nocturnal habits, it can be hard to spot. Unlike other owl species that live deep in the forests, the great horned has been known to nest in wooded parks and old barns. Owls are very sensitive birds, and can become stressed from too much human attention--this tough bird enjoys having its space out in nature.
Nick Carter is a writer, photographer, and naturalist from Edmonton. You can see more examples of his work at naturenickphotography.com
Photo caption: The shell of an ammonite, which our new provincial gemstone comes from. It has tooth marks from a large marine reptile, a reminder that our natural symbols led interesting lives of their own. Photo by Nick Carter