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Simon Fraser University

Naturalist's gift keeps memory alive

Jul 30, 2002
A bee fossil dating back more than 50 million years is taking on new meaning for SFU biology professor Rolf Mathewes. His former high school biology teacher, Rene Savenye, gave the fossil to him.

Savenye, a well-known BC naturalist, was killed July 28 after he was struck by lightning while searching for fossils near Lake Louise, Alberta.

Savenye gained notoriety when he found the bee fossil in 1995 at Quilchena, near Merritt in southwestern BC. The Quilchena fossil site has been researched by Mathewes and his students for more than three decades.

"He knew the specimen was scientifically important, and that it would mean a lot to me," says Mathewes, adding Savenye helped shape his love of science. Savenye formerly taught at Princess Margaret secondary school in Surrey and was one of BC’s most acclaimed naturalists.

Mathewes began his work at Quilchena as a biology undergraduate student at SFU in 1969. His many visits to the area as both student and professor have resulted in more than 1,000 fossil specimens of plants, fish and insects, including several new species, and many first appearances in western North America.

A paper describing many fossil insects, including Savenyes’s bee, was published in 2000 in the Canadian Journal of Zoology by Mathewes and former SFU biology student Bruce Archibald.

Mathewes says the fossil’s age is still being studied, though it is estimated to be between 50 and 54 million years old. The bee is a previously undescribed species, and will ultimately be named using a Latinized version of Rene Savenye’s name, in honour of its collector.

A paper detailing the new species and its significance is currently being revised by a Russian scientist and Archibald, now a PhD student at Harvard, who knew Savenye well.

"We’ve been out many times fossil collecting together," says Archibald, who is spending the summer researching sites near Cache Creek for his thesis.

The fossil bee was at Harvard for study and has recently been returned to Mathewes, who keeps it in his research collection at SFU.

(digital photo available)

Rolf Mathewes, 604.291.4472;
Marianne Meadahl, Media & PR 604.291.4323

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