Pavilion Lake: Glimpses of an Ancient Sea Floor

John S. Bird -Director of the Underwater Research Lab

Early in 1997 an underwater video filmed by a sport diver was given to a research associate in my laboratory (Underwater Research Lab) at Simon Fraser University. The underwater video, which was shot in a fresh water lake (Pavilion Lake in the interior of British Columbia), showed large fields of coral like growths. Intrigued by the images, we launched a small investigation to confirm their existence and bring back samples. It was clear to us that these growths were unique but we did not know at the time how unique.

We thought the growths in Pavilion Lake might be related to ancient stromatolites so we contacted Chris McKay and Sherry Cady at NASA Ames. McKay and Cady are exobiologists and their work includes studies of fossilized life forms found in ancient lake beds. It is hoped that these studies will shed light on the possibility that life existed at one time in ancient lakes on Mars. Specifically, if it can be shown that fossils similar to those found on earth exist in dry lake bed on Mars and these fossils are the result of life forms then it may be concluded that life once existed on Mars.

There is some scientific controversy with regard to the genesis of ancient lake-bed 'fossils'. If they are biogenic in origin then it is safe to conclude that there once was life where the fossils now reside. However, if the 'fossils' are not biogenic in origin (biological processes are not required) then no conclusion can be made about the presence or absence of former life.

Drs. McKay and Cady were extremely interested in the growths in Pavilion Lake because they might represent modern analogs to ancient dendritic reef structures and thereby yield some clues as to the origin of ancient stromatolites. Joint field work (URL and NASA) took place in September 1997, October 1998, and August 1999 and resulted in the cover story in NATURE (Oct. 5, 2000). The writing of the NATURE paper began with Bernard Laval, a research associate working for me, and was continued by NASA's Dr. Sherry Cady when Laval commenced his PhD. studies on an Australian International Postgraduate Scholarship. Dr. Cady is now with Portland State University where she is pulling together a team of NASA scientists (including Dr. McKay) and graduate students to study the genesis of the growths (now called microbialites) in Pavilion Lake.

Pavilion Lake is unique. What sets Pavilion Lake apart from other lakes with microbialites is that the Pavilion Lake microbialites have a resemblance to Epiphyton and Girvanella. These are Early Cambrian microbialites whose genesis is poorly understood because before the Pavilion Lake discovery there was no modern analog. As a result, there is international interest in the lake and therefore it would seem prudent that Canada have a hand in her exploration. The microbialites that grow along the walls of the lake are not the only feature of interest. There is a collection of interconnected mounds on a submerged ridge in the centre of the lake that should be investigated with regard to origin. There is an opportunity here to investigate the attributes of this unique lake and to make a contribution to establishing the possibility of life on Mars. Our previous research reveals the unique opportunities the Pavilion Lake ecosystem presents in elucidating microbialite morphogenesis and microbial calcification processes, and in improving our ability to interpret the fabrics of ancient carbonates.

We are looking for funds and support to continue research at Pavilion Lake, and encouraging visitors to this website to contact us with information that might lead to such research support.

Please note that Pavilion Lake is a protected ecosystem and permission is required to take samples or dive on the site.

Link to Pavilion Lake project site

More pictures of the lake floor and the directions to the site, click here.

Last updated: July 12, 2005