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No Mistake

Queen’s researcher plays lead role in naming of newest UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has officially named Mistaken Point, Newfoundland, a World Heritage site.

Queen’s University professor Guy Narbonne has been studying the world’s oldest animal fossils at Mistaken Point since 1998 and played a major role as a primary author of the nomination dossier and as Chief Scientist representing Mistaken Point on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) site visit in October of 2015.

Reconstructing fossil preservation at Mistaken Point during a North American Paleontological Convention field trip. The people in this photograph are from five different countries on four different continents. (Supplied photo)

“Professor Narbonne’s work at Mistaken Point is not only first class science; it has helped significantly to revive the fortunes of the town by drawing global attention to it as an important heritage site,” says Daniel Woolf, Queen’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor.

Mistaken Point is the first Precambrian fossil site ever nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list.  There are a total of approximately one thousand UNESCO World Heritage Sites worldwide, of which 197 are natural sites and the rest are mainly cultural sites.

There are 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada, including both natural sites such as Canadian Rocky Mountains Parks and cultural sites such as Old Quebec City, and a further seven tentative sites (including Mistaken Point) awaiting either nomination or decision from UNESCO. The last Canadian site named was Red Bay Basque Whaling Station in 2013.

Mistaken Point represents a watershed in evolution "when life got big", the sudden appearance of large and complex creatures after three billion years of mostly microscopic evolution,” says Dr. Narbonne (Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering). “Volcanic eruptions 580 million years ago preserved surfaces covered with the fossils of the thousands of the soft-bodied creatures that were catastrophically covered by beds of volcanic ash on the deep sea floor.”

Two specimens of Charniodiscus spinosus (bottom left and top right) and two specimens of Charniodiscus procerus (centre). (Supplied photo) 

In addition to numerous scientific papers, Dr. Narbonne’s studies of Mistaken Point fossils have been featured in documentaries narrated by David Suzuki and Sir David Attenborough and formed the basis for numerous international field trips to Mistaken Point, including one that Dr. Narbonne led for the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

“Dr. Narbonne’s tireless efforts in securing this prestigious designation for Mistaken Point is a testament to his dedication to positioning Canada’s prominence in the world of paleontological research,” says Dr. Steven Liss, Queen's Vice-Principal (Research). “It is a prime example of what is possible when scientists, communities and governments work together to achieve a common good.”

Read more about Mistaken Point and the other World Heritage sites on the website.