“We were walking up the beach trying to find the world’s oldest animal fossils, and they were walking down the beach trying to save their town,” says Dr. Guy Narbonne of his first encounter with two women living near Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. Luckily for Narbonne, Dr. Jim Gehling, and residents Catherine (Kit) Ward and her friend, the answer lay in their timely meeting.
Mistaken Point contains the world’s oldest known Ediacaran fossil beds, holding over 10,000 fossils spread over 146 hectares along the sea coast that are readily visible to visitors and scientists alike. This superb and unique paleontological site has become Canada’s most recent UNESCO World Heritage Site, a designation decades in the making.
Hundreds of millions of years ago, volcanic explosions repeatedly covered thousands of soft-bodied organisms living on the deep-sea bottom, perfectly preserving the organisms exactly where they lived. This makes Mistaken Point unique because the fossils can be easily viewed and precisely dated. “Walking on the main surface at Mistaken Point is like swimming over a 565-million-year-old seabed ‒ it’s all there to see,” says Narbonne. This visual and historical significance gave Mistaken Point its basis for “Outstanding Universal Value” of “representing major stages of Earth's history, including the record of life, significant ongoing geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features.”
The nomination to UNESCO status will continue the positive trajectory in the community surrounding Mistaken Point, mainly in Portugal Cove South, that began with the fossils’ discovery by S.B. Misra in 1967. Narbonne, whose own research began there in 1998, has fostered a strong connection with this small and dedicated community.
The population, suffering from high unemployment rates after the 1997 cod moratorium, found new purpose through cooperating with Narbonne’s research into the Mistaken Point fossils. Today, Mistaken Point boasts permanent and summer staff both at the million-dollar Edge of Avalon Interpretive Centre and with the Newfoundland and Labrador Parks and Natural Areas Division. Portugal Cove South also has a team of volunteer “Fossil Guardians” who work with the Parks and Natural Areas Division to assist with the protection of Mistaken Point.
In return, the Mistaken Point community provided crucial information about the many fossil specimens. “Kit Ward’s son, Bradley, was the person who found the amazing fossil that was our breakthrough. Jim and I had found other specimens, but they weren’t quite good enough for our publication. The one that Bradley found, in a place we had never looked, was truly spectacular and we named the species ‘wardi’ in honour of the Ward family,” says Narbonne.
The community also proved its dedication to its fossil heritage in the famous attempted fossil heist in 1998. When international fossil thieves attempted to use a rocksaw to remove a fossil specimen, the community jumped into action. “When Kit Ward found out and spread the word, the townspeople barricaded the road and called the Mounties,” Narbonne explains. Now, when Narbonne takes international visitors to view the fossil beds, he leaves the story of the attempted heist to Kit herself for explanation.
Science Surfaces on the Seafloor
Before Narbonne’s investigation, there was a gap in the evolutionary timeline surrounding the shift from single-celled microscopic life to larger, more complex organisms. The fossils at Mistaken Point bridge this gap, showcasing the oldest large and biologically complex organisms on the planet. Dubbed an “Ediacaran Pompeii,” the volcanic ash covering these fossils preserved them perfectly on the seafloor. Their discovery led to the acknowledgment of a new period in geological history, the late Precambrian (now known as the “Ediacaran”), that is characterized by fossils of large, soft-bodied organisms that existed before the Cambrian explosion. The life at Mistaken Point lived in a dark, high-pressure environment hundreds of metres below sea level, from 580 to 560 million years ago. Most specimens are rangeomorphs, which were composed of simple fractal branching patterns that allowed them to reach up to a metre in length. These organisms developed shortly after a large increase in oxygen levels about three million years prior.
Narbonne and his Queen’s University team of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows have described, named and interpreted most of the fossil species at Mistaken Point and have extended the known age range of multicellular life by 15 million years. His discovery of these fossils led to important publications, including a 2004 cover story in Science and the most cited new paper in the geological sciences in 2007. Narbonne has also led large national and international site visits to Mistaken Point, including one for NASA, and has appeared in documentaries narrated by David Suzuki and Sir David Attenborough.
For Narbonne, the identification and naming of thousands of fossils at Mistaken Point has elevated his research enterprise to a whole new level. Entering his fourth decade of continuous NSERC funding and holding a Queen’s Research Chair, he is grateful to all players who have assisted him in research. None of Mistaken Point’s development would have been possible without the unique “interactions between the scientists, the local people, the Parks and Natural Areas division of the government, and the Newfoundland and Labrador government in general.”
Narbonne can now move into the next phase of exciting research at Mistaken Point. “We’ve named almost all the fossils,” he says, “and that gives us an opportunity to try and understand them better.” The UNESCO status will assist him in bringing more prestige and investment into Canadian paleontological research. “Nearly half of the twelve UNESCO pre-hominid fossil sites are in Canada, and they bespeak the incredible wealth of fossils of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ that Canada has,” Narbonne points out.
With UNESCO World Heritage Site status, Mistaken Point has secured its continued prominence in the world of paleontological research. The exposed fossil beds stretched out on the jagged coastline provide special insight into the first big soft-bodied organisms. “It’s the story of how all the little details are important,” Narbonne advises, “and you should never lose track of the big story that you’re trying to work out using them.”
What is a World Heritage Site?
A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a cultural or natural (or mixed) location deemed to hold “Outstanding Universal Value” to all of humanity, and should therefore be conscientiously protected and preserved.
Canada currently hosts 18 World Heritage Sites, ten of which are natural sites and four of which are in Newfoundland and Labrador. Mistaken Point is the first Precambrian fossil site anywhere in the world to receive World Heritage Site status, having met the appropriate criteria.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature evaluates all natural site applications and submits their recommendations to UNESCO, which announces its final decisions at its annual World Heritage Convention.