Newfoundland's Mistaken Point is a snapshot of life 565 million years ago

Published on July 22, 2013

MISTAKEN POINT, Newfoundland - Surf pounds a rocky stretch of coastline in southeastern Newfoundland where frozen-in-time fossils offer a rare glimpse of sea life 565 million years ago.

The Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, a two-hour drive south of St. John's, is a treasure trove for paleontologists and global scientists still unlocking its mysteries. The six-square-kilometre site is billed as the best place in the world to see some of the earliest multi-celled life forms ever discovered.

"This is the place where life first got big," said Richard Thomas, who's leading efforts to have the reserve named a world heritage site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"This is where we see the first large, complex organisms in the geological record."

Life was composed of microbes for most of the estimated 4.5 billion years that Earth has existed, Thomas explained. The fossils of Mistaken Point are considered excellent examples of early multi-celled creatures that draw scientists and tourists from around the globe, he said.

"There's quite an argument about whether these were actually animals or some sort of evolutionary dead end because the vast majority of them don't have any relatives in the modern record."

What's clear is the vast array of imprints still visible on silt stone along the spectacular coastline where moose, rabbits, whales and seabirds may also be spotted. Mistaken Point is named for the deadly tendency of sailors to mistake it in heavy fog for Cape Race at the southeast tip of Newfoundland. Ships turning north too early would slam straight into massive rocks.

About 20 different species of fossils have been documented in the region.

They include: the Primocandelabrum, a rare disc shape with a stem and branches that resemble a candelabra; the Beothukis mistakensis, a detailed frond named for Newfoundland's aboriginal Beothuk peoples; and the Fractofusus misrai, a spindle-shaped fossil named for Indian geologist Shiva Balak Misra.

Misra first stumbled upon Mistaken Point's geological significance in 1967 as a graduate student at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

It's believed that the organisms lived deep in the ocean on the muddy sea floor when this part of Newfoundland was geographically closer to western Africa and South America, south of the Equator. Ash from the eruptions of nearby volcanoes smothered the life forms into the sea bed and has since been used to trace the fossils back 565 million years, Thomas said.

Today, those outlines can be viewed on vertical slabs of rock during four-kilometre guided hikes led daily from the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Centre in Portugal Cove South. Tourists used to be allowed to walk on a portion of the former sea bed wearing protective booties but access has been limited to safeguard the precious specimens.

Mistaken Point was established as a reserve in 1987. It was placed on Canada's tentative list of world heritage sites — a big step toward making the case for UNESCO status — in 2004. But there are concerns that recent provincial budget cuts trimming the reserve manager's job to six months from 12 could affect oversight of the fossils.

Assurance of adequate safeguards is critical in the complex process to win world heritage status, said Alison Woodley of the watchdog group Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

"There is a requirement that the (UN) world heritage committee needs to have confidence that the outstanding universal values, that a site would be designated for, would be protected in the long run."

Environment and Conservation Minister Tom Hedderson said the province is working closely with Parks Canada on the UNESCO bid and is prepared to review the management cutback at Mistaken Point.

"We're going to cover off on the human resources as needed," he said in an interview. "If it's (required) to demonstrate that we need full-time management and that sort of thing, we'll make sure it's in place."

Thomas said the reserve's history includes attempts by fossil pirates to steal samples using diamond saws.

"The local community has been very good about keeping an eye on the fossils in the past and hopefully we can get a full-time manager restored because the site absolutely deserves protection."

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If you go:

Daily guided hikes of Mistaken Point are free of charge from mid-May to mid-October. Call ahead to reserve a space: 709-438-1100.

The four-kilometre hike is rated easy but involves some hills and a stream crossing. Hiking boots and windproof jackets are recommended.

For information on the reserve:

http://www.newfoundlandlabrador.com/planyourtrip/Detail/11029333