Newfoundland might be Canada’s newest province, but it has the country’s oldest fossils.
Actually, not just the oldest in Canada, but in the entire world.
That’s the finding of an international research team, including geologists from Memorial University, which has concluded some fossils in the province are the world’s oldest evidence of animal life.
The study, which is published in the Geological Society of America Bulletin, focuses on the southern shore of the Avalon and Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016.
By painstakingly identifying, cataloguing and sampling ancient volcanic ash associated with the fossils, the group revealed in greater detail than ever before exactly when these first animals appeared and their rate of evolution.
“The oldest fossils in the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve are at least 574 million years old,” said Jack Matthews of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Memorial University, who led the study.
“This seals Newfoundland’s position as the go-to place worldwide to study the appearance and rise of animals during the geological period known as the Ediacaran.”
“We will now turn our attention the rocks of the Bonavista Peninsula to test whether the same patterns of early animal evolution can also be seen there."
The research team has managed to date six different volcanic ash horizons within the ecological reserve, showing the strange and mysterious organisms fossilized in Newfoundland’s coastline persisted for more than 10 million years. Analysis of the samples took place at the British Geological Survey, providing the highest precision ages yet for this region, with uncertainties of only 650,000 years.
“That’s not too bad when dating something over half a billion years old,” said Matthews.
Scientific understanding of what the Mistaken Point fossils were, and how they lived, has developed quickly in recent years.
“Paleontologists from all around the world increasingly agree that at least some of the Ediacaran fossils found at Mistaken Point are animals,” said Duncan McIlroy, a co-author on the project and a Memorial University professor of earth sciences. “This study shows that Newfoundland is home to the world’s oldest macroscopic fossils, and for the first time allows us to investigate how quickly they evolved.
“We see that the oldest fossils at Mistaken Point are simple, frond-shaped forms, but around 568 million years ago these were joined by a much broader array of organisms with more complex body shapes, including the oldest evidence for muscular locomotion.”
The team will look to another area of the province to see if the geology there reveals a similar story.
“We will now turn our attention the rocks of the Bonavista Peninsula to test whether the same patterns of early animal evolution can also be seen there,” added Matthews.
The rocky coastline between Trinity and Tickle Cove recently became the Discovery UNESCO Global Geopark, and rose to international prominence in 2014 when an exceptionally preserved muscular fossil animal known as Haootia was found near Port Union.