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Half a billion years in the making

UNESCO Discovery Geopark created with support from Memorial researchers and students

By Kelly Foss

This past summer, the Bonavista Peninsula celebrated its first anniversary of achieving a UNESCO designation.

Edith Samson at the boardwalk that kicked off the development of the Geopark.

The Discovery UNESCO Global Geopark was built around recent discoveries by, and with support from, researchers and students from Memorial’s Department of Earth Sciences.

UNESCO Global Geoparks are “single, unified geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education, research and sustainable development.”

The Discovery Geopark covers an area of 1,150 square kilometres and includes 280 kilometres of coastline and landscapes. It is one of five geoparks in Canada, with eight more in the proposal stage.

The spark of an idea

Edith Samson has been the executive director of the Sir William Ford Coaker Heritage Foundation in Port Union for more than 20 years.

In 2005 the organization was building a boardwalk in the community when Sean O’Brien (B.Sc.(Hons.)’75, M.Sc.’79), a senior geologist with the Newfoundland and Labrador Geological Survey, expressed concern about the project.

“Sean came into my office wanting to know who was responsible for the boardwalk because there were Ediacaran fossils in the area and I had no idea what that was,” she said.

“So, he took me out there and showed them to me.”

Historically, it was believed the origin, evolution and spread of animals began during the Cambrian period, 541 million years ago. But the Bonavista fossils, as well as those found at Mistaken Point, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, date back to the earlier Ediacaran period, approximately 560 million years ago.

“In late 2006, Sean called back with an idea for a geopark,” she said. “He said if I could get a group together, he would come out and present what he knew about them.”

Dr. Hans Hofmann from McGill University, Mr. O’Brien and Art King from Memorial published a paper about the Bonavista fossils that Ms. Samson says drew other researchers to the area. These included Dr. Duncan McIlroy, an earth sciences professor, and Dr. Martin Brasier, his former supervisor at Oxford University and adjunct professor at Memorial, along with Oxford graduate students they were then co-supervising.

Haootia Quadriformis, a unique fossil found in the Bonavista area.
Photo: Submitted

In a 2007 trip to the area, the group found a brand new fossil, Haootia quadriformis, the first documented organism to possess muscle. It is now on display at The Rooms.

Their finding brought more attention to the region and got local residents seriously considering the opportunities that could be created through geotourism, geoconservation and geoeducation. But first, they needed to build community capacity, says Ms. Samson.

“Duncan and his students were able to help us expand local knowledge of the fossils and why they were important,” she said.

“They would do lectures and talks for us and that was an opportunity for them to share what they were doing here, as well as build knowledge and interest, not only with our community, but also with potential funding partners.”

‘Where life got on the go’

Ms. Samson says the relationship with Memorial over the years was also a major boost in achieving the official recognition.

“With Mistaken Point getting World Heritage status, Discovery Geopark needed to have its own identity,” said Dr. McIlroy. “Finding Haootia gave it a new and different story that propelled it to its own level. If Mistaken Point is where life got big, the Bonavista Peninsula is where life got on the go.”

Fossil viewing in Little Catalina.
Photo: Submitted

In terms of research, he says he, Dr. Brasier and their U.K. students did the early work. However, that’s changed in recent years.

“In the last five or six years I’ve built my own research group at Memorial and we have our own distinctive voice, particularly around the palaeobiology of the fossils and connection to community,” he said.

“In fact, when I interview students for positions with the group, one of the questions I ask is how they feel about interacting with local people in the communities, getting involved with them and supporting them. There’s very much a right answer for that.”

One of Dr. McIlroy’s former students, Dr. Jack Matthews, first started visiting the Bonavista region as an undergraduate student. Over the years he completed international courses on geoconservation, geoparks and geoheritage.

When Discovery underwent evaluation to determine if it fulfilled the criteria to become a UNESCO Global Geopark, Memorial alumni Amanda McCallum (B.Sc.’99, B.Ed. (Int/Sec)’00) of Discovery and Dr. Alana Hinchey (M.Sc.’02) of the Newfoundland and Labrador Geological Survey prepared and submitted the final dossier, after two years of work with the Discovery board and the communities within the geopark territory.

Dr. Matthews also worked with the communities and supported Discovery’s application process in a technical capacity.

“Jack interacted with the evaluators here and was on all the international calls with them while we were going through the whole process,” said Ms. Samson.

“He is now working with our sister geopark at Charnwood Forest in England and is jointly responsible for helping to create the United Nations International Geodiversity Day.”

Supporting regional efforts

Chris Mckean, centre, hosted an evening of paleontological crafting activities with a Port Union area Girl Guides group.
Photo: Submitted

This fall, Dr. McIlroy is receiving funding from Memorial’s GradSWEP program and Discovery to send his PhD students Chris Mckean, Daniel Perez Pinedo and Giovanni Pasinetti to the Port Union region to focus on geoeducation and supporting geoconservation and geotourism efforts.

“They’ve done trips with local tourism operators talking to them about local geology and they’ve run geoconservation trips for the board of Discovery so we can help them identify sites that are safe for people to visit — safe for the fossils, that is,” said Dr. McIlroy.

“They’ve also hosted talks and activities at schools and clubs across the region and are developing new material to supplement school curriculum with relevance to local geology and paleontology.”

Community connection

Memorial will continue to be involved as Discovery works towards building an interpretation centre and field station.

“We’re working on funding and once the centre is in place, we’ll be relying on Duncan and his students to help provide us with the story,” said Ms. Samson.

“It’s a place where they would be able to do their work, but also provide tours or do talks, so we would always have that community connection with Memorial, while supporting ongoing research interest in the area.”

Dr. McIlroy says that there is a lot of talk about science operating as an economic stimulus, but says it also goes the other way.

“There’s scientific stimulus coming direct to us from the community. These relationships feed each other, which is beautiful to see.”

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