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Preserving history

Earth Sciences grad students create record of Upper Island Cove fossils

By Kelly Foss

An aerial view of Upper Island Cove
An aerial view of Upper Island Cove and the small beach area where the fossils are located.
Photo: Submitted

For the past three years, a team of paleontologists in the Department of Earth Sciences, Faculty of Science, have been conducting geoconservation at one of the most unique fossil sites in the province.

“While more famous Ediacaran fossil locations, such as Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve and the Discovery UNESCO Global Geopark on the Bonavista Peninsula, have abundant fossils on preserved ancient seafloors, Upper Island Cove is unique in having 3D preservation of the fossils,” said Chris McKean, a PhD student under the supervision of Dr. Duncan McIlroy.

Mr. McKean has been making high quality casts of the entire fossil-bearing surface, allowing for the preservation of the fossil record even if the originals were to be destroyed or damaged.

Ongoing PhD project

The casts are part of his ongoing PhD project and, once the thesis study is complete, the casts will be housed in The Rooms.

“This is to make sure the fossils are accessible to researchers worldwide who can work from these casts at their leisure,” he said. “It will also avoid repetitive casting at the site and reduce the risk of looting in the future.”

A man kneeling in front of a plaster mold of a rock surface. The ocean is in the background.
Chris McKean prepares to lift one of the casts.
Photo: Submitted

The Upper Island Cove fossil locality was originally mapped by Dr. Art King, a retired professor from the Earth Sciences department.

Unlike most other Ediacaran fossil sites on the island of Newfoundland, the site is close to the road on a popular beach, overlooked by several homes.

“The popularity of the beach means that the fossils are affected by human activity – ranging from children playing, wedding and prom photos, barbecues and sunbathing directly on top of the fossiliferous surface,” said Mr. McKean.

A cast of a Bradgatia fossil
A cast of the Bradgatia fossil specimen.
Photo: Submitted

Fossils affected by human activity

Scientists from out of the province cut also specimens from the middle of the fossil surface in 2004.

“It was only due to lobbying by the town of Upper Island Cove that the fossils were eventually returned to The Rooms, with high quality replicas being placed in the Upper Island Cove Recreation Centre in 2016 by way of reparation,” he said. “However, the damage caused to the fossils by their removal led to the loss of important details and contextual information, which would have been useful in the study of these organisms.”

Aside from direct human impacts, the site also experiences strong coastal storms and erosion, adding to the urgent need to protect the fossils for the good of both the province and science.

Drone photography

In the course of his work, Mr. McKean has conducted drone photography to help map his casting project. Timelapse photography has recorded the usage of the site, as well as the impacts of waves and the frequency of freeze-thaw processes.

“Once the data has been fully processed it is hoped that understanding the diverse pressures on the site will inform future geoconservation efforts and protection,” he said.

A group of people washing the surface of a rock face.
Preparing the rock face.
Photo: Submitted

The Memorial team, which included Earth Sciences graduate students Hayley Fitzgerald, Giovanni Pasinetti, Jenna Neville, Daniel Pérez Pinedo and Jordyn Weddell, worked with the support of both the local council and citizens of Upper Island Cove.

George LeBlanc is a local resident and frequent visitor to the site.

“The group has included the community in everything,” he said. “They talk about what they are doing to whomever comes to speak with them, updating us on what they have accomplished, and take the time to explain it to those who do not fully understand. I have gained so much knowledge through my interactions with them.”

Geoheritage

A man holding a camera.
Mr. McKean adjusts one of the site cameras.
Photo: Submitted

Mr. McKean has found the community is very passionate about their geoheritage.

“They have helped pressure-wash algae from the surface before casting and are constantly vigilant for potential looters,” he said.  “The supply of baked goods and ice-cold water to our team was also most welcome.”

Community engagement is an integral part of geoconservation, says Dr. McIlroy.

“We have to remember the geoheritage we have belongs to the communities, and to do all we can to support them in its geoconservation.”


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