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Backyard treasure

Hundreds of 560-million-year-old fossils discovered in Upper Island Cove garden

By Kelly Foss

A newly uncovered fossil site in Conception Bay North is one of the most exciting discoveries in the province since Mistaken Point.

“It was found by the Coombs family of Upper Island Cove in their own back garden,” said Dr. Duncan McIlroy, a professor of Earth Sciences in the Faculty of Science.

“They were looking to see where water was coming from after a storm, and perhaps redirect it into their vegetable garden. There was a small patch of rock surface exposed, about a foot square, near some uprooted trees and they recognized what was obviously a fossil on it.”

The couple posted a photo of the approximately 20-centimetre-long, feather-like frond to a Facebook group, Newfound Fossils.

A group of people wearing blue gloves pulling back the ground to reveal rock underneath.
The big reveal: pulling back the turf on June 9 in Upper Island Cove.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The site is run by Ben Rideout, who has been obsessed with fossils since he was a small child.

He was the first to recognize its potential importance — something he says he doesn’t “even have words for.”

“I’ve found other isolated sites with much smaller fossils, but nothing like this. It’s mind-blowing and truly a dream come true for me,” said Mr. Rideout. “I’d like to say thank you to the Coombs, because they didn’t have to post the picture. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t know this rare and significant site was here.”

Hear more from Mr. Rideout and what the discovery means to him and how his grand-parents got him started in fossil hunting in the video below.

‘New to science’

Last week, Mr. Rideout joined Dr. McIlroy and his students as they removed turf from approximately 10 square metres of rock surface, with permission from the family.

Almost every centimetre revealed another fossil, many causing excited shouting from those present.

“There are easily 1,000 fossils on the surface,” said Dr. McIlroy. “There are about five or six different types and at least three or four I don’t recognize. They are most likely new to science, which is pretty amazing.

“The rock surface is slightly younger than the famous Mistaken Point surface, but the density here is much greater and the preservation is really beautiful,” he continued. “The fossils are also in higher relief, so they stick up farther on the surface, and in many ways are more spectacular than Mistaken Point.”

The fossils date to the Ediacaran period, about 560 million years ago.

1/ Mistaken Point relative?

An undescribed 50-centimetre-long fossil with a basal disk and complex fractal branching that might be a relative of Beothukis mistakensis from Mistaken Point, N.L.

Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

2/ Frozen in time

One of the specimens that is in particularly high relief.

Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

3/ Charnia

The original charnia found by the Coombs family on what is now the Coombs' fossil site. Charnia was one of the first named Ediacaran fossils, first reported in Charnwood Forest in the U.K. in 1958. It has also been found in Australia and China.

Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Dr. McIlroy says most sites in Newfoundland and Labrador feature fossils that are approximately 4-5 centimetres wide.

The largest found at the Coombs’ surface, so far, is approximately one metre in length.

“Sites like this are not normal,” he said. “It’s not something you can go out and find at any time. There are only a few places in the world where you can see this density of fossils, or even a bedding plane as big as the one we exposed.”

The Coombs’ surface mainly features fossil impressions of the lower surface of organisms that were a bit like early animals.

Hear directly from Dr. McIlroy about the discovery’s scientific significance and details about the fossils themselves in the video below.

“They aren’t quite animals yet,” said Dr. McIlroy. “They don’t have muscles and can’t move around. They were just living there on the sea floor. Most are also aligned in a single direction because there would have been a current they were interacting with.”

But, he cautions, don’t expect more information about the fossils any time soon.

The team will spend the summer months uncovering more of the site, an estimated another 20-30 square metres. Then comes the creation of replicas of the surface, which will take time.

They will then study the replica in the lab, take photographs and write papers, an estimated 3-4 years of work.

More eyes needed

Because the find is on private land, Dr. McIlroy says eventually they will make the replica available for public viewing, possibly at The Rooms or in the community itself, if there’s an appropriate place.

A group of people wearing blue gloves standing over an exposed rock surface on an overcast day.
The Memorial University team, which included earth sciences students, discusses the best way to start uncovering the site with local fossil enthusiast and colleague Ben Rideout.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

He notes that inland fossil sites like the Upper Island Cove site are particularly rare finds, with most being found along the coast.

“The salt weathering exposes fossils quite nicely,” he said. “Inland everything is buried in moss, lichen and peat. What we need are a lot of eyes looking inland for special spots like this.”

His advice for amateur fossil hunters?

“Fossils will usually be found on a flat surface and you should be able to see layers of sediment, or sand, in the cross-section. If you find something interesting, post it to Newfound Fossils on Facebook, @munpaleobiology on Twitter or email me at dmcilroy@mun.ca.”

“Join the Facebook group, share pictures, ask questions,” added Mr. Rideout. “That’s what it’s all about. Eventually, something like this can happen, and it will happen again — someday. Just keep your eyes on the rocks.”

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