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First animals

Science researchers featured on The Nature of Things on Oct. 25

Research

By Kelly Foss

A pair of Faculty of Science researchers will appear in this week’s episode of The Nature of Things.

Show host Dr. Maydianne Andrade, University of Toronto, looks at Edicaran fossils at Mistaken Point, with Dr. Duncan McIlroy and Dr. Suzanne DuFour of Memorial University. Mike Grippo captures the moment in his socks – the fossil beds are 560 million years old, but remain delicate, so shoes are not permitted at the site.
Show host Dr. Maydianne Andrade, University of Toronto, looks at Edicaran fossils at Mistaken Point, with Dr. Duncan McIlroy and Dr. Suzanne Dufour of Memorial University. Mike Grippo captures the moment in his socks – the fossil beds are 560 million years old, but remain delicate, so shoes are not permitted at the site.
Photo: Andrew Gregg/Red Trillium Films Inc.

The episode, which airs Friday, Oct. 25, on CBC Television, is titled First Animals. 

It centres primarily on the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia.

There, scientists from the Royal Ontario Museum are uncovering hundreds of new fossils every day from the Cambrian era – nearly 540 million years ago – when complex animals suddenly began appearing in the fossil record.

Haootia fossil on display at The Rooms in St. John’s, N.L.
Haootia fossil on display at The Rooms in St. John’s, N.L.
Photo: Andrew Gregg/Red Trillium Films Inc.

N.L. connection

Dr. Suzanne Dufour, Department of Biology, and Dr. Duncan McIlroy, Department of Earth Sciences and the Bonne Bay Marine Station, are known for their work on an even earlier time, the Ediacaran era.

They were first contacted about appearing in the episode in 2018. Filming for their part took place in the fall of that year.

“They were here for a few days and we took them to Mistaken Point, where the crew filmed for part of a day,” said Dr. Dufour. “They also did some filming with us at The Rooms and here at Memorial, as well.”

Dr. Maydianne Andrade and Dr. Suzanne DuFour in a biology lab at Memorial University.
From left are Dr. Maydianne Andrade and Dr. Suzanne Dufour in a biology lab at Memorial University.
Photo: Andrew Gregg/Red Trillium Films Inc.

The cliffs at Mistaken Point at Cape Race on the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula hold the oldest record of large fossils anywhere, predating those from the Cambrian Explosion by more than 40 million years.

“We’ve been putting together the story of the Mistaken Point fossils, namely, what were the giant fossils found there, were they plants or animals, and why were they so large?” said Dr. McIlroy. “But they also wanted to know about the Haootia quadriformis, the oldest known animal fossil, which was found right here in Newfoundland.”

Haootia is the first documented organism to possess muscles, and the holotype, or first discovered physical example of the animal, is currently housed at The Rooms.

A modern analogue of the now extinct Haootia is the stalked jellyfish, which closely resemble their ancient ancestors.

Stalked jellyfish in a glass container
Stalked jellyfish
Photo: Andrew Gregg/Red Trillium Films Inc.

“Divers from the Ocean Sciences Centre collected some live specimens of the stalked jellyfish for us and we took them back to the lab,” said Dr. Dufour. “They were alive in the tanks and moving around, which kind of brought the fossil to life for the filmmakers.”

Screening at The Rooms

Dr. McIlroy has been doing reconstructions based on the Haootia holotype, and will share that work, and talk about his ongoing research, at a question period following a screening of The Nature of Things episode at The Rooms on Saturday.

“I’ve also got some news about the Haootia I’m going to reveal then,” he said. “This research isn’t finished. It’s ongoing and discoveries are still being made.”

The screening will take place on Saturday, Oct. 26, at 3 p.m. Dr. McIlroy will join paleontologist Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron from the Royal Ontario Museum to discuss the making of the documentary and to talk about his discoveries.


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