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‘Strange and mysterious’

New study confirms Newfoundland as home to world's oldest animal fossils


By Kelly Foss

The island of Newfoundland is famously known as “The Rock”, but new research reveals that it is the fossils from “The Rock” that are capturing the attention of scientists worldwide.

Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve
Photo: Jack Matthews

An international research team, including geologists from Memorial, has concluded fossils from within the province are the world’s oldest evidence of animal life. The study focuses on the southern shore of the Avalon and Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016.

‘Go-to’ place to study

By painstakingly identifying, cataloguing, and sampling ancient volcanic ash horizons associated with the fossils, the group was able to reveal 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 Dr. 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.”

Mistaken Point’s Fractofusus misrai, named after the Memorial University graduate student who first discovered them.
Photo: Jack Matthews

The research team has managed to date six different horizons within the ecological reserve, showing that 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 thousand years.

“That’s not too bad when dating something over half a billion years old!” said Dr. Matthews.

Zircons were extracted from the rocks for analysis. The line across the image is a human hair, for scale.
Photo: Jack Matthews

Scientific understanding of what the Mistaken Point fossils were, and how they lived, has been developing quickly in recent years.

“Palaeontologists from all around the world increasingly agree that at least some of the Ediacaran fossils found at Mistaken Point, are animals,” said Dr. 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.”

Successful bid

“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 Dr. Matthews.

The rocky coastline between Trinity and Tickle Cove is has recently been successful in its bid to become 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.

The study is published in the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

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