What to do if you find a fossil on P.E.I.

·5 min read
Lisa Cormier was taking a stroll in Cape Egmont in August 2022 when she spotted something unusual partially buried on the shore. It was this 300-million-year-old fossil.  (Submitted by Laura MacNeill - image credit)
Lisa Cormier was taking a stroll in Cape Egmont in August 2022 when she spotted something unusual partially buried on the shore. It was this 300-million-year-old fossil. (Submitted by Laura MacNeill - image credit)

More people than ever before have been searching for and finding fossils on Prince Edward Island in the last few years.

That interest has been further sparked by teacher Lisa Cormier's discovery last month of an extremely rare fossil of what's believed to have been a reptile or a very close relative.

"Definitely, fossil finds are really increasing on P.E.I., especially by everyday people," says John Calder, the Nova Scotia-based geologist who's under contract to the P.E.I. government to help identify finds on the Island.

He is a geology professor at Saint Mary's University and the interim executive director of the Cliffs of Fundy UNESCO Geopark. He's also the author of Island at the Centre of the World: The Geological Heritage of Prince Edward Island.

"I'm really pleased that there's this boom of discovery on Prince Edward Island," he said, adding that inquiries from the public in recent years have grown from about five per year to five per week.

Think you've found a fossil?

If you think you have found a fossil on P.E.I., Calder said you should follow these steps:

  • Take photos of your find, including a common object such as a pen, a key or a loonie to show how comparatively big it is.

  • Note the exact location by using your smart phone to drop a Google Maps pin where you are standing.

  • Contact the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation at (782) 772-2796 or archaeology@gov.pe.ca. They will get in touch with Calder, who will respond to you. He may ask for more photos or come to see your find.

  • If the item you think is a fossil is located in P.E.I. National Park, call 1-877-852-3100.

"They're not always fossils. The thing to look for is an unusual pattern in the rocks," Calder said, noting the most common fossils found on the Island are footprints and parts of plants.

"Fossil footprints aren't common everywhere, but on P.E.I., it's becoming a really rich trove of footprints of early reptiles and amphibians," he said.

Randy McAndrew/CBC
Randy McAndrew/CBC

Of the hundreds of fossil finds reported each year on P.E.I., Calder said two or three are really special, and a few every month are noteworthy.

'One of the few places in the world' to study this period

"P.E.I. is going to become known as a real paleontological hot spot, whereas not long ago it was thought to be a place where there was nothing geological other than the sand dunes," he said.

"It is becoming known internationally with researchers, especially researchers in a field we call vertebrate paleontology — so these are fossils of things with backbones."

Given the province's rich repository of fossilized bones as well as footprints, he said he looks forward to the day the province hires its own paleontologist to help examine them.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

Back in 290 million BC, when the world's continents as we know them now conglomerated in a single super-continent known as Pangea, P.E.I. was right near the centre, at the equator. It was the Permian period, millions of years before dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

P.E.I.'s fossils are extraordinary, Calder said, in that they give us a peek at life forms during that crucial time — "a window on this chapter of evolution that is unique in Canada and one of the few places in the world."

Calder said the increasing discoveries are not only interesting and cool; they are also scientifically important.

"P.E.I. has this very amazing and unusual snapshot of life on our planet on land about 295 to 300 million years ago," he said.

What to look for

Not every find is unique or even important, Calder said — but it might be. That's why he encourages people to report all their finds.

You might come across something as lowly as fossilized worm trails, or boughs or bark from ancient conifers or ferns.

Laura MacNeil/Prehistoric Island Tours
Laura MacNeil/Prehistoric Island Tours

Fossils that Calder and his colleagues deem important, like Cormier's recent find, are excavated and stored. Those are museum-quality discoveries that could be one of a kind, or the best example of a certain thing.

"It could point out a new branch on the tree of life, in our understanding of the evolution of life going from reptiles ultimately to us," he said. "These are switches on the track on the evolution of life that occur at this time that P.E.I. represents.

"I'm getting goosebumps thinking about this."

The story of fossils on P.E.I. is just going to continue to get more important, more exciting and more beautiful.
— John Calder

Other fossils deemed less important should be reported and recorded, but  may usually be kept by those who found them. Calder still has the first fossil he found in N.S. when he was nine years old.

As more oceanside rock is exposed due to coastal erosion, P.E.I.'s prehistoric past is being revealed layer by layer, and Calder said most fossil finds are on beaches. Others have been found in farmers' fields, where unearthing pieces of petrified wood is common.

Some fossils are impossible to remove from where they're discovered but are still important to document, he said.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

Calder would like to see P.E.I. build a natural history museum to preserve, showcase and interpret its fossils. He thinks it would be a big draw for visitors given the growth in geotourism, in which people travel great distances to see natural wonders.

"We have a real story to be told," he said. "I'm excited and looking forward to what people at a higher pay grade than me will decide we're going to do with this great legacy we have on Prince Edward Island."