History on N.L.'s doorstep: Studying fossils in Upper Island Cove

Upper Island Cove is home to fossils that will help scientists understand creatures over half a billion years old. (Submitted by Christopher McKean - image credit)
Upper Island Cove is home to fossils that will help scientists understand creatures over half a billion years old. (Submitted by Christopher McKean - image credit)

Newfoundland's Mistaken Point, Port Union and Gros Morne are known for fossils and geological studies. But tucked away in Conception Bay North, there's another site that could help scientists understand not only the island — but the entire planet.

On a beach in Upper Island Cove, PhD candidate Christopher McKean and his research team from Memorial University have been conducting field work for the last three years.

The fossils on that site, he said, are from the Ediacaran time period, which dates back to half a billion years ago.

"It's the oldest period in time where we actually have complex fossils that you can see with your own eyes in the fossil record. Before that, it's just small, microscopic, single-celled creatures."

Led by Duncan McIlroy, McKean's PhD research is focused on the site in Upper Island Cove. The site was discovered in 2004, but little work has been done there.

Submitted by Christopher McKean
Submitted by Christopher McKean

McKean, describing Newfoundland as a "geologist's playground," said the fossils found in the province are that of the first complex creatures found anywhere on the planet.

"You do find them globally, but here in Newfoundland in particular, it's the oldest of them. So the oldest of the oldest fossils found anywhere on planet Earth are found here, including the site at Upper Island Cove."

CBC/Jonny Hodder
CBC/Jonny Hodder

To put it into perspective, he said, the fossils are nearly three times older than the first dinosaurs.

"This is when we see the very first life forms taking that step to modern life."

McKean said the creatures were discovered in the 1950s, and to this day, exactly what they are is still up for debate.

"These animals, or potentially animals, are so unique, so different, that they've been suggested to be algae in the past, they've been suggested to be lichens, they've been suggested to be a different branch of evolutionary history that's not related to anything today."

The creatures are called the Ediacaran biota, a general term to use until they can be properly classified.

McKean said they are starting to think these creatures are either the oldest animals on Earth or their ancestors.

Unlike a dinosaur bone, Ediacaran fossils cannot be studied in a lab because they are preserved as impressions in rock, much like a footprint. The research group makes silicone casts of the fossils to study.

Research key to understanding evolution

McKean said the research is important in understanding the evolution of life, the history of the earth, and how life has diversified and changed over millennia, and the fossils are the starting point of that understanding.

Submitted by Christopher McKean
Submitted by Christopher McKean

Compared with specimens at Mistaken Point on the Avalon Peninsula, McKean said the fossils are about 10 million years younger in Upper Island Cove.

"But when we're looking at this time period, what's 10 million years between friends, right?" he said with a laugh.

He said the specimens at the Upper Island Cove site are similar species and similar composition. The main difference is the size: the fossils in Upper Island Cove are smaller.

"But with these ones as well, they are actually preserved in three dimensions, in Upper Island Cove. On the Bonavista Peninsula and at Mistaken Point, they tend to be a bit more 2D, a bit more flat."

With 3D preservation, McKean said, researchers are "getting evidence of the thing that created the impression, as well. And we don't see that anywhere else."

Geographically, said McKean, when the creatures from these impressions were alive, Newfoundland was situated south of the equator.

"At the time, the bit of Newfoundland that makes up these rocks was just off the coast of an island arc chain, which we refer to as Avalonia, named after the Avalon Peninsula."

A project like this comes with a lot of questions, said McKean, such as why are these fossils unique? Why are they preserved in three dimensions? Why are they smaller than the ones at Mistaken Point and Port Union?

"Are they truly the same as what we see elsewhere on the Avalon, or are they something completely unique? Are they something new to science?" he said.

He said the team has explanations for why the fossils look the way they do, and that research should be published this year.

The pride of Upper Island Cove

McKean also said working with the community of Upper Island Cove has added to the experience of his field work.

"People will say, 'Oh my word, I've had barbecues on top of this rock before' or 'I've taken pictures of my wedding on this rock.'

"When you tell them what they actually are and the importance of them, there's such a pride in the community. And having this piece of history just on their doorstep, we've found people in Upper Island Cove especially have been really proud of that."

As a part of the team's geoconservation efforts, they have also set up cameras to record weather and human interaction to help them better preserve the site for future generations.

He said future scientists will be able to study the silicone casts rather than the site itself, which will help preserve it.

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