Fossil Coast’s Geo Travel guide series explores Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, Canada recognised as one of the World’s First 100 Geological Heritage Sites by the International Union of Geological Sciences.
Are you looking for some travel inspiration or a reason for your next adventure? Do you consider yourself a traveller who likes to go a bit further afield, maybe off the beaten track, or are you someone who enjoys visiting places for their geological and fossil heritage?
Among the “First 100, Geological Heritage Sites” published in October 2022 by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) are 17 locations around the world dedicated to the international importance of their fossil record.
Starting more than 580 million years ago with the emergence of multicellular organisms during the Ediacaran Period at Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, Canada.
Newfoundland and Labrador is the most easterly province of Canada. It is among the most incredible places to visit to see migrating humpback whales, birds, and dramatic coastlines of ancient rock formations. Newfoundland and Labrador have three National Parks, one National Park Reserve, and 18 wilderness and ecological reserves.
Among these reserves is Mistaken Point a wave-swept craggy coastline located within the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve on the south-eastern tip of the Avalon Peninsula between the towns of Portugal Cove South and Cape Race.
Named for being a natural navigational hazard for boats off Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula during often foggy conditions. The coastline of Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve was inscribed in 2016 as a World Heritage Site.
The 17km of Mistaken Point's tilted mudstone and sandstone coastline cliffs are deep marine in origin and date back to the Ediacaran Period between 580 - 560 million years ago.
The Mistaken Point Formation of Newfoundland and Labrador is best described as a Lagerstätte a German term referring to a sedimentary layer with well-preserved fossils of organic remains.
Interestingly, the Marconi Station at Cape Race was also the first land station to answer RMS Titanic’s distress call and radio operators attempted to help the stricken ship coordinate rescue efforts in the early morning hours of the 15th of April 1912 four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.
The best place to understand the local fossil record is at the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Centre approximately a 2-hour drive from St. John’s International Airport, roughly 160km south of St. John’s along Route NL-10 also known as The Irish Loop.
The Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve is owned and managed by the provincial Department of Environment and Conservation. The reserve is protected by both Canadian law and locals who are committed to preserving their paleontological heritage. Collecting fossils or making replicas in the Mistaken Point reserve is strictly prohibited without a permit. Guided walks to view the fossils are provided and highly recommended.
The Ediacaran Period
The Ediacaran Period is also referred to as the Vendian Period and is the uppermost division of the Proterozoic Eon of the Precambrian time and the last of the three periods of the Neoproterozoic Era.
The Ediacaran Period represents the start of the transition between the Proterozoic Eon, meaning “earlier life,” and the Phanerozoic meaning “visible life”.
Among the trace fossils are the imprints of deep-sea colonial communities of complex soft-bodied ancestral animals that could grow up to 2 meters in length known as Rangeomorphs.
These frond-shaped marine organisms had stemlike bodies that sprouted fractal-like branches and were first documented in 1967 by geologist S. B. Misra, a graduate student at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Rangeomorphs include the flat spindle-shaped Fractofusus including Fractofusus misrai with two vanes divided by a zig-zag commissure. Each vane was made up of a series of rectangular-shaped fractal-branching frondlets. These are shown clearly in the imprints.
The other Rangeomorphs included a Charniodiscus thought to be a stationary filter feeder that lived anchored to a sandy sea bed by a bulbous holdfast supporting a flexible stalk and series of fronds. Other anchored Rangeomorphs include the Bradgatia with radiating fronds and the Thectardis with its open, upright, and conical-shaped body.
Although most paleontologists regard Ediacaran Period fossils as metazoans there is also research suggesting that some or even all of these fossils may represent an extinct line of primitive plant-like organisms similar to algae or fungi.
The sediments of Mistaken Point have the longest continuous record of the oldest, diverse and preserved assemblages of Ediacaran megafossils and complex metazoan life anywhere and they predate by 40 million years the "Cambrian Explosion".
The fossil record of Rangeomorphs at Mistaken Point shows that they were suddenly and repeatedly buried and preserved in detail by multiple influxes of volcanic ash in an ancient ocean over a period of 20 million years.
Each of these events created bedding planes that provide a detailed snapshot of what the sea floor looked like at the time. These macroscopic animals continuously died where they lived.
The Cambrian Explosion
The Ediacaran – Cambrian boundary is dated at approximately 541 million years ago and sees the disappearance of Ediacaran organisms from the fossil record.
It can be argued that this was potentially the first mass extinction of multicellular complex life by the emergence of predatory Cambrian metazoan clades of animals with mineralised skeletons.
These new and diverse organisms evolved during a period known as the “Cambrian Explosion” when there was a favourable change in environmental conditions triggered by the “Great Unconformity”. This is a term coined by American geologist and pioneer seismologist called Clarence Dutton.
The "Great Unconformity" was the result of continental denudation by successive episodes of worldwide sea-level rise and fall overprinted or superimposed by multiple tectonic events of subsidence and uplift that obscured earlier geological characteristics.
This lowered the Earth’s surface and fundamentally changed both the seawater chemistry and atmospheric oxygen levels. This is believed to have been the environmental trigger for the ecological and taxonomic emergence, diversity, and radiation of Neoproterozoic animals.
Newfoundland’s natural beauty is considerable and the island is rarely busy or crowded. Mistaken Point is accessible from the capital of St Johns for those interested in taking a guided tour and experiencing the significance of Mistaken Point in the fossil record at a time "when life on Earth got big".