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The Coal Age Galapagos of Joggins Fossil Cliffs UNESCO World Heritage Site Canada

Updated: Dec 18, 2022

Fossil Coast’s Geo Travel blog explores The Joggins Fossil Cliffs UNESCO World Heritage Site inscribed in 2008 in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Fossil Exhibits from the Joggins Fossil Cliffs - Image by Ko Hon Chiu Vincent
Fossil Exhibits from the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, Nova Scotia, Canada - Image by Ko Hon Chiu Vincent

The Joggin Fossil Cliffs are often described as the “coal age Galápagos” due to their wealth of fossils dating back to the Carboniferous Period (354 - 290 million years ago) and over 100 million years before the Age of the Dinosaurs.

The Joggins Fossil Cliffs (45° 23' 15'' N 064° 02' 54'' W) is a 14.7 Km sedimentary coastal section along the coast of Nova Scotia in Canada (local map).

Jogging was first settled by the first nations people known as the Mi’kmaq. The Mi’kmaq were among the original inhabitants of the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. The traditional territory of the Mi'kmaq is made up of seven districts of which Joggins is within the Segepenegatig region.

Traditional territory of Mi’gma’gi - Image by Mikmaq
Traditional territory of Mi’gma’gi - Image by Mikmaq

The Mi'kmaq would have initially been attracted by the abundance of fish. It is believed that the name "Joggins" is probably derived from the Mi’kmaq word Chegoggin, which loosely translates as a “place of fish weirs”. In July 2022, the Mi'kmaq language was recognised as the first language of Nova Scotia.

The Joggins Fossil Cliffs are tilted as part of the Athol Syncline that formed at the same time as the Cumberland depocentre - a sedimentary basin where the maximum thickness of the rock exists.

The Cumberland depocentre in turn is part of the larger regional Maritimes Basin complex of Atlantic Canada and part of the shores of the Chignecto Bay and part of the Bay of Fundy.

In 2022 the Joggins Fossil Cliffs were named among the “First 100 Geological Heritage Sites” designated by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).

The best place to visit and understand the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, the local laws for fossil hunting on federal lands including the requirement to have a Heritage Research Permit from the Province of Nova Scotia, or take part in Fossil Day each October, is to contact or visit the Joggins Fossil Centre run by the Joggins Fossil Institute @JogginsFossils.

Canada has some spectacular landscapes in terms of size, beauty, and geodiversity. Many of these landscapes are found within many of Canada’s well-known National Parks such as Jasper, Yoho, and Thousand Islands.

Parks Canada manages over 200 protected places across the country including 12 of Canada’s 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Amid this variety of destinations are some lesser known treasures just waiting to be discovered.

The Joggins Fossil Cliffs UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nova Scotia definitely has a place among those treasures for having both interesting and internationally important paleontology.

Fossilised Rainforest Plant - Image by Ko Hon Chiu Vincent
Fossil Forest trunk - Image by Ko Hon Chiu Vincent

The Joggins Fossil Cliffs tells a story of a 15 million-year interval during a humid Pennsylvanian Subperiod (323.2 - 298.9 million years ago). The Pennsylvanian Subperiod was the second of two major subdivisions of the Carboniferous Period and more specifically the Late Carboniferous Period.

The first subdivision of the Carboniferous Period was the Mississippian Subperiod (358.9 to 323.2 million years ago).

Up until then shallow, warm, marine waters often flooded the continents but during the Mississippian Stage, the seas began to retreat in cycles of flooding and then drying of the land.

These cycles of retreat left continents with shallow-water limestone deposits especially in the Northern Hemisphere. The Mississippian Subperiod is also known for when the armoured fishes that first appeared in the Devonian became largely extinct.

Images of Joggins Fossil Cliffs by OUR PLACE The World Heritage Collection and N. S. Dept. of Tourism, Culture and Heritage

The Pennsylvanian Subperiod saw the continued uplift of continents and the creation of more terrestrial environments including widespread coal swamp forests.

Coal swamps forests are terrestrial ecosystems that often establish themselves on floodplains. In these environments the volume of plant biomass that dies and is deposited in the ground was greater than the volume of clastic sediments deposited.

Over time peat was produced when it was buried by successive sediment deposits and subjected to to increased pressure and temperature. The peats would become lithified and compacted into solid rock and coal. This layer in Nova Scotia is known as the Joggins Formation.

Recreation of a Carboniferous Coal Forest - Image by Selvanegra
Recreation of a Carboniferous Coal Forest - Image by Selvanegra

Over 200 species of fossils have been discovered at the Joggins Fossil Site. The biodiversty found in the fossil record indicates the existence of a comprehensive food web. This is where each living organism within the swamp from different trophic levels in an ecosystem were themselves part of multiple food chains through which energy and nutrients would pass along.

The fossil record of the Joggins Fossil Site shows a number of phyla of animals, vascular plants, protozoans namely foraminifera; the earliest known reptile called Hylonomus lyelli (meaning "forest dweller"); the earliest-known land snail called Dendropupa vetusta; trace evidence of trackways left by one of the largest terrestrial invertebrates called Arthropleura (meaning "jointed ribs") a giant millipede that could grow up to two meters; and tetrapods including amphibians including the extinct groups of the microsaurs ("small lizards") and the larger labyrinthodonts ("maze toothed").

The Joggins Fossil Site is also notably famous for its “fossil forests” or fossilised lycopsid and cordaite trees that still stand within the rock where they grew. These trees are of particular interest because they are preserved in situ and commonly contain the remains of other organisms known as tree-hollow fauna.


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