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A Visit to Mistaken Point, Newfoundland.

Paul Gosselin 2009

This summer I had an opportunity to visit the fossil site at Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, a bit south of the capital St-Johns. Fossils were first discovered at this site in 1967, by Shiva Balak Misra, an Indian graduate student (1966 - 69) at Newfoundland's Memorial University. What he found were impressions of many soft-bodied organisms on the surface of large rock slabs in the Conception Group of Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland near Cape Race, at a place called Mistaken Point. The fossils apparently come from a marine environment and are classified as "late Precambrian". They are considered of the same age as the famous fossils of the Ediacara Hills in southern Australia which means they would have lived about 500 million years ago in the standard geological timescale.

The name Mistaken Point apparently comes from past shipwreck events in the area due to sailors mistakening this point for another. Ouch! I can understand that. We visited the area on a VERY foggy day in August. Had to drive the car with the night lights on just to be sure someone didn't run into us. Sailing around in a boat in the fog near such rocky points isn't exactly my idea of fun.

The nearest place is the town of Portugal Cove South, on Cape Race, which has a tourist information centre with fossil displays and videos. Mistaken Point has even been the subject of a The Nature of Things/CBC documentary with David Suzuki. If one wants to visit the site, it has to be done with a guided tour based at the Cape Race tourist centre. I believe, in the summer they have one tour per day (afternoons). In our case about 20 people did the tour. About 7-8 cars followed the guide's 4X4 (in the fog) to the trailhead. One of the cars had a flat tire from driving on the rough gravel road we had to take. We then had a 40 minute hike to the site, which is basically big slabs of rock perched just over the sea.

On the hike to the site we noticed cow-pies. Local farmers use the area as pasture. That gave me a chance to crack some jokes to my kids about second hand Nutella... Being an annoying dad is a full-time job after all. At one point we encountered a lonely one year old bull. He decided to camp out on the trail we were using just to see what would happen. Some in the group wanted to push the bull off the trail, but that idea might not have had a happy ending so I decided to walk off the trail a bit to get around the bull. Most followed and the bull was soon left alone wondering : "Hey, where did everyone go?" He finally decided to go back to chewing grass and keeping an eye on the cows which was fine with us. The weather did not clear up, but then again it could have rained. Some places we went through were pretty water logged. It was a pleasant hike. On the way back from the site one of my sons discovered some badly eroded fossils in a streambed not too far from the official fossil site.

When we arrived at the site, the guide told us to take off our hiking boots and running shoes and to put on the slippers the tourist centre provided. The idea is to protect the fossils from the wear and tear of dirty booted feet. I saw a subtle irony in getting tourists to wear slippers to protect an area that the sea mercilessly erodes all year round. The guide's assistant told me that, despite the rock slab which has the fossils being over 20 feet above sea, huge waves actually wash over them in winter storms. Oh well, it is a moneymaker for the region so I guess they have to do what they can to protect it. Too bad the sea doesn't wear slippers... And no one seems to have taken into account the corrosive effects of human toe-jam on 500 million year old fossils. Oh well... But now that I think about it, perhaps the real objective is not to protect fossils, but in fact to drill into people's minds that they are walking on "sacred ground"...

Apparently, even after so many years the fossils don't have official names, but are classified as :

  1. Spindle-shaped forms
  2. Leaf-like forms
  3. Round forms (they look like cheap frozen pizzas)
  4. Radiating forms

Here is a diagram the guide supplied that gives a good idea of the kinds of fossils that can be seen at Mistaken Point:

And as is typical now, everyone had their digital cameras out, taking pics of the site and fossils. But I discovered afterwards that on a grey day like we had, these (grey) fossils don't photograph very well. Had to cheat a bit with the ones here and digitally enhance them. Or maybe the fossils weren't feeling very photogenic that day... I dunno. Here a shot I took of a spindle-shaped organism.

spindle-shaped organism, Mistaken Point, Newfoundland

And here's an odd looking thingy that looks like a magnifying glass. It didn't appear on the the guide's diagram.

Now we got to see fossils on two different slabs of rock. Here are two pics of the site. One of the first slab, with the second in the background. You had to climb up about 5 feet to get on the second one.

View from 1st slab

View from 2nd slab

The first slab had a surface area of about 25 by 40 feet. A second smaller slab was about 5 feet higher up (above the first) and had further fossil impressions on it.

The guide told us told that at Mistaken Point, Precambrian fossils, like the ones we were looking at, occur on a number of different strata (levels of rock). My wife made a comment about this which got me thinking.

Now the orthodox explanation we got from the guide (which I'm supposing she got from the government-paid geologists) is that these organisms lived in the sea and were preserved by a volcanic eruption that laid down ash which killed the organisms, but also preserved them. We were told that a unique event was required to get such finely preserved fossils. But the thing is that the fossils at Mistaken Point are NOT all on the same slab or level. We got to visit two, but when I asked if there were fossils on other strata, elsewhere in the area, the guide said : Oh yes, there are fossils on a number of other strata. I wasn't quick enough to ask how many other strata had such fossils at Mistaken Point. The discoverer of the site, geologist SB Misra had this to say (1968)

Well this is interesting, but it doesn't tell us how many different strata at Mistaken Point contain these Precambrian fossils. One could reasonably guess that in 175 feet (about 58m.) of rock there must be at least a dozen strata with fossils in them. Quite possibly there are more. But then if this is the case, then we get a strange scenario. A community of organisms develops in the sea and leads happy marine lives. Nearby, the dastardly villain appears, a volcano goes ballistic and dumps just the right kind of ash that will kill off this community of organisms and preserve it as well. And judging by just the distance in height separating the two slabs I saw, perhaps a few thousand years went by and sediment buried the community of organisms and they turned into fossils. Uniformitairianism, which is standard doctrine among geologists, tells us that sedimentation is a slow and steady process. What do you think? Five feet of rock at Mistaken Point is worth how many hundreds or thousands of years of sedimentation? But wait, someone hits the replay button again. Now another community of the same kinds of organisms develops in the same sea, leads happy lives and the same volcano suddenly decides to go into business again and erupts and buries the organisms. And then you get more thousands of years of sedimentation and then...

Ah, you're beginning to get the picture.... And this unique event happened how many times? I was stupid enough to ask the guide how many years later might have the fossils have been preserved by the same volcano, here at Mistaken Point. She was quick enough to see the problem and said that perhaps these events happened over a short period of time. It's interesting to see how quick defenders of the orthodox geological view can come up with "exceptions" to the uniformitairian RULE when they're in a tight spot... Aren't accumulating sedimentary layers typically interpreted as SLOW processes? But what if the real RULE is there is no rule? And even allowing for this "exception", why should the the same organisms conveniently reappear in the same place so they can be knocked off and preserved again and again and again by this serial killer volcano? That got me to wondering if there couldn't be a better explanation for the Precambrian fossils at Mistaken Point, perhaps a single event that layed down multiple strata??

Well that certainly was an interesting outing.


Juby, Ian (2009) A Visit to MIstaken Point. (requires a Facebook account)

MISRA, S.B, (1969a)
Geology of Biscay Bay-Cape Race area, Avalon Peninsula, South Eastern Newfoundland. M.S.Thesis, Department of Geology, Memorial University., Newfoundland. Canada, p.139., 1969

Narbonne?, G.M. (2000) The Mistaken Point assemblage of Newfoundland Canada. Queen's University

Waggoner, Ben; Smith, Dave (1998/2005) Localities of the Vendian: Mistaken Point, Newfoundland.