The Canadian discovery of the Earth's oldest known animal life is one of the most important research finds anywhere in the world, according to an editor of this week's issue of the prestigious journal Science.

Queen's University geologist Guy Narbonne led the team that discovered the imprints of soft-bodied animals estimated to be 575 million years old that's 10 million years before scientists thought complex life evolved on Earth.

The fossils are trapped in an ancient sea floor under what was once a volcano hotbed in Portugal Cove South, on Newfoundland's southern shore.

"Every time there was a volcanic eruption, the ash settled down on the sea floor and entombed everything that was there," said Narbonne. "And you walk around on surfaces the size of a tennis court in which the fossils are just strewn across it.

"It's like snorkelling over a 575-million-year-old sea bottom."

Narbonne thinks the fossils may even predate an early, global ice age called the snowball Earth. He said the study suggests the animals evolved before the glaciation and survived to burst on the scene after the ice melted.

The 200 fossil specimens are only visible when the sun is rising.

The town's 200 residents have become proud and protective of the fossils. Mayor Clarence Molloy said two American tourists were caught signing their names on the fossil beds, and attempting to chip some away to take home.

The local heritage committee wants to build an interpretive centre for the fossils, and a move is afoot to have the area declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Narbonne said the support of local people, and the Ward family in particular, was crucial to his work. He has given them a scientist's highest honour by naming the species Charnia wardi.