New Brunswick

300-million-year-old dragonfly wing among several significant pandemic fossil finds

Rowan Norrad, 17, his friend Luke Allen, and his dad Donnie Norrad, found what has turned out to be a large dragonfly wing fossil at a site where they previously found 310-million-year-old reptile, amphibian and invertebrate tracks.

Citizen scientists' Grand Lake discovery now being studied at Paris museum

This is the fossil of a dragonfly wing found at Grand Lake. (New Brunswick Museum/Twitter)

Researchers from the New Brunswick Museum say some exciting fossil discoveries have been made in the last year, including another big find by citizen scientists in the Grand Lake area.

Rowan Norrad, 17, his friend Luke Allen, and his dad Donnie Norrad, found what has turned out to be a large dragonfly wing fossil.

It's currently being studied at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France and an article about it is expected to be published soon in an international scientific journal.

"It's crazy to think that something that we found is this important to the world of science," said Rowan, a Grade 11 student, who plans to pursue post-secondary education in science after he graduates from Citadel High School in Halifax.

"It's quite an honour to be working alongside such renowned paleontologists and being able to put out new information for them."

Rowan has been hunting fossils since he was about five years old. A couple of years ago, he and Luke were credited with finding the earliest known reptile, amphibian and invertebrate tracks in the province, which date to about 310 million years ago.

The cliffs and shoreline of Grand Lake are prime fossil hunting grounds for Rowan Norrad, left, and Luke Allen. (Submitted by Matt Stimson)

"Luke and I had always talked about our fossils being in the museum and with our recent finds those thoughts have become a reality. "

The dragonfly wing was less than a metre away from the spot where they found their first footprint, back in 2014, just down the beach from the Norrads' cottage. They don't want to reveal exactly where, in order to protect the site.

"Luke and I had gotten Dad to come on one of our trips to the fossil site and we had just gotten to the first part of the beach when we began flipping over rocks. It just happens that he flipped over the right rock at the right time and there it was."

Rowan said he and Luke laughed when Donnie said it looked like a butterfly wing.

"We knew that there were no butterflies in the Carboniferous Period."

Donnie said he was only joking.

The teens knew it was something they'd never seen before. They both thought it was some kind of leaf.

They also shot down Donnie's suggestion it might be a dragonfly. But they ended up eating their words about that.

"We were quite wrong," said Rowan. "Normally I don't like being wrong but in this case I didn't mind."

Donnie and Rowan Norrad, of Halifax, have been hunting fossils for years at their family cottage in the Grand Lake area of New Brunswick. (Submitted by Matt Stimson)

It's quite a thrill for dad, Donnie, who says he's been fascinated by paleontology and archeology since childhood.

"The young me never would have dreamt of being involved in such a meaningful discovery," he said.

"That kid is doing backflips!"

When Donnie was a kid, it wasn't hard to find fossils around his family's cottage, but the ones he found were always of plant material.

"When Rowan was old enough I could not wait to put something in his hand and tell him, 'This was alive 300 million years ago,' so we could imagine what that world was like."

Donnie says Rowan and Luke soon left him in the dust. 

They spent hours scouring the rocks. 

"Their hard work definitely eclipsed my casual interest," Donnie said.

Rowan says over the years he and Luke have found many fossilized footprints, ferns and plant material. 

He hinted that they have recently found other interesting new ones as well, but he's not at liberty to talk about them just yet.

New Brunswick Museum paleontology researcher Matt Stimson said he was very impressed with how scientific the teens were with their collecting and documenting.

Geology field team from left, Rowan Norrad, Luke Allan, Olivia King and Matt Stimson. (Submitted by Matt Stimson)

They've helped put Grand Lake on the map as a significant fossil site in the province, said Stimson.

The fossils at other known sites are several million years older and younger, he said, so the Grand Lake site fills a gap and helps give a better picture of prehistoric biodiversity.

The wingspan of the Grand Lake dragonfly fossil is about 25 cm. 

"That's quite a bit larger than anything alive today," said Stimson, but "significantly smaller that the largest dragonflies that lived 300 million years ago."

Their wingspans measured as wide as one metre.

Stimson expects to learn more about it soon when the paper is published.

There were many other interesting finds this year, said Stimson.

Some were made by him and his colleague from the New Brunswick Museum, Olivia King.

A land snail fossil was among several fossils found at an undisclosed site east of Saint John. (Submitted by Olivia King)

They were allowed to do field work during the pandemic because there's plenty of room for physical distancing when you're out in the wilderness scouring cliffs or shorelines.

That's probably why a lot of other people were out finding fossils as well, said King.

She said it was a banner year for public inquiries.

"We're getting things from all over New Brunswick and all different time periods," King said.

Another interesting find was by a couple in the Shediac area, she said, which is still in the "initial discovery" stage.

Laura Berry and David Young were out enjoying the shoreline, when they found what appear to be two camel teeth.

This camel teeth fossil was found in the Shediac area. (Submitted by Olivia King)

"They're certainly fossilized," said Stimson, "but how old they are remains a mystery."

The New Brunswick Museum has teamed up with provincial archeology experts and world experts in New Mexico to study them further.

A highlight for King was a personal find near the Bay of Fundy, east of Saint John, on the first day out of the initial 10 weeks of strict COVID-19 restrictions.

It's one that proves "big" finds are sometimes very small, she said.

She and Stimson were crawling around on their bellies, when King came across a tiny fossilized vertebrate jaw that was about 5 mm long and had nine teeth. 

Olivia King found this vertebrate jaw fossil near the Bay of Fundy, east of Saint John. (Submitted by Olivia King)

"We've never found anything like this before," King said.

The same area has also yielded fossils of land snails, amphibians and tracks of millipedes that were one or two metres long, called arthropleura.

Meanwhile, at a historic fossil site near Saint John, new amphibian and reptile track ways were found this year.

Paleontologist George F. Matthew found a single set of footprints at Fern Ledges in the early 1900s, recounted Stimson.

"During COVID and in the year prior, we've found dozens more," said Stimson, "painting a new picture of the biodiversity of this site from 300 million years ago."

Fossilized reptile prints from Fern Ledges are among the oldest in the world. (Submitted by Matt Stimson)

Some of the fossils from Fern Ledges are among the oldest in the world, he said, equivalent to the oldest known reptiles and their footprints at Joggins, Nova Scotia.

A team of global experts on fossil footprints recently included specimens from Fern Ledges in a study published in Geo Journals, by the Polish Geological Society.

2020 also saw a Sussex family find Late Permian or Triassic footprints near St. Martins.

And museum researchers found fossils of horseshoe crabs, millipedes, crustaceans and amphibian footprints at Cape Enrage.

With files from Information Morning Saint John