New Brunswick

Rare discovery near Norton could help fill fossil gap, researchers say

A rare fossil discovery near Norton could help fill a key knowledge gap of how ancient creatures walked the Earth, according to researchers from the New Brunswick Museum.

New Brunswick Museum researchers stumbled upon ancient amphibian footprints

New Brunswick Museum researchers found fossilized footprints belonging to an amphibian that walked the Earth roughly 350 million years ago. (New Brunswick Museum/Submitted)

A rare fossil discovery near Norton could help fill a key knowledge gap of how ancient creatures walked the Earth, according to researchers from the New Brunswick Museum.

Last summer, Olivia King and Matt Stimson were in the area, about 50 kilometres northeast of Saint John, looking for invertebrate tracks, when they stumbled upon fossilized footprints of a four-legged amphibian. 

King said they immediately knew it was an important find.

"This is an area that researchers have been going over for ages to find evidence of these amphibians, whether it's bones or footprints or anything," said King, who's also a master's student in paleontology at St. Mary's University in Halifax.

"It was very exciting when we flipped over a rock and then another one, and we started finding all these footprints."

New Brunswick Museum researchers Matt Stimson, left, and Olivia King made the discovery near Norton. (Matt Stimson/Submitted)

They found a "couple hundred" fossils, she said. Some were trackways, footsteps with a trailing tail, while others were a single firm impression.

The researchers described the amphibians as big salamanders that were 10 to 20 centimetres long with four toes in the front and five in the back. 

Pictured is the track of an ancient amphibian preserved in rock discovered in Norton. (New Brunswick Museum/Submitted)

Stimson said the fossils were 330 million to 360 million years old, when terrestrial vertebrate life made the transition from water to land. But it's a block of time where there's a fossil gap, known as Romer's Gap, and the find could provide plenty of fresh insight. 

"They tell us something about the invasion of continental environments 350 million years ago," said Stimson, the assistant curator of geology at the museum and a PhD student at St. Mary's.

Last summer, New Brunswick Museum curator Matt Stimson and his field partner Olivia King discovered fossil records of the first vertebrate life that made the transition from water to land. No other fossils from that time period were previously found. 7:37

There are only two other known sites in the world — Scotland and Blue Beach, N.S. — where the fossils were preserved at the right age and environment, he said.

What separates the Norton site is that it's inland near freshwater. The other two are coastal and close to salt water.

"It also represents a whole new environment," Stimson said.

Researcher Matt Stimson pictured at a dig site. Stimson said the Norton-area discovery could help fill an important fossil gap. (Matt Stimson/Submitted)

In Scotland, researchers excavated skeletons, he added. 

"But they don't have the footprints and we do," he said, "and these footprints tell us a little bit about how the animals moved, how they walked and interacted with each other and their environments, which you can't get from a skeleton."

The researchers will continue to study the fossils to learn about the environment and ecology at the time.

With files from Shift New Brunswick

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