New Brunswick

Paleontologist sends important fossil collection back to N.B.

The New Brunswick Museum will soon welcome thousands of 400-million-year-old fossils into its collections, some of which were first discovered on the north shore of the province in the 1800s.

North Carolina scientist has been studying Bay of Chaleur finds since the 1970s

400-million-year-old plant fossils found along the north shore of New Brunswick in the 1800s. (Submitted by New Brunswick Museum)

The New Brunswick Museum will soon welcome thousands of 400-million-year-old fossils into its collections, some of which were first discovered on the north shore of the province in the 1800s.

University of North Carolina paleontologist Patricia Gensel has been researching the fossils since 1974, and has decided it's time to send them back to the province where they were found. 

"These came from Canada and should go back to Canada," said Gensel.

"Some of the plants are very different from what have been found… worldwide, so it's of great importance. They should go into some place where they're going to be well-curated once I'm no longer active."

The fossils, which were discovered along the Bay of Chaleur, are unique, as they feature plants that still show imprints of branches attached to their leaves.

Even the pollen was preserved, which Gensel said is uncommon.

"It's actually one of the more diverse and best preserved localities for fossils of this age that exists in the world," said Gensel.

"You could actually literally hold a plant stem in your hand from some of the sediments in New Brunswick."

Patricia Gensel searches for fossils in New Brunswick with some of her peers, including Randy Miller, right, of the New Brunswick Museum. (Submitted by New Brunswick Museum)

One of the plants, roughly between three to five millimetres wide, displays the first evidence of wood. 

The collection features 20 to 35 different types of plants. 

Gensel said it fills 80 boxes, each weighing about 30 pounds, and estimates there are thousands to be delivered to New Brunswick. 

She dedicated the majority of her career to studying these finds, first discovered by Sir William Dawson in the 1800s, and added to by other paleontologists  over the years, including the New Brunswick Museum's Randy Miller.

A hefty bill for transportation

It won't be cheap to ship them back to New Brunswick, and the museum already has donations from Saint John's Canaport LNG, the Atlantic Geoscience Society, and some anonymous donors to help cover the cost of getting the fossils back home.

Gensel said transporting fossils is a tough and expensive job, as they're often heavy and fragile.

It cost under $2,000 to truck the fossils to the University of North Carolina's lab decades ago, and Gensel estimates it would cost about $15,000 to have them transported today. 

Gensel said the collection will likely make it to the museum next summer and will be stored in its archive building.

The New Brunswick Museum collections centre on Douglas Avenue in Saint John. (Julia Wright/CBC News)

Exciting to receive

While parts of the collection are held at the museum, Matthew Stimson, an assistant curator of geology and paleontology there, said it's still exciting to know the rest of the collection will arrive soon.

He said the fossil site is internationally famous for the fossils found there.

"Well, if you go back 400 million years ago, this area was swampy. There were rivers, there were lakes, it was a coastal environment. There were mountains on either side bringing sediment into this large depot centre, a basin, a valley in between, lots of sediment being deposited, burying the plants and animals."

The site also produced the oldest and most complete fossil shark, and some of the oldest and most complete invertebrate fossils, Stimson said.

Stimson said the collection is really important and spectacular, and it's great to have it coming home to be studied and available for future generations of scientists.



Isabelle Leger is a reporter based in Fredericton. You can reach her at

with files from Shift New Brunswick