Nfld. & Labrador

Bonavista Peninsula gets historic nod from UNESCO for 560-million-year-old fossils

Fossil finds on the Bonavista Peninsula were given an international designation Friday, when the Discovery Global Geopark was granted official UNESCO status.

Ediacaran fossils show important chapter in the story of life

Ediacaran fossils can be seen in the rock near the shoreline of Port Union, on Newfoundland and Labrador's Bonavista Peninsula. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Rock formations and fossil finds on Newfoundland and Labrador's Bonavista Peninsula were given international honours Friday morning, as the Discovery Global Geopark received official UNESCO status.

The Discovery Geopark, approved by UNESCO at meetings in Paris, is now one of more than 150 sites recognized for their international geological importance.

"We're really excited. It's been a long road to get here," said Edith Samson, a longtime volunteer with the Geopark committee.

"Lots of ups and downs, but … here we are."

The geopark was recognized, in part, for the Ediacaran fossils that can be found in the area. These fossils — some of which can be accessed from the boardwalk in Port Union — are an estimated 560 million years old, and show some of the earliest multicell organisms.

"With over 20 taxa present, these enigmatic fossils record the oldest architecturally complex multicellular lifeforms, providing a window to study the preface to the Cambrian Explosion," wrote the UNESCO Global Geoparks Council in nomination papers. 

"The Geopark preserves a dramatic transition in Earth history."

The fossils found on the Bonavista Peninsula are similar to those discovered at Mistaken Point, which was given UNESCO's World Heritage Site designation in 2016.

Samson, who works with the Sir William Ford Coaker Heritage Foundation in Port Union, said local residents didn't know about the fossils — and their rich history — for decades.

Edith Samson holds a casting, or replica, of a fossil found near Port Union. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"We were doing the restoration of the old train track, and a geologist showed up in my office and said, 'Do you have the permits and everything? Because there's Ediacaran fossils there.' I had no idea what it was," she said.

"Then there were researchers who start coming all around." 

Samson helped lead a push to win the UNESCO designation, which began in 2006, she said. Friday's recognition is a long time coming.

"I tell people, this wasn't just a harbour that started in 1916," she said, referencing the settlement of Port Union by the Fishermen's Protective Union. "This was a harbour that was over 560 million years old."

This is an Ediacaran fossil at the William F. Coaker Heritage Foundation building in Port Union. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

The Discovery Geopark was honoured alongside the Cliffs of Fundy Geopark in Nova Scotia. They become the fourth and fifth Canadian geoparks to get the UNESCO honour.

The Cabox Aspiring Geopark, centred around the Bay of Islands in western Newfoundland, is also hoping to obtain the UNESCO designation.

The work will now continue for the Discovery Geopark committee — now that they've won their UNESCO designation, they are preparing for visitors.

"We've been told by evaluators … that once you get UNESCO designation, expect that you'll be inundated with visitors," said Jim Miller, a volunteer on the committee and the mayor of Trinity.

The geopark stretches from Trinity to Bonavista.

Jim Miller is the mayor of Trinity, near Port Union. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Miller says the group aims to install signs and exhibits at dozens of locations, and hopes to one day build a welcome centre.

"Given the times we're in, of course, we're anticipating now that [the visitor boom] is going to be a bit delayed with travel and concerns around that, but in the next few years we expect that the Bonavista Peninsula area will blossom and bloom again with visitors." 

The committee also must work to educate local tourism employees about the geology of the area, so they can answer questions from tourists. Right now, the area's history is focused on the 18th and 19th centuries.

"Now we're talking, we're going back millions of years for these fossils," said Miller. "So getting people interested in the terminology being used, all that was a new learning curve for everybody." 

Fossils for the Haootia quadriformis, believed to be the first example of muscle tissue in an animal, were found just two kilometres from Port Union's museum.

"For most researchers who come here, Newfoundland is the best place in the world to come to do the research, because we're so easy and accessible to the fossils," Samson said.

"They're right at our doorstep."

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Garrett Barry


Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter, working primarily with The St. John's Morning Show.