N.L. fossils star in Oxford University exhibit documenting Earth's earliest animal life

Fossils from Bonavista and Mistaken Point tell 'the story of where we came from,' says Jack Matthews, a research fellow at the University of Oxford.

Fossils from Mistaken Point and Bonavista give researchers unparalleled look at origins of life

Jack Matthews, a research fellow at the University of Oxford's Museum of Natural History, stands next to a display showcasing fossils that document the story of the beginning of animal life on earth. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

Jack Matthews, a research fellow at the University of Oxford, strides across the lawn in front of the Museum of Natural History at Oxford University with a broad smile on his face.

His excitement about fossils — which have become his life's work — is contagious. The Latin names of ancient life-forms preserved in rock drop effortlessly from his tongue as he climbs the stairs in the imposing three-storey neo-Gothic building to First Animals, an exhibition tracing the origins of animal life on earth.

"It's like tracing your family tree back to your very earliest ancestors," said Matthews.

It's Wednesday, just a few days after the landmark exhibit opened, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Matthews studies specimens such as Fractofusus misrai, fossils found in 1967 at Mistaken Point, on the southern Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland, in a bid to unravel the origins of animal life on earth.

Fossils of Newfoundland origin — from both the Mistaken Point area and the Bonavista Peninsula — figure prominently in the exhibition.

The Museum of Natural History at the University of Oxford is showcasing a variety of fossils from Newfoundland. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

They sit in glass display cases alongside fossils from China, the United Kingdom, Greenland and British Columbia.

Each one is a critical piece of a complex evolutionary puzzle being showcased at Oxford, recognized as the top university in the world.

"It tells the story of the origins of animal life and, really, it tells the story of where we came from, because we are an example of an organism from the animal kingdom," says Matthews.

'It's when life got big'

The Mistaken Point fossils appear more like ferns or fronds, but they could not have been plants, says Matthews. Plants require light to photosynthesize, and these fossil beds were located in deep water almost half a billion years ago. 

The fossils are from the Ediacaran era, the 94-million-year period spanning from the end of the Cryogenian period 635 million years ago, to the beginning of the Cambrian period 541 million years ago.

It's crazy that you can see where it all came from. It's not just a myth. It's right there.- Louise Stewart

"These fossils from Newfoundland are the introductory chapter in the story of animal life," says Matthews. "The best place [to] see Ediacaran fossils in the world is to go to Newfoundland, in Canada."

These fossils can be found on the beach without any special equipment but with the naked eye, Matthews says.

"That's what is so important about the fossils you find in Newfoundland, that's what makes them famous — it's when life got big." 

Fractofusus misrai was discovered in 1967 at Mistaken Point on the southern Avalon Peninsula. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

The site at Mistaken Point was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. 

Now another site near Port Union on the Bonavista Peninsula is being considered for UNESCO designation.

Haootia quadriformis, a fossil of a jellyfish-like organism dating back 560 million years, was discovered there in 2009 by a team of researchers from Memorial University and the University of Oxford. 

"It is the oldest evidence of an organism with muscle tissue," says Matthews.

Bracketing an important point in evolution

Paul Smith, director of Oxford's Museum of Natural History, stresses the importance of harnessing the research power of such an important university to showcase the research found in the First Animals exhibition.

"Paleontologists look for what we call exceptional preservations of fossils.… We tour the world looking for these very rare exemplars," Smith says. 

Paul Smith, director of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Oxford, says Mistaken Point in Newfoundland and the Burgess Shales in British Columbia bracket the evolution of modern-day animal life. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

Mistaken Point boasts the most primitive animals that exist in the fossil record, Smith adds. 

British Columbia's Burgess Shales, a 508-million-year-old fossil deposit in the Rocky Mountains, is also known for its exceptional preservation of soft-bodied organisms.

"Mistaken Point in Newfoundland and the Burgess Shales in British Columbia effectively bracket the period of time in which animals evolve and then diversify into the groups that we recognize at the modern day," says Smith.

Where it all began

The First Animals exhibition makes a big impression on the swarms of students who visit the museum.

Ellen Smith and Louise Stewart came from Sir Henry Floyd Grammar School in Aylesbury, 35 kilometres east of Oxford.

"It's quite astounding to see what everything once was, considering when you look at the world now, it's so different," says Smith.

She marvels at the notion that despite sweeping differences, we all began from the same tiny organism.

Both admit that they have never heard about Newfoundland, but Stewart says she's glad that she has learned about its role in the evolution of animal life on earth through this exhibition.

"It's crazy that you can see where it all came from," Stewart says. "It's not just a myth. It's right there. I think everyone should know about it."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador