Nova Scotia

Acadia biologist excited at discovery of rare fern at West Mabou Beach

A rare fern has been identified on the land in the park, which is at the centre of a contentious proposal for a new golf course by Cabot Cape Breton.

The provincial park is the subject of a controversial golf course proposal by Cabot Cape Breton

Acadia University biologist Alain Belliveau was excited to discover a rare fern at West Mabou Beach Provincial Park during a biodoversity survey in 2018. (Submitted by Zack Metcalfe)

The list of uncommon and endangered plant and animal species found in Nova Scotia's West Mabou Beach Provincial Park is growing.

A rare fern has been identified on land in the park, which is at the centre of a contentious proposal for a new golf course by Cabot Cape Breton.

In 2018, biologist Alain Belliveau surveyed West Mabou Beach and found 17 rare and endangered animals, plants and lichens in the park, including four birds that are listed under the provincial Endangered Species Act.

Belliveau, the Irving Biodiversity Collection manager at Acadia University, said he was excited when he recently got confirmation of an 18th after sending pictures to a couple of fern experts of an upswept moonwort.

"I wish I had identified that four years ago," he said. "That's a long time to sit on something that's such an incredible discovery."

The upswept moonwort normally grows in western North America and has only been found on the East Coast in Newfoundland and New England.

The upswept moonwort found at West Mabou Beach normally grows in western North America and has never been found in the Maritimes, making it rarer than a species at risk, says Belliveau. (Submitted by Alain Belliveau)

"This species being the only one found in the Maritime provinces would easily fit in as a species at risk in the Nova Scotia context," Belliveau said.

"So in that way it's quite special. You could say it's even rarer than a species at risk would be."

Belliveau said moonworts are notoriously difficult to recognize and can be fussy like orchids, needing a specific fungus to be in the soil to grow.

"I think they're highly sensitive species," he said. "They grow in the soil for a while with this fungal partnership and ... every now and then, they will send up some leaves above ground. So four years ago in June, I just happened to be there when those leaves were up and growing out."

Belliveau said it is not yet known which specific fungus the plant needs to grow or where the fern came from.

"We do tend to see this a little bit more with species that have tiny seeds or spores," he said. "They can blow in the wind and cover really large distances, and then it's just a matter of getting lucky and landing in the right habitat, or landing in that habitat that has that fungal partner to let it grow."

Belliveau says the dune system at West Mabou Beach seems to contain all the ingredients needed to support the upswept moonwort, including a special fungus in the soil. (Submitted by Alain Belliveau)

The find is significant, Belliveau said, because it demonstrates the need for continuing biodiversity surveys.

"A find like this, we don't make them very often these days. You can go down into the rainforests in the Amazon and find new, interesting things pretty easily ... but new species for the Maritime provinces, these occasions are few and far between."

Cabot Cape Breton, which has three other courses in nearby Inverness, recently revived a proposal to lease part of the park for a new 18-hole course.

When the idea was floated back in 2018, the provincial Department of Natural Resources turned down the plan, saying it found that parts of the park were "a priority ecosystem for conservation." Ecologists have said a golf course would threaten rare plants and birds.

Belliveau would not weigh in on the proposed golf course, but he said the land is special.

Rolling sand dunes covered in grasses are shown.
Belliveau says West Mabou Beach has great ecological value, with a higher number of species at risk than most other places in Nova Scotia, including a species that has never been found in the Maritimes. (Submitted by Alain Belliveau)

"Just the fact that it has five species at risk, which is higher than the vast majority of places in Nova Scotia, and also has a species that has never been found anywhere else in the Maritime provinces, this puts it really way up the list in terms of ecological value."

Because the upswept moonwort requires such specific soil conditions, that may include the habitat found at West Mabou Beach but not elsewhere in Cape Breton, it likely cannot just be moved and transplanted elsewhere, Belliveau said.


Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at

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