World's oldest fossils discovered in Campbellton

The most famous find for the paleontologists who have been unearthing fossils from the Restigouche River basin for more than 100 years is a 409 million-years-old intact shark fossil.

The most famous find for the paleontologists who have been unearthing fossils from the Restigouche River basin for more than 100 years is a 409 million-years-old intact shark fossil.

This ancient fossil is called a bothriolepsi and it can be seen at the Le Parc national de Miguasha. (courtesy John Van Horne)
You can add fossils to the list of things that have put Campbellton, New Brunswick on the map.

It is a little known fact that paleontologists have been unearthing fossils from the Restigouche River basin for more than 100 years, including a 409 million-years-old intact shark fossil.

Randall Miller discovered the fossil a short slap shot from the site of the Hockey Day in Canada celebrations.  Miller is a paleontologist from the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John. The fossil is 23 centimetres long from its snout to upper trunk, and includes a battery of scissor-like teeth preserved in the upper and lower jaw.

In the world of shark fossils, this was a major discovery.

An important specimen

"It is an important specimen and we are still working on it," said Miller. "We are now looking at the brain case and trying to sort out some of the structure of the fish."

Other fossils were discovered by British scientists in the Campbellton area in the 1800s.  Most of these specimens, primarily fish fossils, were taken to England, where they are on display at the Natural History Museum in London and the Royal Museum of Scotland.

Le Parc national de Miguasha is located about 20 kilometres down the coast on the south side of the Gaspe Peninsula. With its fossil-rich cliffs, the park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered the world's most outstanding illustration of the Devonian Period known as the 'Age of Fishes'.

The Devonian Period, the era between 418 million and 360 million years ago, is often referred to as the age of fish.  During this period most life on Earth was confined to the world's oceans.

The fossils found on the New Brunswick side of the Restigouche River are about 40 million years older than the ones unearthed in the Gaspe.

The structure of the world's continents was much different 418 million years ago.

New Brunswick was south of the equator

This is a 409 million years old intact shark fossil that came from the Restigouche River basin. ((courtesy John Van Horne))
What we now think of as Northern New Brunswick was south of the equator, and the Sugarloaf Mountain that forms a backdrop to Campbellton was an active volcano.

Miller said some of the fish fossils that have been unearthed were originally buried in volcanic ash.

"The fossils they found, most of the specimens are now extinct, but the shark is one of the few that still exist," said Miller. "That's is what makes the discovery important. We can learn a lot from this fossil."

This fossil predates other fossil sharks from Antarctica and South Africa, previously known as the world's oldest, by 15 million years.

Intact fossils of sharks, a boneless fish, are exceptionally rare. Many ancient shark species are known only by fossil teeth or skin scales.

Miller said the British found shark teeth in the 1800s but it was not clear what kind of shark it.

Discovered by a student

All that changed a decade ago when the shark fossil was discovered just outside Campbellton. Miller led a field expedition to the area and a student discovered the shark embedded in an outcrop of a mudstone cliff.

Two months later, another paleontologist found the counterpart to the shark's braincase lying exposed on the outcrop and a month later, the scientists realized the fossil specimen came not only from the same ancient shark species, but from the same individual.

"They are not easily recognizable. The shark teeth are millimeters in scale and you really need a microscope and a lab to work on these things and the rocks are not easy to work with," said Miller. "It takes a lot of effort to extract the fossils and recognize them."

The find will help paleontologists make sense of other isolated, smaller ancient fossil shark specimens. Miller has consulted with experts from Australia, the United States and Britain to weigh in on the significance of the fossil.

"The shark fossil is unique. There is only one and it ties together some major questions in the early evolution of sharks."

Meticulous about his work

Miller is also working on another fossil find - a giant sea scorpion that grew up to two metres long and bore a vague resemblance to a scorpion or lobster.

He is meticulous about his work, knowing one error could cause irreparable harm.

"The material is fairly undisturbed and these sites are small and fairly sensitive and we prefer that people do not go out there with their hammer and hammer away. You have to know what the material is and it is hard to work with."

"I am one of the few people who go up there regularly to look. We have not been trying to excavate a lot because once you remove it from its context in the rock, you lose information. So I have been trying to encourage the experts in the group to see everything in the rock outcrops."

The outcrops are home to the rock stars of Northern New Brunswick.