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Joggins Fossil Cliff (apogee_krd / Fotolia)

Joggins Fossil Cliffs: Uniquely Preserved Fossils and Primeval Forest are Immensely Significant

Fossils and other remnants from the prehistoric past can usually be only seen in museums. There are, however, some unique sites where visitors can see them in nature and one of these remarkable areas is Joggins Fossil Cliff. Here you can see the impressions of plants and animals that are over 300 million years. This site is so unique that it was named as a UNESCO Heritage site, one of only fifteen in Canada. These cliffs also played a very important role in the history of geology and the location has arguably the most complete fossil record from the Coal Age. 

This remarkable paleontological feature is located on the shores of the Cumberland Basin, in Nova Scotia, off the east coast of Canada, and is one of the most distinctive in North America. The area is renowned for its natural beauty and has great views of Fulda Bay.

Joggins Fossil Cliffs (Fotolia)

Joggins Fossil Cliffs (Fotolia)

In most cases fossils are deep underground and hidden in rocks. Here however, the elements have eroded the cliffs over millennia and exposed a large number of impressions of prehistoric plants and animals. They are able to be seen by the naked eye and there is a range of fossils from hundreds of millions of years ago as well as a fossil forest .

The cliffs bear the impression of a forest that flourished in the geological period known as the Age of Coal since most of the globe’s coal began to be formed at this time. During this period the world was covered by dense, lush primeval wooded area. The trees that once flourished here were mostly lycopods, also known as scale-trees. These were giants and regularly grew to a height of almost 100 feet (30 meters). They are the distant ancestors of Lycopodiopsida or clubmosses, which are small fern-like plants and amongst the oldest vegetation on the planet.

Imprint of bark of lycopod tree (Lepidodendron) (Public Domain)

Imprint of bark of lycopod tree (Lepidodendron ) ( Public Domain )

The cliffs have preserved the entire ecosystem of the primeval rain forest, and Joggins continues to yield new and significant fossil finds. In particular, the remains of amphibians and reptiles, who made their home in the ancient forests and lived off the dead leaves, have been found here. One of the most remarkable of the many fossils found at this famous site are those of Hylonomus lyelli, a 300 million-year-old lizard-like creature. It is regarded as one of the earliest examples of a reptile. Joggins Fossil Cliffs also provides some of the earliest evidence of a land snail and traces of a huge crustacean creature, similar to a woodlouse that measured 7 feet (2 meters) long have also been found. The site provides a snapshot of the period when sea creatures were evolving and moving onto dry land.

Joggins Fossil Cliffs Has Played a Vital Role in Geology

The windswept location played a major role in the development of the science of geology. In the mid-19 th century one of the founders of Geology, Sir Charles Lyell, visited the area. He declared it to be the most remarkable natural phenomenon that he had ever seen. During his study of the exposed cliffs, he discovered the first fossil of the Hylonomus lyelli species.  

Pencil drawing of Hylonomus lyelli (Public Domain)

Pencil drawing of Hylonomus lyelli ( Public Domain )

Based on his studies here, Lyell was the first to establish that coal came from ancient organic materials. He was able to link the fossil forest to deposits of coal that are evident in the exposed cliff.  The importance of these for the development of geology cannot be overstated. It was first surveyed by the newly formed Geological Survey of Canada in the 1840s.

The Management and Preservation of Joggins Fossil Cliffs

At the visitors’ center at the Joggins Fossil Centre you can learn more about the location, its ancient environment and animals, and its role in the history of geology.  An admission fee allows access to the cliffs and the beach.

There is plenty of accommodation near Joggins Fossil Cliff as well as guided tours available, but the site is often closed during periods of stormy weather, which is common in Nova Scotia. It is only possible to collect fossils if you have the necessary permit.

Top image: Joggins Fossil Cliff ( apogee_krd / Fotolia)

By Ed Whelan

References

Falcon-Lang, H.J. 2006. A history of research at the Joggins Fossil Cliffs of Nova Scotia, Canada, the world's finest Pennsylvanian section . Proceedings of the Geologists Association, 117(4), pp.377-392

Available at: https://bfe7b7b0-a-62cb3a1a-s-sites.googlegroups.com/site/howardfalconlang/Home/publications/2006

Falcon‐Lang, H.J. and Calder, J.H. 2004. Feature: UNESCO World Heritage and the Joggins cliffs of Nova Scotia . Geology Today, 20(4), pp.139-143.

Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2451.2004.00469.x

Grey, M. and Finkel, Z.V. 2011. The Joggins Fossil Cliffs UNESCO World Heritage site: a review of recent research, UNESCO

Available at: http://archives.datapages.com/data/atlantic-geology-journal/data/047/047001/pdfs/185.htm

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