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Remarkable example of trackways created 310 million years ago
JOGGINS, N.S. - Erin Levy was doing the tourist thing last Friday when something along the cliffs at Joggins caught her eye.
The Halifax woman had visited the Joggins Fossil Centre and was walking the beach near the centre when she saw what looked like a fossil impression on a rock near the cliffs. What she found was a remarkable example of trackways created 310 million years ago by a prehistoric salamander-like amphibian and a millipede-like creature arthropleura.
“I went down on the beach, hoping to go for a nice, long walk at low tide looking for fossils and it caught my eye,” said Levy, who was camping at Five Islands Provincial Park. “It was at the base of the cliff and it had the actual trackway sticking out of it. I walked over and pulled the rest of it out and through ‘this is sort of cool.’”
Levy knew her discovery was neat, but she didn’t know about its significance until she took it up to the museum to show staff what she found. Visitors are allowed to search for fossils on the beach at Joggins, but they have to report their discoveries and can’t take them home.
“It was totally by chance, I don’t have any particular skills when it comes to that,” Levy said. “We were trying to look at every rock to see if there was something there and this one sort of stuck out, the way it was in the sand. It wasn’t vertical, but it wasn’t horizontal. The whole trackway was visible.”
Levy said she had participated in the tour of the museum, so she had an idea of what to look for when she hit the beach. She was still surprised to find it.
“When I pulled it out, I looked at the tracks and then saw the footprints. I thought the footprints would be more interesting, but when we took it to the museum, they were excited about the trackways - much more than I expected,” she said.
Melissa Grey, curator at the Joggins Fossil Centre, said the find is an example of the role the museum has to play in chronicling Nova Scotia’s prehistoric record. It also shows the average person can find fossils on the beach at Joggins.
“You don’t have to be a paleontologist or expert to find fossils,” Grey said, adding Levy’s name will go down in the collection as the finder. “She has added to the science of the site and it’s something of scientific interest and value.”
“It gives us a lot of good information on how these animals walked and moved. We can see changes along the pathway from where it was walking straight to a turn.”
She said what’s interesting is two sets of trackways on the same slab or rock and the fact they are heading in the same direction, possibly one right after the other.
“They are both very well preserved and that’s what makes them incredible,” said Grey. “We have examples of both sets of trackways in our collection already, but what makes these rarer to find is to find two different set of trackways on one slab and so well preserved.”
She said the discovery will be part of the centre’s permanent collection.
Matt Stimson, who is a doctorate student at St. Mary’s University and the assistant curator of geology and paleontology with the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, has spent many hours on the beach at Joggins stretching back into his youth.
He has only seen photos of what Levy found and hopes to borrow the specimen so he can research it more. He’s excited just from looking at the photos.
“It’s one of the best I’ve seen,” Stimson said.
Trackways of arthropleura are common in the Maritimes, Stimson said, but the size of what Levy found is unique in that they appear smaller. Adults were half of a metre wide and two metres long.
“This is a juvenile, and we don’t have many examples of trackways in the size, which makes it quite unique,” he said. “I’ve been working on studying these types trackways, these arthopleura footprints from Joggins, for a long time. One of the things with Joggins is studies take a long time because fossils slowly erode out of the cliffs and they have to be found and studied. You can't just go into the site and excavate and dig out all the specimens. When something like this pops up you get excited.”
The other thing that’s unique is the size of the specimen in its length.
“It gives us a lot of good information on how these animals walked and moved,” Stimson said. “We can see changes along the pathway from where it was walking straight to a turn.”
Tim Fedak, the curator of geology with the Nova Scotia Museum, said the specimen provides a snapshot in time back to when Joggins was part of Pangea. He said the Joggins area and around to Parrsboro are very fortunate to have this impressive fossil record.
“It’s such a three-dimensional look at both species and they’re located side-by-side, and going in the same direction,” he said. “It’s such a dramatic trackway. The quality of it and potential skin impression are impressive.”
He said the animals created the trackway by stepping in really soft mud, likely just after a rainfall. If was still raining when the animals walked across their tracks would be washed away.
“It stopped raining and still quite soupy,” he said. “It’s perfect consistency. The animal steps in it and its foot makes that perfect record and then dries out. It’s a small, little tiny time window when that mud was just perfect after a rain 300 million years ago.”