Visiting Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, and Some of the Oldest Creatures on Earth
Where to Find It
Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve is located at Mistaken Point (so named because it was often mistaken by sailors for Cape Race, a port located a further 19 km south) just outside of Portugal Cove South, a small fishing community on the southeast tip of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula. It takes approximately two hours by car from St. John's, the capital city of Newfoundland, to cover the 138 km (85.7 miles) of the Southern Shore Highway to the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Center. From here it is another 2.5 km (approximately 1.5 miles) along the dirt road to Cape Race to reach the walking trail that takes visitors to the site.
Though local residents knew for years about the unusual shapes in the rocks at Mistaken Point they had no idea of what they were or their significance. It wasn't until 1967 that the site was officially discovered. In June of that year, a then graduate student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, geologist Shiva Balak Misra was at Mistaken Point working on his graduate thesis when he discovered this rich fossil bed. One of the fossils was later named for him: Fractofusus Misrai.
The site was established as a provisional Reserve in 1984 and was designated as permanent in 1987. It was expanded in 2003 to encompass an area of newly discovered fossils.
The tilted mudstone and sandstone cliffs that make up Mistaken point's rugged coastline was, some 560 to 575 million years ago, back when Newfoundland was in the southern hemisphere, part of the sea floor. This rock contains the fossilized remains of the oldest complex life forms found anywhere on earth. The oldest and most spectacular collection of these fossils is located in the 5.7 square kilometer area that makes up the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, and is the only place on earth where it is possible to view such an accurately preserved example of ancient deep sea life. These Ediacaran Period creatures, known as Ediacara Biota, lived in the oceans between 575 and 542 million years ago.
The creatures that make up the collection of fossils at Mistaken Point were deep ocean dwellers that lived far below the reaches of sunlight and the action of waves, at a time when all life was in the water. It was also a time when all living creatures were soft bodied; they had not yet developed any kind of skeleton. Normally with marine life when the organism dies the soft parts rot away and it is the hard, skeletal parts, such as bones and shells, that remain and become fossilized. In the case of Mistaken Point, it was being rapidly buried by layers of volcanic ash that allowed these soft bodied creatures to become extremely accurately preserved in the soft mud that composed the sea floor. Another lucky occurrence here is that these layers of volcanic ash contain zircon, which allows scientists to date the various fossil layers with a fair amount of accuracy.
Though fossils this old are extremely rare they are not unique to Mistaken Point. Fossils of a similar age have been found in both Russia and Australia. What is unique to Mistaken Point is the variety of life forms, the quantity of fossils, and the quality of their preservation.
Some of the Wide Variety of Fossils that can be Seen at Mistaken Point
Planning Your Visit
Guided tours of the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve are available from late May to early October. Because access is only permitted by guided tour it is very important when planning your trip to call ahead and book your space, as tours are often full. It is also important to arrive at the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Center at least 30 minutes before the tour begins to allow time to view the exhibits there before heading out.
From the interpretive centre there is a 2.5 km drive along the dirt road that leads to Cape Race to reach the walking trail that takes visitors to the site. You can drive your own vehicle or use the transportation that is provided. If you do decide to take your own vehicle it will have to be left at the trail head as access to the reserve is by foot only. There are no motorized vehicles permitted on the site.
The walking trail is a moderately difficult hike along 2 km of barrens and rocky coastline, and takes approximately 30 minutes to complete each way. It is highly recommended that proper hiking footwear be worn as the trail can be muddy and wet in places, and the terrain sometimes difficult. One should also bring warm clothing and proper rain wear as this is an open country trail along the coastline where the weather can change rapidly and cold, foggy and damp conditions are often encountered. It is also a good idea to bring bottled water and a snack, as the tour can last up to four hours.
Currently the scientists and other staff that manage the reserve are preparing for what they expect to be a significant increase in visitors to the site in light of it receiving a UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, world heritage site designation in July of 2016.
Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve is a unique opportunity and should be on the to-do list of every visitor to Newfoundland, or the reason to plan a visit to this beautiful, historic, and culturally rich island. Nowhere else in the world can you walk on a sea floor that is over 500 million years old, and see the creatures that lived there almost perfectly preserved. This should be a bucket list item for anyone interested in the natural history of our world.