Carboniferous Compendium

Good day folks! I am writing to you from my new home for the next little while in River Hebert. It is a town of less than 500 hundred people, situated adjacent to a lesser populated town called Joggins in Northwestern Nova Scotia. Joggins is home to the Joggins Fossil Center and the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, collectively known as the Joggins Fossil Institute. In 2008, Joggins was dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition, it is a town that is known for its rich history and participation in the coal mining industry, mainly during the 19th century.

I have been fortunate enough to have an offer of employment for the summer at the Fossil Institute. My job as a Geologic Interpreter is to lead tours of the Fossil Cliffs and explain the history, geology and paleontology to visitors. The tours are 30 minutes, 2 hours, or 4 hours in duration. When I am not interpreting, I help out at the admissions desk/gift shop. I am also assisting the curator of the Fossil Center, Dr. Melissa Grey, in photographing and cataloguing fossils. My hope is that this job will kick-start my career in geology and paleontology, as it is my first official full-time, albeit temporary, job in the Earth Sciences.

The Fossil Cliffs at Joggins span 15 million years of geologic time within the Carboniferous period, and the UNESCO site spans 15 kilometers. Because the bedding in the cliff is tilted, one would walk back through geologic time as they head north along the beach. Alternatively, if one were to head southward, they would be walking ahead through time. Therefore, for each kilometer that you walk, you are essentially walking through 1 million years of time. That also works out to be 1000 years for every meter. So essentially, you would walk through nearly 1000 years of geologic time with every step. Think about that for a brief minute and make an effort to put it into perspective.

The Carboniferous is a period of time (otherwise known as the “Coal Age”) and spans approximately 300 to 360 million years ago. This time frame is approximately 100 million years earlier than when the first dinosaurs evolved! The World Heritage Site is absolutely peppered with immaculately preserved fossils. Most of these are of former plant life, including fossilized tree roots, leaf impressions, and entire sections of “stone trees.” In addition, there is ample evidence for animal life including the world’s first terrestrial (land) snail called Dendropupa, and the largest known terrestrial invertebrate, a 2 meter long millipede named Arthropleura. But the real kicker is this: Joggins is home to the earliest known reptile (Hylonomus lyelli), the “great-great-grandmother” of all dinosaurs. Its fossilized and disarticulated skeleton was found inside a tree stump in 1852 by a Nova Scotian geologist, Sir William Dawson. Dawson was initially sent to Joggins to study the coal and attempt to decipher the conditions of its formation. He is also the namesake for the undergraduate geological society at Dalhousie University, the Dawson Geology Club.

Hylonomus was the first animal to ever adapt to a fully terrestrial lifestyle, and is the earliest known ancestor to all amniotes (four-limbed animals with a vertebra who lay their eggs on land, or the fertilized egg is retained within the mother). This includes modern day reptiles such as lizards and alligators, as well as birds, dinosaurs, and mammals. It is quite accurate that if Hylonomus was never able to fully adapt to a life on land, you or I would not be here writing or reading this post. Allow that to sink in for a moment.

In conclusion, I feel extremely fortunate to know what I want to do with my life and the direction I want my career to go in. The majority of the population is not so privileged. My time at Joggins has confirmed this very quickly, and I am very much looking forward to the remainder of the summer here in Joggins.

joggins

Standing beneath a fossilized lycopod tree (approximately 300 million years old) at the Joggins Fossil Cliffs. Photo Credit: Dana Brown.

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