How can a place that holds a key to the evolution of life be named Mistaken Point? Located on the southeastern tip of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula between Portugal Cove South and Cape Race, Mistaken Point is a two-hour drive south of St. John’s on Route 10, the Irish Loop Drive. Early sailors often confused the Mistaken Point promontory with Cape Race, so it was named Mistaken Point.
Why did UNESCO designate the Ecological Reserve as a World Heritage Site in 2016? The 146-ha (361-acre) property and its buffer zone protect fossils of the oldest complex multicellular life forms found on Earth from the middle Ediacaran Period (580-560 million years ago).
MISSING LINK IN THE EVOLUTION OF LIFE
The UNESCO site’s 17-km (11-mi.) strip of coastal cliffs represents a significant milestone in the history of life. After nearly three billion years of microbial evolution, these large multicellular organisms appeared in deepsea communities. The more than 10,000 known fossil impressions, now exposed by erosion, range in size from a few centimetres to nearly two metres (6.5 ft.) long.
Deposition of volcanic ash helped create exceptionally well-preserved imprints of the soft-bodied creatures, where they lived and died on more than
100 sea floor surfaces—in what has been called an “Ediacaran Pompeii.” The 20 fossil species at Mistaken Point vary from fronds to a sponge-like organism. Researchers believe that the site contains more Ediacaran Period impression fossils than in the total collections of all the world’s museums.
At the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Centre in Portugal Cove South, visitors can watch a video about Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve and the global significance of its fossils. Exhibits include fossils and a casting of E surface, one of the most impressive fossil beds. Visitors learn about regulations to protect themselves and the fossils during tours, such as bringing appropriate footwear, rain gear, sunscreen and insect repellent. Dogs, vehicles— including bicycles, and collecting rocks and fossils are all prohibited.
The only way visitors can view the fossils is on guided tours which depart from the interpretive centre daily from late May to early October. In-person or phone reservations are required (tel: 709-438-1011).
Parks and Natural Areas Division interpreters lead four-hour tours to the fossil vantage point. Participants drive their own vehicles on a gravel road, following the guide to the trailhead. The six-km (four-mi.) round-trip hike is moderately difficult because the trail can be wet or muddy, with some inclines and a shallow river crossing with stepping stones.
During their walk, visitors see some of the 150 plant species recorded in the reserve, such as cloudberries, blueberries, cranberries and insectivorous sundews. Hikers with binoculars may identify some of the 180 bird species that have been sighted, including black-legged kittiwakes, other cliff-nesting seabirds and migrating Arctic-nesting shorebirds. Short-tailed swallowtail butterflies, red fox, woodland caribou, moose and other mammals inhabit the reserve.
Offshore sightings of humpback and minke whales, harbour and Atlantic grey seals and harbour porpoises also delight participants.
Wildlife viewing is an added bonus to experiencing a fossil snapshot of life on the sea floor a half-billion years ago.
MISTAKEN POINT ECOLOGICAL RESERVE • NL TOURISM/BARRETT & MACKAY More information www.env.gov.nl.ca/env/parks/wer/r_mpe/ www.parkscanada.gc.ca/mistakenpoint whc.unesco.org/en/list/1497