Mistaken Point is a thin and short stretch of beach on the southern coast of Newfoundland, north-western Canada. This beach contains one of the world’s most important assemblages of fossils embedded within its bedrock. The property contains fossilised representations of the world’s biota in the Ediacaran period – just before the Cambrian explosion that heralds the diversification of the animal kingdom – and thus provides a unique glimpse at the evolutionary history of the planet’s biodiversity.
MIXED NATURAL & CULTURAL WORLD HERITAGE SITE
2016: Inscribed on the World Heritage List under natural criterion viii
STATEMENT OF OUTSTANDING UNIVERSAL VALUE
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee issued the following Statement of Outstanding Universal Value at the time of inscription:
Mistaken Point is a globally significant Ediacaran fossil site almost entirely located within Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve on the south-eastern tip of the island of Newfoundland in eastern Canada. The 146-hectare property consists of a narrow, 17-kilometre-long strip of rugged naturally-eroding coastal cliffs, with an additional 74 hectares adjoining its landward margin designated as a buffer zone. The superbly exposed, 2-kilometre-thick rock sequence of deep marine origin at Mistaken Point dates to the middle Ediacaran Period (580 to 560 million years ago) and contains exquisitely preserved assemblages of the oldest abundant and diverse, large fossils known anywhere. More than 10,000 fossil impressions, ranging from a few centimetres to nearly 2 metres in length, are readily visible for scientific study and supervised viewing along the coastline of Mistaken Point. These fossils illustrate a critical watershed in the early history of life on Earth: the appearance of large, biologically complex organisms, including the first ancestral animals. Most of the fossils are rangeomorphs, an extinct group of fractal organisms positioned near the base of animal evolution. These soft-bodied creatures lived on the deep sea floor, and were buried and preserved in exceptional detail by influxes of volcanic ash – each layer of ash creating an “Ediacaran Pompeii.” Modern erosion has exhumed more than 100 fossil sea-floor surfaces, ranging from small beds with single fossils to larger surfaces adorned with up to 4,500 megafossils. The animals died where they lived, and their resultant fossil assemblages preserve both the morphology of extinct groups of ancestral animals and the ecological structure of their ancient communities. Radiometric dating of the volcanic ash beds that directly overlie the fossil-bearing surfaces is providing a detailed chronology for 20 million years in the early evolution of complex life.
Criterion (viii): Mistaken Point fossils constitute an outstanding record of a critical milestone in the history of life on Earth, “when life got big” after almost three billion years of microbe dominated evolution. The fossils range in age from 580 to 560 million years, the longest continuous record of Ediacara-type megafossils anywhere, and predate by more than 40 million years the Cambrian explosion, being the oldest fossil evidence of ancestors of most modern animal groups. Mistaken Point contains the world’s oldest-known examples of large, architecturally complex organisms, including soft-bodied, ancestral animals. Ecologically, Mistaken Point contains the oldest and most diverse examples of Ediacaran deep-sea communities in the world thus preserving rare insights into the ecology of these ancestral animals and the early colonization of the deep-sea floor. Other attributes contributing to the property’s Outstanding Universal Value include the world’s first examples of metazoan locomotion, exceptional potential for radiometric dating of the assemblages, and evidence for the role of ancient oxygen levels in the regional and global appearance of complex multicellular life.
The clearly defined property boundary encompasses coastal exposures preserving all the features that convey its Outstanding Universal Value. All of the key fossils and strata are within the property. The width of the property and its buffer zone, which in large part corresponds to the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, are sufficient to absorb the very gradual, long-term retreat of the coastline due to natural erosion. The natural erosion of the site will refresh the fossil exposures over time. The vast majority of Mistaken Point’s fossils – including several type specimens – remain in situ in the field and are thus available for study in their ecological context. Several hundred fossil specimens were collected prior to Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve being established; most of these are currently housed in the Royal Ontario Museum and form the bulk of the type specimens for taxa named and defined from Mistaken Point. Nonetheless the property is thought to contain more specimens of Ediacara-type impression fossils than the sum total of every museum collection on Earth. Few traces of past human activities remain and none directly affect the property’s key attributes. Visitation to the site is modest and strictly controlled. The prospect of modern development within or adjacent to the property is minimal and does not impinge upon its coastal outcrops. Incidents of vandalism are very rare and no successful fossil thefts have occurred since the property was designated as an ecological reserve in 1987. No inhabitants reside permanently within the property or its buffer zone.
Protection and Management Requirements
The property is provincially owned and is managed by the Parks and Natural Areas Division of the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Environment and Conservation. Virtually all of the property, plus most of its buffer zone, lie within Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve which is protected under the Province’s Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Act (1980) and Fossil Ecological Reserve Regulations (2009). With one exception, the remaining portions of the property and buffer zone are protected as Crown Lands Reserves under the provincial Lands Act (1991). Only one small part (0.5 percent) of the buffer zone has been identified as private land; current and anticipated land use is complementary to the rest of the buffer zone. The property’s key coastal exposures are further protected by the ecological reserve’s Fossil Protection Zone; access to this zone is by permit only. Undertaking activities such as scientific research at Mistaken Point requires a permit issued by the managing agency. Development is prohibited within the ecological reserve. The comprehensive management plan developed for the property and its buffer zone is adaptive and will be revised as required. Input from local residents regarding management issues is channelled through the property’s World Heritage Advisory Council. For management purposes, the property is best treated as a finite fossil site. Except for official salvage of scientifically valuable specimens, collecting fossils is illegal. For conservation reasons, public viewing of the fossils is by guided tour only. Daily patrols of the property are conducted year-round and a volunteer Fossil Guardian Program is in operation. The most significant threats to be managed are the ongoing issue of change resulting from natural erosion processes, and impacts of human activity. Under the monitoring plan, vulnerable fossil localities are regularly surveyed and any problems documented. The rate of erosion appears very slow and any loss of fossils to erosion may be offset by new exposures. Monitoring processes should trigger appropriately considered management responses to document fossil evidence, if any significant losses from erosion are identified. The carrying capacity of the property is limited and the cumulative environmental impact of visitation is closely monitored and limited. Limited signs and visitor access to aid presentation of the property are carefully designed and sited to avoid adverse impacts upon the property’s Outstanding Universal Value. Through its long-term pledge to provide operational funding and staffing, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is committed to ensure that the highest possible standards of protection and presentation are maintained in the property.
2016: The site is inscribed as a World Heritage site under natural criterion viii.
IUCN MANAGEMENT CATEGORY
II National Park
Canadian Taiga (1.4.3)
The property is situated within the Newfoundland and Labrador Province. It is located on the southern coast of Newfoundland, the island portion of Canada’s most easterly province, contiguous with the North Atlantic. The southern coast of Newfoundland spans an arc between the headland of Cape Race to the east and the community of Portugal Cove South, to the West. The property spans a 17 km long stretch of coast along Newfoundland’s southern coastline, extending from Daley’s Point (1 km south of Portugal Cove South) to Shingle Head (4.5 km southeast of Cape Race).
DATES AND HISTORY OF ESTABLISHMENT
1967: Fossils are first discovered at Mistaken Point by researchers from the University of Newfoundland;
1970s: Research is undertaken at Mistaken Point to validate the authenticity of fossils discovered;
1987: Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve is established by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, thus making fossil collection illegal;
2003: An emergency extension of the reserve’s boundary is declared in light of new fossils being found outside of the existing reserve;
2004: The property is added to Canada’s Tentative List of World Heritage properties;
2016: The property is inscribed as a World Heritage site under natural criterion viii.
The property consists of provincial Crown lands, areas owned by government and administered by the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Newfoundland and Labrador government has the constitutional authority to create legislature that dictates the use of provincial crown lands. Additionally, the buffer zone is also provincial crown lands, though it includes the Cape Race Road, which is owned by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Approximately 0.4 ha (0.5% of the buffer zone) at Long Beach are owned by the provincial government, but are crown grants issued in the 1870s and are, in essence, privately owned.
The property covers 146 ha and has an additional buffer zone of 74 ha.
The property is coastal, and as such spans from sea level to the property’s highest cliffs, at approximately 80 metres above sea level (a.s.l).
Newfoundland’s rocks demonstrate the opening and closing of an ancient ocean known as lapetus. The island of Newfoundland is located at the north-easterly extremity of the Applachian Oregen, the eroded mountainous remnants of when the lapetus Ocean closed (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador 2009). The coastline is predominantly composed of bedrock formed in the Precambrian period, which spanned from 4,600 to 540 million years ago, and then overlain by a four metre thick sheet of unconsolidated gravel in the late Pleistocene, which ended around 10,000 years ago. Approximately 90% of the property’s shoreline contains exposed bedrock, whilst the remaining shoreline consists of cobble-grade gravel beaches, the longest of which is 375 metres in length. There are five formations within the property: Fermeuse, Trepassey, Briscal, Drook and Mistaken Point itself. These formations consist largely of mudstones and sandstones, and vary in regard to their constituent lithologies and average bedding thickness; as such, although there are some distinctive weathering characteristics, there are no consistent differences in geomorphological expressions.
The property spans the windswept south-eastern coast of the Avalon Peninsular in Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador Province. The coastline is characterised by rock platforms, cliffs ranging from 1 to 76 metres in height, small coves and stony beaches. The property’s soil is acidic, nutrient poor and peaty. The peat layer is thickest in areas of blanket bog, but the soil is generally thin and very susceptible to erosion. The glaciated and windswept landscape has a moderately rolling topography interspersed with blanket bogs, numerous streams and six major tributaries that flow into the Atlantic.
The region has a mid-boreal oceanic climate, with relatively short cool summers and mild and wet winters. Climatic data originating 40 km southwest of Port Cove South shows that average February temperatures are -4.1oC and average July temperatures are 13.3oC. The area receives around 1,400 mm of rainfall each year, with an additional 140 mm of snowfall in the winter months. On the south-eastern coast of Newfoundland, the prevailing wind direction is south-westerly, particularly in the summer months, with speeds reaching 120 km/hr during storms. Fog is a frequent occurrence, forming when moist air warmed by the Gulf Stream condenses over the colder Labrador Current. In the spring, one can see icebergs that have been calved from the glaciers in western Greenland. The area is prone to storms, ranging from blizzards in the winter to hurricanes in the late summer.
Surveys within the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve have recorded at least 150 plant species. There are very few arboreal species found within the property, with the few that do survive residing in valleys and depressions so as to escape the high winds present in the property. The Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), known locally as ‘tuckamore’, is one of the few arboreal species present in the predominantly heath terrain. Many of the property’s plants are low-lying and berry producing species familiar to wide swathes of the northern hemisphere, such as cloudberry, lingonberry, blueberry and cranberry. The ability of insectivorous plants to survive in nitrogen poor soils makes them well suited for the property and is a leading factor in the property’s populations of sundews and pitcher plants. With regard to the marine realm, a variety of algal species (seaweeds) can be found within the property’s intertidal zone and kelp beds further out to sea. Kelp is especially abundant at Long Cove and at the mouth of Watern Cove. There are no known endemic plant species within the property, or plant species of any particular conservation concern.
The property contains fossil remnants of fauna that lived approximately 580 to 560 million years ago. Although in appearance they seem very different to the animal species living within the property, some of them had an ecology that is not too dissimilar from existing species, including bilaterians, cnidarians and poriferans (Droser & Gehling 2015). Some of the earliest demonstrations of faunal motility are found, showing perhaps some of the earliest evidence of locomotion (Liu et al. 2010). Most fossilised animal species were epibenthic and osmotrophic filter feeders (Xiao & Laflamme 2009). There is still much to learn from the organisms of the Ediacaran period, making sites like Mistaken Point all the more important, as they offer rare glimpses at the planet’s biota before more complex life-forms increasingly occupied the world.
Since this is a geoheritage site, there have been no comprehensive reviews of the faunal diversity that currently resides within the property, and there is only a brief description of the major species groups in the property’s nomination file. The property supports both terrestrial mammals, such as moose, red fox and mink, and marine mammals such as harbour and Atlantic grey seals, which are often seen just offshore from the property’s coast. Cetacean species, which are most often seen in summer, include porpoises, humpback and minke whales.
A survey of the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve has indicated that more than 180 bird species have been sighted within the property and its adjacent waters. Furthermore, the coastline of the nominated property falls within a Canadian Important Bird Area, called Mistaken Point. This area is particularly for congregatory species such as purple sandpipers and common eiders, which have wintering populations here. The property incorporates several seabird colonies, most notably the ones found at ‘Rookery’ and ‘Freshwater Cove’. These colonies predominantly support black-legged kittiwakes, which a 2009 survey showed included over 4,000 pairs. Other bird species found within the property include the common murre, razorbill, Atlantic puffin, black guillemot, herring gull and double-crested cormorant. In August and September, the property’s avifauna is expanded by hundreds of southward-bound nesting shorebirds coming from the Arctic, especially the American golden-plovers and whimbrels. August also marks the time when, in foggy conditions, tens of thousands of sooty and great shearwaters pursue capelin, a keystone forage fish found especially around Portugal Cove South.
The property’s invertebrate, amphibian and reptile fauna has been little studied; however, two invertebrate species are known to occur: blackflies and the short-tailed swallowtail butterfly. Finally, brook trout are found in streams and isolated ponds inland from the property.
The property’s conservation value lies unequivocally within the bedrock of the property’s coastline. This coastline contains thousands of fossil impressions of soft-bodied ancestral animals from the Ediacaran Period (635 to 541 million years ago (mya)), though most notably the middle Ediacaran period (580 – 560 mya) (Narbonne 2011). This geological period was ratified in 2004 and is the first new addition to the Geologic Time Scale in more than a century (Knoll et al. 2004). This period is a key stage in life’s history from the single-celled and microscopic life that defines the Precambrian to the more advanced life forms found in the Cambrian period, notably in the sudden appearance of trilobite. The fossils found within the property help visualising the phylogenetic continuum between these two stages. The fossils themselves are incredibly diverse, ranging from a few centimetres to nearly two metres, and are generally regarded as the first ancestral animals of the Ediacaran biota. Unlike other Ediacaran sites globally, the fossils in the property are at the top of exposed beds, making them easily observable by scientists and the public.
There is no evidence that there was any human habitation within the property before European explorers and fishermen first discovered the coastline of Mistaken Point. European fishing and settlement along the Cape Race-Portugal Cove South coastline goes back 500 years. Within the property and its buffer zone, there are clear signs of former habitation, commercial fishing and agricultural activity, with the first known community established in 1622. There is some speculation whether Gaspar Corte-Real, the Portuguese explorer, may have been the first European to see the coast during his 1501 voyage around Cape Race. The property is first recorded on a map in 1602, with Cape Race listed as ‘Cabo Raso’, which translates from Portuguese to ‘flat cape’. Within the century, vessels from several European countries were travelling to the property’s coastline to exploit the abundant cod populations. The first known settlement in the area was Trepassey, to the west of what is now Portugal Cove South, and founded in approximately 1622. By 1715, Mistaken Point was also mapped by John Gaudy, and later by Captain Cook in 1770. It was not until the 1790s that Portugal Cove South itself was founded by the Irish settler William Hartery. Throughout the 19th Century, increasing numbers of people lived in the area, predominantly from Ireland, and new settlements were created to ease the demand for space in busier conurbations. Some of these new settlements, for example Bobs Cove, Bristy Cove and Pigeon Cove were used seasonally, whilst areas such as the Drook and Long Beach were settled on a more permanent basis. None of the sporadic shoreline settlements grew to more than a dozen individuals, and eventually all were abandoned. In the 1940s, seasonal fishing camps and small settlements were present along the coast, with fences, walls, trails and pastures still being discernible within the property. By the 1960s, the last of the residents moved to the larger community of Portugal Cove South or further afield.
LOCAL HUMAN POPULATION
There are no permanent residents living within the property itself. The Southern Avalon Peninsula generally, and especially the local environs of Portugal Cove South, are sparsely populated. The main factor in this regional depopulation was the closure of the commercial cod fishery in 1992. Consequently, since the early 1990s there has been a precipitous decline in the local population from approximately 380 inhabitants of Portugal Cove South in the 1970s to 130 inhabitants in 2013. This downward trend is expected to continue in the immediate future.
VISITORS AND VISITOR FACILITIES
The Edge of Avalon Interpretive Centre (hereafter ‘Avalon centre’) in Portugal Cove South acts as the property’s interpretation and communication centre. It is conveniently located adjacent to the Route 10 highway, the only starting point for all guided visits to the property. Approximately one third of the centre’s exhibit space is dedicated to the natural history of Mistaken Point. The centre acts as a useful means of outreach to individuals who cannot reach the less accessible interior of the property. The property itself only has a footpath and signage. Guided tours are run daily for tourists in the peak season from May to October, though access is only on foot, with no motorized vehicles allowed.
SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AND FACILITIES
The scientific importance of the property started to be realised in the late 1960s. In June 1967, Shiva Balak Misra and Paul Thompson, both from the University of Newfoundland, were mapping the Precambrian rocks along Newfoundland’s southeast coast when they came across a fossil and realised the potential significance of the site. The site is first mentioned in the scientific literature in 1968, in the Appendices of a two-page note to the Journal Nature. In the coming years, there was some significant academic debate regarding the authenticity and supportable conclusions arising from the property, and more than 30 years would pass before the basic but essential palaeontological work of systematically describing fossil types would be completed. Since the 1960s, multiple research groups from around the world have undertaken research within the property, including some of the world’s leading universities. As of 2015, there have been approximately 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles that focus on some aspect of the property. However, facilities for scientific research are limited, with the Avalon centre being the nearest building with basic research facilities. All scientific research requires a permit from the Parks and Natural Areas Division.
There are several management plans that relate to the property, the most relevant of which is the management plan for the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve. This management plan was created in 2009 and will remain until it is modified through public consultation. The plan has four main goals: protect the integrity of the fossils, promote and maintain active research and monitoring, provide high-quality educational and sustainable tourism and maintain active partnerships with local communities and other organisations. The property’s management plan complements this Ecological Reserve management plan by outlining additional support, monitoring and reporting, so as to ensure that the Outstanding Universal Value of the property is maintained. The property’s management plan was created in consultation with the local community and has been designed to be collaborative and far-sighted. As per the property’s management plan, a new authority, the Mistaken Point World Heritage Advisory Council, will be created now that the property is inscribed on the World Heritage List. This council will advise the government of Newfoundland and Labrador on how to best manage the property and buffer zone (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador 2013).
There are two main types of management constraint to the property: human induced and natural constraints. Human impacts in the past included the seasonal impact of fishing camps and settlements, though this has since stopped without any perceivable impact on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property. More recently, the most likely detrimental impact by humans was fossil collection from the 1970s onwards, which has led to holes in bedding plains and removed specimens. It is estimated that between 200 and 250 fossil specimens have been removed. The last known major attempt at fossil theft occurred in 1998, and was foiled by local residents. Other, and even less common impacts, include the legal and illegal conduction of fossil moulds, which can leave silicon residue and general vandalism of the property. Natural constraints occur on a more frequent basis, predominantly in the form of coastal erosion from waves and wind, though the rate of erosion is not considered unsustainable and does bring the benefit of uncovering new fossils.
The property’s staff are based in the regional office at Portugal Cove South and the Parks and Natural Areas Division headquarters in Corner Brook, hundreds of kilometres away on the west coast of Newfoundland. There are five staff dedicated to the conservation of Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, based in the Avalon centre in Portugal Cove South. The staff consist of a reserve manager, a geologist, two interpreters and often a summer student. Oversight for the property is undertaken by staff in Corner Brook. Additional staff at Corner Brook also provide ecological and spatial (GIS) skillsets to the property. In response to a predicted increase in tourist numbers in the future, the property will likely expand its staff to 13, with a combination of seasonal and full-time positions.
Currently, because the property overlaps with the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is the primary source of financing. To support staff and cover maintenance costs, the provincial government provides CAD 390,000 (USD 290,816) annually to the Parks and Natural Areas Division. This sum was planned to increase to CAD 500,000 (USD 372,842) in 2016 and 2017 so as to accommodate enhanced protection efforts. The Parks and Natural Areas Division works collaboratively with the Cape Race-Portugal Cove South Heritage Inc., who own the Avalon centre. This centre acts as a gateway to the property and has an operating budget of CAD 150,000 (USD 111,852) per year alongside considerable volunteer support.
Parks and Natural Areas Division, Department of Environment and Conservation P.O. Box 550/117 Riverside Drive, Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, A2H 636 Tel : (709) 637-2040
The principal sources for the above information were the original nomination for World Heritage status, the IUCN evaluation report and the site’s management plan.
Droser, M.L. & Gehling, J.G. (2015). The advent of animals: The view from the Ediacaran. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112(16): 4865–4870.
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. (2009). Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve Management Plan., Corner Brook, NL.
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. (2013). Mistaken Point World Heritage Site Management Plan, Corner Brook, NL.
Knoll, A.H. et al. (2004). A new period for the geologic time scale. Science 305: 621–622.
Liu, A.G., Mcllroy, D. & Brasier, M.D. (2010). First evidence for locomotion in the Ediacara biota from the 565 Ma Mistaken Point Formation, Newfoundland. Geology 38(2): 123–126.
Narbonne, G.M. (2011). Evolutionary biology: When life got big. Nature 470: 339–340.
Xiao, S. & Laflamme, M. (2009). On the eve of animal radiation: phylogeny, ecology and evolution of the Ediacara biota. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24(1): 31–40.