When unpacking the PEI fossil, researchers get goosebumps

The Cape Egmont fossil, PEI, appears to be in good condition after months of storage.  (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC - photo credit)

The Cape Egmont fossil, PEI, appears to be in good condition after months of storage. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC – photo credit)

Researchers have gotten their first look at how a PEI fossil has fared over the past few months, and things are looking good.

The fossil – which they believe could be 300 million years old – was discovered last August by island school teacher Lisa Cormier while walking on the beach at Cape Egmont.

After excavation, the fossil was transported to Parks Canada’s building in Greenwich, PEI

Matt Stimson is a fossil footprint expert and associate curator of geology and paleontology at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, NB

He was in Greenwich on Tuesday to help prepare the fossil for his trip to Carleton University in Ottawa.

Submitted by John Calder

Submitted by John Calder

Stimson said getting the fossil off the beach was literally a race against the tide.

“The fossil was down in the intertidal zone, so it’s covered at high tide and water,” he said.

“We had to dig pretty deep, like two, two and a half feet all around, to basically dig up a big block with the skeleton and dig under it.”

He said the copy came out in parts.

“But that’s okay. The skeleton and main body remained intact,” he said.

Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC

Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC

Stimson said there are many steps to identifying a fossil.

First, he said, document where it’s physically located on the beach, what layer of rock it’s in, and what it looks like before you start digging.

“So we took a lot of photos to create a three-dimensional model of the specimen, which is what we did. Just in case something goes wrong and just in case you break something while digging up the fossil,” he said.

He said the fossil was coated with a thin layer of polyvinyl acetate or liquid plastic to solidify it during excavation.

Unpack excitement and relief

Stimson said the process worked well and the fossil appears to be in good condition – a great relief to him and others involved in the project.

Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC

Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC

“You never really know how a fossil will react when it dries up. The specimen was completely inundated with water every day, twice a day with the tide, so it could rupture after drying out,” Stimson said.

He was accompanied to Greenwich by John Calder, a part-time faculty member at Saint Mary’s University who works on fossil finds on behalf of the PEI government and Parks Canada.

It’s impossible not to get goosebumps. It’s an amazing discovery. —John Calder

Stimson said on the way there that neither of them knew what to expect.

“Once we open the boxes we are very excited to see that all the bones are still in place and it’s pretty much as we left it a few months ago,” he said.

“Finding a complete skeleton like Lisa Cormier found is extremely rare and it’s a once or twice in a lifetime kind of discovery.”

Stimson said Post-Tropical Storm Fiona complicated plans for the fossil as there were other cleanup and repair priorities for Parks Canada and the province.

Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC

Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC

Calder said someone from the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation will be driving the fossil to Ottawa soon.

“To me, that shows the commitment that both the PEI government and Parks Canada are making, which is very nice because you have a fantastic history of fossil life here on PEI,” he said.

“It really deserves a museum.”

At Carleton University, the fossil is being studied by vertebrate paleontologist Hillary Maddin and her team.

Jessica Doria Brown

Jessica Doria Brown

Calder said the fossil will likely undergo a CT scan, and then the arduous work will begin.

“Pulling the bones out of this rock is going to be a challenge because the rock is very soft and will break apart easily,” Calder said.

“Keeping those bones intact while you get rid of the rock that’s holding them together, wow, that’s going to be a tricky situation. This work will probably take a year.”

Calder estimates it will be a year before the specimen is described in a scientific journal and given a name.

Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC

Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC

“I’ve got goosebumps right now. It’s always so exciting to see something that hasn’t seen the light of day in 300 million years, hasn’t been seen before… Just think about it. It’s impossible not to get goosebumps got it. It’s an amazing discovery.”

Calder said because of all the erosion from Fiona, he expects there will be more fossil finds on the PEI beaches this year.

“Keep your eyes open. If you see something while inside the park, bring it to the attention of Parks Canada, and if it’s outside the park, bring it to the attention of the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation,” he said.

“We collect an incredible variety of fossils.”


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