The Joggins Fossil Cliffs
The fossil cliffs of Joggins are a world-class palaeontological site, and they have been designated a Special Place under the Province of
Nova Scotia's Special Places Protection Act. Joggins is located near the head of the Bay of Fundy, in an area where the tides are some of the world's highest (over 15 meters). This tidal action causes steady erosion of the 23 meter high cliffs.
The cliffs have yielded fossils which give an unprecedented glimpse into life during the Carboniferous Period, including: a rich variety of flora; a diverse fauna of amphibians; some exciting trackways of the Arthropleura; and, some of the world's first reptiles.
The Carboniferous Period
The Carboniferous Period lasted from around 350 million years ago (mya) to about 280 mya.
The Joggins fossil cliffs became famous in 1851, when Charles Lyell, author of The Principles of Geology, and Sir William Dawson, author of Acadian Geology and Air Breathers of the Coal Period, visited the site. Joggins was famous for fossilized tree trunks found in their original positions. Some of these trees had been hollowed out after they had fallen down and were subsequently filled with sand. When Dawson and Lyell examined one of these stumps, they noticed tiny bones. These apparently insignificant bones turned out to be one of the most important fossil finds in Nova Scotia. They were, in fact, the remains of one of the world's first reptiles, and the first evidence that land animals had lived during the "Coal Age".
The Tree Stump Animals
The first reptiles on earth emerged 300 mya, and their remains have been found at Joggins in the hollow trunks of Lycopod trees. Dawson and Lyell discovered Hylonomous, a tiny reptile, or microsaur, as Dawson dubbed them, about 30 centimeters long. These tiny reptiles would in 100 million years evolve into the dinosaurs.
One widely held theory, first proposed by Dawson, was that animals such as Hylonomous fell into hollow tree stumps which had been snapped off and the exterior filled with sediment until they were up to ground level. The unsuspecting animal would have then fallen into the hollowed tree. Once trapped, Hylonomous and others either drowned immediately, starved to death, or survived for a time scavenging on previous victims, only to be eaten by the next.
Also found by Dawson and Lyell in the tree stumps were the remains of a primitive amphibian, Dendrerpeton acadianum. This animal reached lengths of 1 meter and probably looked a lot like a large salamander.
The largest creature at Joggins was an arthropod (an invertebrate with a hard jointed exoskeleton) called Arthropleura. At nearly 2 meters long, it looked very much like an extremely large sow bug. Arthropleura may have had as many as 30 pairs of legs, and their tracks, resembling Caterpillar tractor tracks, have also been found at Joggins.
Other creatures have been found in the stumps, including the world's oldest land snails (Pupa and Zonites, and a small, articulated worm-like creature called a gally worm.
A Final Note
The fossil cliffs of Joggins are a popular and important tourist spot. They are also the site of extremely important and fragile palaeontological deposits. Please remember that they are designated a "Protected Site" under the provincial Special Places Protection Act. It is illegal to collect fossils through any means without an approved Heritage Research Permit. Permit applications are available through the Heritage Division.
For more information contact:
Special Places, Heritage Promotion & Development
1747 Summer Street
Halifax, NS, Canada B3H 3A6
Suggested Further Reading
This page has relied heavily on two excellent Nova Scotia Museum publications. The first is entitled Dawning of the Dinosaurs: the story of Canada's oldest dinosaurs, by Harry Thurston (Nimbus Publishing, 1994). The second book is The Fossil Cliffs of Joggins by Laing Ferguson (Nova Scotia Museum, 1988).
Both of these books may be ordered from the Nova Scotia Museum.
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© 1996 Nova Scotia Museum