Imagine a place where you are able to pick up any old rock from the beach and be pretty sure it contains fossils as old as 350 million years, a time before even dinosaurs walked the Earth.
There is such a place in Nova Scotia.
The coastal cliffs along the Bay of Fundy are constantly assailed and eroded by extreme ocean tides and storms and reveal new fossils every day, making the surrounding cliffs and beaches the best places to go fossil hunting in Nova Scotia.
Recently, a biology instructor giving a tour to her students at Blue Beach in the Annapolis Valley stumbled over a fossilized ~350 million-year-old tetrapod skull — a rare fossil from the period when life first began to move permanently from the sea to land.
These fossils are especially significant because they help paleontologists answer a question that has perplexed them for years — a 20-million-year gap in the fossil record (called “Romer’s Gap”) had prevented them from finding fossil evidence to support the theory that creatures moved from water to land during this period.
The discoveries from fossil hunting in Nova Scotia, and these Blue Beach tetrapod fossils in particular, has put that question largely to rest. We can now show that creatures did indeed begin the transition from water to land about 350 million years ago.
Blue Beach is one of only two sites in the entire world where such fossils have been found. The other is in Scotland — curiously enough along the River Tweed, a waterway that was curated by my uncle for many years in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The Scottish fossils, however, are roughly five million years younger than those found in Nova Scotia.
Director Chris Mansky of the Blue Beach Fossil Museum and research project, said it comes down to the Bay of Fundy’s high tides, which erode the cliffs along the shoreline and reveal overnight the ancient natural history hidden in the rocky cliffs. But the tides can also take them away just as quickly — so when fossils are found, it’s important to act quickly.
What are fossils?
If you were to go fossil hunting in Nova Scotia, what would you be actually looking at when you found your first fossil? Surprisingly, when you look at a fossil you’re actually seeing a rock replica of the original organism, not the organism itself.
After an animal dies, the soft parts of its body decompose leaving behind the hard parts such as skeletons, teeth, or shells. Sometimes these are buried by small particles of rock called sediment and, as more layers pile up around the skeleton, the sediment begins to compact and turn to rock.
The bones are slowly dissolved by water seeping through the rock. Minerals in the water replace the bone leaving a rock replica of the original bone called a fossil.
Soft-bodied organisms, such as worms, are rarely fossilized but paths they leave in the sediment can leave fossilized tracks. We found a few of these when we recently visited Blue Beach and had a personal fossil tour with Director Mansky himself.
What fossil hunting in Nova Scotia can tell us
Fossils can tell scientists how the Earth has changed over the ages.
For example, fossils of an ancient marine animal called ammonites have been found in the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world. This tells scientists that millions of years ago the rocks that became the Himalayas were at the bottom of an ocean.
Similarly, fossils of an ancient giant shark (megalodon) have been found in the landlocked U.S. state of Utah. This tells scientists that millions of years ago, the middle of North America was probably entirely underwater.
In 2015 at Blue Beach, a new species of ancient creature was discovered and named after Chris (Avonichthys Manskyi).
That fossil showed that perhaps these types of animals did not all die out in the Devonian extinction as was previously thought. (The Devonian extinction was a series of global extinction events primarily affecting marine life between 419 million and 359 million years ago.)
This and other such discoveries at Blue Beach are the backbone of the research project underpinning the Blue Beach Fossil Museum and many scholarly papers have been written as a result. Chris said: “Blue Beach is actually rewriting our understanding of how we went from the age of fish to the age of life on land.”
Our day-trip to the Blue Beach Fossil Museum
As mentioned, we toured Blue Beach late in 2022 with some friends who also wanted to try fossil hunting in Nova Scotia.
Blue Beach is on the Avon River, which feeds into the Minas Basin on the Bay of Fundy. You’ll find the beach and the museum on the well-graded gravel Blue Beach road between Avonport and Lockhartville.
The museum offered several tours:
- a one-hour Blue Beach fossil tour which, in our case, was shepherded by Chris himself.
- a two-hour Lighthouse Cove Tour that covers about five kms of large tetrapod trackway in the bedrock and several fossilized forests,
- a one-hour Low-Tide Tour that lets you see even more of the fossil record when the tide is all the way out — some low-tide fossils even let you view the fin-prints of the giant fish!
We booked the one-hour Blue Beach fossil tour because we were a bit pressed for time and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure my legs were up for a two-hour hike.
A short walk took us to the small barn-type museum and we passed by several tables that were literally blanketed with fossils that we could pick up and examine. Inside the museum there are fossils, big and small, everywhere and elaborate displays of many relics from the fossil hunting history of the area.
The museum is actually part of a 19-year-old major research project run by Chris and Sonja Wood and is funded mostly by visitor donations. It’s a well-known project in the scientific world — paleontologists from around the world visit the site each year to do their own research.
Our tour started in the museum and Chris enthusiastically explained some basic knowledge about fossils, how they occur, and how to interpret the fossils in the rock.
For example, black shiny bits are bones, footprints can be clean and distinct if they are close to the strata layer on which the animal walked, or indistinct if it was in the deeper layers under the feet of the animal.
Next, we traveled along a short footpath through the wooded forest and down toward the beach, which was strewn with flat rocks and bounded by the sea on one side and cliffs with visible layers of strata on the other.
Although Blue Beach is reputed to be a common place for beach combers, there were few people there. It was peaceful and quiet and this gave us undisturbed time with Chris to explore and listen to his counsel. The views across the Avon River and out into the Minas Basin were extraordinary and breathtaking.
Chris walked us up and down the beach, picking up rocks and showing us the fossils in each with an explanation of what we were looking at and why it might be significant. We got to the point where we could recognize fossils in our own rocks, show them to Chris, get an immediate explanation of what we were looking at. Our friend Phillip, himself a PhD, was immensely impressed with the detailed knowledge that Chris shared.
At one point I found a flat stone that looked like it had mildly distinct foot prints on it. A quick check with Chris confirmed that, indeed, that’s what they were! Trying to imagine the 350-million-year-or-so time span between the time this little creature walked on this beach and me walking on it today just boggled my mind!
Chris also showed us that as different rock strata emerged from the beach floor, we were actually moving back in time. As we walked along the beach, the fossils we found at each stop along the way could be a story in a timeline of the lives of ancient creatures.
By the end of our intensive hour-long tour, Jackie had tuned out our excited fossil jabber and was simply enjoying the beach ambiance – quiet, peaceful, relaxing, and vistas that were soothing both to the eye and to the soul — kind of forest bathing, except on the beach!
It was a perfect way to spend a late summer afternoon doing something unique and fun before our friends went back to Ontario for the winter. I later found out that Vivian’s first career ambition had been a palaeontologist/ biologist — so fossil hunting in Nova Scotia was a perfect choice and we couldn’t have picked better if we’d tried!
Tips for a fun Blue Beach fossil hunting tour:
- Book your tour ahead (contact info on the Blue Beach Museum’s website or call 902-790-9541) Tours are available from March through until November.
- Bring good walking shoes.
- Bring water or your choice non-alcoholic beverage to stay hydrated on warm beach days.
- Depending on the weather, have some clothing layers (on-shore winds can be crisp!).
- There’s no debit card service on site, so bring cash or use e-transfer for your ticket payment. (We had to use the e-transfer service on our way home because the cellphone signal was too weak at the museum to complete the transaction there.)
Stay safe and legal while hunting for fossils in Nova Scotia:
- Fossil hunting in Nova Scotia is a regulated in an effort to protect valuable historical artifacts. The Nova Scotia legislature’s Special Places Protection Act says “No person shall carry out explorations or make excavations on any land in the Province, including land covered with water, for the purpose of seeking heritage objects, without a heritage research permit.” The Blue Beach Fossil Museum team doesn’t encourage people to remove any fossils from Blue Beach.
- The Blue Beach folks also take your safety seriously:
- Watch out for falling rocks / debris and stay far enough away to avoid falling debris (stay back one foot for every foot of cliff height).
- Blue Beach prohibits climbing or chipping away at the cliffs — all fossils are easily found on the shoreline.
Future plans for a new museum home for Blue Beach fossils
So many finds of significant fossils have been made at Blue Beach that the current small museum is bursting at the seams. More than 2200 footprint-bearing slabs, 7000 fossilized bone specimens, and hundreds of plant and invertebrate remains are currently in storage.
Chris and Sonja’s goal is to build a new super museum in order to protect, promote, and present these geological treasures for the benefit of all. They’ve established a charitable organization called the Blue Beach Fossil Museum Society (BBFMS) to spearhead that effort. They are seeking major donors, but you can also contribute directly at their website if you’re interested.
“The Blue Beach deposit is incredibly rich and well-preserved,” says Chris. “There is no fossil collection like it anywhere else in the world. Every year, new fossils are coming, and we can count on making rare finds in the future.”
Fossil hunters in Nova Scotia have access to some of the best fossils in the world and much of the latest fossil knowledge through expert guides such as Chris.
Other locations for fossil hunting in Nova Scotia
In addition to Blue Beach, there are a few other good spots for fossil hunting in Nova Scotia:
Joggins Fossil Cliffs where 15km (9mi) of shoreline cliffs contain plant and animal fossils covering the past 300 million years.
The Fundy Geological Museum in Parrsboro, where you can learn about the geology, fossils, minerals, and the oldest dinosaur skeletons in Canada. They also offer guided beach walks and have an exhibit gallery that explains the area’s landscapes during the Triassic and Jurassic periods.
The Fossils On Horseback Overnight Getaway: Stay overnight in a cottage at the Sunshine Inn, and enjoy a gourmet breakfast before riding to an active fossil dig on horseback, which also passes scenic Bay of Fundy cliffs. The fossil dig is in partnership with the Fundy Geological Museum.
Fossil hunting in Nova Scotia is some of the best in the world
So why would you come here to see fossils? Well, it can get pretty fascinating when you start fossil hunting in Nova Scotia:
- Fossils are older and more revealing than most others in the world.
- Nova Scotia’s fossils document a key moment in the history of life on this planet.
- Nova Scotia’s tides and climate find new fossils for us every day.
- The province’s best fossil sites are accessible and available to the general public.
- Knowledgeable experts are there to help us understand and appreciate what we see.
Fossil hunting in Nova Scotia is unlike any other place in the world. Visit Blue Beach or one of the other sites and be prepared to be fascinated.