Description of Historic Place
Joggins Fossil Cliffs is a palaeontological site along the Cumberland shore in northern Nova Scotia. It has been designated as Special Place by the Nova Scotia provincial government and as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding fossil record from the Carboniferous Age (354 to 290 million years ago).
The Joggins Fossil Cliffs have been termed the “Galapagos of the Coal Age” and are the world’s reference site for the “Coal Age”. The cliffs provide a complete and accessible fossil-bearing rock exposure which is the best evidence known of the iconic features of the Carboniferous period. The site contains fossils of the first reptiles in Earth history, which are the earliest representatives of the amniotes, a group of animals that includes reptiles, dinosaurs, birds, and mammals.
The entire food chain of the Carboniferous Age is represented in the fossils found in the cliffs at Joggins. The fossil record shows that the forests were inhabited by molluscs, land snails, spiders and scorpionids, flying insects, millipedes, amphibian tetrapods and the earliest known reptiles. Many animal trackways were preserved including those of one of the largest millipede-like creatures ever recorded; measuring 2 metres long. The sea was brackish, and was populated by an extensive aquatic fauna of annelid shells, bivalves, crustaceans, horseshoe crab-like forms, sharks, ray-like fishes and several species of bony fish. The cliffs have so far revealed 195 species; this is the largest and most comprehensive sampling of life on land during this time.
Upright fossil trees are preserved were they grew, together with animal, plant and trace fossils, they provide an environmental context and enable a complete reconstruction to be made of the extensive fossil forests that dominated land at this time. These forests are the source of most of the world’s coal deposits. The coal deposits at Joggins were first mined by French colonists during the 17th and 18th centuries. Mining continued intermittently from 1847 into 1950s. The fossil forests of Joggins provide evidence of the origin of coal.
The cliffs are also valued for their association with Sir Charles Lyell, Sir William Dawson, and Charles Darwin. Lyell and Dawson found the first tetrapod amphibian and land snail trapped in a buried hollow of a Lepidodendrid tree stump; these discoveries were incorporated into Darwin’s theory of evolution. This led to acclaim for the Joggins Cliffs as the “Galapagos of the Coal Age”. Sir William Dawson continued his work at Joggins and in 1852 he discovered the fossils of the world’s first reptile, Hylonomus lyelli, which was also the first animal to break free of water and live on land. Hylonomus lyelli was the ancestor of all dinosaurs, birds and reptiles.
Sources: Joggins Fossil Cliffs, Protected Sites Case Files, Special Places Program;
UNESCO World Heritage Site Statement of Outstanding Universal Value, Joggins Fossil Cliffs
The character-defining elements of Joggins Fossil Cliffs are:
- the best and most complete fossil record from the Carboniferous period of Earth history;
- fossils of the first reptiles in Earth history;
- the remains and tracks of very early animals and the rainforest in which they lived, left in situ, intact and undisturbed;
- with its 14.7 km of sea cliffs, low bluffs, rock platforms and beach, the site group remains of three ecosystems: estuarine bay, floodplain rainforest and fire prone forested alluvial plain with freshwater pools;
- the richest assemblage known of the fossil life in these three ecosystems with 96 genera and 148 species of fossils and 20 footprint groups;
- upright tree, animal, plant and trace fossils that provide and environmental context to enable a reconstruction of fossil forests that dominated at this time.
Location of Supporting Documentation
Special Places Files found at Special Places Program, Nova Scotia Heritage Division, 1747 Summer St, Halifax, NS, B3H 3A6
Cross-Reference to Collection
Joggins Fossil Centre; Nova Scotia Museum