Ediacaran fossil site of Mistaken Point


The Ediacaran fossil site of Mistaken Point

The Ediacaran fossil site of Mistaken Point, Newfoundland, Canada, an exceptional record in the history of life on Earth. (Image credit: Barrett and MacKay Photography, Mistaken Point Ambassadors).

Geological Period

Ediacaran Period (Neoproterozoic)

Main geological interest



Newfoundland, Canada.
46°38’06.0″N, 53°12’40.0″W

The Ediacaran fossil site of Mistaken Point, Newfoundland, Canada, an exceptional record in the history of life on Earth. (Image credit: Barrett and MacKay Photography, Mistaken Point Ambassadors).

The best example on the world of an Ediacaran fossil community, where life “first got big”.

Mistaken Point was inscribed on the list of the World’s Heritage as the best site in the world to witness the first complex communities of large metazoan lifeforms in the history of life on planet Earth (Narbonne and Gehling, 2003; Narbonne, 2005, 2011). 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 range in age from 580 to 560 million years and illustrate a critical watershed in the early history of life on Earth: the appearance of large, biologically complex organisms, including the first ancentral animals.

Ediacaran fossils at Mistaken Point represent the first time in Earth history that “life got big”. (Photo: Alex Liu).

Mistaken Point illustrates better than anywhere the critical milestone in the history of Life on Earth when, after almost 3 billion years of microbe-dominated evolution, “life got big” and metazoan communities bloomed (Narbonne, 2011). The enigmatic lifeforms preserved at Mistaken Point (Anderson and Misra, 1968; Morris, 1989) are early experiments in the evolution of complex life on Earth, dating to 580-560 million years before present. Here at Mistaken Point are found the oldest known examples of architecturally complex organisms up to 2 m in length, soft bodied organisms known as rangeomorphs and others, including forms interpreted as ancestral animals. The exceptional preservation at Mistaken Point is a consequence of sudden and repeated burial beneath fine volcanic ash layers gently dispersed in the marine waters. Preserved are the oldest and most diverse examples of deep sea Ediacaran communities, with evidence of tiering and ecological succession. The sedimentary succession at Mistaken Point (Williams et al., 1985) records 20 million years of this pivotal watershed in evolution.

The significance of the Mistaken Point fossil record is key to writing the evolution of life from simple single celled life to complex metazoan life forms that became recognizable as plants and animals (Narbonne, 2005, 2011). These enigmatic lifeforms challenge NASA astrobiologists to consider the possibilities of extraterrestrial life.

Map of the Mistaken Point fossil site.

Anderson, M.M. and Misra, S.B. (1968) ‘Fossils found in the Pre-Cambrian Conception Group of South-eastern Newfoundland’, Nature, 220(5168), pp. 680–681. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/220680a0.

Morris, S.C. (1989) ‘South-eastern Newfoundland and adjacent areas (Avalon zone)’, in The Precambrian-Cambrian Boundary. J.W. Cowie and M.D. Brasier, editors. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 7–39.

Narbonne, G.M. (2005) ‘THE EDIACARA BIOTA: Neoproterozoic Origin of Animals and Their Ecosystems’, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 33(1), pp. 421–442. Available at:https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.earth.33.092203.122519.

Narbonne, G.M. (2011) ‘When life got big’, Nature, 470(7334), pp. 339–340. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/470339a.

Narbonne, G.M. and Gehling, J.G. (2003) ‘Life after snowball: The oldest complex Ediacaran fossils’, Geology, 31(1), pp. 27–30. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1130/0091-7613(2003)031<0027:LASTOC>2.0.CO;2.

Williams, H. et al. (1995) ‘Avalon Zone – Newfoundland’, in Geology of the Appalachian—Caledonian Orogen in Canada and Greenland. H. Williams, editor. Geological Survey of Canada (Geology of Canada, 6), pp. 226–237.

Guy M. Narbonne
Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering, Queens University, Kingston, ON Canada

John H. Calder
Cliffs of Fundy UGGp, Canadian Geoparks Network and Saint Mary’s University, NS, Canada