Footprints Stepping Back in Time

Footprints are particularly haunting records of ancient life. Perhaps this is because we are so familiar with our own footprints, made as we step barefoot along a warm sandy beach. Footprints are records of movement and our interaction with the landscape. Frozen in time for millions of years, fossilized footprints stand as records of lives lived in the ancient geological past.

Fossil trackway discovered by Eldon and Elaine George in the Parrsboro Formation.

Along the shores of the Bay of Fundy, the world’s highest tides peel back the rock layers to expose the 300 million year old footprints made by diverse sprawling animals. These animals walked along the waters edge, scrambled up the muddy banks to feast on huge dragonflies the size of a crow. Elsewhere along the Fundy Shore can be found the 200 million year old footprints of Canada’s oldest dinosaurs. Three toes of small theropod dinosaurs, searching for their next meal, each step recorded in the soft mud now turned to stone.

Today the staff at the Fundy Geological Museum began the next phase of documenting the fossil collection of Eldon George, housed in the Parrsboro Rock and Mineral Shop. Eldon has discovered hundreds of fossil footprints during his seventy year career. These fossils are  important because many of them are from the Parrsboro Formation, the Carboniferous aged rocks that are found along the shores of the Bay of Fundy from Advocate Harbour, to Five Islands and Economy, Nova Scotia.

Fossil Footprints in Parrsboro

Eldon methodically collected many fossils, but he was particularly interested in the 300 million year old footprint named Hylopus. The delicate toes of this ancient semi-terrestrial animal had often pressed forcefully into the soft pliable mud. The mud turned to stone over millions of years, and the some of these important fossils preserve delicate features and show the texture of the pads of the foot.

Carboniferous Footprint - Parrsboro Formation
Fossil footprint discovered by Eldon George in the rocks from the Parrsboro Formation.

The fossil footprints are captivating – no question. The footprints found in the rocks of the Parrsboro Formation also played a role in the history of evolutionary science,  and the original description of Hylopus in the early 1800’s. The full details of the story are discussed in a paper published in 1978 by William Sargeant and David Mossman.

Sir William Dawson conveyed this story in 1845. Sometime around 1840, Dr. Harding in Windsor Nova Scotia, was inspecting some sandstone cargo that had been shipped by boat from Parrsboro,  which is just a short distance across the Bay.  Dr. Harding noticed distinct footprints in the slaps, with four toes and a delicate trace of a fifth digit. The specimens were kept at Kings College in Windsor (now University of Kings College in Halifax), where Dawson saw the specimen. Dawson then visited Parrsboro to inspect the site where the slabs had been quarried, and from that visit concluded the Parrsboro rocks were of  Carboniferous age. Dawson also noted that similar footprints had been found by Dr. Abraham Gesner, who had been a physician in Parrsboro.

Science has benefited from the fossils preserved along the Parrsboro Shore. Eldon continued the search and has discovered hundreds of high quality fossil footprints. These are important, particularly because the footprints being found in the Parrsboro Formation. Like pages in a book, different layers tell different parts of the history of evolution. Some layers have different footprints, suggesting differences in environment or evidence of evolutionary change.

By examining these ancient footprints, we literally step back in time to examine a world that was very different. All the continents were pushed together, into a large supercontinent called Pangaea (one world). The world’s atmosphere was very rich in oxygen, as trees began to evolve and invade the landscape. Insects became giants within this oxygen-rich world, and animals scrambled across the ground snapping at the flying prey.

Take time – and look at your own footprints the next time you are on vacation and walking along the beach. Consider what the world will be like in the future, and what might be learned from the steps you take walking along the shore if your footprints were preserved as fossils.


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