“If you’re ever walking on the beach, keep your head down and your eye out,” said MacNeil. “You never know what you might find.”
Starting this month, MacNeil is taking people on kilometre-long beach hikes along a section of P.E.I.’s South Shore near Vernon Bridge, which she says is one of the richest repositories of fossils anywhere on the Island.
With a little training, keen-eyed hikers will potentially spot million-year-old life forms every few minutes along the way, according to MacNeil.
“On the South Shore, you can find really nice specimens of fossilized wood, and if you’re lucky, you might even find some track ways, which have been found all over the island.”
Archaeology Act protects fossils
Two years ago, MacNeil discovered the track way (or footprint) of a five-toed reptile that walked the Island a hundred million years before the dinosaurs.
Discoveries like that ignite a sense of wonder, says the geologist. It also underscores the need for preservation.
Participants signing up for MacNeil’s Prehistoric Island Tour will learn what they can do to ensure fossils remain intact — and stay in the place where they are found.
Under the province’s Archaeology Act, fossils may not be removed or altered without a permit.
“It’s in everybody’s interest to protect our Island heritage,” said Dr. Helen Kristmanson, P.E.I.’s director of aboriginal affairs and archaeology. “It’s a finite resource.”
“If everyone were to take a fossil home and not tell anyone about it, unfortunately, we might never know that those fossils existed. Scientists, like geologists and paleontologists, wouldn’t even know that they’re able to study them.”
But there is a role for keen-eyed amateurs to play; MacNeil says they should flag any big discoveries to provincial authorities so that scientists can get involved in examining and identifying them.
Glimpse of prehistoric P.E.I.
MacNeil’s work as a geologist has taken her to some of Canada’s most famous fossil-treasure troves — including the Joggins fossil cliffs on the Nova Scotia side of the Bay of Fundy, and Drumheller, Alberta.
She finds the story of Prince Edward Island’s geology no less compelling.
The tracks MacNeil discovered in P.E.I. National Park in 2018 were made by a mammal-like reptile called Dimetrodon.
On the day that five-toed critter left those tracks, P.E.I. was far from the ocean, near the equator and part of the ancient land mass we now refer to as Pangaea (from the Greek for “entire land”).
“P.E.I. was drastically different,” said MacNeil. “It’s neat to reflect on our place on this Earth. It’s a fascinating story.”
Although MacNeil’s find was on the North Shore, the southern coast of the Island is best for fossils. That’s because of the lower-energy wave action, which leaves more fossils intact.
Fossilized wood is by far the most common fossil found on P.E.I. Footprints are less common.
“It doesn’t mean that you can’t find them; you just have to know what you’re looking for,” said MacNeil.
Fossilized bone is extremely rare on P.E.I., according to MacNeil, with just a few discoveries on record.
Count the toes
Part of the trick to spotting fossil footprints? Count the toes. Some early reptiles left four-clawed tracks.
“In general, you find on Prince Edward Island the creatures had five,” said MacNeil.
MacNeil has rented land from the province along the South Shore as part of her Primitive Island Tour, mainly for the purpose of providing parking. The tours themselves take place on public land along the shore.
Tours are scheduled during low tide to allow easier access.
Prehistoric Island Tours can be booked online and through social media.
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