Birthplace of Vertebrate Paleontology in Canada

Pioneer's of Life on Land & The Tetrapod's


Blue Beach, Nova Scotia Canada

The birth of ‘vertebrate paleontology in Canada’ took place one fine day in 1841, and it happened at Blue Beach, Nova Scotia (then known as Hortons Bluff). Sir William Logan discovered fossilized footprints of the first creatures, ever, to swim out of the water and walk on land, the tetrapods. These Lower Carboniferous creatures were the first air breathers of the coal-period.

Logan, a Scottish-Canadian geologist, was born April 20 1798 in Montreal and as a young boy his family moved back to Edinburgh, Scotland where he got his education. He never forgot of his childhood in Canada and dreamed of returning one day. Later, as a young man, he did returned to Canada and in 1842 was asked to establish, and became the first Director of the Geological Society of Canada and carried on as Director until 1869.

Sir William Logan

In various works between 1863 and 1896, J. W. Dawson, the eminent maritime geologist and Nova Scotian, reported on the rich fossil assemblage at this beach…naming several plant species, several new ‘trace’ fossil types (including Logan’s tracks, named Hylopus logani), as well as a diverse fish fauna (with sharklike ‘acanthodians’, primitive bony ‘ray-finned’ “palaeoniscoids”), and an impressive giant lobe-fin “rhizodontid” fish that was then known by only a few scales and teeth, and by a fragment of one lower jaw.

Sir John W. Dawson

The next major developments were the 1966 discovery of the first known tetrapod bone from the locality by researcher Donald Baird, the 1972 publication of new information on the vertebrate fauna by Robert Carroll of McGill, and the discovery of additional footprint varieties by Sarjeant and Mossman (1978). The discovery of additional tetrapod material stimulated interest in the site, leading to numerous scientific papers on all manner of subjects save the most important aspects of all…the tetrapods and the fishes themselves.

Dr. Donald Baird

Efforts to collect these bony remains proved that they were indeed very scarce at the best of times. Skeletons were not seen; rather one was dealing with loose scatters of isolated elements. After about 35 years of optimism about one day understanding this vertebrate fauna, the key researchers would eventually conclude “…unfortunately, the site would probably never yield anything more than a few enigmatic glimpses at best” (Clack and Carroll, 2000 – “Amphibian Biology”).

Dr. Jennifer Clack 2011 veiwing the tetrapod collection at Blue Beach, NS

Today beacuse of the efforts and collecting (of these significant fossils) by citizen-paleontologist, Christopher F. Mansky there is a new understanding and appreciation for Blue Beach as being truly a world-class fossil site. Widespread interest has been generated by leading experts who now view the amassed collection as the global standard. Blue Beach has now shown that there were anywhere from 6-10 kinds of tetrapods, making this an incredible diversity of early tetrapod life considering the sparseness of other tetrapod knowledge during this ‘Romer’s Gap’. Clearly this collection of fossils, now exceeding 70,000 lbs, has opened up about a hundred years of research.

Whereas the bony remains are ultra-rare, the footprints are abundant. As noted in the attachments, this is the oldest fossilized footprint collection in the world, as well as the largest collection of Carboniferous-aged tracks known today (the next largest collection to compare being from that from the Union Chapel Mine site in Alabama). The newly-aquired but still-unpublished tracks recovered by the BBFM (in the last 15 years) are the most important fossil-track discoveries of recent times, and promise to act as a ‘rosetta stone’ for scientists interested in deciphering the still much confused Carboniferous record of tetrapod footprints.

Christopher F. Mansky - BBFM Curator

The study of these Carboniferous tracks has been muddled mostly by uncertainties stemming from the smallness of those previous collections. In view of new, important early-collections (such as the Blue Beach, Union Chapel Mine and Pottsville assemblages) having come to light within the last two decades, a long-awaited review of this field of science (tetrapod ichnology) is ripe, with the Blue Beach collection playing the most crucial part. (BBFM is partnering with Spencer Lucas, footprint expert from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in this review).

Dr. Spencer Lucas, New Mexico Museum of Natural History

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  1. Paleontology offers itself as a tool and scope through which you can view the world; it reminds you that humans are just one of the many million species that have roamed on this Earth. Paleontology is a branch of science that aims to paint a picture of the past, a place that we no longer have direct access to. However, paleontology acts as the bridge that connects us and gives us the ability to travel through time.


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