Scientist gauging wear and tear on Mistaken Point fossils

   Experiments slated to be carried out over the next two years at the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve by a researcher from Oxford University may give the province and local custodians of the ancient fossils a better idea of how to protect them from weathering and foot traffic.
   The research is being led by Jack Matthews, very soon to be a newly minted doctor of paleontology, who has been coming over from England for years to study the fossils at Mistaken Point as well as similar fossil beds near Port Union on the Bonavista Peninsula.
Matthews, who will be working with researchers at Memorial University and several other institutions, is planning to make at least two trips to Mistaken Point this summer.
   Though he’s only 27, Matthews has been studying the fossils here since his undergraduate days at Oxford. He recently spent weeks hiking through the barrens and brush from Mistaken Point to Cape Race and also the Port Union area to develop detailed new geological maps, including the ages of the rocks, which will soon be published in a scientific journal for peer review. The last geological mapping of the Mistaken Point area was done in the 1970s and '80s and from a boat navigating the coastline. Matthews took time to serve as guest speaker at the annual general meeting of Mistaken Point Ambassadors Inc., last month in Portugal Cove South. About 25 people attended the session.
   While people in the Port Union area are also working to promote their fossil beds and obtain "geo park status," Matthews said he doesn't see the two areas as being in a conflict or a competition from a tourism or scientific research perspective. "They've got some really interesting fossil finds over there," Matthews allowed. "I think you both support each other and the better that one does, the better the other one does (too) and everyone helps each other out."
   Matthews is planning some unique experiments, including with a foot ware manufacture in Great Britain that will involve the use of robotic equipment to assess the effect that walking has on rocks collected at Mistaken Point. But he will also closely examine the effects that weather and climate may be having on the fossil beds at Mistaken Point and surrounding area.
   "We're here because you have such superb fossils," Matthews said. "So what's the problem? Well, there's damage happening to the fossils and that is just a fact."
   To give a sense of the damage, Matthews displayed two sets of photographs on a large screen. The pictures depicted the exact same fossils and surrounding rock, but separated by a timespan of some 20 years with the first photographs taken in the 1990s by a prominent geologist and the second set by Matthews in 2008. It's clear from the images that the quality of the fossils on the rock surface is degrading. In a couple of cases, "hold fasts," or the material that anchor a fossil to the rock bed, have been "bashed out." The thin layer of ash that surrounds, and protects the rocks on surface, is also receding. 
   "We don't know why," said Matthews. "I am not at the moment talking about whether it's a natural process or a human process. We don't know... but damage has happened, that is beyond doubt… We need to figure this out so that we've got a management plan to ensure that this has some long term sustainability.".
   Matthews has also developed a diagram that succinctly summarizes the various government agencies and laws that exist to protect the fossils. The work will help compare the laws and governance regimes here with those in other jurisdictions to see if improvements can be made.
But Newfoundland already seems to have a better system than exists in his native United Kingdom, Matthews admitted. Mistaken Point also has the benefit of interested local residents.
   "There is a passion here and a sense of ownership and that's so important in making sure that these vital resources are preserved," Matthews said. "You've got community engagement here."
   Matthews said Mistaken Point is a globally significant scientific locality. “People want to come here from all around the world, from universities to study your rocks," he said. "But even more than that, people, whoever they may be, want to come here and see these rocks where you are seeing the origin of animal life and they want to pay a few dollars on the way and they want to stay somewhere and they want to buy some food and that's all good for the local economy. And the simplest way to put what my project is for the next two years is to ensure both as scientists and as a community that we work together to make sure that we use this resource sustainably."
   Without a plan to ensure that sustainability, Matthews argued, the fossils could erode to the point where they lose much of their value and UNESCO, which is weighing whether to accord the site World Heritage Status, could decide to take the status away down the road.
   "What I want is that you can have a Mistaken Point that you can hand on to your children and I have a Mistaken Point that I can hand on to the people who take over the research from me whenever I move on to whatever I do next," Matthews said. "That's my passion and what I want to see happen and I want to work with you to get that. So it's all about developing a sustainable resource. I'm going to be looking at these rates of erosion, looking at the weathering patterns on the different rocks... And I'm going to be gathering scientific evidence on what is controlling the erosion - is it natural, is it human? And from there we will work together to build recommendations so that we've got a management plan… There is so much (tourism) potential here it's unbelievable - but we've just got to make sure there's something there to hand over to the next generation."
   After his presentation, Matthews spent some 45 minutes inviting and fielding questions about himself and his work.
   “Community engagement is a really important factor for me," Matthews said. "I want you to feel that you can say your views to me and your opinions, and I have known from the support in this community and Trepassey and up around Port Union that having community support makes a lot of difference and makes my life a lot easier and it makes this so much more enjoyable. I want you to know that if you have questions, you can ask them.”

Posted on February 3, 2016 .