Sifting Through The Red Earth At Miguasha National Park

A treasure trove of fossils and history in the Gaspé Peninsula.

By Sheila O’Connor

When Swedish paleontologist Erik Jarvik came to the area now known as Miguasha National Park in 1880, he spent 60 years studying the “Prince Fish,” or the eusthenopteron foordi, considered to be the evolutionary link between fish and humans. His first report on the creature was 440 pages long – and that was just about the creature’s snout.

History has so much to tell us. And we have so much to learn from – if we look for it.

There is plenty of history at Miguasha National Park, in the Gaspé region of northern Quebec. And there is so much more still to uncover.

The park, on the north shore of Chaleur Bay, in the Gaspé Peninsula, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. There, you will find a world-renowned fossil site, containing plant and fish fossils that are about 370 million years old.

Each year, the Miguasha National Park opens to the public from the start of June until the second Monday of October.

The Miguasha fossils, on display at the park, range in time from pre-Cambrian to modern. All were found in the area.

The fossil site was “discovered” in 1842 by Abraham Gesher, who came to the area to produce road maps. He found a fossil he believed to be a turtle at the time. But it turned out to be a fish. Scientists, like the Swedish Jarvik, who was so fascinated by the Prince Fish’s snout, soon followed.

Quite fittingly, the Miguasha National Park is known as a place that best illustrates the Devonian period, commonly called the “Age of Fishes’.

In this area alone, over 16,000 fossils have already been discovered. Some 7,000 of them are currently on loan to other museums around the world.

One of the rarest type of specimens you’ll see at Miguasha is the fossilization of “soft parts.” That is, blood vessels and other soft tissues that normally don’t survive over the years. Typically, these soft parts would often decay first.

When you visit the park, you can also go into the laboratory at the museum to see how the fossils are studied. The original fish fossil found here, originally thought to be a turtle, can even be handled by visitors. Make sure to see what it looks like under a microscope.

It isn’t just fish at this museum though. The most studied subject at Miguasha is actually the activity of bacteria on a fish, while the largest fossil specimen on the premises is that of the predator Dunkleosteus Terrelli. This beast grew up to 10m long. The museum also has a fascinating archaeopteryx fossil – similar to a flying dinosaur. This was found in 1877.

Don’t be surprised if you feel like you have just walked into Jurassic Park when you visit!

It is believed that the “Prince Fish” actually has some human-like bones, like hands, and could be the evolutionary link from sea to land. The docents, or teaching guide staff, at the museum can tell you all about this.

You can’t leave Miguasha National Park without meeting Lucy. That is the name of the famous skeleton of a 25-year-old woman from around 3.5 million years ago. After all those years, she’s still looking good for her age.

Once you’ve finished exploring inside the museum, don’t forget to go outside, to the shore. Cliff-side guided tours are available. Be sure to look out for fossils along the way. Some lucky visitors have found fossils here recently. Just keep in mind that any fossils you might find would need to be handed in since they belong to the museum.

The docent will show you the best kind of rocks to look for, as well as how to open them with the slight tap of a hammer. They open easily, like pages in a book.

As well, these stories these rocks tell are still ongoing. The museum actually sponsors an ongoing dig, where volunteers dig down 30cm each year. Just last year alone, over 800 fossil specimens were found.

In the local Indigenous language, Miguasha means “red earth.” What treasures might you uncover in its rich, bright soil?

Sheila O’Connor has been a writer for 25 years and loves to write about a variety of topics, from travel to parenting to relationships. She has lived in the USA and the UK, and is currently living in her native Scotland. Sheila has visited Quebec, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia in Canada, including the BC Rockies and Quebec’s Ice Hotel.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Miguasha National Park, Ron Garnett.