Muscling in on a new world

A tale of crazy weather, a union town, and a demon from the depths that might just be the first animal

Keeping secrets is tricky, especially palaeontological ones. Bursting to tell people about an exciting new fossil discovery, you’re equally keen not to let the cat out of the bag. Palaeontology can be a surprisingly cut-throat business, and many a loose-tongued fossilist has found their unpublished work usurped by a more dynamic and less scrupulous colleague.

Consequently, I’ve been wanting to write about an amazing new (and very old) Newfoundlander for nearly four years, but have had to restrain myself. The discovery—on the Bonavista Peninsula—was something truly special, and I was one of the lucky/unfortunate few who was sworn to keep counsel.

Finally, thanks to a journal article that came out last month, I can spill the beans, and tell a tale of crazy weather, a union town, and a demon from the depths that might just be the first animal.

Like a hurricane

In the autumn of 2010, Alex Liu, then a Ph.D. student at Oxford University, was carrying out fieldwork on the Avalon and Bonavista peninsulas. As part of an Oxford-MUN team, he was looking for Ediacarans, about which I’ve written a little before. More specifically, he was searching for clues as to whether any of these mysterious fossils were actually animals.

The locomotion trails he spotted at Mistaken Point were a fabulous find, showing that something was shuffling across the sea floor 565 million years ago. There was something rather more intriguing in the rocks around Port Union, though, and together with his supervisor, Professor Martin Brasier, and fellow student Jack Matthews, they headed to the Bonavista Peninsula to take a closer look.

Haootia quadriformis: the first animal? Photo by Liam Herringshaw.
Haootia quadriformis: the first animal? Photo by Liam Herringshaw.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Igor had other ideas, and Alex, Martin and Jack were forced to abandon the trip after almost being washed off the Trans-Canada Highway. Even the most astonishing fossils aren’t worth putting one’s life on the line for. By the time Port Union was accessible again, Martin and Jack had had to go back to the UK, so Alex asked his Memorial University colleagues if anyone wanted to join him instead. I jumped at the chance.

Bounties of the Bonavista

Though the ‘Precambrian Pompeii’ of Mistaken Point is world-famous, its counterpart fossils in Bonavista are just as marvellous, perhaps more so. Species known from nowhere else on Earth are found in the Catalina-Port Union region, and the detail preserved can be spectacular. They’re not easy to get to, though: you need an expert guide.

Alex and I checked into a friendly inn with a resident cockatoo, then headed out into the field. The weather was fine, if cold and windy, and the Igorian debris was hazardously evident. As clean-up teams tried to unclog the harbours and clear the roads, we picked our way gingerly along forest tracks to the coastline.

On the slippery rocks of the splash zone, we found fossilized fronds and discs galore. Charniodiscus, Hiemalora, Bradgatia, Fractofusus: a roll-call of creatures that sound like low-budget superheroes. However, Alex was there to inspect one un-named specimen, and this was where the secrecy began.

Haootia you think you are?

The mystery fossil was on a treacherous bedding plane; smooth, slimy, and angled to tip a wrong-footed geologist straight into the swell of the North Atlantic. For what the rock surface revealed, though, it was worth the risk.

Many of the Ediacaran fossils of Newfoundland are fractal, their bodies constructed of lots and lots of small units repeated at different scales. This Port Union problematicum was something very strange and different. It looked for all the world like a flattened wrinkly moustache.

Those wrinkles, not to mention its four-fold symmetry, showed that the fossil was something wholly different from its contemporaries. It may have taken four years for it to get a name, but Alex, Jack, Martin and colleagues have concluded that Haootia quadriformis—‘haoot’ being the Beothuk word for demon—is the first example of a creature with muscles.

As they state in their paper, muscle tissue is something that only true animals have. The wrinkly structure of Haootia is remarkably similar to the muscle fibres of cnidarians; its closest living relatives are probably the stauromedusans, or stalked jellyfish.

The age of the Port Union rocks isn’t completely constrained, but they’re about 560 million years old. Either way, Haootia is one very geriatric bodybuilder. More importantly, it is the oldest evidence for animal life anywhere. It seems John Cabot wasn’t the first maritime pioneer to muscle in on the New World.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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