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Nova Scotia's pre-Jurasic park

The Canadian province is home to a surprising number of famous fossil discoveries that track Earth's history back hundreds of millions of years.

By Lawrence MillmanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 2008

Look at this: Geologist John Calder shows the width of a giant millipede track in Nova Scotia.

Lawrence Millman

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Parrsboro, Nova Scotia

When you visit certain parts of Canada's Maritime Provinces, you can easily imagine yourself stepping back in time. The towns seem like towns from the 1950s preserved in amber; lifestyles are deeply rooted in the land or sea; and people move in a casual, unhurried way.

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Within a short distance of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, you can find places that go so far back in time that they predate even the world of Jurassic Park. Take West Bay, for example. A local named Eldon George told me that its cliffs are "an excellent drag site." He did not mean that these cliffs were popular for racing cars. Rather, he was referring to the fossilized drag marks and prints of prehistoric creatures preserved in the rock.

As if to prove his point, Mr. George, a dedicated amateur fossil collector, showed me the prints of a horseshoe crab. The drag mark of its spiky tail swiveled behind these prints like a miniature S.

"Maybe 250 million years ago, these little [creatures] were walking around on the sea bottom here – imagine!" he exclaimed. Indeed, little creatures were once the dominant form of life in this part of Nova Scotia. (See Fossils of Nova Scotia at http://museum.gov.ns.ca/fossils/index.htm.)

In 1984 at nearby Wasson's Bluff, George discovered a rock crisscrossed by tiny trackways, which turned out to have been made by the smallest dinosaur ever found, an animal scarcely bigger than a house sparrow.

George was more exhilarated by his discovery, an early Jurassic ancestor of Stephen Spielberg's charismatic megareptiles, than if he had found the jawbone of a T. rex. For him, size matters, but in reverse.

So there the two of us were, studying the cliff face at West Bay for evidence of Parrsboro's prehistoric past. George's 75-year-old eyes were much better at this than my somewhat younger eyes. At one point he showed me some small depressions in the rock and told me that they'd been made by pellets of ancient hail.

As we moved along the base of the cliff, we saw dozens of ancient mussel shells embedded in the rock. He also pointed out what he said might be the drag mark from the tail of a Batrachopus, a primitive crocodilian so small that a mere toddler probably could have wrestled it into submission.

We could have searched all day, but the tide was coming in, and as this was the Bay of Fundy (actually, Minas Basin), it was coming in quite dramatically. So we headed back to George's house, and he showed me one of his favorite finds – a chunk of rock that had the tracks of two mating horseshoe crabs embedded in it.

The Bay of Fundy reveals at least as much as it swallows up. Its 40- to 50-foot tides – the highest in the world – sweep against cliffs, abrading and eroding them. This activity constantly exposes fresh outcrops of rocks, each with its own potential gallery of fossils. Thus you can find new fossils on an almost daily basis ... twice daily, in fact. The idea of "new" fossils coming into the world may seem like a paradox, but on Fundy's shores it's a reality.

After leaving Parrsboro, I decided to go even further back in time, so I headed for Joggins (Micmac for "Place of Fish Weirs").

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