Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Wasson Bluff
Wasson Bluff, Nova Scotia
On a blustery spring day in 1984, amateur fossil collector Eldon George drove his all-terrain vehicle along the ocean's edge a few miles from his home on Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy. Growing chilled, he ducked into the lee of a rocky outcropping to get out of the wind. An unusual rock half buried in the beach caught his attention. He brushed some grit off and looked closer. Across this piece of sandstone were five three-toed footprints, running at odd angles to one another, as if the creature that made them had performed an elaborate jig. George carefully extricated the rock and brought it home.
Today the wee tracks are on display at George's small rock shop in the sleepy village of Parrsboro. What attracts serious fossil hounds to the shop - and what earned George's find a footnote in the annals of palaeontology - are the Lilliputian size of the footprints. Each could be hidden under a penny. The dinosaur that left these tracks wasn't much bigger than a sparrow; neither the species nor age of the gamboling theropod is known, but by all accounts these are the world's smallest dinosaur footprints.
It would be hard to imagine a more efficient excavating tool than the tides of the Bay of Fundy. Twice a day, five full stories of ocean water - the highest tides in the world - surge in and ebb out, gradually undermining the 100-foot-high cliffs of sandstone and basalt that line much of the shore around the Minas Basin. Thus weakened, the cliffs erode steadily, raining down bits of rock and the occasional larger slab. Among the detritus are numerous fossils that date from the dawn of the Jurassic period, one of the most critical junctures in the evolution of plant and animal life. Experts estimate that nearly half of the plant and animal species that existed in the preceding Triassic period mysteriously failed to cross over into the Jurassic, leaving an evolutionary gap that dinosaurs ultimately filled.
Since George's discovery, palaeontologists have flocked to Wasson Bluff to explore the boundary between the Triassic and the Jurassic. In 1986, scientists unearthed more than 100,000 bones and fragments entombed in the sedimentary rock not far from where George found the footprints. As recently as October 1997, another rich cache of prehistoric bones turned up that included early crocodiles, lizards, sharks, and dinosaurs both large and small.
When you visit, park atop the forested bluff and wander down the path to the shore. (Plan to arrive near low tide, when the ocean recedes and leaves a wide, safe swath of shore.) Digging isn't allowed on the bluff except by authorized scientists. But anything loose and already on the ground is free for the taking. Head east from Wasson Bluff and you'll wander farther back in time to the Carboniferous period; look for fossils of ferns, calamites (relatives of the modern horsetails), and the stout stems of the lepidodendron.
The best place to make sense of the region's rich natural history is the Fundy Geological Museum in Parrsboro. This compact but modern museum at the edge of the harbor leads visitors on a brief, intriguing tour, speeding through geological time as if on a freeway. You'll view fossils fresh from the earth (there's a lab where you can observe technicians at work through windows, and ask questions via intercom). Perhaps most intriguing are the dioramas showing the prosauropods - seven-foot-long herbivores that paved the way for Jurassic giants - and other early dinosaurs that ranged across the region some 200 million years ago.
Afterward, you can arrange for guided fossil expeditions with museum staffers or local tour operators. Eldon George himself still leads the occasional tour but has plenty of fossils at his Parrsboro Rock and Mineral Shop and Museum. Taste a Colossal Fossil barbecue sandwich at a local restaurant. But above all, wander the eerily remote shores, and have your breath taken away as you seem to peer over the edge of a vast abyss of time.