A Trip to the Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia

Family vacation with the Duffs always includes some geological sights.  In 2007 we visited Prince Edward Island and had a wonderful time but the there just wasn’t enough geology there to satisfy my curiosity so I took us on a 2 hour detour in Nova Scotia.  After a lot of “are we there yets” and some rather average terrain and small towns we arrived at the Joggins Fossil Cliffs on the Bay of Fundy.    I think the kids will remember the place for a long time.  Not so much for the fossils and cliffs but for the dramatic tides.   Low and high tide are the largest in the world.  Here you can see a change in water levels in the bay of around 50 feet in the space of just 6 hours.  We got there just about low tide which I had planned.  During our hike along the cliffs we saw the tide come in many hundreds of feet. It felt as if it were chasing us back up the rocky beaches (see pictures below)

But enough of the tides, they were just the distraction to get the kids to stay longer, I was interested in the rocks and fossils.   The Joggins Fossil Cliffs are now a World Heritage Site because of their significance in the history of fossil collecting and interpretation and even their present day significance as the best representation of Pennsylvanian-aged rocks and fossils in the world.  Geologists and naturalists have traveled from all over the world since the 1800s to visit this site and interpret its rocks.    I wanted to see it because I had read about it many times and also because it is often discussed in creationists literature.  This is the site of the famous polystrate fossils (trees standing on end preserved in rock) that young earth creationists point to as evidence of a great Flood.   I wanted to visit the site personally because I find that without context and a feel for the rocks themselves it can be difficult to assess theses claims.

My one big regret from the trip is not taking more pictures.  I always feel like I am taking quite a few but now that I look back I wonder why I don’t have more.  Below I take you on a brief tour of a small part of the Joggins Fossil Cliffs and provide some simple explanations for what you will see.

Old sign as you come to the cliffs

This was one of the informational signs posted on the walkway down to the base of the cliffs.

First, we come to a sign that was posted on the trail down the cliffs to the beach.  I show this pictures because it gives a quick summary of what fossils are found in the cliffs.   You have probably scene images in a book of “life in the coal age” or Carboniferous period.  The images show a strange world of weird looking trees, lots of large and bizarre-looking insects and a few amphibian and reptile-looking creatures.  There are NO flowering plants, birds, or mammals in these dioramas.  What inspired these images – The Joggins Fossils Cliffs. The same types of organisms are also found in many other places in the world were there is rock of this age but this is the best place to see these.  There are millions of fossils along 15 kilometers of cliff-lined beaches and all of the fossils that have been looked at by hundreds of experts and tens of thousands of novice fossil-hunters are all of just these types of organisms on this sign.

Joggins-fossil-cliffs-low-tide

The Baby of Fundy at low tide showing the Joggins Fossil Cliffs.   There are three people in in the distance for scale. Image credit: Joel Duff

Three of my kids are in the distance and they would in several feet of water at high tide.  By the time we left the water was almost to where they are now compared to when this picture was taken near low tide.  Here we get our first glimpse of the cliffs and the many layers of dipping rocks.  The redish layer of rock above was deposited sometime well after the other layers were formed, got tipped and eroded.

The layers of rock at the Joggins Fossil Beds are found at a near 45 degree angle.  The "upright" trees that are famously preserved here are at this same angle.  Notice in this picture that the sedimentary rock has been worn off flat on top and then covered with a layer of sediments. Those sediments have horizontal banding patterns (not visible from this distance). Image Credit: Joel Duff

The layers of rock at the Joggins Fossil Beds are found at  about a 40 degree angle. The “upright” trees that are famously preserved here are at this same angle. Notice in this picture that the sedimentary rock has been worn off flat on top and then covered with a layer of sediments. Those sediments have horizontal banding patterns (not visible from this distance). Image Credit: Joel Duff

Here we see more closely the many layers of rock with darker coal seams between lighter colored sandstones.  On top of these layers is something called an unconformity in geology. The red rock sitting on top could not have formed at the same time as the other layers. The redish material is horizontal compared to the material below which is at about a 40 degree angle.  All these layers of cliffs must have been deposited originally as horizontal layers. After they solidified into rock the entire area must have been uplifted to the north or depressed to the south (or both) resulting in the dip in the rocks that we see today.  Then there was erosion that resulted in this whole area being flattened off before new sediments were deposited on top which then became the rocks we see today.

The coal seams are interpreted to have been the result of marshy swampy areas that were inundated by rising sea levels which then covered them with sandy material.  Later when the sea level went down trees again grew in the shallow water causing more organic layers to form.  This cycle is thought to have repeated over and over again resulting in the bands of coal that we have today.

Here we see just how many thousands of layers of rock are present at this site. Image that these all stood on top of one another at one time before tipping and then eroding before a layer of sediment was deposited on top (redish/browish stuff) of the layers. Image credit: Joel Duff

Here we see just how many thousands of layers of rock are present at this site. Image that these all stood on top of one another at one time before tipping and then eroding before a layer of sediment was deposited on top (redish/browish stuff) of the layers. Image credit: Joel Duff

Wow, now that is a lot of layers or rock.  I am taking this picture from a point where many pictures of the Joggins Fossil Cliffs have been taken.   Notice the straight lines of rock in the foreground. These are the layers of rock from the cliffs that extend out into the bay. The hardest layers don’t erode as easily as some other layers leaving these ribbons of rock poking up on the beach.

Here is a block of rock with clear ripple marks providing evidence there was once an ancient shore here.   Image credit: Joel Duff

Here is a block of rock with clear ripple marks providing evidence there was once an ancient shore here.  This rock if about 3 feet tall.  Image credit: Joel Duff

I noted before that it is thought that these layers of rock were the result of shallow water swamps and rising and falling water levels. One of the evidences for the swamp and lake interpretation is the very common occurrence of ripple marks in the rocks.  These ripples would have come from a shallow slow-moving water flow of a wide river or very shallow beach extending over a large area.

Another example of ripple marks preserved in stone.  There is a great diversity of ripple marks in the stones here showing that there the habitats changed over time such as different depths of water and speed of the moving water.  Image credit: Joel Duff

Another example of ripple marks preserved in stone. There is a great diversity of ripple marks in the stones here showing that there the habitats changed over time such as different depths of water and speed of the moving water. Image credit: Joel Duff

More ripple marks. I took pictures of about 10 rocks that showed evidence of preserving past ripples but this was only a very small sample of the thousands of rocks that are this site that show evidence of ripples. The ripples are highly varied but what is interesting about them is that detailed studies of ripples like these can tell an investigator much about the habitat because the grain size of the rock can be used to predict the speed and depth of water that produced the ripples.

The tide is coming in now in Funday Bay at Joggins Fossil Cliffs.  It comes is no fast you have to walk back steadily to keep from being overtaken. The black rocks are a coal seam that is dipping into the ground at a 45 degree angle.  The other rock ridges are layers of rock that are more resistant to erosion.  Two of my kids are scene here for scale.  Image Credit: Joel Duff

The tide is coming in now in Fundy Bay at Joggins Fossil Cliffs. It comes is no fast you have to walk back steadily to keep from being overtaken.  Within an hour this entire area will be under water.  The black rocks are a coal seam that is dipping into the ground at a 40 degree angle. The other rock ridges are layers of rock that are more resistant to erosion. Two of my kids are seen here for scale. Image Credit: Joel Duff

The tide if coming in! Each successive wave brought the water further and further up the beach.  Graham is running across a well-worn coal seam.  Ann just came over a very resistant layer of hard sandstone.

Viewed from above you can see the dipping rock layers and how they have been eroded in the past to form the flat land that the house is on and then how the bay of Funday is eroding the layers at a yet lower level.

Viewed from above you can see the dipping rock layers and how they have been eroded in the past to form the flat land that the house is on and then how the bay of Fundy is eroding the layers at a yet lower level.

This picture to the right is not mine but is a good shot of the long beach and the cliffs with beautifil angled layers of rock.  What brings people back to this site is that the cliffs are always eroding and so there are always new rocks and new fossils on the beach below.   This picture also shows  how flat the land is above the cliffs.

An example of a fossiliferous rock at Joggins fossil cliffs.  What you see here are the impressions and remains of a root called Stigmaria which was part of a large extinct lycophyte tree. This was the dominant tree in this area as evidenced by the fossil here.  Image Credit: Joel Duff

An example of a fossiliferous rock at Joggins fossil cliffs. What you see here are the impressions and coalified remains of a root called Stigmaria which was part of a large extinct lycophyte tree. This was the dominant tree in this area as evidenced by the fossil here. Image Credit: Joel Duff

Classic image of polystrate Lycopsid (extinct group) tree. Notice that it is at an angle like the layers of rock.

Classic image of polystrate Lycopsid (extinct group) tree. Notice that it is at an angle like the layers of rock.

The polystrate trees that may be the best known fossils are all the same type of extinct tree called Lepidodendron.  The picture above shows a fossil of its roots.  I say many many rocks with impression of the roots and traces of smaller side roots.  I also saw many rocks with impression of the branches and stems of the same plant.  As you walk for a mile along the cliffs you see the same plant impression over and over and over again with no variation.  You get the distinct impression of a huge area that must have had just a few closely related type of trees.

These are the two types of trees for which part are commonly found in the Joggins Fossil Cliffs.  These were very large trees reaching heights of 50 feet or more.  These plants would not have produced rings in wood like flowering plant trees but rather had a very different type of growth pattern.

These are the two types of trees for which part are commonly found in the Joggins Fossil Cliffs. These were very large trees reaching heights of 50 feet or more. These plants would not have produced rings in wood like flowering plant trees but rather had a very different type of growth pattern.

What is not discussed by some that focus on the polystrate trees is that the entire area (hundreds of square miles) has rocks that are full of remains of these plants to the exclusion of any other types of plants.  I mentioned right at the top of this post that no flowering plant fossil has ever been found here despite thousands of people having looked for fossils in this area.   The roots, stems, and reproductive structures are all from extinct groups of plants called lycophytes and some ancient ferns.

Batrachichnus salamandroides trackway. Click to enlarge. Credit: Gloria Melanson

Batrachichnus salamandroides trackway found by amateur collectors at the Joggins fossil cliffs. Click to enlarge. Credit: Gloria Melanson

It isn’t just the plants that are famous at the Joggins Fossil Cliffs.  More evidence that this was a shallow water swamp, lowland forest and/or delta region prone to flooding is the presence of thousands of tracks of small amphibians, small reptiles and even giant millipedes.   The above image is from a report last year of  the smallest known tetrapod footprints in the fossil record.  This small set of tracks was found by an amateur fossil  hunter walking along the same beach that we walked in 2007.  In addition to the track-ways many fossils of a salamander-like amphibian and small reptiles have been found here.   The tracks that are found in these layers are the types of tracks that one would expect that the same organisms to make.  The presence of fossils plus track-ways suggests that there were organisms living with the plants that are also preserved here.

Implications of the Joggins Fossil Cliffs for Young Earth Creationism

While creationists talk a lot about the standing tree fossils I have never heard them talk about any of the other fossil nor have I heard them talk about the geological context of the site.   The presence of thousands of small track-ways, amphibian fossils and remains of all of the part of the same trees in this area strongly suggest an ecology in which these where the only organisms present at the time these sediments were laid down.  YECs would have all of these rocks laid down in a short (hours to days) period of time. They point to the trees in place as evidence that it must have happened very fast. But what about the tracks of very small animals and the preserved ripple marks?  Why are there no flowering plants fossils? Why no pollen from any trees  or flowers?  Why is there only type of tree found here and why is it that on every continent there are rocks that contain these same combinations of plants and animals?   The polystrate trees are not that difficult to explain once you have really looked at the context.  Inundation by local flooding over a period of months or even 10s of years is very reasonable and viable hypothesis to explain them.  However, a cataclysmic flood that caused all these layers of rock to form in days has no power to explain the presence of only amphibians and reptiles to the exclusion of all mammals, dinosaurs, and birds and the lack of plant diversity and the presence of ripple marks and most importantly the many tracks of animals.

References: 

STIMSON, M., LUCAS, S. and MELANSON, G. 2012. The Smallest Known Tetrapod Footprints: Batrachichnus Salamandroides from the Carboniferous of Joggins, Nova Scotia, Canada. Ichnos 19: 127-140.

Comments

  1. ashley haworth-roberts says:

    Spectacular images.

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    • Thanks. I really do regret not taking many more pictures but my excuse is that this was at the tail end of our trip and travel fatigue was setting in. I would have liked to have hiked much further along the cliffs but at the time my youngest was only 1 1/2 years old. You might wonder why I dont’ have a picture of my own of the polystrate trees. That was my goal but what I learned when I was there was that they are not common and the ones that you see from the old pictures are no longer there because they have eroded. As a result there aren’t many to see and I would have had to walk a long way to see any. It just goes to show that the conditions that produce such trees are not common but horizontal trees are much more common as you might expect.

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  2. This is just a short drive from where I grew up in Dieppe, NB. The guy who found Batrachichnus salamandroides tracks was actually a classmate of mine in my early school days, and is a trained geologist. When I was president of the Sir Hugh Fletcher Geology Club at Acadia University we took a group to Joggins for a field trip and everyone found it very cool! If anyone is reading this and wants to experience the best of the rapid tide changes in the Bay of Fundy, I’d suggest booking in a white water rafting trip on the incoming tide of the Shubenacadie River (http://www.shubie.com/) – so, so fun!!

    I live in Australia now, but it’s nice to see some appreciation for the wonders close to home, even though my stomping grounds were referred to as “rather average terrain and small towns”! Haha!

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  3. pick point: you wrote “coal seems” not “coal seams.” Great post, I very much enjoy your blog!

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  1. […] which are found out of sequence. That’s not to say they prove young earth creationism. Far from it. So Nye seems to have been mistaken on this point. Second, he presented the Big Bang theory as […]

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  2. […] example, in Nova Scotia there are cliffs which have the fossilized remains of ancient tree-like plants called […]

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