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Newfoundland's Mistaken Point named Canada’s latest World Heritage Site

Ash and fossils, E surface, Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve.

Barrett & Mackay Photography

Up to 580 million years after their seafloor habitat was abruptly buried in volcanic ash, some of our earliest and weirdest ancestors are finally getting their moment in the global spotlight.

Mistaken Point, a 17-kilometre stretch of Newfoundland coastline that bears some of the oldest recognizable traces of life on Earth, including frond-like animals called rangeomorphs that looked more like plants, has been chosen as Canada's latest World Heritage Site.

The decision was announced Sunday in Istanbul, where the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) committee that oversees World Heritage designations was holding its annual meeting. It came less than 48 hours after a failed coup attempt in Turkey forced the committee to suspend its deliberations and threatened to derail the process for at least a year.

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Five and a half time zones away at the Edge of Avalon interpretive centre in Portugal Cove South, Nfld., a small crowd that gathered early Sunday morning to watch the World Heritage Committee's proceedings via live webcast erupted in cheers.

"Everybody was leaping up and down, but my reaction was one of total relief," said Richard Thomas, a provincial geologist with the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, who helped spearhead the bid.

Following the committee's verdict, people celebrated by driving through the small coastal community, located 130 kilometres southwest of St. John's, with horns beeping and balloons flying, he said.

Mistaken Point is known as a rich fossil site that spans the early Ediacaran Period, a time when multicellular life was transitioning from microscopic to macroscopic forms.

"It's the moment when life got big," said Guy Narbonne, a paleontologist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., who has been leading scientific research at the site since the late 1990s.

Dr. Narbonne said he was thrilled that Mistaken Point has become Canada's 18th UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the fifth in the country to be inscribed primarily based on the value of its geological record.

"It's a testament to how rich the fossil heritage of Canada is," he said.

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The decision, which took all of seven minutes, came during a brisk one-day session organized after the committee's planned 10 days of meetings in Istanbul were cut short by an attempt to overthrow Turkey's government on Friday night.

A decision on another Canadian site, a vast tract of Manitoba-Ontario wilderness called Pimachiowin Aki, was referred by the committee to a later date to allow its proponents to resolve issues that caused a First Nations group to pull out of the bid last month.

"We were certainly disappointed but we felt we really didn't have any option but to seek a referral," said Gord Jones, project manager with the not-for-profit Pimachiowin Aki Corporation, originally created by the two provinces together with five First Nations groups to advance the bid.

Pimachiowin Aki, a name that means "land that gives life" in Ojibwe, is a 33,400-square-kilometre swath of boreal forest east of Lake Winnipeg that includes provincial parks and other protected areas within traditional First Nations territories.

It was to be considered under the mixed cultural and natural category, and was recently recommended for World Heritage Site status by advisory groups to the committee in advance of the Istanbul meeting. But last month the Pikangikum First Nation, one of the corporation's members, withdrew support over issues with some of the language in the advisory group reports.

The referral means that the corporation now has up to three years to re-submit its bid to the committee. A decision on Pimachiowin Aki was previously deferred by the committee in 2013 to allow those behind the bid to strengthen their case for the area's value as a place where First Nations communities have retained traditional knowledge and languages in an ecologically important landscape that is also home to a number of species at risk.

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Mr. Jones added that the international attention that comes with a World Heritage designation would offer people in the region an opportunity to boost to their economy in a sustainable way.

In Newfoundland, the economic benefits of hosting a World Heritage Site are also an incentive for Portugal Cove South, a town that struggled mightily after the collapse of the northern cod fishery in 1992 and where the interpretive centre and walking tours of the fossils at Mistaken Point attract thousands of visitors every summer.

The point gets its name from early mariners who sometimes mistook its thrusting peninsula for that of Cape Race, a feature located several kilometres to the east. It was an error that could prove fatal.

Local people long knew about the "flowers" that are imprinted in the jagged rocks of the point but the site's scientific value was not recognized until a Memorial University graduate student, Shiva Misra, happened upon it in 1967.

By 2006 it was widely recognized that Mistaken Point is one of a handful of sites worldwide that reveal what was happening during the Ediacaran, when Earth's oceans were alive with strange creatures that lived before there were fish, mollusks, crustaceans and other types of species that would later come to dominate marine environments.

In some cases, scientists still have trouble understanding how the life forms of that period relate to us today.

"They are mysterious," said Andrew Knoll, a geobiologist at Harvard University and an expert in the history of early animal life.

NASA even funded astrobiologists to go the site to get a better sense of what kind of life might exist on alien planets.

Dr. Knoll said the site is of crucial importance because it records the interval of time where Earth was undergoing a pivotal shift "from three billion years of microbial life to the more familiar world that we know today."

He added that the World Heritage designation should help ensure the site's continued preservation and facilitate support for ongoing research there.

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