Rare fossil older than dinosaurs found on beach in Canada

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High school teacher Lisa St. Coeur Cormier was strolling with her dog near her home on Canada’s Prince Edward Island when something caught her eye.

She often finds sea glass when she’s walking Sammy, but this day she thought she spotted a branch or tree root poking out of the sand.

“I saw something about two feet long with a strange shape,” said Cormier, 36, who lives in Charlottetown. “When I looked closer, I realized there was a rib cage. And around that, there was a spine and a skull.”

Cormier, who used to be a middle school science teacher, immediately knew it was a fossil. But she never imagined how rare and old, or the excitement that would develop from her discovery that day, Aug. 22.

It turns out the fossil is probably about 300 million years old, possibly from a species that no longer exists, said John Calder, a geologist and paleontologist from Halifax, Nova Scotia. That’s before the Jurassic period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth about 200 million years ago.

“There aren’t very many specimens from this period, so it was an incredible find,” Calder said about the fossil.

A photo of the fossil Cormier found landed on his desk after she took pictures and her family began contacting experts about her discovery.

“Something like this comes along every 50 to 100 years,” said Calder, who wrote a book about the geology of Prince Edward Island. “I thought, ‘My goodness, it needs to be collected right away before more bits wash away.’ ”

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Calder estimates that the fossil is from the end of the Carboniferous period and into the Permian period.

“It is likely a reptile or a close relative, but it could also be unknown,” he said.

The fossil had probably recently been exposed to the elements and was in danger of washing away in the tide, he said.

Calder put a plan together, packed up his gear and made a trip to Prince Edward Island on Aug. 26 to carefully dig up the fossil with a Parks Canada crew.

“I was really nervous about the tides and was so glad when they arrived,” Cormier said.

“To think that this fossil might have been here 60 to 100 million years before the arrival of dinosaurs was so exciting that I couldn’t sleep,” she added.

She understood the potential importance of her discovery.

“I kept thinking of all the times I’d taught my science students about fossils,” Cormier said. “And now, here I’d found a significant one.”

Laura MacNeil, a geologist who runs Prehistoric Island Tours, a company that gives tours of fossil sites on the island, also was involved in figuring out what to do with the unusual find.

MacNeil said that, like Calder, she was anxious to get the fossil safely out of the bedrock and into the hands of expert paleontologists.

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She said the fossilized skeleton Cormier found is an extraordinarily uncommon discovery on Prince Edward Island.

“I was really excited to think what this could mean for the island,” she said.

After Calder took a close look at the fossil, he and his excavation crew got to work. They were joined by Cormier and MacNeil; Cormier’s husband, Gabriel Cormier; and her father-in-law, Aubrey Cormier, as they delicately dug two feet down to bedrock to put a trench around the skeleton.

“We were racing against time to get it out before sunset,” Calder said. “It took a lot of digging and fine chiseling. Once you start doing that, you’re committed to retrieving it in a short window before the tide comes in.”

More than five hours later, everyone was relieved when the skeleton was gently lifted out in three pieces surrounded by rock, he said.

Parks Canada workers then drove the fossil 36 miles across the island to a makeshift paleontology repository in Greenwich, where it will be stored until it is moved again to a paleontology lab in Nova Scotia for a CT scan.

Calder said they want to see what is inside the rock and get a better idea of how to safely remove the fossil.

“It will be a painstaking challenge to keep everything together because the rock is so soft,” he said. “It is a mud stone as opposed to a sandstone.”

Once the fossil is scanned, it could be sent to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in D.C. or the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, where experts will remove all of the rock surrounding the skeleton and begin studying the specimen, he said.

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“It will probably take a year to figure out exactly what this is,” Calder said. “We’re not 100 percent sure that it’s a reptile.”

Calder said the fossilized creature was probably similar in appearance to a Gila monster.

“Ultimately, it will be up to the scientists who publish a paper [about it] to decide what it should be called,” he said.

Cormier said she is excited for that to happen. But first, she can’t wait to tell her students when classes start next week — she now teaches French and history — about what she stumbled upon.

“What are the odds that I would go out for a walk and come across this fossil at the precise moment that it was exposed and nothing was covering it?” she said. “I’m in awe.”

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