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Queen’s professor Guy Narbonne leads research at Canada’s newest nomination for UNESCO World Heritage status

Queen’s University researcher Guy Narbonne played a key role in one of Canada’s nominations for a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site, Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. Since 1998, Narbonne has been studying the world’s oldest animal fossils at Mistaken Point, and he acted as a primary author of the nomination dossier submitted to UNESCO.

Dr. Guy Narbonne
Queen’s research Guy Narbonne played a key role in one of Canada’s nominations for a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On Friday May 27, The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUNC), which evaluates all natural site nominations, recommended five sites to UNESCO for inscription as World Heritage status. Two Canadian sites made the list: Pimachiowin Aki, a vast boreal forest put forward for by five Anishinaabe First Nations as a ‘mixed’ cultural and natural site protecting ancestral traditions, and Mistaken Point, where fossil records offer a glimpse of the first large, complex organisms on Earth.

Mistaken Point represents a watershed in evolution ‘when life got big’, the sudden appearance of large and complex creatures after three billion years of mostly microscopic evolution,” says Dr. Narbonne (Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering). “Volcanic eruptions 580 million years ago preserved surfaces covered with the fossils of the thousands of the soft-bodied creatures that were catastrophically covered by beds of volcanic ash on the deep sea floor.”

In addition to numerous scientific papers, Dr. Narbonne’s studies of Mistaken Point fossils have been featured in documentaries narrated by David Suzuki and Sir David Attenborough and formed the basis for numerous international field trips to Mistaken Point, including one that Dr. Narbonne led for the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

“The fossil beds discovered at Mistaken Point have provided critical evidence of how and when organisms evolved from small to large, which has greatly informed our understanding of our place in the world,” says Dr. Steven Liss, Vice-Principal (Research). “But more than that, this nomination represents what is possible when scientists, communities, and governments can work in synergy towards a common goal. I have my fingers-crossed for a positive outcome.”

Mistaken Point is the first Precambrian fossil site ever nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list.  There are a total of approximately one thousand UNESCO World Heritage sites worldwide, of which 197 are natural sites and the rest are mainly cultural sites.

There are 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada, including both natural sites such as Canadian Rocky Mountains Parks and cultural sites such as Old Quebec City, and a further seven tentative sites (including Mistaken Point) awaiting either nomination or decision from UNESCO. The last Canadian site named was Red Bay Basque Whaling Station in 2013.

UNESCO will make its final decisions on Mistaken Point and other nominations for World Heritage designation at their Convention in Istanbul in mid-July.

Original story in the Queen’s Gazette.