|Painting by Bernard Pelletier © Parks Canada, Bernard Pelletier
Some 370 million years ago, what is today the austere coast of the Gaspé Peninsula was a tropical estuary. The craggy peaks of the Appalachians lined the horizon. Primitive trees, scorpions and spiders covered the land. In the warm tidal waters, an astonishing variety of fish thrived. Some were spiny, some armour-plated. Others had lungs and pairs of lobe-like fins that enabled them to crawl across mud flats- and enact one of the major steps in evolution, when fish evolved into four-limbed animals.
We know this today because a two-million-year snapshot of life at the time is preserved in the remarkably rich fossil beds of the Escuminac Formation, which is exposed in a seaside cliff at Miguasha, on the south shore of the Gaspé facing Baie des Chaleurs. There are some 60 such Devonian period fossil sites around the world. But none matches Miguasha in abundance of specimens, quality of fossil preservation and representation of evolutionary events for vertebrates. It is the only Devonian site on the World Heritage List.
There is sufficient biodiversity at Miguasha - scores of species of vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, algae and micro-organisms - for scientists to have constructed an almost complete picture of Devonian life. But it is the 21 species of fish fossils that made Miguasha famous, none more so than Eusthenopteron foordi, the “Prince of Miguasha,” whose limb-like fins and two-way gills-and-lungs respiratory system gave rise to the modern conception of evolution from fish to four-limbed, land-dwelling vertebrates, or tetrapods.
The Miguasha fossil beds were discovered in 1842. Starting in the 1880s, thousands of fossil specimens were collected and shipped to museums and universities around the world, helping to confirm the site’s scientific importance.