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Fossil sites

While preparing for my upcoming trip to eastern Canada, I discovered that I “have to” visit 3 WHS that derive their OUV from fossils. Western Canada even has 2 more of those, resulting in a particular focus on Canada’s World Heritage List (5 out of 20). I find fossils intriguing: it’s exciting to look for them, and there’s the satisfaction of actually finding a good one (preferrably on your own). However, the visitor experience of these sites is often disappointing. As Zoë wrote in her review of the particularly unloveable Chengjiang Fossil Site: “Fossil sites generally mean museum. I see how there is a difference between the fossils and the Earth has a long history, but they are still boring to me. I also don't find them worthy of their inclusion for specific reasons or superlatives. They should be studied, protected, but they are definitely not a tourist attraction.”

In total, there are now 27 Fossil WHS on the list. Below I will have a closer look at them, and how our reviewers have evaluated their visits.

Types of fossil sites

A fossil is “the shape of a bone, a shell, or a plant or animal that has been preserved in rock for a very long period”. The term fossilized is also often used in a metaphorical sense, such as the “fossilized landscape of St Kilda”, but we will focus here on the original definition.

Of the 27 Fossil WHS, 20 have remains of animals, 11 of hominids, and 5 of plants.

Mistaken Point is the oldest. It dates from the Proterozoic and is one of the oldest WHS overall. It is followed by a bunch of others (including the Joggins Fossil Cliffs and Miguasha NP) from the Paleozoic. The hominid sites of course are the youngest, the most recent are from the Late Pleistocene.

In its most recent study on Geological World Heritage, IUCN states that regarding the “History of planet Earth and the evolution of life”,  there would be space for more fossil sites on the List. Suggested is a serial transnational WHS on ichnology (tracks and traces, beyond dinosaur footprints only) and testimonies to extinction events ("Palaeozoic extinctions at the end of the Ordovician, Devonian and Permian are not yet represented").

What makes a fossil site great to visit?

Before comparing the Fossil WHS on their rating, it is good to acknowledge that there is a group of WHS that has fossils but no one ever sees them & they are overshadowed by surroundings of natural beauty. Think the Grand Canyon, the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone. I've left them out of the equation.

Another cluster is formed by WHS with fossil hominids only, all without remains in situ. They generally rank from bad to worse.

That leaves us with the best “proper” fossil WHS, where multiple reviewers have seen the fossils in situ and enjoyed the experience:

  1. Mistaken Point - 3.87 (“of sea life from ancient times and fairly eroded, so the guide is quite useful”, “the most interesting fossil site in Canada”; the remoteness and natural setting of the site may have influenced the score)
  2. Dinosaur Provincial Park - 3.66 (it lies in a pretty badlands landscape, but all reviewers also describe the fossils favourably; to my knowledge, it is the only WHS with visible fossils of dinosaurs)
  3. Wadi Al-Hitan - 3.58 (focus on the fossils of whale vertebrae)
  4. Willandra Lakes - 3.5 (mostly for the fossilized tree trunks and exposed fossils of Australian animals, the landscape is impressive too)

Do you have any great memories of a visit to a fossil WHS? Or shouldn’t they become WHS at all?

Els - 17 April 2022

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Randi Thomsen 17 April 2022

I have great memories from the top three, all have visible fossils on site. The most special one is mistaken point. You have to put on shoe covers, then you can walk on the site and look for the oldest fossils in the world. Amazing!
Agree with Kyle, petrified forest is really nice to

Kyle Magnuson 17 April 2022

If and when Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park is inscribed, this will likely be rated somewhere in the same range as Canada's Mistaken Point and Dinosaur Provincial Park. The park is exceptional for a variety of reasons, just don't go in the Summer.