Visitors to a world-famous fossil bed in Canada have discovered a handful of strange specimens that may likely turn out to be up to three new species of large ancient millipedes.
The find was made by chance last year in the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, which stretch several miles along the Bay of Fundy. The fossils are being analyzed now in labs in the United States and Canada.
Giant ancient millipedes are nothing new for the Joggins cliffs, which are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since the 1800s, the cliffs have yielded numerous finds, including tracks and segments of millipedes that may have been seven feet long.
The new fossil millipedes weren't quite as large: They were likely about a foot long (still relatively big), says Joe Hannibal, a paleontologist with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, who is studying the new fossils, along with Canadian paleontologist Melissa Grey.
The many-legged creatures were likely vegetarians, as most millipedes are, says Hannibal. The leggy animals crawled through ancient forests, which are also partially preserved in the fossil beds in the form of tree trunks. (Watch a video of glowing millipedes.)
The new fossils are likely about 300 million years old, says Hannibal, who just returned to Ohio after a trip in the field to Joggins. The fossils are therefore from the Upper Carboniferous or Pennsylvanian period, which is often called the “Coal Age,” since much of the world’s coal originates from deposits of organic material laid down during that time.
In fact, Joggins was once mined for its rich coal beds. Fossils were unearthed by miners blasting through its layers of sandstone and shale. The specimens included other millipedes, but no one had seen anything quite like the handful of fossils that were found there last year by guests to the cliffs.
The fossils are likely one to three different species, says Hannibal, who is helping with the analysis. They will likely fit into the group known as the archipolypods, which means ancient many feet. Members of this group have been found in Illinois, the Czech Republic, Great Britain, and beyond.
Although many of the legs of the animals are quite well preserved, their tops are not in good shape. (See how a millipede toddler learned to walk.)
“So we don’t know what their tops were like,” says Hannibal. “They might have had spines, like some of their relatives, which look like big bottle brushes. Or they might have had no spines. So far we don’t have any evidence.”
The next question will also be exactly how the new fossils may be related to other millipedes, says Hannibal. (Learn about the world's leggiest animal.)
The fossils are an exciting find, says Alton C. Dooley, Jr., a National Geographic explorer who has studied ancient life and is the executive director of the Western Science Center in California. The specimens prove that there are still plenty of relatively large animals awaiting discovery.
"By the Carboniferous, life had become so well established on land that there were thriving biomes all over the world," says Dooley. "But the flora and fauna was in many ways so different from what we have today that it’s almost like an alien landscape, and we’re still a long way from fully understanding how all the parts interacted, or even what all the parts were."