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Fern Ledges Transcript


Dr. Randall Miller, Research Curator, Geology and Palaeontology, New Brunswick Museum

This is the famous Fern Ledges fossil site in west Saint John and it’s part of the Lancaster Formation. It is Upper Carboniferous age, about 315 million years old. It became famous for some of the fossils that were found here. In 1860 Fred Hartt, who was a new member of the Steinhammer Club, came here with his friends and they collected plant fossils, and insect fossils which are extremely rare, and one of the oldest land snails in the world, and Sir William Dawson who was their mentor with the Steinhammer Club and the early Natural History Society, published some of those results. And he also took some of the results of the Steinhammer Club and put it into the second edition of Acadian Geology. So the site became rather well known.  Sam Scudder in the United States who was an insect specialist, described some of the insect fossils from here, and in fact half of the fossils are now at Harvard University and half at the New Brunswick Museum, and those specimens, one of those specimens was a thing called Xenoneura antiquorum, it had a stridulating organ on it, that’s the sound making organ, and if you look at some of the early publications about this site from the 1800s, they describe the chirping insects in the Devonian woods. Even Darwin made mention of that particular specimen.

Stratigraphers at the time thought the age of the rocks was Devonian based on the structure of the rocks, but the palaeobotanists thought it was Upper Carboniferous, a typical coal age flora, and they argued about it from 1860 until about 1900. Finally in 1913 there was an International Geological Congress and a field trip was coming here and the Geological Survey of Canada, whose people were working on this, they decided they needed to resolve the issue. So they brought in an outside specialist. Marie Stopes, who was a palaeobotanist, one of the few women working in that field in the early 1900s, and she wrote a classic palaeobotanical monograph about this place, re-identifying all the plant fossils and outlining the Carboniferous age of these particular rocks. Marie Stopes is an interesting character. She would have been here around 1910 on these very rocks, and she is well known as a sexologist, not a palaeobotanist. She had a second career in family planning and birth control and she is well known around the world for that work.

It’s interesting that in 1914 she published the palaeobotany monograph about the Fern Ledges and about the same time she was working on an early sex manual called ‘Married Love’ which dealt with the relationship between men and women in marriage. So this place has a long history of people visiting it from the 1860s through to the early 1900s.

Interestingly the stridulating organ that Scudder described on Xenoneura has turned out not to be, so one of the most famous fossils from the Fern Ledges isn’t what they thought it was after all.