Jean-Bernard Caron, senior curator of spinal surgery at the Royal Ontario Museum, is waiting for a shipment of fossils from Quebec.
They will not be much to look at, he says, only microscopic stains in the stone, invisible to the naked eye. But they will differ from the collection of 500 million years old black slate fossils put on their desk in a corner office overlooking the provincial legislature.
The recently discovered Quebec fossils are something like 4.2 billion years old. It's almost as old as the planet Earth itself, which is about 4.6 billion years old.
He is understandably excited. The dawn of life is ever driven further, and the great Canadian geography – which overlaps ancient tropical seas and prehistoric forests of snakes – has been the key to many of the discoveries that prove this.
It's a big part of life's puzzle we have not said yet
Canada, as Caron says, tells the whole story of life on earth, from the most bacterial life forms that originated in the earliest eras, through the first complex organisms that became plants and animals, to the era of dinosaurs and eventually the more familiar creatures we know until today. From the oldest bacterial fossils in Quebec, through the "proto animals" of Mistaken Point, Nfld., The different creatures of Burgess Shale of British Columbia, the fish passes to the country's life on Miguasha, Que., The giant plants and first evidence of eggs on Joggins, NS, to the dinosaurs of Alberts Badlands, Canada has it all.
But this museum, Canada's largest, has not told this evolutionary story in all its glory. It has mammals down, with its own gallery. The Dinosaur Gallery is known. But it only takes you back a quarter of a billion years. The lifestyles that preceded the dinosaurs, which were extinct long ago, could fill a museum many times over. Nearly four billion years of history of life have been short.
"It's a big part of life's puzzle we have not said yet," said Caron.
For example, it was a special Acutiramus, a giant monster lobster-like creature as long as a man and wide like a pig, with chlorine like lacrosse sticks chasing hot water in Ontario 420 million years ago, just to be buried in some catastrophic mudslides , and erupted in the last century. The scary stone plate is now safely stored in the back room of the room. The museum also has a smaller copy, from Fort Erie, Ont., Area, which is preserved so well that you can not only see their eyes but the cells that compose them.
"It's a giant shrimp. You do not want to see him in the ocean when you're diving," Caron said. "I'm glad he's extinct."
So the work has begun on a new gallery dedicated to the "Dawn of Life", opened in 2021, financed largely by the philanthropists Jeff Willner and Stacey Madge. Almost all artifacts on the screen come from Canada.
It's a giant shrimp. You do not want to meet him in the ocean as you dive
"We want people to be fascinated by their own story," said Caron. The gallery will therefore be designed not only as a journey back in time in the ancient Cambodian Sea, but a journey across Canada, from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia west through Ontario towards the Rocky Mountains. Each will represent a new step in evolution: the origin of multicellularity, complex organs, gender, eggs and the various modifications that allow animals to escape from the water to the ground and sky.
There is an old joke that evolution is a tale of teeth that couple to produce a little different teeth. After all, the teeth are the ones that remain. Most others rot away. But most of the animals on earth had no hard parts, even less teeth. Finding the soft parts of extinct animals has long been a tricky part of palaeontology.
Burgess Shale cut through this conundrum.
This is Caron's specialty, an area in the Rocky Mountains of Yoho National Park where a collapse of a large amount of sediment half a billion years ago preserved the earliest creatures of the Cambrian explosion, one of the most productive periods of evolutionary history. It is "a window in a world that would normally have disappeared," said Caron. Sometimes you can also pick up the intestines of the beasts and their final meals. One of ROM's fossils from Burgess Shale is a 500 million-year-old fish that is the ancestor of all modern vertebrates.
The Miss Point, on the southern tip of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, is the oldest of the four fossil sites, 565 million years old. A fossil that ROM has from there, for example, is Bradgatia Linfordensis, a strange organism that shows some kind of fractal symmetry. Caron says researchers used to believe it was a plant or fungus or algae, but now it is considered an early and extinct branch of animals. "They are still very mysterious," he said.
Miguasha, Que., On the southeastern part of the Gaspee Peninsula, is 375 million years old and has provided proof of the evolutionary changes that later allowed the fish to migrate from sea to land. Joggins, N.S., at Bay of Fundy, is a little later, showing animals on land during the Carboniferous period when there was an explosion of plant life and an increase in atmospheric oxygen levels. Caron called the dawn's dawn, like the dragonfly size of dogs and snakes that grew as high as a 10-storey house.
Josh Basseches, Rome's Director and CEO, was formally announcing the gallery at an event Wednesday morning. Jeff Willner, one of the namesavers, said that the gallery will be "a story for all people, told from a unique Canadian perspective, which helps us understand not only our past but also the world we live tomorrow."