One of the great mysteries for Victorian scientists was the seemingly sudden appearance of fossils in the Cambrian, during the so-called Cambrian Explosion. The prevailing idea was that the Precambrian was barren of fossils, indicating that there was probably no life on Earth then. How then to explain a proliferation of fossils in the Cambrian? Little wonder that when the first Director of the Geological Survey of Newfoundland Alexander Murray (formerly of the Geological Survey of Canada) claimed dime-sized discs in Precambrian strata around St. John’s to be fossils, many thought him wrong.
Murray was not a fossil expert and he referred the discs, originally found by a Reverend Harvey, to Elkanah Billings. Trained as a lawyer, and sometime editor of the Ottawa Citizen, Billings’ real passion and area of expertise was fossils, and in 1856 he was the first paleontologist hired by the Survey.
Billings accepted the discs as fossils and named them Aspidella terranovica in an 1872 publication. Aspidella remained a controversial curiosity until the 1960s, when similar fossils were discovered at Mistaken Point, south of St. John’s. Mistaken Point was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016.
Category: Rocks, Fossils, Minerals and Meteorites
Elkanah Billings: lawyer/journalist/paleontologist. http://www.lsuc.on.ca/with.aspx?id=424 [Law Society of Canada Web site]