Last week, the first of our journey of 150 things about Canadian palaeontology, I introduced the history and some of the important facts palaeo in Canada. This week, I’m going to talk about one of the most significant finds, the Burgess Shale. Continuing with our numbering from before, so we don’t lose count…
8. The Burgess Shale is a significant and fossiliferous site in the Rocky Mountains, near Field, British Columbia, in Yoho National Park. The fossils from this site date back to the Cambrian, approximately 510 million years ago. The Burgess Shale fossils are known for their exceptional preservation of soft parts, at a time when life in the oceans was just starting to explode. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, owing to the importance of the fossils found here and is now part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site.
9. The Burgess Shale was discovered over 100 years ago, in 1909, by an American palaeontologist Charles Walcott. The original quarry that he started is still there today, known as the Walcott Quarry, and Walcott himself collected there for nearly 15 years, amassing over 65000 specimens.
10. The first fossil to be collected by Walcott was an arthropod fossil known as Marrella, the most common fossil found in the Burgess Shale.
11. Fossil organisms from the Burgess Shale include some of the most bizarre looking organisms, including Hallucigenia, a tubular worm-like animal with spikes on it’s back. This animal is so odd that there have been many debates over it’s morphology, including not knowing which end was it’s head for some time.
12. Pikaia is an important animal found here, thought to be an early chordate, closely related to the beginning of vertebrates. Animals from the Burgess Shale are invertebrates, meaning they have no backbones or internal skeletons. Pikaia, however, has many features that suggest it was near the beginnings of vertebrates. It was named in 1911 by Walcott himself.
12. After Walcott, the main researcher for many years at the Burgess Shale was a British palaeontologists named Simon Conway Morris. He was responsible for naming and describing a significant number of fossils, including Hallucigenia.
13. In more recent years, research at the Royal Ontario Museum speared by French/Canadian palaeontologist Jean-Bernard Caron has significantly improved our understanding of the Burgess Shale, thanks to for field visits and discovery of additional specimens. He has named a number of new species, as well as re-describing some of the original material found by Walcott.
14. In 2012, a new Burgess Shale locality was discovered by Caron and his colleagues, near Marble Canyon, in nearby Kootenay National Park. This new site is thought to equal if not surpass the original site in importance, and is already producing numerous scientific discoveries.
I hope you enjoyed this brief look at the Burgess Shale. If you liked it, don’t worry, there will be more Burgess Shale tidbits cropping up, so stay tuned!