The Burgess Shale

This is the first of two posts about the Burgess Shale. The second one will go up next week.

In 1909, paleontologist Charles Walcott discovered fossils of the strangest organisms anyone had ever seen in the Canadian Rockies. Some had five eyes, some had strange shapes or protrusions. Over the next years he went back many times with his family, in an attempt to collect and describe the organisms.

Charles Walcott and members of his family at the Burgess Shale

The organisms were all from the Cambrian era, and this fossil field, the Burgess Shale, is a treasure trove of fossils. Wolcott found over 65 thousand, and the area is still being studied. Many of the fossils are on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and at Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum, and affiliated researchers of these and other institutes are working on the fossils and discovering new species all the time.

Why is there such a wealth of Cambrian fossils in the Burgess Shale? These were creatures living in the oceans after the “Cambrian Explosion” – a period of time over 500 million years ago when lots of new creatures evolved. These diverse organisms swam around the prehistoric oceans, but were concentrated here in a mudslide. When the continents moved, this area ended up high in the Rockies.

You can visit the fossil fields only on a guided hiking tour. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover a new fossil while you’re there!

Image in the public domain, via the Smithsonian Institution archives.

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