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August 21, 2009

Celebrating 100 Years: The Burgess Shale

One of the absolute coolest fossil sites is the Burgess Shale, located near Field, British Columbia. The formation was discovered almost exactly 100 years ago, by paleontologist Charles Walcott of the Smithsonian. In it are preserved the remains of the ocean life from over 500 million years ago, during the Cambrian period.

What is so interesting about the Burgess Shale is the incredible quality of the fossils. In general, fossils are remains of hard tissue: bones, shells, exoskeletons, teeth, and so on. The Burgess Shale fossils show soft tissue as well. Paleontologists find structures like eyes, and even whole organisms that didn't have hard parts at all. It's also one of the most productive fossil sites; there are a huge number of fossils coming out of a relatively small area.

Another neat feature of this fossil deposit is that it spans a time of rapid evolution. Between 542 and 488 million years ago, so many diverse forms of life developed that that time period is called the Cambrian Explosion. Many of these forms are bizarre, as well. There are spiny worms, 5 eyed arthropods with elephant trunks, and something that looks like a combination of jellyfish, sea cucumber, shrimp, and snail. And these are just a few of the sea creatures that roamed the ancient sea of the Cambrian. It is these forms, and the implications they have on how life developed, that make the Burgess Shale such an important, and amazingly cool, formation.

Credit: American Institute of Physics