Burgess Shale - History and Significance

History and Significance

Part of a series on
The Burgess Shale
  • Preservation
  • Biota
  • History
Geology and localities
  • Stephen Formation
  • Cathedral escarpment
  • Walcott Quarry (containing the Phyllopod bed)
  • Raymond Quarry
  • Mount Stephen trilobite beds
  • Mount Stephen localities
  • Odaray Mountain
  • Stanley Glacier
Fossils
  • Marrella
  • Anomalocaridids
  • Halwaxiids
  • Opabinia
  • Odontogriphus
Key organisms
Ediacara biota
  • Kimberella
  • Vernanimalcula
Burgess-type
  • Marrella
  • Anomalocaridids
  • Halwaxiids
  • Opabinia
  • Odontogriphus
Small shelly fauna
  • Helcionellids
Evolutionary concepts
  • Cambrian explosion
Trends
  • Cambrian substrate revolution
Themes
  • Cladistics
  • Convergent evolution
  • Stem and crown groups

The Burgess Shale was discovered by palaeontologist Charles Walcott in 1909, towards the end of the season's fieldwork. He returned in 1910 with his sons, daughter, and wife, establishing a quarry on the flanks of Fossil Ridge. The significance of soft-bodied preservation, and the range of organisms he recognised as new to science, led him to return to the quarry almost every year until 1924. At that point, aged 74, he had amassed over 65,000 specimens. Describing the fossils was a vast task, pursued by Walcott until his death in 1927. Walcott, led by scientific opinion at the time, attempted to categorise all fossils into living taxa, and as a result, the fossils were regarded as little more than curiosities at the time. It was not until 1962 that a first-hand reinvestigation of the fossils was attempted, by Alberto Simonetta. This led scientists to recognise that Walcott had barely scratched the surface of information available in the Burgess Shale, and also made it clear that the organisms did not fit comfortably into modern groups.

Excavations were resumed at the Walcott Quarry by the Geological Survey of Canada under the persuasion of trilobite expert Harry Blackmore Whittington, and a new quarry, the Raymond, was established about 20 metres higher up Fossil Ridge. Whittington, with the help of research students Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris of the University of Cambridge, began a thorough reassessment of the Burgess Shale, and revealed that the fauna represented were much more diverse and unusual than Walcott had recognized. Indeed, many of the animals present had bizarre anatomical features and only the slightest resemblance to other known animals. Examples include Opabinia, with five eyes and a snout like a vacuum cleaner hose and Hallucigenia, which was originally reconstructed upside down, walking on bilaterally symmetrical spines.

With Parks Canada and UNESCO recognising the significance of the Burgess Shale, collecting fossils became politically more difficult from the mid-1970s. Collections continued to be made by the Royal Ontario Museum. The curator of invertebrate palaeontology, Desmond Collins, identified a number of additional outcrops, stratigraphically both higher and lower than the original Walcott quarry. These localities continue to yield new organisms faster than they can be studied.

Stephen Jay Gould's book Wonderful Life, published in 1989, brought the Burgess Shale fossils to the public's attention. Gould suggests that the extraordinary diversity of the fossils indicate that life forms at the time were much more diverse than those that survive today, and that many of the unique lineages were evolutionary experiments that became extinct. Gould's interpretation of the diversity of Cambrian fauna relied heavily on Simon Conway Morris' reinterpretation of Charles Walcott's original publications. However, Conway Morris strongly disagreed with Gould's conclusions, arguing that almost all the Cambrian fauna could be classified into modern day phyla.

Read more about this topic:  Burgess Shale

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