The fossils of the Burgess Shale, like the Burgess Shale itself, formed around 505 million years ago in the Mid Cambrian period. They were discovered in Canada in 1886, and Charles Doolittle Walcott collected over 60,000 specimens in a series of field trips up from 1909 to 1924. After a period of neglect from the 1930s to the early 1960s, new excavations and re-examinations of Walcott's collection continue to discover new species, and statistical analysis suggests discoveries will continue for the foreseeable future. Stephen Jay Gould's book Wonderful Life describes the history of discovery up to the early 1980s, although his analysis of the implications for evolution is largely superseded.
The fossil beds are in a series of shale layers, averaging 30 millimetres (1.2 in) and totalling about 160 metres (520 ft) in thickness. These layers were deposited against the face of a high undersea limestone cliff. All these features were later raised up 2,500 metres (8,000 ft) above current sea level during the creation of the Rocky Mountains.
These fossils have been preserved in a distinctive style known as Burgess shale type preservation, which preserves fairly tough tissues such as cuticle as thin films, and soft tissues as solid shapes, quickly enough that decay has not destroyed them. Moderately soft tissues, such as muscles, are lost. Scientists are still unsure about the processes that created these fossils. While there is little doubt that the animals were buried under catastrophic flows of sediment, it is uncertain whether they were transported by the flows from other locations, or lived in the area where they were buried, or were a mixture of local and transported specimens. This issue is closely related to whether conditions around the burial sites were anoxic or had a moderate supply of oxygen. Anoxic conditions are generally thought the most favourable for fossilization, but imply that the animals could not have lived where they were buried.
In the 1970s and early 1980s the Burgess fossils were largely regarded as evidence that the familiar phyla of animals appeared very rapidly in the Early Cambrian, in what is often called the Cambrian explosion. This view was already known to Charles Darwin, who regarded it as one of the greatest difficulties for the theory of evolution he presented in The Origin of Species in 1859. However, from the early 1980s the cladistics method of analysing "evolutionary family trees" has persuaded most researchers that many of the Burgess Shale's "weird wonders", such as Opabinia and Hallucinogenia, were evolutionary "aunts and cousins" of present-day types of animal rather than a rapid proliferation of separate phyla, some of which were short-lived. Nevertheless there is still debate, sometimes vigorous, about the relationships between some groups of animals.
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