Burgess Shale Fossils Discovered, 1909

by on March 7th, 2015
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Charles Doolittle Walcott knew that he’d made quite a find. He just didn’t know how big.

Walcott had been interested in paleontology most of his life, but he hadn’t had much of an education. He’d gone to school on and off, of course, but he’d never even acquired a high school diploma. He made the acquaintance of other men who worked in the field, and began to pick up jobs that were related to his interest. Eventually he became a geological assistant for the U.S. Geological Survey team. It was just a matter of time before he became its director.

He’d had to resign his position on the Survey team when he became Secretary at the Smithsonian Institution in 1907. He was moving up in the world, and he soon became an advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt. He also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge.

On vacations, Walcott loved to make field trips and discover fossils on his own. Sometimes he took his family, avid collectors all. In 1909, he heard that some workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway had found some “stone bugs” up in the Rockies of British Columbia. He went up that year to investigate, and found a few fossils. The following year he went again, and this time discovered the fossils’ source and began to dig. What he found was something unlike anything he had ever seen before.

The Burgess deposit is unusual in that it contains fossils of soft-bodied animals, not just shells. They date from the Cambrian period, and show an amazing amount of detail. At the time the creatures were alive — some 500 million years ago — they had lived at the foot of an underwater cliff, in a shallow warm sea. From time to time mudslides would bury the animals and they would die. They were eventually buried under about 10 kilometers of rock, which exerted great pressure and created the fossils. Starting about 175 million years ago, the fossils started moving eastward, carried along by faults.

Wolcott returned again and again to the area, amassing, before he was done, some 65,000 fossils. He stopped his trips to the area in 1924, when he was 74 years old, and spent the remaining three years of his life attempting to categorize the fossils. At the time, the prevailing belief among paleontologists was that the number of living species was increasing over time, so Wolcott attempted to fit all the fossils into the taxa of creatures that were currently alive. Those that seemed a bad fit were merely regarded as anomalies.

Wolcott’s collection was given to the Smithsonian Institution, along with his notes and photographs. They stayed there for many years, and were largely unexamined during that period. They were an impressive collection, but were regarded more as curiosities than anything that actually furthered scientific thought.

All that changed in the 1960’s, when the Geological Survey of Canada reopened the Burgess quarries, and began making more discoveries. It was discovered that many of the creatures did not fit into any classifications of living animals today, and that there were actually much more diversity of life in the Cambrian period than there is today.

One of the more unusual genera whose fossils have been discovered at Burgess is Hallucigenia, a long, narrow worm-like creature with a “blob” at one end. Originally, it was thought that Hallucigenia was completely unrelated to any genera that survive today, but now it is thought that it is an ancestor of the arthropods. On one side of its body it had seven tentacles with pincers at the ends, and on the other side it had seven jointed spines. Originally, scientists thought that the creature walked on the spines, and fed with the tentacles. Today, they think they had it upside down.

There was also Nectocaris, which looks like either a crustacean with fins or a vertebrate with a shell, and Opabinia, which had five eyes and a vacuum-cleaner type snout. (Be sure to page through all the illustrations in the area above.)

In 1981, UNESCO declared the Burgess Shale Formation a World Heritage Site in 1981. The site — and its fossils — also received world-wide attention in 1989 with the publication of Stephen Jay Gould’s best-selling book, Wonderful Life, which deals with the evolution of Cambrian animal life.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_30; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burgess_shale; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Doolittle_Walcott; http://www.burkemuseum.org/static/bshale/gallery.html; http://www.geo.ucalgary.ca/~macrae/Burgess_Shale/; http://www.burgess-shale.bc.ca/discover-burgess-shale; http://facstaff.gpc.edu/~pgore/geology/geo102/burgess/burgess.htm; http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/naturalhistory_cambrian.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opabinia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nectocaris; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hallucigenia.

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