The Burgess Shale is a unique fossil field from the Middle Cambrian – about five hundred million years ago – in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada, and it’s part of the Yoho National Park. The Royal Ontario Museum and Parks Canada, the national agency that has the mandate to protect Canada’s natural and cultural heritage, opened a new site which is an online museum of the area.
The first fossils were found in the Burgess Shale in 1909 by Charles Doolittle Walcott, who found many more of them in the following years. Many fossils were trilobites (photo ©Smith609), a group of arthropods very common in the Cambrian, but others were completely unknown and initially Walcott classified them as primitive forms of the known phyla.
It was only thanks to a new analysis of those fossils made since the ’70s at the University of Cambridge paleontologists realized that many fossils have anatomical features that suggest that at least some of them belonged to phyla that no longer exist.
The renowned scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote of the Burgess Shale fossils in his essay “Wonderful Life”. That area became a source of discussion about the Cambrian explosion, the event that more than five hundred million years ago in an apparently very short time by a biological point of view led to the birth of an incredible amount of different species. The importance of the Burgess Shale is such that in 1980 UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.
Inevitably, there are several problems in investigating the events of a past so far back in time as the amount of fossils is limited, especially concerning the period before the Cambrian explosion. Geological and paleoclimatic traces are limited too so it’s difficult to understand the details of the Earth’s tectonic and climatic evolution of that time, key elements because of their influence on the evolution of life forms.
Obviously, research is continuing and to help scientists but also for anyone who wants to study or just admire the Burgess Shale fossils now there are online tools thanks to the new virtual museum just opened.
The site includes a gallery of about 1,600 images of over 200 species found in the Burgess Shale. They also produced clips showing the area and animations of the ancient marine life that half a billion years ago formed the basis of the present animal life.
Certainly the best thing would be to visit the Burgess Shale in person but if you can’t do it this new online museum will offer you a portrait about that extraordinary period in the history of life on Earth.