Bizarre Cambrian "spiked worm" has relatives worldwide

Fossil of Hallucigenia in Burgess Shale
Fossil of Hallucigenia in Burgess ShaleCourtesy ap2il via Flickr
One of the strangest creatures to emerge from the famed Burgess Shale in the mountains of British Columbia, is the rightly named Hallucigenia, a strange spiky, wormlike creature that once scuttled across the Cambrian sea bottom more than 500 million years ago. Originally considered a totally unique (and baffling) creature, Hallucigenia has now been linked to other similar-aged wormlike creatures found around the world.

Hallucigenia first came to light in 1909 after Charles Doolitle Walcott, an expert in trilobites and secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, discovered a Lagerstätte in the mountains of British Columbia that was unlike any other found before.

Location of Walcott Quarry as seen from Field, BC
Location of Walcott Quarry as seen from Field, BCCourtesy Mark Ryan
Located in Yoho National Park on a steep slope between Mount Field and Wapta peak above the railroad town of Field, B.C., Walcott's quarry produced some of the strangest creatures - many of them soft-bodied and rarely found in the fossil record. The rock section, previously known as the Stephens Formation became known as the Burgess Shale, after nearby Burgess Pass. In the years following the discovery, Walcott and other scientists studied the strange fossils in an effort to decipher them and the environment in which they had lived and died.

Because of the high degree of preservation, the creatures that made the fossils were most likely buried suddenly in some sort of giant underwater mudslide that quickly entombed an entire marine community in an anoxic environment where decomposition was stifled. A perfect environment for preserving the soft-bodied tissue.

Display model of Hallucigenia: Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta
Display model of Hallucigenia: Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, AlbertaCourtesy Mark Ryan
Some of the Burgess Shale denizens appeared to be of completely new and unknown phyla with bizarre and unfamiliar body plans and no known descendents in the modern age. Hallucigenia certainly led the pack in this department. The tiny strangely constructed worm was only about an inch in length and confounded Walcott and other scientists for more than a century. They couldn''t even say for sure which side was up or down. Early Hallucigenia fossils showed a row of seven tentacles along one side. The opposite side contained seven sets of stiff spikes that were interpreted to be legs. A truly bizarre, aptly named freak-show creature that would be right at home in your average nightmare.

New evidence can often turn an old idea on its ear - or in this case, on its back. Recent scrutiny of newer, better-defined Hallucigenia fossils has revealed another set of "tentacles", leading scientist to realize they had Hallucigenia all flipped around. What they once thought was its top side was actually its bottom. Its dorsal "tentacles" were actually its legs. And its spiky "legs" belonged on its back, probably to serve as protection against predators.

This information along with a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B now places Hallucigenia within a group of other worm-like creatures whose fossils are found around the world, including China, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. It also links it to a living group - Onychophora - the velvet worms that mostly inhabit the tropical forests of the Southern Hemisphere.

"They may not be exactly the same species, but they are all probably related to the same group of worm-like creature that we call lobopods," said Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum and the study's lead researcher. Caron is an expert in Burgess Shale fossils and his study of Hallucigenia and other fossils from the formation continues to glean new knowledge about the strange creatures that existed in the so-called Cambrian Explosion. Check out Caron's Burgess Shale website. It's full of great information about the quarry and the incredible fossils found there.

Burgess Shale location: Walcott Quarry sets on steep slope in valley between Mt. Wapta and Mt. Field.
Burgess Shale location: Walcott Quarry sets on steep slope in valley between Mt. Wapta and Mt. Field.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Walcott's Burgess Shale quarry has been designated a World Heritage site. The only way to visit it (or the fossil fields on nearby Mt. Stephen) is through guided hikes led by either Parks Canada or The Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation. The 10 hour round-trip hike (rated moderate to difficult) takes participants up 2500 feet in elevation to Mt. Fields and requires reservations and a deposit. Fossil collecting is prohibited but the views are said to be spectacular.
The Province story
The Burgess Shale at Smithsonian website
Dr. Caron's Burgess Shale website
Parks Canada Burgess Shale info

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