New trove of "Wonderful Life" fossils discovered in the Canadian Rockies

The Canadian Rockies: Source of a new treasure trove of amazing Cambrian fossils
The Canadian Rockies: Source of a new treasure trove of amazing Cambrian fossilsCourtesy Mark Ryan
Just over a century ago, paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered a truly remarkable fossil quarry in British Columbia. The site, known as the Burgess Shale, was found on Mt. Field in Yoho National Park, and contained an abundant amount of fossilized remains of soft-bodied creatures - several new to science - from the Cambrian Period around 505 million years ago. In 1989, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould detailed the spectacular find and its implications in a book titled, "Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History".

Burgess Shale trilobite: Science Museum of Minnesota collection.
Burgess Shale trilobite: Science Museum of Minnesota collection.Courtesy Mark Ryan
This week, a newly discovered fossil site, located in the same shale formation high in the Canadian Rockies but 26 miles southeast of Walcott's quarry, was announced in the journal Nature Communications. The new location, named Marble Canyon, is proving to be another Lagerstätte, a sedimentary deposit of extraordinary and exceptionally preserved fossils. The discoverers report that of the 3000 specimens found so far and representing 55 species, about half are invertebrates also found at the Walcott Quarry, and in some cases are more abundant and better preserved.

"[T]here is a high possibility that we'll eventually find more species here than at the original Yoho National Park site, and potentially more than from anywhere else in the world," said lead author Jean-Bernard Caron, an invertebrate paleontologist at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.

So far twenty-two percent of the species discovered at Marble Canyon are new to science. The formation is estimated to be about 100,000 years younger than the original site. China's Chengjiang fossil beds have produced some of the same kinds of animals found at Marble Canyon and is about 10 million years older.

Arthropods (e.g. trilobites) are the most common animals found in the Burgess Shale, and finely preserved fossils from the new site provide remarkable views of neural tissues, retinas, corneas, some internal organs.

Back in 2012, Gaines and his colleagues followed the Burgess shale exposures on foot, trekking across the mountainsides in hopes of finding new fossils sites. What they discovered at Marble Canyon is far more than they could have wished for.

"I think the most profound implication is that the Burgess Shale can't just be the only one that there is," Gaines said. "There's a lot more out there in the Canadian Rockies and other places."

Any fossil remains uncovered at Marble Canyon and at similar sites will only add to our understanding of evolution and how complex life developed during the Cambrian Explosion.

Gallery of new Burgess Shale fossils

Nature Communications
ScienceDaily story
"Wonderful Life" by Stephen Jay Gould
LiveScience story
Previous Burgess Shale Buzz story
More about the Burgess Shale

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