Burgess Shale Fossils the Natural Wonder of British Columbia

Burgess Shale is a limestone quarry full of fossils of the very early primitive animals formed about 530 million years ago. The location is at Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies, eastern part of British Columbia near the borderline with Alberta, Banff National Park. It is about 8-9 hours driving from the Vancouver area.

This short article is about the amazing fossils from the “Cambrian explosion” that were printed and well preserved on the over 12,000 stone specimens. The early Burgess Shale fossils were recorded and collected by Charles Doolittle Walcott, head of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. in 1909.

The anatomical description and taxonomic placement of the fossils were developed and reinterpreted by Harry Blackmore Whittington of Cambridge University in the 1970s after over forty years in analyzing and working with the lab drawing. Some scholars like Derek Ernest Gilmor Briggs, Simon Conway Morris, who both are the former students of Whittington, and the late Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University published their books on the Burgess Shale fossils mystery and reality. They have different perspectives and arguments.

The Burgess Shale during the Period of Cambrian was an ancient sea with very strange living creatures never seen before or since such as:

Anomalocaris, the largest predator with a circular jaw and a pair of feeding organs. 

Canadaspis, a crustacean with two large valves, five head segments, and two pairs of antennae. 

Hallucigenia, the unusual creature supported by seven pairs of struts on the seafloor.

Marrella, an abundant creature with two pairs of head shields that belong nowhere in the classification of animals.

Opabinia, a soft-bodied arthropod with frontal nozzle, five eyes, and fan shaped tail.

Ottoia, a soft-bodied burrower sedentary worm-like animal with hundred hooks.

Pikaia, a primitive fish-like animal, resembled the lancelet the first known primitive chordate.

Yohoia, a primitive trilobite-like animal with great and flexible appendages.

Wiwaxia, a bilaterally symmetrical amour slug-like animal with plates and spines. And much more.

Most of the Cambrian explosion living creatures above and many other bizarre creatures can be seen in the books of Derek Briggs et al.: The Fossils of the Burgess Shale, Conway Morris: The Crucible of Creation, and the book of Jay Gould: Wonderful Life. They also can be found at the Royal Ontario Museum’s website here: https://burgess-shale.rom.on.ca/

According to Morris, the creation of the living creatures in the past during the Cambrian explosion has a relationship with the nowadays or modern living creatures. Although most of those primitive animals are different in body shapes and rules in the animal classification. Gould argues that some of the Burgess Shale prehistoric animals do not have any relationship with the modern animals, so cannot be placed in the present classification of the animal kingdom.

Most scientists agree that the main reason for the high diversity and disparity of the Burgess Shale ancient living creatures due to the limited oxygen during the Cambrian explosion.

The creation of the Burgess Shale animal fossils can be without special purposes or randomly blind and then followed by the evolution of the arthropods and other living creatures. Or there was a revolution of the primitive animals that only happened in the past during the Cambrian explosion and then they suddenly disappeared or perished.

At least we can enjoy the fossils and learn more about the living creatures in the past. Who knows that there will be modern animals similar to those fossils found in the future?   

The photo above was taken above the Canadian Rocky Mountains on the first day of the last Winter. From Air Canada, Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner before Covid-19 hits North America.

-Bintoro Gunadi    

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