Opinion

New fossil finds tell a ‘grand tale’ of our history

If the Burgess Shale fossil site in Yoho National Park is a fascinating go-to destination for thousands of visitors, then a new discovery in Kootenay National Park is going to take that fossil exploration experience to a whole new level.

The original 505 million-year-old Burgess Shale site contains a motherlode of fossils of some of the planet’s earliest animals from the Cambrian time. In 1980 it was recognized as one of Canada’s first UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It wasn’t just the great age and diversity of the fossils that made them so unique, but the fact that geological conditions came together to preserve not only the hard parts of the animals (bones, shells, teeth) but the soft parts too including muscles, gills, and digestive systems. This allowed scientists to figure out how they actually lived.

Now, just 40 kilometres away in Kootenay National Park, a new fossil treasure trove has been found that could match or better the original site in Yoho.

In 2012 a team from the Royal Ontario Museum, Pomona College in California, the University of Toronto, the University of Saskatchewan, and Uppsala University in Sweden discovered the Marble Canyon fossil beds. Following a hunch and their knowledge of geology they found the fossils high on a talus slope. What they found, and how, was published in the journal Nature Communications.

They collected thousands of specimens representing over 50 animal species. Some of them were  completely new to science and even better preserved than those in Yoho, retaining very fine, never-before-seen anatomical details that advance our understanding of how the earliest life forms actually functioned. The new site contains a rich hoard of arthropods, a group of animals that today represents more than 80 per cent of all living animals.

This find is the latest in a string of discoveries in the Burgess Shale area. Among the fossils is a vertebrate called Pikaia originally found only in Yoho. Scientists have been able to confirm that it is the most primitive of all known vertebrates and considered the ancestor of all descendant vertebrates, including humans.

“This new discovery is an epic sequel to a story that began at the turn of the previous century,” said Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the ROM and the study’s lead author. “There is no doubt in my mind that this new material will significantly increase our understanding of early animal evolution. The rate at which we are finding animals is astonishing, and there 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.”

Since paleontologist Charles Walcott first discovered the Burgess Shale fossils in 1909, over 200 animal species have been identified. Of the 50 species unearthed in the Kootenay site, some are also found in China’s renowned Chengjiang fossil beds which are 10 million years older. That suggests that Cambrian animals had a global distribution and existed for a very long time.

“It didn’t take us very long to realize that we had dug up something special,” said Dr. Robert Gaines, geologist with Pomona College. “To me, the Burgess Shale is a grand tale in every way imaginable, and we are incredibly proud to be part of this new chapter and to keep the story alive and thriving in everyone’s imagination.”

The plan is for further exploration this summer with the hope of adding to the new species discovery list. While the fossil bed site in Kootenay is currently under wraps to protect its integrity, controlled visitor opportunities like those to the Burgess Shale location, are a possibility.

How cool is that?

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