Canada’s “Burgess Shales”: Site 2

Researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum are busy drilling, chiselling and carefully dislodging one well-preserved fossil after another at a recently discovered site in the Rocky Mountains. (Courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)

Researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum are busy drilling, chiselling and carefully dislodging one well-preserved fossil after another at a recently discovered site in the Rocky Mountains. (Courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)

Too few Canadians realize how significant Canada is for understanding how life unfolded on Earth. The rocks under our feet are home to some of the most significant fossil finds and fossil troves in the world: Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta; Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia; the Burgess Shales in Yoho National Park in BC; and Miguasha Park, QC – all have been designated World Heritage Sites for the fossils found there and each helps to write a different chapter of what Earth was like when the respective strata were laid down.

Other significant sites, that do not (yet) have World Heritage Status include Mistaken Point, Newfoundland, the Tumbler Ridge dinosaur trackway in BC, and the Milk River Badlands in Alberta plus a number of other sites scattered across the Prairies and Ontario (and, no doubt, many more in the Arctic yet to be discovered). As well, Canada is home to some of the world’s leading paleontological institutes: the Royal Tyrrell Museum, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum (the ROM) and the Canadian Museum of Nature. We are a fossil nation! (For a more complete list, have a look at the Courtenay (BC) Museum’s Canadian Fossil Trail).

Now, add to this mix a second site of “Burgess Shale” strata just south of Yoho in Kootenay National Park’s Marble Canyon – the point of this post!

As Canadians, we are known for not blowing our own horn and I think this to our disadvantage at times. Of course, it’s also the price we  pay living next to a behemoth wIth a media machine that thoroughly mythologizes their culture (and science) which completely overwhelms we in the “51st state”. So our kids grow up reading National Geographic, rarely seeing  what our own nation has to offer, except through the eyes of Canadian Geographic, which, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, doesn’t carry the same cachet or mystique as NG does with students – but I’ll save that discussion for another post.

Back to the point of this post… Ivan Semeniuk has written a piece for the Globe & Mail about the “new” (now a few years old) fossil location in Kootenay, equal to, if not more significant than, the Burgess Shales 40km to the north: 500 million years ago, this critter had a really bad day. No, this site doesn’t contain the “sexy” fossils of T. rex or its pals, but these new finds chronicle what is called the “Cambrian explosion” – the huge diversification of life that occurred in the Cambrian Period. In a geological moment– some 20 million years – virtually all the animal body plans found on Earth today evolved. The Burgess Shales and these new strata at Marble Canyon provide the snapshots though time that help palaeontologists understand this progression of evolution.

Semeniuk points out that fossils from this era are particularly well-preserved. Due to the chemistry of seawater at the time, not only are shells and exoskeletons preserved, but soft tissues have been captured in the rock allowing for much more detailed analysis.

The value of this article, in particular, is all the “bits” that come with it: a video, descriptions of how palaeontologists work, visualizations of the critters being found and a geologic time line – all helpful for gaining a greater understanding of the work that goes on behind the scenes of fossil digs, and ideal for armchair palaeontologists of all ages!

For more on Geologic Time and Palaeontology, visit GeoKnow.net > Lithosphere

[Aside: Rather ironically, I came across this Globe & Mail article in a National Geographic Blog!]

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