THE BURGESS SHALE
This is a picture of the Burgess Shale. It's a quarry containing large numbers of fossils from the Cambrian Period and dates to around 540 million years old. The quarry is located in southern British Columbia in Yoho National Park, a short distance from the town of Field in the Canadian Rockies. It is located about 2300 meters elevation on Fossil Ridge which runs from Wapta Mountain to Mount Field. It's about a three hour hike from Field over rugged trails. It is a holy place.
Photo copyright Andrew Macrae (1995)
The Importance of the Burgess Shale:
In paleontology, most fossils are based on the remains of mineralized hard parts such as skeletons or shells. Rarely are the details of soft body parts preserved. The Burgess Shale contains a large number of soft-bodied organisms, many of which had never been seen before. These fossils provide a window into the explosive appearance of multicellular organisms that occurred at the beginning of the Cambrian Period. It gives us tremendous insight into the large number of Cambrian organisms that lack a mineralized skeleton. Over 80% of the Burgess forms are soft-bodied and are not found in shelly assemblages.
The Chengjiang Fossils:
Another fine bed of early Cambrian fossils exists in China. This site contains similar type fossils to those found in the Burgess Shale, and date to around 570 million years old. They are the oldest such fossils ever found and contain organisms with soft body parts. Paleontologists have extracted over 70 species of trilobites, worms, sponges and various ancestors of crustaceans, spiders and insects.
Cambrian Fossils and Evolution:
There is still much controversy over the significance of the Burgess and Chengjiang fossils. What is certain is that the transformation of life from single-celled organisms to multicellular organisms was swift, sudden and widespread. Another significant point is that if evolution was occurring at such a rapid rate, why are the Chengjiang fossils and the Burgess fossils so similar? During the 40 million year period between the two sites, evolution seems to have produced very little change. It seems that all of the diversity that was going to occur happened in a time period as short as 5 million years. Hardly an observation that supports a darwinian view that life evolved by the slow accumulation of fortuitous mutations.
My View on This:
The rapidity of the diversification that occurred in the early Cambrian is more compatible with the view that life came to earth from elsewhere with many if not all of the biochemical processes in place. There is just no other way, in my opinion, to explain this sudden appearance of all of the known animal phyla.
Some Books To Read:
- Wonderful Life:The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History- Steven Jay Gould
- The Fossils of the Burgess Shale- Briggs, Erwin and Collier
Paleontology on the Web:
Cosmic Ancestry- Brig Klyce
Burgess Shale Fossils
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