In Awe of the Burgess Shale

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Written by Patrick J. Smith posted on Monday, August 31st, 2009

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The Burgess Shale near the town of Field is one of the most important paleontological sites in the world.

The Burgess Shale near the town of Field is one of the most important paleontological sites in the world.

I get a lot of questions about the past.

I know, I know. A mountain man isn’t exactly known for his keen grasp of history. But there is a lot of history in the Canadian Rockies. Spend as much time up here as I have, and you sort of have to absorb it.

In truth, I love the history. Not just the recent history, either, of the fur trade and the railroads and the rise of tourism. I love the history of the whole area, dating as far back as 500 million years ago.

Let me tell you about the Burgess Shale. This one spot in Yoho National Park, more than any other in the Rockies, gives you an appreciation for just how old this land is.

In 1909, Charles D. Walcott, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, discovered fossils on Fossil Ridge. Walcott came back often in the next 14 years, eventually gathering more than 65,000 specimens.

The quarry actually is named after Walcott, but the man himself called it the Burgess Shale after nearby Mt. Burgess. Makes sense. Nowadays, both are correct, but it’s the Burgess name that’s most well-known.

So, what did he find? That’s the fun part! See, he didn’t find just bones. The fossils Walcott came across look like dark films or lithographs imprinted on fine shale. Other finds of this kind have been made in China and Greenland, among other places; they are known as Burgess Shale-type faunas. The shale Walcott found even contain some soft parts of preserved animals – parts such as gills, legs and guts; far more rare than bones, shells and teeth.

Essentially, the Burgess Shale is a window to the world as it was 505 million years ago.

Scientists call this period the Cambrian Explosion. Seems it was around this time that all major animals suddenly appeared in the fossil record. Some are ancestors of animals living today; others are long extinct.

So, what were the Rockies like back then? You wouldn’t recognize them. Back then, the area that would become North America straddled the equator, and the Burgess Shale region was a warm, shallow sea. The only life, before the Cambrian Explosion, was found in the water.

Want to see for yourself? You can. There are tours that go through the quarry. To get to it, though, is a bit of a hike: a 3-hour trail, to be precise. The site rests on a ridge between two mountains near the town of Field. But hey, it’s not like there’s nothing else to see on the way. You’re in the Canadian Rockies! Yoho National Park features the Takakkaw Falls, Emerald Lake and many glaciers.

Dinosaur fossils have been found all over the Rockies, actually. If you’ve got a budding paleontologist in the family, this is a trip you must take!

And keep an eye on this space for more, as the Mountain Man gets all historical for you. Until then, maybe you can find the next undiscovered dinosaur.

Alberta Adventure Guide

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