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Burgess Shale

Burgess Shale Fossils:
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Location: Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada

Time: 505 to 500 million years ago, during the Cambrian period

About this Famous Find: Outcrops of the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale can be found in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park. Charles Doolittle Walcott from the Smithsonian Institution discovered the Burgess Shale during a 1909 expedition. Because this site shows exceptional fossil preservation and records a unique diversity of animals, UNESCO designated the Burgess Shale as a World Heritage Site in 1981.

At the time the sediments of the Burgess Shale were being deposited, western Canada lay near the equator and formed the northern continental margin of what would become North America. At the edge of the continental shelf, a massive algal reef developed into a near-vertical cliff of limestone several hundred meters high, called the Cathedral Escarpment. Periodically, ocean currents would generate underwater landslides, called turbidity flows, that would sweep up any animals in their paths and bury them along with the animals living in the deep water muds at the base of the cliff.

The hapless animals were completely buried in fine sand, silt, and mud. The turbulence forced fine-grained clay particles into every crack and crevice of the animals, outlining features rarely preserved in other fossils. Tightly packed in clay, the animals were protected from scavengers and from decomposition by bacteria. As a result, their complete forms along with details such as gut contents, appendage hairs, and antennae are often preserved, making these fossils extremely valuable to paleontologists.

Arthropods dominate the Burgess Shale fauna, although other fossils are found in great abundance, including worms, crinoids, sea cucumbers, chordates, brachiopods, and other organisms with no mineralized shell and no clear classification. Macroscopic algae and many unicellular organisms, preserved as microfossils, are also common elements of the Burgess fauna.

Organizations

Parks (2 listings)

Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada: This official site of the National Parks of Canada has information on the fossils and rocks of the Burgess Shale, where, when, and how to get to the park, what to see and do, and where to stay.

The Burgess Shale: One of the world's most important fossil finds, the Burgess Shale, is located in Yoho National Park of Canada. Designated a World Heritage Site in 1981, the Burgess Shale Formation contains the fossilized remains of more than 120 marine animal species dating back 515 million years.

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Societies and Clubs (1 listing)

The Yoho-Burgess Shale Foundation: This non-profit educational organization provides an introduction to the fossils, geology, and history of research of the Burgess Shale, as well as details on how to get there and what to do.

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Education and Exhibits

Virtual Exhibits (2 listings)

Burgess Shale Exhibit- University of California Museum of Paleontology: Find additional information and links on the fossils and paleoenvironment of the Burgess Shale.

The Burgess Shale: This visually stunning online exhibition from the Royal Ontario Museum and Parks Canada, addresses aspects of history, research, education, outreach and visitor access to one of the most famous paleontological sites in the world. See amazing 3D animations, digital reconstructions and high-resolution images of the Burgess fossils. 

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Research and Collections

Researchers (1 listing)

Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre: The museum hosts the largest collection of marine reptile fossils in Canada and programs for all ages. The museum website includes fossil images as well as additional information about fossils, fossil collecting, and geologic processes.

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Ongoing Research Projects (1 listing)

Burgess Shale Research page at the Royal Ontario Museum: This page provides information on research being conducted at the Royal Ontario Museum on fossils from the Burgess Shale, with a list of recent publications. Links to press releases of important discoveries and podcasts are also provided.

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Resources

Field Guides (1 listing)

The Burgess Shale fossils: This site provides a description of the Burgess Shale and its stratigraphy, the Walcott quarry, and prominent fossil specimens (with photos) from this famous British Columbia locality.

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