Encountering the Fossils of the Burgess Shale

Encountering the Fossils of the Burgess Shale

Last summer’s hike to the Mount Stephen Fossil Beds—located in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia—was a “bucket list” experience for me. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, unearthed in 1886, and the nearby Walcott Quarry (discovered in 1909) are part of the Burgess Shale find.

These sites are renowned for their exceptionally well-preserved fossils. The Mount Stephen site contains a mother lode of trilobite fossils. What a thrill to handle and examine the fossilized remains of creatures that lived in Earth’s oceans 505 million years ago! It was an even bigger thrill to experience, first hand, some of the fossils that document one of the most dramatic events in life’s history: the Cambrian explosion. Around 540 million years ago, 50 to 80 percent of the known animal phyla (body plans) appeared in a relatively short window of time, perhaps as narrow as 2 to 3 million years.

Recently, a team of paleontologists had their own bucket list experience when they discovered a new Cambrian fossil site in the Burgess Shale, about 25 miles from the Walcott Quarry.1 This new location, called the Marble Canyon fossil assemblage, appears to be as scientifically significant as the Walcott.

In the span of 15 days, the researchers collected over 3,000 specimens that represent 55 species and 11 distinct animal body plans. Two-thirds of the fossils from the new locale are known from the Walcott Quarry, but a number represent previously unrecognized organisms. This new find indicates that an even greater diversity of life existed during the Cambrian than previously thought.

To say it another way, this new discovery indicates that the Cambrian event was more explosive than imagined—so much so as to defy an evolutionary explanation. However, this is precisely what the fossil record should look like from a creation perspective. In fact, the Cambrian event is reminiscent of the fifth day of creation, when God commanded the waters to teem with life.

  1. Jean-Bernard Caron et al., “A New Phyllopod Bed-Like Assemblage from the Burgess Shale of the Canadian Rockies,” Nature Communications 5 (February 11, 2014), doi: 10.1038/ncomms4210.