Newly Discovered New Burgess Shale Site In Canada’s Kootenay National Park May Be Most Important Fossil Site In Decades

By Ajit Jha on February 11, 2014 6:37 PM EST

Burgess Shale
A new, "epic" fossil site has been discovered in Kootenay National Park, a sprawling reserve located in the Canadian Rockies. (Photo: Danny Nicholson, CC BY ND 2.0)

A new, "epic" fossil site has been discovered in Kootenay National Park, a sprawling reserve located in the Canadian Rockies, an international research team announced on Tuesday.

Although the exact location of the new heritage site is being kept secret in order to ensure its integrity, the team said that it is located within miles of the famous Burgess Shale - a 505-million-year-old fossil haven in neighboring Yoho National Park, where scientists have unearthed some of our most treasured ancient remains. The discovery of this expansive "sequel" comes a little more than a century after paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott began to investigate the vast Canadian mountain system.

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"This new discovery is an epic sequel to a research story that began at the turn of the previous century, and there is no doubt in my mind that this new material will significantly increase our understanding of early animal evolution," lead author Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron said in a press release. "The rate at which we are finding animals - many of which are new - is astonishing."

The new paper describes Kootenay National Park's so-called 'Marble Canyon' fossil beds in glowing terms. The area and its extraordinary fossils, the researchers say, will likely help them form a better understanding of the so-called Cambrian Period - an important geological period marked by a sudden explosion of animal life.

The new discovery adds to a string of recent discoveries near the Burgess Shale. Among these discoveries, it is now well established that Pikaia, an animal exclusive to Yoho National Park, is the most primitive vertebrate known. Accordingly, Pikaia should be recognized as the earliest known ancestor of all vertebrates - including humans.

While about 200 animal species have been identified at the original Burgess Shale over 100 years of research, the new site at Kootenay National Park has already yielded 50 animal species within 15 days of field work. In other words, the new site may soon surpass the old one in terms of pre-historic animal species discoveries.     

What's more, these findings already suggest that the current theoretical body on Cambrian animals is inadequate. The Chenjiang fossil beds in China, which are nearly 10 million years older than the newly discovered Kootenay site, feature remains of species very similar to those discovered at Kootenay. This suggests that the Cambrian animals may have been distributed more widely, globally as well as locally. In addition, the current research may offer better understanding on their longevity.

"It didn't take us very long at all to realize that we had dug up something special," Co-author Robert Gaines told reporters. "To me, the Burgess Shale is a grand tale in every way imaginable, and we are incredibly proud to be part of this new chapter and to keep the story alive and thriving in everyone's imagination."

Source: Caron J, et al.A New 'Phyllopod Bed'Like Assemblage from the Burgess Shale, Canadian Rockies. Nature Communications. 2014. 

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