This past summer my dad and I made a pilgrimage to one of the most famous fossil localities in the world: British Columbia’s Burgess Shale. My Travels in Geology feature story for EARTH magazine appears in the January issue:
Of all the famous fossil localities in the world — Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs, Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, Wyoming’s Green River, Germany’s Solnhöfn Quarry — perhaps none is as widely celebrated as British Columbia’s Burgess Shale. High in the Canadian Rockies, the Burgess Shale contains some of the oldest and most exquisitely detailed fossils of early life on Earth. Visiting the Burgess Shale requires some preparation — you must hire a guide and hike 22 kilometers at high elevation — but for a fossil enthusiast, the payoff is worth every step.
As a general rule, the fossil record is dominated by hard parts: shells, teeth and bones. The Burgess fossils, however, reveal so much more. Small but exquisite, the fossils preserve fine details of soft body structures like gills and eyes and even last meals: tiny trilobites encapsulated in stone, for example, deep in the visible guts of larger worm-like predators.
The Burgess Shale quarries are famous not just for the sheer number and variety of fossils and their rare and lovely preservation, but also for the window they open to the past. Multicellular life evolved on Earth about 570 million years ago with a bang known as the Cambrian Explosion, just 65 million years before the Burgess assemblage formed.