Archive by category | Burgess Shale Centenary

Burgess Shale Centenary: a hike to Walcott quarry

Burgess Shale Centenary: a hike to Walcott quarry

So I hiked up to the famous quarry itself on Saturday, on a day with remarkably clear blue skies and cool mountain air. It’s relatively strenuous – about 3 or 4 hours uphill, with a few steep sections, and then an unremitting 3 hours of knee-pounding downhill switchbacks. If you fancy seeing the quarry for yourself, you’ll need to sign up for a guided tour. The quarry is a national herritage site, so you can’t wander in there alone, nor can you take any fossils away with you. This was, of course, a source of great despair to the paleontologists on our hike, who found fossils (some relatively rare) and were forced to simply put them back on the ground and walk away.  Read more

Burgess Shale Centenary: Cambrian’s fiercest predator defanged

One presentation that stirred things up a bit suggested that Anomalocaris wasn’t the fierce predator it is usually portrayed as (see my news story here). This animal is almost always shown munching on a hard-shelled trilobite, but it seems that maybe it was incapable of such attacks. Opinion is still divided, but even Simon Conway Morris threw up a picture of a classic reproduction of Cambrian life during his talk, featuring an Anomalocaris gripping onto a trilobite, and quipped “so here we see an Anomalocaris putting a trilobite gently to bed…”. This was met with many chuckles – not, I think, because the idea of a gentler Anomalocaris is laughable, but simply because people don’t know quite how to respond to classic ideas about Cambrian life being overturned. If the ‘gentler’ image holds up, they’ll have to redraw all the Cambrian life pictures.  Read more

Burgess Shale Centenary: Cambrian sillies

I’m writing this after a few drinks (which, as you’ll soon see, is perfectly appropriate) and after being inspired by Simon Conway Morris’s talk on the origin of body plans. I wish I could do Conway Morris’s talk justice in this blog – he is an eloquent, and funny, speaker. Suffice it to say that he recounted some of his arguments against Gould (read about that here); fought back, good-naturedly, at several other speakers at this conference who have called him wrong about some particular matters of creature identification; threatened to drink a bottle of commemorative ‘Shale Ale’ whilst at the podium in spite of Canada’s draconian laws against drinking in public; and responded to one confession of love. Of course, he also addressed some serious points of biology, concluding that perhaps, “at long last, biology is going to become predictable”. There’s one prediction I would bet money against.  Read more

Burgess Shale Centenary: The MOFAOTYOF Principle

Martin Brasier of Oxford University jokingly referred to the ‘MOFAOTYOF Principle’ in his talk – the ‘My Oldest Fossils Are Older Than Your Oldest Fossils’ phenomenon. He makes fun of it (such competitions can perhaps get a bit silly), but it is the business that Brasier and his team are in – hunting down those oldest fossils of the old.  Read more

Burgess Shale Centenary: Fossilized brains

I was slightly shocked to see a slide of ‘fossilized brains’ from the Cambrian thrown up on a slide. Brains? From the Cambrian? Turns out I was right to be shocked. “People find it hard to swallow” says Nicholas Strausfield, a neuroanatomist from the University of Arizona. He was trawling through Burgess Shale fossils of Waptia – a small shrimp-like creature from the Cambrian – looking for hints of the evolutionary relationship between insects and crustaceans, when he found 3 samples that seemed to have brain-shapes in them. “I have flattened a lobster brain, and it looks like that,” he says. You can’t tell too much from these fossils, except that the brain was apparently big enough to handle some complex sensory information from the antenae and simple eyes.  Read more

Burgess Shale Centenary: Yet more decay

The annoying thing about fossils is trying to work out what the heck the creature looked like before it was trapped in a mudslide, lost some limbs, got squashed flat, and was chemically altered by millennia of burial. This is not easy. And as Robert Sansom of the University of Leicester points out, it’s made extra difficult by the fact that some discriminating features used to identify these creatures decay faster than others. That introduces a bias in how organisms are classified, he warns. His group is doing lab tests of decay rates of different bits and pieces of animals to sort these biases out.  Read more

Burgess Shale Centenary: Decaying pizza

Some of the weirder Ediacaran species might not be species after all, Alexander Liu of Oxford University has told the conference. There’s a brand of squidgy Ediacaran fossils known collectively as ‘pizza discs’. They are all round, and have bumpy bits – of up to 1-cm height in the fossil record – randomly scattered in the middle. These bumps are not consistent from one pizza disc to the next – each disc is individual. This makes it hard to identify the characteristics that define the creature that left the fossil print. So hard, in fact, that Liu wonders if it’s not a specific creature after all.  Read more

Burgess Shale Centenary: Rats, goats, and jack hammers

Yet more history from Desmond Collins, who talked today about the work that has gone on in the Burgess Shale since the 1970s or so. Collins himself was in charge of many further explorations of the shale, and even has a quarry named after him (as does the original discoverer Charles Doolittle Walcott, and a handful of others, but only a handful). Collins is clearly on a first name basis with both all the people who have explored the shale, and also all the creatures who have turned up in the rocks. He showed a fabulous slideshow of weird and wonderful creatures preserved in the shale, most of which you can see in the Royal Ontario Museum’s online photo collection. Surprisingly (to me), many of the creatures revealed have still not been properly described – including the one called the ‘Collins monster’.  Read more

Burgess Shale Centenary: About a worm

Quote of the day goes to Kevin Peterson of Dartmouth College, who began his talk with a dedication to Wonderful Life, the book that popularized Cambrian creatures. “If it weren’t for Wonderful Life we all wouldn’t be here. Or at least I wouldn’t be,” he said. “I brought this book to a bar in Montanna and read it in one sitting, over 12 beers. I developed my first man crush – I was in love with Simon Conway Morris.” (He means this as a joke, of course… no actual romance here). Conway Morris was one of the researchers who reinterpreted the Burgess Shale fossils in the 1960s, unveiling their truly bizarre characteristics, and is giving a talk here tomorrow… perhaps someone should warn him of Peterson’s unrequited feelings.  Read more

Burgess Shale Centenary: What’s this, then?

If you can’t tell the difference between an embryo and a giant bacterium, then things have got to be pretty bad. But Frank Corsetti of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, gave the audience a persuasive argument today that at least some spherical bodies found in the fossil record, thought to be eggs or embryos, are indeed probably giant sulphur bacteria instead. Certainly I can’t tell the difference from the pictures, and nor, apparently, can the experts.  Read more