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No. 43: Jan-Feb 1986

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Treasures In A Toxonomic Wastebasket

The Burgess Shale, in British Columbia, ia all that is left of a Middle Cambrian mudbank that adjoined a massive algal reef. Here, many "experimental" forms of life prospered and succumbed. The Burgess Shale is probably the world's greatest depository of fossils of softbodied creatures. Quoting Stephen Jay Gould:

"The Burgess (fortunately for us) occupies a crucial time in life's history. It represents our only 'window' upon the first great radiation of complex life on earth. All but one or two modern phyla originated in a burst of evolutionary activity associated with the so-called Cambrian explosion some 570 million years ago. The Burgess provides our only peek at the soft-bodied forms of this first flowering. All other soft-bodied fossil assemblages are much younger; they represent faunas well past the initial burst and sorting out of Cambrian times."

The morphological diversity of the Burgess Shale, incorporating many bizarre forms of life, represents a true biological revolution. Here are found a dozen genera that do not fit into any modern phylum. Most of the novelties never survived into modern times.

(Gould, Stephen Jay; "Treasures in a Taxonomic Wastebasket," Natural History, 94:24, December 1985.)

Comment. Somewhere on today's earth, there must be mudbanks washed by nutrient-rich waters and bathed in tropical sunlight. Is some ingredient missing, or perhaps present, in today's mudbands that suppresses the wild speciation seen in the Burgess Shale?

Amiskwia sagittoformis (left) and Opabina regalis, fossils found in Burgess shale Tow of the many mysterous fossils found in Burgess shale. At the right is Opabina regalis, with five eyes at the base of a nose-like structure ending in teeth. On the left is Amiskwia sagittoformis. Although these creatures are named, nobody really knows what they are!

From Science Frontiers #43, JAN-FEB 1986. 1986-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987