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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