THE BURGESS SHALE STORY - PIECE 4: THE HISTORY

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Drawn from, in part, man's persistent will to know who he is and whence he and his world emerges comes a statement:

"It was inevitable that the Burgess Shale was going to be noticed sooner or later and its fossil treasures revealed to science."

So writes Dr. Simon Conway Morris, eminent researcher of the Burgess Shale and professor of evolutionary biology at Cambridge University, England.

But it was mountain railway pass engineering near Field, British Columbia, part of Canada's confederation promises, curiosity and fortune, as well as science's best minds of the day that made this inevitability manifest.
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Burgess Shale region warden John Niddris
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John Niddris
Track 2
00:34-1:00
"CPR had this mainline going through the park, and this was a stop area, and it had a small village well before the park was established.

"It housed the CPR employees, and it's well-known that some of the CPR staff used to go up on Mt. Stephen after dinner and collect "stone bugs"
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These stones bugs were trilobites, a once numerous but extinct group of animals, a bit like shrimp or lobsters with a hard mineralized shell. The CPR workers sold these to tourists. The Canadian Geological Survey made a formal scientific collection from Mt. Stephen in 1886, but it was on another mountain, and with another scientist that the most unusual finds were made.
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CBC Ideas
1:20-1:28
9 secs
"The man who discovered them, nearly a century ago, was one of the most influential scientists of his day: Dr. Charles Doolittle Walcott."
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CBC Ideas
17:54-18:04
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"Walcott was the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, director of the U.S. Geological Survey and a world expert on fossils from the Cambrian Era, the time of the Burgess Shale Fossils."
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There is a legendary version of how Charles Walcott, still looking for trilobites, actually found the rich Burgess Shale deposit, but let's hear first from Dr. Huntingdon Williams, family friend and admirer, to set the stage.
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Dr. Huntingdon Williams
Whyte Museum Archives
20:13-20:35
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"He was a genius. I think he could smell a fossil from here, up there, and just where to go. Where the rock layers begin and end, and where the fossils ought to be, and there they were waiting for him."
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From Walcott's obituary here's the legendary story, read by Parks' Andy Young.
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"One of the most striking of Walcott's faunal discoveries came at the end of the field season in 1909, when Mrs. Walcott's horse slid on going down the trail and turned up a slab that at once attracted her husband's attention. Here was a great treasure-wholly strange crustaceans of middle Cambrian time-but where was the mother rock from which the slab had come? Snow was even then falling, and the solving of this riddle had to be left to another season."
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Host voice:
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This version is now in dispute, but in 1910 he did find the source.
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CBC Ideas
30:38-31:03
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"Accompanied by my two sons... we finally located the fossil bearing band. After that for days we quarried the shale, slid it down the mountain side in blocks to a trail, and transported it to camp on pack horses, where assisted by Mrs. Walcott, the shale was split, trimmed and packed, then taken down to the railway station in Field, 3000 feet below."
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Host Voice:
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5 summers and 65,000 specimens later, 67-year old Charles Walcott had finished his field work, his collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. But what had he actually found?
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CBC Ideas
Lister Sinclair
1:29-1:42
14 secs
"Nothing like them had ever been seen before. Walcott thought the animals he'd found could be fitted into existing biological categories, that they were part of a steady, gradual and predictable process of evolution."
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Dr. Desmond Collins, former curator of the Royal Ontario Museum.
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Dr. Desmond Collins, CBC Ideas
11:29-11:37
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"There is a possible fish ancestor called Pikaia, and of course that could also be a human ancestor."
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11:54-12:01
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"There are other things like sponges and algae, brachiopods, you know the little bivalved things, something like clams....."
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12:05-12:13
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"There are all these different kinds of shrimp-like, crab-like and lobster-like things. They're like them but they are different."
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Host Voice:
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Walcott died in 1927, with the analysis of his finds unfinished. But then the most peculiar thing happened; Retired Washington geologist Ellis Yorkkelson.
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CBC Ideas
37:26-37:29
"One of the real curiosities about the Burgess Shale...
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37:32-37:44
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...is why did they sit around for an entire generation of paleontologists without anybody paying any further scientific attention to them?"
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The reason?...
Most assumed Walcott must have been right, but 35 years later painstaking re-study, followed by swirls of controversy finally brought the mysteries of these animals to a much truer light.
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musical flourish for emphasis

(stay tuned to Park Radio)...
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CONCLUSION-EXTRO

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August 2009 is the 100th anniversary of the Burgess Shale finds, and Parks Canada has many activities planned in commemoration. These will include art exhibits, public presentations by the world's leading scientists in Banff, campground theatre productions, interpretive hikes to the fossil beds all summer and much, much more.

Contact Parks Canada for information on any of these opportunities. Contributors were Dr. Desmond Collins, Ellie Yorkkelson, Lister Sinclair and voicing of Walcott's journal by Wendell Smith, all courtesy of CBC Ideas. Dr. Huntingdon Williams courtesy of the Whyte Museum, and Andy Young courtesy of Parks Canada.

The Burgess Shale Story is sponsored by Parks Canada and the Friends of Banff Park Radio.
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