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First Discoveries

The first fossil discoveries in the area of the Burgess Shale were made on Mount Stephen in the late 19th century. Exactly who made the first discovery may never be resolved … there are conflicting claims from a geologist, Richard McConnell, and an astronomer, Otto Klotz. Nevertheless, the early finds set the stage for the later discovery of the Burgess Shale.


The Trilobite Beds are named after the millions of trilobite fossils found on the slopes of Mount Stephen, about 5 km (3.1 miles) southeast of the Burgess Shale, between Wapta Mountain and Mount Field. The discovery and first descriptions of fossils from this location near the end of the 19th century played a pivotal role in attracting Charles Walcott to the area, first in 1907 and again in 1909 when he discovered the Burgess Shale.

Black and white image of hotel in front of mountain

Mount Stephen House with Mount Stephen and the Trilobite Beds in the Background, Field, 1887

© McCord Museum

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Richard McConnell

Black and white studio photograph of Richard McConnell

Richard McConnell (1879-1914), undated.

© Geological Survey of Canada

The discoverer of the "Fossil Beds" (as they were commonly known) may never be known.

A geologist for the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) named Richard McConnell is often credited with making the first collection of fossils from this location on September 13, 1886 – after labourers working in the nearby village of Field told McConnell about "stone bugs" (trilobites) they had seen on the slopes of Mount Stephen.

Other GSC geologists had already collected fossils from Mount Stephen along the CPR construction line, but not specifically from the soon-to-be-famous beds.

Ogygopsis klotzi from the Fossil Beds and reverse of slab showing original label.

© Geological Survey of Canada. Photo: Jean-Bernard Caron

Following McConnell's initial visit, additional collections were made at the site by Survey geologists. The most significant of these was perhaps one made by Henri-Marc Ami five years later, in 1891.

Labels from drawers, identifying contents as Burgess Shale fossils collected from 1886-1891

Drawers of fossils collected from Mount Stephen by Geological Survey of Canada geologists at the end of the 19th century. (McConnell is misspelled O'Connell on the right label.)

© Geological Survey of Canada. Photo: Jean-Bernard Caron.

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Otto Klotz

Black and white studio photograph of Otto Klotz

Otto Klotz (1852-1923), ca 1910.

That same year Otto Klotz, an astronomer working for the Department of the Interior along the railway at the time, acquired a separate collection from the Fossil Beds. These apparently were collected by his cook during the summer of 1886.

Ogygopsis klotzi collected by Klotz's cook from the Fossil Beds and reverse of slab showing original label.

© University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. Photo: Jean-Bernard Caron

Klotz was using astronomical observations to determine precise longitude co-ordinates for the railway. As part of his work he also accurately determined the heights of peaks such as Mount Burgess – which he named in 1886 for Alexander MacKinnon Burgess, Deputy Minister of the Interior at the time.

Klotz, best known for becoming Canada's first Dominion Astronomer in 1916, sent his fossil collection to Professor Carl Rominger, an acquaintance and geologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where Klotz had graduated in 1872. (Klotz's collection is now at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology.) It did not take long for Rominger to publish a cursory account of these fossils in an 1887 essay entitled "Description of primordial fossils from Mount Stephens [Mount Stephen today], N.W. Territory of Canada". In this, he named Klotz as the discoverer of the Fossil Beds - an assertion quickly disputed by McConnell.

Fossils from Mount Stephen illustrated by Rominger (1887)

As the title of Rominger's essay suggests, the age of the site was assumed to be ancient, but he was not an expert on these fossils and never personally visited the site. Rominger named several new species of trilobites that would be invalidated just a year later in a paper written by Charles Walcott.

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Charles Walcott Enters the Scene

Black and white photograph of Charles Walcott with beard

Walcott (1850-1927) in 1877

© Erin Younger family collection

GSC Geologist Robert McConnell published his report on the trilobites in 1887, catching the attention of Charles Walcott. Walcott, who would go on to discover and name the Burgess Shale, was a prominent American geologist who had a life-long interest in trilobites. However, it would be another 20 years before he would make his first visit to the area (in 1907).

An employee of the US Geological Survey at the time, Walcott obtained specimens from both the McConnell/GSC (Geological Survey of Canada) collection and the Otto Klotz collection, finally concluding the Mount Stephen fossils were of Middle Cambrian age.

Walcott corresponded with the GSC on a regular basis at the time, helping identify many specimens (for Survey paleontologist Henri-Marc Ami, in particular) and providing his expertise on the stratigraphy of the area.

Colour photo of open cabinet with a drawer pulled out, showing fossils and a sheet of paper

Collection cabinet showing parts of Ami's 1891 collection from Mount Stephen as well as document dated 1892 (see below).

© Geological Survey of Canada. Photo: Jean-Bernard Caron

Left, fossil list from the Fossil Beds on Mount Stephen with the two right columns bearing the notations CDW (for Charles Doolittle Walcott) and HMA (for Henri-Marc Ami) dated 1892. Right, stratigraphic map on reverse showing Mount Stephen and Mount Field and sketches of fossils.

© Geological Survey of Canada. Photos: Jean-Bernard Caron

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Other Early Research in Canada

A few years later, even as Walcott was helping to identify the Canadian finds, several of McConnell's and Ami's specimens were studied by Joseph Whiteaves, the GSC's chief palaeontologist in Ottawa.

Anomalocaris canadensis collected by Ami from the Fossil Beds and reverse of slab showing original label.

© Geological Survey of Canada. Photos: Jean-Bernard Caron

In a historically important paper published in 1892, Whiteaves described a strange Mount Stephen fossil as resembling a kind of headless shrimp with poorly preserved appendages. Because of the unusual pointed shape of the supposed ventral appendages and position of spines near the rear end of the animal, Whiteaves named it Anomalocaris canadensis. The genus name "Anomalocaris" meant "unlike other shrimps" and the species name "canadensis" referred to the country of origin.

Page 206  from the Canadian Record of Science  showing a drawing of Anomalocaris canadensis

The first published illustration of Anomalocaris by Whiteaves (1892).

This species represents one of the most spectacular animals from the Burgess Shale. While it is now interpreted as the largest predatory arthropod in the Cambrian seas, the story of its description is a series of misinterpretations and errors.

Sheet of paper, badly worn, featuring a hand-drawn sketch of Anomalocaris

Sketch of Anomalocaris (probably drawn by Lawrence Lambe of the GSC) ca 1900. Note the hypothetical drawing of a head shield (left segment) and tail (to the right).

© Geological Survey of Canada. Photo: Jean-Bernard Caron

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The Early Royal Ontario Museum Connection: Sir Edmund Walker

Black and white studio photograph of Edmund Walker

Sir Edmund Walker (1848-1924), probably taken after 1912.

© Royal Ontario Museum

In 1887, following the 67th Annual Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Toronto, a special cross-Canada rail excursion allowed delegates to experience the spectacular geology and palaeontology of western Canada. The trip was organized by Byron Edmund Walker, an influential Toronto banker and amateur palaeontologist — and it included a visit to the Mount Stephen Fossil Beds, where many participants, including Walker, made collections.

Walker loaned his collection of fossils from Mount Stephen to George F. Matthew, an eminent Canadian authority on Cambrian fossils. In 1899 Matthew published a paper describing and naming many new fossils from this material, including a narrow, tapered, ridged fossil he called Orthotheca corrugata, and a larger flattened tube christened Byronia annulata in honour of Walker.

The Mount Stephen Orthotheca was interpreted by Matthew as a kind of annelid worm tube, but was later recognized to be a spine (and the type specimen) of another iconic Burgess Shale animal, Wiwaxia corrugata.

Page from a scientific paper showing drawings of 12 different fossils

Plate 1 from Matthew (1899) illustrating the type specimen of Byronia annulata (fig. 2a, b - Middle image) and the first known element (a sclerite) of Wiwaxia corrugata (fig. 3 - Right image) from Mount Stephen.

© Royal Ontario Museum. Photos: Jean-Bernard Caron

In 1904, Walker donated his important fossil collection (including the Mount Stephen material) to the University of Toronto's Geological Museum, which in 1913 became the core of the newly-founded Royal Ontario Museum of Palaeontology, under the directorship of William Arthur Parks. Walker, who had been knighted by King George V in 1910, was co-founder of the ROM and first Chair of the Board of Trustees.

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