The Burgess Shale

Podcasts

These podcasts, produced by Parks Canada for the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Burgess Shale, explore the history, meaning and significance of the Burgess Shale. Use them to learn more about this remarkable fossil find or to prepare for your trip to Yoho National Park.

Burgess Shale: Introduction

Many ancient cultures extolled the virtues of teaching and learning in settings of compelling natural beauty. Imagine experiencing just such a setting high in the mountains with a vista of glaciers, lakes and mighty peaks, and, at the same time, imagine standing upon the threshold of a place that unlocks the secrets of 500,000,000 years of earth’s history. This is the Burgess Shale.

Burgess Shale: Significance

The significance lies in the fact that the deposit provides an exceptional understanding of a particular aspect of the history of life.

Burgess Shale: Meaning

In 1975, with exclusive area expeditions permitted to the Royal Ontario Museum, study of the Burgess Shale was launched the modern era.

Burgess Shale: History

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.”

THE BURGESS SHALE STORY - PIECE 1: INTRODUCTION TO THE BURGESS SHALE

Host Voice:
Many ancient cultures extolled the virtues of teaching and learning in settings of compelling natural beauty. Imagine experiencing just such a setting high in the mountains with a vista of glaciers, lakes and mighty peaks and, at the same time, imagine standing upon the threshold of a place that unlocks the secrets of 500,000,000 years of earth’s history.

This is the Burgess Shale, a United Nations World Heritage Site, near Field, British Columbia in Yoho National Park. With a little bit of effort you can hike to the fossils for yourself and experience what has brought a century of scientists from around the world to this site.
25 secs

Let us now hear from some of them.
45 secs

Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron
Field Interview
00:20-00:36
16 secs
“The Burgess Shale is an exceptional fossil deposit in British Columbia, in Yoho National Park, and it’s very unique because of the preservation of soft-body organisms.”
61 secs

Host Voice:
Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, associate curator of invertebrate palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum.
6 secs 67 secs

Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron
Park Radio interview
00:39-1:08
29 secs
“In this particular locality, you find animals with not only limbs, eyes and elements of the body parts, but also evidence of what their last meal was; for example you could find fragments of shelly organisms, organisms with mineralized parts still in the guts of some of these organisms.”
96 secs

Host Voice:
9 sec
Another scientist who has devoted his career to the understanding of the Burgess Shale is professor Dr. Derek Briggs from the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, USA.
105 secs

Dr. Derek Briggs
2:42-2:48
6 secs
“The Burgess Shale is one of the most exceptionally preserved kinds of fossil faunas.”
111 secs

2:56-3:10
14 secs
“And I should say exceptional preservation is preservation of features other than the so-called hard parts; the bio-mineralized parts like shells, bones or teeth, so the soft tissues.”
125 secs

3:11-3:30
19 secs
“And actually there are quite a number of fossil deposits, younger and indeed older than the Burgess Shale that fall into this category and they tell us more about the diversity of life at any point in time than does the so-called normal fossil record.”
144 secs

Host Voice:
6 secs
Questions and answers about the origin of animal life arise from the study of the Burgess Shale.
150 secs

Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron
Park Radio interview

2:46-3:00
14 secs
“When did animals originate and what’s the relationship between all these animals is a very important question that scientists, in particular, paleontologists and biologists are trying to answer.”
164 secs

3:03-3:23
20 secs
“So the fossil record provides evidence that animals actually appeared very suddenly during the so-called evolution’s big bang, about half a billion years ago, or 540,000,000 years ago, and the Burgess Shale is about 505,000,000 years old.”
184 secs

Host Voice:
10 secs
What was our earth like then, and how did these fossils end up high in the Rockies? Dr. Desmond Collins, former curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, on site at one of the Burgess Shale finds, muses, then gives us some details.
194 secs

Dr. Desmond Collins
CBC Ideas tape

50:30-50:34
4 secs
“The Burgess Shale has always been sort of a mythical kind of place.”
198 secs

musical upsweep theme for emphasis

8:44-8:49
5 secs
“This was all under the sea half a billion years ago. At this time there was no life on land.”
203 secs

00:06-00:10
5 secs
sound effects of splitting rock
208 secs

8:56-9:09
13 secs
“This was thought to be a submarine platform, the front or cliff of the platform, and then the platform supposedly extended a hundred or more kilometres into the east, into Alberta, half a billion years ago.”
221 secs

9:14-9:20
6 secs
“In the mountain-building of the last hundred million years, this has all come up and has possibly been pushed eastward several 100 miles.”
227 secs

Host Voice:
6 secs
However, there are two more pieces to this puzzle; the where and the how.
233 secs

Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron
Park Radio interview
14:07-14:41
34 secs
“These marine animals lived in tropical oceans at the time, and the continents were very different than today. And the Burgess Shale was in fact close to the equator, and the North-American paleo-continent was basically rotated 90 degrees from what we know today. So you should imagine the border of British Columbia and Alberta being close to, parallel to the equator at that time, about 505,000,000 years ago.”
267 secs

Host Voice:
Dr. Desmond Collins
2 secs 269 secs

Dr. Desmond Collins
CBC Ideas tape
13:50-13:57
7 secs
“The conventional description of what happened here at the Burgess Shale is that the animals all show signs of being buried catastrophically.”
276 secs

14:03-14:16
13 secs
“So it’s thought that they were living either on top of the platform or down on the mud floor of the platform, that the mud was on a slope, so every so often part of it would slip away in a mud slide.”
289 secs

Host Voice:
Dr. Caron resumes.
2 secs 291 secs

Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron
Field Interview
1:36-2:05
29 secs
“We know that these fossils were buried very quickly, and the mud was very fine, so the mud probably sealed the organisms from the penetration of the oxygen; oxygen would have probably increased decay of the soft tissues, and eventual destruction of the organisms.”
320 secs

Host Voice:
7 secs
Perhaps the most compelling and fortunate aspect of this discovery is that it is in the public domain; it belongs to everyone. 327 secs

Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron
Park Radio interview
34:57-35:02
5 secs/2secs
35:08-35:09
“The fossils are in fact property of Parks Canada and the ROM.
334 secs

music upsweep for emphasis

35:11-35:23
12 secs
“Those fossils are on loan, basically, on trust, for further studies and to keep them in collections for future generations.”
346 secs

CONCLUSION-EXTRO

Host Voice:
25 secs
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. Jean-Bernard Caron of the ROM, Dr. Desmond Collins courtesy of CBC Ideas, and Dr. Derek Briggs of Yale University.

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

360 seconds or 6 minutes to fine edit

THE BURGESS SHALE STORY - PIECE 2 - THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BURGESS SHALE

Host Voice:
8 secs
The Burgess Shale Fossil find, near Field, British Columbia, in Yoho National Park has been said to be of the greatest significance.
28 secs

3 secs
Wherein lies this significance? 31 secs

20 secs
Dr. Simon Conway Morris, author of “The Crucible of Creation; the Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals,” and professor of evolutionary biology at Cambridge University, England, states that the significance lies in the fact that the deposit provides an exceptional understanding of a particular aspect of the history of life.
351 secs

12 secs
This is of the Cambrian Radiation, the explosive diversification of animal marine life 500,000,000 years ago, the likes and scale of which does not seem to have happened again in earth’s history.
63 secs

15 secs
Alternatively, Harvard paleontologist Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, in his bestselling book on the Burgess Shale, “Wonderful Life” states that the find’s significance lies most in its pointing to the need to conceive of new evolutionary processes.
78 secs

11 secs
Is evolution, in essence, an unpredictable, unlimited experiment, or does it have constraints and even a certain inevitability?
89 secs

3 secs
It might just be a question of emphasis.
92 secs

Dr. Tom Clark
CBC Ideas
49:09-49:14
6 secs
“Gould, of course, has his good points…”
98 secs

49:21-49:25
5 secs
“Now I wouldn’t say he’s wrong…”
103 secs

49:28-49:43
17 secs
” but I think he was probably wrong in emphasis, but that’s the kind of man we want: a man who perhaps does overstep the mark somewhere or other.”
120 secs

Host Voice:
6 secs
Dr. Tom Clark, geology professor emeritus at McGill University’s Redpath Museum.
126 secs

10 secs
New finds in Greenland and China in the 80’s only made Dr. Gould more insistent in his argument for unlimited change, or contingency, as THE force in evolution. 136 secs

Dr. Stephen Jay Gould
CBC Ideas
45:17-45:21
5 secs
“so, if anything, the roster of Burgess Shale peculiar creatures is going to go up, not down.”
141 secs

Host Voice:
12 secs
As a consequence of the new finds, new tools of research, and Gould’s insistences, the Cambrian era is today among the most intensely studied intervals in the history of life.
153 secs

7 secs
How do then animals rise and fall? The history of extinction events, a definite contingency factor, provides an answer.
160 secs

Dr. Douglas Erwin
Track 2
5:12-5:23
12 secs
“Mass extinctions are episodes in which large numbers of taxa, in many different groups, become extinct in a relatively short period of time.”
172 secs


Host Voice:
6 secs
Dr. Erwin is curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
178 secs

7:16-7:28
13 secs
“It’s certainly possible that many episodes of heightened extinction during the Cambrian may have eliminated a lot of the organisms of the Burgess Shale at that time. ” 191 secs

Host Voice:
12 secs
Life does re-adapt to major changes, or punctuations such as these, and re-radiates, so contingency IS thus a factor, but another factor, called convergence, suggests something else.
203 secs

Dr. Douglas Erwin
Track 4
3:17-3:37
22 secs
“the discovery a few years ago that there was a Jurassic mammal that for all intents and purposes was similar to a modern beaver is an indicator that there are some ways of making a living in which unrelated organisms will find similar suites of adaptation.”
225 secs

3:57-4:14
19 secs
“it’s certainly possible to have convergences at a variety of different levels and that doesn’t actually negate Steve Gould’s point about contingency; these things maybe happened at different levels, at different times.”
244 secs

Host Voice:
11 secs
New sciences, drawing from complementary fields of paleontology and biology, including gene sequencing, are helping to fill in the picture, showing: 255 secs

22 secs
1/ Animals have a great variety of design but share similarities at the genetic level.

2/ Early ranges of animal design were no greater than today’s.

3/ Unfettered contingency and slow gradual evolution both give way to complexities and constraints imposed by ecology, competition, chemistry and other factors.

4/ The debates are NOT over and new finds will be made. Understanding bodes well for the future;

Dr. Derek Briggs of Yale University’s Peabody Museum.

277 secs

Dr. Derek Briggs
38:04-38:18
15 secs
“so we have two lines of evidence now, we have the molecular clock on one hand, and we have the record of fossil appearances on the other and those two types of evidence are gradually converging on each other.”
292 secs

Host Voice:
14 secs
These significant fossil finds are at risk from theft and vandalism, and two mutually linked organizations, Parks Canada and the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation, provide a large range of protective measures, trained educators and guides to meet the need.
306 secs

4 secs
Parks Canada conservation officer John Niddrie 310 secs

John Niddrie
00:33-00:51
19 secs
“Some of the protection measures in place are # 1; controlled access, the public can only visit the site with a licensed guide, and for any scientific research, special permits are required.”
329 secs

Host Voice :
5 secs
Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation spokesperson Randle Robertson.
334 secs


Randle Roberston
40:24-40:26
3 secs
“It’s a very good working relationship…”
337 secs

40:35-40:41
7 secs
“we work with parks to make everyone aware that it is a world heritage site.”
344 secs


CONCLUSION -EXTRO

Host Voice
45 secs
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 more information on any of these opportunities.

Contributors were Dr. Tom Clark and Dr. Stephen Jay Gould courtesy of CBC Ideas, Dr. Douglas Erwin, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Derek Briggs, courtesy of the Peabody Museum at Yale University, John Niddrie of Parks Canada and Randle Robertson of the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation.

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

THE BURGESS SHALE STORY - PIECE 3 - THE MEANING OF THE BURGESS SHALE

Host Voice:
13 secs

For many decades after Charles Walcott’s 1909 discovery and vast collection of the unique fossils of the Burgess Shale, in Yoho National Park, further scientific interest seemed to sleep.
33 secs

4 secs
Many believed the fossil-bearing beds had been quarried away.
37 secs

9 secs
Eventually it was realized that Walcott’s collection and preparation methods, and his interpretation of the finds had become outmoded. 46 secs

17 secs
And so, first in 1966 with another prominent scientist of his day, Dr. Harry Whittingdon, of Harvard, at the re-opened Walcott quarry; and in 1975, with exclusive area expeditions permitted to the Royal Ontario Museum, was launched the modern era. 63 secs

CBC Ideas
Don Lessem
39:24-39:34
11 secs

“It was the specimens collected in 1966 by Whittingdon and painstakingly studied by him and his students for a decade after that that remade our understanding of the Burgess Shale.”
74 secs

Host Voice:
16 secs
Using finer tools not available in Walcott’s day, including an innovative minute dental drill, microscopes and ultra-violet radiation photography Whittingdon was able to study the specimens from both sides of split rock. 90 secs

CBC Ideas
Don Lessem
39:35-39:51
17 secs
“Whittingdon discovered that the animals Walcott thought were smashed flat had some 3-dimensional structures after all. He meticulously picked away the thin carapaces to expose flattened innards. He enlarged microscopic views of these bodies onto boards and drew detailed images.” 107 secs

39:53-39:59
7 secs
“He…….concluded that Walcott was wrong in his classification time after time.” 114 secs

Host Voice:
16 secs
Nowhere was this type of error more evident than in the story of the creature called “Anomolacaris”, meaning strange shrimp. It turned out to be something else quite unexpected: a 500,000,000 year old predator! 130 secs

Dr. Derek Briggs
9:26-9:34
9 secs
“Anomolacaris turns out as we now know it as essentially the largest Cambrian predator.” 139 secs


Host Voice:
10 secs
Dr. Derek Briggs, professor at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, and one of the students first hired by Dr. Whittingdon in 1972. 149 secs

14:18-14:33
16 secs
“Prior to that people had this fanciful notion that the Cambrian was a sort of gentler time, food chains had not evolved and communities were much simpler.” 165 secs

Host Voice:
5 secs
How had this been missed by earlier scientists? Here’s the fascinating answer. 170 secs

9:58-10:66
9 secs
“It’s an animal at the largest size probably got up to maybe half a metre in length.” 179 secs

10:07-10:16
10 secs
“But usually it had a couple of great grasping appendages at the front of the head which it used to capture prey.” 189 secs

10:17-10:21
5 secs
“and it had a disc-like mouth.” 194 secs

10:30-10:43
14 secs
“So when individuals decayed, the pair of front appendages and the two circular jaws were incorporated into the sediment, and everything else tended to disappear for the most part.”
208 secs

11:00-11:02
3 secs
“The legs alone were discovered…” 211 secs

11:06-11:12
7 secs
“and they were interpreted initially as the body of some kind of shrimp.” 218 secs

11:13-11:23
11 secs
“in the meantime the circular jaw had been found and was interpreted as a jellyfish I guess.” 229 secs

Host Voice:
8 secs
It was ALL ONE ANIMAL! and Dr. Briggs recalls the moment Dr. Whittingdon finally grasped this. 237 secs

Dr. Derek Briggs
13:40-13:42
3 secs
“It was a eureka moment.” 240 secs

13:21-13:25
5 secs
“I was actually with him when we tumbled to that realization…”
245 secs

13:29-13:36
8 secs
“Between us, looking at these specimens we realized that the legs belonged, but also the jaw-like structure.” 253 secs


Host Voice:
20 secs
Opabina Regalis was another bizarre animal, with 5 eyes, lobes and segments and a trunk with claws at the front. It and many others defied conventional classification and prompted one of the most startling theories about the history of life then to emerge; the major role of chance. Dr. Stephen Jay Gould.
273 secs

CBC Ideas
Dr. Stephen Jay Gould
19:08-19:11
4 secs
“The Burgess Shale is one quarry.” 277 secs

19:15-19:34
20 secs
“There are obviously not many species of organisms in it-a few hundred perhaps at most-and yet it turns out that those few species represent a range of anatomical design that’s far greater than what we see today, perhaps in all the world’s oceans.”
297 secs

Host Voice:
18 secs
Dr. Stephen Jay Gould was a paleontologist with Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, the same office once occupied by Dr. Harry Whittingdon, and author of Wonderful Life, the Burgess Shale Story bestselling book that catapulted the finds, and what they may mean, to the public stage.
315 secs

42:11-42:16
6 secs
“It’s become necessary to entertain seriously the more radical view, 321 secs

42:17-42:29
13 secs
namely that survivorship is something of a grand-scale lottery and consequently I think we have to assume that the existence of any lineage on this planet, including our own is that tenuous.” 334 secs

Host Voice:
12 secs
Dr. Gould’s controversial theories may not yet survive the new tests of high scrutiny, but the massive public and scientific response to his 1989 book remains his enduring legacy.
346 secs

CONCLUSION-EXTRO

Host Voice:
42 secs
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 more information on any of these opportunities.

Contributors were Don Lessem, and the late Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, courtesy of CBC Ideas, and Dr. Derek Briggs of Yale University.

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

THE BURGESS SHALE STORY - PIECE 4: THE HISTORY

Host voice:
38 secs
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.
58 secs

Host voice:
4 secs
Burgess Shale region warden John Niddris
62 secs

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”
90 secs

Host voice:
25 secs
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.
115 secs

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.”
124 secs

CBC Ideas
17:54-18:04
12 secs
“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.”
136 secs

Host voice:
11 secs
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.
147 secs

Dr. Huntingdon Williams
Whyte Museum Archives
20:13-20:35
22 secs
“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.”
169 secs

Host voice:
6 secs
From Walcott’s obituary here’s the legendary story, read by Parks’ Andy Young.
175 secs

30 secs
“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.”
205 secs

Host voice:
6 secs
This version is now in dispute, but in 1910 he did find the source.
211 secs

CBC Ideas
30:38-31:03
26 secs
“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.”
137 secs

Host Voice:
15 secs
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?
252 secs

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.”
266 secs

Host Voice:
4 secs
Dr. Desmond Collins, former curator of the Royal Ontario Museum.
270 secs

Dr. Desmond Collins, CBC Ideas
11:29-11:37
9 secs
“There is a possible fish ancestor called Pikaia, and of course that could also be a human ancestor.”
279 secs

11:54-12:01
8 secs
“There are other things like sponges and algae, brachiopods, you know the little bivalved things, something like clams…..”
287 secs

12:05-12:13
9 secs
“There are all these different kinds of shrimp-like, crab-like and lobster-like things. They’re like them but they are different.”
296 secs

Host Voice:
10 secs
Walcott died in 1927, with the analysis of his finds unfinished. But then the most peculiar thing happened; Retired Washington geologist Ellis Yorkkelson.
306 secs

CBC Ideas
37:26-37:29
“One of the real curiosities about the Burgess Shale…
310 secs

4 secs
37:32-37:44
14 secs
…is why did they sit around for an entire generation of paleontologists without anybody paying any further scientific attention to them?”
328 secs

Host voice:
14 secs
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.
342 secs

musical flourish for emphasis

(stay tuned to Park Radio)…
345 secs

CONCLUSION-EXTRO

Host Voice:
42 secs
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.
387 secs