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The Cambrian Explosion and the Burgess Shale

May 30, 2019

The early Cambrian period marks one of the most spectacular evolutionary events in the history of life. Within ten million years, a very short period geologically, a host of hard-bodies animals appeared in the fossil record. Trilobites, archaeocyathids (cone-shaped creatures possibly related to sponges), molluscs, and brachiopods all appeared abruptly. Since these animals were hard bodied, they are better preserved compared to soft-bodied organisms. For example, there may be no fossils of trilobites in the lowermost Cambrian rocks, but paleontologists know that soft-bodied trilobite ancestors roamed the sea floor at that time because these primitive animals left diagnostic tracks in the mud.

 

Debate still rages as to the cause of the sudden development of skeletons. Skeleton formation may have been due to changes in atmosphere and ocean chemistry - notably an increase in atmospheric oxygen level- and the development of metabolic pathways allowing biomineralization. In addition, new species interactions such as predation may have exerted selection pressure which favored survival of those with protective, hard exteriors.

 

The Burgess Shale is a record of the end of the Cambrian Explosion and is unique in its preservation of soft-bodied fossils that are under-represented in other parts of the geologic record (e.g., carbonates). This more complete preservation allows for paleontologists to more completely understand the entire ecosystem and not just hard-bodied organisms. Fossils like those preserved in the Burgess Shale allow for a more complete understanding of ecosystems and the complexity of individual organisms at this time.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation 
201 Kicking Horse Ave

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Field, British Columbia V0A 1G0 

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