Feature

Cracking the Cambrian

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Science  23 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6417, pp. 880-884
DOI: 10.1126/science.362.6417.880

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Summary

Back in 1909, paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale, a fossil formation that preserves not only hard shells, but also soft features like the legs, eyes, and guts of animals that lived half a billion years ago during the Cambrian period. This period was the coming-out party for animal life on Earth: Nearly all modern animal groups—as diverse as mollusks and chordates—leapt into the fossil record, in a dazzling array of body plans. In recent years, a team from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, has shown that the richest fossil-bearing shale extends many kilometers beyond Walcott's site. This summer, a host of Cambrian creepy-crawlies—including a mysterious, alien-looking creature the team has nicknamed "the mothership"—spilled out of rocks in Canada's Kootenay National Park. With new fossils and sites, researchers may be closer than ever to fitting those strange creatures into their proper places in the tree of life, and understanding the "explosion" that birthed them.

  • * Joshua Sokol is a journalist in Boston.