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Shale of the Century

Poster for the eventThe summer of 2009 marks an important anniversary for the Earth sciences. And this time, it has nothing to do with Darwin, writes Sarah Day

Geoscientist Online 21 May 2009

In late August 1909, Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered the first fossils from the Burgess Shale site in Yoho National Park, Canada. During subsequent field seasons, Walcott continued his excavations with his family, collecting more than 65,000 specimens from what is now known as the Walcott Quarry. These record life on the Cambrian sea floor, demonstrating various modes of feeding and movement. The most abundant specimen, Marella splendens, was instrumental in demonstrating that soft-bodied organisms in the Cambrian were more complex and diverse than previously thought.

Named after nearby Mt. Burgess, the site has become one of the world’s most celebrated fossil localities. The fossils date back to the Middle Cambrian, 505 million years ago, and are renowned for their exceptional preservation of soft parts. The Burgess Shale was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, and is within a specially protected area within the Yoho National Park.

Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation To celebrate the Centennial, the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation will be holding a series of celebrations, under the theme of ‘Putting the Earth back into the Sciences’. The events are designed to appeal to both geologists and members of the public, and include guided hikes to the fossil sites, a series of public lectures, art activities for children and even a historical re-enactment (on horseback, and in period costume). The celebrations will begin with a keynote speech from Canadian astronaut Dr Roberta Bondar, who will give a talk entitled The Fossil and the Astronaut – Exploring Earth from Inner and Outer Space.

Through these events, the Foundation hopes to inspire appreciation for the Earth and life sciences, and highlight the importance of the fossil record in understanding how life has evolved.
  • For more information about the celebrations, including a complete listing of activities and dates, visit the Foundation’s website at