In The Field

Burgess Shale Centenary: Cambrian sillies

I’m writing this after a few drinks (which, as you’ll soon see, is perfectly appropriate) and after being inspired by Simon Conway Morris’s talk on the origin of body plans. I wish I could do Conway Morris’s talk justice in this blog – he is an eloquent, and funny, speaker. Suffice it to say that he recounted some of his arguments against Gould (read about that here); fought back, good-naturedly, at several other speakers at this conference who have called him wrong about some particular matters of creature identification; threatened to drink a bottle of commemorative ‘Shale Ale’ whilst at the podium in spite of Canada’s draconian laws against drinking in public; and responded to one confession of love. Of course, he also addressed some serious points of biology, concluding that perhaps, “at long last, biology is going to become predictable”. There’s one prediction I would bet money against.

If there’s one thing I have learned at this conference, it’s that Cambrian animals are unpredictably, wonderfully silly. Quite a lot of them have ridiculous spiky bits, funny amounts of fur and legs and antennae. My personal favourite thus far is Canadia, if only for the name (yes, I am Canadian), which Martin Brasier has called a “worm in drag” thanks to its feathery cloak. But it’s a close call. Halluciginia, with spiky bits both as feet and back spines, owes its name to the fact that it seems as if its creator was on acid. Opabina has five eyes, and a long nose with a claw on the end. That’s just odd.

The people who draw scenes of these creatures seem to really embrace their oddity, by painting them up in cartoon colours – primary yellows and blues, with bright orange and purple and everything in between. Many of the reconstructions bring childrens’ bath toys to mind (You can actually buy toy versions, suitable for ages 5 and up).

So, one is encouraged to think: ‘Boy things were weird in the Cambrian’. But, to be fair, perhaps we should trawl the bottom of today’s oceans and the far corners of the continents, do up some primary-coloured cartoons of the weirdest things we find, and put them in a lineup against the Cambrian beasts. My bet is that most people wouldn’t be able to ID the Cambrian culprits. I mean check out the star-nose mole (which has also inspired a toy). I can’t vouch for the reality of everything on, but isn’t it interesting that it’s hard to tell real weird animals from fake ones?

I’m not trying to downplay the Cambrian – it’s a fascinating time. But with this next drink I’ll just say cheers to all of modern life’s oddities (humans, perhaps, being the strangest).

Posted on behalf of Nicola Jones


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