In The Field

Burgess Shale Centenary: Rats, goats, and jack hammers

Yet more history from Desmond Collins, who talked today about the work that has gone on in the Burgess Shale since the 1970s or so. Collins himself was in charge of many further explorations of the shale, and even has a quarry named after him (as does the original discoverer Charles Doolittle Walcott, and a handful of others, but only a handful). Collins is clearly on a first name basis with both all the people who have explored the shale, and also all the creatures who have turned up in the rocks. He showed a fabulous slideshow of weird and wonderful creatures preserved in the shale, most of which you can see in the Royal Ontario Museum’s online photo collection. Surprisingly (to me), many of the creatures revealed have still not been properly described – including the one called the ‘Collins monster’.

Collins’ stories are full of freak snow storms during trips up to the shale, accidental finds of great fossils, and lovely little details that make the stories come alive: from the rat (which he also knows the name of… Robert I think it was) who licked their dishes clean for them when they were short on water, to the goats who licked the salt left on the rocks by the camp’s mandated bathroom site (the goats would unfortunately kick bits of shale onto the camp in the process, until the researchers got permission from the park authorities to move the camp and pee wherever they liked). In 1995, while shoveling out vast amounts of fallen shale from the original quarry site, they found a block of ice encasing newspapers left behind on Walcott’s expeditions.

Photos show how the Burgess Shale sites have changed and expanded over time – the original Walcott quarry is now some 3 times bigger than it originally was, thanks to researchers attacking the rocks with crow-bars, jack hammers and circular saws (they weren’t allowed to use dynamite, as Walcott did, much to Collins’ dismay). About half of Walcott’s original quarry ledge has been preserved for historical reasons. The rest has been hacked away to reveal yet more finds. Looking at the panoramic shots of the mountains, one can’t help but think there must be many, many more possible quarry sites – it’s fantastic to imagine what weird wonders remain to be found.

Posted on behalf of Nicola Jones


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