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"Epic" fossil find: at least a dozen new species, thousands of specimens

U of T researcher leads international collaboration

Jean-Bernard Caron at work in Yoho National Park (all photos by Professor Caron © ROM)

Yoho National Park’s 505-million-year-old Burgess Shale – home to some of the planet’s earliest animals – is one of the world’s most important fossil sites.

Now, more than a century after its discovery, a compelling sequel has been unearthed: 42 kilometres away in Kootenay National Park, a new Burgess Shale fossil site has been located that appears to equal the importance of the original discovery, and may one day even surpass it.

The site, discovered in the summer of 2012 by an international research team led by University of Toronto ecology and evolutionary biologist Jean-Bernard Caron, is described in a paper released today in Nature Communications.

“This is an epic new chapter in a research story that began more than 100 years ago and there is no doubt in my mind that this new material will significantly increase our understanding of early animal evolution,” said Caron.

"The rate at which we are finding animals — many of which are new — is astonishing, and there is a significant possibility that we’ll eventually find more species here than at the original Yoho site, and potentially more than from anywhere else in the world.”

(Pictured at right: new arthropod.)

Protected by Parks Canada, the exact location of the new site remains confidential to protect its integrity though future visitor opportunities have not been ruled out.

“We were already aware of the presence of some Burgess Shale fossils in Kootenay National Park,” said research team member Robert Gaines of Pomona College. “We had a hunch that if we followed the formation along the mountain topography into new areas with the right rock types, maybe, just maybe, we would get lucky – though we never in our wildest dreams thought we’d track down a motherlode like this. It didn’t take us very long at all to realize that we had dug up something special.

"To me, the Burgess Shale is a grand tale in every way imaginable, and we are incredibly proud to be part of this new chapter and to keep the story alive and thriving in everyone’s imagination.”

The team, some of whom are pictured below, plans to return to the site this summer.

"We know that we have barely scratched the site and nonetheless found at least 12 new species to describe,” said Cédric Aria, a PhD student in U of T's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “What awaits us there, only the mountain knows, but chances are high that the discoveries will fuel a lot more research. The full potential of these new fossil beds has yet to be revealed.”

Approximately 200 animal species had been identified at the original Yoho site in over 600 field days. In just 15 days of field collecting, 50 animal species have already been unearthed at the new Kootenay site.

Other members of the research team are Gabriela Mángano of the University of Saskatchewan and Michael Streng of Uppsala University.

Learn more about the Burgess Shale.

With files from Parks Canada, Pomona College, the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Saskatchewan and Uppsala University.