2009 is the centennial year of the discovery of the Burgess Shale fossil in the Rocky Mountains of southeastern British Columbia, Canada.
In 1909, Charles Walcott—the fourth secretary of the Smithsonian Institution—made the discovery of these fossils and continued to document and collect more than 65,000 specimens from the Walcott Quarry (named in his honor) between 1910 and 1924.
"Burgess Shale" (which takes its name from a nearby mountain called Mount Burgess) refers to one of the world's most fertile fossil localities, with well preserved fossils in which even the soft parts (such as gills, legs, and guts) remain. The fossils are 505 million years in the making (from the Middle Cambrian age) and comprises areas of the town of Field, British Columbia to Yoho National Park, near the border to the province of Alberta. The time period these fossils represent show evidence of an "evolutionary Big Bang" in which all major types of animals suddenly show up in the fossil record, resulting in a great expansion in biodiversity.
The Burgess Shale area at this time straddled the equator, with plant and wildlife living in a warm, shallow sea. The land was completely devoid of life with only marine plants and marine invertebrate animals existing at this time. This discovery was important to the field of paleontology and evolutionary biology due to its age, the detailed level of preservation, and important clues as to the nature of evolution with all the major types of animals (phyla) known today as well as those that cannot be placed on modern classification systems. The Burgess Shale has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks since 1981.—Brett Lambert
Photo of Charles Walcott courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives