The Burgess Shale
More than half a billion years old, the fossils of the Burgess Shale preserve an intriguing glimpse of early life on Earth. They were first discovered in 1909 by Charles D. Walcott, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. This group of fossils takes its name from the Burgess Shale rock formation, named by Walcott after nearby Mount Burgess in the Canadian Rockies. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History currently houses over 65,000 specimens. The museum also has a permanent exhibit of the Burgess Shale fauna near the Dinosaur Hall. Since Walcott's original discovery, fossil deposits like these have been found in such widely dispersed areas as China, Greenland, Siberia, Australia, Europe, and the USA.
These fossils merit special interest for several reasons:
- They were buried in an underwater avalanche of fine mud that preserved exceptionally fine details of the structure of their soft parts. Only hard parts are preserved in most other Cambrian deposits, obviously limiting information within the geologic record.
- They represent an early snapshot of the complexity of evolving life systems. The Burgess Shale fossils as a group have already developed into a variety of sizes and shapes from the much simpler, pre-Cambrian life forms.
- Many of them appear to be early ancestors of higher forms; from algae to the chordates (a major group of animals that includes human primates). Others appear unrelated to any living forms and their later disappearance presents an intriguing mystery.
Explore our Burgess Shale Specimens
- You can browse or search this collection on the Paleo Department's Collections Search page:
- Click on the "Search by Field" tab.
- Then click on the "Collection" tab.
- Under "Collection Name," select "Burgess Shale Biologic" or "Burgess Shale Type."
- You can browse through the archived version of this website.