Near The Burgess Shale

We stopped yesterday in the small town of Field, in Yoho National Park in British Columbia. It's the western side of the Continental Divide from where we were in Banff National Park. Here we are looking north from Field over the Kicking Horse River Valley.


Field, which has a picturesque setting beneath Mount Stephen, below, was built for the construction of the railway and it looks like a model train village today. Railway workers began uncovering unusual fossils in the area. Charles Walcott came in 1908 to explore the trilobite bed near Mount Stephen. A year later, nearly 100 years ago, he discovered the Burgess Shale, which he named after nearby Mount Burgess. Walcott, head of the Smithsonian Institution, spent many years excavating the fossils and returning them to his museum.


The Burgess Shale lies within Yoho National Park but you can only visit there in summer under the direction of licensed guides. We had a look-see in the information center and then headed to Calgary to fly home.

Years ago, I had read Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life and the brief visit to Field made me want to find the book first thing upon returning home.

Gould writes that "the invertebrates of the Burgess Shale...are the world's most important animal fossils. Modern multicellular animals make their first uncontested appearance in the fossil record some 570 million years ago." These fossils represent a record of the Cambrian explosion and "they are precious because they preserve in exquisite detail...the soft anatomy of organisms."

Gould writes lyrically:

The animals of the Burgess Shale are holy objects -- in the unconventional sense that this word conveys in some cultures. We do not place them on pedestals and worship from afar. We climb mountains and dynamite hillsides to find them. We quarry them, split them, carve them, draw them, and dissect them, struggling to wrest their secrets. ... They are grubby little creatures of a sea floor 530 million years old, but we greet them with awe because they are the Old Ones, and they are trying to tell us something.
Since the book was first published in 1989, Gould's interpretation of the evolutionary significance of the Burgess Shale has come under some criticism. (You can read some of the criticism in Amazon's reviews of the book.) Also, other Cambrian fossil sites have been found in Greenland and China. However, you can't mistake Gould's true enthusiasm for the story of the Burgess Shale, and its breakthrough role in helping us understand the history of life on earth.


  1. That top photo clearly shows the tracks of the elusive Snow Snake entering the river in the foreground. A large specimen by the looks of it. I’d be careful if I were you. He could be hunting you.

    It’s a common misperception that Snow Snakes hibernate for the winter. They don’t. They feed on lost tourists and snowboarders.

  2. I live in Calgary and used to drive truck through there all the time…… must go in the summer…its breathtaking.

  3. I found out about the Burgess Shale back in 1999 from my older sister.
    We were still watching MTV in those days, and she was disappointed to learn she had misheard the lyrics to “Scar Tissue” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers–that the line was not, in fact, “With the Burgess Shale it’s a lonely view…”
    She grumbled, “Rats. I thought the Chili Peppers had suddenly gotten a whole lot cooler.”

  4. Always loved that Lovecraft reference he slipped in there. Those sure were some weird little critters. For all practical purposes, Earth was the archetypal alien world back then. Squishy, slimey, mutating strangeness everywhere.

  5. It’s kind of amusing to run into Walcott today.

    Earlier today I was reading about someone grousing about what a shame it was to appoint know-nothings to important federal science-administration posts.

    I just found this description of Walcott’s Smithsonian tenure: “His great discovery, made in 1909, was largely misinterpreted by him, and it was many years before others recognized the exceptional role in evolution represented by the creatures he had collected from the Burgess Shale deposits…. Despite his lack of formal education he became his country’s leading scientific administrator.”

    We learn from history that we don’t learn from history.

  6. Thank you for this! As someone who worked at the Burgess Shale as one of the aforementioned ‘licensed guides’ this summer it really pleases me to see people expressing an interest. If there’s one thing I think can really instill in an honest sense of awe over how amazing Earth is, it’s not only what the Earth is, but what it’s capable of. And the Burgess Shale fauna is a perfect example not of what is, but what COULD BE.

    Those who haven’t read Gould’s work, I urge you to.

    Thanks again Dale!

  7. @11 Lord Xenu – That’s funny. Living here – I can tell you by the clouds it’s really warm for the time of year (probably above 0 Celsius) The cold is actually kinda fun. You get to dress up really warm, go for a walk(or bike ride) – and feel like you accomplished something by being comfortable despite it being -40!

  8. you really need a copy of– well– The Fossils of The Burgess Shale…

    My public library has a copy. I’ve checked it out about a half dozen times.

  9. Hey Dale,

    T’would be neat if you were using SeeMyWhere ( You install it on your phone and then it updates your location on a map. You could have a BB post that people come back to and chart your progress.

    – This message was sponsored by!

  10. “It’s kind of amusing to run into Walcott today.”

    Yeah, I always laugh when I bump into dusty corpses.

  11. Dale and Teresa: you’re welcome.

    Mindpowered: yes, the Ediacaran is quite amazing too; it’s not as well-preserved (and thus, well-known) as the Burgess Shale fauna, but this is both a strength and a weakness – the nature and function of so many of the specimens may be hard to grasp, but the mystery is what makes them to compelling! I had trouble not talking too much about the Ediacaran in my interpretive programs this summer, for fear they would end up too long.

    By the way, what is this ‘boom de yada’ thing all about?

  12. Hal, Dale, Bugmaker:

    The true and original Boom de yada:

    I have a stash of LJ icons I haven’t used yet, one of which is a Hallucigenian from the Burgess Shale. I have a weblog where “Naalbinding trilobites” would be a plausible entry in a “fake Making Light entry” competition. (I just linked to it, btw.) And if her server weren’t down right now, I could show you the song written by Abi Sutherland, my co-blogger at ML, that describes the nine orders of trilobites to the tune of “We Three Kings.”

    Boom de yada: the world is just awesome.

  13. My test video servers at work are named:


    I set up a waptia but it has hardware troubles and was never put into service. So far I haven’t had a need for a hallucinagenia.

    I have blown-up pictures of the Wonderful Life sketches hanging in my cube, along with the IP addresses, so I can point to them if anyone wonders what the hell those words are.

  14. Oh yeah, forgot: JFlex, you were only spared because you didn’t post a URL with your message. Please don’t do ads here.

  15. Ok. Into this Cambrian Lagerstatten Love fest

    “Meanwhile, the International Subcommission of Cambrian Stratigraphy (ISCS) at the ICS has been, ever so slowly, working away at the insurmountable problem of imposing an “official” stratigraphy on ground which is both literally and figuratively shifting. On one side, they face increasing pressure and high-volume whining from ill-mannered people, including ourselves, who need a stable, well-characterized outline for the Cambrian. On the other side lies the abyssal certainty that, whatever they decide, it will be obsolete within a few years and everyone will laugh at them. So, like Frankenstein (who was sort of a committee himself) the ISCS has slowly retreated before an angry mob of geological peasants armed with with torches and pitchforks, shuffling up the narrow mountain defile towards an inevitable doom.”

    and here.

  16. Ha, I have a set of those toys from work. They’re awesome… my little Opabinia can hold coins in his nozzle.

    Teresa: that song sounds awesome! Be sure to post about it if it ever comes back online.

  17. Darren, from the comments @ BugMaker’s link:

    “You can still get these? I tried to order them online and no one ever got back to me.”

    “You have to contact them directly, and it’s a bit of a hassle. I never got around to doing it that way, though I tried twice. I’m glad my girlfriend was in T.O. for a conference, or I’d prob’ly still be hankerin’ for ’em.”

    “One wishes it was was easy to order them online. Their “Contact Us” link doesn’t seem to work…phooey.”

    ..doesn’t sound like it :(

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