Mountain Treasure of Ancient Fossils
High on a mountain ridge in Canada’s spectacular Yoho National Park, one of Earth’s most ancient marine ecosystems, is frozen in time within the rock layers.
These are the famous Burgess Shale fossils discovered in 1909 by Charles Walcott, an American scientist, paleontologist and Secretary to the Smithsonian Institution. These exquisitely preserved soft bodied fossils are world renowned and draw many visitors to Yoho National Park each year.
World Heritage Site
The Burgess Shale sites' global significance was recognised in 1981 when they were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Later, in 1984, they were designated under the larger Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site and are now a protected site within a larger protected area.
The Burgess Shale was designated in recognition of the unique and well preserved fossils of soft-bodied marine organisms that lived in Cambrian seas 505 million years ago. The bizarre animals preserved in the shales represent a complete ecosystem that existed for only a very short time after the first explosion of multicellular life on earth. Since their discovery, the fossils of the Burgess Shale have provided scientists with a wealth of information about the variety of Cambrian life forms, some of which are difficult to classify into familiar categories of modern or fossil taxonomy.
Charles Walcott, first scholar of the Burgess Shale © Smithsonian Institution
These life forms have given scientists a valuable glimpse into the nature of evolution itself. The fossils provide evidence that suggests the evolution of life on Earth has been characterized by rapid diversification and random extinction rather than by an orderly progression of "survival of the fittest". Continued research by the Royal Ontario Museum, here in Yoho National Park, and by other scientists elsewhere in the world will further our understanding of the process of evolution.
Protection of such a unique, fragile and globally important site is the responsibility of Yoho National Park. At the same time, we want to offer opportunities for people to learn about their world heritage. To accommodate both of these goals, access to the fossil beds is by guided hike. Collecting fossils and other natural objects or artifacts is strictly prohibited but exploration is encouraged whether on a guided hike or at the interactive exhibit in the Yoho National Park Visitor Centre.
Education is an important part of caring for this important site. Learn more at the Virtual Museum of Canada or explore additional resources in Parks Canada's Resource Centre about the Burgess Shale, its human history, geology, fauna and fossils, and the Cambrian Explosion.