August 30, 1909: Charles Doolittle Walcott first discovers fossils in the Burgess Shale near British Columbia, Canada. During the Cambrian Explosion, 500 million years ago, a full spectrum of complex animals formed in the oceans after about 2 billion years of unicellular life forms. In only 10-20 million years, the oceans were full of multicellular, complex flora and fauna.
The Burgess Shale, high in the Canadian Rockies, was at one time part of the seabed in a warm, shallow sea. Mudslides would occur and bury the animals. After millions of years of being embedded in the sediment, these creatures left fossil records of their existence. Many of the fossils were of soft bodied creatures, rarely surviving in the fossil world.
Walcott spent every summer from 1910 – 1917 excavating the site and recovered more than 65,000 specimens. He sent the fossils and his notes to the Smithsonian Institute where they were mostly ignored for nearly 50 years. Harry Whittington of Cambridge University and his grad students studied the fossils in 1966-7 and found that many of the creatures defied classification within our modern system.
These findings show that there was a greater diversification of life forms half a billion years ago than there is today. Many creatures had bizarre forms. One specimen has five eyes and a vacuum cleaner type nose. One animal resembles a flower more than an animal. Another has both fins like crustacean and a shell like a vertebrate.
“It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of something else.” Moses Maimonides
“Nature … makes nothing in vain.” Aristotle
“This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle; wonderful, inscrutable, magical and more, to whosoever will think of it.” Thomas Carlyle
“Man masters nature not by force but by understanding.” Jacob Bronowsky
Also on this day, in 1963 the hotline between the US and the USSR goes live.