Saturday, September 19, 2015

Finding Burgess Shale Fossils with Kids, Part 3: The Science

We found a great family day hike in Kootenay National Park in Canada and found small but important fossils. It worked well for our kids, and also for me -- I dug up some of the scientific literature describing this find after the fact. I'll describe what we found in three parts: The Prep, The Hike, and The Science.

So after our hike we found fossils. Or at least what I could pass off to the kids as possibly fossils? We took pictures of our putative fossils and left them in the field.

This looks like a leaf-shaped form with fuzzy appendages flowing out from it (found by my wife):

This looks like a bean with legs:

And these might be trails of something wormy (found by my 12-year-old):

Notice how, at least, these are all in a similar type of rock. This is the shale that used to be sandy seafloor. I think they might actually be something.

Finally, I looked up a little on the science of the area and pieced together some interesting leads for further study in the academic literature. First off, this appears to be a newer site than the others. At least two major sites are located north a few dozen kilometers, close to the town of Field and Kicking Horse Pass, including the Wolcott Quarry and the area where the first specimens were found.

It wasn't until 2010 that a paper came out describing the Stanley Glacier site. This paper discusses how the previous sites were part of a "thick" formation but the Stanley Glacier rock is part of a "thin" part of the formation. Previously scientists had thought the thin part wouldn't preserve specimens, but from our own exploration we can confirm that it did.

I imagine that someone may have been hiking the trail to the glacier, noticed the black-stained layered cliffs on the west end of the valley, and crossed over to the waterfall to check for fossils. Maybe other sites can be found by similar cliffs. We caught a glimpse of some in the area of Kicking Horse Pass, for example, where the older sites are located. Seems to be a good excuse for more hiking in the area.

Here is the map from the paper showing the site and how it relates to the other sites near Field, which are part of the Cathedral Escarpment:

In 2014, word got out that yet another site was found north of the Stanley Glacier site, across the road near Marble Canyon. This was a major find with many diverse new shapes, showing that buried in those rocks there are many, many lifeforms waiting to be discovered. Connecting the dots (or the "F's" in the map above), perhaps there are other sites located along this line. How many unknown shapes are stacked up in those black-stained cliffs?

I believe the other sites are rightfully kept off-limits to the public, so the Stanley Glacier may be the easiest way to play paleontologist and see for yourself what this kind of discovery is like. As we showed, even a four-year-old, with some help, can do it. There's nothing like a treasure hunt to motivate small legs to keep moving, and the likelihood of finding fossils seems amazingly high.

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