Monday, August 30, 2010

Puddleby-on-the-Marsh

One hundred and one years ago today, on August 30th 1909, C. Doolittle Walcott was returning to Washington DC from the British Columbia province of Canada when he stopped to examine some of the dark shale found in the Stephen formation near Yoho national park.

Known as “Doctor Doolittle” to anyone who had a good sense of humor, DD had just that year been awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge (in honor of the centennial celebration of Darwin’s birth).

DD was pleased with what he found. Here in the cool backwoods of the Canadian Rockies was a potential quarry of rare fossils of soft-bodied creatures. That this find was in the cool backwoods of the Canadian Rockies was a stroke of purest luck. DD had just landed a job with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Washington DC in the summers of the early 20th century was just as hot and humid as today, but without air conditioning.

DD returned, with family members, every summer he could. His third wife painted well-received watercolors of the wildflowers found near DD’s fossil quarry. Hundreds and hundreds of pounds of Burgess Shale were shipped back to DC from DD’s quarry in Canada.

The Shale was found high on a mountain, but was deposited in a shallow marshy sea some half a billioin years ago.  That is a long time ago; a VERY loong time ago. 

The diversity of soft-body structures found among that collection of fossils was like none the world had ever seen. It was like the potential body types known to science had suddenly doubled. To this day new fossils are extracted from the Burgess Shale faster than they can be studied.

DD identified the fossils with a flair for conservative naming that hid their amazing diversity till the technology of air conditioning came to their rescue. Once the storage areas of the Smithsonian were made habitable the fossils of the Burgess Shale were re-discovered. Here was a new window into the potential for living diversity.

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