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Geology Team Led by Prof. Robert Gaines Solves 100-Year Mystery of the Burgess Shale

The soft-bodied arthropod Leanchoilia from the Chengjiang deposit, Yunnan, China. Image courtesy of Hou Xianguang (Yunnan University).

The soft-bodied arthropod Leanchoilia from the Chengjiang deposit, Yunnan, China. Image courtesy of Hou Xianguang (Yunnan University).

Exposure of the Kaili Formation at Balang Village, Guizhou, China. Credit: Robert Gaines

Exposure of the Kaili Formation at Balang Village, Guizhou, China. Credit: Robert Gaines

Exposure of the "thin" Stephen Formation at Stanley Glacier, Kootenay National Park, British Columbia. Credit: Robert Gaines

Exposure of the "thin" Stephen Formation at Stanley Glacier, Kootenay National Park, British Columbia. Credit: Robert Gaines

The Burgess Shale of British Columbia is arguably the most important fossil deposit in the world, providing an astounding record of the Cambrian “Explosion,” the rapid flowering of complex life from single-celled ancestors. While most of the fossil record is comprised of shells, teeth and bones, the Burgess Shale preserves the softer bits—the eyes, guts, gills and other delicate structures—of animals belonging to Earth’s earliest complex ecosystems a half a billion years ago. The process for this extraordinary preservation remained a mystery since the initial discovery of the Burgess Shale in 1909 until now.

A team of researchers led by Robert Gaines, associate professor of geology at Pomona College, claims to have unlocked the mystery of the Burgess Shale in their study, “Mechanism for Burgess Shale-type preservation,” published in today’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to Gaines, the team includes researchers from the Nordic Center for Earth Evolution (Denmark), Yunnan University (China), the University of Leicester (UK) and Guizhou University (China).

The team collected evidence from the Burgess Shale, two new drill cores from the Chengjiang deposit in Yunnan Province, China, and from five other principal Burgess Shale-type deposits in Utah and China. Using geochemical analysis involving the sulfur isotypes from pyrite (fool’s gold), they found a striking global pattern that unlocks the key to the unusual preservation process.

The process begins with the very rapid burial of organisms in mud layers with little to no oxygen. The critical discovery by the research team was a layer of calcium carbonate cement, in all of the sites, laid on the sea floor soon after burial of the fossils in mud. This mineral carpet acted as a barrier to the microbial communities that would normally consume soft tissue organisms in two-three weeks. Because the microbes were prevented from degrading the soft tissues completely, the organic remains of animals were conserved, leading to the preservation of the extraordinary fossils found today.

“What turned out to be the important key for this type of preservation is the chemistry of the global sea water,” explains Gaines. “The preservation was greatly aided by enhanced calcium carbonate concentrations in the Cambrian oceans and by depletion of oxygen and sulfate. Importantly, low oxygen concentrations in the global oceans during this interval of time limited the amount of sulfate, an important microbial nutrient.”

In the past, researchers have focused on the fossils themselves, rather than the details of the sediments and their chemistry. Gaines wanted to study the paleoecology of the ancient ecosystems, but found it was necessary to unlock the mystery of the strange preservation—a sign, Gaines says, that the environment was not normal—and so looked at the cryptic details of the sediments to begin.

The drill cores from the Chengjiang site, where work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, were important because the heavy rains from the Himmalayan monsoons in the area leach minerals including pyrite and calcium carbonate from the rocks that are exposed on the surface today. With these cores, the team’s unique collection of samples led to the recognition that unique aspects of early Paleozoic seawater chemistry that were key to the unusual Burgess-type soft-bodied fossil preservation—the low sulfate concentration, low-oxygen bottom water conditions, and that mineral carpet that aided in choking the hungry microbes—was a striking global pattern.

“I have been working on these deposits for 12 years, and I had a clear hypothesis. Still, I had little idea of what to expect from the geochemical data, which rarely can provide a ‘silver bullet,’ says Gaines. “I was literally floored. I have rarely seen geochemical data so convincing. My initial hypothesis was validated by a consistent and worldwide pattern.”

Co-authors on the PNAS paper include Emma U. Hammarlund (Nordic Center for Earth Evolution, Swedish Museum of Natural History, Stockholm University), Xianguang Hou (Yunnan University), Changshi Qi (Yunnan University), Sarah E. Gabbott (University of Leicester), Yuanlong Zhao (Ghizhou University), Jin Peng (Ghizhou University), and Donald E. Canfield (Nordic Center for Earth Evolution). The project also involved six undergraduate Geology majors: R. Goossen HMC ‘07, A. Lictman, SC’09, B. Markle, PO ‘08, L. Schumacher PO’11, R. Stevens PI ‘06, C. Windham PO ‘11)

Gaines also had high praise for Pomona’s analytical equipment. “Pomona’s SEM instrument has been phenomenal to the progress of this research, as has our new NSF-funded X-Ray fluorescence instrument.” Such tools are only rarely available at small, primarily undergraduate colleges. Several Pomona undergraduate students had the opportunity to assist with the sample analysis.

“Since I was boy,” says Gaines. “I have been fascinated by these fossils and the deep history they record. As we produced the data, piece-by-piece, it was thrilling to finally understand how they came to be preserved, to see what no one had seen before us.” To future geologists, he offers this warning or enticement, “In order to complete the field research, I camped for hundreds of nights in the Utah desert, was helicoptered into base camps in remote areas of the Canadian Rockies, and lived for five weeks in an abandoned chicken coop in Yunnan, China, while overseeing drilling operations as part of my NSF-funded project. It was totally worth it.”

For more photos, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/pomona-college/sets/72157629155568704/