Robert R. Gaines

Edwin F. and Martha Hahn Professor of Geology; On leave for the 2023-2024 academic year
With Pomona Since: 2003
  • Expertise


    In what has been hailed as the world’s most important fossil discovery in decades, Robert Gaines was a member of the team that discovered a stunning new Burgess Shale fossil site in Canada’s Kootenay National Park in 2014.

    His recent research at Burgess Shale sites has also offered a likely solution to one of biology’s greatest riddles, the preservation of soft-tissue fossils from the Cambrian Explosion, the flowering of complex life on Earth during the Late Neoproterozoic and Cambrian Periods some 570 to 500 million years ago. His hypothesis, that a combination of calcium carbonate deposits and lower levels of oxygen and sulfur in the Cambrian seas prevented the degradation of the fossils by microbes, was validated by a startlingly consistent pattern in the geochemical data he collected from around the world. 

    He is also more broadly interested in microbial-mineral interactions as a link between the geosphere and the biosphere. He works on ancient sedimentary rocks in South China, British Columbia and the American Great Basin.

    Research Interests

    • The "Cambrian Explosion"
    • Burgess Shale and similar deposits
    • Microbial-mineral interactions as a link between the geosphere and the biosphere

    Areas of Expertise


    • Paleontology & Paleoecology of Early Life
    • "The Cambrian Explosion"
    • Burgess Shale-Type Deposits
    • Geomicrobiology
    • Sedimentary Geology
  • Work


    Hammarlund, E.U., Gaines, R.R., Prokopenko, M.G., Qi, C., Hou, X.G. and Canfield, D.E., 2017, Early Cambrian oxygen minimum zone-like conditions at Chengjiang, Earth and Planetary Science Letters 475, p. 160-168.

    Foster, J.R., and Gaines, R.R., 2016, Taphonomy and Paleoecology of the “Middle” Cambrian (Series 3) Formations in Utah’s West Desert: Recent Finds and New Data, in Comer, J.B., Inkenbrandt, P.C., Krahulec, K.A., and Pinnell, M.L., eds, Resources and Geology of Utah’s West Desert: Utah Geological Association Publication 45, p. 291-336.

    Gaines, R.R. and Vorhies, J.S.(’05), 2016, Growth mechanisms and geochemistry of carbonate concretions from the Cambrian Wheeler Formation (Utah, USA), Sedimentology, v. 63, p. 662-698, doi: 10.1111/sed.12234.

    Murphy, B.S.’(13), Gaines, R.R., and Lackey, J.S., 2016, Co-evolution of volcanic and lacustrine systems in Pleistocene Long Valley Caldera, California, U.S.A., Journal of Sedimentary Research, v. 86, p. 1129-1146.

    Nowak, H., Servais, T., Pittet, B., Vaucher, R., Akodad, M., Gaines, R.R., and Vandenbroucke, T.R.A., 2016, Palynomorphs of the Fezouata Formation (Lower Ordovician, Morocco): age and environmental constraints of the Fezouata Biota. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.03.007.

    Aria, C., Caron, J.B., and Gaines, R.R., 2015, A large leanchoiliid from the Burgess Shale and the influence of inapplicable states on stem arthropod phylogeny, Palaeontology, v. 58, p. 629-660, doi: 10.1111/pala.12161. 

    Van Roy, P., Briggs, D.E.G., and Gaines, R.R., 2015, The Fezouata fossils of Morocco – an extraordinary record of marine life in the early Ordovician, Journal of the Geological Society, doi:10.1144/jgs2015-017.

    Caron, J.B., Gaines, R.R., Aria, C., Mángano, M.G., and Streng. M., 2014, A new phyllopod bed-like assemblage from the Burgess Shale of the Canadian Rockies, Nature Communications, v. 5: 3210.

    Gaines, R.R., 2014, Burgess Shale-type Preservation and its Distribution in Space and Time. In: Reading and Writing of the Fossil Record: Preservational Pathways to Exceptional Fossilization. The Paleontological Society Papers, Volume 20, M. Laflamme, J.D. Schiffbauer, and S.A. F. Darroch, eds., p. 123-146.

    O’Brien, L.J., Caron, J.B., and Gaines, R.R., 2014, Taphonomy and Depositional Setting of the Burgess Shale Tulip Beds, Mount Stephen, British Columbia, Palaios, v. 29, p. 309-324. Farrell, U.C., Briggs, D.E.G., Hammarlund, E.U., Sperling, E.A., and Gaines, R.R., 2013, Paleoredox and pyritization of soft-bodied fossils in the Ordovician Frankfort Shale of New
    York, American Journal of Science, v. 313, p. 452-489.

    Torres, M.A. (’10) and Gaines, R.R., 2013, Paleoenvironmental and paleoclimatic interpretations of the late Paleocene Goler Formation, Southern California, U.S.A., based on paleosol geochemistry, Journal of Sedimentary Research, v. 83, p. 591-605.

    With S.E. Peters, "Formation of the 'Great Unconformity' as a trigger for the Cambrian explosion," Nature, v. 484, p. 363-366, 2012

    With E.U. Hammarlund, X. Hou, C. Qi, S.E. Gabbott, Y. Zhao, J. Peng and D.E. Canfield; "Mechanism for Burgess Shale-type Preservation"; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109, p. 5180-5184, 2012

    With Briggs, D.E.G., Van Roy, P., and Orr, P.J., 2012, "Preservation of giant Anomalocaridids in silica-chlorite concretions from the early Ordovician of Morocco," Palaios, v. 127, p. 317-325.

    With M.L. Droser, P.J. Orr, D. Garson, E.U. Hammarlund, C. Qi, and D.E. Canfield, "Burgess Shale-type biotas were not entirely burrowed away," Geology, v. 40, p. 283-286, 2012

    With D.E. Garson, M.L. Droser, W.D. Liddell, and A. Sappenfield, "Dynamic paleoredox and exceptional preservation in the Cambrian Spence Shale of Utah," Lethaia, v. 40, p. 164-177, 2012

    "New Burgess Shale-type Locality in the “thin” Stephen Formation, Kootenay National Park, British Columbia: Stratigraphic and Paleoenvironmental Setting," Palaeontographica Canadiana, v. 31, p. 73-88, 2011

    With J.A. Mering (’10), Y.L. Zhao, and J. Peng, "Stratigraphic and Microfacies Analysis of the Kaili Formation, a Candidate GSSP for the Cambrian Series 2 – Series 3 Boundary," Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, v. 311, p. 171-183, 2011

  • Education


    University of California, Riverside

    Master of Science
    University of Cincinnati

    Bachelor of Science
    College of William and Mary

    Recent Courses Taught

    • Climate Change
    • Earth History
    • Independent Study: Geology
    • Lab, Earth History
    • Lab, Sedimentology
    • Paleontology & the Evolution of Earth's Biosphere
    • Sedimentology
  • Awards & Honors

    Awards & Honors

    Pomona College, Wig Distinguished Professorship Award for Excellence in Teaching, 2007 & 2013

    National Science Foundation, Sedimentary Geology & Paleobiology Award EAR-0518732: "RUI: An Integrative Paleontological And Paleoenvironmental Study Of The Middle Cambrian Spence, Wheeler, And Marjum Soft-Bodied Faunas," 2005-07

    NSF Major Research Instrumentation Grant DMR-0618417 "MRI: Acquisition of EDS Microanalysis and Nanometer Pattern Generation Systems for Electron Microscopy Facilities at a Primarily Undergraduate Consortium"; 2006-07

    NSF Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Grant (CCLI) DUE-0942447 Title “XRF as a Tool for Curricular Enhancement in Earth Systems and Environmental Chemistry”; 2010-2012 $200,000)

    Fellowships & Grants

    NSF Collaborative Research Grant EAR-1554897 (2016-2019)
    Title: “A Remarkable New Fossil Assemblage from the Burgess Shale at Marble Canyon,
    Kootenay National Park”
    Principal Investigator

    National Geographic Foundation Research and Exploration Grant 9932-16 (2016-2017)
    Title: “Exploring new frontiers of the Cambrian explosion: the Emu Bay Shale Drilling Project
    and new insights from a unique early Cambrian fossil deposit”
    Principal Investigator

    Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (2016-2018)
    Title: “The Tempo and Mode of Environmental Change: A Stable-Isotope Facility for a Small
    Liberal Arts Consortium”
    Principal Investigator

    Federal Research Contract
    Fossil Butte National Monument, Wyoming (2015-2017)
    National Park Service Research Contract
    Title: “Fossil Horizons”
    Principal Investigator

    NSF Sedimentary Geology and Paleobiology Research Grant EAR-1046233 (2011-2015)
    Title: “The Chengjiang Scientific Drilling Project and an integrated model for understanding
    Burgess Shale-type Deposits”
    Principal Investigator

    NSF Major Research Instrumentation Grant DMR-1126080 (2011-2013)
    Title: "MRI: Acquisition of a Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscope for a Primarily
    Undergraduate Consortium"
    Senior Personnel

    NSF Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Grant (CCLI) DUE-0942447 (2010-2012)
    Title: “XRF as a Tool for Curricular Enhancement in Earth Systems and Environmental
    Co-Principal Investigator

    NSF Major Research Instrumentation Grant DMR-0618417 (2006-2008)
    Title: "MRI: Acquisition of EDS Microanalysis and Nanometer Pattern Generation Systems for
    Electron Microscopy Facilities at a Primarily Undergraduate Consortium"
    Principal Investigator

    NSF Collaborative Research Grant EAR-0518732 (2005-2007)
    Title: “An Integrative Paleontological and Paleoenvironmental Study of the Middle Cambrian
    Spence, Wheeler, and Marjum Soft-Bodied Faunas”
    Principal Investigator