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‘The Motherlode’: BC Fossil Bed May Contain New Secrets About Animal Evolution
February 11, 2014
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A fossil found at the Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park in 2012. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lauren Krugel)

British Columbia might hold the key to life as we know it. Seriously.

Scientists announced this week that a newly discovered fossil bed in BC's Kootenay National Park revealed as many as 50 species in 15 days of digging in 2012, eight of which are said to be entirely new to science.

The findings were published today in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

Scientists immediately made comparisons to the Burgess Shale in BC's Yoho National Park, about 40 kilometres away from the Kootenay site. The Burgess Shale is a 505-million-year-old rock formation that is widely considered to be one of the best fossil fields in the world, yielding a huge amount of information about Cambrian animal life. Discovered in 1909, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“The rate at which we are finding animals — many of which are new — is astonishing, and there is a high possibility that we’ll eventually find more species here than at the original Yoho National Park site, and potentially more than from anywhere else in the world,” the Royal Ontario Museum’s Jean-Bernard Caron, who led the team, told the CBC.

The fossilized species are mainly arthropods, a group that includes insects, spiders and lobsters.

The Kootenay site contains a wider variety of specimens than Yoho, most of which are better preserved, revealing anatomical details that scientists have never seen before. 

“We had a hunch that if we followed the formation along the mountain topography into new areas with the right rock types, maybe, just maybe, we would get lucky — though we never in our wildest dreams thought we’d track down a motherlode like this,” said Robert Gaines, a geologist at Pomona College in California and a co-author of the study.

The study did not publish the exact location of the discovery. Scientists are hoping to keep it a secret for a while longer, so that tourists don't tamper with or steal any of the fossils. 

“It’s a treasure trove and we are just scratching the surface,” said Caron. 

As it turns out, this has been a particularly good winter for fossil finds. The Kootenay report comes just a few days after a discovery in Britain revealed what might be the oldest human footprints anywhere outside of Africa. 

In a new study, published in the latest issue of PLOS One, the researchers explain how they came across a set of footprints last May in Happisburgh in Southeast England. Twelve of the footprints were clear enough to determine that the group consisted of five individuals, likely some older and some younger. 

"We knew the sediments at Happisburgh were over 800,000 years old," Nicholas Ashton, a curator at the British Museum in London, wrote in a blog post about the discovery. The footprints, which have since washed away, are therefore said to be between 800,000 and 1 million years old. Based on the height and length of the footprints, researchers think they belonged to Homo antecessor, or "Pioneer Man."

"This is an extraordinarily rare discovery," Ashton told the Guardian. "The Happisburgh site continues to rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe."

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