Burgess Shale 'mothership' discovery has palaeontologist giddy with excitement

Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron can barely contain his excitement over a recent fossil discovery in Kootenay National Park in B.C.

Titanokorys gainesi lived 500 million years ago but could prove helpful in explaining our own origin

An illustration reconstructing what the Titanokorys gainesi looked like. (Illustration by Lars Fields/Royal Ontario Museum)

Jean-Bernard Caron can barely contain his excitement over a recent fossil discovery from the Burgess Shale in southeastern British Columbia.

"We are talking about something that is very, very old," the curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday.

"At least 300 million years older than the first dinosaurs; about half a billion years."

Caron says the Titanokorys gainesi — a primitive arthropod — was huge, but that it's all relative.

"This animal is so big compared to all the other animals at the time — which would have been about the size of my fingernail — that we called it the 'mothership' when we found it."

Researchers Jean-Bernard Caron, left, and Joe Moysiuk have contributed to a new study on Titanokorys gainesi, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal. (Andrew Gregg/Royal Ontario Museum)

Caron contributed to a new study published in Royal Society Open Science this week on the significant find near Field, B.C. Although the main Burgess Shale quarries are in Yoho National Park, this discovery was 42 kilometres to the south, in Kootenay National Park, where there is another outcrop.

"It's a very, very strange-looking beast indeed," he said.

"It has a long carapace or shield on its head. The animal is almost defined as a swimming head. The body is very short with tiny flaps and a pair of eyes at the back of its shield, which is very strange for any animal to have eyes so far back. He had a pair of limbs, which would have allowed him to comb the sea floor surface for food particles and little animals that were swimming around."

It looked a little like a horseshoe crab, for a more contemporary reference.

The Titanokorys was likely pretty rare at the time, Caron explained.

"We only found bits and pieces between 2014 and 2018, when all these specimens were discovered."

But it can be helpful in understanding our own origins.

A Titanokorys gainesi fossil is getting paleontologists excited. (Royal Ontario Museum)

"This animal gives an important base for understanding the origin of animals … including ourselves," the paleontologist said.

"To me, it's very important to understand our roots. This animal helps us understand the importance of the ecology of the Burgess Shale, and how complex this site was in terms of species and relationships."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.