Fossils Widen Range of Biological Burst

By Monastersky, Richard | Science News, June 11, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Fossils Widen Range of Biological Burst

Monastersky, Richard, Science News

Nicholas J. Butterfield's discovery started with a mistake. The paleontologist had planned on studying 1-billion-year-old rocks drilled recently from Canada's Northwest Territories. But when he sent away for the samples, Butterfield wrote down the wrong order number.

While analyzing the rocks under a high-powered microscope, Butterfield was surprised to find a tiny scale from a Wiwaxia, an odd creature from the Cambrian period (545 million to 510 million years ago) that he had previously studied.

"It happened utterly by chance, if only because I'm one of the few people in the world who would recognize a Wiwaxia sclerite when it floated by," says Butterfield, a researcher at the University of Cambridge in England.

From that initial foul-up, Butterfield found a range of exquisitely preserved fossils that filled the seas soon after the so-called Cambrian explosion -- when the first complex animals evolved. He reports his discovery in the June 9 NATURE.

Scientists had previously found well-preserved fossils from this period in only a handful of sites worldwide, most notably the Burgess Shale in southern Canada. Butterfield's happenstance now opens the door to new, high-quality finds.

"The type of preservation that we know from the Burgess Shale and thought was relatively limited might be much more widespread than we previously presumed," comments Stefan Bengtson of Uppsala University in Sweden.

The rocks Butterfield studied come from flat-lying deposits near Great Bear Lake that escaped the tremendous heat and pressures generated when mountains form.

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