Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Department of Paleobiology

Strange Creatures - A Burgess Shale Fossil Sampler

Hallucigenia. Illustration by Mary Parrish

More than half a billion years old, the fossils of the Burgess Shale preserve an intriguing glimpse of early life on Earth. They were first discovered in 1909 by Charles D. Walcott, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. This group of fossils takes its name from the Burgess Shale rock formation, named by Walcott after nearby Mount Burgess in the Canadian Rockies. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History currently houses over 65,000 specimens. The museum also has a permanent exhibit of the Burgess Shale fauna near the Dinosaur Hall. Since Walcott's original discovery, fossil deposits like these have been found in such widely dispersed areas as China, Greenland, Siberia, Australia, Europe, and the USA.

These fossils merit special interest for several reasons:

  • They were buried in an underwater avalanche of fine mud that preserved exceptionally fine details of the structure of their soft parts. Only hard parts are preserved in most other Cambrian deposits, obviously limiting information within the geologic record.
  • They represent an early snapshot of the complexity of evolving life systems. The Burgess Shale fossils as a group have already developed into a variety of sizes and shapes from the much simpler, pre-Cambrian life forms.
  • Many of them appear to be early ancestors of higher forms; from algae to the chordates (a major group of animals that includes human primates). Others appear unrelated to any living forms and their later disappearance presents an intriguing mystery.

This web site only provide a small sample of this notable collection. Here you may view photographs of fossil specimens and reconstructions of this ancient biota by scientific illustrator Larry Isham.

In addition to brief descriptions of the creature's life, habitat, and place in biological history, we have included the literal translations of their genus and species names to give you an idea why and how scientists go about naming the creatures they discover. We also provide a pronounciation key to these names. However, many species were named after local Native American place-names and we aren't sure about the original native pronunciation.

Follow these links to explore our Burgess Shale Fossils

  • An index page of the Burgess Shale Specimens with links to the descriptions, photographs, and artists' reconstructions of each of the 20 specimens featured on our website.
  • The Cambrian World: This page includes a reconstruction of the offshore escarpment where the Burgess Shale creatures lived during the Cambrian period.

    • On this page there is also an artist's conception of the Burgess Shale Community prior to the mud avalanche that preserved the site.
    • And there is a Cambrian era world map to show you how Earth looked over 500 million years ago.
  • An introductory Reading List about the Burgess Shale fauna.

[ TOP ]