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The Fossils of the Burgess Shale

The Fossils of the Burgess Shale



  • Derek E. G. Briggs
  • Douglas H. Erwin
  • Frederick J. Collier


  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Smithsonian Books (November 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1560983647
  • ISBN-13: 978-1560983644
  • Product Dimensions: 10.2 x 7.3 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds


From Booklist

You might think a listing of the fossils found in a single site would not be all that interesting, but the Burgess Shale collection is extraordinary. For whereas most fossilization preserves hard tissues like bones, teeth, and shells, the geologic forces that formed the Burgess Shale also preserved soft tissues. The shale’s fossil animals and plants are from the Cambrian, an era long before the dinosaurs during which a remarkable array of living things came into being. The site itself, in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, was discovered early in this century. Its full import wasn’t grasped for many years, but the discoveries it eventually afforded, even if they don’t include T. Rexes, certainly rival those made by any dinosaur hunter. Although looking–as this book lets us, up close and in detail–at fossilized sponges, algae, worms, and such may not inspire another Jurassic Park, budding and armchair paleontologists will have a field day, even though the accompanying text is thick with technical talk. Jon Kartman  



The perfect picture book of the Burgess Shale fossils., July 20, 1998

This review is from: Fossils of the Burgess Shale (Paperback)

If you’ve read"It’s a Wonderful Life" or "The Crucible of Creation," this is the perfect pictorial companion. The photographs are superb, and are accompanied by drawings which really help put it all together. I never completely understood what the other authors meant when they said that the fossils where well preserved. Now I see what that means. Photos such as the one of Vauxia are astounding examples of preservation to say nothing of Olenoides. The photo of Aysheaia looks like a beautiful petroglyph. The descriptions help too. You can actually see where the inner organs lie in many examples once they are pointed out by the author. This a book for anyone curious about the Cambrian. It is so detailed that it can also be an inspiration for designers who are looking for a different theme. Highly recommended!  

The Fossils of the Burgess Shale, August 1, 2004

This review is from: Fossils of the Burgess Shale (Paperback)

"The Fossils of the Burgess Shale" written by Derek E.G. Briggs, Douglas H. Erwin, and Frederick J. Collier and photographs by Chip Clark is simply a marvelous book about early Cambrian life some 540 million years ago. We get a rare look into life’s past and what makes the Burgess Shale such a significant part of life’s mystery is that these fossils, in most cases, are soft- bodied fauna and flora.

"The Fossils of the Burgess Shale" is a snapshot into life’s past and there are only a few locations (30) left that can afford such a look ( China, Central America, Greenland, Spain, Poland, and Southern Australia). Found in 1909 by Charles D. Walcott, high in the Rocky Mountains of Canada, now part of Yoho Park in British Columbia, who had a huge collection of these remarkable fossils shipped back to the Smithsonian Institution where he was Secretary. Today the Cambrian is among the most intensively studied intervals in the history of life, and the debate rages over what triggered the rapid appearance of most major groups of animals.

The photographs in this book are a major accomplishment as it affords the reader with an example of the fossil in question along with a line drawing of what this particular flora of fauna looked like. Thus, making the reader aware of what the authors are talking about.

If you’ve ever read "It’s a Wonderful Life" by Stephen Jay Gould or "The Crucible of Creation" by Simon Conway-Morris "The Fossils of the Burgess Shale" will make a great companion book that explains some of the personalized conclusions that are found in these books and it makes it very clear as to what they are discussing. The preservation of soft-bodied animals is not evenly distributed through the fossil record. Thus, making this book all the more important concerning about what life was like.

The first few pages of the book explains where the Burgess Shale is and its significance and the major players in which have played an important part in the furthering the knowledge of these fossil remains, how fossilization probably occured.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the fossils of the Burgess Shale, with illustrations, discussions, full page photographs and reconstructions of 85 out of 125 recognized genra. The text accompanying the illustrations aims to provide an outline of the morphology, mode of life, and the affinities of the organism. There is ample identification of the sample fossils so the specialist can search for further data.

"The Fossils of the Burgess Shale" is rated a solid 5 stars and is one of the best books that I’ve found for life in the Cambrian. You will not be dissapointed with this book as it delivers in spades.  

Images of our ancient ancestors, February 20, 2002

This review is from: Fossils of the Burgess Shale (Paperback)

If you’ve ever kept a scrapbook of old photographs, you’ll understand the fascination of this collection. Instead of grandmothers, aged aunts or toddler cousins, this book reveals life from the dimmest past. With photographs and drawings, Briggs and his colleagues have restored to view rare animals that lived in ancient seas. These are our earliest forebears, and for that reason alone, this book is worth repeated scrutiny. The images, with their stories of discovery and restoration, are offered in a spirit of shared discovery. These are very special creatures and it behooves us all to understand their value.

Although the book is targeted for professional paleontologists, the authors give us text nearly as illustrative as the images. They are part of the team who personally enticed many of these fossils from their lithic prison. Beginning with an account of Charles Woolcott’s trek into the mountains of British Columbia, they go on to describe the environment in which these creatures lived. The significance of the Burgess Shale fossils, of course, is that they are images of soft body parts, usually lost as fossilization proceeds. At the time of the original find in 1909, such artifacts, especially ones of such ancient deposition were pricelessly rare. Woolcott himself understood their value to science, but never dedicated the necessary time to tease out their full secrets. It took Briggs and others, particularly Simon Conway Morris to apply the painstaking effort to recreate the body forms locked in the shale. In so doing, they overthrew a number of blithe assumptions made by a number of commentators, in particular Stephen J. Gould who had popularized the Shale finds, but sadly misinterpreted what they represent.

As you slowly turn over the pages of this book, reflect on the vast ages separating you from these creatures. The sea has always kept some bizarre secrets, but few can match the multi-spined Hallucegenia or mud-burrowing Ottoia. Haplophrentis might be mistaken for a Roman dagger lost in the sea until you read that its maximum length was but 30 millimetres long. A more formidable denizen of these waters is the Anomalocaris, with its hooked feelers and rasping mouth. Swimming in a sea with this half-meter long predator might not have been dangerous, but observing it might best be done from the beach.

This book is a clearly valuable contribution to our understanding of life’s history and the process of evolution. It belongs on the shelf next to the other albums of family history. Take it down from time to time and simply open it at random. With half-closed eyes it isn’t difficult to see these creatures in their daily lives, clutching rocks, swimming through the water, or burrowing into the bottom. They are your forebears, and deserve as much of your respect as does Aunt Matilda.