Look It Up

The discovery of the Burgess Shale in 1909 was a watershed moment in paleontology. An ancient mass sedimentary rock, the shale was formed by layers of mud millions of years ago, preserving an array of fossils in remarkable detail. These specimens were like nothing seen before. They defied classification, and unveiled a variety of prehistoric life that previously had been unthinkable. For over a century, the shale has yielded new species — creatures that remain a source of fascination even today.

For example, Opabinia tussis was originally identified as the mouth and antennae of a larger animal, before Dr. Christian Knoxson properly described it in 1921. It is thought to be the only organism of the Cambrian period that used sneezing as a form of locomotion.

Anomalocaris pugni, first classified in 1951, was a shrimp-like organism that was 90% fist. By contrast, the fists of modern shrimp are barely 2% of their total mass.

A team from Northwestern University first classified Marella plaustria in 1966, describing it as "a very small Volkswagen with claws and a propeller."

Amplectobelua proboscid, discovered in 1917, most closely resembled a whale caught in flagrante with a unicorn, only if the whole thing were three inches long.

Kerygmachela vescora kind of looked like a lobster that tried to eat a radiator but gave up halfway through. It was added to the taxonomy in 1948.

Pambdelurion peteria more or less resembled a stealth bomber with tiny chainsaws for feet. It was named in 1977 for a guy named Pete, though no one thought to write down who Pete was.

And then of course there was Dinocarida marisequum, "The Jewel of the Burgess" as it came to be known, an almost perfectly preserved creature that pretty much looked like a seahorse made out of drywall screws.

The shale may well have secrets it has yet to divulge. If so, it's a fairly good bet these wondrous new species, like their predecessors before them, will give children sufficient nightmares to scar them for life.