The eyes didn't have it

A satellite image of the area (Wikipedia)

OK. Here comes some weird stuff. Now you may say history is full of strange things, many of them also horrible. And you’d be right. But in this instance I have prehistory in mind.

Don’t think I can’t count when I then allude to the discovery on August 30 1909 of the Burgess Shale in southeastern B.C. by Charles Walcott. I realize 19-09 is not prehistory and Walcott is not a trilobite. But here’s an interesting bit. For reasons best known to rocks, the Burgess Shale formation was exceptionally good at preserving the soft bits of fossils normally lost (think how much we know about dinosaur skeletons and how little about their skin, feathers or ears if they even had any).

In fact the Burgess Shale is one of the oldest formations yet found with soft fossils, dating back a mind-bogging half billion years. And so Walcott found a bunch of odd critters, so many that he spent 15 more years there, collecting and struggling to categorize more than 65,000 fossils and fossil fragments.


No, wait. It gets weirder. You see, the rather linear, even plodding vision of them evolutions at that point didn’t have much room for mass extinctions of entire kinds of animals.

Dinosaurs, you cry? But no. They were held to be big lumbering inferior lizards well into the 1960s, as my beloved childhood How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs could testify if it too had not gone extinct. Since evolution kept improving things, it wasn’t meant to have gigantic dead ends. So Walcott tried to fit his finds into existing taxa.

Taxa is the plural of taxum, which isn’t what governments do to everybody. It’s one of those categories in the evolutionary tree, the kingdom phylum class order family genus species business that scientists still insist everything must fit into in an orderly mathematical way. But whatever the validity of this arrangement, one thing is sure. Not every little turtle makes it to the ocean and not every taxum makes it to the 20th century.

By the 1960s this idea was becoming widely accepted, along with a more dynamic, even chaotic vision of evolution, with long periods of quiet and bursts of innovation (“punctuated equilibrium”) and specialization that took a good thing too far and went thud. And thus in 1962 someone took another look at Walcott’s actual stuff instead of descriptions and analyses of things that didn’t seem to fit well into extant taxa.

I should note here that I’m not sneering. Virtually every significant museum has huge storerooms full of stuff that has piled up over the years that they don’t have space to display or time to examine. And when someone does examine it they often find surprises.

That was certainly true when Alberto Simonetta went into the dusty Burgess Shale boxes and found a great deal of really strange stuff including so-called “hopeful monsters” like Opabina, with five eyes and an aardvark-type schnozzle, and the famous or infamous Hallucigenia, well-suited to convincing scientists that they or Mother Nature had been taking banned substances.

Scientists have been quarreling over them ever since, with varying degrees of good and ill humour. But I’ll tell you what. I’m very glad Walcott dug them up and then Simonetta dug them out of storage. Because there’s some wonderfully weird beasties in it.

Not that I would have wanted to meet one for real. Even a small one. Too many spines. Too many eyes. Fascinating, yes. And wonderful. But a bit horrible as well. There are some things about nature you want to admire from behind a sheet of glass a few hundred million years thick.