Massive trove of Canadian fossils gives near-unprecedented glimpse of Cambrian explosion

A site in the Kootenay National Park has proved a fantastic source of fossils from the Cambrian explosion, 542 million years ago.

In 2012, geologists discovered a major haul of fossils in Canada’s Kootenay National Park, in the Rocky Mountains near Calgary, Alberta. The find looked like it could shed further light on one of the most critical periods in the history of life on Earth, the Cambrian explosion, 542 million years ago - and the first study of its specimens, published in the journal Nature Communications, reveals that the find will “increase our understanding of early animal evolution” in an almost unparalleled way.

While there is evidence that life existed on Earth at least 3.5 billion years ago, life as we know it - multi-cellular and adapted to almost every part of the planet - appeared in what is called the Cambrian explosion, 542 million years ago. This was the era before animals colonised land, and indeed this period coincided with the first era of algae-like plants adapting to survive above water on the edges of bodies of water.

Over the course of around 80 million years the rate of evolution accelerated vastly, and the ancestors of almost all of the major phyla we see today first emerged. Quite why this happened is the subject of debate among scientists - it could have been any number of environmental or genetic factors - but there seemed to have been a relative frenzy of evolutionary competition.

The previously-dominant Ediacarans, which looked a bit like large floating sacks, were usurped and made extinct by the emergence of creatures that developed physical characteristics we still see today, like internal layering that separates digestive tracts from other organs, or having distinct “fronts” and “backs” (a trait known as bilateral symmetry). For an idea of what creatures exist today that missed out on all this, look to jellyfish.

In the rush to try and fill each new ecological niche, there were thousands of experiments that resemble nothing like anything that lives today. There was the spiky grazer Orthrozanclus and the superhero shrimp Stanleycaris; the bristleworm Insolicorypha and the arthopod Marrella, with huge spines on its head. There were also trilobites, thousands and thousands of different trilobites.

But these creatures lived in the sea, and were usually no more than a few centimetres in length at most. When they died - as they no doubt did by the million - they will have been eaten by other scavenging animals within a short time of settling on the sea floor. Our fossil record is dependent entirely on what were ancient landslides, when massive amounts of rock fell into the sea to crush entire shorelines, fossilising them. The few sites where this has happened, with whole ecosystems frozen in stone, are amazing - and none is better than the Burgess Shale. Nowhere else are the soft bodies of the ancient Cambrian explosion better-preserved, with detail so fine it’s possible to make out individual antennae or legs.

The original Burgess Shale find was in 1909, in the Yoho National Park, by palaeontologist Charles Walcott. It was formed by what’s known as a Lagerstätte formation, a particular kind of sedimentary preservation that happens so quickly not even microbes have time to break the tissue down, which is key to preserving as much detail as possible. Walcott spent decades gathering more than 65,000 fossils from the site, with its major significance only realised in the 1960s. And, while the Shale itself extends beyond the Yoho National Park, the best fossils were always found at Walcott’s original site.

However, it appears that the site in Kootenay National Park now rivals it for importance. The team of researchers - from institutes including the Royal Ontario Museum, the University of Toronto, and Uppsala University - gathered as many as 3,000 fossil specimens representing 50 different species in only 15 days.

The study’s lead author, Jean-Bernard Caron from the Royal Ontario Museum, said: "This new discovery is an epic sequel to a research story that began at the turn of the previous century, and there is no doubt in my mind that this new material will significantly increase our understanding of early animal evolution. The rate at which we are finding animals – many of which are new – is astonishing, and there is a high possibility that we'll eventually find more species here than at the original Yoho National Park site, and potentially more than from anywhere else in the world.”

Some of the preservation is so good that internal organs are visible. There’s also further evidence to support that hypothesis that Pikaia gracilens - a 4cm-long creature that looks a bit like an eel with tentacles - is the earliest known creature with the characteristics of vertebrates. It could even be the common ancestor of all vertebrates alive today.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.