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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“Stinking Googles should be killed”: why 4chan is using a search engine as a racist slur

Users of the anonymous forum are targeting Google after the company introduced a programme for censoring abusive language.

Contains examples of racist language and memes.

“You were born a Google, and you are going to die a Google.”

Despite the lack of obscenity and profanity in this sentence, you have probably realised it was intended to be offensive. It is just one of hundreds of similar messages posted by the users of 4chan’s Pol board – an anonymous forum where people go to be politically incorrect. But they haven’t suddenly seen the error of their ways about using the n-word to demean their fellow human beings – instead they are trying to make the word “Google” itself become a racist slur.

In an undertaking known as “Operation Google”, some 4chan users are resisting Google’s latest artificial intelligence program, Conversation AI, by swapping smears for the names of Google products. Conversation AI aims to spot and flag offensive language online, with the eventual possibility that it could automatically delete abusive comments. The famously outspoken forum 4chan, and the similar website 8chan, didn’t like this, and began their campaign which sees them refer to “Jews” as “Skypes”, Muslims as “Skittles”, and black people as “Googles”.

If it weren’t for the utterly abhorrent racism – which includes users conflating Google’s chat tool “Hangouts” with pictures of lynched African-Americans – it would be a genius idea. The group aims to force Google to censor its own name, making its AI redundant. Yet some have acknowledged this might not ultimately work – as the AI will be able to use contextual clues to filter out when “Google” is used positively or pejoratively – and their ultimate aim is now simply to make “Google” a racist slur as revenge.


Posters from 4chan

“If you're posting anything on social media, just casually replace n****rs/blacks with googles. Act as if it's already a thing,” wrote one anonymous user. “Ignore the company, just focus on the word. Casually is the important word here – don't force it. In a month or two, Google will find themselves running a company which is effectively called ‘n****r’. And their entire brand is built on that name, so they can't just change it.”

There is no doubt that Conversation AI is questionable to anyone who values free speech. Although most people desire a nicer internet, it is hard to agree that this should be achieved by blocking out large swathes of people, and putting the power to do so in the hands of one company. Additionally, algorithms can’t yet accurately detect sarcasm and humour, so false-positives are highly likely when a bot tries to identify whether something is offensive. Indeed, Wired journalist Andy Greenberg tested Conversation AI out and discovered it gave “I shit you not” 98 out of 100 on its personal attack scale.

Yet these 4chan users have made it impossible to agree with their fight against Google by combining it with their racism. Google scores the word “moron” 99 out of 100 on its offensiveness scale. Had protestors decided to replace this – or possibly even more offensive words like “bitch” or “motherfucker” – with “Google”, pretty much everyone would be on board.

Some 4chan users are aware of this – and indeed it is important not to consider the site a unanimous entity. “You're just making yourselves look like idiots and ruining any legitimate effort to actually do this properly,” wrote one user, while some discussed their concerns that “normies” – ie. normal people – would never join in. Other 4chan users are against Operation Google as they see it as self-censorship, or simply just stupid.


Memes from 4chan

But anyone who disregards these efforts as the work of morons (or should that be Bings?) clearly does not understand the power of 4chan. The site brought down Microsoft’s AI Tay in a single day, brought the Unicode swastika (卐) to the top of Google’s trends list in 2008, hacked Sarah Palin’s email account, and leaked a large number of celebrity nudes in 2014. If the Ten Commandments were rewritten for the modern age and Moses took to Mount Sinai to wave two 16GB Tablets in the air, then the number one rule would be short and sweet: Thou shalt not mess with 4chan.

It is unclear yet how Google will respond to the attack, and whether this will ultimately affect the AI. Yet despite what ten years of Disney conditioning taught us as children, the world isn’t split into goodies and baddies. While 4chan’s methods are deplorable, their aim of questioning whether one company should have the power to censor the internet is not.

Google also hit headlines this week for its new “YouTube Heroes” program, a system that sees YouTube users rewarded with points when they flag offensive videos. It’s not hard to see how this kind of crowdsourced censorship is undesirable, particularly again as the chance for things to be incorrectly flagged is huge. A few weeks ago, popular YouTubers also hit back at censorship that saw them lose their advertising money from the site, leading #YouTubeIsOverParty to trend on Twitter. Perhaps ultimately, 4chan didn't need to go on a campaign to damage Google's name. It might already have been doing a good enough job of that itself.

Google has been contacted for comment.

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