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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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

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