The Burgess Shale


Burgess shale
Overjoyed to be working on the Burgess Shale!
The 505Ma Burgess Shale preserves a wide range of Cambrian animals and each year new and exciting discoveries are reported adding to the list of species and Phyla known from the deposit. The shales hosting the exceptionally preserved fossils outcrop in British Columbia and the fossils have been found from several locations in the Rocky Mountains. The fossils are principally preserved as thin carbonaceous films and there is much controversy on exactly how such organically-composed fossils were formed.

I visited field localities of the Burgess Shale in 2000 and 2012 and my main research interests are in understanding the fine-scale sedimentology of the host sediment and in elucidating how the fossils were preserved.

The Team

Burgess shale
Bobby Gaines and myself
I have worked with Jan Zalasiewicz and Des Collins on the sedimentology of the shales. This research demonstrated that the shales did not form as a persistent settling of fine-grained sediment from suspension, but as dense and turbulent slurries that engulfed animals where they lived. My work with Alex Page, Jan Zalasiewicz and Philip Wilby demonstrated that the clay minerals associated with Burgess Shale fossils were not formed sufficiently early to inhibit decay, as was previously thought, but later and during metamorphism. My work with Bob Gaines and others on the geochemistry and taphonomy of the fossils demonstrates that rapid carbonate cementation, at the tops of beds, reduced the flux of oxidants to degrading bacteria. This may account for the preservation of fossils as organic films.


Gabbott, S. E., Zalasiewicz, J. A., & Collins, D. (2008). Sedimentation of the Phyllopod Bed within the Cambrian Burgess Shale Formation of British Columbia. Journal of the Geological Society of London, 165, 307-318. doi:10.144/0016-76492007-023

Gaines, R.R., Emma U. Hammarlund, E.U., Xianguang Hou, Changshi Qie, Gabbott, S.E., Yuanlong Zhaog, Jin Pengg, and Canfield, D.E. (2012). Mechanism for Burgess Shale-type preservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 109, E1902.

Gaines, R.R., Hammarlund, E.U., Hou, X.G., Qi, C., Gabbott, S.E., Zhao, Y.L., Peng, J., and Canfield, D.E., 2012, Reply to Butterfield: Low-sulfate and early cements inhibit decay and promote Burgess Shale-type preservationProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA v. 109, E1902.

Page, A., Gabbott, S. E., Wilby, P. R., & Zalasiewicz, J. A. (2008). Ubiquitous Burgess Shale-style "clay templates" in low-grade metamorphic mudrocks. Geology, 36(11), 855-858. doi:10.1130/G24991A.1

My Funding

1999: UoL Research Grant for new lecturers ‘The geochemistry and sedimentology of the Cambrian Burgess Shale’ £3000.

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