Evolutionary roots of all life go on display in exhibit at FHSU's Sternberg Museum of Natural History

NOTE TO EDITORS: Photographs are available by e-mailing Kurt Beyers at kbeyers@fhsu.edu.

HAYS, KS -- "Burgess Shale: Evolution?s Big Bang," an exhibit developed by scientists at the Smithsonian Institution, will open at Fort Hays State University's Sternberg Museum of Natural History on Saturday, March 27.

The exhibition, showing at major museums around North America under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, focuses on what life on Earth was like 505 million years ago.

"At that time, there were no plants or animals whatsoever on land, but the seas were swarming with living things that looked like they belong in a science fiction movie," said Dr. Jerry Choate, director of the Sternberg Museum and professor of biological sciences at FHSU.

The astounding variety of living things that existed in the seas of Earth 505 million years ago included the distant ancestors of all animals living today plus many evolutionary dead-ends that eventually became extinct, said Choate, and some of these creatures that eventually became extinct resemble no other animals on Earth.

"We know what life was like 505 million years ago mainly because of fossils found in a rock formation known as the Burgess Shale," said Choate. "These remarkable fossils open a window into the distant past."

The Burgess Shale fossils were discovered in 1909 by paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott of the Smithsonian Institution, a discovery Choate called "one of the most important finds in the history of paleontology." Burgess Shale contains a much broader range of animals than any other fossil deposit from what paleontologists call the Cambrian Period, roughly 543 million to 490 million years ago.

Burgess Shale also preserved its fossils in exquisite detail, including both hard and soft parts.

The location of the Burgess Shale quarry is on the slope of Wapta Mountain in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada. When the fossils were preserved (505 million years ago), the mountains had not yet risen and the location was in a shallow sea.

Burgess Shale fossils are evidence for an extraordinary event called the Cambrian Explosion, said Choate, a burst of evolutionary activity that generated a sudden increase in the complexity and variety of animal life on earth. Nearly every subsequent development in the evolution of life on Earth, including the evolution of dinosaurs, mammals, and humans, built upon basic animal designs that first appeared in the Cambrian Explosion.

"By basic animal designs," said Choate, "I am referring to body plans. For example, all insects share a common body plan, all vertebrates have a common body plan, and all worms have the same basic body plan. All of these plans had their origin in the Cambrian Explosion, as recorded in the Burgess Shale fossils. This serves to illustrate the paramount importance of these fossils."

The Burgess Shale exhibition will be available for viewing at the Sternberg Museum until Oct. 3.

"This is an exhibition that all students, educators, and citizens in Kansas will want to see, and it is an exhibition that should appeal to tourists as well," said Choate.

The fee for admission to the museum is $6 for adults, $4 for youth and seniors, and $3 for FHSU students.

Sternberg Museum hours are 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and
1 p.m. until 7 p.m. Sunday; the museum is closed on Mondays.

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Kent Steward, Director   |  ksteward@fhsu.edu  |  Kurt Beyers, Assistant Director   |  kbeyers@fhsu.edu