A massive Canadian fossil trove reminds us how fleeting life on Earth can be — and how much peril we’re in

We ascend a sheer mountainside in the Canadian Rockies. Our destination, high on the cliff face, is a jumble of 510-million-year-old rocks known as the Burgess Shale.

Formed during the middle part of the Cambrian period, the shale boasts tens of thousands of perfectly preserved fossils from the dawn of the animal kingdom. Many were soft-bodied organisms whose existence in most other places has been lost to the ravages of time. This wealth of small, strange specimens has shaped scientists’ understanding of evolution and offered insight into the link between Earth’s climate and the life it can support, making the Burgess Shale one of the most precious and important fossil sites in the world.

Life on Earth has been evolving for nearly 4 billion years. Yet only now, as the geological clock strikes midnight, is there a creature capable of looking back at that history and appreciating it. Only now, as our own actions imperil this extraordinary and singular planet, do humans have a chance to comprehend all that is about to be lost.

Weirdness seems to be the defining characteristic of Burgess Shale organisms. There are Opabinia, an oddball with five eyes and a vacuum cleaner nozzle for a nose, and the monstrous Hallucigenia, which boasted eight pairs of legs and an equal number of conical spines. The ancestor of all modern vertebrates, including fish, birds and humans, was Pikaia, a wriggling eel-like organism no longer than your big toe.

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