Digging for fossil worms

Let's go back to Tuesday 31 August 1909. A man was looking for fossil trilobites high in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia in Canada. His name was Charles Doolite Walcott, and with the help

of his wife and son he had been finding trilobites in this area for some years. As Mrs Walcott was riding along a narrow track on a steep mountainside, her horse suddenly stumbled on a large rock. Walcott jumped off his horse and smacked the rock hard with his hammer. Inside were the fossilised remains of some strange worm-like creatures. What Walcott had stumbled on (or more accurately, what his wife's horse had stumbled on) turned out to be one of the most important and richest fossil deposits ever found. Over the next few years Walcott and his family collected tens of thousands of fossils from these rocks, called the Burgess Shale. Almost 100 years later, palaeontologists are still studying the fossils that the Walcotts found.

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In these rocks were the remains of not only trilobites' hard shells, but also their legs. Sometimes even their last meal was preserved in their stomachs. Walcott found many different types of beautifully preserved worms, including ones that looked like bottle-brushes; in some you can even see their blood vessels. There were lots of different arthropods, including the huge Anomalocaris that I described at the start of the chapter. Some were very strange indeed. My favourite is a beast no longer than your middle finger and called Opabinia. Segmented like your packet of biscuits, this strange animal had five big eyes on stalks. Where its mouth should be there was a long nozzle, like a vacuum cleaner, with teeth on the end.

Wiwaxia Mars

Another strange animal, about the size of a 20-cent coin, we've called Wiwaxia. It was covered with large armour plates, and had a whole load of blades like steak knives sticking out of its back. Eating this beast would have been a painful, big mistake. We are not sure what type of animal it was. Maybe a strange worm; maybe a strange sort of clam. But the animal that really takes the cake when it comes to weirdness is like your worst nightmare - all spines and long legs with a blob for a head. And this explains its name - Hallucigenia. ('To hallucinate' means to imagine strange, distorted things.) Fortunately it was only about as long as your thumbnail.

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