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Friday, 8th October 2010

Wonderful life

"When [a figure of Opabinia] was shown at a meeting of the Paleontological Association in Oxford, it was greeted with loud laughter, presumably a tribute to the strangeness of this animal." Thus began a 1975 monograph by the paleontologist, Harry Whittington (born 1916), who passed away recently.

Whittington was the first to expose the extraordinary animals of the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia. Burgess Shale is famous for the preservation of fossils over 500 million years old (Middle Cambrian). This was long before the age of dinosaurs, that is, 230 to 65 million years ago. The place was discovered in 1909 by Charles Walcott (1850-1927) of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

After graduating from Birmingham University in the United Kingdom and completing a fellowship at Yale University, Whittington became a lecturer in Burma (now Myanmar) and then taught in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, before returning to Birmingham after World War II.

Already an expert in trilobites, Whittington was invited in the 1960s to head a Geological Survey of Canada investigation of Burgess Shale. Together with two graduate students at the University of Cambridge, he found that the animals represented by the fossils there were much stranger and more diverse than had previously recognized. Their painstaking work, mostly between the 1960s and 1980s, involved traditional methods such as sample dissection, photographs of samples from different angles, and use of ultraviolet light.

How strange are the Burgess Shale animals? Take a look at Opabinia (Figure 1), which measured a few centimetres long. The name was derived from a place called Opabin pass in British Columbia. The most unusual feature is that it had five eyes. The eyes were all stalked: two near the front of the head, two at the rear and a central one between the rear two.

Figure 1     Ophabinia (Source: Wikipedia)
Figure 1      Ophabinia (Source: Wikipedia)

There was a proboscis at the front, taking up a third of the animal's length. It probably passed food to the mouth, which faced backward (not shown), by projecting downwards and then curving forwards and upwards, like an elephant's nose.

Also note the fifteen 'gill blades' on both sides of the body, and the rudder-like tail. Scientists believe it was a seafloor feeder. People now know that Opabinia had branched out from an early lineage of modern anthropods.

As another example of the weird animals in the Burgess Shale, let's take a look at Anomalocaris (Figure 2), which means 'abnormal shrimp'. Measuring a metre long, it was among the largest of Cambrian animals. It had a large head, a pair of eyes and a disk-like mouth resembling a pineapple slice (not shown). In front of the mouth, there were two large 'arms', or appendages, with barb-like spikes. The streamlined body probably allowed the creature to swim through Cambrian waters, looking for preys.
Figure 2     Anomalocaridid (Source: Wikipedia)
Figure 2      Anomalocaridid (Source: Wikipedia)

Whittington was a very modest person. It took a popular science book in 1989, Wonderful Life, written by Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), a Harvard professor, to generate considerable public interest. The strangeness of the Burgess Shale fossils was an important discovery, and Whittington came to his new results from a weight of evidence. Yet he handled it with humility and rigour. No wonder Gould said that the beginning statement of Whittington's monograph "should go down as one of the most remarkable in the history of science".

B.Y. Lee


a)   Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould, W.W. Norton & Co., 1989
b)   Nature, Derek E.G. Briggs, p. 706, Vol. 466, 5 August 2010.
c)   Wikipedia.

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>