FANTASTIC FISH  The level of detail in the Metaspriggina fossils discovered in Kootenay National Park in 2012 is helping further evolutionary research. Image submitted

FANTASTIC FISH The level of detail in the Metaspriggina fossils discovered in Kootenay National Park in 2012 is helping further evolutionary research. Image submitted

By Erin Knutson

Special at The Pioneer

The fossil fish findings discovered near Marble Canyon in Kootenay National Park in 2012 suggest the Metaspriggina had the formation of a jaw-like structure which is key to understanding the evolution of vertebrate species.

Forty-four new Burgess Shale fossils were discovered and 3,000 specimens were collected in less than two weeks, commented Alex Kolesch, manager of the Burgess Shale site with Parks Canada. The site, uncovered by a team of experts from the Royal Ontario Museum, is parallel to its predecessors in Yoho National Park and promises to surpass its contemporaries.

These animals are preserved in great detail, said Mr. Kolesch.

Its a rarity that fossils of the Metaspriggina are recovered in a state of preservation. The carefully preserved condition of the species is largely due to its location.

Looking up at the Rockies, one is reminded that they are standing on an ocean floor. All of this used to be under water, said Mr. Kolesch of the iconic valley landscape.

All specimens were painstakingly recovered using power tools and flown out to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Through microscopic examination, the story of the origins and the identity of the fossils were disclosed and the findings made pertinent.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Royal Ontario Museum used their research in tandem with specimens found in the eastern United states to determine and reclassify Metaspriggina as the one of the first vertebrates.

The detail in this Metaspriggina fossil is stunning, commented Professor Simon Conway Morris of Cambridges Department of Earth Sciences, in a formal press release. Even the eyes are beautifully preserved and clearly evident.

According to findings, the Metaspriggina were avid swimmers and saw the world through a large pair of eyes, sensing their environment through nasal structures, Professor Morris said in the release.

Evidence of a jaw-like structure in the species was an indicator to scientists of an evolutionary jump that led to the arrival of the modern vertebrate. And once the jaws have developed, the whole world opens, Professor Morris elaborated.

Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum and co-author on the findings concurred in the same release that obviously jawed fish came later, but this is like a starting post everything is there and ready to go.

Not only is this a major new discovery, one that will play a key role in understanding our own origins, but the new Burgess Shale locality itself has fantastic potential for revealing key insights into the early evolution of many other animal groups during this crucial time in the history of life, said Dr. Caron.

The newly acquired attention locally, internationally, and from the scientific community has conservationists at Parks Canada excited about the potential discovery of more big fish and the future preservation of the Burgess Shale. The acknowledgement of the richness the site holds, including a nod from the UNESCO World Heritage Site has fossil enthusiasts overjoyed.

These sites are protected we take security seriously, but this also a chance for us to make connections with researchers from accredited universities and museums. Its a way of educating and engaging the public on our natural heritage and involving them in the process of its continued survival, said Mr. Kolesch.