FOSSIL FIND  A panorama shot of the Marble Canyon quarry where the new fossil species was found. Photo submitted

FOSSIL FIND A panorama shot of the Marble Canyon quarry where the new fossil species was found. Photo submitted

By Breanne Massey, Pioneer Staff

A newly discovered predator located at Marble Canyon in Kootenay National Park has brought history to life, according to Cedric Aria, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.

The marine creature that has been found is commonly known as Yawunik kootenayi and has yielded results about animal evolution that date back 508 million years ago more than 250 million years before dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Yawunik is part of this black and white movie that tells us our past and that constitutes the only true and actual evidence we have of things that we have that are long gone, said Mr. Aria. When you associate the black and white movie and the current pretty pictures, thats when you really begin to have a comprehensive perspective on life and how it came to be.

Yawunik kootenayi had three long claws, two of which bore opposing rows of teeth that helped it catch prey. Its believed that the Yawunik evolved long frontal appendages that resemble the antennae of modern beetles or shrimp and was capable of moving its frontal appendages backward and forward during an attack, which means spreading them out during an attack and then retracting them under its body while swimming.

A reconstruction of Yawunik kootenayi.

A reconstruction of Yawunik kootenayi.

Its what we call an arthropod so (they) are related to spiders, scorpions, shrimps, ants and butterflies so its a big group, said Mr. Aria. Its actually the biggest group of animals today more than 80 per cent of the animals that exist today.

Yawunik is an early arthropod of 508 million years ago and it belongs to this group, but it belongs to the very first branches of this group if you want to present this group as a family tree, if you will, he said. Yawunik was one of the early forms to emerge, to appear and to evolve from this group.

The species was identified by an international team led by paleontologists at the University of Toronto and Pomona College in California.

It is the first new fossil discovery from the Burgess Shale site in Marble Canyon that was discovered in 2012 by the Royal Ontario Museum research team led by Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron.

The Marble Canyon site in Kootenay National Park is 40 kilometres south from the world-renowned site where the Burgess Shale was unearthed in Yoho National Park a fact that lies close to Mr. Arias heart.

Its really fulfilling because I was lucky enough to be there when the site was discovered and I was lucky enough to be there when we began the extraction and I was lucky enough to be there when the fossils were extracted and put in the collection, he said. I was lucky enough to look at them, so to put it in a nutshell: I was lucky enough to be there from the very beginning.


Mr. Aria believes watching the process of discovering a new species has helped him develop a unique outlook on the project. My perspective is really whole and that also I think helps in my theoretical perspectives that have been driving me, he said. The reason Im doing that is because there are bigger questions that I want to answer, but the fact that Ive been able to be there all the way from the start is really giving something special to this perspective.

Cultural Connection

The newly identified species has been named in a way to honour the Ktunaxa Nation for historically inhabiting the Marble Canyon.

The creature was named Yawunikbecause of its history as a mythological sea creature that used to wreak mayhem on other animals to bring threats down.

It was known as a huge and brave marine creature that drove out dangers from the area.

We wanted to acknowledge the Ktunaxa culture, said Mr. Aria, and given the profile of Yawunik, it looked like a natural choice of the name.

The Ktunawa Nation was thrilled about the decision.

Yawunik is a central figure in the Ktunaxa creation story, and, as such, is a vital part of Ktunaxa oral history, said Donald Sam, Ktunaxa Nation Council Director of Traditional Knowledge and Language. I am ecstatic that the research team recognizes how important our history is in our territory, and chose to honour the Ktunaxa through this amazing discovery.

Today, Parks Canada holds jurisdiction over the site because it is located in Kootenay National Park, and has celebrated the discovery, noting it has revealed significant information about the animal evolution.

Mr. Aria believes the discovery has the power to close gaps in history since it has shown the biggest changes in how animals have evolved since the Cambrian Explosion.

Understanding what Yawunik means, in terms of evolution, is also about understanding what the rules were leading to the formation of our bodies in the first place and what is maybe the first lines of constrictions of animals that we belonged to so from that point of view it is important. Its important and from a paleontological view.

The research appears in a study titled A large new leanchoiliid from the Burgess Shale and the influence of inapplicable states on stem arthropod phylogeny, published in Palaeontology.

Mr. Arias doctoral research is supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada discovery grant to Dr. Caron (a University of Toronto associate professor as well as the curator of the ROM), and University of Toronto fellowships.

Yawunik is the most abundant of the large new species of the Marble Canyon site, and so, as a predator, it held a key position in the food network and had an important impact on the past ecosystem, said Dr. Caron. This animal is therefore important for the study of Marble Canyon, and shows how the site increases the significance of the Burgess Shale in understanding the dawn of animals.