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Burgess Shale: Evolution’s Big Bang

August 30, 2002–December 1, 2002

Burgess Shale: Evolution’s Big Bang, an exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), uses fossils, lifelike models, scientific illustrations, and interactives to highlight events of this evolutionary upsurge.

More than 500 million years ago, Anomalocaris—a gigantic beast for its time at 3 feet long—roamed the seas, preying on smaller creatures. Pikaia, a slightly flattened worm, harbored a special trait: it was a primitive chordate and the earliest known ancestor of the phylum that included mammals. These fascinating creatures, as well as many others, were discovered within the Burgess Shale, a fossil deposit in the Canadian Rockies. The fossils of the Burgess Shale provide researchers with the most complete record of life at the time of the so-called “Cambrian Explosion” a biological “big bang,” which began 600 million years ago.

“Burgess Shale” showcases the astonishing diversity of creatures discovered within the landscape. Ranked as one of the twentieth century’s most significant paleontological discoveries, the Burgess Shale was discovered in 1909 by Charles Walcott, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

The exhibition explores current theories about the Cambrian Explosion (543 million–490 million years ago)—a burst of evolutionary activity that generated a sudden increase in the complexity and variety of animal life—and presents highlights from the story of early life on Earth. Detailed descriptions and illustrations of the extraordinary creatures found in the Burgess Shale combine with the tales and methods of the paleontologists who have studied these fossils to engage the audience in an exciting and ever-changing adventure.

Visitors will learn how many of the fossil faunas found in the Burgess shale are among the earliest representations of virtually all modern, multi-cellular animals. Others appear unrelated to any living forms and their later disappearance presents an intriguing mystery to paleontologists.

After its viewing in Knoxville, the exhibition will continue on a four-year tour to a total of fifteen institutions.


Organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).

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