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Ancient mystery solved

Geologists at the University of Leicester have solved a puzzle found in rocks half a billion years old.

Some of the most important fossil beds in the world are the Burgess Shales in the Canadian Rockies. Once an ancient sea bed, they were formed shortly after life suddenly became more complex and diverse – the so-called Cambrian explosion – and are of immense scientific interest.

Normally, only hard parts of ancient animals became fossilised; the bones, teeth or shells. Soft parts were rarely preserved: many plants and invertebrate animals evolved, lived for millions of years and became extinct, but left no trace in the fossil record.

The Burgess Shales preserved soft tissue in exquisite detail, and the question of how this came to happen has troubled scientists since the discovery of the fossils in 1909.

Now, painstaking work by Sarah Gabbott and Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester, with Desmond Collins of the Royal Ontario Museum, has provided an answer. The research has been published in the Journal of the Geological Society.

They analysed the shales millimetre by millimetre, and found that unlike most rocks of this type, they weren’t slowly deposited, mud flake by mud flake. Instead, a thick slurry powered down a steep slope and instantly buried the animals to a depth where normal decay couldn’t occur.

Dr Gabbott said, “Not a nice way to go, perhaps, but a swift one- and one that guaranteed immortality (of a sort) for these strange creatures.”

2008 is the United Nations International Year of Planet Earth.
This research has been published in the Journal of the Geological Society (2008, vol.165, pp. 307-318)
For more information please contact Dr Sarah Gabbott
Tel: 0116 2523636

Ather Mirza
Press and Corporate Communications
Division of Marketing and Communications
University of Leicester
University Road
tel: 0116 252 3335

A member of the 1994 Group of universities that share a commitment to research excellence, high quality teaching and an outstanding student experience.
Ranked top for student satisfaction in England (jointly with Oxford) among mainstream universities (average score of 4.4 out of 5 for overall satisfaction)
Ranked as a Top 20 university by The Sunday Times University Guide, The Guardian University Guide and the UK Good University Guide

One of just 23 UK universities to feature in world’s top 200- Shanghai Jiao Tong International Index, 2005-07.

Ranked in top 200 world universities by the THES (Times Higher Education Supplement)

Short listed University of the Year in 2007 by The Sunday Times and Short listed Higher Education Institution of the Year - THES awards 2005 and 2006
Ranked top 10 in England for research impact by The Guardian
Students’ Union of the Year award 2005, short listed 2006 and 2007
Founded in 1921, the University of Leicester has 19,000 students from 136 countries. Teaching in 18 subject areas has been graded Excellent by the Quality Assurance Agency- including 14 successive scores - a consistent run of success matched by just one other UK University. Leicester is world renowned for the invention of DNA Fingerprinting by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys and houses Europe's biggest academic Space Research Centre. 90% of staff are actively engaged in high quality research and 13 subject areas have been awarded the highest rating of 5* and 5 for research quality, demonstrating excellence at an international level. The University's research grant income places it among the top 20 UK research universities. The University employs over 3,000 people, has an annual turnover of £184m, covers an estate of 94 hectares and is engaged in a £300m investment programme- among the biggest of any UK university.

Ather Mirza | University of Leicester
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