Remarkable new Cambrian fossils comparable to those of the Burgess shale

Greetings from Amsterdam!

I want to call your attention to a remarkable new fossil find in southern China; a rich group of soft-bodied animals, the “Qingjiang Fauna”, from about 518 million years ago. It’s comparable in importance to the Burgess Shale fauna popularized by Steve Gould’s book Wonderful Life, and to the Chengjiang fauna China from China. They’re of comparable age, too: The Burgess fauna is 508 million years old, and the new Qingjiang finds are 518 mya, the same age as the Chenjiang fauna. Yet the animals of the two later finds, despite being similar in age and marine habitat, are very different (see below).

You might be able to read this new paper if you have the legal Unpayall application, or you can try getting the pdf here. (I’m in the Netherlands and unable to send pdfs.) There’s also a News and Views piece by Allison Daley, “A treasure trove of Cambrian fossils,” that gives a one-page overview.

The paper:

The fossils are soft-bodied, preserved as exquisitely detailed carbon films on gray “claystone”: sediments interspersed between non-fossil-bearing black claystone. The fossil layers are seen as the light gray bands on the right side of the following picture (site of fossil finds in China are on the left).

From paper: Fig. 1 Locality map and early Cambrian stratigraphy of the study area. (A) Lithofacies map of the Yangtze Platform during Cambrian Stage 3, with type localities of the Qingjiang and Chengjiang biotas. (B) Geological map of the study area, showing the distribution of Cambrian outcrops and the location of studied sections with characteristic couplets of background and event claystone beds within the middle member of the Shuijingtuo Formation. (C) Composite stratigraphic column for the study area. (D) Stratigraphic column at the Jinyangkou type locality.

The fossils were formed in a manner similar to those of the Burgess-Shale fauna. They were one-off gravity flows”, or avalanches, of shallow sea sediments that carried animals and algae to a deeper, oxygen-poor location where they were rapidly covered up and then remained undisturbed by waves above. The animals’ body impressions weren’t replaced by minerals, but were turned into carbonized films that show exquisite detail.

And what detail, and what a variety of animals! Sponges, coelenterates (cnidarians), algae, ctenophores, kinorhynchs (“mud dragons”, found only once before as an early fossil), arthropods, brachiopods, priapulid worms, and even a chordate, a member of our own phylum, resembling the remarkable Pikaia fossil found in the Burgess shale.  There are also a number of tiny larvae, and these aren’t easily placed as to the group because they metamorphose into something that looks very different.

Remarkably, 53% of these fossils belong to previously unknown taxa, making this truly the “treasure trove” described by Daley. Look at these fossils! Note the chordate, possibly along the lineage to our own ancestry, in F.

Fig 2 (from paper). Fig. 2 New soft-bodied taxa from the Qingjiang biota. (A) Medusoid cnidarian, showing radially symmetrical body plan, exumbrellar/subumbrellar surfaces (Eu/Su), manubrium (Ma), and tentacles (Te). (B) Polypoid cnidarian, showing oral disc and mouth (Mo), tentacles, column, and pedal disc (Pd). (C) Ctenophore, showing that comb rows and oral-aboral body axis have a biradial symmetry resulting from sheathed tentacles. (D) Branched alga, showing quadripartite thallus. (E) Sponge Leptomitella sp. (F) New chordate. (G) Yunnanozoon sp.

Look at the remarkable arthropod Leanchoilia in (A) to see the detail of these fossils. Every leg and feeler is preserved.

More details of the above; you can see every bristle on the kinorhynch (right). The cnidarian is on the left and the ctenophore’s in the middle.

Curiously, the fauna isn’t all that similar to that of the Chenjiang fauna that was preserved about the same time. This new fauna, for example, has far more cnidarians (jellyfish, anemones, etc.) and far more kinorhynchs than does the Chengjian samples. As the authors note, “Only a small number of species (n = 8) are shared with Chengjiang (materials and methods), and the most abundant taxa, Kunmingella and Maotianshania, as well as the iconic Fuxianhuia, are absent from the Qingjiang assemblage.”

The authors suggest that these differences represent not different artifacts of preservation but a real difference in the nature of the fauna between the two areas. They could be from different depths in the ocean.

Here’s a reconstruction of the fauna from the original paper:

Fig. 4 from paper. Artist’s rendering of the Qingjiang biota showing characteristic early Cambrian taxa from the Lagerstätte.

The potential of this find is immense, but of course not yet tapped. It could help reconstruct the history of life and the potential of various suggested group—like the ctenophores—to be part of our own ancestry.  And of course there’s the new fishlike chordate above.  Daley sums up this potential in her news and views piece:

One of the most remarkable findings reported by Fu et al. is that 53% of the animals and algae in the Qingjiang biota represent previously unknown taxa. When these taxa are described in detail, the Qingjiang biota will help to illuminate the reasons for faunal variation between localities. The Burgess Shale and the Chengjiang biota, for example, have some similarities in the overall type and abundance of animals found at each site, but only 15% of genera are found at both localities.

. . . Fu et al. convincingly demonstrate that the Qingjiang biota represents an assemblage of organisms that was preserved nearly in place, providing a snapshot of a real animal community 518 million years ago. The treasure trove of the Qingjiang biota provides an exciting opportunity to explore how paleoenvironmental conditions influenced ecological structuring and evolutionary drivers during the Cambrian Explosion.

Now, on to the Poezenboot!

h/t: Barry


Fu, D., G. Tong, T. Dai, W. Liu, Y. Yang, Y. Zhang, L. Cui, L. Li, H. Yun, Y. Wu, A. Sun, C. Liu, W. Pei, R. R. Gaines, and X. Zhang. 2019. The Qingjiang biota—A Burgess Shale–type fossil Lagerstätte from the early Cambrian of South China. Science 363:1338-1342.


  1. GBJames
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Way cool.

  2. Mike
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 10:18 am | Permalink


  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 10:26 am | Permalink


  4. Martin
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Very exciting news.

  5. Posted March 25, 2019 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Stunning. The Leanchoilia looks just like something I’d expect to find crawling or swimming in a tide pool near me.

  6. Pete T
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    These are incredible images. Thank you as always for your explanations.

    • Glenda Palmer
      Posted March 25, 2019 at 8:30 pm | Permalink


  7. Robert Ladley
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 11:00 am | Permalink


  8. dtaylor
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    What a treasure trove!

  9. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Hurray for the chordates!

    • Posted March 25, 2019 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Yes. They show some backbone.

      • loren russell
        Posted March 25, 2019 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        actually not, notochord yes, but the backbones come much later.

        • Posted March 25, 2019 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          Okay. I should have said “They need to grow a spine.”

    • Posted March 25, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      The “Yunnanozoon” in Fig. 2 G is also a chordate, so two kinds were found. [fist pump].

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted March 25, 2019 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

        I thought I recognized that name [ ]. This is my 2nd fist pump over the new find.

        I also like the map showing how extensive it may be while it is connected with the different Chengjiang Lagerstätte. Hopefully there will be a sampling of many varying ecologies!

        • Torbjörn Larsson
          Posted March 25, 2019 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

          I forgot: the ctenophore is nice too, maybe we will have some results on them. (There was a putative key fossil reported in my feed the same day from Chengjiang. It was tied to the Burgess shale and on to give a shaky but tree supported long lineage of ctenophores – they agree with the best supported tree methods to have Porifera as sister group to other animals.)

          • loren russell
            Posted March 25, 2019 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

            Yes, the interesting claim in the Current Biology paper is that a diverse series of quite enigmatic sessile creatures, including the so-called tulip-animals of the Burgess are all stem-group Ctenophores [no pun intended, and that ctenophores seem to have paralleled Cnidaria in evolving “medusa” pelagic forms from “polyp” sessile ancestors.

            As more of these Lagerstatte are explored, the relationships become more and more “normal”, or at least looking like evolution as normal. Oddballs like Halucigenia, Nectocaris, and Anomalocaris are more and more relatable to extant groups or stem group there-of. Even the gap between chordates and echinoderms is becoming plausibly filled. Wonderful Life is still a great read, but mostly superceded or just wrong.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 25, 2019 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      A friend went on a blind chordate. Not recommended – he pulled a hagfish.

      • rickflick
        Posted March 25, 2019 at 1:57 pm | Permalink


      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 25, 2019 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

        Anyone who loves animals will enjoy this:
        Very amusing. If you use ear buds or headphones turn your sound down, these birds are cute, but high-pitched noisy buggers!

        • merilee
          Posted March 25, 2019 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

          The cheeps got Lucy’s attn!

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted March 25, 2019 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

            They’re the cat’s pyjamas, especially Stephen in his shaggy, brown fur coat – in need of a battered Leon Russell-style top hat. 1969 ex-psychedelic rocker in his ‘down on the farm’ phase meets some snappy dudes in evening wear.

            • merilee
              Posted March 25, 2019 at 3:36 pm | Permalink


        • rickflick
          Posted March 25, 2019 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

          I have to remind myself that these are birds.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 25, 2019 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        It is funny because I was sitting here trying to figure out a funny pun.

  10. rickflick
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Is there anything God can’t poof into existence?

    • Posted March 25, 2019 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      That has been seriously argued by Creationists. The Cambrian explosion is described as showing such a rapid appearance of different animal phyla that evolutionists are baffled! No known natural cause could’a done it! Therefore you-know-who pulled some strings.

  11. Posted March 25, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I got chills when I saw that Leanchoilia because of all the detail. To think, that’s 518 million years old!

    • darrelle
      Posted March 25, 2019 at 1:48 pm | Permalink


      I’d love to have one for my home. A high quality replica will do.

  12. Posted March 25, 2019 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Astonishing. I hope the “source areas” will be well preserved.

    • loren russell
      Posted March 25, 2019 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

      Not announced until they got state protection. And World Heritage recognition is expected.

      And this seems to be a fairly extensive formation, accessed along streams, but otherwise protected by overburden.

  13. Posted March 25, 2019 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    The findings are not only tremendously informative but also beautiful, and – despite the many new taxa – look quite modern!

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 25, 2019 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      One could go back in time & have no difficulty cooking * a quality paella – just bring a net, herbs & risotto rice & you’re all set.

      * Careful Now with the old cooking. Oxygen levels 165% of today’s figure.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 25, 2019 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        The animals were probably all like pill bugs so not very tasty.

  14. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    How come the Cambrian is so rich in these wonderful Lagerstätte? The Burgess Shale, the Chenjiang fauna, the Qingjiang fauna, the Sirius Passet and many more.
    What should strike us that (AFAIK) no fossils of plathelmintes were ever found. How many other groups that didn’t survive were lost?

    • loren russell
      Posted March 25, 2019 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

      The best explanation is that in the Cambrian, the scavengers hadn’t got their act together, at least in anoxic conditions. Such formations become rarer through time, but still occurred, eg, at Solnhofen. The discovers of the Qingjiang fossils first spotted the formation by its narrow banding, with the Lagerstatte fossils in the anoxic black shale.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted March 26, 2019 at 2:27 am | Permalink

        Yes, thank you loren, that does sound plausible.
        Remarkable, nay stunning, to have such a plethora of beautiful fossils from the earliest Phanerozoic.

  15. wendell read
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Here is a link to the paper:

  16. CAS
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Neat fossils!

  17. Heather Hastie
    Posted March 25, 2019 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Truly wonderful!

  18. dd
    Posted March 26, 2019 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    It’s extraordinary that radiometric dating has become that precise….508 v 518 million years.

    Now, do any of you have any books or articles for a science idiot, as I call myself, to read on radiometric dating that are semi-approachable in difficulty? Recommendations, please.

    Also, isn’t the earliest life about 1.3 billion years old…that being the age of earliest stromatolites?

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 26, 2019 at 2:18 am | Permalink

      Those earliest stromatolites were dated at more than 3 billion years old (3.5 billion, IIRC).

    • Richard Bond
      Posted March 26, 2019 at 4:44 am | Permalink

      G Brent Dalrymple is an acknowledged expert in the field of radiometric dating. His The Age of the Earth is a classic reference book but not exactly light reading. Although not that difficult for anyone with some knowledge of fairly elementary physics and mathematics, its nearly 500 pages are a bit overpowering. He later wrote an abridged and simplified 200-page version called Ancient Earth, Ancient Skies, which covers plenty of ground for someone new to the subject.

    • rickflick
      Posted March 26, 2019 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      No expert here, but just glancing at Wikipedia’s entry under “radiometric dating” looks complete enough for a solid Cliff’s Notes version. Probably a good place to start.

  19. Lurker111
    Posted March 26, 2019 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    As complex as these animals are already, life had to have been around for at least 200 My already. Do we have a current estimate for the emergence of the first ancestral cell or bacterium?

    • Lurker111
      Posted March 26, 2019 at 8:55 am | Permalink

      Reading back, I noted the stromatolite dating. Amazing.

      BTW, has anyone ever tried to answer the question, “Did the periodic extinctions help or hinder evolution?”

    • Lurker111
      Posted March 26, 2019 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      And one last comment: God must be a shrimp. Looks like these guys, and this body plan, has been around FOREVER.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 26, 2019 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      The very earliest fossil traces will have been subsumed into Earth’s mantle, but there is an exchange of rock material between the inner planets from meteorite impacts launching materials into space. If we look on the Moon we should find boulders of Earth rock littering the place – much older than anything now on the Earth’s surface. We should find ancient Martian rocks there too!

      I think a lunar base in one of the craters at the lunar poles will turn up a lot of interesting debris for us nerds. A far better endeavour than the ridiculous & damaging proposed Mars colony.

      • Lurker111
        Posted March 26, 2019 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        B-b-but the Mars Colony would be such a wonderful place for all the rabid Republicans!

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 27, 2019 at 1:24 am | Permalink

      My knowledge might be a bit dated (no pun): – the first traces, carbon signatures in Greenland rock are about 3.9 billion y old,
      – those stromatolites (bacterial life) 3.5 billion,
      – biomarkers of cyanobacteria and eukaryotes 2.7 billion,
      – the first eukaryotic fossils nearly 2.2 billion,
      – the first fossil eukaryotes with clear mitochondria just over 2 billion and
      – the first multicellular fossil algae 1.85 billion years old.
      Nick Lane published his book “Oxygen” in 2002, so some dates may have become earlier in the mean time.

  20. Posted March 26, 2019 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I really recommend Dalrymple’s first book (I haven’t read the second). It is nifty because it goes through how people *changed their minds* on the topic. I asked a creationist once what he thought changed people’s minds, and he had not thought of the question that way (he’s too polite a guy to simply “the devil” answer).

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