Two curators from the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM’s) Palaeontology Department have published articles in the October issue of Geology, one of the world’s leading journals of scientific research. Dr. Peter von Bitter, Senior Curator of Palaeobiology in the ROM’s Natural History Department and an international team from the United Kingdom and Canada contributed the article, Eramosa Lagerstätte-Exceptionally preserved soft-bodied biotas with shallow-marine shelly and bioturbating organisms (Silurian, Ontario, Canada). The article describes fossilized vertebrates, invertebrates and plants from rare Ontario sedimentary deposits that preserve the soft-body parts of these organisms. The magazine also features an article co-authored by David Rudkin, Curator of Palaeobiology, titled Exceptionally preserved Late Ordovician biotas from Manitoba, Canada, which outlines the significance of recently discovered fossils in Manitoba. The fossils display rare and exceptional remains, which provide unique anatomical, evolutionary, and ecological insights on the history of life.
“The fossils of the Bruce Peninsula are the best preserved fossils in Ontario, and are among the best in the world, a sort of home-grown, mini Burgess Shale”, commented Dr. von Bitter. “They provide a unique glimpse into the diverse life that lived in the tropical, shallow marine seas of 425 million years ago, when Ontario was not only much sunnier, but was also much closer to the Equator than it is today.”
Most soft-body tissues, such as skin, muscle, and internal organs, were usually consumed or decayed long before they could be preserved and are rarely fossilized, biasing the fossil record. The vast majority of fossils consist of only the mineralized and chemically stable parts of ancient organisms – bones, teeth, or shells of animals, and the tough, woody stems of plants. Thus, the fossil record of ancient animals that lacked any hard-mineralized body parts is extremely poor.
The Bruce Peninsula contains remarkable fossil treasures below its deceptively flat surface, which are being excavated with the permission and interest of local quarry and landowners. The fossil fish found here are the oldest complex organisms known from Ontario. The unique deposits of the Bruce Peninsula described by Dr. von Bitter and his colleagues provide a rare insight into soft-bodied organisms within the thriving ecosystems of 425 million years ago, and also test the claim that such unusual fossils require unusual conditions to be preserved. The soft-bodied organisms of the Bruce Peninsula died and were preserved with more commonly found ‘shelly’ fossils, and with tracks and trails, called trace fossils. The preservation of soft body parts on the Bruce Peninsula is unlikely to have required atypical marine environments, a claim made for similar deposits elsewhere in North America.
David Rudkin and palaeontologists from the Manitoba Museum (Winnipeg), and the Geological Survey of Canada (Calgary) reported on exceptionally preserved remains of sea life in rocks representing ancient shoreline deposits from about 445 million years ago. The fossils, including soft-bodied jellyfish and the oldest known horseshoe crabs, fill a significant gap in our knowledge of life near the end of the Ordovician Period (490 to 400 million years ago). These unique and rare remains provide exceptional insight into the structure of soft-bodied species and their environment.
Dr. Peter von Bitter joined the ROM’s then Invertebrate Palaeontology Department as a Curatorial Assistant in 1970, after completing his B.A. and M.A. in Geology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, and his PhD in Geology and Palaeontology at Philipps University (Germany) and the University of Kansas (USA). He has taught in the University of Toronto’s Geology Department for over thirty years, and was recently appointed Professor Emeritus in that department.
David Rudkin is Assistant Curator in the Department of Natural History (Palaeobiology) at the Royal Ontario Museum, and holds an appointment to the Department of Geology, University of Toronto, as a Lecturer in palaeontology. Dr. Rudkin joined the former Department of Invertebrate Palaeontology at the ROM in 1975 after graduating from the University of Toronto (Geology and Biology), and began working on fossils from the Burgess Shale in British Columbia.