"Once we started to break fresh rock, we realized we had discovered something incredibly special," Robert Gaines, co-author of a new study announcing the discovery told Scientific American. "It was an extraordinary moment."
Details of the findings were published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.
Previously, the most compelling snapshot of the Cambrian explosion - -a period of time some 545 million years ago when most animal phylums first appeared in the geological record -- was Burgess Shale fossil quarry, a UNESCO World Heritage site first discovered in 1909 in what is now British Columbia's Yoho National Park. Scientists have long been hoping to find new evidence of the Cambrian explosion so they might better understand how and why such an rapid diversification of life happened.
What evidence there is has been provided by the Burgess Shale, a 505-million-year-old layer of rock that, due to its soft composition of mud and clay, has proven particularly effective at preserving ancient animals.
Other Burgess Shale discoveries have been made since 1909, but none as fossil rich as the original. Scientists think this latest find could rival the Yoho site.
The 1909 dig turned up some 200 animal species. At the newest Burgess Shale dig site, located just 26 miles southeast of the UNESCO site, the research team has collected more than 3,000 fossils representing 55 species -- 15 of them never before seen by scientists.
“This is a new mother lode,” Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, lead author of the study and an invertebrate paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, told The Globe and Mail.
All of the species uncovered are underwater creatures, distant ancestors of today’s insects and crustaceans.
"I think the most profound implication is that the Burgess Shale can't just be the only one that there is," Gaines told Scientific American. "There's a lot more out there in the Canadian Rockies and other places."