Prof. David Siveter (University of Leicester):
Exceptionally preserved Cambrian fossils of the Chengjiang Lagerstatte, China: the flowering of early animal life.
The discovery in 1984 of the Chengjiang biota, in rocks of early Cambrian age in south China, was one of the most significant palaeontological finds of the 20th century. The fossils are abundant and exquisitely preserved, beautifully showing fine details of the hard parts and soft tissues of invertebrate and vertebrate species about 525 million years old. They are vital keys in helping to unravel the evolution of multicellular organisms during the so-called “Cambrian Explosion”, when such life forms first become common in the fossil record.
The Chengjiang biota provides direct evidence for the roots of animal biodiversity. Over 200 species have been recorded, spread across most of the animal phyla, with arthropods being the most abundant group. The biota presents by far the most complete evidence of an early Cambrian marine community, and an unparalleled record of the early establishment of a complex marine ecosystem, with food webs capped by sophisticated predators. The majority of forms were bottom-dwellers, represented by both infauna and epifauna. The water column was colonized by a variety of floating and swimming animals. Trophic groups present include predators, scavengers, high and low level filterers and, possibly, deposit feeders. Not least, the fossils of Chengjiang bear upon fundamental questions regarding the design of animal body plans and the genetic generation of evolutionary novelty. The scientific importance and outstanding universal value of the Chengjiang fossil site is acknowledged with its recent inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage site.