Palæos: Palaeos Palaeontology
Life Lagerstätten

The Lagerstätten

Unique windows into the past

Ottoia prolifica, showing muscle bands and gut

Ottoia prolifica, showing muscle bands and gut.
Ottoia is a priapulid worm found commonly in the Burgess Shale. Image copyright © 1995 by Andrew MacRae

As far as fossil remains go, almost always, only scraps of bone or shell or a few carbonized leaves are all that remain of past organisms. Too often the soft parts decompose, and even the hard parts degrade.

In some exceptional instances however, usually anaerobic environments, or a sudden mudslide or volcanic eruption, organisms are buried before their bodies can be broken down by bacteria, or consumed by scavengers. Eventually their bodies are carbonized or mineralized, and so even soft-bodied creatures become fossilized. Such environments provide a unique, rare and precious window to the past.

These extraordinary fossil deposits, where organisms are so well preserved that even their soft parts remain as carbon films, are referred to as Lagerstätten, a German word meaning "deposit places". These are geological fossil deposits that are rich with varied, well-preserved fossils, representing a wide variety of life from a particular era. These spectacular fossil deposits represent a window into the past, a kind of "snapshot" of the type of organisms (hard and sometimes soft-bodied) that lived at that particular time and place.

Some LagerstättenLocationPeriod/EpochAge of Deposits
Chengjiang Maotianshan Shales Yunnan Province, ChinaEarly Cambrian535 million years old
Burgess ShaleBritish Columbia, CanadaMiddle Cambrian530 million years old
Kaili Formation Guizhou Province, China Middle Cambrian 513 million years old
House Range Millard County, Utah, USA Middle Cambrian 507 million years old
OrstenSweden Furongian500 million years old
Hunsrück Slates Bundenbach GermanyEarly Devonian370 million years old
Mazon CreekNortheastern Illinois, USALate Carboniferous300 million years old
HolzmadenWürttemberg, GermanyEarly Jurassic190 million years old
Solnhofen Limestone Bavaria, GermanyLate Jurassic150 million years old
Auca MahuevoPatagonia, ArgentinaLate Cretaceous80 million years old
Green River FormationWyoming and Colorado, USAEocene50 million years old
Messel Oil ShaleHessen, GermanyEocene49 million years old
Ashfall Fossil BedsNebraska, United StatesMiocene10 million years old
Rancho La BreaSouthern California, United StatesLate Pleistocene20,000 years old


General: Looking Back Through Lagerstätten - good intro - with links. Lagerstätten - very brief intro - has a useful table listing the main Lagerstätten

Specific (this list is incomplete...) Burgess Shale fossils - by Andrew MacRae - short intro to Burgess Shale and representative fossil organisms - best on the Web; Mazon Creek Fossils - the Illinois State Museum Mazon Creek homepage; The Solnhofen Limestone of Germany; Chengjiang Fossils - I don't like commercial fossil sites, but this one has some nice photos; 'Orsten' Research and Dieter Waloszek's View of Arthropod and Crustacean Phylogeny - includes info on arthropods from this important but less well-known Furongian Lagerstätten

In Association with

The Fossils of the Burgess Shale
- by Derek E. G. Briggs
Solnhofen - a study of Mesozoic Palaeontology
by K. Werner Barthel, S. Conway-Morris, and N. H. Swinburne

page created 19 June 2001; last modified MAK111005
checked ATW050504

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