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Significant sites in mountain parks get global recognition

“The Burgess Shale allows scientists to really be able to create detailed reconstructions of what these animals looked like, and so that allows us to understand what those Middle Cambrian systems looked like and how they operated and how they functioned.”
Amphipod Stygobromus Canadensis inside Castleguard Cave in February, 2022. SUBMITTED PHOTO

BANFF –  Special places in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks are being recognized globally for the crucial insight they provide into the natural and geological world from thousands to millions of years ago.

Banff’s Castleguard Cave – Canada’s longest known cave system – has become one of the first sites in Alberta to be recognized as an internationally significant Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), largely because of a transparent creature found nowhere else in the world that looks a bit like a minuscule shrimp.

In neighbouring Yoho and Kootenay national parks, the Burgess Shale, which provides a crucial record of one the earliest marine ecosystems, has been named in the first top 100 list of geological heritage sites in the world.

Long before dinosaurs roamed the planet, a shallow sea covered what is now Yoho and Kootenay national parks 508 million years ago, and the fossils that are found there now are famous for how well-preserved they are, showing intricate details such as eyeballs, brains and more.

Todd Keith, a Parks Canada planner for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay who oversees the site, said the Burgess Shale is one of the most important and unique fossil sites in the world, preserving diverse and mainly soft-bodied organisms from the Middle Cambrian period in “exquisite form.”

“For a fossil site to preserve the soft tissues of animals is quite rare in the fossil record,” said Keith, who is also a geologist.

“The Burgess Shale allows scientists to really be able to create detailed reconstructions of what these animals looked like, and so that allows us to understand what those Middle Cambrian systems looked like and how they operated and how they functioned.”

Driven by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), this new international designation of the first top 100 geological sites also includes five other Canadian sites.

The 100 sites were selected from 181 applications from 56 countries and include different types of sites and geological interests. They include 34 locations in the Americas, 28 in Europe, 15 in Africa, and 23 in Asia-Pacific/Middle East. Additional geological heritage sites are expected to be identified in future.

The other Canadian sites named on the list include Mistaken Point, Newfoundland and Labrador – the world’s best example of fossils which illustrate a critical time in the history with the first appearance of large, biologically complex organisms; Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland and Labrador – one of the world’s best exposures of the Moho, the boundary between crust and mantle rocks, preserved at the Earth’s surface in a glacial landscape; Joggins Fossil Cliffs, Nova Scotia – the world’s best and most complete known fossil record of ‘Coal Age’ tropical forests and Earth’s earliest known reptiles; Eo-Archean Nuvvuagittuk Greenstone Belt, Quebec – featuring some of the oldest rocks on Earth and potential traces of early life; and Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park, which has the greatest concentration of Late Cretaceous dinosaur fossils yet found on Earth yielding remains of 44 species of dinosaurs.

Keith said the Burgess Shale is also considered important because of its place in geological time.

“That’s shortly after the event known as the Cambrian explosion, which marks the first appearance of recognizable animal life in the fossil record,” he said.

“That provides a really important window for scientists to look at what the ecosystem looked like when life first started to rapidly diversify and flourish.”

What also makes the Burgess Shale so unique, said Keith, is that no other so-called Burgess Shale-type sites in the world exists with the same abundance of fossils, diversity of species and range of sites within a small area.

He said the Burgess Shale extends from the earlier discoveries in Yoho National Park and now into Kootenay National Park where most of the research has been undertaken over the past decade-and-a-half.

“There’s been a number of new fossil sites identified there and so there continues to be new discoveries out of the work, including new species, new assemblages of organisms that are being identified,” he said.

“That’s allowing a more complete picture of what those marine ecosystems must have looked like 508 million years ago.”

Castleguard Cave globally significant

Entirely blind, the freshwater amphipod crustacean that looks like a shrimp, has been very influential in driving the process of designating the entire 21-kilometre long Castleguard Cave system as a KBA.

“This species is very rare,” said Anne Forshner, a Parks Canada wildlife ecologist in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks who studies species at risk. “It is only found in Castleguard Cave and nowhere else on the planet.”

Scientists still don’t know a great deal about this particular creature, known as the Castleguard Cave amphipod, other than it has somehow survived for millennia in this cold, nutrient-poor and frequently flooded environment. Its uniqueness made this site a prime candidate for KBA status – and that’s because this creature occurs nowhere else in the world.   

It is not, however, just the rarity of this species that is drawing conservation interest, but also what it tells about life in an underground chamber that is believed to have remained intact and ice free for more than 700,000 years.

The Wildlife Conservation Society worked with Parks Canada to develop the KBA proposal for the Castleguard Cave, which was formed by meltwaters from the Columbia Icefield glaciers above and provides a window into life before the last ice age.   

Forshner said she feels the KBA designation of this unique environment gives Parks Canada the opportunity to shine a spotlight on this special cave and the unique species found within.

She said the freshwater amphipod was identified back in 1980 by John Holsinger, a well-known American cave biologist.

“It’s not something we know much about… the environment is so remote and people visit so infrequently,” she said.

“This designation highlighted to me how much we did not know.”

Part of Castleguard Cave extends underneath the glaciers that form the Columbia Icefield, and Forshner said while there’s much research into glaciers, cave ecology in this part of North America is poorly understood.

“The cave itself is ancient, and this designation reminded me that, extraordinarily, the inside of that cave has remained largely intact and stable for the past 700,000 years,” she said. “This species somehow has survived the last ice age.”

Castleguard Cave is located in a special preservation zone in Banff National Park, which is the highest level of protection offered in national parks, and cave exploration is illegal without a special permit. The cave system is in a restricted area 20 km from the nearest road and can only be explored in winter.

The KBA program – which is a scientifically rigorous process – works with governments, local conservation organizations, citizen scientists, and Indigenous Nations to identify the places that are most critical to conserve to avoid losing a species or ecosystem from Canada or the world.

According to KBA Canada, these designations are an excellent way of identifying places in protected and unprotected areas where conservation and stewardship efforts can have a large impact on halting and reversing the loss of nature.

“Identification of the Castleguard Cave system as a KBA, for example, can help ensure that greater attention is paid to a unique underworld that may see more flooding from glacial meltwaters due to climate change or other changes,” stated the KBA news release.

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