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Our tour of Arkansas fossils and geology should begin, like any tour, at the beginning. The oldest rocks found in Arkansas in which fossils may be found were formed in the Cambrian Period, the earliest part of the Paleozoic Era. When the Paleozoic Era was first named, it began with the rocks containing the oldest known fossils. We now know of fossils far older than that. Nevertheless, it marks a good starting point for rocks in which fossils become commonly found and are easily recognizable. So while Arkansas does not have the earliest fossils, we do have fossils dating back through most of the history of life once hard parts developed.
The Cambrian Period started about 540 million years ago and lasted until 485 million years ago. During that time, while the land was mostly barren, the seas were full of life. Much of what people know about the Cambrian comes from the Burgess Shale in Canada, possibly the best known example of a lagerstätten, a fossil site rich in either fossil diversity or exceptional preservation, of which the Burgess Shale has both. From the Burgess Shale and other localities, we know that the Cambrian saw the rise of most of the major groups of animals we see today. In addition to the comb jellies, sponges, algae and anemones, brachiopods and bristle worms, velvet worms and crinoids; the Cambrian also arthropods of several kinds, most in particular the trilobites, the first chordates like Pikaia, and bizarre creatures like Anomalocaris and Hallucigenia.
The rise of such a diversity of animal life during the Cambrian has been termed the Cambrian Explosion, leading some people to assume it appeared suddenly and without precedent. In truth, the Cambrian “explosion” took tens of millions of years and was preceded by a diverse fauna known as the Ediacaran or Vendian fauna, which first appeared almost 100 million years earlier. The end of the “Garden of Ediacara” and the rise of the Cambrian fauna is thought to have come about due to the evolution of the first predators, necessitating hard shells for defense and hard claws and teeth to kill prey.
The only place in Arkansas to find Cambrian rocks is in the Collier Shale, which was formed in the Cambrian through the Lower Ordovician.
Outcrops for the Collier Shale are limited to a small set of ridges in the Ouachita Mountains, within Montgomery County between Caddo Gap and Mt. Ida, just to the east of state Highway 27. However, most of this area is part of the Ouachita National forest and is ILLEGAL TO COLLECT anything without a permit.
The Collier Shale is a large unit at least 1000 feet thick formed mostly of gray to black clay shale that was intensely crumpled during the formation of the Ouachitas. Interspersed within the shale are thin layers of black chert, which together indicate a deep water environment. However, there are also thin layers of dark gray to black limestone, which contain pebbles of chert, limestone, quartz, and even sandstone. It is thought that these layers initially formed in shallower water on the continental shelf before some event caused them to slide off the continental slope into the abyss.
The Collier Shale is not known for abundant fossils, but it does have some. In the Cambrian section of the formation, several genera of trilobites have been found, chiefly of the groups known as Asaphida and Ptychopariida. For more information on trilobites and the different types, try the Fossilmuseum.net and Trilobites.info websites. The trilobite genera found in the Collier Shale have been from what is known as the Elvinia and Taenicephalus Zones. These are specific groups of trilobite genera that, when found together, allow the age of the rocks to be determined using correlative dating. These groups, or assemblages, of genera have been found in other parts of the world in rocks that have been able to be dated using rigorous and independent methods, such as radiometric dating. We know that rocks elsewhere in the world containing these fossils are roughly between 490 and 500 million years old, indicating the rocks forming this part of the Collier Shale are the same age. This conclusion is supported by fossils in the rock units overlying this part of the Collier matching those found in rock units over similar rock units of known age elsewhere. The trilobites in the Collier are found in the lower part of the formation. The upper part of the Collier contains fossils known as conodonts, but they are Ordovician in age and will be discussed later.
Trilobite images from www.fossilmuseum.net and www.trilobites.info. The Cambrian painting by Miller can be found at http://paleobiology.si.edu/burgess/cambrianWorld.html, along with more Cambrian information. The map of the Collier Shale can be found at www.geology.ar.gov and the continental shelf image is from kids.britannica.com.
Hart, W. D., J. H. Stitt, S. R. Hohensee, and R. L. Ethington. 1987. Geological implications of Late Cambrian trilobites from the Collier Shale, Jessieville area, Arkansas. Geology 15:447–450.
Hohensee, S. R.; Stitt, J. H. 1989. Redeposited Elvinia zone Upper Cambrian trilobites from the Collier Shale, Ouachita Mountains, west-central Arkansas. Journal of Paleontology 63(6): 857-879
Loch, J.D. and J.F. Taylor. 2004. New trilobite taxa from Upper Cambrian microbial reefs in the central Appalachians. Journal of Paleontology 78(3):591-602. Online publication date: 1-May-2004.
UPDATE: I thought I would add a little more information about the “Cambrian Explosion,” or as Dr. Donald Prothero calls it, the “Cambrian slow fuse.” The reason for this is because of how long it really took for multicellular life to develop. We have evidence for the earliest life going back over 3.5 billion years, but the earliest agreed upon multicellular life appeared in the Ediacaran fauna (Grypania is a possible multicellular organism dating back 2.1 billion years, but may not be a true multicellular organism and really a colonial organism). The diagram to the right (click to enlarge) is from Prothero’s book, Evolution: What the fossils Say and Why it Matters, and reproduced on a review he wrote of another book. In the diagram, he shows the Ediacaran as starting about 600 million years ago, but now most researchers peg that to about 635 million years ago, so the slow fuse is actually even longer than he shows. The Collier Shale in Arkansas is in the late Cambrian, so as you can see, several other groups are already present. The fact that we have thus far only found trilobites means that we may yet find more diverse types of fossils, so keep looking (and if you find anything, let us know)!