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Lesson : Fossil Evidence for Diversity of Species


Students will examine some of the fossil record to determine the changes in number and types of species that have existed on Earth.


As you work through this lesson, please record answers to the questions posed to you in pink on a blank sheet of paper or you can use this Google Doc link to record your answers electronically (you will need to login to your Dublin Google Drive account) or you can find a Word file under, "Additional Resources" if you prefer to print a copy and handwrite the answers.  

Eventually, you will need to get some materials from your teacher for a lab activity.  

You will be turning in your answers to the pink questions along with the completed lab handout.

Starter: How does a fossil form?

Answer: It is a very rare and delicate process...  Watch this video clip to help you understand.  As you watch, please answer the first question:

1. How does a fossil form?

Video: Becoming a Fossil


Investigating the Burgess Shale

The Burgess Shale fossils have been called the world’s most significant fossil discovery, mainly because of their great age, their diversity and the incredible detail of their preservation. What makes them different from other fossil sites is that a series of geological factors resulted in these soft-bodied animals (mostly arthropods) having not only the hard parts of their bodies – bones, shells, teeth – but also the muscles, gills, digestive systems and other soft body parts preserved allowing scientists an unprecedented opportunity to observe not only these details but also the way the creatures lived and interacted (taken from  

Let's explore why the Burgess Shale is such a significant fossil find!  Click here to watch Bill Nye explain how it made the list of the 100 greatest discoveries in science. 

Now, how about you see for yourself.  Check out some of the actual fossils that were found in the Burgess Shale using this website.  As you explore, answer some questions about the Burgess Shale:

2.  a. Look at some of organisms from the group, "A-Species assigned to commonly recognized groups" that have modern-day, living relatives.  Identify the modern-day relative to each one: 

- Arthropod - Leanchoillia

- Sponge - Choia

- Priapulid worm - Ottoia

- Arthropod - Canadaspis

2.  b.  Pick another organism from this group that looks like a modern-day animal you are familiar with.  Name the fossil found from the Burgess Shale (the name printed on the website) and identify the modern-day relative you think most resembles it.

3. Look at the organisms in the group, "B-Other "recognized" species with no currently living examples" and explain what adaptations you see in these four that may have helped them to survive.

4. Observe the fossils in the group, "C-Unassigned forms with no clear signs of ancestral linkage to any surviving group" and identify the characteristics of these organsisms that are not found in any living creatures.

5. Notice the organisms that are identified as arthropods.  What characteristics do they all have in common?  How do they relates to the arthropods we have already studied?

6. What kind of environment did these organisms live in before they became fossils?  What evidence do you use to make such a conclusion? 

7. These specimen were found in the Canadian Rocky Mountains (western Canada).  How has this area changed from the time of these organisms (your answer to #6) to now (very tall mountains)?  What might be responsible for these changes?  Hint: Think back to what we learned this year about what causes major changes to the surface of the Earth.


Changes to the Whale

Watch the video clip, "How do we know evolution happens?"  As you watch, think about how the discoveries highlighted in this clip address the question:

8. Describe the changes to the types of whales that have existed on Earth in the past.

Get the lab materials from your teacher for "Whales in the Making" to explore more about how whales have changed over time.  You will get a set of cards that show major fossil finds of whale ancestors (note: a PDF of these cards can be found under, "Additional Resources").  These cards show the internal bone structure of the organism, a close up of its skull and a drawing of what scientists think the organism may have looked like when it lived.

8. Arrange the cards in what you think is a logical order for the whales to have changed over time.  Use your background knowledge from the video clip to help.

9.  Open this PDF that describes the discovery of each fossilized whale.  If needed, rearrange the images on the cards according to the chronological order in which the whales actually lived.  There is a timeline you can use to help (if needed).

10.  You should also have a copy of the "Whales in the Making" chart from your teacher (note: a PDF of this chart can be found under, "Additional Resources").  Complete the chart based on observations you make about the whale fossils and clues given to you from the narrative.

11.  When you are finished, check your chart here.

12.  Answer the questions on the back of your chart, based on your experience with the whale fossils (note: a copy of these questions can be found under, "Additional Resources").  You may even want to go back and watch the video again now that you have had some experiences with whale fossils to help you answer the questions.