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The Dawn of Life

The Royal Ontario Museum’s exhibit will travel four billion years back in time

The Dawn of Life

Last week, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) finalized plans to build The Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life. As its name suggests, the Dawn of Life will feature fossils from the start of life about four billion years ago until the appearance of dinosaurs over 200 million years ago.

Professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Department of Earth Sciences Jean-Bernard Caron and his research team travelled to the Burgess Shale and collected some of the fossils that will become a focus of Dawn of Life.

“Without the close relationship we have with U of T, this would not be possible,” said Caron, who is also the Richard M. Ivey Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the ROM. “Without students, my collection would be a pile of rocks.”’

Showcasing Canada’s ancient past

The Cambrian Explosion occured 542 million years ago. This period marked the rapid appearance of diversified animals and mineralized fossils.

The Burgess Shale in British Columbia contains a myriad of fossils from the Cambrian period. In particular, the Burgess Shale is known for its intricate preservation of soft-bodied animals. Many of the fossils from this UNESCO World Heritage site provide a wealth of information that cannot be found anywhere else.

Caron initiated the Burgess Shale projects after joining the ROM in 2006, providing insight into Canada’s ancient past.

In addition to the Burgess Shale, fossils from Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, Parc national de Miguasha and Anticosti island in Québec, and Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia will also be on display.

Featured fossils

The fossils in this exhibit are not only relics of the past, but are also representative of Canada’s rich archaeological history.

In 1886, Canadian geologist Richard G. McConnell collected fossils from the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds in the Canadian Rockies. McConnell ended up with a collection of trilobites, one of the earliest arthropods. But he also recovered fossils that didn’t belong to trilobites. These fossils had unusual appendages and created confusion among researchers who followed in McConnell’s tracks.

In 1892, Joseph Whiteaves described the specimen as a shrimp. In 1911, Charles Walcott found a complete version of the specimen and described it as a sea cucumber. Other researchers throughout the twentieth century described the specimen as a sponge or jellyfish.

It wasn’t until 1985 that researchers Harry Whittington and Derek Briggs described two of the species in full, one of which is Anomalocaris canadensis, a basal arthropod related to spiders and shrimp.

Anomalocaridids were large predators that dominated the Cambrian seas roughly 535 million years ago.

In the 1990s, researchers from the ROM collected several, complete Anomalocaridids specimens. And in 1996, researcher Desmond Collins described Anomalocaris canadensis in detail.

This specimen is one of many treasures that will be on display in Dawn of Life.


Visitors will also be able to view banded iron formation — from the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt in northern Québec — which contains the earliest evidence of life on earth.


At the preview last week, visitors had the chance to see Acutiramus macrophthalmus in person. The fossil is the world’s largest specimen of its kind. It’s not evident from its large size, but the 420-million-year-old specimen is a distant relative to horseshoe crabs.


A 370-million-year-old Eusthenopteron fish and a Xenasaphus devexus trilobite are examples of some of the other fossils that will be featured.




Construction of the Dawn of Life is slated to begin in 2019 and the ROM hopes to open the exhibit in 2021. Meanwhile, a preview of the gallery is located on the second-floor rotunda.

Science Literacy Week returns for its fifth consecutive year

This year’s theme is “A Space Odyssey”

Science Literacy Week returns for its fifth consecutive year

Science Literacy Week is returning this year for its fifth anniversary and will take place from Monday, September 17 to Sunday, September 23. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Council has partnered with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to kick off this year’s celebration of science and to highlight space exploration. CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques and his colleagues are set to launch on the International Space Station this December.

“More than anything this year I want people to see Science Literacy Week as a chance to get out and experience science in a new light,” wrote Science Literacy Week Founder and U of T alum Jesse Hildebrand. “Not as lectures or fact and figures to be memorized, but as an entrancing way of looking at the world.”

Platforms such as Science Literacy Week provide the opportunity for Canadians, experts and non-experts alike, to delve into science through a variety of creative outlets. The nationwide celebration appeals to a wide variety of subject interests within science, suitable for all ages.

Science Literacy Week was founded by Hildebrand with the goal of uniting science enthusiasts from across Canada to spread awareness about scientific breakthroughs, history, and literature through organized events.

Last year, there were over 800 events that occurred in 100 cities across Canada. Although this year will focus on astronomical activities, there will be hundreds of other events being offered that will make you feel grounded.

From making slime, understanding robotics, learning how to code, public talks, and science themed scavenger hunts, Science Literacy Week has got it all.

“Whether it’s peering into a microscope to see a thousand little creatures, hearing a talk that explains things in a way that finally makes sense or staring at the stars and marvelling at the immensity of the Cosmos, Science Literacy Week has something to inspire absolutely everyone with the magic and wonder of science,” wrote Hildebrand.

Here are some of this year’s notable events around U of T:

Makerspace Display

Come to the UTSC Library to learn about the technologies used to make objects and make your own space-themed button.

Date: Monday, September 17

Time: 10:00 am to 12:00 pm

Location: UTSC Library, 1265 Military Trail

Admission: Free

Explore the Universe in the ROM’s Travelling Planetarium

Staff from the Royal Ontario Museum will be at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Library to display a planetarium in 30-minute sessions.

Date: Monday, September 17

Time: 12:00–5:00 pm

Location: OISE Library, 252 Bloor Street West

Admission: Free

Interactive Demos with the J. Tuzo Wilson Club

The J. Tuzo Wilson Geology Club will be demonstrating minerals under the microscope, how meteorites are tested, and more.

Date: Monday, September 17 to Friday, September 21

Time: 1:00–3:00 pm

Location: UTM Library, 1867 Inner Circle Road

Admission: Free

Interactive Geologic Time with Fossil Samples

UTM PhD student Katie Maloney will give insight into a geologist’s work and display some of UTM’s fossil collection. Maloney will also share how fossils are preserved and analyzed.

Date: Wednesday, September 19

Time: 12:00–1:00 pm

Location: Davis Building, 1867 Inner Circle Road, Room 2062

Admission: Free

From Euclid to Einstein: Milestones in the History of Science

This event is a self-guided tour of over 30 iconic scientific works of literature that have shaped the way science has evolved over the centuries. Works will include a Latin manuscript of Euclid’s Elements, dating back to the fourteenth century, and Copernicus’ work on planetary motion from the sixteenth century.

Date: Thursday, September 20

Time: 4:00–7:00 pm

Location: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, 120 St. George Street

Admission: Free