Pomona professor discovers 500-million-year-old fossil site in China

A man wearing a hat, Professor Robert Gaines, sits on rocks in a riverbed.
Pomona College professor Robert Gaines is part of the team of scientists that made the historic discovery of a 500-million-year-old fossil site in China. (Courtesy: Robert Gaines)

A Pomona College geology professor recently helped uncover a 518-million-year-old fossil site, opening up a new area to research Cambrian fossils and how this site differs from other deposits of similar age.Science Magazine characterized the finding as one of the most significant in modern history, because the fossils are in nearly perfect condition and represent a wide diversity of species, some of which were not previously known to scientists, according to a Pomona press release.

The professor, Robert Gaines, is part of the research team in Qingjiang, China, that uncovered the site and has been working at Pomona since 2003, according to Pomona’s website.

His research on Cambrian fossils has focused on the “earliest animal communities and their relationships to their environment,” Gaines told TSL.

“This finding enriches our view of the early animal world and offers us really remarkable views of the simplest animals,” Gaines said in the press release. He said he began working in Qingjiang in 2016, joining a team of Chinese researchers from Northwest University who had been working in the area for about 20 years.

“We’re scratching the surface of this new area,” Gaines told TSL.

A colleague approached Gaines at a conference in Australia to invite him to work on the site following the initial findings, according to the press release. Gaines said he was “in disbelief at the magnitude” of the discovery when the colleague showed him a fossil sample from the site.

Five people sit in a riverbed.
Professor Robert Gaines along with a team of Chinese scientists pose at the Danshui River, site of the Qingjiang biota. (Courtesy: Dongjing Fu)

Gaines made his sixth trip to the Qingjiang fossil site over spring break, and expects there “will be decades of work [there].”

“I think there’s still the boyish enthusiasm of splitting rock and being able to see something that’s completely new to science pop out at you,” Gaines said.

The interests of his students — such as climate change — have shaped his research approach, Gaines said.

“The students are always kind of pushing me to think a little bit outside of my narrow box,” Gaines said. “Having the opportunity to include them in aspects of my research program and at the same time allowing them to explore their own interests has given me a lot of breadth and a lot of perspective, which is very exciting.”

Nolan Clark PO ’22 is a geology major and currently taking Gaines’ Earth history class.

“[Gaines] seems thrilled about [his research] and honestly is inspiring me to pursue research in geology,” Clark said via message.

Anika Arvanitis PO ’20, who had Gaines as an adviser for a year and took his introductory geology and climate change classes, said via message that those courses contributed to her decision to minor in geology.

A black and gray rock split in half with a fossil inside laying on a brown cloth.
Soft-Bodied Naraoiid Arthropod fossil found at the Qingjiang biota. (Courtesy:Robert Gaines)

“[Gaines] has a way of making even hard things sound simple,” she said. “It’s easy to ask/answer questions in his class.”

In addition to the site in China, Gaines has also worked on fossil sites in British Columbia and Australia. In the summer, he continues to work at the Burgess Shale fossil site in British Columbia, which has been a hub of research since its discovery in 1909.

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