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The First Animals on Earth

For most of its existence, Planet Earth has been a brutal, inhospitable, toxic nightmare, until a half billion years ago when – KABOOM! – life suddenly appeared. THE FIRST ANIMALS, a new documentary from Toronto’s Red Trillium Films, takes you back to the Cambrian Explosion through newly-discovered fossils that tell us about our origins.


Renowned evolutionary biologist Professor Maydianne Andrade is our guide, showing us how complex – and dangerous – life among THE FIRST ANIMALS really was.


“The information embedded in this rock is evolution’s raw data,” says Andrade. “We see how the first guts digested food, how the first eyes processed images, how the first hunters tracked down their prey.


“These are the very early building blocks of animal evolution.”


High up a mountainside in a British Columbia fossil bed, Maydianne joins a team from the Royal Ontario Museum, led by paleontologist Jean-Bernard Caron. They are literally exposing hundreds of new fossils every day.


“There is a sense that you are liberating them from the rocks,” says Caron. “When you split a rock you never know what you’re going to get inside, so there’s this ‘wow’ moment, when you observe for the first time an animal that had been in the mud for half a billion years.” 


THE FIRST ANIMALS will introduce you to cast of bizarre creatures, including Yawunik, a predator with a deadly, whip-like head-mounted combo of claws and antennae; Metaspriginna, a little fish-like creature with the very first signs of a backbone – making it our earliest ancestor; and a mystery beast nicknamed “Spaceship,” whose identity is brand new to science – and the centre of the film’s detective story.


“Why do we have the animals as we know them today?” asks Jean-Bernard Caron. “ That relates to an even deeper question, which is, where do we come from?”


The creatures of the Cambrian are brought back to life through stunning 3-D animation, based on the painstaking work done by the ROM team back in their Toronto laboratories. Once they swim across the screen, you’ll realize how lucky we are that they aren’t brushing up against our feet in modern oceans.


“These are alien creatures,” says paleo-artist Lars Fields, “something you would see in a science fiction story about what ocean life was like on another planet. But these actually existed on earth.”  


Existed, and went extinct. But they were the first to have the body parts most animals still have today – designs test driven by Mother Nature 500 million years ago.


“Something big happened around 540 million years ago the so-called Cambrian explosion,” says Jean-Bernard Caron


“The beginning of all animal life, that kick-started evolution and created a half-billion-year-old family tree that includes us?” says Maydianne. “Yeah, I’d say that’s something big.”

the film


The Burgess Shale Fossils in Yoho and Kootenay National Parks and rugged Rocky Point on the Southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland.


The Burgess Shale-Tokumm Quarry

The fossils of the Burgess Shale are so amazing because they preserve soft tissues from animals that lived over 500 million years ago. That means we can see their eyes, their brains, their organs – even their guts and what they had for their last suppers.


As they swam along the bottom of a Cambrian sea these animals were trapped in a sudden mudslide and preserved in the precise moment of their deaths. Sometimes the orientations of their bodies make it hard to figure out what the entire creature would’ve looked like – they can be pressed into awkward positions where you can't tell the head from the tail. Luckily the paleontologists often find more than one specimen – and in most cases they find several – that they can use to re-construct the creatures.


The First Animals were all invertebrates except for a tiny creature called Metaspriggina, which looked like a little fish. Metaspriggina had a notochord, the first known precursor to a spine, which makes it our earliest ancestor.


All of the fossils pulled out of the Tokumm Quarry will be added to the massive collection at the Royal Ontario Museum – there are now over 200,000 specimens housed at the ROM. A new Dawn of Life Gallery is being planned to show off the best ones, including Metaspriggina and the mysterious new “Spaceship” fossils discovered in 2018.

When the Burgess Shale fossils were discovered in British Columbia by Charles Walcott in 1909, our understanding of the origins of life on earth was forever changed. Scientists got their first glimpse of the multi-celled, complex creatures from the Cambrian “Explosion,” over 500 million years ago. Now, two recent fossil quarries in BC’s Kootenay National Park have created a new golden age for studying the first animals - the first branches on the family tree that evolved all the way to us.

In one summer field season, Jean-Bernard Caron and his team from the Royal Ontario Museum unearthed thousands of Cambrian specimens – some never seen before by human eyes and completely new to science. Each bizarre looking little monster has something to tell us about the origins of animal life on earth.

In August of 2018 Caron helicoptered his excavation team into Kootenay National park, to some promising shale deposits he’d pinpointed on an earlier reconnaissance journey. They unpacked their chisels, started digging their quarries and fossils started to appear from the shale by the basketful.


The dig season began shrouded in forest fire smoke – the far side of the Tokumm River Valley wasn’t even visible until a heavy rainstorm cleared the air. Every day the scientists trekked 2 kilometres from camp to the two quarries connected by a treacherous trail that was little more than a goat path.  One misstep and it was a long tumble down the mountainside.


By the time they were done – and the first late-August snows dusted the quarries  – Jean-Bernard and his team had six tonnes of fossils packed and ready to be shipped back to Toronto for investigation and lab work.


These fossils have been called “holy objects” by paleontologists – the holiest one from 2018 was the huge one they nicknamed “The Spaceship.” Jean-Bernard says it’s the most important discovery he’s ever made – a brand new character in the cast of the Burgess Shale.

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