A hilly 512 ha site in Yunnan province, Chengjiang’s fossils present the most complete record of an early Cambrian marine community with exceptionally preserved biota, displaying the anatomy of hard and soft tissues in a very wide variety of organisms, invertebrate and vertebrate. They record the early establishment of a complex marine ecosystem. The site documents at least sixteen phyla and a variety of enigmatic groups as well as about 196 species, presenting exceptional testimony to the rapid diversification of life on Earth 530 million years ago, when almost all of today’s major animal groups emerged. It opens a palaeobiological window of great significance to scholarship.
© Chengjiang Fossil National Geopark Management Committee
Outstanding Universal Value
The Chengjiang Fossil Site, located in the Province of Yunnan, China, conserves fossil remains which are of exceptional significance. The rocks and fossils of the Chengjiang Fossil Site present an outstanding and extraordinarily preserved record that testifies to the rapid diversification of life on Earth during the early Cambrian period, 530 million years before present. In this geologically short interval, almost all major groups of animals had their origins. The diverse geological evidence from the Chengjiang Fossil Site presents fossil remains of the highest quality of preservation and conveys a complete record of an early Cambrian marine community. It is one of the earliest records of a complex marine ecosystem and a unique window of understanding into the structure of early Cambrian communities.
Criterion (viii): The Chengjiang Fossil Site presents an exceptional record of the rapid diversification of life on Earth during the early Cambrian period, 530 million years before present. In this geologically short interval almost all major groups of animals had their origins. The property is a globally outstanding example of a major stage in the history of life, representing a palaeobiological window of great significance.
The exceptional palaeontological evidence of the Chengjiang Fossil Site is unrivalled for its rich species diversity. To date at least 16 phyla, plus a variety of enigmatic groups, and about 196 species have been documented. Taxa recovered range from algae, through sponges and cnidarians to numerous bilaterian phyla, including the earliest known chordates. The earliest known specimens of several phyla such as cnidarians, ctenophores, priapulids, and vertebrates occur here. Many of the taxa represent the stem groups to extant phyla and throw light on characteristics that distinguish major taxonomic groups.
The property displays excellent quality of fossil preservation including the soft and hard tissues of animals with hard skeletons, along with a wide array of organisms that were entirely soft-bodied, and therefore relatively unrepresented in the fossil record. Almost all of the soft-bodied species are unknown elsewhere. Fine-scale detailed preservation includes features as the alimentary systems of animals, for example of the arthropod Naraoia, and the delicate gills of the enigmatic Yunnanozoon. The sediments of Chengjiang provide what are currently the oldest known fossil chordates, the phylum to which all vertebrates belong.
The fossils and rocks of the Chengjiang Fossil Site, together, present a complete record of an early Cambrian marine community. It is one of the earliest records of a complex marine ecosystem, with food webs capped by sophisticated predators. Moreover, it demonstrates that complex community structures had developed very early in the Cambrian diversification of animal life, and provides evidence of a wide range of ecological niches. The property thus provides a unique window of understanding into the structure of early Cambrian communities.
The property has clear boundaries including the most significant rock exposures of the region, and has a buffer zone that provides wider protection to the property. It is noted that fossil evidence is provided in some sites that lie outside the property boundaries and its buffer zone, and these areas need to receive appropriate wider protection and are important to provide context for the property.
Prior to 2004, 14 phosphate mining operations occurred in the buffer zone of the property. Since 2008 they have all been closed down. The process of rehabilitating these former mining sites is ongoing and will take some considerable time. No mining activities have actually impacted on the property itself and the ongoing commitment of County and Provincial governments to not open or re-open mines within the property or its buffer zone are critical to protect the values of the property.
Various excavations have occurred within the property in relation to the two key fossil sites. At the key stratigraphic section of Xiaolantian, a deep excavation has been made to create a walkway. Additionally, a museum has been built at Miaotanshan, over the site of the first Chengjiang Fauna fossil discovery. Both the path and museum construction have had impacts on the integrity of the site. The State Party has introduced a process for systematic review and approval for any development which may impact on the site. Moreover, the management authority has completely restricted future infrastructure development in the property.
Protection and management requirements
The Chengjiang Fossil Site is state-owned and protected under the Article 9 of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China and by various laws including the Environmental Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China (2002), the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Cultural Relic Protection (2002), the regulations on the management of paleontological specimens (Ministry of Land and Resources, 2002), regulations on the protection and management of geological relics (1995) and the regulation on the protection of Yunnan Chengjiang Fauna Fossil (1997).
The property is designated as a protected area ensuring that potentially damaging human activities within the site can be prevented. The area is largely covered with secondary forest and shrub and there is no industrial activity or permanent human habitation within the boundary. The property lies entirely within a Chinese National Geopark.
There is an effective management plan, supported by a dedicated and adequately staffed and resourced management body. The Chengjiang Fossil Site Management Institute is responsible for coordinating on-site management of the protected area. The property protection strategy includes a National Geopark zoning plan which affords adequate protection to key fossil sites, supported by staffing for implementation. The finances of the Chengjiang Fossil Site come largely from national sources and are supplemented by smaller contributions at the City and County levels. Stable and special funding for the ongoing management of the property is adequate to address ongoing protection, promotion and presentation of the property. The property has an established monitoring programme including defined indicators for the conservation of this property, and which needs to be integrated with monitoring of the protection of the wider surroundings of the property. The need for ongoing and effective curation of fossil specimens collected from the property, to the highest international standards, is fully recognised and provided for by the State Party.
Visitor numbers are anticipated to increase from a few thousand (4-5,000) individuals in 2012, most of whom are locals or individuals from neighbouring areas and visiting scientists. Increased visitation to the property requires effective management strategies and the provision of guides, designation of restricted areas, and strict restrictions on fossil collecting. It will be essential to carefully regulate visitor numbers within the capacity of the property. The anticipated maximum numbers at the time of inscription were estimated at c.30-40,000 people. There is a need to assure effective land-use planning in areas surrounding the property in order to secure its long-term conservation, including the conservation of fossil sites in the surrounding area that provide context for understanding the value of the property.