UOA7-05: UNESCO World Natural Heritage status for the Chengjiang (Cambrian) fossil site, Yunnan Province, China.
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Oxford
Unit of AssessmentEarth Systems and Environmental Sciences
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Earth Sciences: Geology
Biological Sciences: Ecology, Evolutionary Biology
Summary of the impact
Research carried out at Oxford University has helped demonstrate the
extraordinary significance of a fossil site in Yunnan Province (China) for
understanding evolution at the time of the Cambrian explosion. This
research contributed to the site being proposed and, in 2012, designated
as a UNESCO World Heritage site. An Oxford University researcher (Siveter)
played an important part in this process, drawing on his research when
writing the World-Heritage bid. Government policy for the Chengjiang area
has now shifted away from phosphate mining to conservation, education and
tourism, with the establishment of a Geopark and, in 2010, a Museum.
Annual visitor numbers to the area are rising, already in the thousands,
benefiting the regional economy. The Chengjiang site has been preserved
for future generations to investigate and enjoy.
Of the tens of thousands of sites throughout the world that yield
fossils, just a few of them yield fossils that are preserved with not only
their hard parts, but also with their soft parts. Such sites of
exceptional preservation — fossil Lagerstätten — provide far more
information about the palaeobiology, evolution, and history of life on
Earth than do typical fossil sites. Even fewer of these fossil
Lagerstätten happen to represent a time of major faunal and/or floral
change. One site that fulfills all these rare criteria is the Chengjiang
(Cambrian) Lagerstätte in Yunnan Province, China.
The lower Cambrian fossils of Chengjiang represent one of the world's
most important fossil assemblages. This ≈525-million-year-old marine fauna
is contributing fundamentally to our understanding of one of the most
important periods in the history of life on Earth, the Cambrian
`explosion'. This event heralded the first appearance in the fossil record
of most of the major animal groups that comprise global present-day marine
biodiversity. Especially noteworthy amongst the Chengjiang fauna is the
earliest vertebrate. The fauna also provides representation of early
animal body plans, and as a whole indicates the earliest, most complete,
animal community. Over 200 species ranging across 16 phyla have been
recognized since discovery of the fauna in 1984. They occupy, even at this
relatively early geological time, most major marine ecological niches, and
represent a wide range of feeding types, indicating an elaborate
ecosystem. The majority of the species are known only from the Chengjiang
Important research on the Chengjiang Lagerstätte has been conducted by
Professor Derek Siveter at Oxford University's Department of Earth
Sciences and Museum of Natural History. He has formed part of a small team
of UK palaeobiologists (with two other scientists from Leicester
University) who have researched the Chengjiang biota together with the
discoverer of the Lagerstätte, Professor Hou Xianguang (Director of the
Yunnan Key Laboratory for Palaeobiology, Yunnan University, Kunming,
This research has resulted in a series of high-profile publications in
peer-reviewed journals. These publications have added to the fossil
database and outlined the evolutionary and ecological significance of
various parts of the Chengjiang fauna. They include an investigation of
the morphology and phylogenetic position of the earliest vertebrates (Hou
et al. 2002 ) and the description of soft-part morphology and affinity
of bivalve (bradoriid) crustaceans (Hou et al. 2010 ). They also
identified very early collective behaviour in arthropods (Hou et al. 2008,
2009 [4-5]) and reported the discovery of an important early-Cambrian
hemichordate zooid (Hou et al. 2011 ).
Siveter's research also contributed to a book, which he coauthored; "The
Cambrian fossils of Chengjiang, China" (Hou et al. 2004 ) published by
Blackwells Scientific. This book presents a wide range of research and
illustration providing full details of the fauna and flora of Chengjiang.
It has received more than 200 citations in the research literature, and a
second edition is now in preparation.
The detailed paleontological research conducted on the Chengjiang
Lagerstätte has provided important advances in our knowledge of the
evolution of life at the time of the Cambrian explosion, and has firmly
outlined the critical significance of the Chengjiang biota.
References to the research
The three asterisked outputs best indicate the quality of the
1. Hou, X., Aldridge, R.J., Siveter, David J., Siveter, Derek J. &
Feng, X. 2002. New evidence on the morphology and phylogeny of the
earliest vertebrates. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B,
2. * Hou, X-G, Aldridge, R.J., Bergström, J., Siveter, David J., Siveter,
Derek J. & Feng, X-H. 2004. The Cambrian fossils of Chengjiang,
China. The flowering of early animal life. 233 pp, Blackwell,
This book was the first to comprehensively document the Chengjiang
biota in the English language, including a comprehensive reference list
of the associated, significant, research papers, many of which were
published in Chinese journals. It has attracted over 200 citations in
the research literature.
3. Hou X-G., Williams, M., Siveter, David J., Siveter, Derek J. &
Richard J. Aldridge & Robert S. Sansom. 2010. Soft-part anatomy of the
Early Cambrian bivalved arthropods Kunyangella and Kunmingella:
significance for the phylogenetic relationships of Bradoriida. Proceedings
of the Royal Society of London B, 277, 1835-1841,
4. * Hou, X-G., Siveter, Derek J., Aldridge, R.J. & Siveter, David J.
2008. Collective behaviour in an Early Cambrian arthropod. Science,
Unique, chain-like associations of specimens of a new arthropod from
the Chengjiang Lagerstätte, provides evidence that sophisticated
collective behaviour of animals was present some 525 million years ago
in the early Cambrian, coincident with the earliest extensive
diversification of multi-cellular life, the so-called Cambrian explosion
5. Hou, X-G., Siveter, Derek J., Aldridge, R.J. & Siveter, David J.
2009. A new arthropod in chain-like associations from the Chengjiang
Lagerstätte (Lower Cambrian), Yunnan, China. Palaeontology, 52,
6. * Hou, X-G., Aldridge, R.J., Siveter, David J., Siveter, Derek J.,
Williams, M., Zalasiewicz, J. and Ma, Xiao-ya. 2011. An early Cambrian
hemichordate zooid. Current Biology, 21, 612- 616.
A new, exceptionally preserved fossil from the lower Cambrian of
Chengjiang represents by far the best-preserved, the earliest, and the
largest hemichordate zooid from the fossil record. It provides new
insights into the soft-tissue morphology and evolution of the group,
demonstrating stasis in pterobranch morphology, mode of coenecium
construction, and probable feeding mechanism over 525 million years.
Details of the impact
The impact of this research has been in public communication of science,
and in protection of the environment. In particular, the research
contributed to the designation of the Chengjiang fossil site as a
protected UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012.
The 2004 book on the Chengjiang Biota (Hou et al. ) was an important
publication, flagging the significance of the Chengjiang site
internationally to a wide ranging readership. In the same year, Chinese
Premier Wen Jiabao issued instructions to "protect the Chengjiang biota
as a world treasure and natural heritage of significant scientific value"
 and the idea of submitting the Chengjiang fossil site for world
heritage status was first considered. In 2010, Gao Jinsong the Mayor of
Yuxi City, suggested that the central government support the nomination of
the Chengjiang biota for inclusion in the Chinese list of World Heritage
nominations; a suggestion subsequently supported by Wen Jiabao. In 2011,
Jiang Weixin, Chinese Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development,
nominated the Chengjiang Fossil Site to UNESCO for World Heritage status
with bid papers that included those that Derek Siveter had played a
significant part in writing.
Siveter was invited in 2010 by the Yuxi City Government to act as one of
three official scientific external consultants to help write a
World-Heritage bid for the Chengjing fossil-site . He had specific
responsibility for drafting parts of the bid, including descriptions,
illustrations and statements of significance for all the major groups of
Chengjiang fossils; work that relied heavily on his previous knowledge and
research [e.g. 1-6]. He also helped draft the scientific rationale of the
bid . In addition to writing parts of the bid, Siveter provided advice
to Chinese colleagues during its progress, enabling them to address
questions from UNESCO during the bid's scientific and field assessment. On
1st July 2012 the bid proved successful, and the site was
admitted to the World Heritage list at the UNESCO Ratification Meeting in
St Petersburg . This success gave China its first palaeontologically
based World Heritage site.
World Heritage is the designation for places on Earth that are of
outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed
on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to
appreciate and enjoy. UNESCO states of the Chengjiang site that it "...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" .
World Heritage status has benefitted the Chengjiang region. As it was
being put forward for such status, the Chengjiang site was established as
a Geopark, leading to some 3,000-5,000 people visiting the Chengjiang site
in 2009, including those from around China and overseas. UNESCO projects
that World Heritage status will lead to an increase of annual visitors to
40,000 in the next five years , and a new museum has been built within
the World Heritage Site, opening in 2010. In a province where tobacco
production and mining offer the only main industries, the site is
diversifying and boosting local and regional economies, with the county
town of Chengjiang and the Fuxian Lake Provincial Scenic Area providing
accommodation for the increasing number of visitors. Chengjiang County
Museum has also established educational outreach activities in Yunnan
related to the Chengjiang fossil site. These feature a series of
publications for popular science education, including "Chengjiang
Faunal Fossils and Geological Exploration" and "Guidelines for
the Basic Geology of Chengjiang Faunal Fossils National Geopark".
World Heritage status has also protected the environment of the region.
Provincial government policy has, since 2009, stopped 14 phosphate mines
from operating in the locality, while local government has invested RMB 78
million to protect the natural landscape and to support the Geopark, as
well as building a natural history museum. "...the local government
will promote tourism based on the fossil site to benefit local people
from world heritage" [8,9].
A number of exhibitions and public communication of science activities
have been organized in cooperation with domestic and foreign institutes.
Exhibitions of Chengjiang fossils and posters have been organized in six
countries and regions outside Yunnan. As the prime example, Siveter played
a fundamental role in production of a major public exhibition on the
Chengjiang biota in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in
2010. This involved the loan, with appropriate government permission, of
some 150 excellent specimens from the Key Laboratory for Palaeobiology,
Yunnan University. The exhibition was the first time that Chengjiang
material of this quantity and importance has been exhibited outside China.
The exhibition was cited in the UNESCO World heritage application to
support the bid. The museum was visited by 304,770 people during the
period the exhibition was open (17 May - 14 November 2010), giving some
indication of numbers who will have witnessed the exhibition.
The broader world community has also benefitted. A key site for our
understanding of life on Earth and the roots of biodiversity, including
our own vertebrate origins, has been internationally recognised as having
universal value, and will be managed and protected as a consequence. If
the site had not gained such international recognition, it is probable
that its paleontological treasures would have been lost to phosphate
mining. A truly exceptional scientific resource has been maintained for
palaeobiologists, evolutionary biologists, students of the history of life
and the general public, to investigate and enjoy.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Letter of Appointment. From Yuxi City government, in 2010, indicating
the scientific consultation role of Prof. Siveter in the Chengjiang
fossil site World Heritage bid. [On file].
- Publicity document. Distributed by Yunnan Provincial government
sources, following UNESCO ratification of World Heritage status to the
Chengjiang fossil site. Includes comment from the `People's Daily', the
`Beijing Times', and the website `www.yunnan.cn'.
Corroborates World Heritage site designation, contains quote from
Chinese Premier, supports figures on spending and visitor numbers and
local government support to developing the area.
- Honorary Credential award. Presented by Yuxi City Government, 20 May
2013, to D. Siveter, in recognition of his scientific contribution to
the Chengjiang fossil site World Heritage bid. [On file].
- UNESCO web page. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1388.
Indicates the UNESCO listing and significance of the Chengjiang fossil
- Public Lecture. On the Chengjiang biota, to the Hong Kong branch of
the Royal Geographical Society, by Professor Derek Siveter. (21 May,
2013). See http://www.rgshk.org.hk/public/event.php?pageId=54&eventId=545