Places that prove Darwin was right

Forget the Creation Museum. This slide show of vacation spots showcases the splendor, and the mystery, of evolution

  • Peering through geologic time at the Burgess Shale in Canada

    It’s dizzying, standing on a mountaintop in the Canadian Rockies looking into the strata of an ancient tropical seabed. Discovered just over 100 years ago, the fossils found here date back half a billion years — to a time just after the “Cambrian Explosion,” a biological big-bang that increased the diversity and complexity of life on Earth. Some of our favorite body parts — heads, eyes, limbs, and even very primitive versions of vertebrae emerged during this era. What makes the Burgess Shale so important is how well these bizarre sea creatures were preserved. The fossilizing minerals impregnated not only the hard shells, but also their soft tissues, giving scientists a more complete three-dimensional view of their bodies. The day-long guided tour of the fossil beds with the scientists at the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation is filled with mind-blowing moments, as you explore this land mass that was once submerged in a warm sea located along the equator.

  • Dropping in on Europe’s oldest humans at Atapuerca, Spain

    The foothills of Atapuerca are just a few miles from the medieval city of Burgos in northern Spain. For Europe’s oldest humans, it was an ideal location near two river basins with a temperate climate, and plentiful food. The hills here are like Swiss cheese — ancient water wore them away, creating a huge network of caves that remained hidden until a mining railway was cut through the area in the late 1800s. The fascinating findings just keep coming. The most recent: the jawbone of a hominid who lived 1.2 million years ago. A visit to the site shows that prehistoric Atapuercans weren’t as different from us as we might think. They had art, tools, ceramics, butchering facilities, guard walls to prevent falls, 400,000-year-old burial rituals, and even a 150,000-year-old hearth. In 2010, the Museum of Human Evolution opened in nearby Burgos, housing many of the Atapuercan treasures.

  • Retracing 385-million-year-old amphibian steps in County Kerry, Ireland

    Sometime around the Middle Devonian, there was a lonely tetrapod (a four-legged amphibious creature) who pulled himself out of the ocean on Valentia Island, with little knowledge that someday his slither marks would form the most impressive and complete “trackway” in the world. It’s one of the earliest signs of terrestrial vertebrate life, and you can freely walk along the tracks without threat of museum curator or guard. Scientists say the size and configuration of the overlapping prints suggests that the animal was 1 meter in length with a belly and tail long enough to drag on the ground. While the spray of the Atlantic keeps a steady stream of slippery slime oozing out from the footprints, in this verdant coastal wonderland, you’re sure to agree that if you had been one of the first creatures to set foot on land, you’d probably have chosen the west coast of Ireland, too.

  • Visiting the oldest organisms on the planet in Newfoundland, Canada

    Virtually indistinguishable upon first glance from any other small, remote coastal town in Newfoundland, Flower’s Cove has a remarkable secret: thrombolites. These gigantic cell-like curiosities lie in groups on the shores of this small town, the only place you can find them apart from remote western Australia. They aren’t, strictly speaking, fossils themselves, but rather the calcium carbonate growth structures of ancient bacteria and algae. If this technical jargon about their history doesn’t interest you, just know that they are the remains of the oldest and first-known living organisms on Earth, some dating back 3.5 billion years. They’re certainly worth a look.

  • Walking in the footsteps of ancient man at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania

    Inside the modest museum, run your hand across the plaster cast of the 3.75 million-year-old fossilized footprints that Mary Leakey discovered at nearby Laetoli in 1978, proving that our human ancestors walked in an upright position. Outside, look down into Olduvai Gorge, where the Leakeys found fragments of teeth and a skull that were from a male hominid whom they called Nutcracker Man because of his huge teeth. Each year, teams of archaeologists and volunteers return to the “Cradle of Mankind” to catalog the wealth of stone tools, animal bones and early hominid remains that continue to be revealed following the heavy rains that fall from March through May.

  • Catching crabs in compromising positions on Christmas Island

    Stranded in the Indian Ocean 300 miles south of Jakarta, Christmas Island has 1,500 human inhabitants, 1,000 visitors each year, and an estimated 120 million crabs — 160 species, 20 of which live on the rain forest floor. Every year when the rainy season kicks off (November/December), the island’s red crabs migrate to the sea en masse, blanketing everything in their path. Roads become impassable as the swarming red army marches to the beach to mate. A month later their babies scramble in the reverse direction providing a feast for the eyes (and the birds). Two-thirds of the island is a national park and is home to a plethora of unusual species: robber crabs who crack open coconuts with their bare claws, fruit bats, blind snakes, geckos and rare boobies (no snickering allowed — they’re endangered!). It’s no wonder the island is known as the Gal

  • Hunting for fossils on England’s Jurassic Coast in Charmouth, U.K.

    On a stormy day, it’s easy to imagine that dinosaurs once roamed this stunning coastline — now a UNESCO World Heritage Site — in the shadow of 85-million-year-old cliffs. Start your fossil hunt from Charmouth with help from the enthusiastic dinosaur hunters who man the Charmouth Heritage Coast Center, and scramble among the rocks and pebbles of the surrounding beaches looking for the remains of a prehistoric world. Fossils of ammonites and belemnites are the most common, but finding the remains of prehistoric sharks, fossilized footprints and dinosaur bones is always possible. You can improve your chances by taking a guided fossil walk, and don’t forget to check out the fossil collector’s code (yes, there is one!) at the Heritage Center before you start.

  • Discovering the Iceman in Bolzano, Italy

    Imagine finding a body frozen facedown in the ice while hiking on a glacier. Now imagine learning that the body is roughly 5,000 years old. In 1991, two unsuspecting Germans had such an experience; their discovery created a worldwide scientific sensation. The corpse they stumbled upon in the Oetztal Alps, known as

  • Restoring habitat for wildlife in San Crist

    The remote volcanic archipelago of the Gal

  • Discovering the beginnings of life in Shark Bay, Western Australia

    Although not the most popular attraction in the Shark Bay National Park, these unusual formations are certainly the oldest resident of the area. The Hamelin Pool stromatolites date back over 3,000 years, and the bacteria that colonized them are one of the earliest forms of life on our planet — dating back over 3 billion years. These stumpy domes of rock are made up of recycled nutrients from microscopic cyanobacteria, which combine with sediment to form a fascinating network of mounds, easily seen from the shore. Hamelin Pool is one of only two places on Earth where these living fossils are known to exist, and this process still occurs today. To make matters even more interesting, you can also still see the historic trails of wagon tracks left through the stromatolites by early pioneers in the region, carting goods from ships to shore.

  • Excavating the ancient landscape in Florissant, Colo.

    Although vast prairie and sparse ponderosa pine forest dominate Florissant’s modern landscape, if you’d stood here 35 million years ago you’d have been dwarfed by a towering rain forest. For evidence, visit Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Here you can examine giant petrified redwood stumps while walking the ponderosa-scented Petrified Forest Loop Trail. Find more delicate specimens — like butterflies and ferns — inside the museum, where display cases reveal only a fraction of the 1,700 species paleontologists have discovered here. You can even get your hands dirty excavating your own shale fossils at Florissant Fossil Quarry, just down the road.

  • Mingling with a missing link in Oslo, Norway

    Introduced to the world in May 2009, Darwinius Massillae — or Ida — is the newest addition to the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum. Named after the daughter of paleontologist J

  • Tracking the dinosaurs at Cal Orck’o in Sucr

    At the Plaza de Mayo in Sucr