Burgess Shale type fauna

A number of assemblages bear fossil assemblages similar in character to that of the Burgess Shale. While many are also preserved in a similar fashion to the Burgess Shale, the term "Burgess Shale type fauna" covers assemblages based on taxonomic criteria only.[1]


The fauna of the middle Cambrian has a cosmopolitan range. All assemblages preserving soft-part anatomy have a very similar fauna, even though they span almost every continent.[2] The wide distribution has been attributed to the advent of pelagic larvae.[2]


The fauna is composed of a range of soft bodied organisms; creatures with hard, mineralised skeletons are rare, although trilobites are quite commonly found. The major soft-bodied groups are sponges, palaeoscolecid worms, lobopods, arthropods and anomalocaridids.[2] Assemblages are typically diverse, with the most famous localities each containing in the region of 150 described species.[2] The fauna of the Burgess Shale lived in the photic zone, as bottom-dwelling photosynthesisers are present in the assemblage.[3]

Example faunas

Sirius Passet fauna

Reconstruction of Kerygmachela from Sirius Passet, viewed from the top, with the head to the right. The shaded areas on the lobes are thought to have functioned as gills.

Sirius Passet is a lagerstätte in Greenland which was formed about 527 million years ago. Its most common fossils are arthropods, but there is only a handful of trilobite species. There are also very few species with hard parts: trilobites, hyoliths, sponges, brachiopods, and no echinoderms or molluscs.[4]

Halkieria has features associated with more than one living phylum, and is discussed below.

The strangest-looking animals from Sirius Passet are Pambdelurion and Kerygmachela. They are generally regarded as anomalocarids because they have long, soft, segmented bodies with a pair of broad fin-like flaps on most segments and a pair of segmented appendages at the rear. The outer parts of the top surfaces of the flaps have grooved areas which are thought to have acted as gills. Under each flap there is a short, fleshy leg. This arrangement suggests the animals are related to biramous arthropods.[5]

Chengjiang fauna

There are several Cambrian fossil sites in the Chengjiang county of China’s Yunnan province. The most significant is the Maotianshan shale, a lagerstätte which preserves soft tissues very well. The Chengjiang fauna date to between 525 million and 520 million years ago, about the middle of the early Cambrian epoch, a few million years after Sirius Passet and at least 10 million years earlier than the Burgess Shale.

The Chengjiang sediments provide what are currently the oldest known chordates, the phylum to which all vertebrates belong. The 8 chordate species include Myllokunmingia, possibly a very primitive agnathid and Haikouichthys, which may be related to lampreys.[6] Yunnanozoon may be the oldest known hemichordate.[7]

Anomalocaris was a mainly soft-bodied swimming predator which was gigantic for its time (up to 70 cm = 2¼ feet long; some later species were 3 times as long); the soft, segmented body had a pair of broad fin-like flaps along each side, except that the last 3 segments had a pair of “fans” arranged in a “V” shape. Unlike Kerygmachela and Pambdelurion (see above), Anomalocaris apparently had no legs, and the grooved patches which are thought to have acted as gills were at the bases of the flaps, or even overlapping on to its back. The two eyes were on relatively long horizontal stalks; the mouth lay under the head and was a round-cornered square of plates which could not close completely; and in front of the mouth were two jointed appendages which were shaped like a shrimp’s body, curved backwards and with short spines on the inside of the curve. Amplectobelua, also found at Chengjiang, was similar, smaller than Anomalocaris but considerably larger than most other Chengjiang animals. Both are thought to have been powerful predators.

Hallucigenia looks like a long-legged caterpillar with spines on its back, and almost certainly crawled on the seabed.[4]

Nearly half of the Chengjiang fossil species are arthropods, few of which had the hard, mineral-reinforced exoskeletons found in most later marine arthropods; only about 3% of the organisms known from Chengjiang have hard shells, and most of those are trilobites (although Misszhouia is a soft-bodied trilobite). Many other phyla are found there: Porifera (sponges) and Priapulida (burrowing “worms” which were ambush predators), Brachiopoda (these had bivalve-like shells, but fed by means of a lophophore, a fan-like filter which occupied about of half of the internal space), Chaetognatha (arrow worms), Cnidaria, Ctenophora (comb jellies), Echinodermata, Hyolitha (enigmatic animals with small conical shells), Nematomorpha, Phoronida (horseshoe worms), and Protista.[8]

Burgess Shale

Anomalocaridid "arm" from the Walcott Quarry, Burgess Shale, Middle Cambrian, British Columbia, Canada.

The Burgess Shale was the first of the Cambrian lagerstätten to be discovered (by Walcott in 1909), and the re-analysis of the Burgess Shale by Whittington and others in the 1970s was the basis of Gould’s book Wonderful Life, which was largely responsible for non-scientists' awareness of the Cambrian explosion. The fossils date from the mid Cambrian, about 515 million years ago and 10 million years later than the Chengjiang fauna.

The shelled fossils in the Burgess Shale are similar in proportions to other shelly fossil deposits; however, they are a minor component of the biota, accounding for only 14% of the Burgess Shale fossils. When organisms that were not preserved are entered into the equation, the shelly fossils probably represent about 2% of the animals that were alive at the time.[9]

Arthropods are the most abundant and diverse group of organisms in the Burgess Shale, followed closely by sponges.[10] Many Burgess Shale fossils are unusual and difficult to classify, for example:

Reconstruction of Opabinia, one of the strangest animals from the Burgess Shale

But the “weird wonders”, creatures that resembled nothing known in the 1970s, attracted the most publicity, for example:

Other fauna

Other fauna include the Middle Cambrian Wheeler Shale Formation of Utah.[16]


Trace fossils are associated with many Burgess Shale-type deposits.[17] They are often associated with the innards of soft-bodied organisms,[18] and are particularly prevalent under the carapaces of bivalved arthropods.[19] Burrowing organisms seem to have used the high-sulfur decay fluids as a nutrient source when farming bacteria in the microenvironment under the carapaces, indicated by their repeated uses of individual burrows.[19]


  1. Orr, P.; Benton, Michael J.; Briggs, Derek E.G. (2003). "Post-Cambrian Closure of the Deep-Water Slope-Basin Taphonomic Window". Geology. 31 (9): 769. Bibcode:2003Geo....31..769O. doi:10.1130/G19193.1.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Han, J; Zhang, Z.-F.; Liu, J.-N. (2008). "A preliminary note on the dispersal of the Cambrian Burgess Shale-type faunas". Gondwana Research. 14: 269. doi:10.1016/j.gr.2007.09.001.
  3. Parker, A. R. (1998). "Colour in Burgess Shale animals and the effect of light on evolution in the Cambrian" (PDF). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The Royal Society. 265 (1400): 967–972. doi:10.1098/rspb.1998.0385
  4. 1 2 Conway Morris, S. (1998). The Crucible of Creation. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-850256-7.
  5. Budd, G.E. (1997). "Stem Group Arthropods from the Lower Cambrian Sirius Passet Fauna of North Greenland". In Fortey, R.A.; Thomas, R.H. Arthropod Relationships – Special Volume Series 55. Systematics Association
  6. Shu, D-G, Luo, H-L, Conway Morris, S., Zhang X-L, Hu, S-X, Chen, L., Han, J., Zhu, M., Li, Y, Chen, L-Z (1999). "Lower Cambrian Vertebrates from South China". Nature. 402 (6757): 42–46. Bibcode:1999Natur.402...42S. doi:10.1038/46965.
  7. Shu, D., Zhang, X. and Chen, L. (1996). "Reinterpretation of Yunnanozoon as the earliest known hemichordate". Nature. 380 (6573): 428–430. Bibcode:1996Natur.380..428S. doi:10.1038/380428a0.
  8. Hou, X-G.; Aldridge, R.J.; Bengstrom, J; Siveter, D.J.; Feng, X-H (2004). The Cambrian Fossils of Chengjiang, China. Blackwell Science Ltd. p. 233.
  9. Conway Morris, S. (1986). "The community structure of the Middle Cambrian Phyllopod Bed (Burgess Shale)" (PDF). Palaeontology. 29 (3): 423–467
  10. Caron, J-B; Jackson, D.A (2008). "Paleoecology of the Greater Phyllopod Bed community, Burgess Shale". Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 258 (3): 222–256. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2007.05.023
  11. Whittington, H.B. (1971). "Redescription of Marrella splendens (Trilobitoidea) from the Burgess Shale, Middle Cambrian, British Columbia". Geological Survey of Canada Bulletin. 209: 1–24.
  12. Briggs, D., Erwin, D. and Collier, F. (1994). The Fossils of the Burgess Shale. Smithsonian Books.
  13. Taylor, R.S. (1999). "'Waptiid' Arthropods and the Significance of Bivalved Carapaces in the Lower Cambrian". Palaeontological Association 44th Annual Meeting.
  14. Palaeontology’s hidden agenda
  15. Budd, G.E. (1996). "The morphology of Opabinia regalis and the reconstruction of the arthropod stem-group". Lethaia. 29: 1–14. doi:10.1111/j.1502-3931.1996.tb01831.x.
  16. Gaines, R; Kennedy, M; Droser, M (2005). "A New Hypothesis for Organic Preservation of Burgess Shale Taxa in the Middle Cambrian Wheeler Formation, House Range, Utah". Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology. 220: 193–205. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2004.07.034.
  17. Minter, N. J.; Mangano, M. G.; Caron, J. -B. (2011). "Skimming the surface with Burgess Shale arthropod locomotion". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.1986.
  18. e.g. Smith, M. R.; Caron, J. B. (2010). "Primitive soft-bodied cephalopods from the Cambrian". Nature. 465 (7297): 469–472. Bibcode:2010Natur.465..469S. doi:10.1038/nature09068. PMID 20505727.
  19. 1 2 Mangano, M. G.; Bromley, R. G.; Harper, D. A. T.; Nielsen, A. T.; Smith, M. P.; Vinther, J. (2012). "Nonbiomineralized carapaces in Cambrian seafloor landscapes (Sirius Passet, Greenland): Opening a new window into early Phanerozoic benthic ecology". Geology. Bibcode:2012Geo....40..519M. doi:10.1130/G32853.1.

Further sources

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