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Sidneyia inexpectans

An arthropod named after Charles Walcott's son

Image of Sidneyia inexpectans.

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Sidneyia inexpectans (ROM 61118) – Part (left) and counterpart (right). Complete specimen. Specimen length = 97 mm. Specimen dry – direct light (top images), dry – polarized light (bottom images). Walcott Quarry.

© Royal Ontario Museum. Photos: Jean-Bernard Caron

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Unranked clade (stem group arthropods)


Sidneyia is usually considered to be closely related to the chelicerates, but its exact position relative to this group remains unclear (Budd and Telford, 2009). Sidneyia has been variously placed as the sister group to the chelicerates (Hou and Bergström, 1997), close to the crown on the chelicerate stem lineage (Bruton, 1981; Edgecombe and Ramsköld, 1999; Hendricks and Lieberman, 2008), or basal in the chelicerate stem lineage (Briggs and Fortey, 1989; Wills et al., 1998; Cotton and Braddy, 2004).

Species name:

Sidneyia inexpectans

Described by:


Description date:



Sidneyia – after Walcott’s son Sidney, who discovered the first specimen in August of 1910.

inexpectans – from the Latin inexpectans, “unexpected,” since Walcott did not expect to find such a fossil in strata older than the Ordovician.

Type Specimens:

Lectotype –USNM57487 (S. inexpectans) in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA.

Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: none.

Other deposits: A single specimen from the Chengjiang Fauna in China was used to describe a second species, Sidneyia sinica (Zhang et al. 2002), however this was later shown to be incorrectly attributed to Sidneyia (Briggs et al. 2008).

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Middle Cambrian, Bathyuriscus-Elrathina Zone (approximately 505 million years ago).

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Principal localities:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: The Walcott, Raymond and Collins Quarries on Fossil Ridge, Mount Field and Mount Stephen – Tulip Beds (S7) and other smaller localities – Odaray Mountain and Stanley Glacier.

Other deposits: Sidneyia has been described from the Wheeler Formation (Briggs and Robison, 1984) and the Spence Shale (Briggs et al. 2008) in Utah, and the Kinzers Formation in Pennsylvania (Resser and Howell, 1938).

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History of Research

Brief history of research:

Sidneyia was the first fossil to be described by Walcott (1911) from the Burgess Shale. Further details were added by Walcott the following year (Walcott, 1912), and Strømer (1944) and Simonetta (1963) made minor revisions to Walcott's reconstruction. A large appendage found in isolation was originally suggested to be the large frontal appendage of Sidneyia (Walcott, 1911), but this was later found to belong to the anomalocaridid Laggania (Whittington and Briggs, 1985). A major study by Bruton (1981) redescribed the species based on the hundreds of available specimens.

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Sidneyia has a short, wide head shield that is convexly domed and roughly square. The two front lateral corners are notched to allow an antenna and a stalked eye to protrude. Other than the pair of antennae, which are long and thin with at least 20 segments, there are no cephalic appendages. The hemispherical and highly reflective eyes are above and posterior to the antennae.

The thorax of Sidneyia has nine wide, thin body segments that widen from the first to the fourth segment and then get progressively narrower posteriorly. The first four thoracic segments bear appendages with a large, spiny basal segment (the coxa) and 8 thinner segments, ending in a sharp claw. The next five thoracic appendages have a similar appendage but also have flap-like filaments in association with the limbs.

The abdomen consists of three circular rings that are much narrower than the thorax, with a terminal, triangular telson. The last segment of the abdomen has a pair of wide flaps that articulate with the telson to form a tail fan. A trace of the straight gut can be seen in some specimens extending from the anterior mouth to the anus on the telson, and pieces of broken trilobites are sometimes preserved in the gut.


Sidneyia is a relatively common arthropod in the Walcott Quarry, comprising 0.3% of the specimens counted (Caron and Jackson, 2008). Hundreds of specimens have been collected from the Walcott Quarry (Bruton, 1981) and in other nearby localities.

Maximum size:

160 mm

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Life habits:

Nektobenthic, mobile

Feeding strategies:


Ecological Interpretations:

Sidneyia walked and swam above the sea floor. Its anterior four thoracic appendages were used for walking, and the spiny basal coxa would crush food items and move them towards the mouth. The posterior five thoracic appendages were used for swimming, with the flap-like filaments undulating through the water column to create propulsion. These filaments were also likely used for breathing, like gills.

The predatory nature of Sidneyia is indicated by its spiny coxa used to masticate food, and the presence of crushed fossil debris in its gut. Sidneyia would have walked or swam above the sea floor, using its eyes and antennae to seek out prey, which it would capture and crush with its anterior appendages.

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BRIGGS, D. E. G. AND R. A. FORTEY. 1989. The early radiation and relationships of the major arthropod groups. Science, 246: 241-243.

BRIGGS, D. E. G. AND R. A. ROBISON. 1984. Exceptionally preserved non-trilobite arthropods and Anomalocaris from the Middle Cambrian of Utah. The University of Kansas Paleontological Contributions, 111: 1-24.

BRIGGS, D. E. G., B. S. LIEBERMAN, J. R. HENDRICKS, S. L. HALGEDAHL AND R. D. JARRARD. 2008. Middle Cambrian arthropods from Utah. Journal of Paleontology, 82(2): 238-254.

BRUTON, D. L. 1981. The arthropod Sidneyia inexpectans, Middle Cambrian, Burgess Shale, British Columbia. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, 295: 619-653.

BUDD, G. E. AND M. J. TELFORD. 2009. The origin and evolution of arthropods. Nature, 457(7231): 812-817.

CARON, J.-B. AND D. A. JACKSON. 2008. Paleoecology of the Greater Phyllopod Bed community, Burgess Shale. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 258: 222-256.

CARON, J.-B., R. GAINES, G. MANGANO, M. STRENG, AND A. DALEY. 2010. A new Burgess Shale-type assemblage from the "thin" Stephen Formation of the Southern Canadian Rockies. Geology, 38: 811-814.

COTTON, T. J. AND S. J. BRADDY. 2004. The phylogeny of arachnomorph arthropods and the origin of the Chelicerata. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Earth Sciences, 94: 169-193.

EDGECOMBE, G. D. AND L. RAMSKÖLD. 1999. Relationships of Cambrian Arachnata and the systematic position of Trilobita. Jounral of Paleontology, 73: 263-287.

HENDRICKS , J. R. AND B. S. LIEBERMAN. 2008. Phylogenetic insights into the Cambrian radiation of arachnomorph arthropods. Journal of Paleontology, 82: 585-594.

HOU, X. AND J. BERGSTRÖM. 1997. Arthropods of the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang fauna, southwest China. Fossils and Strata, 45: 1-116.

RASSER, C. E. AND B. F. HOWELL. 1938. Lower Cambrian Olenellus zone of the Appalachians. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 49: 195-248.

SIMONETTA, A. M. 1963. Osservazioni sugli artropodi non trilobiti della Burgess Shale (Cambriano medio). II. Contributo: I Generai Sidneyia ed Amiella Walcott 1911. Monitore Zoologico Italiano, 70: 97-108.

STØMER, L. 1944. On the relationships and phylogeny of fossil and recent Arachnomorpha. Norsk Videnskaps-Akademi Skrifter I. Matematisk-Naturvidenskaplig Klasse, 5: 1-158.

WALCOTT, C. D. 1911. Middle Cambrian Merostomata. Cambrian geology and paleontology II. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 57: 17-40.

WALCOTT, C. D. 1912. Cambrian Geology and Paleontology II. Middle Cambrian Branchiopoda, Malacostraca, Trilobita and Merostomata. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 57(6): 145-228.

WHITTINGTON, H. B. AND D. E. G. BRIGGS. 1985. The largest Cambrian animal, Anomalocaris, Burgess Shale, British-Columbia. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences, 309: 569-609.

WILLS, M. A., D. E. G. BRIGGS, R. A. FORTEY, M. WILKINSON AND P. H. A. SNEATH. 1998. An arthropod phylogeny based on fossil and recent taxa, pp. 33-105. In G. D. Edgecombe (ed.), Arthropod fossils and phylogeny. Columbia University Press, New York.

ZHU, X., H. JIAN AND S. DEGAN. 2002. New occurrence of the Burgess Shale arthropod Sidneyia in the Early Cambrian Chengjiang Lagerstätte (South China), and revision of the arthropod Urokodia. Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology, 26: 1-18.

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