The Burgess Shale

Anomalocaris canadensis

The largest predator of the Cambrian, first described in 1892

3D animation of Anomalocaris canadensis.

Animation by Phlesch Bubble © Royal Ontario Museum


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Higher Taxonomic assignment: Dinocarida (Order: Radiodonta, stem group arthropods)
Species name: Anomalocaris canadensis

Anomalocaris is an anomalocaridid. Anomalocaridids have been variously regarded as basal stem-lineage euarthropods (e.g., Daley et al., 2009), basal members of the arthropod group Chelicerata (e.g., Chen et al., 2004), and as a sister group to the arthropods (e.g., Hou et al., 2006).

Described by: Whiteaves
Description date: 1892

Anomalocaris – from the Greek anomoios, “unlike,” and the Latin caris, “crab” or “shrimp,” thus, “unlike other shrimp.”

canadensis – from Canada, the country where the Burgess Shale is located.

Type Specimens: Lectotype – GSC3418 in the Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa, Canada.
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: none.

Other deposits: A. pennsylvanica from the Early Cambrian Kinzers Formation in Pennsylvania (Resser, 1929); A. saron (Hou et al., 1995) from the Early Cambrian Chengjiang biota; A. briggsi (Nedin, 1995) from the Early Cambrian Emu Bay Shale of Australia.

Age & Localities:

Middle Cambrian, Bathyuriscus–Elrathina Zone (approximately 505 million years ago).
Principal localities:

The Collins, Raymond and Walcott Quarries on Fossil Ridge. The Trilobite Beds, Tulip Beds (S7) and the Collins Quarry on Mount Stephen. Additional localities on Mount Field, Mount Stephen, near Stanley Glacier and in the Early Cambrian Cranbrook Shale, Eager Formation, British Columbia.

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

Anomalocaris has a complex history of description because parts of its body were described in isolation before it was realized they all belonged to the same animal. The frontal appendage of Anomalocaris was described by Whiteaves (1892) as the body of a shrimp. The mouth parts were described by Walcott (1911) as a jellyfish called Peytoia nathorsti. A full body anomalocaridid specimen was originally described as the sea cucumber Laggania cambria (Walcott, 1911), and re-examined by Conway Morris (1978) who concluded it was a superimposition of the “jellyfish” Peytoia nathorsti on top of a sponge. Henriksen (1928) attached Anomalocaris to the carapace of Tuzoia, but Briggs (1979) suggested instead that it was the appendage of an unknown arthropod, an idea that turned out to be correct.

In the early 1980s, Harry Whittington was preparing an unidentified Burgess Shale fossil from the Geological Survey of Canada by chipping away layers of rock to reveal underlying structures, when he solved the mystery of Anomalocaris‘s identity. Much to his surprise, Whittington uncovered two Anomalocaris “shrimp” attached to the head region of a large body, which also had the “jellyfish” Peytoia as the mouth apparatus. Similar preparations of other fossils from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC revealed the same general morphology, including the Laggania cambria specimen Conway Morris (1978) thought to be the superimposition of the Peytoia jellyfish on a sponge, which was actually a second species of Anomalocaris. Thus, Whittington and Briggs (1985) were able to describe two species: Anomalocaris canadensis, which had a pair of the typical Anomalocaris appendages, and Anomalocaris nathorsti, which has a different type of frontal appendage and includes the original specimen of Laggania cambria. Bergström (1986) re-examined the morphology and affinity of Anomalocaris and suggested it had similarities to the arthropods.

Collecting at the Burgess Shale by the Royal Ontario Museum in the early 1990s led to the discovery of several complete specimens, which Collins (1996) used to reconstruct Anomalocaris canadensis with greater accuracy. This led to a name change of Anomalocaris nathorsti to Laggania cambria. Anomalocaris has since been the subject of many studies discussing its affinity (e.g., Hou et al., 1995; Chen et al., 2004; Daley et al., 2009), ecology (e.g., Rudkin, 1979; Nedin, 1999) and functional morphology (e.g., Usami, 2006).



Anomalocaris is a bilaterally symmetrical and dorsoventrally flattened animal with a non-mineralized exoskeleton. It has a segmented trunk, with at least 11 lateral swimming flaps bearing gills, and a prominent tailfan, which consists of three pairs of prominent fins that extend upward from the body. Paired gut glands are associated with the body segments in some specimens. The head region bears one pair of anterior appendages, two eyes on stalks, and a ventrally oriented circular mouth apparatus with many spiny plates. The frontal appendages are elongated and have 14 segments, each with a pair of sharp spikes projecting from the ventral surface. The stalked eyes are dorsal and relatively large. The ventral mouth apparatus has 32 rectangular plates, four large and 28 small, arranged in a circle, with sharp spines pointing into a square central opening. The most complete Anomalocaris specimen is 25 cm in length, although individual fragments suggest individuals could reach a larger size, perhaps up to 100 cm.


The Anomalocaris frontal appendage is extremely common at the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds, and several hundred specimens of isolated frontal appendages and mouth parts have been collected from Mount Stephen and the Raymond Quarry on Fossil Ridge. These parts are relatively rare at Walcott Quarry, where fewer than 50 specimens are known (Caron and Jackson, 2008). Several dozen disarticulated assemblages and five complete body specimens are known from the Raymond Quarry.

Maximum Size:
1000 mm


Life habits: Nektobenthic, Mobile, Nektonic
Feeding strategies: Carnivorous
Ecological Interpretations:

The streamlined body would have been ideal for swimming. Undulatory movements of the lateral flaps propelled the animal through the water column and might have also served in gill ventilation. While swimming, Anomalocaris‘s frontal appendages would hang below the body, but it would thrust its head and appendages forward 180° to attack prey as needed.

A predatory lifestyle is suggested by the large eyes, frontal appendages with spines, gut glands, and spiny mouth apparatus. The circular mouth part is unique in the animal kingdom. It seems unlikely that it was used to bite prey by bringing lateral plates into opposition, rather, it grasped objects either by pivoting the plates outwards or contracting them inward. It has been suggested that Anomalocaris may have preyed on trilobites because some Cambrian trilobites have round or W-shaped healed wounds, interpreted as bite marks (Rudkin, 1979), and large fecal pellets composed of trilobite parts have been found in the Cambrian rock record; anamalocaridids are the only known animals large enough to have produced such pellets. The anomalocaridids could have fed by grasping one end of the trilobite in the mouth apparatus and rocking the other end back and forth with the frontal appendages until the exoskeleton cracked (Nedin, 1999). However, the unmineralized mouth apparatus of Anomalocaris would have probably been too weak to penetrate the calcified shell of trilobites in this manner, and the mouth parts do not show any sign of breakage or wear. Thus, Anomalocaris may have been feeding on soft-bodied organisms including on freshly moulted “soft-shell” trilobites (Rudkin, 2009).


BERGSTRÖM, J. 1986. Opabinia and Anomalocaris, unique Cambrian ‘arthropods’. Lethaia, 19: 241-46.

BRIGGS, D. E. G. 1979. Anomalocaris, the largest known Cambrian arthropod. Palaeontology, 22: 631-663.

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

CHEN, J. Y., D. WALOSZEK AND A. MAAS. 2004. A new “great-appendage” arthropod from the Lower Cambrian of China and homology of chelicerate chelicerae and raptorial antero-ventral appendages. Lethaia, 37: 3-20.

COLLINS, D. 1996. The “evolution” of Anomalocaris and its classification in the arthropod class Dinocarida (nov) and order Radiodonta (nov). Journal of Paleontology, 70: 280-293.

CONWAY MORRIS, S. 1978. Laggania cambria Walcott: a composite fossil. Journal of Paleontology, 52: 126-131.

DALEY, A. C., G. E. BUDD, J. B. CARON, G. D. EDGECOMBE AND D. COLLINS. 2009. The Burgess Shale anomalocaridid Hurdia and its significance for early euarthropod evolution. Science, 323: 1597-1600.

HENRIKSEN, K. L. 1928. Critical notes upon some Cambrian arthropods described from Charles D. Walcott. Videnskabelige Meddelelser fra Dansk Naturhistorisk Forening: Khobenhavn, 86: 1-20.

HOU, X., J. BERGSTRÖM AND P. AHLBERG. 1995. Anomalocaris and other large animals in the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang fauna of Southwest China. GFF, 117: 163-183.

HOU, X., J. BERGSTRÖM AND Y. JIE. 2006. Distinguishing anomalocaridids from arthropods and priapulids. Geological Journal, 41:259-269.

NEDIN, C. 1999. Anomalocaris predation on nonmineralized and mineralized trilobites. Geology, 27: 987-990.

RESSER, C. E. 1929. New Lower and Middle Cambrian Crustacea. Proceedings of the United States National Museum, 76: 1-18.

RUDKIN, D. M. 1979. Healed injuries in Ogygosis klotzi (Trilobita) from the Middle Cambrian of British Columbia. Royal Ontario Museum, Life Sciences Occasional Paper, 32: 1-8.

RUDKIN, D. M. 2009. The Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds, pp. 90-102. In J.-B. Caron and D. Rudkin (eds.), A Burgess Shale Primer – History, Geology, and Research Highlights. The Burgess Shale Consortium, Toronto.

USAMI, Y. 2006. Theoretical study on the body form and swimming pattern of Anomalocaris based on hydrodynamic simulation. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 238: 11-17.

WALCOTT, C. D. 1911. Middle Cambrian holothurians and medusae. Cambrian geoogy and paleontology II. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 57: 41-68.

WHITEAVES, J. F. 1892. Description of a new genus and species of phyllocarid Crustacea from the Middle Cambrian of Mount Stephen, B.C. Canadian Record of Science, 5: 205-208.

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.

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