The Burgess Shale

Capinatator praetermissus

A giant arrow worm with extra sets of spines

Capinatator praetermissus, ROMIP 64247


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chaetognatha
Higher Taxonomic assignment: None
Species name: Capinatator praetermissus

Capinatator is considered an early chaetognath unrelated to modern forms (Briggs and Caron (2017), see also Vinther and Parry (2019)). Modern chaetognaths have traditionally been difficult to classify based on morphological characters, but thanks to progress in phylogenomic techniques, they are currently viewed as members of the Gnathifera, a clade of very small organisms with complex jaws (Marlétaz et al. 2019).

Described by: Briggs and Caron
Description date: 2017

Capinatator — from the Latin “capere,” which means “to grasp,” and the Latin “natator,” which means “swimmer.”

praetermissus — from the Latin “praeter,” which means “besides, beyond”, and “mittere” which means “to send away, to reach out”, referring to the fact that this fossil has long been overlooked.

Type Specimens: Holotype ROMIP 64271_1, at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: None

Other deposits: None

Age & Localities:

Middle Cambrian, Wuliuan stage, Burgess Shale Formation (around 505 million years old).
Principal localities:

Mount Stephen (Collins Quarry locality), Walcott Quarry, British Columbia.

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

Two separate species from the Burgess Shale have previously been regarded as chaetognaths, Amiskwia sagittiformis (Walcott 1911) and Oesia disjuncta (Szaniawski 2005). Since then, Amiskwia has been redescribed as a gnathiferan (Caron and Cheung 2019; Vinther and Parry 2019) and Oesia as a hemichordate (Nanglu et al. 2020). Conway Morris (2009) illustrated the first grasping spines of a Burgess Shale chaetognath from a specimen originally discovered by Walcott. Body fossils of Cambrian chaetognaths are extremely rare, with only a few specimens known from China likely representing just one species (Vannier et al. 2007). At the time Capinatator was published, another species was also described from China with a very similar arrangement of spines but with no evidence of the body except for traces of the head (Shu et al. 2017).



The body is divided into a large head, short neck, an elongate trunk, and a short tail. Lateral and terminal fins did not preserve; these are the first features to decay (Casenove et al. 2011). The head has about 50 simple grasping spines, 25 on each side of the mouth. The spines are claw-shaped and each one may have been reinforced at the tip by a conical structure. A gut trace are visible in some specimens.


49 specimens were initially described, but only 18 preserve evidence of the body.

Maximum Size:
About 9.5 cm.


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

Like modern species, Capinatator likely swam by undulating its body, using its caudal fin for propulsion and lateral fins for added maneuverability. The rarity of specimens preserved with the body suggests that this species did not normally live along the seafloor where it would have been subject to being entrapped by rapid mudflows. Instead, it is likely that Capinatator fed in the water column using its strong grasping spines to capture small swimming prey.


  • BRIGGS, D. E. G. and CARON, J. B. 2017. A large Cambrian chaetognath with supernumerary grasping spines. Current Biology, 27, 2536-2543.e1.
  • CARON, J.-B. and CHEUNG, B. 2019. Amiskwia is a large Cambrian gnathiferan with complex gnathostomulid-like jaws. Communications Biology, 2, 164.
  • CASENOVE, D., OJI, T. and GOTO, T. 2011. Experimental Taphonomy of Benthic Chaetognaths: Implications for the Decay Process of Paleozoic Chaetognath Fossils. Paleontological Research, 15, 146-153, 8.
  • CONWAY MORRIS, S. 2009. The Burgess Shale animal Oesia is not a chaetognath: A reply to Szaniawski (2005). Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 54, 175-179.
  • MARLÉTAZ, F., PEIJNENBURG, K. T. C. A., GOTO, T., SATOH, N. and ROKHSAR, D. S. 2019. A new spiralian phylogeny places the enigmatic arrow worms among gnathiferans. Current Biology, 29, 312-318.e3.
  • NANGLU, K., CARON, J.-B. and CAMERON, C. B. 2020. Cambrian tentaculate worms and the origin of the hemichordate body plan. Current Biology, 30, 4238-4244.e1.
  • SHU, D., CONWAY MORRIS, S., HAN, J., HOYAL CUTHILL, J. F., ZHANG, Z., CHENG, M. and HUANG, H. 2017. Multi-jawed chaetognaths from the Chengjiang Lagerstätte (Cambrian, Series 2, Stage 3) of Yunnan, China. Palaeontology, 60, 763-772.
  • SZANIAWSKI, H. 2005. Cambrian chaetognaths recognized in Burgess Shale fossils. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 50, 1-8.
  • VANNIER, J., STEINER, M., RENVOISÉ, E., HU, S. X. and CASANOVA, J. P. 2007. Early Cambrian origin of modern food webs: evidence from predator arrow worms. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 274, 627-633.
  • VINTHER, J. and PARRY, L. A. 2019. Bilateral jaw elements in Amiskwia sagittiformis bridge the morphological gap between gnathiferans and chaetognaths. Current Biology, 29, 881-888.e1.
  • WALCOTT, C. 1911. Cambrian Geology and Paleontology II. Middle Cambrian annelids. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 57(5), 109-145.
Other Links: