The Burgess Shale

Elrathina cordillerae

Trilobite with numerous segments and a tiny tail shield

Elrathina cordillerae (ROM 53273). Complete individual; a presumed carcass with free cheeks in place (coated with ammonium chloride sublimate to show details). Specimen length = 24 mm. Specimen dry – direct light. Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds on Mount Stephen.

© Royal Ontario Museum. Photo: Jean-Bernard Caron


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Higher Taxonomic assignment: Trilobita (Order: Ptychopariida)
Species name: Elrathina cordillerae

Trilobites are extinct euarthropods, probably stem lineage representatives of the Mandibulata, which includes crustaceans, myriapods, and hexapods (Scholtz and Edgecombe, 2006).

Described by: Rominger
Description date: 1887

Elrathina – unspecified.

cordillerae – in reference to the Western Cordillera (Canadian Rocky Mountain ranges), derived from the Spanish cordilla, the diminutive of cuerda, meaning “cord.”

Type Specimens: Type status under review – UMMP 4883 (6 specimens), University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: Elrathina parallela, E. brevifrons, E. spinifera, and E. marginalis have been described from similar stratigraphic horizons at nearby sites on Mount Field, Mount Stephen, and Mount Odaray.

Other deposits: Other species of Elrathina have been reported from the Cambrian of North America and Greenland.

Age & Localities:

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

The Walcott Quarry on Fossil Ridge. The Trilobite Beds and additional localities on Mount Stephen.

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

E. cordillerae was originally described under the genus name Conocephalites in Rominger’s 1887 publication on trilobites from Mount Stephen. In 1888 Walcott reallocated the species to Ptychoparia where it remained until Charles Resser, Walcott’s former assistant at the United States National Museum, established the new replacement genus Elrathina (Resser, 1937). Other workers have subsequently suggested that Elrathina is indistinguishable from Ptychoparella (see Blaker and Peel, 1997).

Species of Elrathina, along with those of the corynexochid Bathyuriscus, were found to be very abundant in a narrow interval of Middle Cambrian rocks throughout western North America, forming the basis of the Bathyuriscus-Elrathina Zone erected by Charles Deiss (1940).



Hard parts: adult dorsal exoskeletons average about 2 cm long. The semicircular cephalon is about one-third the length of the entire dorsal shield, bordered by a well-defined narrow rim, and with rounded genal angles. Weak transverse eye ridges extend to the small eyes, which are located just forward of cephalic mid-length. The slightly anteriorly narrowing glabella is rounded in front and exhibits three pairs of shallow lateral furrows; the pre-glabellar field is about the same width as the narrow anterior rim. The long, tapering thorax with a narrow axial lobe contains between 17 and 19 straight-sided segments, flexed gently downwards a short distance from the rounded tips. The tiny elliptical pygidium usually features two segments.

Unmineralized anatomy: rare specimens from the Walcott Quarry on Fossil Ridge retain tantalizing evidence of soft parts, including a pair of slender uniramous antennae, followed by very delicate looking biramous limbs beneath the cephalon, thorax and pygidium. These and other individuals of E. cordillerae are occasionally associated with a dark stain adjacent to the exoskeleton, presumably representing fluidized decay products.


Relatively common on Fossil Ridge and locally very abundant in the Walcott Quarry, where it represents about 25% of all trilobites collected (Caron and Jackson, 2008).

Maximum Size:
28 mm


Life habits: Epibenthic, Mobile
Feeding strategies: Deposit feeder
Ecological Interpretations:

Like similar-looking ptychoparioid trilobites, E. cordillerae may be interpreted as a fully mobile, epibenthic deposit (particle) feeder adapted to very low oxygen levels.


BLAKER, M. R. AND J. S. PEEL. 1997. Lower Cambrian trilobites from North Greenland. Meddeleser om Grønland, Geoscience, 35, 145 p.

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

DEISS, C. 1940. Lower and Middle Cambrian stratigraphy of southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 51: 731-794.

RASETTI, F. 1951. Middle Cambrian stratigraphy and faunas of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 116 (5): 277 p.

RESSER, C. E. 1937. Third contribution to nomenclature of Cambrian trilobites. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 95(22): 29 p.

ROMINGER, C. 1887. Description of primordial fossils from Mount Stephens, N. W. Territory of Canada. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1887: 12-19.

RUDKIN, D. M. 1989. Trilobites with appendages from the Middle Cambrian Stephen Formation of British Columbia. 28th International Geological Congress, Washington, D.C. July 9-19, 1989. Abstracts: 2-729.

SCHOLTZ, G. AND G. D. EDGECOMBE. 2006. The evolution of arthropod heads: reconciling morphological, developmental and palaeontological evidence. Development Genes and Evolution, 216: 395-415.

WALCOTT, C. 1918. Cambrian Geology and Paleontology IV. Appendages of trilobites. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 67(4): 115-216.

WALCOTT, C. D. 1924. Cambrian and Lower Ozarkian trilobites. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 75(2): 53-60.

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