The Burgess Shale

Habelia? brevicauda

A poorly-known arthropod with a short tail spine

Habelia? brevicauda (USNM 144910) – Holotype. Complete individual preserved without appendages. Total specimen length = 50 mm. Specimen dry – polarized light. Walcott Quarry.

© Smithsonian Institution – National Museum of Natural History. Photo: Jean-Bernard Caron


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Higher Taxonomic assignment: Unranked clade (stem group arthropods)
Species name: Habelia? brevicauda

Habelia? brevicauda is too poorly known to definitively determine its affinities. It has been aligned in some studies with the arachnomorphs (a group including chelicerates and trilobites), and has been suggested to be closely related to lamellipedians such as Naraoia and the trilobites (Briggs and Fortey, 1989), or placed within Megacheira as a close relative of Leanchoilia (Wills et al., 1998).

Described by: Simonetta
Description date: 1964

Habelia – from Mount Habel (3,161 m), today known as Mount Des Poilus, at the head of Yoho Valley, named in 1900 by Norman Collie in honour of Jean Habel, a German mountaineer. The name Mount Habel is now applied to a peak north of Mount Des Poilus.

brevicauda – from the Latin brevis, “short,” and cauda, “tail.”

Type Specimens: Holotype –USNM144910 in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA.
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: Habelia optata from Walcott Quarry, Fossil Ridge and The Monarch in Kootenay National Park.

Other deposits: none.

Age & Localities:

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

The Walcott and Raymond Quarries on Fossil Ridge.

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

Habelia optata was first described by Walcott in 1912, to which Simonetta added the possible second species Habelia? brevicauda in 1964. This second species was later restudied by Whittington (1981). Phylogenetic analyses suggest a position within the arachnomorphs (Briggs and Fortey, 1989; Wills et al., 1998). If this is confirmed, Habelia probably represent a stem group of the Mandibulata, which includes crustaceans, myriapods, and hexapods (Scholtz and Edgecombe, 2006).



The body ranges in size from 1.8 – 5.4 cm and consists of a half-circle head shield and a trunk with twelve segments, the last of which bears a posterior spine. The head shield is smooth and featureless. The trunk segments have a broad, convex axial region, with blade-shaped elements (pleura) extending from either side. The pleura are short and round at the anterior of the body, but become progressively wider and have increasingly backward-pointing tips towards the posterior. The short, broad posterior spine tapers with a bluntly rounded tip.

In the type species, Habelia optata, the exoskeleton is covered in small tubercules , and appendages include a pair of antennae, two pairs of head appendages that are segmented and branch into two (biramous), and six pairs of possibly gnathobasic biramous trunk appendages (i.e., with a robust and spiny basal podomere or segment used for crushing food items). Tubercules and appendages have not been described in Habelia? brevicauda, which is why its placement in the genus is uncertain.


Habelia? brevicauda was originally described from fewer than ten specimens.

Maximum Size:
54 mm


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

Habelia? brevicauda is assumed to have walked on trunk limbs, using its head appendages to manipulate food items. If gnathobases were present, they may have served to masticate food. The frontal antennae were presumably sensory. Considerable flexure of the head may have been possible, which may have allowed Habelia to use its cephalon to dig into the sediment in search of food. It walked along the sea floor while digging and scavenging food items.


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

ELLIOTT, D. K. AND D. L. MARTIN. 1987. A new trace fossil from the Cambrian Bright Angel Shale, Grand Canyon, Arizona. Journal of Paleontology, 61: 641-648.

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.

SIMONETTA, A. M. 1964. Osservazioni sugli artropodi non trilobiti della ‘Burgess Shale’ (Cambriano medio). III conributo. Monitore Zoologico Italiano, 72: 215-231.

WALCOTT, C. D. 1912. Middle Cambrian Branchiopoda, Malacostraca, Trilobita and Merostomata. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 57: 145-228.

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, p. 33-105. In G. D. Edgecombe (ed.), Arthropod fossils and phylogeny. Columbia University Press, New York.

WHITTINGTON, H. B. 1981. Rare arthropods from the Burgess Shale, Middle Cambrian, British Columbia. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences, 292: 329-357.

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