The Burgess Shale

Halichondrites elissa

An elongate cone-shaped sponge with long hair-like spicules

Halichondrites elissa (ROM 53575) – Part and counterpart. Nearly complete individual showing the pointed root tuft. Specimen height = 140 mm. Specimen dry – direct light (left), wet – direct light (right). Walcott Quarry.

© Royal Ontario Museum. Photos: Jean-Bernard Caron


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Porifera
Higher Taxonomic assignment: Demospongea (Order: Monaxonida)
Species name: Halichondrites elissa

Halichondrites is considered a primitive demosponge (Rigby, 1986). Demosponges, the same group that are harvested as bath sponges, represent the largest class of sponges today.

Described by: Walcott
Description date: 1920

Halichondrities – from the Greek hal, meaning “belonging to the sea,” chon, meaning “funnel” or “tube,” and dri, meaning “thicket.” The name refers to the shape of this marine sponge with a thicket of long hair-like spicules.

elissa – from the Greek eliss, meaning “to roll, or to turn about.” This name may refer to the spiral pattern of the small spicules of this sponge.

Type Specimens: Holotype –USNM66447 in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA.
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: An unidentified species, Halichondrites sp. from Mount Stephen (Rigby and Collins, 2004).

Other deposits: H. confusus Dawson, 1889 from the Ordovician of Quebec at Little Métis.

Age & Localities:

Lower Cambrian, Wutingaspis-Eoredlichia Zone to Middle Cambrian, Bathyuriscus-Elrathina Zone (approximately 510 to 505 million years ago).
Principal localities:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: The Walcott and Raymond Quarries on Fossil Ridge.

Other deposits: H. elissa from the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang fauna (Chen et al., 1997; Luo et al., 1999).

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

Walcott assigned this species to the genus Halichondrites in 1920. Ribgy (1986) re-described this genus and hypothesized that Halichondrites probably evolved from an early species of Leptomitus and established a new family called Halichondritidae to include this genus. New specimens collected by the Royal Ontario Museum were subsequently described by Rigby and Collins in 2004.



This sponge has a cone shaped base that extends upwards to form a long tube. The walls of the sponge are smooth with a thatch of small spicules that are vertically arranged in a clockwise spiraling pattern. There are no canals visible in the wall; they may be very small or run parallel to the wall. The most distinctive part of this sponge is the long thick, densely arranged spicules that emerge from the wall. These spicules are orientated upwards and may be up to 8.5 cm long. This sponge can be over 20 cm tall and is one of the tallest and most hirsute (densely covered in hair) of the Burgess Shale sponges. Water would have entered though small pores in the wall, moving into the central cavity and out the circular osculum at the top of the sponge.


Halichondrites is very rare and represents only 0.01% of the Walcott Quarry community (Caron and Jackson, 2008).

Maximum Size:
215 mm


Life habits: Epibenthic, Sessile
Feeding strategies: Suspension feeder
Ecological Interpretations:

Halichondrites would have lived attached to the sea floor. Particles of organic matter were extracted from the water as they passed through canals in the sponge’s wall.


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., Y. N. CHENG AND H. V. ITEN. 1997. The Cambrian explosion and the fossil record. National Museum of Natural Science Taiwan, Taichung, 319 p.

LUO, H., S. HU, L. CHEN, S. ZHANG AND Y. TAO. 1999. Early Cambrian Chengjiang fauna from Kunming region, China. Yunnan Science and Technology Press, Kunming, 162 p.

RIGBY, J. K. 1986. Sponges of the Burgess Shale (Middle Cambrian), British Columbia. Palaeontographica canadiana, 2: 105 p.

RIGBY, J. K. AND D. COLLINS. 2004. Sponges of the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale and Stephen Formations, British Columbia. Royal Ontario Museum Contributions in Science (1): 155 p.

WALCOTT, C. D. 1920. Middle Cambrian Spongiae. Cambrian Geology and Paleontology IV. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 67(6): 261-365.

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