The Burgess Shale

Marpolia spissa

A bush-like filamentous cyanobacteria

3D animation of Marpolia spissa.



Kingdom: Eubacteria
Phylum: Cyanobacteria
Higher Taxonomic assignment: Cyanophyceae (Order: Oscillatoriales?)
Species name: Marpolia spissa

Walcott (1919) considered this species to be a cyanobacterium, but Walton suggested a relationship to red algae instead (Walton, 1923). More recent studies concurred with Walcott’s original interpretation (Conway Morris and Robison, 1988).

Described by: Walcott
Description date: 1919

Marpolia – from Mount Marpole (2,997 m), a peak located near the Burgess Shale, northwest of Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park.

spissa – from the Latin spissus, “crowded,” in reference to the bush-like aspect of this cyanobacteria.

Type Specimens: Lectotype –USNM35403 (M. spissa); holotype –USNM35412 (M. aequalis) in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA.
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: M. aequalis Walcott 1919 from the Trilobite Beds on Mount Stephen (known from a single specimen).

Other deposits: Marpolia (possibly represented by different species) is common in various Cambrian exceptional fossil deposits, in particular from the Middle Cambrian Spence Shale and Wheeler Formation in Utah (Conway Morris and Robison, 1988) and the Middle Cambrian Kaili Formation in China (Yang et al., 2001).

Age & Localities:

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

The Walcott Quarry on Fossil Ridge, the Tulip Beds (S7) on Mount Stephen, and other smaller localities on Mount Field, Mount Stephen and Monarch Cirque.

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

Walcott described Marpolia in 1919 and named two species from the Burgess Shale, M. spissa from the Walcott Quarry and M. aequalis from the Trilobite Beds. M. spissa was compared to the modern Oscillatorialesin an unpublished thesis (Satterthwait, 1976), an interpretation followed by Conway Morris and Robison (1988) based on the study of fossil material from various Utah deposits. M. spissa is commonly found in thin sections (Mankiewicz, 1992) and can be isolated by acid maceration (Butterfield, 1990). A recent taphonomic study demonstrated that the preservation style of Marpolia is similar to other Burgess Shale organisms (Butterfield et al., 2007).



Marpolia forms dense tufts up to 5 cm in length composed of numerous filaments. Filaments tend to branch near the base of the tuft. Each filament averages about 40 microns in width. Filaments are composed of an outer sheath and one to four strands of inner cells. Each cell is about 2 microns in length. M. aequalis has a central stem and stronger branching structures than M. spissa.


Estimating the abundance of Marpolia is difficult since some bedding planes have large tangled masses of this cyanobacterium, and many could represent fragments of the same colony. M. spissa is rare and represents only 0.07% of the Walcott Quarry community (Caron and Jackson, 2008).

Maximum Size:
50 mm


Life habits: Planktonic, Sessile
Feeding strategies: Primary producer
Ecological Interpretations:

The absence of an attachment structure suggests that Marpolia may have been free-living, floating in large masses (i.e., planktonic). It may have attached to other floating objects as free-living cyanobacteria do today. It is also possible that the lack of attachment structure is taphonomic (a structure that is lost during deposition), due to detachment from the sediment during transport (caused by having been swept up in mud flows) prior to burial.


BUTTERFIELD, N. J. 1990. Organic preservation of non-mineralizing organisms and the taphonomy of the Burgess Shale. Paleobiology, 16: 272-286.

BUTTERFIELD, N. J., U. BALTHASAR AND L. WILSON. 2007. Fossil diagenesis in the Burgess Shale. Palaeontology, 50: 537-543.

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

CONWAY MORRIS, S. AND R. A. ROBISON. 1988. More soft-bodied animals from the Middle Cambrian of Utah and British Columbia. University of Kansas Paleontological Contributions, 122 p.

MANKIEWICZ, C. 1992. Obruchevella and other microfossils in the Burgess Shale: preservation and affinity. Journal of Paleontology, 66: 717-729.

SATTERTHWAIT, D. F. 1976. Paleobiology and Paleoecology of Middle Cambrian Algae from Western North America. Unpublished PhD thesis, California, Los Angeles, 120 p.

WALCOTT, C. D. 1919. Middle Cambrian Algae. Cambrian Geology and Paleontology IV. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 67(5): 217-260.

WALTON, J. 1923. On the structure of a Middle Cambrian alga from British Columbia (Marpolia spissa Walcott). Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society-Biological Sciences, 1: 59-62.

YANG, R., J. MAO, Y. ZHAO, X. CHEN AND X. YANG. 2001. Branching macroalgal fossils of the Early-Middle Cambrian Kaili Formation from Taijiang, Guizhou Province, China. Acta Geologica Sinica, 75: 433-440.

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