The Burgess Shale

Marrella splendens

An abundant arthropod with large head spines

3D animation of Marrella splendens.



Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Higher Taxonomic assignment: Marrellomorpha (Order: Marrellida, stem group arthropods)
Species name: Marrella splendens

The affinity of Marrella is still somewhat uncertain. It has been grouped together with the Devonian taxa Mimetaster and Vachonisia from the Hunsrück Shale to form the Class Marrellomorpha (Beurlen, 1934; Strømer, 1944), but the placement of this class in arthropod evolution is unclear. It has been suggested to be at the base of a group of Lamellipedian arthropods, including trilobites and trilobite-like taxa, (Hou and Bergström, 1997), but has also been placed in the most basal position in the upper stem lineage arthropods (Briggs and Fortey, 1989; Wills et al., 1998).

Described by: Walcott
Description date: 1912

Marrella – after Dr. John Marr, palaeontologist at Cambridge University and friend of Walcott.

splendens – from the Latin splendens, “beautiful, or brilliant.”

Type Specimens: Lectotype –USNM57674 in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA.
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: none

Other deposits: Marrella sp. from the Kaili Biota of southwest China (Zhao et al., 2003).

Age & Localities:

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

The Walcott and Raymond Quarries on Fossil Ridge. Smaller localities on Mount Field, the Tulip Beds (S7) on Mount Stephen and Mount Odaray.

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

Marrella was one of the first fossils found by Walcott, and sketches appear in his notebook as early as August 31st, 1909. Walcott informally named them “lace crabs” at the time. The next summer, on August 9, 1910, Walcott and son Stuart found the “lace crab beds” in situ, marking the discovery of the fossil-bearing beds of the Walcott Quarry of the Burgess Shale. Walcott (1912) formally described the “lace crabs” as Marrella splendens, but a reconstruction was not attempted until Raymond (1920).

Marrella was examined again by Simonetta (1962) and in a major study by Whittington (1971). New specimens collected by the Royal Ontario Museum allowed for the description of a specimen showing Marrella in the act of moulting (García-Bellido and Collins, 2004), and another re-description of the taxon (García-Bellido and Collins, 2006).



Marrella is a small arthropod with a wedge-shaped head shield bearing two pairs of prominent spines that project from the sides and posterodorsal margin and extend back along most of the length of the body. There is also a pair of smaller posteroventral spines. The head bears a pair of long, thin antennae with as many as 30 segments, and a pair of paddle-like appendages with six segments and numerous bushy setae along the edges.

Behind the head, the body consists of 26 segments that are small and subcircular, each bearing a pair of biramous appendages. The walking branch of this appendage has six segments, and the second branch is made of tapering gills with long, slim filaments that attach near the base of the legs. The last twelve body segments have conspicuous internal projections that form a net below the body.

The tail is minute and pointed. The stomach is located in the head near the ventral mouth, and the intestine stretches most of the length of the body. Dark stains found around the body are suggested to be the gut contents that were squeezed out during preservation. A small, triangular dorsal heart is located in the cephalic region and has arteries branching off from it.


Marrella is one of the most common species in the Burgess Shale. Over 25,000 specimens have been collected (García-Bellido and Collins, 2006), and it is the second most common arthropod species in Walcott Quarry, comprising 7.3% of the specimens counted (Caron and Jackson, 2008).

Maximum Size:
25 mm


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

Marrella was an active swimmer that moved just above the sea floor while deposit feeding. It could rest on the sea floor by standing on its body appendages. Swimming was achieved by undulating the second pair of paddle-like appendages on the head. Its antennae would be used to sense the environment and locate food items. The net of internal projections on the last twelve body segments would have been used to trap food particles located in water currents and to pass them along the underside of the animal. Food particles trapped in the net would be moved towards the mouth using the tips of the anterior legs.


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

BRIGGS, D. E. G., B. S. LIEBERMAN, J. R. HENDRICKS, S. L. HALGEDAHL AND R. D. JARRARD. 2008. Middle Cambrian arthropods from Utah. Journal of Paleontology, 82(2): 238-254.

BEURLEN, K. 1934. Die Pygaspiden, eine neue Crustaceen – (Entomostraceen) – Gruppe aus den Mesosaurier führenden Iraty-Scichten Brasiliens. Paläontologische Zeitschrift, 16: 122-138.

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

GARCÍA-BELLIDO, D. AND D. H. COLLINS. 2004. Moulting arthropod caught in the act. Nature, 429: 40.

GARCÍA-BELLIDO, D. AND D. H. COLLINS. 2006. A new study of Marrella splendens(Arthropoda, Marrellomorpha) from the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale, British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 43: 721-742.

HOU, X. AND J. BERGSTRÖM. 1997. Arthropods of the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang fauna, southwest China. Fossils and Strata, 45: 1-116.

RAYMOND, P. E. 1920. The appendages, anatomy, and relationships of trilobites. Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 7: 1-169.

SIMONETTA, A. M. 1962. Note sugli artropodi non trilobiti della Burgess Shale, Cambriano Medio della Columbia Britannica (Canada). 1. contributo: 2. genere Marrella Walcott, 1912. Monitore Zoologico Italiano, 69: 172-185.

STØMER, L. 1944. On the relationships and phylogeny of fossil and recent Arachnomorpha. Norsk Videnskaps-Akademi Skrifter I. Matematisk-Naturvidenskaplig Klasse, 5: 1-158.

WALCOTT, C. 1912. Cambrian geology and paleontology II. Middle Cambrian Branchiopoda, Malacostraca, Trilobita and Merostomata. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 57(6): 145-228.

WHITTINGTON, H. B. 1971. Redescription of Marrella splendens (Trilobitoidea) from the Burgess Shale, Middle Cambrian, British Columbia. Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Canada, 209: 1-24.

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.

ZHAO, Y., J. YUAN, M. ZHU, X. YANG AND J. PENG. 2003. The occurrence of the genus Marrella (Trilobitoidea) in Asia. Progress in Natural Science, 13: 708-711.

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