© SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION – NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY. PHOTOS: JEAN-BERNARD CARON
Metaspriggina is considered to represent a primitive chordate, possibly transitional between cephalochordates and the earliest vertebrates (Conway Morris, 2008).
Metaspriggina – from the Greek meta, “in company with, or later in time,” and the morphologically similar Ediacaran organism Spriggina (which is no longer thought to be related). Spriggina honours Reg Sprigg, discoverer of the Precambrian fossils of the Ediacara Hills in Australia.
walcotti – after Charles Walcott, discoverer of the Burgess Shale.
Burgess Shale and vicinity: none.
Other deposits: none.
The Walcott Quarry on Fossil Ridge.
Set aside by Walcott for further study, the two known specimens of this species were briefly examined by Conway Morris (1979). Simonetta and Insom (1993) described one of the two specimens (the original holotype specimen) as a potential relative of the Ediacaran organism Spriggina, whereas the second specimen (now the lectotype) was interpreted as a potential chordate. A chordate interpretation for both specimens was proposed (Janvier, 1998; Smith et al., 2001) and a detailed redescription was eventually instigated by Conway Morris (2008) with both specimens being included in the same genus and species.
Metaspriggina is elongate in shape with a small anterior cranial region and a long triangular and laterally flattened trunk; there is no evidence of fins. The larger of the two known fossil specimens is around 7 cm in length. Both specimens possess numerous V-shaped or zig-zag segments interpreted as myomeres or muscle bands. A narrow central structure runs down the length of the organism and is interpreted as a gut. The front of one specimen appears to show a rudimentary cranium which is poorly preserved and seems to have lacked eyes.
M. walcotti is very rare in the Walcott Quarry, known from just two specimens.
With only two specimens, and poor preservation of the head, the diet and feeding habits of Metaspriggina remain a mystery. The rarity of fossils suggests that the animal was likely free-swimming, which is consistent with its musculature, although it is possible that it also spent some time on the sea floor.
CONWAY MORRIS, S. 1979. The Burgess Shale (Middle Cambrian) fauna. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 10(1): 327-349.
CONWAY MORRIS, S. 2008. A redescription of a rare chordate, Metaspriggina walcottiSimonetta and Insom, from the Burgess Shale (Middle Cambrian), British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Paleontology, 82(2): 424-430.
JANVIER, P. 1998. Les vertébrés avant le Silurien. GeoBios, 30: 931-950.
SIMONETTA, A. M. AND E. INSOM. 1993. New animals from the Burgess Shale (Middle Cambrian) and their possible significance for the understanding of the Bilateria. Bolletino di Zoologia, 60(1): 97 – 107.
SMITH, M. P., I. J. SANSOM AND K. D. COCHRANE. 2001. The Cambrian origin of vertebrates, p. 67-84. In P. E. Ahlberg (ed.), Major Events in Early Vertebrate Evolution: Palaeontology, Phylogeny, Genetics and Development. Taylor and Francis, London.