The Burgess Shale

Oesia disjuncta

An enigmatic worm-like animal

Oesia disjuncta (USNM 57630) – Lectotype, part and counterpart. Complete specimen. Specimen length = 85 mm. Specimen wet – direct light (top row), wet – polarized light (bottom row). Walcott Quarry.



Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Hemichordata
Class: Non applicable
Species name: Oesia disjuncta

The position of Oesia is uncertain. Originally described as an annelid worm by Walcott (1911), a recent reinterpretation as a chaetognath (Szaniawski, 2005, 2009) has been vigorously rejected, and a position closer to the hemichordates proposed instead (Conway Morris, 2009).

Described by: Walcott
Description date: 1911

Oesia – from Lake Oesa, a small lake located a few kilometres southeast of the Burgess Shale.

disjuncta – from the Latin prefix dis, to signify a negation, and junctus, “joined.” The name is probably in reference to the appearance of this species.

Type Specimens: Lectotype –USNM57630 in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA.
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: none.

Other deposits: none.

Age & Localities:

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

The Walcott Quarry on Fossil Ridge.

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

Walcott (1911) described this species as a polychaete worm, but this view was challenged by Lohman (1920) who suggested a tunicate (chordate) affinity instead. Conway Morris (1979) rejected both interpretations, and this animal was later regarded as a problematic organism of unknown affinity (Briggs and Conway Morris, 1986). However, a recent interpretation as a chaetognath (Szaniawski, 2005, 2009) has spurred new debate (Conway Morris, 2009, Szaniawski, 2009) with a view that a hemichordate relationship might be possible (Conway Morris, 2009). A thorough restudy of other hemichordate-like organisms from the Burgess Shale will be required to confirm this new hypothesis.



The body of Oesia is elongate with an anterior section which appears to be swollen. There is no evidence of grasping spines. The presence of fine transverse striations on the body has been interpreted as transverse muscle bands, but other features, such as fins and internal organs, are contentious.


Walcott recognized nine specimens of this species, but Oesia is probably more abundant than previously thought. Oesia and another similar hemichordate-like form (“Ottoia tenuis”) represent about 2.2% of the Walcott Quarry community (Caron and Jackson, 2008).

Maximum Size:
90 mm


Life habits: Epibenthic, Endobenthic, Mobile
Feeding strategies: Unknown
Ecological Interpretations:

The vermiform aspect of this fossil and apparent lack of fins suggest a benthic lifestyle, but its mode of feeding is unknown.


BRIGGS, D. E. G. AND S. CONWAY MORRIS. 1986. Problematica from the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale of British Columbia, p. 167-183. In A. Hoffman and M. H. Nitecki (eds.), Problematic fossil taxa (Oxford Monographs on Geology and Geophysics No. 5). Oxford University Press & Clarendon Press, New York.

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. 1979. The Burgess Shale (Middle Cambrian) fauna. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 10(1): 327-349.

CONWAY MORRIS, S. 2009. The Burgess Shale animal Oesia is not a chaetognath: A reply to Szaniawski (2005). Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 54(1): 175-179.

LOHMANN, H. 1920. Oesia disjuncta Walcott, eine Appendicularie aus dem Kambrium. Mitteilungen aus dem Zoologischen Staatsinstitut und Zoologischen Museum in Hamburg, 38: 69-75.

WALCOTT, C. 1911. Cambrian Geology and Paleontology II. Middle Cambrian annelids. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 57(5): 109-145.

SZANIAWSKI, H. 2005. Cambrian chaetognaths recognized in Burgess Shale fossils. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 50(1): 1-8.

SZANIAWSKI, H. 2009. Fossil Chaetognaths from the Burgess Shale: A Reply to Conway Morris (2009). Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 54(2): 361-364.

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