The Burgess Shale

Olenoides serratus

The best-known trilobite from the Burgess Shale

3D animation of Olenoides serratus.



Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Higher Taxonomic assignment: Trilobita (Order: Corynexochida)
Species name: Olenoides serratus

Trilobites are extinct euarthropods, probably stem lineage representatives of the Mandibulata, which includes crustaceans, myriapods, and hexapods (Scholtz and Edgecombe, 2006).

Described by: Rominger
Description date: 1887

Olenoides – from Olenus, in Greek mythology a man who, along with his wife Lethaea, was turned to stone. Olenus was used for a trilobite genus name in 1827; the suffix –oides(“resembling”) was added later.

serratus – from the Latin serratus, “saw-shaped,” probably referring to the spinose margin of the pygidium.

Type Specimens: Type status under review – UMMP 4882 (11 specimens), University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: Kootenia dawsoni; Kootenia burgessensis. (Species of Kooteniaare no longer considered different enough from those in Olenoides to warrant placement in a separate genus, but Kootenia is retained here for ease of reference to historical literature).

Other deposits: species of Olenoides are widespread in the Cambrian of North America and Greenland, and have been recorded in Siberia, China, and elsewhere.

Age & Localities:

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

The Walcott Quarry on Fossil Ridge. The Trilobite Beds and other localities on Mount Stephen.

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

Olenoides serratus was among the first Burgess Shale animals to be named and described. The fossils used in Rominger’s original 1887 description were collected from the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds in 1886. Rominger coined the name Ogygia serrata for this trilobite, illustrating one complete specimen in accompanying engravings. Following several intermediate changes, the name now in use was first published by Kobayashi in 1935. Spectacular appendage-bearing specimens discovered during Walcott’s Fossil Ridge excavations in 1910-1911 brought Olenoides serratus (then called Neolenus serratus) attention worldwide as one of the most anatomically complete trilobites known. This iconic Burgess Shale species has been thoroughly redescribed by Harry Whittington (1975, 1980), who also concluded that Nathorstia transitans (named by Walcott in 1912) was a “soft shell” moult stage of Olenoides serratus.



Hard parts: adult dorsal exoskeletons may reach 9 cm long and are broadly oval in outline, with a semi-circular cephalon, a thorax of seven segments ending in spines, and a semi-circular pygidium with marginal spines. The cephalon, thorax and pygidium are of approximately equal length. The parallel-sided glabella is rounded in front and reaches almost to the anterior border. Thin eye ridges swing back from the front of the glabella to the small, outwardly-bowed eyes. The free cheeks narrow back into straight, slender genal spines reaching to the third pleurae. Tips of the pleurae also extend into needle-like spines. The spiny pygidium has six axial rings decreasing in size backwards; five pairs of marginal spines point rearward. The whole exoskeleton has a variably granulate outer surface with fine ridges and cusps near the margins.

Unmineralized anatomy: Olenoides serratus had a pair of flexible, multi-jointed cephalic “antennae.” Behind these, three pairs of biramous limbs were attached beneath the cephalon on either side of the mid-line. Each inner branch had a large spiny blade-shaped coxa and six spinose cylindrical podomeres that tapered away from the body, the last carrying three short “claws” at the tip. The outer limb branch was composed of many flat, overlapping filaments sweeping back from a long lobe, with a small oval, hair-fringed lobe at the outer end. Pairs of similar biramous appendages were attached under each thoracic segments; four to six pairs were attached under the pygidium, becoming shorter and more slender to the rear. Unique among all trilobites preserving limbs, Olenoides serratus also had a pair of antenna-like appendages (cerci; singular = cercus) emerging from under the pygidium behind the last biramous limbs.


Olenoides serratus is moderately common, especially at the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds, where thousands of pieces and hundreds of partial to complete exoskeletons have been observed or collected. Olenoides is the largest and most conspicuous trilobite in the Walcott Quarry section on Fossil Ridge, where specimens with preserved appendages have been found.

Maximum Size:
90 mm


Life habits: Nektobenthic, Mobile
Feeding strategies: Carnivorous
Ecological Interpretations:

Adults of Olenoides serratus walked along the sea bed, possibly digging shallow furrows to locate small soft-bodied and weakly-shelled animals or carcasses. Prey items were shredded between the spiny limb bases and passed forward to the rear-facing mouth. Olenoides could probably swim just above sea bed for short distances. Some Olenoides fossils show unmistakable evidence of healed injuries, suggesting they may have been preyed upon, likely in their “soft-shell” growth phase, by larger arthropods such as Anomalocaris. Tiny larvae and early juveniles of Olenoides probably swam and drifted in the water column above the sea bed.


KOBAYASHI, T. 1935. The Cambro-Ordovician formations and faunas of south Chosen. Paleontology, Part 3: Cambrian faunas of south Chosen with a special study on the Cambrian trilobite genera and families. Journal of the Faculty of Science, Imperial University of Tokyo, Section II. 4(2): 49-344.

RASETTI, F. 1951. Middle Cambrian stratigraphy and faunas of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 116 (5): 1-277.

ROMINGER, C. 1887. Description of primordial fossils from Mount Stephens, N. W. Territory of Canada. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 1887: 12-19.

SCHOLTZ, G. AND G. D. EDGECOMBE. 2006. The evolution of arthropod heads: reconciling morphological, developmental and palaeontological evidence. Development Genes and Evolution, 216: 395-415.

WALCOTT, C. D. 1912. Cambrian Geology and Paleontology, II. No. 6. – Middle Cambrian Branchiopoda, Malacostraca, Trilobita, and Merostomata. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 57(6): 145-228.

WHITTINGTON, H. B. 1975. Trilobites with appendages from the Middle Cambrian, Burgess Shale, British Columbia. Fossils and Strata, No. 4: 97-136.

WHITTINGTON, H. B. 1980. Exoskeleton, moult stage, appendage morphology, and habits of the Middle Cambrian trilobite Olenoides serratus. Palaeontology, 23: 171-204.

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