The Burgess Shale

Ottoia prolifica

The most common Burgess Shale worm

3D animation of Ottoia prolifica.



Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Priapulida
Higher Taxonomic assignment: Unranked clade (stem group priapulids)
Species name: Ottoia prolifica

Ottoia has been compared to the nemathelminth worms (Maas et al., 2007), but most analyses support a relationship with the priapulids at a stem-group level (Harvey et al., 2010; Wills, 1998).

Described by: Walcott
Description date: 1911

Ottoia – from Otto Pass (2,106 m), a few kilometres north-west of the Burgess Shale. The pass was named after Otto Klotz, an astronomer working for the Department of the Interior along the Canadian Pacific Railroad (read about Otto Klotz in the section “First Discoveries”)

prolifica – from the Latin proles, “offspring,” and ferax, “rich, fruitful,” in reference to the great number of specimens discovered.

Type Specimens: Lectotype –USNM57619 in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA.
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: none

Other deposits: Ottoia sp. from the Lower Cambrian Pioche Shale, Nevada (Lieberman, 2003).

Age & Localities:

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

Burgess Shale and vicinity: The Walcott and Raymond Quarries on Fossil Ridge, the Collins Quarry, the Tulip Beds (S7) and smaller localities on Mount Stephen. Smaller localities on Mount Field, Mount Odaray and Monarch Cirque.

Other deposits: The same species also occurs in the Middle Cambrian Spence Shale and Marjum Formations, Utah (Conway Morris and Robison, 1986).

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

Charles Walcott (1911) first described Ottoia as a tentative member of the now-dismantled grouping of worms called the Gephyrea, which included the priapulids as well as the sipunculans and echiurans. He emphasized a comparison with the sipunculans, leading some subsequent authors to consider it as a member of this phylum; others, however, suggested affinities with the parasitic acanthocephalans, or the priapulids (Banta and Rice, 1970). A re-analysis of the fossil material itself was not conducted until the 1970s, with work by Banta and Rice (1970) and Conway Morris (1977) supporting a relationship with the priapulids, which was later demonstrated to be at a stem-group level (Wills, 1998). Other work has focussed on the ecology of the Burgess Shale representatives (Bruton, 2001; Vannier, 2009; Vannier et al., 2010).



Ottoia is a priapulid worm with a tooth-lined mouthpart (proboscis) that could be inverted into the trunk; a short posterior tail extension could also be inverted. Ottoia reached 15 cm in length; the smallest specimens – presumably juveniles, but identical to adults – were just 1 cm long. The proboscis was adorned with 28 rows of hooks interspersed with a variety of spines. The worms are usually found curved into a U-shape, with their sediment-filled guts often visible running down the centre of the organism. The trunk was annulated, and bore two sets of four hooks arranged in a ring towards the rear end; these are the only traces of bilateral symmetry, with a radial symmetry superimposed on the organism. Ottoiaperiodically shed its cuticle to allow growth.


Ottoia is one of the more abundant Burgess Shale organisms, accounting for over 80% of the Walcott Quarry priapulids (Conway Morris, 1977) and over 1.3% of the entire Walcott Quarry community (Caron and Jackson, 2008); thousands of specimens are known.

Maximum Size:
150 mm


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

Specimens of Haplophrentis carinatus preserved in the gut indicate that this hyolith was a staple of the Ottoia diet (Conway Morris, 1977). One fossil slab also shows nine specimens feeding on a recently-dead Sidneyia carcass (Bruton, 2001).


BANTA, W. C. AND M. E. RICE. 1970. A restudy of the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale fossil worm, Ottoia prolifica. International Symposium on the Biology of the Sipuncula and Echiura 2, Kotor: 79-90.

BRUTON, D. L. 2001. A death assemblage of priapulid worms from the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale. Lethaia, 34(2):163-167.

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. 1977. Fossil priapulid worms. Special Papers in Palaeontology, 20: 1-95.

CONWAY MORRIS, S. AND J. S. PEEL. 2009. New Palaeoscolecidan Worms from the Lower Cambrian: Sirius Passet, Latham Shale and Kinzers Shale. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 55(1): 141-156.

HARVEY, T. H. P., X. DONG AND P. C. J. DONOGHUE. 2010. Are palaeoscolecids ancestral ecdysozoans? Evolution & Development, 12(2): 177-200.

MAAS, A., D. HUANG, J. CHEN, D. WALOSZEK AND A. BRAUN. 2007. Maotianshan-Shale nemathelminths – Morphology, biology, and the phylogeny of Nemathelminthes. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 254(1-2): 288-306.

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

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