The Burgess Shale

Pikaia gracilens

A very primitive fish-like animal

3D animation of Pikaia gracilens.



Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Higher Taxonomic assignment: Unranked clade (stem group chordates)
Species name: Pikaia gracilens

Pikaia is considered to represent a primitive chordate (Conway Morris, 1979; Conway Morris et al., 1982) possibly close to craniates (Janvier, 1998); a stem-chordate (Smith et al., 2001); or a cephalochordate (Shu et al., 1999). Its exact position within the chordates is still uncertain and this animal awaits a full redescription.

Described by: Walcott
Description date: 1911

Pikaia – from the pika, a small alpine mammal and cousin of the rabbits. Pikas live in the Rocky Mountains, including near the Burgess Shale.

gracilens – from the Latin gracilens, “thin, simple,” in reference to the shape of the body.

Type Specimens: Syntypes –USNM57628b, 57629 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:

Pikaia was first described by Walcott based on a couple of specimens in a 1911 monograph dealing with various Burgess Shale worms. Two additional specimens were figured in a posthumous publication (Walcott, 1931). Walcott placed Pikaia in a now defunct group called the Gephyrea with other vermiform fossils such as BanffiaOttoia and OesiaPikaia was later considered to be a primitive chordate (Conway Morris, 1979; Conway Morris et al., 1982), an interpretation which has since been followed to some degree in most discussions about early chordate evolution (e.g., Janvier, 1998). Pikaia played a major part in Gould’s interpretations of the Burgess Shale fossils in Wonderful Life (Gould, 1989; see also Briggs and Fortey, 2005). A full redescription of this animal is currently under way (Conway Morris and Caron, in prep.).



Pikaia resembles Metaspriggina in outline, another chordate animal from the Burgess Shale, with an elongate body and a small anterior region bearing the head. The body is laterally flattened and there is evidence of a ventral fin towards the posterior. Numerous V-shaped or ziz-zag segments interpreted as myomeres or muscle bands are visible in all specimens. A narrow dorsal structure which runs down the length of the organism might represent a notochord, but this interpretation remains to be confirmed. The head bears two equal lobes and a pair of short and slender tentacle-like structures. There is no evidence of eyes. Just behind the head, on the ventral side of the body, there is a series of up to twelve pairs of small, short, pointed structures on either side of the midline. These are thought to be related to gill openings. The gut is narrow and the anus is terminal.


Pikaia is relatively rare, known from more than 60 specimens, all from the Walcott Quarry where it represents 0.03% of the specimens counted in the community (Caron and Jackson, 2008).

Maximum Size:
55 mm


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

The eel-like morphology and musculature of the animal suggest that it was likely free-swimming, although it probably spent time on the sea floor. The tentacles may have had a sensory function, and the presence of mud in its gut suggests that Pikaia was potentially a deposit feeder.


BRIGGS, D. E. G. AND R. A. FORTEY. 2005. Wonderful strife: Systematics, stem groups, and the phylogenetic signal of the Cambrian radiation. Paleobiology, 31(SUPPL.2 ): 94-112.

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

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. H. B. WHITTINGTON, D. E. G. BRIGGS, C. P. HUGHES AND D. L. BRUTON. 1982. Atlas of the Burgess Shale. Palaeontological Association, 31 p. + 23 pl.

GOULD, S. J. 1989. Wonderful Life. The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. Norton, New York, 347 p.

JANVIER, P. 1998. Les vertébrés avant le Silurien. GeoBios, 30: 931-950.

SHU, D.-G,. H. L. LUO, S. CONWAY MORRIS, X. L. ZHANG, S. X. HU, L. CHEN, J. HAN, M. ZHU, Y. LI AND L. Z. CHEN. 1999. Lower Cambrian vertebrates from south China. Nature, 402(4 November 1999): 42-46.

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.

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

WALCOTT, C. 1931. Addenda to descriptions of Burgess Shale fossils. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 85(3): 1-46.

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