The Burgess Shale

Selkirkia columbia

A worm living in a tube

3D animation of Selkirkia columbia.



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

Selkirkia 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

Selkirkia – from the Selkirk Mountains, a mountain range in southeastern British Columbia.

columbia – from British Columbia, where the Burgess Shale is located.

Type Specimens: Holotype –USNM57624 in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA.
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: none.

Other deposits: The genus Selkirkia ranges from the Lower to the Middle Cambrian and is represented by several species, including S. sinica from the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang Biota (Luo et al., 1999; Maas et al., 2007), S. pennsylvanica from the Lower Cambrian Kinzers Formation (Resser and Howell, 1938), Selkirkia sp. cf. and S. spencei from the Middle Cambrian Spence Shale of Utah (Resser, 1939; Conway Morris and Robison, 1986, 1988), and S. willoughbyi from the Middle Cambrian Marjum Formation of Utah (Conway Morris and Robison, 1986).

Age & Localities:

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

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

Other deposits: The Middle Cambrian Spence Shale of Utah (Resser, 1939; Conway Morris and Robison, 1986, 1988).

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

Charles Walcott (1908) illustrated a single specimen of a simple tube that he named “Orthotheca major.” He interpreted the fossil as the tube of a polychaete worm, along with another famous species, “O. corrugata,” described by Matthew a decade earlier. O. corrugata is now referred to as Wiwaxia corrugata, which is not the tube of a worm but the scale of an armoured mollusc! The original specimen of “O. major” came from the Trilobite Beds on Mount Stephen, but it was not until the discovery of complete specimens from Fossil Ridge showing soft-bodied worms within the tubes that more details about this animal became available. Walcott (1911) created a new genus name Selkirkia to accommodate the new fossil material. In addition to the type species, S. major, he named two new species, S. gracilis and S. fragilis. In a revision of Walcott’s collections and other fossils discovered by the Geological Survey of Canada, Conway Morris (1977) synonymised Walcott’s three species into one that he called S. columbia, which is still in use today. S. columbia was described as a primitive priapulid worm (Conway Morris, 1977); later studies showed that it belongs to the priapulid stem group (Wills, 1998; Harvey et al., 2010).



Selkirkia lived in a tube and could reach up to 6 centimetres in length. The body of the worm itself is similar to most priapulids in having a trunk (which remained in the tube) and an anterior mouthpart that could be inverted into the trunk, called a proboscis. The proboscis has different series of spines along its length and is radially symmetrical. Small body extensions called papillae are present along the anterior part of the trunk and probably helped in anchoring the trunk in the tube. The gut is straight and the anus is terminal. The unmineralized tube is slightly tapered, open at both ends, and bears fine transverse lineations.


Selkirkia is the most abundant priapulid in the Walcott Quarry community, representing 2.7% of the entire community (Caron and Jackson, 2008); thousands of specimens are known, mostly isolated tubes.

Maximum Size:
60 mm


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

The well developed proboscis and strong spines suggest a carnivorous feeding habit. Comparisons with modern tube-building priapulids suggest Selkirkia was capable of only limited movement, and spend most of the time buried vertically or at an angle to the sediment-water interface, where they might have “trap fed” on live prey. Empty tubes were often used as a substrate for other organisms to colonize, for example, brachiopods, sponges and primitive echinoderms (see Echmatocrinus).


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 R. A. ROBISON. 1986. Middle Cambrian priapulids and other soft-bodied fossils from Utah and Spain. The University of Kansas paleontological contributions, 117: 1-22.

CONWAY MORRIS, S. AND R. A. ROBISON. 1988. More soft-bodied animals and algae from the Middle Cambrian of Utah and British Columbia. University of Kansas Paleontological Contributions, Paper, 122: 23-48.

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

LUO, H., S. HU, L. CHEN, S. ZHANG AND Y. TAO. 1999. Early Cambrian Chengjiang fauna from Kunming region, China. Yunnan Science and Technology Press, Kunming, 162 p.

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.

RESSER, C. E. AND B. F. HOWELL. 1938. Lower Cambrian Olenellus Zone of the Appalachians. Geological Society of America, Bulletin, 49: 195-248.

RESSER, C. E. 1939. The Spence Shale and its fauna. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 97(12):1-29.

WALCOTT, C. 1908. Mount Stephen rocks and fossils. Canadian Alpine Journal, 1: 232-248.

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

WILLS, M. A. 1998. Cambrian and Recent disparity: the picture from priapulids. Paleobiology, 24(2): 177-199.

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