The Burgess Shale

Stephenoscolex argutus

A slender, benthic worm covered in tiny bristles

Stephenoscolex argutus (USNM 83936b) – Holotype. Specimen showing the head (top left) followed by the trunk, which is lined by narrow parapodia and setae. Filamentous structures around the body probably represent cyanobacteria. Specimen length = 32 mm. Specimen dry – direct light (left) and wet – direct light (right). Walcott Quarry.



Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Annelida
Higher Taxonomic assignment: Unranked clade (stem group polychaetes)
Species name: Stephenoscolex argutus

Stephenoscolex bears some resemblance to modern polychaetes but cannot be placed in any extant group (Conway Morris, 1979) suggesting a position as a stem-group polychaete (Eibye-Jacobsen, 2004).

Described by: Conway Morris
Description date: 1979

Stephenoscolex – from the Greek scolex, “worm,” and Mount Stephen. Mount Stephen (3,199 m) was named after George Stephen (1829 – 1921), first president of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

argutus – from the Latin argutus, “bright,” in recognition of the shininess of the fossils.

Type Specimens: USNM – 83936b in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, USA. Paratype –ROM32574 in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, ON, Canada.
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; 1931) included the holotype of this species within Canadia dubia, which Simon Conway Morris, in his 1979 re-examination of Burgess Shale polychaetes, reclassified as Stephenoscolex. Conway Morris found a further partial specimen in the ROMcollections, and further specimens have since been recovered by the ROMbelow the Walcott Quarry. However, this additional material awaits detailed study; since the published description rests on two specimens, it must be treated with caution (Eibye-Jacobsen, 2004).



The worm has a slim body, around 1 mm wide, reaching around 3 cm in length. Its head bears two pairs of appendages extending from its front and sides. It has around forty further segments, each of which bear simple lateral projections (uniramous) called parapodia. The parapodia each bear around fifteen short and simple setae. Cirri and branchiae are absent.


Stephenoscolex was considered one of the rarest annelids from the Burgess Shale but additional material has now been collected from the Walcott Quarry representing 0.28% of the specimens counted in the community (Caron and Jackson, 2008).

Maximum Size:
32 mm


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

There is little that can confidently be stated about the life habit of this animal, but the pattern of spines suggests that it crept or swum over or in the sediment.


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. Middle Cambrian polychaetes from the Burgess Shale of British Columbia. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 285(1007): 227-274.

EIBYE-JACOBSEN, D. 2004. A reevaluation of Wiwaxia and the polychaetes of the Burgess Shale. Lethaia, 37(3): 317-335.

WALCOTT, C. D. 1911. Middle Cambrian annelids. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, 57(2): 109-144.

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

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