The Burgess Shale

Tubulella flagellum

A slender, conical tube related to jellyfish

Tubulella flagellum (ROM 59942) – Proposed Lectotype. Figures 1a of Matthew (1899) and photograph of original specimen (right). Approximate specimen length = 80 mm. Specimen dry – direct light. Trilobite Beds on Mount Stephen.



Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Cnidaria
Higher Taxonomic assignment: Unranked clade (stem group cnidarians)
Species name: Tubulella flagellum

This fossil was originally thought to represent the tube of some sedentary polychaete worms (Matthew, 1899; Howell, 1949), but has more recently been compared to the sessile polyp stage of a scyphozoan jellyfish that builds tapered, chitinous tubes fixed to the substrate by an attachment disc (Van Iten et al., 2002).

Described by: Matthew
Description date: 1899

Tubulella – from the latin tubulus, “tube, or tubule,” and the suffix –ella, denoting “little.”

flagellum – the Latin for “whip,” in allusion to the long, tapering form of the tubular theca.

Type Specimens: Syntype–ROM59942 in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, ON, Canada.
Other species:

Burgess Shale and vicinity: Many shared similarities suggest that other thecate Burgess Shale fossils such as Byronia annulataSphenothallus sp., Cambrorhytium major, and Cfragilis may be related to Tubulella.

Other deposits: Other species occur worldwide in rocks from the Cambrian period.

Age & Localities:

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

The Trilobite Beds, Tulip Beds (S7) and additional smaller localities on Mount Stephen. The Walcott and Raymond Quarries on Fossil Ridge, Mount Odaray and Monarch Cirque.

History of Research:

Brief history of research:

In August 1887 the Toronto meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was followed by a special geological rail tour to western Canada organized by Byron Edmund Walker (a prominent Canadian banker). One of the excursion highlights was a visit to the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds, after which Walker loaned his personal collection of Mount Stephen fossils to Canada’s leading Cambrian palaeontologist, George F. Matthew, of Saint John, New Brunswick. In 1899, Matthew published a series of new descriptions based on this material, including Urotheca flagellum, a rare form he interpreted as whip-shaped worm tube, illustrated in two engravings. Walker donated these fossils to the University of Toronto in 1904, and in 1913 they were transferred to the new Royal Ontario Museum of Palaeontology. In 1949, American palaeontologist B. F. Howell found that Matthew’s genus name Urotheca was already in use for a living reptile, so he substituted it for the new name Tubulella. Subsequently, this and similar fossils were reinterpreted as cnidarian polyp thecae. The single best specimen of Walker’s Urotheca flagellum remained unrecognized until it was “rediscovered” in the ROM collections in 2010.



The chitinous or chitinophosphatic tube (theca) of Tubulella flagellum is a very long and slender cone, with a maximum diameter of about 4 mm. The thecae may be almost straight, or show varying degrees of curvature. The thecal wall is relatively thick and often appears densely black against the shale matrix. The external surface shows very fine transverse growth lines, but usually no strong annular ridges. Often, two or more lengthwise creases or ridges were formed as the result of the crushing and compaction of the tube’s original circular or oval cross section. Some specimens possess a combination of features seen in Tubulella and Byronia, with very narrow thecae bearing both annulae and longitudinal creases. Small clusters of such Tubulella-like thecae are occasionally found closely associated with Byronia annulata, but it is not known whether these were asexually generated “buds” or discrete organisms growing attached to the larger tubes. No soft tissues of Tubulella flagellum have been described to date.


Uncommon in the Trilobite Beds on Mount Stephen. Relatively common in the Walcott Quarry on Fossil Ridge where it represents about 0.25% of the specimens in the community (Caron and Jackson, 2008).

Maximum Size:
100 mm


Life habits: Epibenthic, Sessile
Feeding strategies: Carnivorous, Suspension feeder
Ecological Interpretations:

The theca of Tubulella was likely attached to the substrate using an apical disc which is usually broken off. The absence of soft tissue preservation makes the assignment to a particular feeding strategy tentative. By comparison with forms such as Cambrorhytium, a carnivorous or suspension feeding habit seems possible.


BISCHOFF, C. O. 1989. Byroniida new order from early Palaeozoic strata of eastern Australia (Cnidaria, thecate scyphopolyps). Senkenbergiana Lethaea, 69(5/6): 467-521.

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

HOWELL, B. F. 1949. New hydrozoan and brachiopod and new genus of worms from the Ordovician Schenectady Formation of New York. Bulletin of the Wagner Free Institute of Science, 24(1): 8 pp.

MATTHEW, G. F. 1899. Studies on Cambrian faunas, No. 3. Upper Cambrian fauna of Mount Stephen, British Columbia. The trilobites and worms. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Series 2, 4: 39-66.

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

VAN ITEN, H., M.-Y. MAO-YAN, AND D.COLLINS 2002. First report of Sphenothallus Hall, 1847 in the Middle Cambrian. Journal of Paleontology, 76: 902-905.

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

ZHU, M.-Y., H. VAN ITEN, R. S. COX, Y.-L. ZHAO AND B.-D. ERDTMANN. 2000. Occurrence of Byronia Matthew and Sphenothallus Hall in the Lower Cambrian of China. Paläontologische Zeitschrift, 74: 227-238.

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