© ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM. PHOTOS: JEAN-BERNARD CARON
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).
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.
Burgess Shale and vicinity: Many shared similarities suggest that other thecate Burgess Shale fossils such as Byronia annulata, Sphenothallus sp., Cambrorhytium major, and C. fragilis may be related to Tubulella.
Other deposits: Other species occur worldwide in rocks from the Cambrian period.
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.
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).
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.
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