Probable predation on Upper Cambrian trilobites and its relevance for the extinction of soft-bodied Burgess Shale-type animals



The lower Rabbitkettle Formation of northwestern Canada is a monofacial Upper Cambrian unit of variably calcareous, argillaceous siltstone and fine-grained sandstone with rare bioclastic grainstone, deposited on a gentle slope below fair-weather wave base with no discernible fluctuation in water depth. The trilobite fauna is a mixture of pandemic agnostoids and Laurentian polymeroids, including protaspides and meraspides, and individuals are disarticulated, non-abraded and mostly oriented convex-upward. Bioclasts are interpreted as in situ elements affected only by weak bottom currents and storm-induced turbulence. A major proportion of the larger (≥5 mm across) polymeroid cranidia and pygidia in the lower part (Marjuman) of the formation are broken; large thoracic segments are often broken at the axial furrow and some broken free cheeks occur, but essentially no broken agnostoids or hypostomes were observed. Trilobites are not broken in upper beds (Steptoean), above the base of the Glyptagnostus retculatus Zone. Physical breakage cannot be dismissed entirely, but most damage is interpreted to be due to size-selective predation, possibly through lethal blows similar to those delivered by some extant stomatopod crustaceans. A possible culprit may be an animal akin to Yohoia, known from the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale. The distribution of attacked trilobites serves as a proxy for the presence and disappearance of soft-bodied carnivores. In the Rabbitkettle Formation, it suggests that Burgess Shale-type animals may have persisted into the Late Cambrian but suffered extinction at the Marjuman-Steptoean ‘biomere’ event when most trilobite species vanished.