An Ultimate Guide to Opabinia Regalis: Royal of Opabin

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 2nd October 2023

NameOpabinia RegalisDietCarnivorous
Name MeaningNamed after Opabin PassHeightN/A
PronunciationO-oa-bin-ee-ah re-ga-lisLength4 to 7.1 cm (1.6 to 2.8 inches)
EraPaleozoic Era Cambrian Period WeightN/A
ClassificationArthropoda,‭ Dinocaridida,‭ and OpabiniidaeLocationCanada, North America

Opabinia Regalis Pictures

Opabinia Regalis | dottedhippo via Getty Images

The Opabinia Regalis

Gage Beasley's Opabinia Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Opabinia Stuffed Plush Toy

On many occasions, the Earth reveals to us, in the form of fossils, its ancient history and wonder.

For many, the fossils of colossal creatures are the most significant.

While there is an element of truth to this belief, the fossils of smaller creatures also play an important role in helping us understand how our planet worked alongside the now-extinct creatures that considered it home.

Among these ancient creatures, arthropods reigned supreme on land and in the sea.

These extraordinary beings, with their exoskeletons, segmented bodies, and often bewildering features, have left an indelible mark on the annals of paleontological history.

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Opabinia Concept
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Opabinia Concept

They have been instrumental in unraveling the mysteries of evolution, providing vital clues to understanding the origins and complexities of life on Earth.

While the world of ancient arthropods is fascinating, this article focuses on just one creature from the thousands already discovered: the Opabinia regalis.

Commonly called the Opabinia, the creature was discovered in the famous Burgess Shale formation in British Columbia, Canada.

Renowned paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott made the discovery in 1911.

The Burgess Shale is a remarkable fossil deposit known for its exceptional preservation of soft-bodied organisms from the Middle Cambrian period, approximately 508 million years ago.

Opabinia Regalis | dottedhippo via Getty Images

The Opabinia remains one of the most fascinating and iconic creatures found in this fossil-rich deposit, providing valuable insights into the diversity and complexity of life during the Cambrian explosion.

The creature, named after the Opabin Pass in the Canadian Rockies, is a mesmerizing example of the fantastic diversity that characterized the Cambrian explosion.

This evolutionary event, which occurred approximately 541 million years ago, marked the sudden appearance and rapid diversification of complex life forms, forever shaping the trajectory of life on Earth.

Keep reading to find out more about this unique creature.

Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Plush Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Plush Collection

Physical Characteristics

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Opabinia Size Comparison Chart
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Opabinia Size Comparison Chart

Compared to modern-day marine organisms and many other prehistoric ones, the Opabinia was significantly smaller, ranging between 1.6 and 2.8 inches, excluding its proboscis.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Opabinia was its segmented body.

It consisted of approximately 15 segments, each displaying distinct characteristics and functions.

The body was elongated and slender, contributing to the Opabinia’s unique appearance.

Each segment had flaps positioned such that the front of each was covered by the back edge of the segment in front of it.

The flaps pointed outward and downward, and the creature’s body also had swimming appendages, or lobopods, running along its length.

Opabinia Regalis | dottedhippo via Getty Images

These paddle-like structures allowed the creature to move gracefully through the water.

However, the exact method of propulsion the Opabinia used remains a topic of debate among paleontologists.

The head of the Opabinia was undoubtedly one of its most distinct characteristics, attracting considerable fascination from paleontologists and the public alike.

The head featured five large, flexible lobes or flaps at the front, resembling a strikingly alien appearance.

However, experts eventually realized that these distinct features were the creature’s eyes.

Categorized as compound eyes, they sat atop rigid, tubular structures projected forward from the head.

Opabinia Regalis | dottedhippo via Getty Images

Each eye comprised numerous lenses, indicating a sophisticated visual system that likely granted the Opabinia excellent eyesight.

This advanced ocular setup allowed the creature to perceive its surroundings with remarkable clarity, possibly to spot prey or avoid predators in the ancient Cambrian seas.

The mouth of the Opabinia was a central feature of its enigmatic appearance.

Situated beneath its peculiar five-lobed head, the mouth was relatively small but highly specialized for capturing and processing prey.

The creature’s mouth lacked the traditional mandibles or pincers common among many contemporaneous arthropods.

Opabinia head – foremost lobes and gills cut away to show proboscis passing food to mouth | Philcha via Wikipedia

Instead, it had a long, slender proboscis that was likely instrumental in capturing prey.

The most distinctive and remarkable feature of the Opabinia was its elongated proboscis, which extended from the front of its head and accounted for almost half of its total body length.

The proboscis was segmented and flexible, composed of several distinct sections that likely worked in a coordinated manner.

It used its proboscis to reach into crevices and burrows on the seafloor, extracting small invertebrates and other hidden prey items.

The proboscis was equipped with small spines or claws to grasp and manipulate its prey effectively.

Habitat and Distribution

The Opabinia lived during the Cambrian period, approximately 508 million years ago.

The Cambrian period marked a critical turning point in Earth’s history, known as the Cambrian explosion.

During this period, an extraordinary diversification of life occurred, with an explosion of new and complex organisms, including the Opabinia.

The habitat of the Opabinia was situated within the ancient oceans of the Cambrian Era.

These oceans vastly differed from the oceans we see today, featuring unique geography, temperature, and marine life.

The Opabinia inhabited shallow marine environments, specifically soft, muddy sea floors.

Its preferred habitat was likely in areas with a moderate current, allowing it to find an ample food supply while remaining relatively safe from predators.

Satellite image of the Burgess Shale Formation | Jesse Allen via NASA Earth Observatory

The Burgess Shale Formation in British Columbia, Canada, is one of the most famous and productive sites for Opabinia fossils.

Due to its discovery by Charles Walcott, the Burgess Shale preserves an exceptional record of Cambrian fauna.

The Opabinia’s discovery at this site was particularly important in shedding light on the diverse and bizarre organisms that existed during the early Cambrian period.

While the primary fossil site for the Opabinia is the Burgess Shale, fragmented and partial specimens have also been reported in other Cambrian-aged sedimentary rocks worldwide, further substantiating its widespread distribution during the Cambrian period.

At the time, the Earth’s climate was distinct, and while some climatic variability existed, the absence of significant seasonality and extensive shallow marine environments provided an ideal setting for marine life’s rapid evolution and proliferation, leading to the Cambrian Explosion and shaping life’s subsequent trajectory on our planet.

Behavior and Diet

Opabinia Regalis | dottedhippo via Getty Images

One prevailing theory regarding the social behavior of the Opabinia regalis suggests that it lived a predominantly solitary life.

Fossil evidence indicates that individual Opabinia specimens were frequently found in isolation, with limited indications of groupings.

This theory suggests they might have been solitary hunters, foraging independently for prey.

Alternatively, some researchers propose that Opabinia may have exhibited communal behavior during specific life stages or for particular activities.

Like modern-day crustaceans, these organisms could have formed temporary aggregations for mating, molting, or protection from predators.

These aggregations might not have been as prominent or long-lasting as those seen in certain modern marine organisms, given the limitations of the fossil record.

Reconstruction of Opabinia regalis, a cambrian opabiniid | Junnn11 via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Understanding the reproductive behavior of the Opabinia is crucial to unraveling its social dynamics.

Unfortunately, direct evidence of reproduction is absent from the fossil record.

However, based on the behavior of modern arthropods, it is plausible that Opabinia engaged in distinct mating rituals or courtship displays during their reproductive season.

Studying the social behavior of ancient organisms like Opabinia presents several challenges and limitations.

The most significant challenge is the scarcity of fossil evidence and the difficulty in interpreting the behavior of long-extinct species.

Opabinia was a carnivorous marine fish that lived in the seas of the Cambrian Period. | CoreyFord via Getty Images

The fossil record only provides snapshots of Opabinia’s life, making it challenging to reconstruct their social interactions accurately.

Additionally, the lack of modern analogs for Opabinia further complicates the interpretation of their behavior.

The Opabinia is believed to have been an active predator that lived in the shallow marine environments of the Cambrian seas.

Its specialized proboscis and claw-like appendages suggest an intriguing feeding strategy.

The long, tubular proboscis of the Opabinia is believed to have been a highly flexible and versatile structure.

Opabinia Regalis | dottedhippo via Getty Images

It was likely used to probe and explore the sediment on the seafloor to locate small prey items hiding within.

The proboscis might have been equipped with sensory organs to detect vibrations or chemical cues from potential prey.

Given the abundance of various marine organisms in the Cambrian seas, the Opabinia could have also engaged in scavenging activities, feeding on carrion or detritus when opportunities arose.

The exact prey items targeted by the Opabinia remain a matter of speculation due to the limited direct evidence.

However, it likely fed on small, soft-bodied organisms such as worms, arthropods, and tiny invertebrates.

Life Cycle

Opabinia regalis, from the Cambrian Burgess Shale | Nobu Tamura via Spinops (CC BY 3.0)

The life cycle of Opabinia regalis likely involved several distinct stages of development, similar to many modern arthropods.

However, some aspects of its life cycle remain speculative due to the scarcity of fossil evidence.

Opabinia may have started as a planktonic larva, hatching from eggs laid by adult individuals.

The larval stage allowed dispersion across the ancient oceans, where the Opabinia fed on plankton and other small organisms.

As the larva grew, it would undergo a series of molts, shedding its exoskeleton and developing into a juvenile Opabinia.

During this stage, it would transition to a benthic lifestyle and explore the seafloor for more substantial food sources.

Opabinia Regalis on blackground | dottedhippo via Getty Images

Upon reaching maturity, the Opabinia is expected to display its distinctive adult features, including the five-eyed stalk and the proboscis.

It is also meant to roam the ocean floor searching for prey, using its unique appendages to capture and consume small invertebrates.

The specifics of Opabinia’s reproductive process remain largely unknown due to limited fossil evidence.

However, paleontologists speculate that Opabinia likely reproduced sexually.

Female Opabinia lay eggs directly on the seafloor or attached to underwater structures like algae or rocks.

The planktonic larvae hatched from these eggs would disperse across the ocean, developing into juveniles and eventually adults, continuing the life cycle.

Evolution and History

Opabinia Regalis underwater | dottedhippo via Getty Images

The discovery of the Opabinia regalis added complexity to understanding the Cambrian explosion and the early evolution of life.

Its combination of morphological features perplexed researchers, many of whom have no modern analogs.

Some characteristics appeared primitive, while others were more advanced, raising questions about its place in the evolutionary tree.

Despite its unique attributes, paleontologists have attempted to place the Opabinia regalis within the broader context of animal taxonomy.

Top left: retouched image of Opabinia (Walcott Cambrian Geology and Paleontology II by Charles Doolittle Walcott) | Photo via Middle Cambrian Branchiopoda, Malacostraca, Trilobita, and Merostomata

The Opabinia is a unique and extinct member of the phylum Arthropoda, a diverse group that includes insects, spiders, crustaceans, and other related organisms.

The phylum Arthropoda is characterized by having jointed appendages, a segmented body, and a tough exoskeleton, making them one of the most successful animal groups in Earth’s history.

Within the phylum Arthropoda, the Opabinia belongs to the class Dinocaridida.

Interactions with Other Species

Three Opabinia regalis animals hunt for prey on a reef of Cambrian Seas in the Paleozoic Era. | CoreyFord via Getty Images

The Opabinia’s unique anatomy hints at a predatory lifestyle.

Its forward-facing appendages, equipped with spines, may have captured and immobilized its prey.

The tubular proboscis, on the other hand, could have been extended to reach into crevices or burrows to extract hidden prey.

The Opabinia likely relied on its superior visual acuity to detect and track its prey in the dimly lit Cambrian waters.

Once its prey was located, the Opabinia might have ambushed its victims using its specialized appendages, incapacitating them before consuming them with its proboscis.

Opabinia Regalis | dottedhippo via Getty Images

While the Opabinia is often considered a predator, it likely fell victim to larger predators in the Cambrian seas.

As with any species, the Opabinia must have coexisted with other organisms in the Cambrian seas.

Its unique morphology suggests that it might have been a successful predator, possibly competing for food resources with other environmental predators.

The presence of other predators and potential competitors during the Cambrian period included Anomalocaris, a large apex predator, and other arthropods such as Canadaspis and Marrella.

It is plausible that the Opabinia evolved specific adaptations to carve out its ecological niche, enabling it to avoid direct competition with other predators.

Cultural Significance

Opabinia Regalis fossil | Han Zeng via Smithsonian National Museum of National History (CC0)

The unique appearance of the Opabinia, which included an elongated body, segmented limbs, and a strange tubular proboscis, left the scientific community perplexed.

Its exceptional anatomy challenged existing paradigms of Cambrian life, leading to a reevaluation of prehistoric ecosystems and evolutionary theories.

The creature’s discovery sparked immense curiosity among scientists and paleontologists.

Its unique anatomy led to a deeper exploration of early Cambrian life forms and evolutionary history.

Researchers have utilized the Opabinia to better understand the evolutionary relationships between various arthropods and the complexities of ancient marine ecosystems.

The Opabinia regalis has also found its way into symbolism and metaphor.

Digestive system (yellow highlight) of Opabinia, showing pairs of diverticula individualized from the triangular extension. | Junnn11 via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Due to its unusual and puzzling appearance, it has been used to symbolize the enigmatic and the mysterious in various contexts.

It has been invoked to represent the idea of exploring the unknown, embracing complexity, and challenging conventional wisdom.

The creature also plays a valuable role in science education and public outreach.

As a visually striking and unique creature from the Cambrian period, it is an engaging example for educators to teach about evolution, paleontology, and ancient ecosystems.

Its distinctiveness fosters curiosity and encourages young minds to explore the wonders of prehistoric life.


The Opabinia regalis, with its peculiar and enigmatic appearance, has become an iconic representation of the mysteries of the ancient world.

Its discovery in the Burgess Shale Formation sparked scientific curiosity and led to a deeper understanding of early Cambrian life forms and evolutionary history.

The creature’s remarkable morphology challenged conventional wisdom and symbolized our planet’s history in its enigmatic and unknown aspects.

The Opabinia’s significance extends beyond scientific inquiry; it is a powerful educational tool that inspires generations to explore the wonders of prehistoric life and embrace the complexities of our evolutionary past.

As we continue to unearth fossils and delve into Earth’s ancient history, Opabinia regalis remains an enduring reminder of the diversity and enigma of life’s early chapters.


How did the Opabinia Regalis become extinct?

The exact reasons for the Opabinia’s extinction remain unclear, as the fossil record only provides snapshots of its existence.

However, like many other ancient marine organisms, changes in environmental conditions, competition with other species, or predation pressure from larger predators could have played a role in its eventual extinction.

How was the Opabinia Regalis fossilized so well in the Burgess Shale?

The exceptional preservation of the Opabinia and other soft-bodied organisms in the Burgess Shale is attributed to the unique geological conditions of the site.

Rapid burial by fine sediment and the lack of oxygen at the seafloor prevented decay and scavenging by other organisms.


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