Although Triopus draboviensis here might look like an isopod or a trilobite, this small arthropod was actually part of a rather rare group called cheloniellids.

Known from the early Ordovician to the early Devonian (~480-408 million years ago), only about 7 different species of cheloniellid have been described so far. Their evolutionary relationships were uncertain and controversial for a long time, but currently they’re thought to be distant cousins of trilobites within the Artiopoda.

Living in what is now Czechia during the late Ordovician, about 460-450 million years ago, Triopus is only known from two partial fossils. It was around 4cm long (~1.6″), and like other cheloniellids it had a body made up of wide radiating exoskeleton segments that fully covered its legs, and probably also a pair of whip-like appendages at the rear.

Its body was more domed than those of its relatives, who were generally very flattened, suggesting it was specialized for a slightly different lifestyle or habitat. Without any preserved appendages it’s not clear what its ecological role was, but since other cheloniellids had horseshoe-crab-like feeding structures it may have been a similar sort of generalist, preying on small invertebrates and scavenging carrion on the seafloor.

Spectember/Spectober 2023 #11: A Large Spider

An anonymous submission requested a “spider the size of a coconut crab”:

A shaded sketch of a speculative giant herbivorous descendant of jumping spiders. It's a big stocky spider covered in fuzz, with thick legs ending in cloven-hoof-like claws. It has the characteristic large main pair of eyes of jumping spiders, with the other three pairs more spread out around the front and sides of its wide head, and it also has two pairs of "horns". Its abdomen is wide and round, somewhat flattened on the top, with several spiky structures around the edge.

Ceratohispidus aspectus is a distant descendant of jumping spiders living on an Aotearoa-like landmass, isolated with no mammalian predators.

This particular lineage is notable for both their extreme gigantism (with their larger size and weight causing them to lose the ability to jump) and for having taken up herbivory in a similar manner to one modern species. Most of these big plant-eating spiders are around the size of wētāpunga, and occupy a similar ecological niche, but Ceratohispidus is the largest of them by far – rivalling the modern coconut crab with a body length of up to 40cm (~1’4″) and a legspan of almost 1m (~3’3″).

After reaching sexual maturity at 5-10 years old, adults grow very slowly, molting only once every year or two and taking several decades to actually get anywhere close to their maximum size.

Ceratohispidus’ thick legs end in hoof-like claws, and it selectively browses on vegetation by snipping off pieces with its pincer-like palps. A gizzard-like structure in its digestive system helps to grind up fibrous plant material with small gastroliths, and its wide abdomen houses both large book lungs and a tracheal system with air sacs that can contract and expand to provide a small amount of active ventilation.

While the “horns” and spikes ornamenting its body may provide some defense from the few avian and reptilian predators in its habitat, they’re mainly used as part of highly elaborate visual displays between individuals.

Spectember 2023 #03: Raptorial Isopod

Modzilla07 asked for a “eurypterid or anomalocarid-esque isopod”:

A shaded sketch of a speculative swimming predatory isopod. Its shaped similarly to an extinct sea scorpion with a streamlines segmented body that ends in a fin-like horizontal tail fan. It has short antennae, a large pair of spiny grabbing front appendages similar to an anomalocarid, large compound eyes on short thick stalks, and two pairs of its legs are modified into long paddle-like structures.

Agriopterus modzillaseptenorum is descended from scavenger-predator intertidal cirolanids. At about 10cm long (~4″) it’s a giant compared to most other isopods, but not nearly as big as some of the radiodonts and eurypterids it convergently resembles.

Adapted for a free-swimming lifestyle, its second pair of antennae have been modified into spiny raptorial appendages and its first two pairs of legs have become flat swimming paddles. It’s a voracious little predator, usually snatching small fast-moving prey from the water and raking up soft-bodied animals from the seafloor – but groups will sometimes opportunistically swarm on much larger dead, dying, or injured targets.


The tuzoiids were an enigmatic group of Cambrian invertebrates known mostly just from their spiny bivalved carapaces. Although hundreds of fossils of these arthropods were discovered over the last century or so, only vague fragments of the rest of their bodies have been found even in sites usually known for preserving soft tissue impressions.

…Until late 2022, when several new specimens from the Canadian Burgess Shale deposits (~508 million years ago) were described showing tuzoiid anatomy in exceptional detail, finally giving us an idea of what they looked like and where they fit into the early arthropod evolutionary tree.

Tuzoiids like Tuzoia burgessensis here would have grown up to about 23cm long (~9″). They had large eyes on short stalks, a pair of simple antennae, a horizontal fluke-like tail fan, and twelve pairs of appendages along their body – with the front two pairs at the head end being significantly spinier, and most (or all) of these limbs also bearing paddle-like exopods.

The large carapace enclosed most of the body, and was ornamented with protective spines and a net-like surface pattern that probably increased the strength of the relatively thin chitinous structure.

Together all these anatomical features now indicate that tuzoiids were early mandibulates (part of the lineage including modern myriapods, crustaceans, and insects), and were probably very closely related to the hymenocarines.

Tuzoiids seem to have been active swimmers that probably cruised around just above the seafloor, with their stout legs suggesting they could also walk around if they flexed their valves open. The arrangement of their spiny front limbs wasn’t suited to grabbing at fast-swimming prey, but instead may have been used to capture slower seafloor animals or to scavenge from carcasses.

Strange Symmetries #20: The 16 Million Year Fiddler Crab Rave

Many decapod crustaceans have slightly asymmetrical pincers, often with one claw being chunkier and specialized for “crushing” while the other is more slender and used for “cutting”.

But fiddler crabs take this sort of asymmetry to the extreme as part of their sexual dimorphism – males have one massively oversized claw, which is used for both visual display to potential mates and for physical fights against rivals.

Some of the earliest fiddler crabs are known from the Miocene of what is now northern Brazil. Although the fossils have been given several different taxonomic names since their discovery in the 1970s (including Uca maracoani antiqua, Uca antiqua, and Uca inaciobritoi) they’re currently considered to be indistinguishable from the modern Brazilian fiddler crab, Uca maracoani, meaning that these crabs have remained externally unchanged for the last 16 million years.

Up to about 4cm in carapace width (~1.6″), modern Uca maracoani are found in coastal mangrove swamps and tidal mudflats around the northern and eastern coasts of South America – and some of these environments have also undergone little change since the Miocene. Males of the species can develop their enlarged pincer on either side of their bodies, with lefties and righties seeming to occur in equal numbers.

Strange Symmetries #13: The Hermit Crab Cycle

Hermit crabs are crustaceans that first appeared at the start of the Jurassic, about 201 million years ago. Despite their common name they aren’t actually true crabs, instead being a classic example of convergently evolving a crab-like body plan via carcinization.

They also have noticeably asymmetric bodies, with abdomens that coil to one side and differently-sized front claws.

And while modern hermit crabs are famous for inhabiting scavenged snail shells, their fossil record suggests this wasn’t always the case.

Originally, they seem to have lived in ammonite shells.

Palaeopagurus vandenengeli lived in what is now northern England during the Early Cretaceous, about 130 million years ago. Around 4-5cm long (~1.6-2″), it was found preserved inside the shell of the ammonite species Simbirskites gottschei.

Its left claw was much larger than its right, and together they would have been used to block the shell opening when it was hiding away inside. And while the exact shape of its abdomen isn’t known, it probably asymmetrically coiled to the side to accomodate the spiralling shape of the host shell.

Hermit crabs seem to have switched over to using gastropod shells by the Late Cretaceous, around 90-80 million years ago, possibly due to marine snails developing much stronger sturdier shells during this period in response to the increasing prevalence of specialized shell-crushing predators. The more upright snail shells would also have been much easier to drag around the seafloor than ammonite shells – and meant that they were ultimately less affected by the total disappearance of ammonites during end-Cretaceous mass extinction.

Strange Symmetries #06: Trilobite Tridents

The genus Walliserops was one of the weirdest-looking trilobites, covered in numerous pointy spines and sporting a large three-pronged “trident” on the front of its face.

They also had some degree of asymmetry in their bodies. Their tridents often didn’t fork evenly, and their long forehead spines curved off to one side – possibly so they could lift their heads up without stabbing themselves in the back.

Walliserops hammii lived in what is now Morocco during the early-to-mid Devonian, about 403-392 million years ago. Around 5cm long (~2″) It was one of the “short trident” species of Walliserops, and its chunky forehead spine curved particularly strongly to the right.

The function of these trilobites’ elaborate tridents is still poorly understood. But an unusual individual of the long-tridented species Walliserops trifurcatushas been found with a lopsided four-pronged trident, and since it was able to grow to full maturity the shape of the structure probably wasn’t absolutely vital for survival, suggesting it wasn’t used for feeding or sensory purposes.

The tridents may instead have been used for combat with each other similar to the horns of some modern beetles. However, these sorts of features are usually only seen in males, and there’s currently no definite evidence for any significant sexual dimorphism in trilobites.

(Although perhaps like ceratopsid dinosaurs their ornaments were just present in both males and females, being also useful for species recognition, visual display, and defense against predators.)


Lobopodians were some of the earliest known panarthropods, closely related to velvet worms, tardigrades, and the ancestors of all the true arthropods. They were small soft-bodied worm-like animals with multiple pairs of fleshy legs, and some species also bore elaborate spikes, armor plates, and fleshy bumps all over their bodies – with the spiny Hallucigenia being the most famous example.

But unlike its more charismatic relative Paucipodia inermis here didn’t seem to have any ornamentation at all.

Known from the Chinese Chengjiang fossil deposits, dating to about 518 million years ago, Paucipodia lived in what was then a shallow tropical sea. Its 13cm long (~5″) tubular body had nine pairs of legs, with each foot tipped with a pair of hooked claws, and the inside of its mouth was ringed with tiny sharp teeth.

Several specimens have been found preserved in association with the weird gummy-disc animal Eldonia, which may indicate Paucipodia either preyed on them or scavenged on their carcasses.

Some Paucipodia fossils also have enigmatic tiny “cup-like” organisms attached to their legs. It’s currently unknown what exactly these were, or whether they were parasitic in nature or simply opportunistically “hitching a ride” similar to the Inquicus found on armored palaeoscolecid worms in the same fossil beds.

It Came From The Wastebasket #19: The Pterrible Fate Of Ptychopariida

The Ptychopariida were some of the earliest known trilobites, first appearing in the early Cambrian about 521 million years ago and surviving until the end of the Ordovician about 444 million years ago. They included some of the most numerous and common trilobite species, and were probably ancestral to multiple other major lineages – including the very last trilobites at the end of the Permian – making them incredibly important in understanding the overall evolution of trilobites as a whole.

…But this group is also one of the biggest wastebaskets in paleontology.

First established in the early 20th century, the ptychopariids seemed to have some fairly good defining characteristics based on their facial sutures, large thoraxes, and relatively small pygidia. But the group quickly became a dumping ground for a massive amount of Cambrian trilobites, eventually containing numerous different families, hundreds of genera, and many more individual species.

Actually figuring out their internal evolutionary relationships also turned out to be extremely difficult – so much so that some paleontologists working on them just gave up trying and arranged the genera names alphabetically instead!

Even cladistic studies from the 1970s onward struggled to make sense of these highly “problematic” trilobites, and any larger-scale analysis was a daunting task due to how huge and diverse the ptychopariid wastebasket had become over the years. Worse, some of the anatomical features the group had been based around were starting to look more like the result of a lot of convergent evolution across multiple lineages than any actual shared ancestry.

Efforts were still made at breaking up the mess, however, with better-understood sub-groups like the Proetida, Harpida, Asaphida, Trinucleida, and Olenida being gradually split off into their own separate orders over the course of the last few decades.

An illustration of Ptychoparia, an extinct trilobite from the Cambrian period. It has a large semicircular head with a pair of antennae, small eyes, and a bulbous "forehead" region. Its body has 13 segements, and its "tail" is small and shaped like a blunted triangle.
Ptychoparia striata

But even by the early 2010s what remained of the Ptychopariida was still paraphyletic at best, more of an “evolutionary grade” of early trilobites than a single lineage, with most of its constituent families also rather poorly defined. There was even a proposal to abandon the group entirely, stating that “it serves no scientific purpose” and that its orphaned contents should be considered “order uncertain” until their actual relationships can be untangled.

Today the “ptychopariids” are in dire need of a full revision – since they were the ancestors of many other major groups they’re still crucial for understanding early trilobite evolution. There may be a salvageable single lineage somewhere in the remains of this wastebasket, even if it’s restricted to just close relatives of the genus Ptychoparia, but until somebody tackles them properly they’re stuck in taxonomic limbo with their name only being used in a loose sense.

It Came From The Wastebasket #14: The Protorthoptera Puzzle

Protorthoptera was a group of fossil insects created in the early 20th century to categorize “primitive” neopterans – some of the earliest insects to have evolved the ability to fold their wings down over their backs. Known mostly from just fossilized forewings, they first appeared around 320 million years ago in the late Carboniferous, and after heavy losses during the Great Dying mass extinction they eventually disappeared in the mid-Triassic about 240 million years ago.

And this group was a massive wastebasket taxon.

As early as the mid-20th century the protorthopterans were recognized as being a general taxonomic dumping ground, containing a mixture of early members of multiple different “orthopteroid” insect lineages. But invertebrate paleontologists at the time considered this collection of “primitive” insects to lack enough distinctive features to confidently separate them out from each other, and so the highly paraphyletic grouping continued to be used well into the 1990s.

An illustration of Ctenoptilus elongatus, an extinct insect. It has long thin antennae, a small grasshopper-like head, six legs each ending in two small claws, a cylindrical abdomen, and two pairs of large wings folded over its back. It's colored red, tan, and dark brown, with striped markings on its wings.
Ctenoptilus elongatus

But in the early 2000s this situation finally changed. Proper cladistic analysis of protorthopteran fossils identified defining features of the wing vein patterns, and many species were reclassified into various lineages within the Archaeorthoptera – which includes modern grasshoppers, crickets, and locusts along with several closely related fossil groups like the titanopterans and caloneurodeans.

“Protorthoptera” is still sometimes used in a loose sense for fossil neopteran insects that still can’t be confidently classified anywhere else, so the wastebasket isn’t entirely cleared here.

And there are some alternate classification systems (mainly proposed by Russian paleontologists) that instead consider many protorthopterans to be notopterans closely related to modern ice-crawlers, and place others as part of other modern neopteran lineages such as webspinners and true bugs.

Hopefully better fossil discoveries and future studies will eventually help clear things up, and give us a better overall picture of the evolution of these insects.