Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Acute vision in the giant Cambrian predator Anomalocaris and the origin of compound eyes


Until recently1, intricate details of the optical design of non-biomineralized arthropod eyes remained elusive in Cambrian Burgess-Shale-type deposits, despite exceptional preservation of soft-part anatomy in such Konservat-Lagerstätten2,3. The structure and development of ommatidia in arthropod compound eyes support a single origin some time before the latest common ancestor of crown-group arthropods4, but the appearance of compound eyes in the arthropod stem group has been poorly constrained in the absence of adequate fossils. Here we report 2–3-cm paired eyes from the early Cambrian (approximately 515 million years old) Emu Bay Shale of South Australia, assigned to the Cambrian apex predator Anomalocaris. Their preserved visual surfaces are composed of at least 16,000 hexagonally packed ommatidial lenses (in a single eye), rivalling the most acute compound eyes in modern arthropods. The specimens show two distinct taphonomic modes, preserved as iron oxide (after pyrite) and calcium phosphate, demonstrating that disparate styles of early diagenetic mineralization can replicate the same type of extracellular tissue (that is, cuticle) within a single Burgess-Shale-type deposit. These fossils also provide compelling evidence for the arthropod affinities of anomalocaridids, push the origin of compound eyes deeper down the arthropod stem lineage, and indicate that the compound eye evolved before such features as a hardened exoskeleton. The inferred acuity of the anomalocaridid eye is consistent with other evidence that these animals were highly mobile visual predators in the water column5,6. The existence of large, macrophagous nektonic predators possessing sharp vision—such as Anomalocaris—within the early Cambrian ecosystem probably helped to accelerate the escalatory ‘arms race’ that began over half a billion years ago7,8.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Anomalocaris eyes from the Emu Bay Shale.
Figure 2: SEM-EDS analyses of Anomalocaris eyes.
Figure 3: The early evolution of compound eyes, and the position of anomalocaridids (Radiodonta), in the arthropod stem group.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Lee, M. S. Y. et al. Modern optics in exceptionally preserved eyes of Early Cambrian arthropods from Australia. Nature 474, 631–634 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Briggs, D. E. G., Erwin, D. H. & Collier, F. J. The Fossils of the Burgess Shale (Smithsonian Institution, 1994)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Hou, X.-G. et al. The Cambrian Fossils of Chengjiang, China: The Flowering of Early Animal Life (Blackwell, 2004)

    Google Scholar 

  4. Harzsch, S. & Hafner, G. Evolution of eye development in arthropods: phylogenetic aspects. Arthropod Struct. Dev. 35, 319–340 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Briggs, D. E. G. Giant predators from the Cambrian of China. Science 264, 1283–1284 (1994)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Vannier, J. & Chen, J.-. Early Cambrian food chain: new evidence from fossil aggregates in the Maotianshan Shale Biota, SW China. Palaios 20, 3–26 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Marshall, C. R. Explaining the Cambrian “explosion” of animals. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 34, 355–384 (2006)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Bush, A. M. & Bambach, R. K. Paleoecologic megatrends in marine Metazoa. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 39, 241–269 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Van Roy, P. & Briggs, D. E. G. A giant Ordovician anomalocaridid. Nature 473, 510–513 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Whittington, H. B. & Briggs, D. E. G. The largest Cambrian animal, Anomalocaris, Burgess Shale, British Columbia. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 309, 569–609 (1985)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. Butterfield, N. J. Leanchoilia guts and the interpretation of three-dimensional structures in Burgess Shale-type fossils. Paleobiology 28, 155–171 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Nedin, C. Anomalocaris predation on nonmineralized and mineralized trilobites. Geology 27, 987–990 (1999)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Chen, J.-Y., Ramsköld, L. & Zhou, G.-Q. Evidence for monophyly and arthropod affinity of Cambrian giant predators. Science 264, 1304–1308 (1994)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Bergström, J. in Darwin’s Heritage Today. Proceedings of the Darwin 200 International Conference 29–42 (Higher Education, 2010)

    Google Scholar 

  15. Hou, X.-G., Bergström, J. & Ahlberg, P. Anomalocaris and other large animals in the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang fauna of southwest China. GFF 117, 163–183 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Usami, Y. Theoretical study on the body form and swimming pattern of Anomalocaris based on hydrodynamic simulation. J. Theor. Biol. 238, 11–17 (2006)

    Article  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  17. Collins, D. The “evolution” of Anomalocaris and its classification in the arthropod class Dinocarida (nov.) and order Radiodonta (nov.). J. Paleontol. 70, 280–293 (1996)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Daley, A. C., Budd, G. E., Caron, J.-B., Edgecombe, G. D. & Collins, D. The Burgess Shale anomalocaridid Hurdia and its significance for early euarthropod evolution. Science 323, 1597–1600 (2009)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Kühl, G., Briggs, D. E. G. & Rust, J. A great-appendage arthropod with a radial mouth from the Lower Devonian Hunsrück Slate, Germany. Science 323, 771–773 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. Ma, X.-Y., Hou, X.-G. & Bergström, J. Morphology of Luolishania longicruris (Lower Cambrian, Chengjiang Lagerstätte, SW China) and the phylogenetic relationships within lobopodians. Arthropod Struct. Dev. 38, 271–291 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Gehling, J. G., Jago, J. B., Paterson, J. R., García-Bellido, D. C. & Edgecombe, G. D. The geological context of the lower Cambrian (series 2) Emu Bay Shale Lagerstätte and adjacent stratigraphic units, Kangaroo Island, South Australia. Aust. J. Earth Sci. 58, 243–257 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. McKirdy, D. M. et al. Paleoredox status and thermal alteration of the lower Cambrian (Series 2) Emu Bay Shale Lagerstätte, South Australia. Aust. J. Earth Sci. 58, 259–272 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Gabbott, S. E., Hou, X.-G., Norry, M. J. & Siveter, D. J. Preservation of Early Cambrian animals of the Chengjiang biota. Geology 32, 901–904 (2004)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Gaines, R. R., Briggs, D. E. G. & Zhao, Y. Cambrian Burgess Shale-type deposits share a common mode of fossilization. Geology 36, 755–758 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Nedin, C. The Emu Bay Shale, a Lower Cambrian fossil Lagerstätten, Kangaroo Island, South Australia. Mem. Assoc. Austral. Palaeontol. 18, 31–40 (1995)

    MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  26. Cronin, T. W. & Porter, M. L. Exceptional variation on a common theme: the evolution of crustacean compound eyes. Evol. Edu. Outreach 1, 463–475 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Wehner, R. in Comparative Physiology and Evolution of Vision in Invertebrates: C 287–616 (Springer, 1981)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  28. Harzsch, S. Neurophylogeny: architecture of the nervous system and a fresh view on arthropod phylogeny. Integr. Comp. Biol. 46, 162–194 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Vannier, J., García-Bellido, D. C., Hu, S.-X. & Chen, A.-L. Arthropod visual predators in the early pelagic ecosystem: evidence from the Burgess Shale and Chengjiang biotas. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 276, 2567–2574 (2009)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Hu, S.-X. et al. Diverse pelagic predators from the Chengjiang Lagerstätte and the establishment of modern-style pelagic ecosystems in the early Cambrian. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 254, 307–316 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank P. and C. Buck for access to and assistance at the fossil site; R. Atkinson, M. Gemmell, N. Schroeder, M. Binnie, J. Gehling, B. McHenry and others (Supplementary table 3 in ref. 1) for assistance with excavations and curation; A. Daley and J. Gehling for comments and advice; D. Birch and N. Vella for help with SEM-EDS analyses; and the Australian Research Council (grant LP0774959), South Australian Museum, University of Adelaide, MICINN-Spanish Ministry of Science (RYC2007-00090 and grant CGL2009-07073), Beach Energy and Sealink Pty Ltd for funding.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



All authors directly contributed to excavation and interpretation of fossil specimens, analysis, and writing the manuscript. J.R.P. and D.C.G.-B. conducted the digital photography and camera lucida drawings; G.A.B. and J.R.P. conducted the SEM-EDS analyses.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to John R. Paterson.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1-2 with legends, Supplementary Table 1 and additional references. (PDF 450 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Paterson, J., García-Bellido, D., Lee, M. et al. Acute vision in the giant Cambrian predator Anomalocaris and the origin of compound eyes. Nature 480, 237–240 (2011).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing