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High Level Trilobite Systematics


This page reviews the Trilobita at the ordinal level.

Keywords: Trilobite orders, Agnostida, Redlichiida, Lichida, Corynexochida, Phacopida, Ptychopariida, Harpetida, Asaphida, Proetida


"Trilobite classification systems have been claimed as 'natural' at least since the time of Salter (1864). Different authors have pursued their individual meanings of 'natural', although most have claimed that their classifications also reflect phylogeny. Two approaches to phylogenetics are representative: the tree-based, or stratigraphic approach, and the key-character approach respectively. The former is exemplified particularly by Cambrian specialists such as Franco Rasetti; the intention is to reproduce the actual tree of descent by means of stratigraphic and evolutionary series of species - the classification is imposed after the reconstruction of the tree. The key character approach identifies characters which are considered to be reliable indicators of descent - synapomorphies in modern understanding" (Fortey 1997, Abstract.)

Today there are nine generally recognised orders of trilobites (some authorities still recognise the Naraoiidae or Nectaspida as a tenth). The following table lists them, their main diagnostic characteristics, plus some representative taxa from each one.

The last four orders listed – Ptychopariida, Harpetida, Asaphida and Proetida – share (at least in primitive forms) a natant hypostomal condition, leading Fortey 1990 to propose a phylogenetic relationship between these forms and a new subclass, Libristoma, to group them. A subclass-level organisation for the remaining orders has not emerged.

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"Both approaches seek to identify confusing examples of convergence (multiple homoplasies). These convergences were probably a response to repeatedly adopted modes of life, although there are few morphotypes corresponding with plausible life scenarios. As an example, I shall consider the effectiveness of the stratigraphic approach versus the character-based approach in resolving the classification and relationships of those trilobites with highly secondarily specialised pelagic morphology. Although it is certainly parsimonious to assume that unusual characters have appeared only once, it will be shown that past assumptions about uniquely derived characters as a basis for classification have frequently been overturned by subsequent critical studies. It is possible that some of the characters currently employed as the basis for high level taxa will also be shown to be capable of multiple derivation. For example, ventral skeletal morphology shows that the mode of attachment of the hypostome may have been directly related to feeding habits - and hence a possible target for convergent evolution." (Fortey 1997, Abstract.)


Order Range Synopsis Suborder/Superfamily Example
Agnostida LC - Uq Facial sutures marginal; mostly lacking eyes; two (Agnostina) or three (Eodiscina) thoracic segments; isopygous. Agnostina


Redlichiida LC - MC Cephalon usually with elongate genal spines; sutures either fused or opisthoparian; eyes large; thoracic segments often spiny; micropygous. Olenellina


Corynexochida LC - MD Opisthoparian; glabella expanded towards the front or parallel sided; commonly 7 to 8 thoracic segments; often macropygous. Corynexochina
Lichida MC - MD Medium to large size; opisthoparian; glabella broad; often macropygous; pygidium characterised by three blade-shaped pleurae; carapace often tuberculated. Lichoidea
Phacopida Lq - UD Dominantly proparian though sometimes gonatoparian or opisthoparian; glabella variable; 8 to 19 thoracic segments; pygidium small in some early forms but typically medium to large. Cheirurina



Ptychopariida LC - UD Dominantly opisthoparian, sometimes marginal or proparian; glabella usually tapering forward; more than three thoracic segments. Ptychopariina

Harpetida UC - UD Sutures marginal except on dorsal side at genal angles; glabella convex, narrowing forwards, with 1 to 3 pairs of furrows; cephalon with characteristic Harpid fringe, consisting of vaulted inner genal roll and outer bilaminar brim; thorax with 12 or frequently more segments; pygidium subtriangular, elongate to short. Harpina

Asaphida UC - S Opisthoparian; glabella with faint lateral furrows or smooth, commonly with glabellar tubercule; 6 to 9 thoracic segments; subisopygous.

Sometimes considered (e.g. by Rich et al. 1996) to be a suborder of the Ptychopariida, the diagnostic feature is a ventral median suture.

Proetida UC - MP Genal spines present; opisthoparian; eyes large, holochroal; glabella large and bulbous; 8 to 10 thoracic segments; isopygous. Proetoidea
Table 1: Summary of the orders of trilobites.

* Considered by some to be an order in its own right.



Phylum Arthropoda von Siebold & Stannius 1845

Tactopoda Budd 2000

Supersubphylum Euarthropoda Lankester 1904

Subphylum Arachnomorpha Heider 1913

Superclass Trilobitomorpha Stĝrmer 1944

(= "Trilobite clade" Cotton & Braddy 2000)

Class Trilobita Walch 1771

Description: Marine arthropods characterised by a generally subelliptical, dorsal, chitinous exoskeleton divided longitudinally into three distinct lobes, and having a distinct, ralatively large head shield (cephalon) articulating axially with a thorax comprising articulated transverse segments, the hindmost of which are almost invariably fused to form a tail shield (pygidium).


Order Agnostida Kobayashi 1935

Description: Diminuitive, isopygous, two (suborder Agnostina) or three (suborder Eodiscina) fulcrate thoracic segments. Cephalic shield with deeply parabolic outline and maximum width (tr.) usually anterior to genal angle; border convex; glabella commonly fusiform, widest at base (except in Condylopygidae); facial sutures marginal; mostly lacking eyes. Hypostome natant; rostral plate lacking or uncalcified. Outline of pygidium closely matching that of cephalon (Whittington et al. 1997, p. 331).

Stratigraphic Range: Lower Cambrian to Upper Ordovician

Discussion: The Agnostida mostly lack eyes – however, the oldest well-preserved trilobite eyes are in fact found in eodiscids from the Lower Cambrian of China (Clarkson 1993, p. 352).

The Agnostida includes two suborders, the Agnostina and Eodiscina, comprising (to a first order approximation) members having two and three thoracic segments, respectively. However, the order may not be a natural clade; it may be paraphyletic. No one doubts that Eodiscina are trilobites, but the systematic position of the Agnostina has been much debated. Some authors maintain that they are not trilobites at all, placing emphasis on their unique characteristics (primitive blindness, unusual limbs, cephalothoracic aperture) and lack of any morphologically intermediate taxa connecting them to other trilobites. Others – probably the majority – view them as 'good' trilobites, albeit highly specialised, sharing a common ancestry with the more primitive Eodiscina and possibly derived from them.

Representative Genera: Peronopsis (fig. 1), Condylopyge (suborder Agnostina), Eodiscus (suborder Eodiscina)


Peronopsis montis (43617 bytes)

Fig. 1: Peronopsis montis (Mathew) – A Burgess Shale (Middle Cambrian) specimen from the Yale collection (YPM 104485). The specimen shows the subquadrate front lobe of the glabella, pygidial axis which is broadly rounded at the rear, absence of transverse furrowing on the pygidium, and smooth surface. Overall length about 8 mm. [Image courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University.]

Order Redlichiida Richter 1932

Description: Trilobites with relatively large semicircular cephalon, commonly with well-developed genal spines; facial sutures opisthoparian or ankylosed; glabella typically well segmented; ocular lobe attached to glabella in front of S3, prominent throughout development; eye ridge may be subdivided; eyes tending to be elongate or crescentic; numerous thoracic segments, with pleural spines; may be subdivided into prothorax and opisthothorax; pygidium diminuitive or rudimentary.

Stratigraphic Range: Lower Cambrian to Middle Cambrian

Discussion: These trilobites, particularly Fallotaspis, Olenellus and allied genera are of special interest in being the first trilobites to appear in the fossil record. They possess a number of features which are regarded as being primitive; particularly the lack of facial sutures (cf. Naraoiidae). It is believed these forms are the most likely to shed light on the obscure origin of trilobites and their phylogenetic relationship with other arthropods.

Representative Genera: Redlichia (fig. 2B), Emuella, Paradoxides (suborder Redlichiina); Olenellus, Holmia (suborder Olenellina); Fallotaspis, Nevadella (conventionally placed in Olenellina but there is evidence that the superfamily Fallotaspidoidea belongs in suborder Redlichiina)


(A) Cambropallas telesto (25913 bytes)     (B) Redlichia chinensis (21254 bytes)

Fig. 2: (A) Cambropallas telesto Geyer 1993 – Lowest Middle Cambrian. A Moroccan specimen of the type frequently sold as Andalusiana sp. The posterior cephalic margin of the latter is nearly straight whereas that of Cambropallas is arcuate, as seen here (Whittington et al. 1997, p. 414, fig. 261). Overall length is approximately 20 cm. [Original image.]

(B) Redlichia (Hunanolenus) chinensis – Cambrian. Specimen from Henan Province, China. Length approximately 6 cm. [Original image.]

Order Corynexochida Kobayashi 1935

Description: Trilobites elongate subelliptical; cephalon semicircular, mostly with well-developed genal spines; glabella long, mostly with subparallel sides but expanding aneriorly in some genera, reaching the anterior border, lateral furrows generally distinct; eyes elongate and narrow, commonly associated with eye ridges; facial sutures opisthoparian with sections in front of the eyes generally subparallel; rostral plate fused with the hypostoma or rudimentary; thorax comprising 5 to 11 segments; pleurae with well marked furrows, terminations spinose; pygidium medium to large (macropygous), commonly with marginal spines although some genera have a smooth border.

Stratigraphic Range: Lower Cambrian to Middle Devonian

Discussion: Three suborders comprise the Corynexochida, the   Corynexochina, Leiostegiina and the widely-known and collected Illaenina.

In 1975, several member groups of the Illaenina were reassigned to a newly erected order, Proetida, by Richard Fortey and R. M. Owens (Fortey and Owens 1975). Earlier references (e.g. in Moore 1959) depict a larger suborder Illaenina, including such taxa as Bathyurus and Proetus.

Representative Genera: Corynexochus (suborder Corynexochina, also Olenoides, fig. 3A); Illaenus (fig. 3B, suborder Illaenina); Lloydia (suborder Leiostegiina)

(A) Olenoides sp. (16233 bytes)     (B) Illaenus sp. (17920 bytes)

Fig. 3: (A) Olenoides sp. – A Cambrian specimen from the Pierson Cove Formation, Millard Co., Utah. This specimen distinctly shows the marked interpleural grooves, in addition to pleural furrows, and the 4 to 8 pairs of marginal spines which are characteristic of the genus. Olenoides is further characterised by a parallel-sided or slightly clavate glabella and 5 to 11 axial rings in the pygidium. Specimen is 6.75 cm in length. [Image courtesy of]

(B) Illaenus sp. – Lower Ordovician from the Asery Horizon, Wolchow River, near St. Petersburg, Russia. Illaenus is characterised by a thorax with 10 segments, well-developed eyes, and a long, hour-glass shaped, rostral flange (the hindmost part of the rostral plate when it is strongly curved in anterior or dorsal direction, so as to form a fold). Length is approximately 6 cm. [Original image.]

Order Lichida Moore 1959

Original Diagnosis: Medium-sized to exceptionally large trilobites chiefly characterized by distinctive cephalic and pygidial features. Glabella broad, extending to anterior border, which may be ill-defined; with a pair of lateral glabellar furrows longitudinally elongated; lateral glabellar and occipital lobes tending to fuse with one another and with other parts of the cranidium; facial sutures opisthoparian. Pygidium large; pleural regions usually flattened, and composed of three pairs of pleurae that commonly exhibit leaflike or strongly spinose form. Dorsal surface almost invariably tuberculate. (Moore in Moore 1959, p. O495)

Stratigraphic Range: Lower Ordovician to Upper Devonian

Discussion: The first edition of the Treatise (Moore 1959, p. O504) established the Odontopleurida as an order in its own right. Later, Thomas and Holloway 1988 argued that the Lichida and Moore's Odontopleurida comprised a monophyletic group. This view has been supported by subsequent authors (e.g. Ramsköld 1991) and is the view adopted in the revised Treatise (Fortey in Whittington et al. 1997, p. 299). However, opinion is divided and the Odontopleuroidea is still considered by some (e.g. Rich et al. 1996) to be an order in its own right.

Representative Genera: Arctinurus (fig. 4A, superfamily Lichoidea); Leonaspis (fig. 4B, superfamily Odontopleuroidea); Damesella (superfamily Dameselloidea)

(A) Arctinurus boltoni (15480 bytes)     (B) Kettneraspis williamsi (14490 bytes)

Fig. 4: (A) Arctinurus boltoni (Bigsby) – A beautiful specimen from the Silurian of New York State. In Arctinurus the pygidium is characterised by a long axis, widening posteriorly, with three pairs of furrowed pleurae ending in free points. Length approximately 12 cm. [Image courtesy of]

(B) Leonaspis (Kettneraspis) williamsi – Lower Devonian, from the famous Haragan Formation, Coal Co., Oklahoma. An Odontopleurid characterised by the long, backward-directed pleural spines, very much abbreviated on the first two thoracic segments. Specimen approximately 1.5 cm. [Original image.]

Order Phacopida Salter 1864

Description: Cephalon with facial sutures typically proparian (most Phacopina and Cheirurina) or gonatoparian (most Calymenina, some Cheirurina), but may be opisthoparian (some Calymenina and Cheirurina) or even lacking (some Cheirurina). Glabella variously shaped, commonly expanding forward (Phacopina, most Cheirurina) or tapering forward (Calymenina, some Cheirurina), lateral glabellar furrows (if present) variously developed; preglabellar field short (sag.) or lacking; rostral plate present (Calymenina, most Cheirurina) or lacking (Phacopina, some Cheirurina). Hypostome with a prominent process on the anterior wing. Thorax with 8 to 19 segments. Pygidium mostly medium to large, but small in some exceptional early representatives.

Stratigraphic Range: Lower Ordovician to Upper Devonian

Discussion: The Phacopida comprises three suborders which share a distinctive protaspis type. The Cheirurina and Calymenina retain a rostral plate (an apomorphy) but in virtually all Phacopina the free cheeks are yoked as a single piece. The Phacopina further have schizochroal eyes and a distinctive glabellar structure, typically highly inflated and protruding forward over the anterior edge of the cephalon.

The Calymenina exhibit the most primitive facial suture morphology of the group. Their circumocular suture is also primitive. Eldredge 1977 considered that the Calymenina might in fact be more closely related to the Ptychopariida; however, this view was not adopted in the revise Treatise (Whittington et al. 1997).

Representative Genera: Cheirurus (fig. 5A, suborder Cheirurina); Calymene (suborder Calymenina); Acaste, Dalmanites, Phacops (suborder Phacopina)

(A) Crotalocephalus gibbus (16302 bytes)     (B) Pachyphacops raymondi (14292 bytes)

Fig. 5: (A) Cheirurus (Crotalocephalus) gibbus (Beyrich) – Phacopina. A Moroccan specimen from Devonian beds in the famous Alnif region. In Crotalocephalus the width of the animal is characteristically reduced. The eyes are moderately close to the glabella which has two pairs of lateral furrows in front of the preoccipital furrow, the fixigenae are narrower than the occipital ring (cf. Cheirurus) and the pygidium has broad, hook-like pleural spines. Overall length is approximately 9 cm. [Original image.]

(B) Paciphacops raymondi – Phacopina. A commonly traded fossil from the famous Lower Devonian Haragan Formation, Coal Co., Oklahoma. Typified by the extremely inflated glabella which protrudes forward over the anterior edge of the cephalon. Specimen approximately 3 cm. in length. [Original image.]


Subclass Libristoma Fortey 1990, p. 557

Original Diagnosis: Trilobites having natant hypostomal condition, or with secondarily conterminant or impendent hypostomal condition.

Order Ptychopariida Swinnerton 1915

Description: Dominantly opisthoparian, sometimes marginal or proparian; glabella usually tapering forward; glabellar furrows (if present) are commonly simple, subparallel linear depressions; more than 3 thoracic segments.

Stratigraphic Range: Lower Cambrian to Upper Devonian

Discussion: The Ptychopariida comprises three suborders: the Ptychopariina, Olenina and Harpina. Early (Lower Cambrian to Ordovician) Ptychopariina (fig. 7A) are characterised by "a tapering glabella, opisthoparian sutures, rim-like cepahlic borders extending into genal spines, natant hypostome, usually more than 12 thoracic segments, and a small, transverse, well-furrowed pygidium without remarkable features. Such a morphology is often referred to as generalized, but it is quite far removed from the primitive Redlichiida design, and it might be better to refer to it as exceptionally durable by virtue of a successful specialization" (Fortey in Whittington et al. 1997, p. 296). Partly because this obviously successful design was so persistent, the ptychopariid morphology usually varying only slightly within these basic parameters, it has been difficult to construct useful families and even genera within this group. The Ptychopariina represent the primitive morphology of the libristomate trilobites, though the suborder itself may yet prove to be paraphyletic.

"[A]ll except the very earliest members of the Olenina (which have rostral plates) have yoked free cheeks, connected by a very narrow strip of cephalic doublure. Extremely thin cuticles are typical" (Fortey in Whittington et al. 1997, p. 302).

The Harpina were formerly grouped alongside the Trineucleoidea (e.g. Moore 1959, pp. O415-430) but the resemblances between them, such as the pitted cephalic fringe, are probably convergences.

Representative Genera: Ellipsocephalus, Elrathia (fig. 6, suborder Ptychopariina); Olenus (suborder Olenina)


Elrathia marjumi (15434 bytes)

Fig. 6: Elrathia marjumi – A species from the Middle Cambrian of Utah, less common than the frequently collected and sold Elrathia kingi from the Wheeler Formation. The specimen is approximately 4 cm long. [Image courtesy of]

Order Harpetida Ebach & McNamara 2002

Descroption: Cephalon semicircular to ovate; fringe inclined, consisting of vaulted inner genal roll, which is convex or flat, and an outer bilaminar brim, either flat, convex or concave, extending posteriorly to long, flat genal prolongations; facial sutures marginal, in Entomaspididae involving the eyes, but with anterior and posterior sections running close together toward otherwise marginal sutures; glabella convex, narrowing forwards, with 1 to 3 pairs of furrows, posterior pair isolating triangular basal lobes; occipital ring convex; alae typically present; preglabellar field broad, sloping down to flat or upwardly concave border; eyes commonly reduced to prominent tubercles, centrally located on genae, strong eye ridges present; external surface of cephalon may be tuberculose or granulose; thorax with 12 or (frequently) more segments, pleurae flattened, with broad axial furrows; pygidium subtriangular, elongate to short (after Sam Gon's web site).

Stratigraphic Range: Upper Cambrian to Upper Devonian (Frasnian).

Discussion: Formerly considered a suborder of the Ptychopariida, distinguished from other members by marginal sutures, lack of a rostral plate, and presence of the "Harpid fringe."

Representative Genera: Entomaspis (family Entomaspididae); Harpes, Scotoharpes (formerly Aristoharpes, fig. 7, family Harpetidae); Harpides, Loganopeltis (family Harpididae, = Loganopeltidae)


Aristoharpes sp. (18833 bytes)

Fig. 7: Scotoharpes sp. – Lower Devonian from the Hamar Laghdad Formation, Atlas Mountains, Morocco. Members of the family Harpidae possess eye tubercules each with two lenses, semicircular alae adjacent to the posterior glabellar lobes (shown well on the right side of the illustrated specimen), and a bilaminar fringe with opposed pits in the outer surfaces. Length appriximately 4.5 cm. [Image courtesy of]

Order Asaphida Salter 1864 emend. Fortey & Chatterton 1988

Description: Opisthoparian; librigenae separated anteriorly by median suture or fused; doublure broad; glabella with faint lateral glabellar furrows or smooth, commonly with glabellar tubercle; eye ridges rarely present, faint. Thorax with 6 to 9 segments. Pygidium more or less equal to the cephalon in size (subisopygous). Tuberculate ornamentation rare.

Sometimes considered (e.g. by Rich et al. 1996) to be a suborder of the Ptychopariida, the diagnostic feature is a ventral median suture. Only primitive forms retain the natant hypostomal condition, the majority being secondarily conterminant or impendent. Higher Asaphida also have a distinctive inflated protaspis (Fortey 1990, p. 560).

Stratigraphic Range: Upper Cambrian to Silurian

Discussion: The superfamily Anomocaroidea represents the primitive morphology of the Asaphida, which includes a number of families retaining the natant hypostomal condition.

The Trineucleoidea is now included within the Asaphida; older classifications (e.g. Moore 1959) regarded the Trineucleoidea as members of the Ptychopariida.

Representative Genera: Anomocaris (superfamily Anomocaroidea); Asaphus (fig. 8, superfamily Asaphoidea); Ptychaspis (superfamily Dikelocephaloidea); Remopleurides (superfamily Remopleuridoidea); Cyclopyge (superfamily Cyclopygoidea); Trinucleus (superfamily Trineucleoidea)


Asaphus kotlukovi (15863 bytes)

Fig. 8: Asaphus kotlukovi Lesnikova 1928 – A nice specimen from the Middle Ordovician of the Wolchow River, St Petersburg area. In this genus neither the cephalon nor pygidium have any trace of a border, the glabella reaches the external cephalic margin, genal spines are almost exclusively absent, and the pygidial axis is long and prominent. Overall length is approximately 10 cm. [Original image.]

Order Proetida Fortey and Owens 1975

Description: Genal spines present; opisthoparian; eyes large, holochroal; glabella large and bulbous; 8 to 10 thoracic segments; isopygous.

Stratigraphic Range: Upper Cambrian to Middle Permian

Discussion: This order was introduced to accommodate some families formerly placed in the Illaenina, but thought to be unrelated to the type family. The realisation that the reassigned families further differed in being libristomate was made later.

Representative Genera: Proetus (fig. 9, superfamily Proetoidea); Aulacopleura (superfamily Aulacopleuroidea); Bathyurus (superfamily Bathyuroidea)

Proetus granulosus (17188 bytes)

Fig. 9: Proetus granulosus – Another Moroccan specimen, from the Lower Devonian Hamar Laghdad Formation, Alnif. Proetus has the galbella touching the the border furrow, and more or less distinct 1p glabellar furrows. Length about 2.5 cm. [Image courtesy of]


Clarkson, E.N.K. 1993: Invertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution (3rd ed.) Chapman & Hall.

Ebach, M.C.; McNamara, K.J. 2002: A Systematic Revision of the Family Harpetidae (Trilobita). Records of the Western Australian Museum 21: 135-67.

Eldredge, Niles 1977: Trilobites and Evolutionary Patterns. In Hallam, Anthony 1977: Patterns of Evolution. Elsevier, p. 305-332.

Fortey, R.A. 1997: Phylogenetic Concepts in the History of Trilobite Classification. Second International Trilobite Conference, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario.

Fortey, R.A. 1990: Ontogeny, Hypostome Attachment and Trilobite Classification. Palaeontology, 33(3): 529-576.

Fortey, R.A.; Owens, R.M. 1975: Proetida: A New Order of Trilobites. Fossils and Strata 4: 227-239.

Moore, R.C. 1959: Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology Part O Arthropoda 1. Geological Society of America and University of Kansas Press.

Ramsköld, Lars 1991: Pattern and Process in the Evolution of the Odontopleuridae (Trilobita): The Selenopeltinae and Ceratocephalinae. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Earth Sciences 82: 143-181.

Rich, Patricia Vickers; Rich, Thomas Hewitt; Fenton, Mildred Adams; Fenton, Carroll Lane 1996: The Fossil Book. Dover.

Thomas, A.T.; Holloway, D.J. 1988: Classification and Phylogeny of the Trilobite Order Lichida. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, B. Biological Sciences 321: 179-262.

Whittington, H.B. et al. 1997: Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology Part O Arthropoda 1 Trilobita, Revised, Volume 1: Introduction, Order Agnostida, Order Redlichiida. The Geological Society of America and The University of Kansas.

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