400 million year old gigantic extinct monster worm discovered in Canadian museum

February 21, 2017
Artistic reconstruction showing W. armstrongi attacking a fish in the Devonian sea. Credit: James Ormiston

A previously undiscovered species of an extinct primordial giant worm with terrifying snapping jaws has been identified by an international team of scientists.

Researchers from the University of Bristol, Lund University in Sweden and the Royal Ontario Museum studied an ancient fossil, which has been stored at the museum since the mid-1990s, and discovered the remains of a giant extinct bristle worm (the marine relatives of earthworms and leeches).

The findings are published today in Scientific Reports.

The is unique among fossil worms and possessed the largest jaws ever recorded in this type of creature, reaching over one centimetre in length and easily visible to the naked eye. Typically, such fossil jaws are only a few millimetres in size and need to be studied using microscopes.

Despite being only knows from the jaws, comparison with living species suggests that this animal achieved a body length in excess of a metre.

This is comparable to that of 'giant eunicid' species, colloquially referred to as 'Bobbit worms' which are fearsome and opportunistic ambush predators, using their powerful jaws to capture prey such as fish and cephalopods (squids and octopuses) and dragging them into their burrows.

Lead author Mats Eriksson from Lund University said: "Gigantism in animals is an alluring and ecologically important trait, usually associated with advantages and competitive dominance.

The holotype of Websteroprion armstrongi. Credit: Luke Parry

"It is, however, a poorly understood phenomenon among marine worms and has never before been demonstrated in a fossil species.

"The new species demonstrates a unique case of polychaete gigantism in the Palaeozoic, some 400 million years ago."

Co-author Luke Parry from the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, added: "It also shows that gigantism in jaw-bearing polychaetes was restricted to one particular evolutionary clade within the Eunicida and has evolved many times in different species."

The specimens were collected over the course of a few hours in a single day in June 1994, when Derek K Armstrong of Ontario Geological Survey was dropped by helicopter to investigate the rocks and fossils at a remote and temporary exposure in Ontario.

Sample materials, from what proved to belong to the Devonian Kwataboahegan Formation, were brought back to the Royal Ontario Museum, where they have been stored until they caught the eyes of the authors'.

A 3-D reconstruction of parts of the jaw apparatus of W. armstrongi from CT scanning of the fossil specimens. Credit: Luke Parry

David Rudkin from the museum said: "This is an excellent example of the importance of looking in remote and unexplored areas for finding new exciting things, but also the importance of scrutinizing museum collections for overlooked gems."

The has been named Websteroprion armstrongi. This honours Armstrong, who collected the material, and bass player extraordinaire, Alex Webster of Death Metal band Cannibal Corpse, since he can be regarded as a 'giant' when it comes to handling his instrument.

Luke Parry added: "This is fitting also since, beside our appetite for evolution and paleontology, all three authors have a profound interest in music and are keen hobby musicians."

Explore further: 500-million year-old species offers insights into the lives of ancient legged worms

More information: 'Earth's oldest 'Bobbit worm' – gigantism in a Devonian eunicidan polychaete' by Mats E. Eriksson, Luke A. Parry & David M. Rudkin in Scientific Reports

Related Stories

Fossil fireworm species named after rock musician

November 19, 2015

A muscly fossil fireworm, discovered by scientists from the University of Bristol and the Natural History Museum, has been named Rollinschaeta myoplena in honour of punk musician and spoken word artist, Henry Rollins.

3-D printed fish fossil may reveal origin of human teeth

September 30, 2016

Three-dimensional prints of a 400 million year old fish fossil from around Lake Burrinjuck in southeast Australia reveal the possible evolutionary origins of human teeth, according to new research by The Australian National ...

The best way to include fossils in the 'tree of life'

January 10, 2017

The researchers from the Bristol Palaeobiology Group, part of the School of Earth Sciences, studied the best way to understand relationships of extinct animals to other extinct species as well as those alive today.

Recommended for you

Plague likely a Stone Age arrival to central Europe

November 22, 2017

A team of researchers led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has sequenced the first six European genomes of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis dating from the Late Neolithic ...

How to cut your lawn for grasshoppers

November 22, 2017

Picture a grasshopper landing randomly on a lawn of fixed area. If it then jumps a certain distance in a random direction, what shape should the lawn be to maximise the chance that the grasshopper stays on the lawn after ...

Ancient barley took high road to China

November 21, 2017

First domesticated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, wheat and barley took vastly different routes to China, with barley switching from a winter to both a winter and summer crop during a thousand-year ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Iochroma
not rated yet Feb 21, 2017
Modern bristle worms can reach lengths of over a meter and are quite scary without jaws.
frank123
not rated yet Feb 22, 2017
I'm a little confused about the size of this thing. It was a meter long, but only had one-centimeter jaws? I'm just having trouble forming a mental picture of this creature. I'm picturing something roughly the size and shape of a 3-foot long snake, but I'm pretty sure snake jaws are bigger than one centimeter.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.