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Giant prehistoric worm discovered

Illustration: James Ormiston
Illustration: James Ormiston
Researchers from Lund University, among others, have recently discovered a giant prehistoric worm with massive jaws. The worm lived in the sea 400 million years ago and is estimated to have been up to two metres long. The newly discovered species’ scientific name was inspired by a bassist in an American hard rock band.

The worm species is the largest marine jawed worm ever found, and was discovered in sedimentary rock from Canada. These animals are normally quite small, between a few centimetres and decimetres. But the new fossil finding indicates an unusually large worm. Its body is estimated to have been 1–2 metres long.

“The only thing left of the animal is its jaws, which are much larger compared to similar fossils”, says Mats Eriksson, professor of geology at Lund University.

Together with a researcher in Canada and a researcher in England, Eriksson got wind of the fossil in question. By then, the worm remains had lain undiscovered for several years in a museum in Toronto, after rock samples were collected during fieldwork in 1994 in the province of Ontario.

Photo: Luke Parry
Photo: Luke Parry

The gigantic worm species, called Websteroprion armstrongi, lived in the sea. But what it fed on is uncertain. Considering its jaws, researchers believe that it may have been both a predator and a scavenger.

An interesting aspect of the finding is that it shows that gigantism existed as early as 400 million years ago. Gigantism is a phenomenon in evolution, where an unusually large body can lead to a competitive advantage over other species.

“Our study shows that this phenomenon of gigantism seems to have been limited to a certain evolutionary branch among jawed worms”, says Mats Eriksson.

A several hundred million year-old worm can thus contribute to knowledge of both animal life on Earth in the past and of evolution as a process. In the long run, this type of palaeontological knowledge is very important when trying to understand and conserve biodiversity today, according to Mats Eriksson.

The three researchers behind the present study are fond of music, and have therefore named the worm after a bassist in an American hard rock band, Alex Webster.

Contact:

Mats Eriksson, professor
Department of Geology, Lund University
+46 (0)46 222 96 02
mats.eriksson [at] geol.lu.se