Gigantic 400m-year-old extinct worm with terrifying jaws discovered

21 Feb 2017

Close shot of red worm, a tame creature in comparison to the giant one recently discovered. Image: schankz/Shutterstock

Unbeknownst to researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, the fossil of a 400m-year-old gigantic worm with powerful jaws has been stored in its catalogue for more than 20 years.

When we think of the typical worm, we picture a harmless, faceless creature that we tend to dig up by accident during a spot of gardening.

Yet 400m years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs, a truly terrifying worm with enormous jaws existed in some parts of the world.

In a new paper published to Scientific Reports, researchers from the University of Bristol, Lund University in Sweden and the Royal Ontario Museum discovered something peculiar in a fossil that was deposited in the latter’s archives during the mid-1990s.

Seeming unremarkable at the time, the researchers examined the fossil and realised it was the first discovery of an extinct bristle worm.

An ocean-based relative of the humble earthworm or leeches, the worm was exceptionally big by today’s standards, at around one metre in length. Furthermore, its jaws would be enough to send many small sea creatures fleeing sharpish.

While a typical fossilised worm jaw would be only a few millimetres in size and would be limited to examination under a microscope, the bristle worm had an enormous jaw measuring over 1cm.

Giant worm

An artistic reconstruction of Websteroprion armstrongi attacking a fish in the Devonian sea. Image: James Ormiston

A peculiar name

Dubbed Websteroprion armstrongi – after Cannibal Corpse bassist Alex Webster, and Derek Armstrong, who found the sample – the new species is being compared to the discovery of the ‘giant eunicid’ species.

Better known as bobbit worms, this species was a fearsome and opportunistic predator that used its powerful jaws to capture prey such as fish, squid and octopuses and drag them into its watery burrow.

Such gigantism in marine worms is a poorly understood phenomenon, according to lead author Mats Eriksson, but this new species demonstrates a unique case of polychaete gigantism in the Palaeozoic era.

David Rudkin of the Royal Ontario 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 scrutinising museum collections for overlooked gems.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic