Zombie worms may have wiped out fossil records for many dinosaur species

15 Apr 2015

Zombie worms use acid to devour chunks of bone. Image via Yoshihiro Fujiwara/JAMSTEC

New research into bones discovered from an ancient plesiosaurs appear to suggest that Osedax worms – commonly known as zombie worms – may have ravaged fossil records influencing what we know today.

Publishing their findings in a research paper, the team from the Plymouth University’s marine institute has shown that a scavenged rib cage from the plesiosaurs shows evidence of a bone riddled with zombie worm bore holes.

Going by these findings, the team believe that our entire understanding of fossils for a considerable number of extinct dinosaur species could be skewed because their remains have been eaten by the ravenous worm.

According to the BBC, the zombie worm was first discovered relatively recently in 2002 by a deep-sea explorer robot that came across them feeding off the remains of whale bones that had drifted to the sea bed, but they are known to exist as deep as 4km in parts of the world’s oceans.

Consumed bones on a global scale

Based off these findings, it was originally believed that the zombie worm and whale evolved together, with the former using the latter as a food source.

Now, based off this new research, there is evidence that the creature existed at least 100m years ago feeding off the giant plesiosauri and, following its extinction approximately 66m years ago, used giant sea turtles as a go-between food source until the arrival of whales 22m years ago.

“The increasing evidence for Osedax throughout the oceans past and present, combined with their propensity to rapidly consume a wide range of vertebrate skeletons, suggests that Osedax may have had a significant negative effect on the preservation of marine vertebrate skeletons in the fossil record,” said Dr Silva Danise, one of the leads in the study.

She continued, “By destroying vertebrate skeletons before they could be buried, Osedax may be responsible for the loss of data on marine vertebrate anatomy and carcass-fall communities on a global scale.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic