‘Dune’-like Sandworm Existed Tens of millions of Years Longer Than Thought


With a head lined in rows of curved spines, historic Selkirkia worms might simply be confused with the razor-toothed sandworms that inhabit the deserts of Arrakis in “Dune: Half Two.”

Through the Cambrian Explosion greater than 500 million years in the past, these bizarre worms — which lived inside lengthy, cone-shaped tubes — had been a few of the most typical predators on the seafloor.

“In case you had been a small invertebrate coming throughout them, it might have been your worst nightmare,” mentioned Karma Nanglu, a paleontologist at Harvard. “It’s like being engulfed by a conveyor belt of fangs and enamel.”

Fortunately for would-be spice harvesters, these ravenous worms disappeared a whole lot of million years in the past. However a trove of not too long ago analyzed fossils from Morocco reveals that these formidable predators measuring solely an inch or two in size, continued for much longer than beforehand thought.

In a paper printed at present within the journal Biology Letters, Dr. Nanglu’s workforce described a brand new species of Selkirkia worm that lived 25 million years after this group of tube-dwellers was thought to have gone extinct.

The newly described tubular worms had been found when Dr. Nanglu and his colleagues sifted by fossils saved within the assortment of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. The fossils hail from Morocco’s Fezouata Formation, a deposit relationship again to the Early Ordovician interval, which started round 488 million years in the past and spanned almost 45 million years. This was a dynamic period when holdovers from the Cambrian rubbed shoulders with evolutionary newcomers like sea scorpions and horseshoe crabs.

The Fezouata Formation presents an in depth snapshot of that ecological transition. The positioning is well-known for the stays of sea creatures like trilobites, which are sometimes preserved in rusty shades of crimson and orange. Among the preserved critters even retain delicate gentle tissue options that not often fossilize. Most analysis on Fezouata fossils has centered on these outstanding finds, overlooking the huge quantity of what Dr. Nanglu calls “fossil bycatch” — the smaller stays and fragments additionally contained in Fezouata rocks.

Because the workforce combed by the museum’s specimens, they observed a number of fiery-hued fossils of tapering tubes that regarded like elongated ice cream cones. The ringed textures of those tubes, which measured solely an inch lengthy, had been almost an identical to Selkirkia fossils from a lot older Cambrian deposits just like the Burgess Shale.

“We don’t anticipate this man to be round any extra,” Dr. Nanglu mentioned. “It’s 25 million years misplaced.”

A better evaluation confirmed that the tubes belonged to a brand new species of Selkirkia worm. They gave the brand new animal the species identify tsering, which is from the Tibetan phrase for “lengthy life.” The brand new species not solely expands the temporal report of Selkirkia worms, it additionally confirms that they lived in environments nearer to the South Pole, the place Morocco was located in the course of the Ordovician interval.

In line with Jean-Bernard Caron, a paleontologist on the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto who was not concerned within the new paper, this discovery highlights that some Cambrian creatures had been in a position to persist at the same time as range exploded within the Ordovician period.

“This new examine provides to a rising physique of proof that many members of Cambrian communities continued to thrive throughout the next Ordovician interval and weren’t shortly changed as earlier evolutionary fashions may need instructed,” he mentioned.

In line with Dr. Caron, the brand new worm’s morphology “seems remarkably unchanged in comparison with its Cambrian counterpart.” This implies that Selkirkia worms skilled little evolutionary change over the 40 million years they spent devouring different seafloor inhabitants.

However their tube-based physique kind finally went out of evolutionary fashion amongst intently associated worms, that are often known as priapulids, or penis-shaped, worms. Immediately, just one kind of priapulid resides in a tube, and it constructs its tubes out of clumps of plant particles as a substitute of secreting the fabric from its personal physique as Selkirkia worms did.

Dr. Nanglu posits that forming such a tube was a robust protection in the course of the Cambrian, when fewer massive predators had been prowling open water. However as free-swimming predators proliferated in the course of the Ordovician, the inflexible tubes could have finally made these worms extra inclined targets. In consequence, these worms could have ditched their tubes and adopted extra energetic modes of escape, like burrowing.

Whereas the ecological prices of manufacturing these tubes most likely caught as much as Selkirkia worms in the long term, the brand new discovering proves that the worms efficiently caught round longer than lots of the Cambrian’s weird wonders. To Dr. Nanglu, their presence additionally means that generally actuality actually is stranger than fiction, even in relation to huge display screen look-alikes.

“It’s like if the sandworm from Dune is constructing a huge home round itself,” Dr. Nanglu mentioned. “Irrespective of how wild the factor you see on a display screen is, I assure that there’s one thing in nature, even when it’s been extinct for a very long time, that’s manner wilder.”

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