Ancient, spine-covered sea worm could shed light on Cambrian explosion

Researchers from Yale University have unearthed fossils of a tiny, faceless sea worm that could help give insight into ancient biology, a recent study published in Current Biology reports.
By Adam Widmer | Aug 09, 2017
Researchers from Yale University have unearthed fossils of a tiny, faceless sea worm that could help give insight into ancient biology, a recent study published in Current Biology reports.

The team unearthed the strange creature -- known as Capinatator praetermissus -- in two different national parks in British Columbia, Canada. It had a Venus flytrap-like head and evolved long before the dinosaurs first walked the Earth. The invertebrate measured only 4 inches long, and the spines that covered its head were roughly a third-of-an-inch long. Being so small, it likely ate smaller plankton and tiny shrimp.

The ancient creature is entirely new. In fact, it is so unique that it represents both a never-before-seen species as well as an entirely unknown genus.The worm is an ancestor of a group of marine arrow worms known as chaetognatha, which as abundant throughout today's oceans. Capinatator praetermissus was much larger than its cousins and had more spines, but it did not have specialized teeth.

"The spines are like miniature hooks, although more gently curved," explained lead author Derek Briggs, a researcher at Yale University, according to Perfscience. "They were stiff rather than flexible. It's hard to say why there are so many spines in the fossil example but presumably thus armed it was a successful predator."

This discovery is important because most fossils from the chaetognatha family decay over time. The recently discovered remains were not only intact, but they were so well preserved that the soft tissues were saved as well.

Such information is important because the new findings could give researchersa glimpse into what life existed during the Cambrian period some 541 million years ago. The age was a time of great diversity, and the team hopes further study of the strange creature will help them see what type of organisms lived in that time period.

"The specimens preserve evidence of features such as the gut and muscles, which normally decay away, as well as the more decay-resistant grasping spines," said Briggs, in a statement. "They show that chaetognath predators evolved during the explosion of marine diversity during the Cambrian Period, and were an important component of some of the earliest marine ecosystems."

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