Meet the marine fossil worm that hunted in Herefordshire before the dinosaurs

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Prehistoric worm, Radnorscolex latus © Richie Howard & Luke Parry

The hidden history of this well-preserved prehistoric worm was revealed through the use of advanced scanning technology.

Following the Hollywood treatment worms received in the blockbuster franchise Dune this year, the evolutionary history of an ancient worm fossil that lived closer to home has been unearthed: a carnivorous burrowing predator, found in Leintwardine, Herefordshire, which would have eaten anything it could fit in its mouth 425 million years ago.

The worm in question, which the team of Natural History Museum scientists classify in this study for the first time as Radnorscolex latus, is now understood to have been the last surviving example of a palaeoscolecid known to science. This is due to it being the youngest fossil of its kind to have been classified to date. Scientists have dated the fossil at approximately 425 million years old.  

Radnorscolex latus had a retractable throat covered in rows of sharp teeth and outward facing hooks on its head to act as an anchor whilst it dragged its body forward in an undulating motion. Although this sounds terrifying, this particular species only grew to be around eight centimetres long.

The species studied here is thought to have been among the last survivors of an 80-million-year lineage before palaeoscolecids were wiped out completely, perhaps only a few million years later, by rapid climate and sea level change.

The fossil worm had been in the Museum’s collections since it was found on a disused Victorian quarry site in Herefordshire in the 1920s, a region still rich with fossil treasures today. Dr Richie Howard, Curator of Fossil Arthropods at the Museum and lead author on this study commented:

What we’ve found is quite rare in that we may be looking at today’s equivalent of a living fossil, but from the perspective of the Silurian. Like how we see coelacanths or horseshoe crabs today, groups which have been around for such a long time they exist as very ancient fossils but also show up as low-diversity groups relatively unchanged millions of years later in the present day.

“We know this fossil was studied in 1920, but without the advanced technology we have today using state-of-the-art imaging techniques they weren’t able describe them as accurately and precisely as we can now. We hope this study lays the groundwork for the research people will do in the future on Silurian palaeoscolecids.”

In terms of the feeding habits of the newly classified worm, Richie commented:

“We believe anything that happened to be close by when they shoved their throat outwards into the sediment would have been grabbed; they weren’t too dissimilar to the sandworms in Dune in that respect!” 

The Museum’s plan to build a collections and research centre in Reading will increase accessibility to their specimens, including these worms, as well as the 28 million other specimens also moving. The museum says: “It will also enhance the ability to fully understand our evolutionary past, from which we can predict our future, through cutting edge laboratories.

“The move will progress our ten Research Themes which underpin the work we do to find solutions for and from nature to some of the biggest global challenges. This study makes use of two of the themes, ‘Phenomics and the use of advanced analysis’ to apply new scientific techniques to analyse the observable characteristics and chemistry of natural history specimens from deep time to the present day, and ‘The ‘Evolution of planets and life’ to study natural history specimens to reveal the past, present and future of life on Earth.”

The findings of the study, which was carried out with the support of Associate Professor Luke Parry, University of Oxford, “Palaeoscolecids from the Ludlow Series of Leintwardine, Herefordshire (UK) – the latest occurrence of palaeoscolecids in the fossil record” was published in the journal, Papers in Palaeontology, and can be accessed here.

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