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400 million-year-old jawed worm in museum turns out to be new species

"Gigantism in animals is an alluring and ecologically important trait, usually associated with advantages and competitive dominance," said researcher Mats Eriksson.

By Brooks Hays
400 million-year-old jawed worm in museum turns out to be new species
An illustration shows the newly discovered worm species emerging from its burrow to attack an unsuspecting fish with its fearsome jaws. Photo by James Ormiston/University of Bristol

Feb. 21 (UPI) -- A storage closet at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada has yielded a new species.

The ancient worm fossil has been hiding the closet since the mid-1990s after it was excavated from the Kwataboahegan Formation, a fossil-rich strata in Ontario representing the Devonian period.

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Analysis of the rediscovered fossil revealed the massive jawed worm to be one-of-a-kind. The 400 million-year-old specimen boasts the largest jaws of its kind. Based on measurements of the worm's jaw and comparisons to related species, scientists estimate the worm would have grown to lengths in excess of three feet.

The jawed worm, Websteroprion armstrongi, would have been big and powerful enough to take down fish, squids and octopuses. Like its relative the Bobbit worm, another aquatic predatory polychaete worm, Websteroprion armstrongi was likely an ambush predator, emerging from a burrow in the ocean floor to attack its prey.

Researchers described the species in a new paper, published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

"Gigantism in animals is an alluring and ecologically important trait, usually associated with advantages and competitive dominance," Mats Eriksson, a researcher at Lund University in Sweden, said in a news release. "It is, however, a poorly understood phenomenon among marine worms and has never before been demonstrated in a fossil species. The new species demonstrates a unique case of polychaete gigantism in the Palaeozoic, some 400 million years ago."

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