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Giant sea cucumber species named after H.P. Lovecraft creature 'Cthulhu'

By Brooks Hays
Giant sea cucumber species named after H.P. Lovecraft creature 'Cthulhu'
An artistic rendering images what the primitive sea cucumber species Sollasina cthulhu would have looked like 430 million years ago. Photo by Elissa Martin/Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

April 10 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered a new extinct species of sea cucumber thanks an exceptionally-preserved fossil found along the coast of England.

Researchers named the giant sea cucumber, Sollasina cthulhu, after the H.P. Lovecraft monster "Cthulhu."

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In the first short story in which H. P. Lovecraft introduces the creature, the famed science fiction writer describes Cthulhu as: "A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind."

With a body measure just more than an inch across, Sollasina cthulhu was not quite as fearsome. But the primitive sea cucumber's many tentacle-like "tube feet" would have made the creature look larger than it was -- at least to the other small animals on the ocean floor.

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Sollasina cthulhu lived some 430 million years ago and used its many tentacles to capture food and scoot along the ocean floor.

To get a better understanding of what the ancient species looked like, scientists ground away at the fossil layer-by-layer, taking a photograph of each layer. Researchers then scanned the photographs and used the digitized layers to reconstruct a 3D model of the miniature monster.

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Their computer analysis offered scientists a better understanding of the species' anatomy.

"Sollasina belongs to an extinct group called the ophiocistioids, and this new material provides the first information on the group's internal structures," Imran Rahman, deputy head of research at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, said in a news release. "This includes an inner ring-like form that has never been described in the group before. We interpret this as the first evidence of the soft parts of the water vascular system in ophiocistioids."

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Originally, scientists thought ophiocistioids were most closely related to sea urchins, but the latest research -- published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B -- suggests sea cucumbers are Sollasina cthulhu's closest relatives.

"We carried out a number of analyses to work out whether Sollasina was more closely related to sea cucumbers or sea urchins," said Jeffrey Thompson, research fellow at University College London. "To our surprise, the results suggest it was an ancient sea cucumber. This helps us understand the changes that occurred during the early evolution of the group, which ultimately gave rise to the slug-like forms we see today."

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