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New species of ancient sea worm discovered

In a fascinating tale of scientific exploration, a University of Kansas paleontologist, Rhiannon LaVine, embarked on an excavation in the treasure trove of fossils known as the “Spence Shale Lagerstätte.” This geological formation spans northern Utah and southern Idaho and has been renowned since the 1900s for its wealth of Cambrian trilobites and soft-bodied fossils.

During the expedition, LaVine and her team made a remarkable discovery. They found a peculiar fossil that immediately caught their attention. The fossil exhibited radial blades reminiscent of stars or flowers, a sight unlike anything they had encountered before. Excited by the mysterious find, they sought the expertise of fellow researchers to unveil its identity.

Unable to determine the fossil's nature, LaVine and her colleagues conducted further analyses, including scanning electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometry, to confirm its biological origin. With their suspicions of it being a mineral growth laid to rest, they delved deeper into the specimen's identity.

Collaborating with the University of Missouri, they unveiled the truth behind the fossil. It turned out to be a species of annelid, an intriguing group of “segmented worms” that boasts a staggering 21,000 species found in various environments worldwide.

The significance of this finding cannot be overstated. This previously unknown annelid species opens a window into the ancient sea life that once thrived in the Spence Shale area during the Cambrian period. The discovery's impact reaches far beyond its scientific value, reminding us of the wonders that lie beneath the Earth's surface, waiting to be uncovered and understood.

With their findings published in the prestigious journal Historical Biology, LaVine and her team have added a remarkable chapter to the annals of paleontology. Their efforts exemplify the spirit of exploration and the unending quest to uncover the mysteries of our planet's past. Through such discoveries, we gain a deeper appreciation for the diversity of life that has shaped Earth's history.

SEM-EDS map that shows concentrations of Fe, Mn, and Si in the blade-like structures, supporting the hypothesis that the specimen is a fossil and not a collection of mineral growths. Credit: Rhiannon LaVine

In a remarkable twist of scientific discovery, Rhiannon LaVine, the paleontologist behind the finding of the new fossil worm and co-author of the paper, chose the species name: Shaihuludia shurikeni. Drawing inspiration from Frank Herbert's “Dune” novels, where “Shai-Hulud” refers to the indigenous worms of the planet Arrakis, and “shuriken” represents the throwing star shape of the blade-like chaetae, the name pays homage to both science fiction and the anatomical characteristics of the worm.

The significance of this find cannot be overstated, as identifying a new species of Cambrian annelid is a rare event. Annelids are seldom found in the Cambrian deposits of North America, making the discovery of Shaihuludia shurikeni all the more exceptional. The fossil's preservation as an iron oxide “blob” with limited soft tissue underscores the complexity of its preservation and the challenge of identifying such ancient organisms.

During their research, the team also reexamined another fossilized annelid from the Spence Shale, reclassifying it as Burgessochaeta. The unexpected connection between Burgessochaeta and the Spence Shale expands our understanding of the distribution of these worm species and adds to the wealth of knowledge about the marine ecosystem during the mid-Cambrian period.

The discovery prompts us to contemplate the vastness of deep time and the diverse marine life that once thrived over 500 million years ago. As we explore our planet's history, we encounter a variety of environments that have shaped the course of . The realization that we are walking on ground that holds billions of years of history, with ancient and alien worlds beneath our feet, sparks wonder and curiosity about the mysteries of life's origins.

Source: University of Kansas


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