Museums

Scientists Discover An Ancient Predatory Worm—Inside A Museum

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In February 2017, scientists announced the discovery of a 400 million year old extinct worm with relatively massive jaws and a body measuring more than a meter long. The discovery is impressive, but this may be moreso: they discovered it in museum storage. It's always in the last place you look, right?

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Why we're covering this:

  • Because while the Curiosity editors were wowed by the giant worm, we were really wowed by where it was found
  • We expect all new species to be discovered by trailblazing paleontologists out in the field, but sometimes it's far less glamorous...which might make it cooler
Artist's reconstruction showing W. armstrongi attacking a fish in the Devonian sea

This Worm's Got Teeth

We've already populated your nightmares with bobbit worms, the 3-foot-long ocean worms with razor-sharp jaws. Scientists have long believed that giant worms like those, called polychaetes, were a distinctly modern phenomenon. However, paleobiologists have recently uncovered another set of giant chompers, this one belonging to a bristle worm, that suggest that gigantism in these creatures dates back hundreds of millions of years.

Called Websteroprion armstrongi, the new species hasn't given us a lot to go on—just a pair of powerful jaws. But considering that modern bristle worms' jaws are generally microscopic, the fact that these are more than a centimeter long indicates a much larger worm than the ones we're familiar with. Estimates place its length at more than a meter (about 3 feet). That's probably not too big to give you any trouble, but big enough to give you the heebie-jeebies for a week.

Photograph showing the holotype of Websteroprion armstrongi.
3D reconstruction of parts of the jaw apparatus of W. armstrongi from CT scans of the fossil specimens.

A Discovery Waiting To Happen

What really makes this discovery stand out isn't just the size of the worm—it's the fact that these jaws weren't pulled out of the ground. They were discovered in storage at the Royal Ontario Museum, where they've been waiting for more than 20 years.

How is it that a fossil could languish in a museum for more than 20 years before being "discovered?" It's actually not that uncommon. And in fact, 20 years is hardly the longest a specimen has had to wait for a scientist with the right frame of mind. The Atlantic cites a study estimating an average of 21 years between discovery and description, but the longest wait of any animal (so far) is the temple pit viper, which was tucked away in a museum cabinet for 206 years before it was given a taxonomical classification. Patience is truly a virtue.

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