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New Ocean Fear Unlocked: Carnivorous Worms Discovered In Greenland

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The ocean can be scary. It’s big and holds more than 2 million species of animals. Some are harmless and friendly. Others are terrifying, with huge jaws or deadly venom. There’s always a risk, however small, that we’ll meet something frightening. Scientists in Greenland recently discovered something that could give even the bravest swimmer pause: a giant, carnivorous worm.

A Frightening Fossil

Let’s start with the basics. Scientists in Northern Greenland recently published an article about their discovery. They found an ancient fossil belonging to a giant worm. It lived in the early Cambrian period, about 500 million years ago. It had powerful jaws that allowed it to feast on other marine animals.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The fossils revealed an animal with fins down both sides of its body. The fins allowed it to live (and feed) in the water column. The worms also had long antennae on their heads. They were one of the largest swimming animals in the early Cambrian era. Their size and their powerful teeth gave them a hunting advantage.

What’s In A Name?

One of the privileges that comes with a new scientific discovery is the right to name it. Scientific names are usually in Latin, but that doesn’t mean scientists don’t have a flair for the dramatic. The people who discovered the carnivorous worm determined that it had to have been a fierce predator, and they gave it a fitting name.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The new beast’s Latin name is Timorebestia. That means “terror beasts” in Latin! Scientists may have been having some fun imagining how the terror beast’s prey would have felt when they saw it coming. They may have felt like the beach-goers in Jaws, running for their lives. If that’s the case, we understand the name.

Dinner Is Served

You might be wondering what this big, meat-eating worm had for dinner. Most of what it ate also falls under the category of extinct animals. The fossils, which were found in the Sirius Passet formation of Greenland, were extremely well-preserved. Scientists were able to identify their fossilized stomach contents to figure out what they were eating.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Most of their prey was made up of other arthropods. (Examples of modern arthropods include lobsters, crabs, centipedes, spiders, and insects!) In particular, the newly-discovered worm munched on an arthropod known as Isoxys. Scientists even found one fossil with an Isoxys trapped in its jaws!

Deadly Jaws

What about those jaws? You might be picturing rows of razor-sharp teeth. Scientists have said that the Timorebestia would have been one of only a few arthropods at the time to have a jaw that was inside its head. Other animals at the time may have relied on spines to capture food.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Even some of Timorebestia’s descendants don’t have internal jaws. The arrow worm is an example. It has spines facing in both directions. It uses them to capture and devour prey. In other words, it doesn’t need teeth to be dangerous to the animals it eats!

How Big Are We Talking?

Scientists have described Timorebestia as “giant,” but what does that mean? Are we talking about a worm that’s the size of a great white shark? Or one that’s only giant compared to other worms and arthropods? Giant is a relative term, after all. What’s giant to an ant might be miniature to a human being or even to a dog.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As it turns out, scientists were talking about relative size for an arthropod. Timorebestia would have grown to about 30 centimeters in length. That’s about a foot long. That might not seem like much, but for a worm it’s pretty substantial! The Cambrian period was a time when most swimming animals were fairly small and primitive.

The Apex Predators Of Their Day

A foot-long worm might not seem menacing to a full-grown human. That’s why it’s important to think about relative size. There were multiple species of Isoxys, which were bivalves a lot like clams. At their smallest, they were less than half an inch long. At their largest, they might reach about 3.9 inches.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

To imagine what Timorebestia would have looked like to an Isoxys, imagine a predator that could kill a human. For a 6-foot tall man, the equivalent size would be between 2.5 to 8 times as long. That’s between 15 and 48 feet long. Terror is the right word! Timorebestia was an apex predator like a tiger or great white.

Do Modern Terror Beasts Exist?

If there was a prehistoric terror beast, could there be a modern one? The answer is yes, but the terror is subjective. We’re still talking about a pretty small animal. They’re considered a type of plankton. That means they’re close to the bottom of the food chain, unlike their large prehistoric relatives.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Modern-day arrow worms have external bristles. They use them to capture food. They range in size from a tiny .1 inches up to 4.7 inches. That’s giant for plankton but certainly not something you need to worry about the next time you go swimming!

What Else Is Waiting To Be Discovered In Greenland?

There’s no need to worry that a Timorebestia is going to grab your foot the next time you go into the ocean. But you’re not alone if you’re curious about what scientists might discover next! The scientists who discovered the terror beast talked about the silt in the Sirius Passet formation of Greenland and how well it preserves fossils.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Every day, there’s a chance that scientists could discover a new species in the same area where they found Timorebestia. And of course, there are ocean depths where there may be animals still living that haven’t yet been discovered by humans.

Swimming With The Unknown

When you step into the ocean, you’re stepping into a modern version of the primordial soup that helped animals like Timorebestia to thrive. At any beach, at any time, there could be an animal swimming near the shore that no scientist has yet seen.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

That might be a terrifying thought for most of us. For scientists, it’s endlessly fascinating. Each new discovery adds to our collective knowledge. There’s no telling what researchers in Greenland (or anywhere else in the world) might discover next-and where it might be swimming!

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James Stafford

Written by James Stafford

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