‘Weird’ new fossil sea creature named after terrifying sand worms from Dune

Trailer for Dune: Part Two

Palaeontologists have named a “weird” new species of fossilised sea creature that lived 500 million years ago after the terrifying sand worms — the “Shai-Hulud” — in Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Found in rocks called the Spence Shale that outcrop on the Idaho–Utah border, Shaihuludia shurikeni is a type of “annelid”, or segmented worm.

The species name, “shurikeni”, was chosen because the worm has stiff radial bristles known as “chaetae” that resemble the blades of Japanese throwing stars.

The Spence Shale is an example of a so-called Konservat-Lagerstätte, a site of extraordinary fossil preservation that can contain soft tissues and even complete organisms.

In fact, the area has been renowned since the 1900s for its abundance of both soft-bodied fossils and trilobites — marine creatures that look a bit like woodlice.

READ MORE: Oldest-known jellyfish found hiding in 505 million-year-old rocks is ‘wondrous’

S. shurikeni was discovered by geoscientist Dr Rhiannon LaVine of the University of Kansas — who then formally described it with her colleagues.

Dr LaVine said: “I’ve been involved in describing species before, but this is the first one I’ve named.

“Actually, I was able to name its genus — so I can put that feather in my cap.”

The Shai-Hulud, she added, “was the first thing that came to mind, because I’m a big ol’ nerd — and, at the time, I was getting really excited for the ‘Dune’ movies.”

We use your sign-up to provide content in ways you’ve consented to and to improve our understanding of you. This may include adverts from us and 3rd parties based on our understanding. You can unsubscribe at any time. More info

As soon as she saw the fossil, Dr LaVine said that she knew she had found something “atypical” — and it took some time to figure out just what it was.

The geoscientist added: “I was showing it to everybody, asking, ‘What do you think this is?’,

“Nobody had an idea. We thought maybe it’s a wiwaxia, a very peculiar animal from about that time — but we don’t have too many representatives of it from the Spence area.

“Or maybe it’s a scale worm, but there’s no real scale worms known from that time. Maybe it was a juvenile jellyfish, but it’s so bladed and the lines are so straight on those things, it would be kind of odd. So, I couldn’t get a solid answer.”

Eventually, Dr LaVine teamed up with researchers at the University of Missouri to conduct both scanning electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometry on the fossil.

She explained: “We mainly wanted to make sure that this was a biological thing, because it’s possible it could have just been some weird mineral growth with the way it looked!

“We did the scanning to rule out that it wasn’t just a mineral growth, and we were able to do that.”

Hawaiian undersea volcano has erupted five times in past 150 years, study finds[ANALYSIS]
Paralysis breakthrough as feeling and movement restored to man with quadriplegia[REPORT]
UFO testimony dubbed ‘implausible’ as expert demands real evidence of spacecraft[INSIGHT]

The ancient worm might not — like its fictional counterpart — be the source of the life-giving psychedelic “melange”, but the discovery of a new Cambrian-age annelid is still a big deal.

As palaeontologist Julien Kimmig — study co-author from the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe, Germany — explains: “Annelids are very rare in the Cambrian of North America, and so far we only knew of a single specimen from the Spence Shale.

“Shaihuludia shurikeni is especially interesting, as it had some very impressive chaetae, which makes it unique among the Cambrian annelids.

“The way that the fossil is preserved is also of particular interest, because most of the soft tissue is preserved as an iron oxide ‘blob’, suggesting the animal died and was decomposing for a while before it was fossilised.

“However, with the analytical methods used in the paper, we show that even with limited preservation you can identify fossils.”

In fact, the researchers noted, their analysis also helped to reclassify another annelid fossil from the Spence Shale.

While previously thought to have been an unknown species from the genus Canadia, this second worm has now been revealed to belong to Burgessochaeta instead.

This genus is named after the Burgess Shale — a famous Konservat-Lagerstätten that outcrops in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, in the Yoho and Kootenay National Parks.

The new study represents the first time that a fossil of Burgessochaeta has been found from outside of the Burgess Shale.

On the fossil’s previous classification, Dr LaVine explained: “Canadia […] is kind of a wastebasket genus for a lot of the annelids that come out of these types of deposits.”

According to the researchers, both worm species — Shaihuludia and Burgessochaeta — would have lived in a diverse ecosystem ruled by invertebrates like trilobites and other early marine arthropods as well as shelled molluscs and brachiopods.

Dr LaVine said: “This discovery gets us to think about deep time. When we look outside, we see all the animals that we know. Now we can walk past a duck, go to the beach and see a starfish and all the critters that exist in the ocean. We kind of know what to expect.

“But then we can let our imaginations go a little bit to imagine what happened a million years ago — or, in this case — over 500 million years ago. What does the ocean look like then?

“You’re going to see a lot of the similar players, but they’re a little bit alien because evolution has taken place.

“It’s very cool to think about our planet as a record of history and all of the different environments that have happened over billions of years, all on the same ground we stand on. We’ve had alien worlds beneath our feet.”

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Historical Biology.

Source: Read Full Article