May 20, 2024

500-Million-Year-Old “Dune” Monster Unveiled – Ancient Sea Worm Unknown to Science

When she found the fossil, Rhiannon LaVine, a research partner with the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, was part of a group camping and carrying out fieldwork in the High Creek location of the Spence Shale.” One of the last times we were out there, I divided open one of these pieces of rock and immediately understood it was something that wasnt typical,” LaVine stated.” Ive been included in explaining types in the past, but this is the first one Ive called,” LaVine stated. Perhaps this was another version of it, or it was related in some method,” LaVine stated.” This discovery gets us to believe about deep time,” LaVine said.

Reconstruction of Shaihuludia shurikeni from the Spence Shale of Utah. Credit: Rhiannon LaVine, University of Kansas
Scientists from the University of Kansas have found a previously unidentified species of ancient sea worm, called Shaihuludia shurikeni. Another fossil at the very same website was reclassified as a types, Burgessochaeta, thought to exist only in Canada, highlighting the variety of the mid-Cambrian marine ecosystem.
Excavations by a University of Kansas paleontologist working in a gold mine of fossils called the “Spence Shale Lagerstätte” have exposed an ancient sea worm that until now was unidentified to science.
When she discovered the fossil, Rhiannon LaVine, a research study relate to the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, belonged to a group camping and carrying out fieldwork in the High Creek area of the Spence Shale. This is a geologic development straddling northern Utah and southern Idaho. Given that the 1900s, the area has been famed for its abundance of some 90 species of Cambrian trilobites and soft-bodied fossils.

Their findings were released recently in the peer-reviewed journal Historical Biology.
SEM-EDS map that reveals 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, University of Kansas
The Discovery
” One of the last times we were out there, I split open among these pieces of rock and immediately knew it was something that wasnt typical,” LaVine said. “The first thing we see are these radial blades that appear like stars or flowers. Immediately, I revealed it to (lead author) Julian Kimmig. He was perplexed. Hes stated, Ive never seen anything like that. We were out with Paul Jamison, a local whos been working the site for several years– and if theres something in there that someones seen, hes seen it. He had not seen it.”
After transferring the fossil specimen back to the KU Biodiversity Institute– where today its part of the permeant paleontological collection– LaVine consulted with coworkers about the strange fossil.
Rhiannon LaVine collecting fossils from among the Spence Shale outcrops in northern Utah. Credit: Rhiannon LaVine, University of Kansas
Scientific Investigation
,” LaVine stated. We thought possibly its a wiwaxia, a really peculiar animal from about that time– however we dont have too lots of representatives of it from the Spence area. Or perhaps its a scale worm, but theres no genuine scale worms understood from that time.
Next, LaVine teamed with associates at the University of Missouri to perform scanning electron microscopy and energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometry on the fossil.
” We primarily desired to make certain that this was a biological thing, since its possible it might have simply been some odd mineral development with the method it looked,” said the KU scientist. “So that was mostly why we brought it to them. Its about 7 or 8 centimeters long, maybe a little shorter than the length of a mobile phone. Its large for a fossil of that sort. We did the scanning to eliminate that it wasnt just a mineral development, and we had the ability to do that.”
Last Classification and Naming
LaVine and her co-authors ultimately classified the fossil to be a previously unknown species of annelid, a diverse phylum of some 21,000 “segmented worm” species found in terrestrial, freshwater, and marine environments all over the world.
As the discoverer of the new fossil worm and a co-author on the paper explaining it, LaVine bestowed the species with its taxonomic name: Shaihuludia shurikeni. Shai-Hulud is the native name for the worms in the world Arrakis in the “Dune” books by Frank Herbert, while “shuriken” is the Japanese word for tossing star, representing the shape of the blade-like chaetae (chaetae are the stiff bristles that identify numerous annelids).
” Ive been associated with describing species previously, however this is the first one Ive named,” LaVine stated. “Actually, I had the ability to call its genus– so I can put that plume in my cap. It was the first thing that came to mind, since Im a huge ol nerd and at the time I was getting truly delighted for the Dune films.”
Like worms sci-fi name, Shaihuludia shurikeni is a big offer: Describing a new types of Cambrian annelid does not happen every day.
The method that the fossil is preserved is also of particular interest, because many of the soft tissue is preserved as an iron oxide blob, suggesting the animal died and was decaying for a while before it was fossilized. With the analytical techniques utilized in the paper, we reveal that even with minimal conservation you can identify fossils.”
Other Discoveries
While doing so, the team reconsidered a fossilized annelid previously found in the Spence Shale and reclassified it as Burgessochaeta– a surprise since up until then, Burgessochaeta have only been found in another renowned fossil deposit in British Columbia, Canada.
” Burgessochaeta is really only known from the Burgess Shale,” LaVine stated. “A comparable worm was gathered in our Spence Shale decades earlier, and it was named Canadia, which is sort of a wastebasket genus for a lot of the annelids that come out of these types of deposits.
” Nobody actually checked out it for a very long time, but when we got this one, we took a little closer appearance at the other annelid found there. Perhaps this was another version of it, or it was related in some way,” LaVine stated. “We identified the other annelid from the Spence Shale is in fact closer to Burgessochaeta– this is the very first time its been explained beyond the Burgess Shale.”
Both worm types would have lived in a marine community ruled by invertebrate organisms, like trilobites, brachiopods, mollusks, and early types of arthropods. The mid-Cambrian is noted for the intense biodiversity of its marine life.
Deep Time and Evolution
” This discovery gets us to think about deep time,” LaVine stated. “When we look outside, we see all the animals that we know. Youre going to see a lot of the similar gamers, however theyre a little bit alien since advancement has actually taken place.
” Its extremely cool to think of our world as a record of history and all of the various environments that have actually happened over billions of years, all on the very same ground we base on. Weve had alien worlds below our feet.”
Referral: “Annelids from the Cambrian (Wuliuan Stage, Miaolingian) Spence Shale Lagerstätte of northern Utah, USA” by Julien Kimmig, Rhiannon J. LaVine, James D. Schiffbauer, Sven O. Egenhoff, Kevin L. Shelton and Wade W. Leibach, 8 April 2023, Historical Biology.DOI: 10.1080/ 08912963.2023.2196685.
LaVine and Kimmigs co-authors were James Schiffbauer, Sven Egenhoff, Kevin Shelton, and Wade Leibach.