‘Hairy Monster’: Scientists discover new species of ‘super-armored’ worm

This is Collinsium ciliosum, a Collins' monster-type lobopodian from the early Cambrian Xiaoshiba biota of China. (Credit by Jie Yang)
Ancient seawater creatures looked rather spooky, but a new spike-covered worm eating with the help of feather-like front legs definitely stands out as one of the first animals that developed armor for protection.

The well-preserved fossils of the strange creature that inhabited the Earth some 518 million years ago during the Cambrian explosion, a period of rapid flourishing of the variety of species, have been recently found in Yunnan Province in southern China. Paleontologists at the University of Cambridge and Yunnan University in China published the results of their research in the journal PNAS on Monday.

The worm was named Collinsium ciliosum, or Hairy Collins’ Monster to pay homage to Desmond Collins, the paleontologist who was first to discover and illustrate a similar Canadian fossil in the 1980s.

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“Animals during the Cambrian were incredibly diverse, with lots of interesting behaviors and modes of living,” said Javier Ortega-Hernandez, one of the paper’s lead authors in the press-release. “The Chinese Collins’ Monster was one of these evolutionary ‘experiments’ – one which ultimately failed as they have no living direct ancestors – but it’s amazing to see how specialized many animals were hundreds of millions of years ago.”

The recently found “eccentric” fossils include traces of the organization of their full body, including the digestive tract and hair-like structures. The team established that the Monster had “a soft and squishy body, six pairs of feather-like front legs, and nine pairs of rear legs ending in claws”.

It had sedentary lifestyle, clinging onto seafloor sponges with its back claws and filtering nutrients out of the water with its front legs. However, it wasn’t a sitting duck, as 72 spikes of various sizes covered its body to frighten away any predator.

Dorsal spines and annulations of Collinsium ciliosum. (Image from PNAS journal)

The ‘monster’ worm presumably was a distant ancestor of modern velvet worms, or onychophorans, that now inhabit tropical forests.

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“Modern velvet worms are all pretty similar in terms of their general body organization and not that exciting in terms of their lifestyle,” said Ortega-Hernandez of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. “But during the Cambrian, the distant relatives of velvet worms were stunningly diverse and came in a surprising variety of bizarre shapes and sizes.”

The creature also resembles Hallucigenia, another weird Cambrian fossil that had a mouth with a ring of teeth which could have been used for suction.

University of Cambridge paleontologist Martin Smith, who published a study on Hallucigenia last week in the journal Nature, told Reuters that “Their compatriots included such beasts as Wiwaxia, a slug covered in leaf-like scales and towering spines; Anomalocaris, resembling a cross between a lobster and a can-opener; Nectocaris, a boggle-eyed two-armed squid, and Opabinia, which looks like a shrimp that swallowed a vacuum cleaner.”