Archaeologists have uncovered fossils of giant predatory worms that lived over 500 million years ago in North Greenland. The predators, dubbed “terror beasts,” were over 6 feet long and ruled ancient oceans as some of Earth’s first active carnivores.
Key Details About the Discovery
The fossils were found in the high arctic zone of North Greenland by an expedition led by Dr. M. Paul Smith of the University of Bristol. The ancient worms belong to a new species and genus named Timorebestia rexqueens.
- Timorebestia fossils were preserved remarkably well in marine sedimentary rocks aged 518 million years old from the Cambrian period
- The worms had ferocious-looking circular mouths ringed by teeth-like spikes used to capture prey
- Adult specimens measured over 2 meters (6.6 feet) long, making them some of the largest predators of their time
- They are the oldest known active predators to date, forcing a reimagining of early marine food webs
Below is a size comparison between an adult human and Timorebestia:
The discovery and analysis of the fossils were published in the journal Science on January 5th, 2024. Lead author Dr. Smith said the find helps rewrite the evolutionary story of predation by showing the oceans were a violent place long before the rise of sharks and other bony fish.
Revelation About Early Marine Ecosystems
The Cambrian period over 500 million years ago marked an evolutionary explosion of animal life in the oceans. Previously it was thought marine food webs were simple back then – small worm-like creatures ate microbes while avoiding the spike-covered worms.
But the massive size of Timorebestia changes that narrative. They were likely the apex predators of their time, eating anything they could overpower with their muscular bodies. Scientists theorize they plowed through sediment to ambush hagfish-like prey or even small relatives of modern shellfish and squid.
“The existence of giant vicious worms prowling the seafloor upends previous thinking about the early days of the ancestors of modern marine ecosystems,” said Dr. Smith. “Timorebestia would have filled an ecological role similar to today’s orcas or great white sharks.”
Below is a chart comparing the total lengths of some of history’s largest worm species:
|Giant Gippsland Earthworm
|Scottish Bob Worm
Follow-Up Expeditions Planned
Now that Timorebestia fossils have been found, Dr. Smith and his team want to go back and explore the site more thoroughly. They believe even larger specimens over 9 feet long could be preserved nearby.
The researchers also plan to search for fossils of animals the terror beasts likely fed on. Hagfish-like creatures called Galeaspids have been found before in the same geologic formation, making them prime candidates as Timorebestia prey.
Discoveries of bite marks or Tendons rolling through fossil poop – called coprolites – would provide smoking gun proof of who the giant worms were eating. Filling in pieces about the lives and deaths of Timorebestia will help color in the marine ecosystem it ruled 500 million years ago.
Significance For Evolutionary Science
Giant predatory worms are an example of evolutionary experimentation that accompanies each major phase in the development of life. Today they seem like the stuff of B-movie horror flicks, but Timorebestia and its cousins were major players in the ocean long before land animals evolved.
Dr. Smith said further study of terror beast fossils could reveal how active predation first emerged on Earth. Tracing anatomical changes through geological time may show incremental developments that made large worm lineages shift toward hunting.
The team also wants to figure out why the giant predators died out. Possible factors like climate shifts or competition could have lasting parallels with threats species face today.
Ultimately Timorebestia and its ilk may represent an ancient, failed evolutionary gambit to fill the oceans’ apex predator niche. But for over 25 million years giant worms were the terror beasts of marine food chains.
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.