A paleontologist from the University of Kansas has discovered a 500-million-year-old sea worm in northern Utah.  

According to a KU news release, Rhiannon LaVine, a researcher with KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, discovered the sea worm while in the Spence Shale which rides the border of southern Idaho. The area is known for being a treasure trove of trilobites and soft-bodied fossils.  

“One of the last times we were out there, I split open one of these pieces of rock and instantly knew it was something that wasn’t typical,” LaVine said. “The first thing we see are these radial blades that look like stars or flowers. Immediately, I showed it to (lead author) Julian Kimmig. He was perplexed. He’s said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that.’ We were out with Paul Jamison, a local who’s been working the site for years — and if there’s something in there that somebody’s seen, he’s seen it. But he hadn’t seen it.” 

The fossil was brought back to KU where LaVine consulted with colleagues.  

““I was showing it to everybody, asking, ‘What do you think this is?,’” LaVine said. “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.” 

LaVine ended up taking the fossil to the University of Missouri where they performed x-rays and scanning to further investigate. One concern was whether this fossil was biological, which the scans confirmed.  

LaVine then gave the newly discovered sea worm fossil its scientific name, Shaihuludia shurikeni. For fans of the “Dune” novels, this may sound a bit familiar. Shai Hulud is the name of worms from the planet Arrakis. Shurkien is the Japanese word for throwing star which is representative of the worm’s looks.  

“I’ve been involved in describing species before, but this is the first one I’ve named,” LaVine said. “Actually, I was able to name its genus — so I can put that feather in my cap. It 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.” 

To learn more about this new discovery click here.


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