One June day in 1994, Derek K. Armstrong of the Ontario Geological Survey was dropped by helicopter in a remote region of Ontario. There he chipped away samples from the exposed rock and brought them back to the Royal Ontario Museum. Years later another team of geologists from the University of Bristol (UB) would stumble upon the samples and make a startling discovery – the fossil of a giant worm with large snapping jaws. Their find has been described today in the journal Scientific Reports.

While the body of the worm had long disintegrated, its jaw was fossilized in the rock – and what a jaw it was. Typically the jaws of fossilized worms measure only a few millimeters and often can only be seen through a microscope. But this one was over a centimeter in length and could be seen with the naked eye. From the size of the jaw, the researchers who found the fossil in the museum say the animal likely measured more than a meter in length.

3D reconstruction of the creature's jaw from CT scans of the fossils (Credit: Luke Parry)

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This makes it comparable to a species of worms known as giant eunicids, which can grow up to two meters in length. These worms, "are fearsome and opportunistic ambush predators, using their powerful jaws to capture prey such as fish and cephalopods (squids and octopuses) and dragging them into their burrows," says a UB report on the find. Their strong jaws can sometimes cut their prey in half, which has earned them the colloquial name of "Bobbit worms," after Lorena Bobbit, who cut off her husband's penis in 1993.

The researchers say their find represents the oldest Bobbit worm ever discovered.

All Bobbit worms belong to the class called polychaetes, or bristle worms, so named because of the protrusions that stick out from each body segment. There are more than 10,000 species in the class, and the new find represents one more.

As for the new worm's name, the researchers went with Websteroprion armstrongi. The second part of the name is for Armstrong, who originally retrieved the fossil. The first half honors Alex Webster, the bass player for death metal band, Cannibal Corpse, "since he can be regarded as a 'giant' when it comes to handling his instrument," says UB.

"This is fitting also since, beside our appetite for evolution and paleontology, all three authors have a profound interest in music and are keen hobby musicians," says study co-author Luke Parry.

"This is an excellent example of the importance of looking in remote and unexplored areas for finding new exciting things, but also the importance of scrutinizing museum collections for overlooked gems," added David Rudkin from the Royal Ontario Museum.

Source: University of Bristol

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