Lair of giant predator worms from 20 million years ago found

Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.

Lair of giant predator worms from 20 million years ago found

Bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois)

Credit: Rickard Zerpe / Flickr
  • Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
  • The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
  • The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.

If you happened to be traversing the seafloor of Eurasia about 20 million years ago, you'd likely come across giant predator worms as long as several meters, claims new research. Scientists discovered that super-long worms may have taken over the ancient seafloor, based on their reconstructions of large burrows found at the bottom of the sea in northeast Taiwan.

The samples studied came from as far back as the Miocene epoch of 23 million to 5.3 million years ago. The research team used 319 specimens found in the sandstone of Yehliu Geopark, an area outside New Taipei City in Taiwan, to reconstruct a trace fossil dubbed Pennichnus formosae. Trace fossils are geological features such as burrows that can be used to make educated inferences about how ancient creatures behaved. The fossil uncovered by the researchers is comprised of an L-shaped burrow about 2 meters in length but only 2-3 centimeters in diameter. The scientists concluded that this fossil was probably left by gigantic sea worms, possibly the ancestors of the bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois), which is still around today.

The way a bobbit worm catches its food is by first hiding in a long burrow in the seafloor, then lunging up to catch its "unsuspecting prey with a snap of their powerful jaws," as the study authors write. The researchers believe the structure they found was created when the ancient worm retreated into the seafloor with its prey, still alive and struggling.

Ludvig Löwemark, a National Taiwan University paleontologist and the study's co-author, explained in an interview with Wired that the fossil they found shows invertebrates like the ancient worms were eating vertebrates.

"Typically, what we find in the sedimentary record is animals that are moving through the sediment," said Löwemark. "But this is a record of a much more active behavior. The worms were actually hiding in the sediment, jumping out, catching their prey, and then dragging this prey down into the sediment."

A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.

Credit: Scientific Reports

What's also remarkable about the study is that studying ancient worms is generally an extremely difficult task. One big problem – they would have had bodies composed mainly of soft tissue, which is hard to preserve. The trace fossil discovered by the scientists is likely the first known fossil made by an ambushing predator of this kind.

If you're wondering, the bobbit worm's unusual name comes from a sordid episode of American culture, referencing the story of John and Lorena Bobbitt, who cut off her husband's penis after years of abuse.

Check out the study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Beware the Bobbit Worm!

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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Credit: Pixabay
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The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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