Priapulids: Predatory Fossil Worms

A priapulid is a worm - they live today, and we have body fossils of them going all the way back to the Cambrian 540-some million years ago. These worms first caught my attention when I wrote an episode of PBS Eons about them. As I was researching the episode, I learned a few really important facts about them:

  • They're known as penis worms, because that's what they look like
  • They're predatory, and dig around in the sediment like tiny Grabboids
  • The second they show up in the fossil record, tons and tons of other stuff died.

No, it didn't die because the priapulids went on some sort of homicidal rampage. They died because priapulids were really good at digging, and are really resilient little bastards - they can survive toxic conditions like hydrogen sulfide, which was present in the sea floor at the time. As a result, they dug a LOT of holes, eating organic material and any little animals they found as they went. This actually mixed up the seafloor so much that it went from being a pretty hard surface to being really soft - and a lot of animals adapted for the hard surface died as a result.

As I was learning all about priapulids and their murderous ways I decided that since they were essentially already boteh-shaped (the shape distinct to Paisley prints) that I should go ahead and make a paisley version of them. So now I have a penis worm print featuring the fossil worms Ottoia, Corynetis, and Anningvermis - as well as the trace fossils they left as they dug.

 Ottoia fossil from Smith et al. 2015, with my paisley representation next to it.

Ottoia is from the Burgess shale, and is preserved so well you can actually see its last mean on its insides!

For more detail, check out the PBS Eons episode "How Worm Holes Ended Wormworld". Personally, I wanted it to be called "World of Womcraft" or "War of the Wormworlds" but I was cruelly overruled. 


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