Opening a Can of Ancient Worms

Posted: January 18, 2012 - 14:23 , by David Rudkin

David M. Rudkin, Assistant Curator in Invertebrate Palaeontology, will be presenting at the upcoming  ROM Research Colloquium – join us on February 3 at 11:30am in the Signy & Cléophée Eaton Theatre to hear more about An Embarrassment of Worms: Fossil Priapulida from the Silurian of Ontario … Real and Imagined

What – if anything – is a “worm”?  In everyday usage, that name has been applied to all manner of invertebrate animals whose bodies are elongate, flexible, and usually lacking obvious articulated limbs … for us land-dwelling humans, the humble earthworm provides a familiar template. But we now know that this deceptively simple wormy body plan masks an extraordinary diversity of both terrestrial and sea-going lineages, many with separate evolutionary histories that extend back to the early origins of animals over 500 million years ago.

At the Royal Ontario Museum’s 2012 Research Colloquium on February 3rd,  I’ll be popping the lid off this can of ancient worms in order to examine a new addition to the squirming contents. It will be the first public glimpse of a rare 425 million-year-old fossil from Silurian age rocks in Ontario, an introduction to a still-living group of odd marine predators known as the “penis worms”, and a cautionary tale of mistaken palaeontological identity.

ROM palaeontologists collecting fossils

Palaeontologists carefully excavate Silurian (425 million-year-old) rocks on the Bruce Peninsula. It is from this same small outcrop area that Ontario's newest fossil worm was obtained. Photo: D. Rudkin

Soft-bodied worms are not on my standard menu of research topics, but this story does interweave aspects of several disparate personal interests, including Ontario’s often surprising fossil record, the world-renowned Burgess Shale, and amateur contributions to the science of palaeontology.

And, of course, the ROM’s research colloquium is one of my favourite events of the year … where else can you hear about kiwis, kayaks, kings, and killer worms all in a single day?

Ottoia prolifica – a 505 million-year-old fossil priapulid worm from the Burgess Shale, Yoho National Park, British Columbia (ROM 75-5700) Photo: D. Rudkin

Want to learn more? The ROM Research Colloquium is a forum for ROM Researchers to present on their latest research and discoveries. This full day of consecutive 15-minute presentations is free and open to the public (Museum admission not included).

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