Ancient Penis Worm Surprises Scientists

By Pierre Dumont , Mar 14, 2013 08:05 AM EDT

Scientists have made new discoveries regarding a previously unknown phallus-shaped creature, revealed in Canadian fossils.

The fossilized creature has been named "Spartobranchus tenuis" and is categorized in the Cambrian period. It is believed that the strange creature is an ancient relative of acorn worms. The scientists published their findings in the journal Nature, making for the first full description of the animal.

A number of such fossilized creatures were found at the site, the Burgess Shale fossil beds in British Columbia's Yoho National Park. The creature is thought to have lived 505 million years ago, making it unusual among other Burgess Shale fossils, whose creatures have either been long extinct or undergone drastic change.

"We often look at the Burgess fossils as odd and bizarre ... there actually are some very strange creatures in the Burgess Shale," says paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Jean-Bernard Caron. "But this one is actually remarkably similar to modern form."

Fossils of the creature were first collected by American paleontologist Charles Walcott, who discovered the Burgess Shale in 1909. For decades, thousands of specimens sat in museum drawers without study. That was until a few years ago, when Caron became interested in the fossils and sorted through specimens to find some suitable for study. Afterward he consulted University of Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, who thought the creatures might belong to a group of animals known as "enteropneusts," of which acorn worms are members.

"Spartabranchus is clearly an acorn worm," Chris Cameron of the University of Montreal said. "It's almost like someone took a picture of a modern-day animal — it's absolutely astonishing."

The creature may even be a missing link between two groups of hemichordates, given its possible relation to a deep-sea creature called a pterobranch.

"That's really the power of fossils, that you can find these things that look like intermediates that really bring to life what might have happened so many millions of years ago," Cameron says.

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