Penis Worm was a fearsome Cambrian period predator with teeth like a cheese grater, say palaeontologists

By Richard Moss | 06 May 2015

Fossil turned mouth inside-out to expose tooth-lined throat resembling cheese grater, according to scientists

A photo of a curving white worm in a glass container
The carnivorous Ottoia still exists in various forms© Shunkina Ksenia
Palaeontology throws up countless new discoveries every year, from new classifications of the Brontosaurus to the Tyrannosaurus-Rex's rumoured feathers. But scientists delving further back into the fossil record have discovered a flesh-eating 'Penis Worm' that inhabited the earth millions of years before the dinosaurs, during the Cambrian period of 500 million years ago.

The carnivorous worm, or Ottoia, which still exists in various forms today and gets its name from its supposed phallic shape, is the latest prehistoric creature to be studied by the experts. Much like the soft-bodied creatures that existed around it during the Cambrian period, it was a fearsome beast.

Studies of Penis Worm fossils from the Burgess Shale, a great depositary of Cambrian era fossils in Canada, have revealed it could turn its mouth inside-out to expose a tooth-lined throat that looked like a cheese grater.

It would lie hidden beneath the ocean floor and grab its prey, which could range from small molluscs and trilobites to algae.

Scientists also think the creature dragged itself around using teeth which, at less than a millimetre in length, were studied using high-powered microscopes.  

The team, from the University of Cambridge, discovered fossil teeth from a number of previously unrecognised Penis Worm species all over the world.

“Taken together, our study has allowed us to compile a ‘dentist’s handbook’ that will help palaeontologists to recognise a range of early teeth preserved in the fossil record,” said Dr Martin Smith, the lead author of a study published in the Journal of Palaeontology.

Despite surviving for more than 500 million years, today the bizarre endangered species is rarely found in the oceans of the world.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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