500-million Year Old Spiky Proto-worm Fossil Discovered in China

Hairy Collins' monster's name tells a truth: this animal did not look like a worm. It looks like a match between a centipede and Wolverine.

Ruth Schuster
Brooke Sterneck
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The hairy Collins' monster, not coming soon to a pool near you: It died out half a billion years ago. Credit: Reuters
Ruth Schuster
Brooke Sterneck

A unique 500-million year old fossil ancestor of worms, fantastically named "hairy Collins' monster", has been found in southern China, scientists announced Monday.

Its name tells a truth: this animal did not look like a worm. It looks like a match between a centipede and Wolverine.

Collinsium ciliosum was named after the Canadian paleontologist Desmond Collins. It isn't that he found one, but he conceptualized fossils of the sort in the 1980s. 

The Collinsium lived half a billion years ago in the primordial waters of present-day China during the Cambrian period, which was an explosive era of rapid evolutionary development.  Its remarkably well-preserved and spiky, well-armored remains were found in the famous Xiaoshiba deposit.

Dr. Javier Ortega-Hernández, a paleobiologist at the University of Cambridge who co-led the research, notes that with its armor, the beast stood out. This was no  shrinking violet hiding under a rock: it was an easy target– and therefore, can be assumed to have used those spikes as armor.

Nor was Collinsium a midget. It reached up to 10 centimeters in length, had six pairs of feather-like front legs, nine pairs of clawed rear legs - and 72 sharp spikes on its back that presumably protected its vulnerable body from predators. 

Artist's impression of the monster (Reuters)

In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers identified the worm as one of the first soft-bodied animals on Earth to develop skeletonized body parts for protection.  They described the worm as “super-armored.”

Scientists believe that Collinsium might have evolved this defense mechanism because it had a sedentary lifestyle, making it vulnerable to predators especially when eating. 

Collinsium is probably a distant ancestor of today's velvet worms, found in the world's tropical forests, Ortega-Hernández said. 

Modern velvet worms are much of a likeness in body organization and dull lifestyle, the scientist explains – but their ancestors half a billion years ago, during the Cambrian, were stunningly diverse. The "hairy monster" certainly is a diversion. But because of their diminutive size and soft bodies, fossils of these things are almost impossible to come by.

The Cambrian period, when our hirsute proto-worm lived, was characterized by explosive evolution (creatures we would find stunningly unusual appearing) and extinction (then they vanished). Among them were some of the first hard-bodied sea creatures - including shelled clams, and early arthropods, the beings that birthed the insects and crustaceans. And the velvet worm.

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