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New 'party worm' species identified from Rocky Mountain fossil find

Scientists have identified a new species of prehistoric worm, thanks to an extremely rare fossil found by a visitor on a guided hike in the Burgess Shale site in Yoho National Park.

‘I was so glad my jaw dropped,’ scientist says of discovery

The "party worm" or "dancing worm" moved like it was giving a standing ovation, scientists believe

CBC News Calgary

4 years ago
0:30
Scientists have identified a new species of prehistoric worm, thanks to an extremely rare fossil found by a visitor on a guided hike in the Burgess Shale site in Yoho National Park. 0:30

A park visitor who found an extremely rare fossil on a guided hike in the Burgess Shale site in Yoho National Park six years ago has helped scientists identify a new species — known as the party worm or dancing worm.

Jean-Bernard Caron, senior curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, spoke to the Calgary Eyeopener Wednesday about the species of prehistoric worm unveiled this week.

Scientists recently unveiled a new species of prehistoric worm with waving front arms. Pictured above is an illustration of the party worm and a photo of the fossil. (Illustration by Danielle Dufault, photo by Jean-Bernard Caron, Royal Ontario Museum)

Officially known as Ovatiovermis cribratus, which means 'standing suspension-feeding worm' in Latin, the first specimen of the animal was collected in 1994 at the Burgess Shale Walcott Quarry, and later studied intensely by Caron.

Then, in 2016, Caron visited the Burgess Shale to do some field work. A Parks Canada staff member showed him a cardboard box with a few fossils that visitors had discovered while on guided hikes.

Caron recognized one fossil, found on a hike in 2011, as the same species of animal he had studied in detail for years. The fossil was slightly less well preserved, but still beautiful, Caron said.

The first specimen of the animal was collected in 1994 at the Burgess Shale Walcott Quarry site in Yoho National Park (Desmond Collins, Royal Ontario Museum)

'Very, very lucky'

"I was so glad my jaw dropped, because there was a second specimen there," Caron said. "It's something very rare, of course."

Of the quarter million Burgess Shale fossil specimens known in museum collections, this was only the second specimen of its kind to be found. Caron describes the visitor who discovered the fossil as "very, very lucky."

The animal lived at the bottom of the sea about 500 million years ago. Even with its limbs fully extended, it was shorter than a thumb. The soft, stubby, worm-like body had a tiny head and nine pairs of legs, Caron said.

A visitor on a guided hike found a rare fossil at the Burgess Shale Walcott Quarry site in Yoho National Park. (Jean-Bernard Caron, Royal Ontario Museum)

The creature likely used its three pairs of back legs to anchor itself on the sea bottom, while its front limbs sieved food from the water. The worm would have looked like it was waving its front arms or giving a stand ovation, which is where the party worm or dancing worm moniker comes from.

The species belongs to an extinct group of marine invertebrates with soft limbs, called the lobopodians, Caron said. They are thought to have given rise to the arthropods, the largest group of living animals today.  

"I'm very excited to continue research in the field and potentially find new forms of these kinds of organisms," Caron said.  

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener 

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