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Earth Notes: Funky Worm Fossil

An illustration of purplish-yellow salamander-like creature with tiny legs hiding from a reptile
Illustration by Andrey Atuchin

Among the strangest creatures on earth are the Caecilians, a group of worm-like amphibians that live out their lives underground without the need of legs and eyes. They can swim through mud like eels, and mothers care for their babies by feeding them the slime off their backs.

Modern Caecilians live in tropical areas including in Central and South America. But how did they evolve into legless, eyeless creatures? That’s a tricky question to answer. Caecilian fossils are tiny and hard to spot. But a unique one was recently unearthed in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

Scientists found it by gathering buckets of old pond sludge from the Triassic period and sifting through the material with screens and tweezers. That’s how they spotted the jawbone of an ancient Caecilian with a distinctive double row of teeth. It’s the oldest known example of a Caecilian fossil, at 220 million years. And it captures a key moment in the evolution of amphibians. Unlike its modern descendants, this Caecilian still had legs and eyes. Evolution hadn’t yet streamlined the body for life underground.

Since it’s a whole new genus and species, it gets a new name. The scientists chose Funcuvermis, or the “Funky Worm,” after a hip-hop song by that name sung by the Ohio Players.

There’s another pop culture reference that gives an idea of what this creature looked like: just think of the hungry sandworms of Tatoonie in Star Wars. But on a miniature scale: the newly discovered Funky Worm was less than a foot long.

This Earth Note was written by Melissa Sevigny and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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