A species of modern bone-eating worm has been dated back to prehistoric times, where it was believed to have feasted on the carcasses of large marine reptiles.
Traces of the worm, called Osedax or "zombie worm," were found on ancient plesiosaur fossils, the University of Plymouth reported.
"The exploration of the deep sea in the past decades has led to the discovery of hundreds of new species with unique adaptations to survive in extreme environments, giving rise to important questions on their origin and evolution through geological time." said Nicholas Higgs, a Research Fellow in the Marine Institute. "The unusual adaptations and striking beauty of Osedax worms encapsulate the alien nature of deep-sea life in public imagination."
Today's Osedax are found in the world's oceans at depths of up to about 13,000 feet, and lack a mouth or digestive system like other worms in the Siboglinidae family. They penetrate bone using "root-like" tendrils that absorb collagen and lipids that are converted to energy by bacteria present within the organisms. The team of scientists used a computed tomography scanner at the Natural History Museum , which allowed them to create a computer model of the bones, and notice bore holes consistant with the burrowing habits of the zombie worm.
"The increasing evidence for Osedax throughout the oceans past and present, combined with their propensity to rapidly consume a wide range of vertebrate skeletons, suggests that Osedax may have had a significant negative effect on the preservation of marine vertebrate skeletons in the fossil record," said Silvia Danise, of Plymouth's School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. "By destroying vertebrate skeletons before they could be buried, Osedax may be responsible for the loss of data on marine vertebrate anatomy and carcass-fall communities on a global scale. The true extent of this 'Osedax effect', previously hypothesized only for the Cenozoic, now needs to be assessed for Cretaceous marine vertebrates."
The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Biology Letters.