“Muscle worm” might sound like a euphemism for, well, I’m sure you can imagine, but get your brain out of the gutter. It’s actually the nickname for a new fossil paleontologists have just described in honor of Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins.
The worm, uncovered from the 100 to 93 million-year-old rock of Lebanon, is named Rollinschaeta myoplena. It’s quite a rare find. Soft-bodied critters don’t turn up as often in the fossil record as organisms with bones or hard outer shells. Even better, University of Bristol paleontologist Luke Parry and coauthors report, the ancient annelid – a group that includes today’s earthworms — is so delicately preserved that you can see its muscles in exceptional detail. Those muscles may be the reason it was preserved in the first place.
Compared to other worms, study co-author Jakob Vinther says, this worm was “a buff little bugger.” That means those muscles would have required a lot of the biomolecular compounds needed for converting sugars to energy, spitting out the element phosphorous in the process. So when the worm was buried and then fossilized back in the Cretaceous, those organic chemicals stuck around to trace the internal anatomy of the worm in a rind of hard calcium phosphate. The very muscles that let it twitch and squirm gave it a better shot at entering the fossil record in extreme detail.
Such a worm needed a good name. The paleontologists kept calling it “the muscle worm” as they were studying it, Vinther says, so they knew they had to name it in honor of someone suitably ripped. “We were thinking about ‘Arnoldochaeta schwarzeneggeri,’”, Vinther says, “but decided that we cannot name it after him since none of us would ever vote for a Republican.” Jean-Claude Van Damme was also a possibility, but, as with Predator, he didn’t make the final cut.
“I then came to think of Henry Rollins,” Vinther says, and it seemed perfect. Not only because many of the researchers involved in the study were into the alt rock scene, Vinther says, but because of what the worm turned out to be. All those special soft tissues indicated that the worm belonged to a lineage still around today – the bristle worms. These worms can deliver quite a sting, and Vinther thought this fit Rollins’ acerbic reputation. Hence the name Rollinschaeta myoplena – the plump-muscled Rollins worm.
“Later on we also were joking about the fact that his slightly aggressive attitude of making statements also makes him a good candidate for having a bristly animal named after him,” Vinther says. Whether the fossil worm had TV parties, however, has yet to be ascertained by scientists.
IMAGE: Jakob Vinther