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Penis Worms are Hermit Crabs of the Ancient Seas

The Cambrian period brought the first great explosion of biodiversity to Earth, with the ancestors of practically all modern animals first appearing. It is of the most feared among them was the. It is known as priapulids named for Priapus, the well-endowed Greek god of male genitals –Penis Worms.

There are a division of marine worms that have survived in the world’s oceans for 500 million years. Their modern descendants live largely unseen in muddy burrows deep underwater, occasionally freaking out fishermen with their floppy, phallus-shaped bodies. The fossils dating back to the early Cambrian show that Penis Worms were once a scourge of the ancient seas, widely distributed around the world and in possession of extendible, fang-lined mouths that could make a snack out of the poor marine creature that crossed them.

Penis Worms were not without fear. In a new study published Nov. 7 in the journal Current Biology, researchers discovered four priapulid fossils that were nestled into the cone-shaped shells of hyoliths, a long-extinct group of marine animals. The team discovered the four hermit penis fossils in the collections of the Guanshan fossil deposits, from southern China.

These fossil deposits, dating to the early Cambrian are famous for preserving not just hard structures such as teeth and shells, but also soft tissue like the bodies of priapulids which are much rarer to find in the fossil record.

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