“Dune monster” worm found in Herefordshire at Victorian quarry

The remains of a worm has been analysed in new light by experts at the Natural History Museum of London, to find it was surprisingly similar to the monster known in the fictional novel and movie franchise Dune.

The concept of a worm with gnarling, hooking teeth is reminiscent of scifi and fantasy fiction.
The concept of a worm with gnarling, hooking teeth is reminiscent of scifi and fantasy fiction.

The fossil remains of the worm called Radnorscolex latus were found at a Victorian quarry area near the village of Leintwardine, Herefordshire, located about 10 km from Ludlow. Around 425 million years ago, it lived in a marine environment on the seabed, during the later part of the Silurian (Ludlow) period in geological history which runs from 443.7 to 416.0 million years ago.

Scientists have taken four specimens from the Natural History Museum of London (NHM) and The Cole Museum of Zoology in Reading. In addition to those from Herefordshire they also studied one by Carmarthenshire, South Wales. They found that it had a “retractable” throat reminiscent of the giant worm seen in the famous Dune movie and story. Rather than in fiction, but in nature, this was useful for capturing prey within the sediment.

Dr Richie Howard, curator of fossil arthropods at the National History Museum made the connection having told the BBC “They certainly make you think of the sandworms in Dune…" after explaining "we think they weren't too picky when it came to feeding and likely just shoved their throat out into the mud and grabbed anything they could find.”

Recent indications of them being Dune creature look-a-likes are thanks to recent technological developments and analysis techniques in the field of palaeontology, made available by NHM. Researchers used scanning electron microscopy and reflectance transformation imaging to view the fossil in new light, at unprecedented detail. This kind of insight, bringing the fossil “to life”, was not available a century ago, even though the fossil discovery itself was discovered that long ago.

How similar is the real worm to the fictional Dune one?

Although its size was not comparable to the giant worm of Dune, for the real creature was only 8 centimetres (cm) long according to a recent palaeontological analysis. For smaller organisms, though, it may seem a similarly terrifying predator.

NHM explained their interpretation of the worms’ behaviour when looking for and feeding on prey: “Radnorscolex latus had a retractable throat covered in rows of sharp teeth and outward facing hooks on its head to act as an anchor whilst it dragged its body forward in an undulating motion.”

It was able to anchor itself to the seafloor this way using its rows of teeth and hooks on its head. They no longer exist today, except perhaps, in fiction. These creatures later became extinct during what geochronologists call the mid-Ludfordian Lau Event, which was about 400 million years ago.