Scientists discover massive 'swimming head' dating back 500 million years

The ancient sea monster may have been the aquatic T-rex of its day.

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Eric Mack
2 min read

A series of staked rakes, all the better to swallow you with.

Lars Fields/Royal Ontario Museum

Scientists have discovered a huge, bizarre animal species that lived in primordial seas half a billion years ago during a period when most early aquatic creatures were about the size of a pea pod. The newly named Titanokorys gainesi, however, was a predatory arthropod that dwarfed smaller swimmers, measuring in at 19.7 inches (almost half a meter).

"Titanokorys is part of a subgroup of radiodonts, called hurdiids, characterized by an incredibly long head covered by a three-part carapace that took on myriad shapes. The head is so long relative to the body that these animals are really little more than swimming heads," University of Toronto evolutionary biology Ph. D. student Joe Moysiuk, said in a statement.

Moysiuk is co-author of a study published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science that details the discovery.


Fossil of Titanokorys gainesi carapace close up.

Jean-Bernard Caron / Royal Ontario Museum

"The sheer size of this animal is absolutely mind-boggling,"  said co-author Jean-Bernard Caron, from the Royal Ontario Museum. "This is one of the biggest animals from the Cambrian period ever found."

The fossils were discovered within Kootenay National Park in the Canadian Rockies. The animals would have played a big and intimidating role in the seafloor ecosystems that dominated the planet at the time, as land is thought to have been largely barren of life. 

"Their limbs at the front looked like multiple stacked rakes and would have been very efficient at bringing anything they captured in their tiny spines towards the mouth. The huge dorsal carapace might have functioned like a plough," said Caron, who is also an associate professor in ecology and evolutionary biology and Earth sciences at the University of Toronto, and Moysiuk's Ph.D. adviser.

As if a giant swimming head with multiple rakes for limbs isn't strange enough, Titanokorys would have also had multifaceted eyes and what the researchers describe as "a pineapple slice-shaped, tooth-lined mouth ... and a body with a series of flaps for swimming."

The new species is a larger relative of another extinct animal also found in the region's Burgess Shale deposit. The similar and more common species is named Cambroraster falcatus in honor of its Millennium Falcon-shaped head carapace.

The researchers say the two species may have fought over prey on the sea floor, which I guess makes Titanokorys the equivalent of a prehistoric Tie Fighter?

Can't wait to see the Cambrian version of the Death Star. Until that day, the new fossils will be on display at the Royal Ontario Museum starting in December.