Priapulids are marine, benthic ecdysozoan worms that feed using a distinctive toothed pharynx. While only a handful of lineages have survived to the present day, the Cambrian priapulid stem group left behind a rich record of articulated body fossils and characteristic trace fossils in the form of burrows. Recently, the fossil record of isolated priapulid cuticular elements including pharyngeal teeth has gained increased attention as a means of revealing cryptic priapulid taxa otherwise unknown among macrofossils. In this study, we focus on the ecological implications of shape variation in the teeth of extant and extinct priapulids, which display substantial morphological differences between taxa and life stages. We define a landmarking scheme to capture shape variation in priapulid teeth and apply it to our dataset, which includes a breadth of tooth specimens from extant macrofaunal and meiofaunal lineages alongside numerous Cambrian priapulid teeth preserved as isolated small carbonaceous fossils. Through ordination of the principal components of shape, we explore the priapulid tooth morphospace and find evidence that its occupancy has expanded since Cambrian times, indicating a corresponding expansion of the group’s ecological niche. We also employ our geometric morphometric approach to make linear discriminant analysis-based taxon assignments based on tooth morphology, which can be helpful for classifying enigmatic “tooth taxa” known solely from fossil teeth. Finally, we use discriminant analysis to study tooth shapes from a functional perspective, considering known ecologies to characterize the ecological functions of unclassified isolated teeth.

Wernström, J.V., Slater, B.J., Sørensen, M.V. et al. Geometric morphometrics of macro- and meiofaunal priapulid pharyngeal teeth provides a proxy for studying Cambrian “tooth taxa”. Zoomorphology (2023).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00435-023-00617-4

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