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Fossils: A huge 8.9-foot millipede worm dating back 326 million years has been discovered near Newcastle


The largest fossil of a giant millipede ever discovered – at 8.9 feet from head to tail, as long as a car – has been unearthed in northern England.

‘Arthropleura’ was found ashore in Howick Bay in Northumberland, about 40 miles north of Newcastle, and dates back 326 million years to the Carboniferous.

The new discovery places Arthropleura as the largest known invertebrate of all time – driving out previous record holders, who were ancient sea scorpions.

The largest fossil of a giant millipede ever discovered – at 8.9 feet from head to tail, as long as a car – has been unearthed in northern England. Pictured: An artist’s reconstruction of the Arthropleura school, which occupied open woodland habitats near the coast

The Arthropleura fossil (pictured) was found on shore in Howick Bay in Northumberland, about 40 miles north of Newcastle, dating back 326 million years to the Carboniferous.

The Arthropleura fossil (pictured) was found on shore in Howick Bay in Northumberland, about 40 miles north of Newcastle, dating back 326 million years to the Carboniferous.

The new find positions Arthropleura as the largest known invertebrate animal of all time, shedding previous record holders, who were ancient sea scorpions.  Pictured: The giant millipede is believed to have grown to 8.9 feet from head to tail

The new discovery places Arthropleura as the largest known invertebrate of all time – driving out previous record holders, who were ancient sea scorpions. Pictured: The giant millipede is believed to have grown to 8.9 feet from head to tail

Britain through carbon

By the time the giant millipede worms roamed Northumberland, 326 million years ago, Britain’s climate was very different.

Unlike the cold, wet weather that the British Isles experience today, a location near the equator would have brought with it tropical conditions.

In Northumberland, invertebrates such as Arthropleura and early amphibians lived on vegetation scattered around a series of rivers.

The Arthropleura fossil was first found in January of 2018, after a petrified sandstone block fell from cliffs in Howick Bay onto the beach front below.

“It was a completely serendipitous discovery,” said the paper’s author and sediment scientist Neil Davies of the University of Cambridge.

“The way the boulder fell, it had just opened up and the fossil showed up, which one of our former PhD students just happened to have discovered while walking past it.”

The fossil was excavated from the rock in May 2018, after the team obtained permission from both Natural England and the landowners, Howick Estate.

Dr Davies added: “It was an incredibly exciting find, but the fossil is so big that it took four of us to carry it up the slope.”

After bringing them to Cambridge for analysis, the team noticed that the fossil was a preserved sediment deposited by an ancient river channel.

Just like modern millipedes, it displays many parts of the articulated exoskeleton. The part of the fossil that was found was two and a half feet long.

The specimen – only the third to be found, with the others all found in Germany – likely weighed 110 pounds.

“It’s rare to find these giant millipede fossils, because once they’re dead, their bodies tend to disintegrate,” Dr. Davies explained.

“It is likely that the fossil was a crushed shield that the animal had thrown down as it was growing.”

“We haven’t found a fossilized head yet, so it’s hard to know everything about it,” the researcher added.

The specimen - only the third found, with all others discovered in Germany - likely weighed 110 pounds.  Pictured: a comparison of the three bugs, and the sections found are highlighted in purple

The specimen – only the third to be found, with the others all found in Germany – likely weighed 110 pounds. Pictured: a comparison of the three bugs, and the sections found are highlighted in purple

The paper's author and sedimentologist Neil Davies of the University of Cambridge said:

“It was a completely serendipitous discovery,” said the paper’s author and sediment scientist Neil Davies of the University of Cambridge. “The way the rock fell, it opened up and the fossil came out perfectly, which happened to be discovered by one of our former PhD students.”

The fossil was excavated from the rock in May 2018, after the team obtained permission from both Natural England and the landowners, Howick Estate.

Dr. Davies said:

The fossil was excavated from the rock in May 2018, after the team obtained permission from both Natural England and the landowners, Howick Estate. “It was an incredibly exciting find, but the fossil is so large that it took four of us to carry it to the cliff,” said Dr. Davies.

All known specimens of Arthropleura have been found at sites that, during the Carboniferous period, would have been at equatorial latitudes.

While previous fossil reconstructions suggest that the giant millipede inhabited coal swamps, the new sample indicates that it may have occupied open woodland habitats near the coast.

Once examined, the Arthropleura fossil will be on public display at the Sedgwick Museum of Geosciences in Cambridge in the new year.

The full results of the study were published in the Journal of the Geological Society.

Dr. Davies explained:

“It’s rare to find these giant millipede fossils, because once they’re dead, their bodies tend to disintegrate,” Dr. Davies explained. It is likely that the fossil was a machine gun shell that the animal threw as it was growing up. We haven’t found a fossilized head yet, so it’s hard to know everything about it, the researcher added.

All known specimens of Arthropleura have been found at sites that, during the Carboniferous period, would have been at equatorial latitudes.  Pictured: Howick Bay

All known specimens of Arthropleura have been found at sites that, during the Carboniferous period, would have been at equatorial latitudes. Pictured: Howick Bay

The Arthropleura fossil was first found in January of 2018, after a petrified sandstone block fell from cliffs in Howick Bay onto the beach front below.

The Arthropleura fossil was first found in January of 2018, after a petrified sandstone block fell from cliffs in Howick Bay onto the beach front below.

Giant windmill farming

It has long been thought that Arthropleura was able to achieve such huge sizes thanks to a combination of the absence of land predators and high oxygen levels during the late Carboniferous and Permian periods.

However, the new fossil suggests that this picture may have been more complex – the Howick Bay sample evolved before the oxygen peak.

Dr. Davis and his colleagues think that the insect’s large size may have something to do with eating a nutrient-rich diet.

“While we can’t know for sure what they ate, there were plenty of nutritious nuts and seeds available in the litter at the time,” he said.

They may even have been predators that fed on other invertebrates and even small vertebrates such as amphibians.

Arthropleura lived about 45 million years ago, before becoming extinct during the Permian period. While the reason for their demise is unclear, it may have been the result of a shift to a drier climate or competition from newly emerging reptiles that occupied the same ecological niches.



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