Scientists at Yale and the Royal Ontario Museum say they’ve discovered the fossils of a tiny predator that roamed the oceans 500 million years ago and caught its prey in its spiny mouth. The team found the creature’s fossils virtually intact at a dig site in British Columbia.
Its scientific name is Capinatator praetermissus. But to its prey – and that would have been tiny sea-dwellers like larval shrimp and plankton – it would have been a nameless terror.
They’d be swimming along and look to see a wormlike figure with a gaping round mouth emerge from the shadows. That’s when they’d be caught by the circle of spines surrounding the mouth. Yale paleontologist Derek Briggs is one of the scientists who discovered the creature.
“It’s a pretty formidable grasping apparatus, a set of little hooks that it used to hold onto prey and bring them to the mouth.”
Now, the Capinatator was only about 10 centimeters long, so it might not exactly be a sea monster to us. But it lived during a period called the Cambrian explosion, when tons of new life exploded on the oceans, and there was no better time to be a predator, no matter your size.
Briggs says it looks like Capinatators may have played a role in evolution by forcing their prey to step up their game to survive.
“As predators become more highly evolved and specialized, the prey that they eat also develops more sophisticated defense mechanisms, in terms of flee, or some kind of armor, or the methods for hiding.”
Briggs says the Capinatator’s only remaining descendants today are creatures called arrow worms. They still prey on plankton, and they still catch them with those strange spiny mouths. But, at only a few millimeters, they’re much smaller.