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Remains of 400-million-year-old 'Excalibur worm' found in Australia

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The ancient worm was fully armored and had a voracious taste for organic garbage.

Excalibur is a supernatural sword held by the legendary King Arthur — provider of round tables and guardian of Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, according to old English folklore. The legend of that charmed blade continues on today... in the form of an ancient worm that can be crushed between two fingers.

Introduce yourself to Lepidocoleus caliburnus. This ancient, sea-dwelling creepy-crawler may not have reached the stature of its Arthurian namesake — but, as a new study in the journal Papers in Paleontology points out, it did at least look the part of a heavily-armored knight, covered in overlapping plates of calcite crystals that ran the entire length of the creature's body.

L. caliburnus thrived in what is now Australia some 400 million years ago, alongside its related species L. shurikenus, which was named after the shuriken (a pointed ninja throwing star) and was also identified for the first time in the latest study.

According to the study's authors, both worms most likely resided on coral reefs in shallow waters that are now part of the Australian continent. They most likely ate organic garbage and used their armour plates to protect themselves from predators.

The researchers used micro-CT scans of worm fossils to generate digital 3D models of their armour plates to determine how well-protected these organisms were.

"We can practically separate the different components of the armor using micro-CT," said lead study author Sarah Jacquet, an assistant professor of geological sciences at the University of Missouri, in a statement. 

"We can alter the virtual models to see how the various armor parts moved relative to each other and the degree of overlap between them."

The worms have two overlapping armor systems, one extending down the length of each worm's skeleton and the other covering both sides of the organisms, according to the researchers. 

The worms may have been able to curl into a ball to better fend off predators, but these amazing defences did not prevent them from becoming extinct in a "major extinction event," according to Jacquet. Beginning 365 million years ago, the impending mass extinction after the Devonian epoch wiped out 75 per cent of life on Earth.

These two worms, Excalibur and Shuriken, are no longer lost to history, and they may rest easy knowing that tales of their risky and brave life are still being repeated 400 million years later. For the same reason, King Arthur would kill.