Iowa - a state you think about so little, you didn't even realize that's not Iowa, this is Iowa:
(All credit to John Oliver for that amazing joke.)
But if you do think about Iowa, you probably picture corn fields and butter cows. And now, thanks to a new fossil discovery that's really putting Iowa on the map, you can picture 5.5 foot long predacious sea scorpions (for emphasis, we're talking about a scorpion that's as tall as Tom Cruise) swarming through those idyllic corn fields.
Artist rendering by Patrick Lynch/Yale University
But presidential candidates campaigning in Iowa can rest easy—the newly identified fossil (Pentecopterus decorahensis) is around 460 million years old, found in a crater produced by a meteor smashing into the ocean that used to cover Iowa. That makes it the oldest sea scorpion ever discovered, by about 10 million years.
It's also one of the most bizarre. Because the fossil was so well preserved, even showing patterns of small hairs on the legs, researchers were able to figure out a lot about the purpose of different body parts: like the twelve claws coming out of its head (for capturing prey and stuffing it into its mouth), or its giant spiked tail (surprisingly not terrifying: not for stinging as you would expect, but just for swimming).
As lead author James Lamsdell said in a statement, "At times it seems like you are studying the shed skin of a modern animal - an incredibly exciting opportunity for any paleontologist."
But he also let down his academic reserve for a moment, and confessed his true feelings in a statement to the AP, saying, "This is the first real big predator. I wouldn’t have wanted to be swimming with it...It was obviously a very aggressive animal. It was a big angry bug.”
This might not be the last you hear of this bizarre family of angry sea bugs. The researchers concluded that the complexity of the scorpion's body means that it either evolved incredibly quickly, or that "earlier representatives [of the species], possibly Cambrian in age, remain to be discovered." Hopefully they're still just talking about fossils!