On Jan. 25, paleontologists at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona and colleagues from Virginia Tech and the University of Washington published a paper at Nature.com on Funcusvermis gilmorei, pronounced funk-us-ver-mis. It is the oldest known caecilian, which are now-legless amphibians.
The scientific name of this new worm-shaped amphibian was inspired by “Funky Worm,” which first appeared on the Ohio Players’ 1972 album “Pleasure.”
The song was also the band’s first big hit when a different version was released as a single on January 16, 1973. It reached No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and No. 15 on the Hot 100. Five decades later, it was part of the soundtrack for the team of paleontologists collecting fossils at a site in the national park called Thunderstorm Ridge.
“While we’re out there in the desert digging, it’s 100 degrees and the sun is beating down,” said Ben Kligman, the paper’s lead author and a Ph.D candidate at Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences. “It’s nice to have a speaker with some music playing to keep you motivated while you’re scratching away in the dirt all day long. Back in 2017 and 2018, we were really getting into ‘70s funk music. We were listening to ‘Funky Worm’ when we were discovering these very important fossils of the oldest caecilian ever found. We were like, ‘Whoa, these animals are like worms. That’s pretty funky.’ (laughs) But, really, the animal we discovered was kind of an accident.”
From macro to micro
Kligman was part of a team with Adam Marsh, the park’s lead paleontologist. They aren’t the first scientists to explore the area, but they’re the first to take a microscopic approach to the work.
“People have been looking for fossils on the land that is Petrified Forest National Park today for over 100 years,” Marsh said. “Many things have been discovered but they’re mostly large animals, things like dinosaurs with large bones. Those are easy to find if you walk around over the badlands. Since 2014, we’ve changed our perspective to using this method of screen washing through the metal wire screens to find the bones of really tiny animals. If people had been doing that 100 years ago, they might have found some of these new animals we found.”
Once the fossils were examined under a microscope, it was clear the team had made a major discovery.
“We started finding these very tiny little jaws that were very distinctive,” Kligman said. “They have two rows of teeth, where we just have one row. It’s such a distinctive anatomy to have and it’s only known in caecilian amphibians. We immediately knew what it was and that it’s the oldest one ever found by over 35 million years. It’s really cool because we’re the first people to ever lay eyes on this whole species of animal no one has ever known about. It has been in the rocks for 220 million years and we’re the first people to figure out what kind of animal it is.”
Fossil rich site
Funcusvermis gilmorei is not the only fossil unearthed at Thunderstorm Ridge.
“Since 2018, we’ve collected and screen washed more than probably 5,000 pounds of rocks,” Marsh said. “We’re picking through all this stuff. We’ve gotten through about 65 percent of it and we even added two more specimens while this paper was in review. We have at least 72 animals represented by the right side of lower jaw. It’s got to be one of the most abundant things in this ecosystem. They are so common. The irony is, prior to this they were completely unknown.”
Marsh was surprised to discover what awaited under the microscope.
“I still remember when Ben called me into the lab,” he recalled. “These things are very tiny but I’m looking at them under a microscope and I see that double row of broken off teeth. I’m like, ‘Oh, man, only one group of animal does that.’ He knew it, I knew it, and it was really, really cool.”
Kligman seconds that emotion.
“We were freaking out in the lab,” he said. “We were hooting and hollering because it’s probably one of the rarest kinds of fossils you could find and we just happened to find it.”
‘Funky Worm’: Anatomy of an unlikely hit
How do you describe the Ohio Players’ first hit single to the uninitiated? First off, “Funky Worm” is the epitome of funky – that’s no lie. It is a showcase for Junie Morrison, who adopts the humorous voice of the character Granny to deliver a fantastic tale and some groundbreaking synthesizer playing over a slow, slinky groove.
Granny shows up a little late for a meeting and immediately launches into a story about a worm who lives six feet down in the ground. He emerges from his lair to get down and get funky, complete with handless guitar jams. Granny then introduces the musically talented title character with the words, “Me and the Ohio Players are going to tell you about a worm. He’s the funkiest worm in the world.”
This sets the stage for additional vocals from Clarence Satchell with spoken interjections from Granny over a laidback drum groove and punctuations from the horn section. While Morrison is dropping funky lines on his Arp synthesizer, he uses the old lady voice to offer asides like, “That’s funky, that’s funky. Like nine cans of shaving powder, that’s funky.” Later Granny says, “Aww, get it baby. I’m his manager, yea. Gonna make a million dollars. I get it all. He can’t spend it. Don’t stop now, honey, get down.”
In the hands of a lesser group, a quirky song like “Funky Worm” would’ve just been a novelty song upon the single’s aforementioned release. Much of the song’s success was due to Morrison’s inventive synthesizer work and unique comedic flair. Then and now, the song is something of an anomaly in the band’s discography but remains a fan favorite.
“Funky Worm” was unlike anything else on the radio in 1973 but it was definitely of its time. You could make connections to some of the top songs of the year such as Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder, Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” and “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John. It has the funky nature of Stevie, a bit of Paul’s grittiness, the cheekiness of Carly and Elton’s kitsch but those cats from Dayton were taking the sounds to a whole different level. Billboard named “Funky Worm” the 84th song of the year.
Morrison’s synth lines inspired Dr. Dre’s West Coast G-Funk sound. Elements of the song have also been sampled by everyone from NWA and De La Soul to Kriss Kross and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. “Funky Worm” sounds like nothing else. The song was futuristic in 1973 and, in many ways, it remains ahead of its time 50 years later.
Still delivering the funk
Williams joked about members of the Ohio Players being dinosaurs, but the band is far from a fossilized state. A handful of upcoming concert dates were recently announced and there are more to come. The group notably performed Jan. 15 with Bootsy Collins during halftime of the Cincinnati Bengals versus Baltimore Ravens NFL playoff game.
“We’re still doing stuff like a lot of older artists,” Williams said. “Most of us continue until we can’t do it anymore, but things are going well for the band. We’re still (touring). We’ll continue to carry the flag for ‘Funky Worm.’ We’re very appreciative of the honor.”
More info: www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-05646-5.
Contact this contributing writer at 937-287-6139 or firstname.lastname@example.org.