A hundred years from now, Sir David Attenborough’s body may have turned to dust, but a fossilized sea creature, thought to represent Earth’s earliest animal predator, will continue to bear his name.
Discovered in Charwood Forest, Leicestershire, where Attenborough hunted for fossils as a child, the creature predates what was previously thought to be the oldest predator by 20m years.
Palaeontologists have named it Auroralumina attenboroughii, in honor of the TV presenter. The first part of its name is Latin for dawn lantern, in recognition of its great age and resemblance to a burning torch, and the creature is thought to have used a set of densely packed tentacles to capture food in Earth’s early oceans.
Charnwood Forest is known for its fossils. Although Attenborough dug there as a child, he avoided the rocks where Auroralumina has been discovered. “They were considered to be so ancient that they dated from long before life began on the planet. So I never looked for fossils there,” he said.
A few years later, in 1957, a fern-like impression was discovered by Roger Mason, a younger boy at Attenborough’s school. The discovery turned out to be one of the oldest fossilized animals, and was named charnia masoniin Mason’s honour.
“Now I have – almost – caught up with him and I am truly delighted,” said Attenborough, who has more than 40 species named after him, ranging from a Madagascan dragonfly to a dandelion-like hawkweed found only in the Brecon Beacons in south Wales.
Auroralumina is part of a trove of more than 1,000 fossils discovered in 2007, when a team of researchers from the British Geological Survey spent more than a week in Charnwood Forest, cleaning a 100-sq-metre rock surface with toothbrushes and pressure jets, before using a rubber mold to capture an impression of its lumps and bumps.
The fossil was dated at the British Geological Survey’s headquarters using tiny radioactive minerals in the surrounding rock, called zircons, that act as geological clocks.
Related to the group that includes modern corals, jellyfish and anemones, the 560m-year-old specimen is the first of its kind. Its discovery, reported in Nature Ecology and Evolution, throws into question when modern groups of animals appeared on Earth.
“It’s generally held that modern animal groups like jellyfish appeared 540m years ago in the Cambrian explosion. But this predator predates that by 20m years,” said Dr Phil Wilby, palaeontology leader at the British Geological Survey, who helped to discover it.
“It’s the earliest creature we know of to have a skeleton. So far we’ve only found one, but it’s massively exciting to know there must be others out there, holding the key to when complex life began on Earth.”
Dr Frankie Dunn from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, who carried out the detailed study, said: “It’s nothing like anything else we’ve found in the fossil record at the time.”
Whereas the body plans of other fossils from this period bear no relation to those of living animals, “this one clearly has a skeleton, with densely packed tentacles that would have waved around in the water capturing passing food, much like corals and sea anemones do today,” she said.
Possibly, it originated from shallower water than the rest of the fossils found in Charnwood. “All of the fossils on the cleaned rock surface were anchored to the seafloor and were knocked over in the same direction by a deluge of volcanic ash sweeping down the submerged foot of the volcano, except one, A. attenboroughii,” Dunn said. “It lies at an odd angle and has lost its base, so appears to have been swept down the slope in the deluge.”