The fossilized sea creature believed to be the earliest animal predator on Earth has a name after paleontologists decided to name it after Sir David Attenborough.
Discovered in Charnwood 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 honour 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 fossilised animals, and was named Charnia masoni, in 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 mould 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.”