Fossil named after Sir David Attenborough was ‘first animal predator’

Famed naturalist says he's 'truly delighted' with the gesture

A 560-million-year-old fossil has been named after British naturalist Sir David Attenborough. PA
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The fossil of the earliest known animal predator has been named after Sir David Attenborough.

The 560-million-year-old specimen is believed to be the earliest creature to have a skeleton, researchers say.

Auroralumina attenboroughii with the first part of the name being Latin for “dawn lantern” in recognition of its great age and resemblance to a burning torch — was discovered in Charnwood Forest, near Leicester, a city with which Sir David has long-established ties.

The 96-year-old — who used to go fossil hunting in the area and is credited with raising awareness of the presence of Ediacaran fossils in the forest — said he is “truly delighted” to have the creature named after him.

The specimen was found by Roger Mason, after whom Charnia masoni is named.

“It’s generally held that modern animal groups like jellyfish appeared 540 million years ago in the Cambrian explosion,” said Phil Wilby, palaeontology leader at the British Geological Survey and one of the scientists who made the find.

“But this predator predates that by 20 million years.

“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.”

The study says that the creature is related to a group that includes modern corals, jellyfish and anemones.

In 2007, Dr Wilby and others spent more than a week cleaning a 100-square-metre rock surface with toothbrushes and pressure jets.

After making a rubber mould of the entire surface that captured more than 1,000 fossils, one stood out.

Frankie Dunn of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, said: “This is very different to the other fossils in Charnwood Forest and around the world.

“Most other fossils from this time have extinct body plans and it’s not clear how they are related to 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.

“It’s nothing like anything else we’ve found in the fossil record at the time.”

The finding is reported in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Updated: July 25, 2022, 3:05 PM