Experts at the University of Plymouth have uncovered the oldest fossilized evidence of a squid-like creature attacking its prey. The fossil, which dates back nearly 200 million years, shows an ancient cephalopod with a fish in its jaws.
According to researchers, the position of the animal’s arms along the body of the fish suggests that the attack is not just an illusion due to how the animals were preserved, but appears to have resulted from a vicious attack.
The fossil was found in the 19th century along the Jurassic coast of southern England, and is currently part of a collection at the British Geological Survey in Nottingham.
In the new analysis, the researchers identified the predator as a coleoid, a class of cephalopods that includes squid and octopuses.
The experts estimate that the fossil dates back to the Sinemurian period between 190 and 199 million years ago.
“Since the 19th century, the Blue Lias and Charmouth Mudstone formations of the Dorset coast have provided large numbers of important body fossils that inform our knowledge of coleoid palaeontology,” said study lead author Professor Malcolm Hart.
“In many of these mudstones, specimens of palaeo-biological significance have been found, especially those with the arms and hooks with which the living animals caught their prey.”
“This, however, is a most unusual if not extraordinary fossil as predation events are only very occasionally found in the geological record. It points to a particularly violent attack which ultimately appears to have caused the death, and subsequent preservation, of both animals.”
The fossilized remains reveal the brutality of the attack.
“The head has been bitten through, the bones have got sharp edges where they’ve literally been crushed and broken,” Professor Hart told Live Science. “So this thing probably attacked the fish quite violently – the bones in the head of the fish are just literally smashed.”
The researchers have two theories as to how the event ended up becoming imprinted in the fossil record.
They speculate that the fish was too large for its attacker and became stuck in its jaws, or that the squid sank too low in the water and ran out of oxygen. Either way, the animals settled together on the seafloor where they were preserved.
The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.