A fossil of the earliest known animal predator has been discovered by geologists.
Named after Sir David Attenborough, the 560-million-year-old specimen is the first of its kind, and is thought to be the earliest known creature to have a skeleton, researchers say.
The fossil was found in Charnwood Forest, near Leicester, and the palaeontologists who discovered it have called it Auroralumina attenboroughii in honour of Sir David Attenborough.
The first part of the name is Latin for dawn lantern, in recognition of its great age and resemblance to a burning torch.
According to the study, the creature is related to the group that includes corals, jellyfish and anemones living on Earth today.
Sir David Attenborough said: ‘When I was at school in Leicester I was an ardent fossil hunter.
‘The rocks in which Auroralumina has now been discovered were then considered to be so ancient that they dated from long before life began on the planet.
‘So I never looked for fossils there.
‘A few years later a boy from my school found one and proved the experts wrong.
‘He was rewarded by his name being given to his discovery.
‘Now I have – almost – caught up with him and I am truly delighted.’
Dr Phil Wilby, palaeontology leader at the British Geological Survey, is one of the scientists who made the find.
He said: ‘It’s generally held that modern animal groups like jellyfish appeared 540 million years ago in the Cambrian explosion.
‘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.’
In 2007 Dr Wilby and others spent more than a week cleaning a 100 metre square rock surface with toothbrushes and pressure jets.
In a rubber mould of the entire surface – which captured more than 1,000 fossils – one stood out.
Dr Frankie Dunn from 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.
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