These seemingly benign images may in fact show the oldest known example of a squid-like creature attacking its prey – unsuccessfully.
The fossil, which dates back almost 200 million years, was found on the coast of southern England in the 19th century and is currently housed by the British Geological Survey in Nottingham.
In a new analysis, researchers say it appears to show a creature – which they have identified as Clarkeiteuthis montefiorei – with a herring-like fish (Dorsetichthys bechei) in its jaws.
The position of the arms, alongside the body of the fish, suggests this is not a fortuitous quirk of fossilisation, they say, but a rare recording of an actual palaeobiological event.
“It points to a particularly violent attack which ultimately appears to have caused the death, and subsequent preservation, of both animals,” says Malcolm Hart from the University of Plymouth, UK, lead author of a paper scheduled for publication in the journal Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.
The close-up image above shows the damaged head and body of the Dorsetichthys bechei with the arms of the Clarkeiteuthis montefiorei clamped around it. The full fossil is below.
Hart and colleagues believe it dates from the Sinemurian period (between 190 and 199 million years ago), which would predate any previously recorded similar sample by more than 10 million years.
They suggest two potential explanations for what unfolded.
The first is that the fish was too large for its attacker or became stuck in its jaws so that the pair – already dead – settled to the seafloor where they were preserved.
The second is that the attacker took its prey to the seafloor in a display of “distraction sinking” to avoid the possibility of being attacked by another predator. However, in doing so it entered waters low in oxygen and suffocated.
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