#90: Fossil Bonanza for an Animal That Doesn't Fossilize: The Octopus

“The preservation of these soft-bodied creatures is the result of a chain of lucky chances.” Paleontologists hit the luckiest stash of all in Lebanon.

By Sam Kissinger|Friday, December 18, 2009
octopus
octopus
Image: Dr. Dirk Fuchs

Ninety-five million years ago, five octopuses met their end in the waters covering what is now Lebanon. The lack of oxygen on the local seafloor kept the area free of bottom-dwelling scavengers, and sediment quickly covered the animals’ corpses, preserving them in unprecedented detail. Last January paleobiologist Dirk Fuchs of the Free University of Berlin and his colleagues released their analysis of these fossils—the most ancient octopods known.

Due to their delicate construction, octopuses have left almost no evolutionary trail to follow. “The preservation of these soft-bodied creatures is the result of a chain of lucky chances,” Fuchs says. Previously only a single species of prehistoric octopus had turned up in the fossil record, so the new finds represent an explosion of information about the animals’ history.

The five individuals include three previously unrecorded octopus species: Keuppia hyperbolaris, Keuppia levante, and Styletoctopus annae. Each specimen shows the animal’s head, eight arms, ink sacs, and suckers. The two Keuppia species appear primitive, but Fuchs was surprised to find that Styletoctopus’s anatomy places it in the same family as Octopus vulgaris, the living common octopus. “Its appearance indicates that modern octopods developed much earlier than previously thought,” he says.

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