Scientists believe they have discovered the oldest known example of a squid-like creature attacking its prey, found in a fossil dating back almost 200 million years.
The fossil was found on the Jurassic coast in Dorset in the 19th century and is currently kept within the collections of the British Geological Survey in Nottingham.
New analysis suggests it shows a creature, identified by researchers as a Clarkeiteuthis montefiorei, with a herring-like fish called Dorsetichthys bechei in its jaws.
Researchers say the position of the creature’s arms, alongside the body of the fish, point to it not being a quirk of fossilisation but instead the recording of an event.
They believe it dates from the Sinemurian period – between 190 and 199 million years ago – meaning it predates any previously recorded similar sample by more than 10 million years.
Professor Malcolm Hart, emeritus professor at the University of Plymouth, said: “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.
“In many of these mudstones, specimens of palaeobiological 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 research was led by the University of Plymouth and involved the University of Kansas, as well as Dorset-based company The Forge Fossils.
In the analysis, the authors say the fossilised remains indicate a brutal incident in which the head bones of the fish were crushed by its attacker.
They believe the fish may have been too large for the squid-like creature, or became stuck in its jaws – leaving the deceased pair settling to the seafloor where they were preserved.
Or, the Clarkeiteuthis may have taken its prey to the seafloor to avoid the possibility of being attacked by another predator – suffocating as it entered waters low in oxygen.
The paper has been accepted for publication in Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.
It will also be presented as part of Sharing Geoscience Online, a virtual alternative to the tradition general assembly held each year by the European Geosciences Union.