Scientists have revealed the fossil remains of a 430-million-year-old crustacean previously unknown to science a proto-shrimp that they’re naming in honor of British naturalist and television personality David Attenborough. The new species, characterized in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, could shed fresh light on crustacean evolution. Study co-author Derek Briggs, a paleontologist at Yale University, said in an email that, “Our analysis suggests that it is an early representative of the line leading ultimately to modern shrimps, lobsters and crabs.”
Cascolus ravitis may not sound like the name of the 90-year-old Attenborough, famous for his work on “Life on Earth” and other well-known documentary series, but look closely: Cascolus, a blend of the Latin castrum (“stronghold”) and colus (“dwelling in”), is divined by the naturalist’s surname, which has Middle and Old English roots.
The species name, ravitis, is also partly in honor of the University of Leicester campus, where Attenborough came up while his father served as principal of what was then called University College Leicester. Ravitis is a blend of the Latin Ratae (the Romans’ name for Leicester), vita (“life”), and commeatis (“messenger”). The blend appears to allude to the broadcaster, who, in his instantly recognizable voice, has long communicated the wonders of the natural world to the public.
Briggs said, “We thought this would be a way of recognizing his remarkable career creating and presenting natural history programs which have reached millions around the world.” C. ravitis was found in the deposits of volcanic ash that finally became a rock in present day Herefordshire. Given the specimen’s extremely high quality, with proof of multiple limbs and even soft tissue such as eyes and antennae preserved, the researchers were able to build a “virtual fossil’ that allowed them to examine it in three dimensions. The nature of these fossils is such that there is no density contrast between nodule and the fossil in which it is found so they cannot be revealed by normal scanning methods.”
This proto-shrimp was tiny. The total specimen is just 8.9 millimeters long; its widest point is its head shield, measuring 1.3 millimeters wide. This little critter had a long, segmented body with many “biramous” limbs, which are typical of crustaceans today. It featured rows of strange and petal-shaped appendages, which scientists think probably helped it both to breathe and to swim in the ancient sea, some 100 to 200 meters beneath the water.
Based on its features, the scientists concluded that C. ravitis is a malacostracan, making it an ancient relative to today’s shrimp, lobsters and crabs, one that may help shed light on this part of the crustacean family tree. “Cascolus renders important clues into the morphological evolution of the sister-taxon of Malacostraca and of Eumalacostraca and, one of the major groups of Crustacea,” the study authors wrote.