Octopuses were around before dinosaurs: the oldest known octopus fossil is 330 million-year-old

Scientists unearthed 330 million-year-old octopus fossil in Montana, which means octopuses have been around since before the dinosaurs.

The world of marine creatures is full of mysteries, and one such enigma has recently been unraveled by a group of dedicated scientists. The discovery of the oldest known octopus fossil has enlightened us on the fascinating ancestry of these intriguing creatures. This 330 million-year-old relic found in Montana indicates that ancient octopuses have been around since before the dinosaurs, challenging previous beliefs about the evolution of these soft-bodied invertebrates.

The fossil of Syllipsimopodi from the Bear Gulch Limestone of Montana. The fossil is incredibly well-preserved, especially given that it’s made up of mostly soft tissue. The fossil is from the Invertebrate Paleontology collections of the Royal Ontario Museum. © Christopher Whalen via NPR.ORG / Fair Use
The fossil of Syllipsimopodi from the Bear Gulch Limestone of Montana. The fossil is incredibly well-preserved, especially given that it’s made up of mostly soft tissue. The fossil is from the Invertebrate Paleontology collections of the Royal Ontario Museum. 

The Montana fossil: a window into the past

Octopuses were around before dinosaurs: the oldest known octopus fossil is 330 million-year-old 1
A diagram of the octopus fossil found in Montana. © K. Whalen via ATI / Fair Use

The study, published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, highlights the significance of this groundbreaking find. The ancient octopus fossil, measuring 4.7 inches (12 centimeters) in length, was discovered in the Bear Gulch limestone formation of Montana. With 10 limbs, each having two rows of suckers, the fossilized creature reveals that the ancestors of modern octopuses had more appendages than their present-day counterparts.

Researchers believe that the prehistoric octopus resided in a shallow, tropical ocean bay, giving us a glimpse into the marine environment of that era. The rarity of soft tissue fossils makes this discovery all the more remarkable, as soft-bodied organisms are often poorly preserved in the fossil record.

A long overlooked treasure

Although the octopus fossil was unearthed in Montana and donated to the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada in 1988, it remained hidden in a drawer for decades, overshadowed by other fascinating fossil discoveries from the Bear Gulch site. It was not until recently that paleontologists noticed the 10 tiny limbs encased in limestone and realized the true significance of this specimen.

Unraveling the mystery of the ancient octopus

Upon closer examination, the well-preserved octopus fossil also displayed evidence of an ink sac, reminiscent of modern octopuses. These creatures use ink as a defense mechanism to create a dark cloud in the water, allowing them to escape from predators. This intriguing similarity suggests that the ancient octopus had already developed advanced survival strategies millions of years ago.

Syllipsimopodi bideni: a presidential tribute

An artistic reconstruction of Syllipsimopodi. © K. Whalen / Christopher Whalen via NPR.ORG / Fair Use
An artistic reconstruction of Syllipsimopodi. © K. Whalen / Christopher Whalen via NPR.ORG / Fair Use

The scientists who studied the octopus fossil named it Syllipsimopodi bideni, in honor of President Joe Biden. They intended to express their admiration for the president’s commitment to science and research, as well as emphasize the importance of discoveries like this in understanding the evolution of marine life.

Vampyropods: an ancient lineage

The ancient octopus is classified as a vampyropod, a group of cephalopods that includes modern octopuses and the enigmatic vampire squid. Despite its name, the vampire squid is more closely related to octopuses than squids, adding to the intrigue surrounding these fascinating creatures.

Prior to the discovery of the Montana fossil, the oldest known definitive vampyropod dated back to around 240 million years ago. The revelation of Syllipsimopodi bideni, therefore, pushes back the origins of this group by nearly 100 million years, offering valuable insights into the early stages of vampyropod evolution.

The significance of the discovery

The uncovering of the oldest known octopus fossil holds tremendous significance for the scientific community. It challenges previous beliefs about the timeline of octopus evolution, revealing that these ancient creatures were already thriving before the era of dinosaurs. Furthermore, it offers a unique opportunity to study the early development of soft-bodied invertebrates, which are often underrepresented in the fossil record.

Implications for the study of octopus ancestry

The discovery of the 330 million-year-old octopus fossil has far-reaching implications for the study of octopus ancestry. By understanding the evolutionary history of these creatures, scientists can better appreciate the unique adaptations that have allowed octopuses to survive and thrive in their marine environments. Moreover, the findings emphasize the importance of continued research into the fossil record, as even long-overlooked specimens can yield groundbreaking insights.

The role of paleontology in unveiling the secrets of the past

The story of the ancient octopus fossil underscores the vital role that paleontology plays in our understanding of the history of life on Earth. By painstakingly examining and analyzing fossil specimens, researchers can reveal the secrets of long-extinct species, shedding light on the complex web of evolutionary relationships that have shaped the world we know today.

The enigmatic world of ancient octopuses

The Montana fossil discovery has opened a new chapter in the study of ancient octopuses, offering a tantalizing glimpse into a world that existed hundreds of millions of years ago. As we continue to uncover the mysteries of these fascinating creatures, we deepen our appreciation for the rich tapestry of life that has shaped the Earth’s history.

Looking to the future: what more can we learn?

The remarkable story of the ancient octopus fossil serves as a reminder of the enduring power of scientific curiosity and the potential for future discoveries. As researchers continue to delve into the fossil record and uncover new specimens, we can look forward to learning even more about the captivating world of ancient octopuses and their incredible evolutionary journey.

In conclusion, the discovery of the oldest known octopus fossil in Montana has not only shed light on the origins of these enigmatic creatures but also demonstrated the importance of continued research into the past. By unraveling the mysteries of ancient octopuses, we can better understand the complex web of life that has shaped our world and appreciate the extraordinary adaptations that have allowed these creatures to endure through the ages.