The well-preserved fossil of a tiny, 430 million-year-old crustacean was recently found in deposits of volcanic ash in the UK. Believed to be the ancient ancestor of lobsters, shrimp, and crabs, the creature had been unknown to science prior to the recent discovery. And this very special crustacean received a very special moniker. As Amina Khan reports for the Los Angeles Times, scientists named the fossil after British naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
Dubbed Cascolus ravitis, the creature's name is a bit of playful nomenclature. The first is an allusion to the Old English meaning of the naturalist’s surname; Cascolus derives from the Latin words castrum, meaning “stronghold," and colus, meaning "dwelling in."
Ravitis is a combination of three different Latin words: Ratae, vita, and commeatis. Ratae was the Roman’s name for Leicester, where Attenborough was raised. Vita means “life” and commeatis means “messenger,” which appears to be a reference to Attenborough’s long career as a champion of the natural world. Researchers describe the creature in a study published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Attenborough, who will turn 91 in May, is best known as the velvety-voiced presenter of several popular nature documentary series—among them Life on Earth, The Blue Planet, and Life. Throughout his years spent howling with wolves, snuggling gorillas, and waiting patiently next to sloths while they poop, Attenborough has gained recognition and adoration from audiences across the globe.
“We thought [the name] would be a way of recognizing his remarkable career creating and presenting natural history programs which have reached millions around the world,” Derek Briggs, a Yale paleontologist who was involved in the discovery, told Khan.
C. ravitis lived during the Silurian period, when the south of Britain was situated in subtropical latitudes and covered in shallow waters, Victoria Woollaston writes for Wired. The fossil was found in volcanic ash deposits in the Welsh Borderland, and was so well preserved that scientists were able to examine the creature's soft parts, including its eyes, antennae and legs.
Using 3D computer modeling, researchers created a “virtual fossil” that allowed them to examine C. ravitis in three dimensions. It was a tiny little thing, just 8.9 millimeters long. According to Khan, it had a segmented body, biramous (or two-branched) legs, and rows of “petal-shaped appendages” that likely helped it swim and breathe underwater.
Researchers suggest that C. ravitis belongs to the Malacostraca class of crustaceans, making it an ancestor of lobsters, shrimp, and crabs. The C. ravitis therefore provides clues to how the physical features of modern-day crustaceans came to be, the authors of the study write.
Attenborough seems quite chuffed by his new namesake. "The biggest compliment that a biologist or paleontologist can pay to another one is to name a fossil in his honor and I take this as a very great compliment," he said, according to the BBC.
But this isn’t the first time that the naturalist has lent his name to a new species. Nine animals and plants have been named in his honor, among them a dinosaur, (Attenborosaurus conybeari), a genus of flowering plant (Sirdavidia), and a wingless beetle (Trigonopterus attenboroughi).