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How a fossil with 10 arms and named after Joe Biden changed the vampire squid game

The fossil of <em data-stringify-type="italic">Syllipsimopodi</em> from the Bear Gulch Limestone of Montana. The fossil is from the Invertebrate Paleontology collections of the Royal Ontario Museum.
Christopher Whalen
The fossil of Syllipsimopodi from the Bear Gulch Limestone of Montana. The fossil is from the Invertebrate Paleontology collections of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Researchers say they have found the oldest known relative of octopuses and vampire squids, in a fossil dug up decades ago in Montana.

The official name of the newly discovered species is Syllipsimopodi bideni, named after President Joe Biden, in a nod to what the researchers say is his embrace of science.

The well-preserved 328-million-year-old fossil was discovered in Montana's Bear Gulch Limestone in 1988, but it hasn't been closely studied until now.

The specimen's ancient Bear Gulch neighborhood was like a tropical marine bay during its time. It was no stranger to seasonal monsoons, which would be an important factor in the preservation of rare details, including soft tissues and individual suction cups on the arms of the specimen.

"There's only a handful of fossils that are preserved with that kind of detail," said lead researcher, Christopher Whalen, from the American Museum of Natural History.

The creature is a vampyropod — a soft-bodied creature in the group that also contains octopuses and vampire squid.

But unlike both of those creatures, this newly described species has 10 arms — the only known vampyropod to do so, according to new research published in the journal Nature Communications.

"It's long been thought that there were 10 arms ancestrally in vampyropods, but that has never been demonstrated with hard evidence until this fossil discovery," Whalen said.

The fossilized creature is about 12cm long with its 10 arms showing suckers and fins and a long "torpedo-shaped" body similar to modern squids. But the fossil's most remarkable feature might be its age. The specimen pushes back the fossil record for vampyropods by some 82 million years.

"We'd had no ideas that animals of this configuration of this shape and form went back that far," said Bruce Robison, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute who was not involved in this research. "What it is, is the discovery of a missing piece of the puzzle."

Although Robison called the fossil find "remarkable," he stressed that scientists didn't need to search the rock record to find captivating new marine species.

"Down in the deep ocean, there is so much yet to be discovered. Living creatures, things we haven't seen before, things we really don't understand," he said. "And while discoveries are continually being made in the fossil record, there's just as much and maybe more to learn from what's out there living now that we haven't found yet."

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Michael Levitt
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.