Fossil discovery in Charnwood Forest is welcomed

Published: Tue 26th July, 2022

  • An artist's impression of the new fossil. BGS © UKRI Also shown is fossil, Auroralumina attenboroughii
    An artist's impression of the new fossil. BGS © UKRI Also shown is fossil, Auroralumina attenboroughii

The discovery of an incredible fossil in Charnwood Forest, which has been named after local legend Sir David Attenborough, has been welcomed.

Charnwood Borough Council’s lead member for business support, Cllr Shona Rattray, said the discovery added another fascinating layer to the Charnwood story.

Discover Charnwood logoEarlier this year the Council launched Discover Charnwood, a destination brand and website to help promote the area to visitors. A key focus was the area’s unique geology which is of global significance.

The discovery of the 560-million-year-old fossil of the earliest known animal predator was announced by the British Geological Survey on Monday. It has been named Auroralumina attenboroughii after Sir David Attenborough.

Charnwood Forest is famous for its fossils. In 1957, a fern-like impression in stone turned out to be one of the oldest fossilised animals: Charnia masoni. It has helped inspire the Discover Charnwood brand.

Cllr Rattray said: “This is such an exciting discovery and showcases how unique the Charnwood Forest area is. It is one of the reasons we launched Discover Charnwood as we wanted to help tell the fascinating story of the area and its breathtaking landscapes which were forged nearly 600 million years ago. People can see and experience that history for themselves in places like the Outwoods, Bradgate Park and Beacon Hill.

“When you combine that with the wonderful heritage we have such as Taylor’s bell foundry, Great Central Railway and 800-year-old markets in Loughborough, plus the vibrancy created by the town’s university, you can see why Charnwood is such a great place to visit.

“Naming the discovery after Sir David Attenborough is so fitting as he is such an inspiring figure. We hope this latest news will help bring more visitors to Charnwood and support local businesses.”

The first part of the newly discovered fossil’s name Auroralumina is Latin for dawn lantern, in recognition of its great age and resemblance to a burning torch.

Sir David Attenborough said: “When I was at school in Leicester I was an ardent fossil hunter. The rocks in which Auroralumina has now been discovered were then considered to be so ancient that they dated from long before life began on the planet. So I never looked for fossils there. 

“A few years later a boy from my school found one and proved the experts wrong. He was rewarded by his name being given to his discovery. Now I have - almost - caught up with him and I am truly delighted.” 

Dr Phil Wilby, palaeontology leader at the British Geological Survey, is one of the scientists who made the find. He said: “It’s generally held that modern animal groups like jellyfish appeared 540 million years ago in the Cambrian explosion. 

“But this predator predates that by 20 million years. 

It’s the earliest creature we know of to have a skeleton. So far we’ve only found one, but it’s massively exciting to know there must be others out there, holding the key to when complex life began on Earth.” 

Palaeontologists like Dr Wilby flock to Charnwood Forest to examine its Ediacaran fossils. In 2007, Wilby and others from the British Geological Survey spent over a week cleaning a 100m square rock surface with toothbrushes and pressure jets. They took a rubber mould of the whole surface and captured the impression of over 1000 fossils. 

One stood out from the crowd. 

Dr Frankie Dunn from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History carried out the detailed study. She said, “This is very different to the other fossils in Charnwood Forest and around the world.

“Most other fossils from this time have extinct body plans and it’s not clear how they are related to living animals.

“This one clearly has a skeleton, with densely-packed tentacles that would have waved around in the water capturing passing food, much like corals and sea anemones do today. 

“It’s nothing like anything else we’ve found in the fossil record at the time.” 

Dunn calls the specimen a “lonely little fossil” and thinks it originated from shallower water than the rest of the fossils found in Charnwood. 

“The ancient rocks in Charnwood closely resemble ones deposited in the deep ocean on the flanks of volcanic islands, much like at the base of Montserrat in the Caribbean today. 

“All of the fossils on the cleaned rock surface were anchored to the seafloor and were knocked over in the same direction by a deluge of volcanic ash sweeping down the submerged foot of the volcano, except one, A. attenboroughii. 

“It lies at an odd angle and has lost its base, so appears to have been swept down the slope in the deluge. “ 

A. attenboroughii was dated at the British Geological Survey’s headquarters using zircons in the surrounding rock. 

Zircon is a tiny radioactive mineral that acts as a geological clock: it assesses how much uranium and lead are present. From that, geologists can determine precisely how old the rock is. 

Dr Frankie Dunn said: “The Cambrian Explosion was remarkable. It’s known as the time when the anatomy of living animal groups was fixed for the next half a billion years. 

“Our discovery shows that the body plan of the cnidarians was fixed at least 20 million years before this, so it’s hugely exciting and raises many more questions.” 

Read the British Geological Survey press release.

Visit the Discover Charnwood website