squid, marine creatures, squid fossil

Scientists Draw Portrait of Jurassic Squid Using Its Own Ink

August 29, 2009 08:00 AM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
The perfect preservation of an ancient squid fossil allowed scientists to make use of its ink, shedding new light on the conditions that create the finest fossils.

Drawing a Squid With Its Own Ink

In an act that combines science, paleontology and art, British scientists have created a “self-portrait” of an ancient squid “using its 150 million-year-old ink” after discovering the squid’s preserved fossil, Murray Wardrop writes for the Daily Telegraph.

A team of paleontologists led by Dr. Phil Wilby discovered the fossilized body of the Belemnotheutis antiquus—an ancestor of the modern day squid—during a dig in Trowbridge, Wiltshire (U.K.). The area was first explored during Victorian times and is famous for its optimal conditions for preservation and impressive quantity of Jurassic fossils. During the 19th century, the site “yielded thousands of specimens of exquisitely preserved ammonites, fish and crustaceans, but became most famous for squid-like cephalopods and belemnites … with fossilized soft-parts,” according to an abstract from the journal Geology Today.

Along with other ancient sea creatures, the fossilized squid was housed in what looked like an “ordinary looking rock,” and was preserved so delicately that its one-inch-long ink sac was still intact. After taking a sample of the substance and liquefying it with an ammonia solution, the scientist discovered the “ink they created was good enough to allow them to draw the squid-like animal and write its Latin name,” Wardrop writes.

Wilby expressed his astonishment at the quality of the fossil, and the fact that soft tissues such as muscle fibers, guts and gills had been preserved through hundreds of millions of years. “It is difficult to imagine how you can have something as soft and sloppy as an ink sac fossilised in three dimension, still black, and inside a rock that is 150 million years old,” he told the Telegraph.

Wilby explained that the similarity in structure between this ancient ink and its modern counterpart make it possible to use it for writing and, potentially, for food coloring. “I don’t think I will try tasting it,” he joked.

Background: The Medusa effect

Although paleontologists don’t know why the Belemnotheutis antiquus and other marine creatures fossilized in the Wiltshire area became extinct, experts speculate that the creatures might have died massively, as “thousands of the creatures congregated in the area to mate before being poisoned by algae in the water,” the BBC explains. Their carcasses could have also attracted predators, who themselves died after feeding off their poisoned bodies.

The preservation process in this particular area, however, is highly unusual. As Wilby explained to The Times of London, “the decomposition process means only the hard parts of animal are preserved, such as the bones, shell and teeth.” In the Wiltshire area, on the other hand, specimens were exposed to the Medusa effect: they turned to stone soon after their deaths and fossilized “before the soft parts [could] be eaten away,” Wilby said.

Wilby is optimistic that this find will lead to other scientific breakthroughs. “I hope the discovery will help us better understand why things are fossilised in this way—what it is about the area that allows it to happen so quickly,” he told The Times. “Throughout the world there are perhaps a few dozen examples of soft parts being preserved, but this is really special.”

Related Topic: “Forensic Scientist Reconstructs Face of First European”

Forensic scientist Richard Neave managed to reconstruct the face of one of the first modern humans to live in Europe about 35,000 years ago; the oldest known Homo sapiens fossils are about 200,000 years old. The reconstruction was meant for a BBC 2 series called “The Incredible Human Journey” that traced the ancestry of humans from their African origins through migrations around the world to modern-day man.

Neave called upon his years of experience with forensic reconstruction and careful measurements of the bone fragments discovered previously to determine how the soft tissues would have been constructed in this particular face. The skull was quite similar to a present-day skull, but the cranium was larger and it had larger molars. Upon seeing the finalized product, Alice Roberts, the anthropologist presenting the documentary, said that it looks like a mixture of modern European, Asian and African features.

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