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Ancient octopus ancestors may be 30 million years older than we knew

Some intriguing fossils could push the clock way back on cephalopods.

Longitudinal and cross section of fossils that could turn out to be the first known form of a cephalopod.
Gregor Austermann/Communications Biology

Modern cephalopods are like the rock stars of the ocean. They're brainy octopuses, gorgeous nautiluses and charming cuttlefish. We may have to extend their known history on Earth back by about 30 million years if a new fossil find pans out.

A team of earth scientists from Heidelberg University in Germany discovered 522-million-year-old fossils that appear to be cephalopods, which would place the existence of the invertebrates way back from what was previously known. 

"That would mean that cephalopods emerged at the very beginning of the evolution of multicellular organisms during the Cambrian explosion," said Gregor Austermann in a Heidelberg University statement on Tuesday. Austermann is a co-author of a paper on the fossils published in the journal Communications Biology this week.

The early Cambrian period was an exciting time for the evolution of more complex life forms on Earth, which is why it is referred to as an "explosion." 

The elongated cone-shaped fossils came from the Avalon Peninsula in Canada.  While the fossils are promising, the researchers are hoping to find better preserved examples to confirm they are indeed cephalopods. 

"This find is extraordinary," Austermann said. "In scientific circles it was long suspected that the evolution of these highly developed organisms had begun much earlier than hitherto assumed. But there was a lack of fossil evidence to back up this theory."