A team of paleontologists has described a shockingly large centipede fossil found on an English beach in 2018. The centipede the fossil left behind was over 6 feet long and may have been a predator.
Sometime between April 2017 and January 2018, a large block of sandstone broke loose from a cliff in Northumbria, England, falling about 20 feet (6 meters) to the beach below. A paleontologist taking a chance walk along the beach found the rock and realized it contained the fossil of a giant centipede. A team from the University of Cambridge studied the find; their results were: published today in the Journal of the Geological Society.
“It was a fluke of a discovery,” Neil Davies, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge and the study’s lead author, told a university release. “The way the boulder had fallen had cracked open and the fossil was perfectly visible, which one of our former PhD students happened to see as they walked by.”
The creature is part of the genus Arthropleura and lived about 326 million years ago, 100 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared. The fossil is missing the head, but the animal was estimated to be 8 feet and 7 inches long and may have weighed more than 100 pounds in life.
“These would have been the largest land-based animals in the Carboniferous,” Davies told Gizmodo in an email. “It took four of us with sledgehammers and a pneumatic drill to get it out, and then it was a tough climb up a 20m cliff, with the 40kg fossil between us.”
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The research team thinks the fossil is not the animal itself, but a molted shield, the exuvium. So even the size of the animal as it is known from this fossil may not be the largest the centipede eventually grew.
Based on the fossil’s location and the rock it was in, the researchers think the exoskeleton was located in a river trench, where it was filled with sandy sediment, preserving it. The exoskeleton was found near tetrapod prints from the same era, indicating that giant invertebrates coexisted with vertebrates.
The sandstone block also contained some fossilized plants from the Carboniferous that suggested the giant centipede lived in a drier, more open environment than previously thought. The traditional view was that arthropods lived in swampy environments, as so many of their fossils have been found in coal mines that were once dense, wet forests.
The animals may have grown so large, in part because of the amount of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere in the distant past. But the Arthropleura predates the peak of that atmospheric oxygen, so other factors were probably at play, such as the animal’s diet. Davies said the animals may have been predators getting their nutrients from other invertebrates or even amphibians, if not from the leaf litter itself.
These millipedes are now extinct, which may have to do with how the ancient climate changed. “The organisms lived near the equator, which became hot and dry during the Permian,” Davies said. “This probably changed the vegetation and may have made food scarcer. At the same time, the first reptiles started to dominate the terrestrial habitats, so they would have had more competition for fewer resources.
Regardless of the source of their gigantism, the millipedes would have been a sight to behold. For example, I’m very happy to admire the creativity of evolution, while I’m grateful that I don’t have to see any of these things in real life.
More: Newly discovered centipede is the first to have more than 1,000 legs
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