Published online 27 January 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040126-1


Fossil find breaks age record

Scottish millipede represents earliest known air-breathing animal.

Stonehaven in Scotland was equatorial 428 million years ago.Stonehaven in Scotland was equatorial 428 million years ago.©

An amateur fossil-hunter in Scotland has unearthed the oldest known air-breathing land animal: a tiny millipede that lived 428 million years ago.

The discovery doesn't change scientists' understanding of when air-breathing creatures evolved. But it does help to fill in the fossil record, pushing back the oldest known fossil of this kind by about 20 million years.

The 1-centimetre long creature has been christened Pneumodesmus newmani in honour of its discoverer, Mike Newman, a bus driver and fossil enthusiast from Aberdeen on Scotland's northeastern coast.

Newman made his discovery on the shore at the nearby seaside town of Stonehaven, a favourite fossil-hunters' haunt. "I basically stood on it," he recalls. Having realized its potential importance, he turned the fossil over to the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. Palaeontologists from the museum and from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, deduced its unique status1.

There's no doubt that P. newmani breathed air, says Lyall Anderson of the National Museums, who studied the discovery. The fossil shows well-preserved spiracles - tiny holes for taking in oxygen. These would not work if the millipede ventured off land, Anderson explains: "They would have filled up with water."

The climate in which the creature lived was a far cry from the cold, rain-lashed Scotland of today. During P. newmani 's lifetime, Scotland was close to the Equator and formed part of a giant landmass called the Old Red Sandstone Continent. "For land animals to emerge you need an area that's hot and humid," says Newman. "This is the best area in the world for early animal fossils." The previous record-holding fossil for the oldest air-breathing animal was also found in Scotland.

Stonehaven was previously best known as the town that invented deep-fried chocolate bars - a strange culinary treat usually made by frying Mars bars. The fossil offers Stonehaven's residents a somewhat healthier source of civic pride. 

  • References

    1. Wilson, H. M. & Anderson, L. I. Morphology and taxonomy of Paleozoic millipedes (Diplopoda: Chilognatha: Archipolypoda) from Scotland. Journal of Paleontology, 78, 169 - 184, (2004).  | ISI |