President Joe Biden has a new namesake: an ancient, soft-bodied cephalopod that had 10 suction-cupped arms and was likely the ancestor of the modern octopus and vampire squid.
The 328-million-year-old fossil, named Syllipsimopodi bideni (“Syllipsimopodi” means “prehensile foot”), was described in a paper published in Nature Communications earlier this month.
The fossil was first found in Montana in 1988 and donated to Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum. It was then more or less ignored until Christopher Whalen, a paleontologist with the American Museum of Natural History, started looking at it under a microscope, The New York Times reported.
The fossil turned out to be “an exceptionally well-preserved vampyropod,” Whalen and fellow AMNH paleontologist Neil Landman wrote in their paper. Vampyropods include octopuses and vampire squid (which are not actually squid).
Scientists believe that Syllipsimopodi bideni is the oldest known ancestor of such animals.
Contemporary octopuses famously have eight arms, as do vampire squid ― though vampire squid additionally have two long filaments that help them feed. The new discovery suggests that both animals evolved from an ancestor that had 10 arms, two of which went away over the course of evolution.
“This fossil is arguably the first confirmation of the idea that all cephalopods ancestrally possessed 10 arms,” Whalen said in a statement from AMNH.
But it was largely the ocean creature’s name that’s garnered headlines over the past month. The researchers who described the fossil have emphasized they meant it in a nice way.
“It was intended as a compliment,” Whalen told the New Haven Register this week.
“We liked the plans he put forward to address climate change and fund science, so it seemed like a nice way to sort of bring attention to those policies,” Whalen said.
He added that they had submitted the paper around the time of the Capitol riots in 2021 and “felt like it would be a good time to say something, even in a small way, that was positive about the start of Biden’s presidency rather than negative.”
As The Washington Post noted, it’s pretty common for new species to be named after presidents. A moth and a blind, limbless amphibian were both named after Donald Trump. There were at least nine different creatures named after Barack Obama, including two parasites (this was also apparently meant as an honor). One scientist said at the time that he named a newly discovered parasitic flatworm after Obama in part because both the former president and the flatworm were “cool as hell.”
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