It's an incredible discovery: In the rocks outside Cincinnati, paleontologists have uncovered a mysterious ancient "monster" fossil resembling a cactus nearly seven feet long, that researchers are thinking of naming "Godzillus." And they say it's a form of life that defies all known categories of organisms.
Roughly 450 million years ago, shallow seas covered the Cincinnati region. Amateur paleontologist Ron Fine discovered Godzillus - let me admit that I can't stop saying that name - in rocks near Covington, Kentucky, which lies just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.
"I knew right away that I had found an unusual fossil," explained Fine, a member of the amateur paleontologist association known as the Dry Dredgers. "Imagine a saguaro cactus with flattened branches and horizontal stripes in place of the usual vertical stripes. That's the best description I can give."
Fossils in this area are normally quite small, "the size of a thumbnail to the size of a thumb," Fine told io9. "This new fossil is a monster that just reminded me of Godzilla stomping on Tokyo, especially with its scaly texture."
Fine excavated the fossil last summer and painstakingly cleaned and reconstructed the hundreds of pieces it was found in. "When I finally finished, it was three-and-a-half feet wide and six-and-a-half feet long," Fine said. "My personal theory is that it stood upright, with branches reaching out in all directions similar to a shrub. If I am right, then the uppermost branch would have towered nine feet high."
"Like Godzilla, this is like a giant primordial beast that found itself in a modern era," Fine said. "It doesn't look like it belongs to the period we found it in, the Ordovician, about 450 million years ago. It looks very primitive, like it comes from the Edicarian, more than a half-billion years old, when some of the most primitive multicellular life forms known came from."
What's especially amazing about this discovery is that this region has been among the best-studied in all of paleontology for more than 200 years. It's known for numerous fossils of the extinct armored critters called trilobites. The discovery of an unknown fossil of this size - what might be the largest in the Cincinnati region - is baffling.
"It's definitely a new discovery," said paleontologist David Meyer at the University of Cincinnati. "And we're sure it's biological. We just don't know yet exactly what it is."
Fine added, "We don't even know whether it's a plant or an animal, what kingdom of life to put it into. It just looks that much different from everything else."
The researchers suspect Godzillus may have been a soft-bodied organism, which may explain why nothing like it has been seen in this area until now. "Soft-bodied organisms are almost never preserved - they're incredibly rare in the fossil record," Fine said. Meyer explained that low oxygen levels may have helped preserve impressions of this life form.
Potential clues to how Godzillus might have lived have been found as well. The mystery fossil has several small trilobites latched onto it, which could help reveal simple but key details, such as which end of Godzillus is up. Trilobites are sometimes found on the underside of other fossilized animals, where they were perhaps seeking shelter after molting their shells.
The specimen was unveiled at the North-Central Section annual meeting of the Geological Society of America on April 24 in Dayton, Ohio.