The discovery of three new species of fossilized octopi in Lebanon has caused scientists to suspect that the first octopus appeared tens of millions of years earlier than previously thought.

In a paper published in a recent issue of the journal Palaeontology, researchers Fuchs, Bracchi and Weis describes three new species of fossil octopus placed in two new genera: Keuppia and Styletoctopus. The species have been given the names Keuppia levante, Keuppia hyperbolaris and Styletocopus annae.

180px Enteroctopus dolfeini Are octopuses older than we think?The descriptions are the result of the fortunate discovery of three astonishingly well preserved octopus fossils from the Cenomanian, i.e. octopus that lived at some point between 93 and 100 million years ago.

Studying the history of octopi is difficult since the octopus, unlike dinosaurs for instance, is composed almost entirely of soft tissue; predominantly muscle, skin and viscera. When an octopus dies the body rapidly decomposes and vanishes, and extraordinary conditions are necessary for the animal to leave any fossil record behind.

Fortunately for science such extraordinary conditions must have been at hand in Lebanon some 100 million years ago, because the three newfound fossils are so well preserved that even traces of muscles, suckers, internal gills and ink can be distinguished.

This type of fossil is so rare that Mark Purnell, for the Palaeontological Association, remarked that finding an octopus as a fossil “is about as unlikely as finding a fossil sneeze”.

Before these three species were discovered, only one species of fossil octopus was known to science.

For more information, see the paper published in Palaeontology: Fuchs, D, G Bracchi and R Weis (2009) New Octopods (Cephalopoda: Coleoidea) from the Late Cretaceous (Upper Cenomanian) of Hakel and Hadjoula, Lebanon. Palaeontology 52, pp. 65–81.