A researcher from The University of Western Australia was part of a team who discovered the fossilised remains of the planet's oldest mother - a now extinct 25cm long placoderm fish in the process of giving birth, with the 6cm embryo and umbilical cord intact.
The 375 million year old fossil from Western Australia represents one of the biggest breakthroughs in palaeontology ever made and details of it are being released in a paper published in the prestigious science journal Nature today.
The find was made on an Australian Research Council-funded expedition led by the paper's lead author, Dr John Long of Museum Victoria, with Dr Kate Trinajstic, a research associate in UWA's School of Earth and Geographical Sciences and Dr Gavin Young and Dr Tim Senden from The Australian National University.
The fossil, named Materpiscis (‘mother-fish' in Latin) attenboroughi after the famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough, was found south-east of Fitzroy Crossing in an area known as the Gogo Reef Formation.
"The fact we can see the detailed anatomy of the earliest known placoderm embryo is extremely exciting," Dr Trinajstic said. "It is the first fossil evidence for vertebrate sex (internal fertilisation) resulting in the oldest known example of a fish giving birth to live young rather than expelling a clutch of eggs. But the discovery was tinged with sadness because this was a baby fish that never got to swim around or reach its potential."
"The presence of the umbilical cord is extremely rare as this structure is composed of soft tissue and does not usually fossilise. Scanning electron micrographs done at UWA reveal the path of blood vessels, which indicates that this fish was providing nourishment to her young."
In a letter to Dr Long, Sir David said: "I am extremely flattered that you should give my name to such an astonishing creature. The skill with which you have revealed and identified the umbilical cord is really extraordinary."
The fish once swam in the sea that surrounded the supercontinent of Gondwana, a landmass that included South America, South Africa, Antarctica and India. She was a member of a dominant group of vertebrates known as placoderms, ‘the dinosaurs of the seas', that ruled the earth's waters for almost 70 million years.
The fossil will be officially unveiled today at Melbourne Museum and will remain on display in the museum foyer.
XCT scans created by the ANU and Museum Victoria, high quality CGI animation of the living fish giving birth and images of the skeleton and embryo, are available.