Prehistoric builders reveal trade secrets

October 02, 2012

A fossil which has lain in a museum drawer for over a century has been recognized by a University of Leicester geologist as a unique clue to the long-lost skills of some of the most sophisticated animal architects that have ever lived on this planet.

It has provided evidence that early organisms developed specialised roles and that these specialists displayed co-operation in order to construct their homes - much like today's builders employ a team of bricklayers, plasters and decorators.

The fossil is a graptolite, a planktonic colony from nearly half a billion years ago, found by nineteenth century geologists in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. Graptolites are common in rocks of this age, but only as the beautifully intricate multistorey floating 'homes' that these animals constructed - the animals that made them were delicate creatures with long tentacle-bearing arms, but these have long rotted away.

Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz of the Department of Geology of the University of Leicester was routinely examining the rock slab when noticed something previously overlooked. This particular, unique fossil does not show the animals themselves - but it shows what look like the connections between them, rather like finding the ropes that once held a team of mountaineers together.

These connections indicate that the animals of the colony could not have been all basically the same, as had been assumed. Rather, they must have been very different in shape and organization in different parts of the colony.

Dr Zalasiewicz said, "The light caught one of the fossils in just the right way, and it showed complex structures I had never seen in a graptolite before. It was a sheer stroke of luck...one of those Eureka moments.

"In some parts of the colony, these fossilized connections look like slender criss-crossing branches; others look like little hourglasses.

"Hence, a key element in the ancient success of these animals must have been an elaborate division of labour, in which different members of the colony took on different tasks, for feeding, building and so on. This amazing fossil shows sophisticated prehistoric co-operation, preserved in stone."

It has been a mystery how such tiny 'lowly' prehistoric creatures could have co-operated to build such impressively sophisticated living quarters - it is a skill long been lost among the animals of the world's oceans. Now, this single fossil, which has been carefully preserved in the collections of the British Geological Survey since 1882, sheds light on these ancient master builders.

Remarkably, over that past century, the fossil slab had been examined by some of the world's best experts on these fossils because it includes key specimens of a rare and unusual species.

Dr. Mike Howe, manager of the British Geological Survey's fossil collections and a co-author of the study, commented "This shows that museum collections are a treasure trove, where fossils collected long ago can drive new science."
-end-
Notes to editors:

For further information contact:

Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz, University of Leicester: jaz1@le.ac.uk and 0116 2523928; or Dr. Mark Williams on mri@le.ac.uk and 0116 2523642

Or

Dr. Mike Howe, British Geological Survey, mhowe@bgs.ac.uk and 0115 9363105

The scientific study, just published online, is:

Zalasiewicz, J.A., Page, A.A., Rickards, R.B., Williams, M., Wilby, P.R., Howe, M.P.A. & Snelling, A. 2012. Polymorphic organization in a planktonic graptoloid (Hemichordata: Pterobranchia) colony of late Ordovician age. Geological Magazine.

The British Geological Survey

The British Geological Survey (BGS), a component body of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), is the nation's principal supplier of objective, impartial and up-to-date geological expertise and information for decision making for governmental, commercial and individual users. The BGS maintains and develops the nation's understanding of its geology to improve policy making, enhance national wealth and reduce risk. It also collaborates with the national and international scientific community in carrying out research in strategic areas, including energy and natural resources, our vulnerability to environmental change and hazards, and our general knowledge of the Earth system. More about the BGS can be found at www.bgs.ac.uk.

University of Leicester

Related Fossil Articles from Brightsurf:

Fossil shark turns in to mystery pterosaur
Lead author of the project, University of Portsmouth PhD student Roy Smith, discovered the mystery creature amongst fossil collections housed in the Sedgwick Museum of Cambridge and the Booth Museum at Brighton that were assembled when phosphate mining was at its peak in the English Fens between 1851 and 1900.

New fossil seal species rewrites history
An international team of biologists, led by Monash University, has discovered a new species of extinct monk seal from the Southern Hemisphere -- describing it as the biggest breakthrough in seal evolution in 70 years.

How to fix the movement for fossil fuel divestment
Bankers and environmentalists alike are increasingly calling for capital markets to play a bigger role in the war on carbon.

New fossil ape is discovered in India
A 13-million-year-old fossil unearthed in northern India comes from a newly discovered ape, the earliest known ancestor of the modern-day gibbon.

Fossil growth reveals insights into the climate
Panthasaurus maleriensis is an ancestor of today's amphibians and has been considered the most puzzling representative of the Metoposauridae.

Australian fossil reveals new plant species
Fresh examination of an Australian fossil -- believed to be among the earliest plants on Earth -- has revealed evidence of a new plant species that existed in Australia more than 359 Million years ago.

Tracking fossil fuel emissions with carbon-14
Researchers from NOAA and the University of Colorado have devised a breakthrough method for estimating national emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels using ambient air samples and a well-known isotope of carbon that scientists have relied on for decades to date archaeological sites.

Rare lizard fossil preserved in amber
The tiny forefoot of a lizard of the genus Anolis was trapped in amber about 15 to 20 million years ago.

Reconstructing the diet of fossil vertebrates
Paleodietary studies of the fossil record are impeded by a lack of reliable and unequivocal tracers.

Fossil is the oldest-known scorpion
Scientists studying fossils collected 35 years ago have identified them as the oldest-known scorpion species, a prehistoric animal from about 437 million years ago.

Read More: Fossil News and Fossil Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.