October 4th, 2012 by James Ayre
A new clue that is giving insight into the impressive skills of possibly the most sophisticated animal architects to ever live on Earth has been found gathering dust on a museum shelf nearly 100 years after being found.
This certainly isn’t the first time that a scientifically valuable fossil has sat unrecognized in museum archives for nearly a century.
This fossil is providing new evidence that these 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,” as a news release on the finding states.
The fossil is known a graptolite. It’s 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 (practically sounds like what the human idea of an ‘alien’ is, interesting).”
Researcher Dr. Jan Zalasiewicz of the Department of Geology of the University of Leicester recognized the fossil for what it was when he was routinely examining it. “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.”
The insight being provided by this fossil is that 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.”
“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.”
Researchers have long considered it to be a mystery how such tiny ‘primitive’ ancient animals “could have co-operated to build such impressively sophisticated living quarters — it is a skill that has 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.”
Interestingly, this very fossil has been looked at by many of the world’s best experts on these fossils over the past century, since it also features important specimens of several unusual and rare species.
Dr. Mike Howe, manager of the British Geological Survey’s fossil collections and a co-author of the study, said: “This shows that museum collections are a treasure trove, where fossils collected long ago can drive new science.”
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