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Fullerene-like structures found in 80-million-year-old fossils

Fullerene-like structures found in 80-million-year-old fossils

Scientists from The University of Western Australia and The University of Cambridge discovered hollow ball-like structures in 80-million-year-old fossils from species thought to be linked to starfish and sea urchins in UK museum collections.

Buckyballs, short for “Buckminsterfullerenes”, are huge spherical molecules composed of 60 carbon atoms bonded together in pentagons and hexagons to produce a surface like a soccer ball. These unusual molecules, found in space in 2010, were named after architect Buckminster Fuller, who popularized a similar shape known as a geodesic dome in the 1940s.

The odd formations were discovered in two species: Uintacrinus socialis and Marsupites testudinarius. They believe the structures served as a buoyancy chamber, allowing crinoid creatures to float in seawater while simultaneously protecting them.

Crinoids were in a very hazardous situation millions of years ago when the seas were shallower and they shared them with predators like crabs and fish, according to UWA Adjunct Research Fellow Aaron Hunter from the UWA School of Earth Sciences.

Survival was critical and the ball-like structures, able to withstand very heavy loads, formed around them to protect them from the harms of the ocean and aid buoyancy

Calyx of Uintacrinus socialis. (A) Photograph of Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences specimen number B11572, Niobrara Chalk, USA, with diagram of plates. Scale bar 1 cm. (B) Plate types: cup dark grey, fixed brachials (arms) white, interbrachials/fixed pinnules mid grey, interradials/fixed pinnules light grey. (C) Number of sides of each plate: 4 white, 5 light grey, 6 mid grey, 7 dark grey, 8 black
Calyx graph for juvenile Uintacrinus socialis (A). The calyx graph has a total of 197 vertices, representing plates, and 585 edges, representing plate adjacencies. (B) Vertex degrees correspond to numbers of plate adjacencies and sides (with all vertices included).

These creatures may then spread around the planet, and have been discovered in chalk rocks ranging from Texas in the United States to Kalbarri in Western Australia. They could build a snow shoe to sit on the bottom of the shallow waters, or they could float and migrate to safer areas. Dr. Hunter stated that while comparing the two species, Marsupites testudinarius had fewer but larger plates, resulting in a more stable structure. The plates of Uintacrinus socialis, on the other hand, are considerably more complicated and create a dome.

The structures are also found in the carbon molecule Buckminsterfullerene but this is the first time we have found such a structure in fossils and it still remains a mystery why these successful structures did not evolve again.

Fullerene-like structures of Cretaceous crinoids reveal topologically limited skeletal possibilities, Jennifer F. Hoyal Cuthill, Aaron W. Hunter

Published: February, 2020

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