Scientists from The University of Western Australian and University ofCambridge have made a chance discovery in UK museum collections, findinghollow ball-like structures in 80-million-year-old fossils from speciesbelieved to be related to starfish and sea urchins.

The scientists found the unusual structures known as ‘bucky’ balls made up ofa series of hexagons and pentagons in two species – the Uintacrinus socialisand Marsupites testudinarius. They believe the structures might have actedas a buoyancy chamber to allow the crinoid organisms to float in seawater butalso protect them.

UWA Adjunct Research Fellow Aaron Hunter from UWA’s School of Earth Sciencessaid crinoids were in a very dangerous place millions of years ago when theoceans were shallower and they shared them with predators such as crabs andfish.

“Survival was critical and the ball-like structures, able to withstand veryheavy loads, formed around them to protect them from the harms of the oceanand aid buoyancy,” Dr Hunter said.

“These animals could then spread around the world and have been found in chalkrocks from Texas, US to Kalbarri in Western Australia. They could form a snowshoe to sit on the bottom of the shallow oceans or float and relocate to saferplaces.”

Dr Hunter said in comparing the two species, Marsupites testudinarius hadfewer but relatively large plates, creating a stable structure.

Uintacrinus socialis on the other hand has far more complex plates thatform a dome,” he said.

“The structures are also found in the carbon molecule Buckminsterfullerene butthis is the first time we have found such a structure in fossils and it stillremains a mystery why these successful structures did not evolve again.”

“Later, architect Buckminster Fuller would rediscover and popularise thesestructures and apply them to creating iconic buildings such as the Edenproject in Cornwall in UK. However most would recognise the structure in thehumble soccer ball we know and love.”

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