It’s funny how patterns repeat, not just over time but across lifeforms, molecules and even human playthings.
Take soccer balls, for example. Their spherical combination of hexagons and pentagons are familiar to many of us – and they’re also familiar to some fossil scientists, but for a different reason.
Just recently, scientists from The University of Western Australian and University of Cambridge made a chance discovery in UK museum collections, finding hollow soccer-ball-like structures in 80-million-year-old fossils from species called crinoids, which are believed to be related to starfish and sea urchins.
The structures are actually known as ‘bucky’ balls – we’ll come to that in a bit – and comprise a series of hexagons and pentagons in two species, the Uintacrinus socialis and Marsupites testudinarius. Just as balls tend to float in water, these structures might have acted as a buoyancy chamber to allow the crinoid organisms to float in seawater.
More than this, the structures probably offered some kind of protection from the many ravages and threats of the prehistoric world.
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 shallower oceans were meant predators such as crabs and fish were an ever-present threat.
“These structures are also found in the carbon molecule Buckminsterfullerene, which itself has a pattern remarkably similar to today’s soccer balls – hence the term ‘bucky balls’ – 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.”Dr Aaron Hunter
“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,” Dr Hunter said.
“These structures are also found in the carbon molecule Buckminsterfullerene, which itself has a pattern remarkably similar to today’s soccer balls – hence the term ‘bucky balls’ – 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.”
Dr Hunter explained that last century, architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller rediscovered and popularised these structures, applying them to creating iconic buildings such as the Eden project in Cornwall in UK and inspiring the Spaceship Earth geodesic dome at Florida’s Epcot theme park.
Dr Hunter said in comparing the two species, Marsupites testudinarius had fewer but relatively large plates, creating a stable structure.
“Uintacrinus socialis on the other hand has far more complex plates that form a dome,” he said.
“These animals could then spread around the world and have been found in chalk rocks from Texas, US to Kalbarri in Western Australia. They could form a snow shoe to sit on the bottom of the shallow oceans or float and relocate to safer places.”