An extinct 450 million-year-old marine organism has returned not with a bang, but rather with a soft thud, after researchers recreated it as a soft robotic replica. It is hoped that this will be the first of many such robots that could be used to give us a better understanding of how extinct organisms moved and how this evolved into what we see in the kingdom today. animal.

The robot is a replica of a pleurocystid, a marine organism belonging to echinoderms, a class of animals that today includes starfish and sea urchins. Pleurocystids are thought to have been one of the first echinoderms capable of using a muscular rod for movement and played an essential role in the evolution of echinoderms. However, nothing comparable exists today, so it is difficult to know exactly what their evolutionary role was.

As a result, researchers have turned to soft robotics to recreate the ancient organism and its movements. The international team used fossil evidence of pleurocystids to guide the design of the robot, made from a combination of 3D printed elements and polymers. This mimicked the flexible nature of the creature’s tail-like muscular shaft.

They found that the muscle shaft was likely essential to the movement of the organism, allowing it to move across the seafloor by pushing the animal forward – broad sweeping movements would likely have been the most effective movement for that. The researchers also found that they could increase the animal’s speed by increasing the length of the rod, in a way that would not have cost the creature too much energy.

The pleurocystid robot is part of a new and growing field of research: paleobionics. The field aims to use robotics with flexible materials and soft materials to replicate extinct organisms, hoping to better understand the biomechanical factors that led to evolution. Having demonstrated that this was possible with pleurocysts, researchers aim to reproduce even more of the extinct creatures.

“Bringing new life to something that existed nearly 500 million years ago is exciting in itself, but what really excites us about this breakthrough is how much we will be able to learn from it,” he said. said co-author Professor Phil LeDuc in a statement. “We don’t just look at fossils in the ground, we try to better understand life by working with extraordinary paleontologists.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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