Friday, June 28, 2013

Not poop

This may look like a coprolite, but it is something else entirely: newly identified but very, very old. It was excavated in 2012 from sediments dating to about 520 million years ago by paleontologist Andrew Smith of the Natural History Museum in London. He and his colleagues found it in the Anti-Atlas Mountains in Morocco and – after determining it was an entirely new species – named it Helicocystis moroccoensis. They have identified it as the most primitive echinoderm with fivefold symmetry, referring to a phylum of marine creatures that branched out into sand dollars, sea urchins, and starfish. H. moroccoensis was only 1.6" (4 cm) tall, with a mouth at the top to capture bits of food as it floated by and a small stem at its base to anchor it to the sediment. But its most distinctive characteristic is the set of spiral grooves (IMAGES HERE) that gave it a distinct look and a special feature. "It's a cigar-shaped beast, and it was able to expand and contract that cigar shape. Sometimes it could be short and fat, and sometimes it could be long and thin."

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