Rare fossilized tube feet suggest functional shift through time

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. Fleshy tube feet preserved in a rare fossil suggest an ecological shift through time, and may settle a long-standing debate about the preservation of soft parts, say paleontologists at the University of Illinois.

Discovered in the Hunsrueck Slate of Germany by an amateur collector, the specimen is a brittle star, Bundenbachia beneckei, of the phylum Echinodermata, which includes starfishes and sea urchins. In life, the tube feet were fleshy extensions of an internal plumbing system called the water vascular system, and projected from the animal like so many small water balloons.

The preservation of delicate soft parts is extremely uncommon in the fossil record, said Daniel Blake, a UI professor of geology. This is the first time unequivocal evidence of soft-tissue tube feet has been found in these animals.

The fossil was most likely created when the brittle star which inhabited a shallow, muddy sea bottom was smothered by a debris flow. Buried in thick sediment, the animals corpse was protected from large scavengers. Over time, the fine-grained mud was transformed into slate, which was later quarried for roofing shingles.

As millions of bacteria fed upon the decaying flesh, their waste products combined with sulfur and iron dissolved in the seawater to form pyrite, said Alexander Glass, a doctoral student at the UI. The degradation process coated the animal with a thin veneer of pyrite, also known as fools gold, creating a mineral cast that accurately preserved the original shape of the soft tissues.

The specimen was prepared using an airbrasive technique developed in the last 10 years by German amateur fossil collectors especially for the Hunsrueck Slate fossils. Formerly a secret of amateurs, the technique which is similar to sandblasting, but uses smaller, softer particles of iron as the scouring agent allows preparation of extremely delicate pyritized structures without damage. Glass and Blake brought the

Contact: James E. Kloeppel
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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