Analysis of a 555-million-year-old fossil of an extinct organism has revealed that the first large, complex creatures that roamed the Earth likely created more complicated ecosystems than what was initially believed by scientists.
Dr. Imran Rahman, a researcher from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, teamed up with other scientists from the United States and Canada to carry out examinations on the remains of an ancient marine organism called Tribrachidium.
The research team made use of scientific models known as computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to simulate how the extinct creature was able to feed on tiny particles found in the water.
This is the first instance where this unusual feeding behavior, which is called suspension feeding, has been observed from species of this time period.
Scientists believe that Tribrachidium existed during the Ediacaran era, around 541 million to 635 million years ago. Many large and complex creatures that lived in this period do not have clear associations with modern day organisms.
Ediacaran organisms were initially thought to only be capable of forming simple ecosystems consisting of a few modes of feeding. The new study, however, suggests that these creatures instead can feed in a number of ways than what was previously considered.
Vanderbilt University professor and study co-author Dr. Simon Darroch explained that researchers originally thought that the very first complex organisms on Earth knew how to feed in only one or two ways.
Their study discovered that Tribrachidium and possibly other creatures from the period as well knew how to carry out suspension feeding. This provides evidence that early ecosystems on the planet were actually more complex than in initial theories.
Computational Fluid Dynamics
The researchers note the difficulty in examining the Tribrachidium because of the lack of a concrete link to any modern day species. They had to use advanced scientific techniques, including CFD and CT scans, in order to simulate how the ancient marine organism was able to feed.
The recent study marks the first application of CFD in paleontological setting as the engineering technique is most commonly used in simulating the flow of fluid on aircraft designs.
"The computer simulations we ran allowed us to test competing theories for feeding in Tribrachidium," Rahman said.
"This approach has great potential for improving our understanding of many extinct organisms."
The findings of the University of Bristol-led study are featured in the journal Science Advances.