Using methods of the engineering In modern times, scientists belonging to an international collaboration unraveled one of the greatest mysteries of the trilobites, ancestors of today’s arthropods that lived for 270 million years, between the Cambrian – 520 million years ago – and the Permian – about 251 years ago. millions of years-.
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Trilobites are considered one of the most successful groups of animals that have inhabited the planet Land, surviving several mass extinctions until sharing the habitat with other animals such as amphibians or the first reptiles ancestors of dinosaurs.
The researchers, led by the Spanish paleontologist Jorge Esteve, professor of the University of the Andes, made an analysis of the so-called ‘finite elements’ in 3D models, a method from mechanical engineering that is used to calculate how much weight structures such as bridges can support or how the pillars of a large skyscraper must be to climb to the top , in order to understand how the trilobites used their heads to make holes in the ground and feed on the small prey that fell on it.
“Every three-dimensional structure is exposed to external stresses, from the structure’s own weight, in the case of a 100-story building, to the weight of a mountain, in the case of a tunnel. Knowing how efforts are distributed throughout these constructions allows us to recognize possible points of weakness ”, explains Esteve.
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The paleontologist illustrates the principle with another example: “If we place a prosthesis to replace a person’s hip, we must calculate how much effort the prosthesis will endure, since it is not the same to resist the weight of a person of 50 kilograms than that of another 100 ”.
Finite element analysis works with a software that indicates in colors ranging from blue (greater resistance) to red (less resistance) how a structure is going to behave mechanically.
“If a prosthesis has many areas in red, when the simulation of the finite elements is done, you will have to change the materials or the geometry of the prosthesis to obtain more areas in blue and that, in this way, the person who is you are going to have no problems due to possible breakages ”, explains the scientist.
Instead of studying fossils in the laboratory, as is commonly done in paleontology, Scholars applied the finite models on 27 trilobite species, all from the Cambrian period (500 million years ago).
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Thus, they showed that the shape of the head not only helped them improve the process of shedding their shells, which allowed these arthropods to grow, but also made them able to withstand the enormous effort when they made furrows in the ground to feed on small worms and particles found on the seabed, as horseshoe crabs do today.
Finite element analysis showed that a series of ‘sutures’ in the lateral lobes of trilobites (anatomically, trilobites are segmented into three longitudinal lobes, hence their name) prevents these areas of weakness from breaking when they are excavating, thus that makes it easier for them to molt and make furrows to feed.
This adaptation of the trilobites also allowed them to make excavations, such as galleries and burrows, increasingly complex and deep.
The evolution of a technique
The finite element technique is not new to paleontology. It began to be used to know, for example, how strong was the bite of carnivorous dinosaurs like the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex or the Allosaurus.
Those first works were carried out by Professor Emily Rayfield, from the University of Bristol, who is now co-author, together with Esteve, of the study on trilobites published in the prestigious journal Paleontology.
“Rayfield’s studies helped him to know the strength of the dinosaurs’ bite and infer, for example, what type of diet they had: if they were scavengers or active predators,” says Esteve.
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For Esteve, the importance of his new work lies in the fact that it sheds light on the feeding mechanism of trilobites, a potential reason for their evolutionary history, so successful that it led them to live for more than 270 million years, many more millions of years longer than dinosaurs lived or our own species has lived.
“Furthermore, this behavior of the trilobites ‘plowed’ the soils of the seas during the Cambrian and the later Ordovician period (480 million years ago). Like a farmer plowing his soil to aerate it, trilobites ‘plowed’ the soils of early Earth, setting in motion biogeochemical cycles crucial to life. If these iconic arthropods had not existed, the conditions would not have been in place for life to flourish as it did from that moment on, ”says Esteve.
NICOLÁS BUSTAMANTE HERNÁNDEZ
Science Journalist – For EL TIEMPO
On Twitter: @ScienceNico
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