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Soft robotic version of an ancient organism

Scientists have created a soft robot modeled after the ancient marine organism Pleurocystites to gain insights into how this extinct echinoderm may have moved and behaved. The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates how paleobionics - fusing robotics with paleontology - can shed light on long-vanished species.

Pleurocystites was a flat-bodied echinoderm with two large appendages that lived around 450 million years ago. With no fossil trackways available, deciphering how these ancient creatures got around was guesswork based solely on skeletal morphology.

To solve this mystery, a team from Carnegie Mellon University and MIT developed Rhombot - a soft robot proxy built with simulated echinoderm tissue. Through physics simulations and real-world experiments with Rhombot, the researchers validated theories about appendage-driven locomotion in Pleurocystites.

They also found swept-back tails enabled higher speeds, suggesting an evolutionary advantage for certain body-tail ratios. These insights would be impossible to deduce from fossils alone, underscoring the value of robotic analogues.

"The opportunity to test how extinct organisms may have behaved is tremendously important for understanding paleoecology and life’s history,” said Professor William Ausich of Ohio State University in a response letter.

Ausich noted that Rhombot and future paleobionic platforms could be used to model other enigmatic species, revealing clues about ancient environments, adaptation, biomechanics and more.

As technology progresses, scientists may eventually unravel how vanished organisms moved, fed, socialized and survived across eons of Earth’s history. By merging robotics with paleontology, researchers can reach beyond what fossils alone can show, resurrecting extinct creatures through dynamic, scientifically-grounded simulations.

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