Fossilised microbe found in 200 million year old Leech cocoon


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Palaeobiologists from the University of Kansas studying samples taken from the mountains of Antarctica have found a ciliate fossil embedded in the wall of a fossilized leech cocoon which was itself embedded in rock that has been dated back to 200 million years ago. The team outlines their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fossilised microbe found in 200 million year old Leech cocoon
[Credit: Hans Kerp et al / Muenster University; PNAS, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1218879109]

The ciliate, a member of the Vorticella family, known more commonly as “bell animals” is a single celled protozoan that moves in water through the use of cilia that surround its body and appears to be very similar to many ciliates found today in fresh water ponds. Scientists believe that Antarctica was much warmer during the time when the fossil would have been alive due to the continent being located much farther from the South Pole and thus warm water ponds or streams could have existed where the fossil was discovered.

The specimen was found in rock samples taken from Timber Peak in the Eisenhower Mountain Range at an elevation of approximately 10,000 feet. To detect the fossilized ciliate, the researchers had to dissolve the rock using acid in a way that allowed preservation of the organic material (cocoon) inside. Studying the cocoons under a microscope revealed the presence of the microorganism.

Leeches cover themselves completely in a cocoon they create just prior to laying eggs. The eggs – still in the cocoon – are then deposited on nearby surfaces, such as rocks where they are cared for by the parent. In the case of the found fossil, the researchers believe the ciliate became stuck in the wall of the cocoon and then became fossilized as the cocoon itself did so.

The researchers describe the fossil as teardrop shaped with a horseshoe shaped main body. The find is especially intriguing because the ciliate is soft bodied which means it has no skeleton – because of that such finds are extremely rare. It also indicates that researchers have another avenue of research because now ancient leech cocoons may be considered as conservation traps – like amber – and thus other found specimens can be studied more closely to see if other organisms are preserved inside.

Author:Bob Yirka  | Source: Phys Org via Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [December 04, 2012]



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