Wed. Dec 6th, 2023
    Robots Illuminate the Ancient World: Exploring Extinct Organisms Through Soft Robotics

    Robots, known for their versatile abilities, may soon play a vital role in unraveling the mysteries surrounding the paleoecology of extinct organisms. Professor William Ausich of The Ohio State University, an esteemed paleontologist with over five decades of experience, expresses his belief in the potential of robots to revolutionize our understanding of ancient life. Ausich’s insights are shared in a letter published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where he discusses a groundbreaking study on soft robotics and its implications for paleontological research.

    Led by researchers Richard Desatnik and Carmel Majidi from Carnegie Mellon University, along with Zach J. Patterson from Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the study introduces “Rhombot,” a biomimetic soft robot prototype inspired by the extinct echinoderm genus Pleurocystites. Echinoderms, such as starfish and sea cucumbers, possess internal skeletons, but Pleurocystites display unique flattened bodies with large feeding appendages that maneuvered along the seafloor.

    Traditionally, investigating the behavior of Pleurocystites has been challenging due to the lack of fossil imprints that would shed light on their movement. However, the emergence of paleobionics, a fascinating field that combines robotics with paleontological principles, is bridging this gap in our knowledge. The researchers behind Rhombot began by mimicking the connective tissue found in echinoderms and created theoretical and physical simulations to understand how the robot could navigate a simulated ancient, hard seafloor.

    Through their experiments, the team verified certain predictions about the motion of Pleurocystites. The robot’s tail, or stem, propelled it forward, with the feeding appendages leading the movement. Additionally, they discovered that the sweeping motion of the tail maximized Rhombot’s speed. These findings provide valuable insights into modeling extinct organisms, especially those without modern analogs. Ausich believes that soft robotic technologies, like Rhombot, can be applied beyond Pleurocystites, allowing scientists to analyze the behaviors of animals across different taxa and explore evolutionary changes.

    Studying ancient organisms and their lifestyles is not merely an academic pursuit but also has significant implications for understanding extinctions. By comprehending the past, scientists can gain insights into why certain species thrived while others perished. Ausich emphasizes that this perspective on survival is invaluable at a time when extinction rates on Earth are alarmingly high. Moreover, the application of soft robotics in paleontology may unveil crucial clues about which species stand a chance of surviving future catastrophic events.

    While the development of soft robotics for educational purposes is still in its early stages, it holds tremendous potential. Ausich envisions using these robots to animate prehistoric beings, offering an engaging and immersive experience that goes beyond the popular fascination with dinosaurs. By demonstrating how ancient organisms moved, researchers can ignite the imagination of children and students, inspiring an appreciation for lesser-known aspects of paleontology.


    What is paleoecology?

    Paleoecology is the study of ancient ecosystems, focusing on the relationships between organisms and their environments in the past.

    What is biomimetic?

    Biomimetic refers to the imitation of biological systems, processes, or structures in the design and development of artificial systems or materials.

    What are echinoderms?

    Echinoderms are a group of marine invertebrates that includes starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and sand dollars.

    What is paleobionics?

    Paleobionics is an interdisciplinary field that combines robotics and paleontology to investigate and replicate extinct organisms’ behaviors and characteristics.

    Why is understanding extinct organisms important?

    Studying extinct organisms provides insights into past ecosystems, evolutionary processes, and the factors that contribute to extinction. It also helps us understand the history of life on Earth and may offer valuable lessons for conserving biodiversity today. Sources: [National Geographic](, [Wikipedia](, [Smithsonian Ocean](