180-Million-Year-Old Fossils Revealed in Jurassic Sea

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Ancient fossils now reveal that the deep sea may be the origin of many lineages of sea creatures found closer to the surface, such as a number of sea stars, sea urchins and snails, researchers say.

These new findings suggest the deep sea has played a much greater role in producing and preserving diversity in marine life than once thought, scientists added.

The deep sea was long thought to be a lifeless desert. Intense research in the last few decades, however, has revealed that it actually supports one of the highest levels of biodiversity on Earth.

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There were few known fossils of deep-sea life older than about 100 million years. Due to the paucity of ancient records of deep-sea life, scientists often suggested that deep-sea communities originated from colonies in shallower waters.

Now, with the help of amateur paleontologist Gero Moosleitner, scientists have discovered fossils of 180-million-year-old deep-sea animals in the Austrian Alps. These now shed light on the surprising history of deep-sea life. [See Images of Ancient and Modern Deep-Sea Life]

"People always assume that biodiversity starts in shallow waters and moves to the deep sea, but these findings are evidence that the deep sea may be a neglected source of biodiversity,"said lead study author Ben Thuy, an invertebrate paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History of Luxembourg.

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A landslide in Glasenbach Gorge near the city of Salzburg in Austria exposed the fossils. Then, over the course of a decade, Moosleitner collected the fossils, alerting Thuy and his colleagues of the treasure trove there.

"The slopes of the gorge we got fossils from were quite steep, which made work a bit difficult, but it was also quite fun," Thuy told Live Science. "We dug up the rock, put it in a sieve, and washed [the rocks] in the brook downslope to get fossils. It was a bit like panning for gold."

The scientists deduced that these fossils came from deep-sea deposits from the absence of fossils of light-dependent organisms, as well as from physical similarities between the rock surrounding the fossils with modern deep-sea rock. The 2,500 or so fossils included the oldest-known members of a number of groups of deep-sea creatures alive today.

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