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/Geology

Articles, features and stories with an emphasis on geology.

18 05, 2017

Time to Question Where Life on Earth Started

By | May 18th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

Earliest Evidence for Microbial Life on Land

Fossils which reputedly show evidence of microbial life in hot springs have been found in Australian rocks that date from 3.48 billion years ago.  The hot spring deposits found in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, have pushed back by some 580 million years, the earliest known existence of micro-organisms living in terrestrial freshwater habitats, albeit, in a very inhospitable place.  This discovery has reignited the debate as to where the first life on planet Earth might have originated.

Tiny Bubbles Preserved in the Rocks Could Demonstrate Early Microbial Life in Hot Springs

Evidence of early microbial life (Pilbara Craton).

Spherical bubbles preserved in 3.48 billion-year-old rocks in the Dresser Formation in the Pilbara Craton (Western Australia) provide evidence for early life having lived in ancient hot springs on land.  These bubbles could have been trapped in a sticky microbial film.

Picture Credit: University of New South Wales

The remote and very beautiful Pilbara region of Western Australia has exposures of extremely ancient sandstones, some of the oldest sedimentary rocks known.  These strata were formed in the Paleoarchean Era and it has been at the centre of research for evidence of micro-fossils and signs of very early life on Earth for a number of decades.  The Australian authorities are hoping to get UNESCO World Heritage status recognition for those parts of the Pilbara Craton that have provided evidence for very primitive, organic lifeforms.

To read an article from 2011 about micro-fossils preserved in Pilbara sandstones that indicate microbial life from 3.4 billion years ago: Are These the Oldest Fossils on Earth?

A Freshwater or a Marine Origin for Life on Earth?

The debate as to when life on Earth began has caused great controversy amongst scientists.  Resolving when the very first organisms evolved has proved extremely difficult, for example, back in the autumn of 2016, Everything Dinosaur published an article about an intriguing study of ancient Greenland rocks that might show evidence of microbial life, specifically stromatolites that existed in a shallow marine environment some 3.7 billion years ago.

For the article on the research on the Greenland rocks: 3.7 Billion-Year-Old Microbes?

What is equally as controversial, is where on Earth did life begin?

Writing in the academic journal “Nature Communications”, lead author, PhD student Tara Djokic (University of New South Wales) and her fellow researchers conclude that parts of the Pilbara Craton strata were formed from hot spring deposits and these rocks provide evidence that life may not have originated in a marine environment.

The Remote and Desolate Sandstone Ridges Represent Strata Formed Some 3.48 Billion Years Ago

A view of the remote Dresser Formation, Pilbara Craton (Western Australia).

Ridges in the ancient Dresser Formation in the Pilbara Craton of Western Australia that preserve ancient stromatolites and hot spring deposits.

Picture Credit: Kathleen Campbell

Extremophiles Living in Hot Springs

Scientists are aware that microbial life such as bacteria and those other prokaryotes – archaea are capable of surviving in very hostile environments.  The specialised archaea are often referred to as extremophiles as these organisms can tolerate and thrive in environments that would prove fatal to most other forms of life.  These extreme conditions include heat and high concentrations of noxious materials, the sort of conditions you can find in a geyser or hot spring.

Tara and her co-workers, which included Professors Martin Van Kranendonk, Malcolm Walter and Colin Ward (University of New South Wales) and Professor Kathleen Campbell (Auckland University), took samples from the ancient Dresser Formation in the Pilbara Craton and employed a variety of techniques to analyse their contents.  Microscopic sections of rock were prepared and a study of these samples led the team to conclude that they had found potential biological signatures and physical evidence of organic life preserved within the ancient strata.

Tara Djokic explained:

“Our exciting findings don’t just extend back the record of life living in hot springs by some three billion years, they indicate that life was inhabiting the land much earlier than previously thought, up to about 580 million years earlier.  This may have implications for an origin of life in freshwater hot springs on land, rather than the more widely discussed idea that life developed in the ocean and adapted to land later.”

Researchers Examining the Rocks

Looking for signs of ancient life in the Pilbara Craton.

Tara Djokic and co-author Professor Martin Van Kranendonk in the Pilbara in Western Australia looking for evidence of hot springs preserved in the strata.

Picture Credit: Kathleen Campbell

Charles Darwin’s “Warm Little Pond”

Where life originated has taxed academics, religious leaders and philosophers for centuries.  There are several theories, for example, the first organisms could have come to Earth via a comet, meteorite or asteroid impact, or life could have evolved here on Earth, perhaps in the deep sea around hydrothermal vents.  Other scientists have argued that life as we know it began on land, in the extreme environments of hot springs and geysers – the “warm little pond” as Charles Darwin is believed to have indicated.

The Discovery of Geyserite

Evidence of geyseyrite in the Dresser Formation.

A microscopic image of geyserite textures from the ancient Dresser Formation in the Pilbara Craton in Western Australia.  This shows that surface hot spring deposits once existed there 3.48 billion years ago.

Picture Credit: The University of New South Wales

Evidence of Geyserite

Microscopic polished slices revealed the presence of the mineral geyserite in the Dresser Formation deposits.  Geyserite (a form of silica), is associated with mineral deposits formed from hot springs or geysers, if extremophiles can survive in these harsh habitats today, then it is possible that they could have survived in very similar conditions on the primordial Earth.

Doctorate student Tara Djokic commented:

“The discovery of potential biological signatures in these ancient hot springs in Western Australia provides a geological perspective that may lend weight to a land-based origin of life.”

Researchers Examining the Waters Surrounding Hydrothermal Vents in New Zealand

Looking for signs of life in a hot spring.

Researchers examining the hot waters surrounding the hydrothermal vents at Rotokawa (New Zealand).

Picture Credit: Kathleen Campbell

Within the Pilbara hot spring deposits, the researchers also discovered stromatolites, layered rock structures created by communities of ancient microbes.  In addition, there were other signs of early life in the deposits, including fossilised micro-stromatolites, microbial palisade textures and well preserved bubbles that are inferred to have been trapped in sticky microbial slime to preserve the bubble shape.

Out of this World Implications – The Search for Life on Mars

The researchers comment that their work has major implications with the regards to the search for extraterrestrial life, particularly the search for life on Mars.  The rocks that make up the Pilbara Craton are about the same age as much of the crust on the red planet.  Ancient hot spring deposits on Mars could be a good place to search for evidence of long-extinct life.

NASA is currently planning a news Mars Rover mission (due to launch in 2020), one of the potential landing sites for the Mars land vehicle is the Columbia Hills.  Previous Mars expeditions have identified silicates that could have been formed in the presence of hot water from a thermal vent.  If evidence of ancient life on Earth, preserved in strata formed in a hot spring environment can be found, then such life processes may well have come about on Mars too and some evidence might be preserved in the ancient Martian rocks.

30 04, 2017

DNA from Ancient Hominins Discovered in Cave Sediments

By | April 30th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

DNA from Cave Sediments Reveals Ancient Human Occupants

Close to the Belgium town of Modave, there is a large cave.  It overlooks the Hoyoux River, a tributary of the Meuse and although no human bones have ever been found at this cave site, palaeoanthropologists are confident that it was once occupied by ancient humans as animal bones with stone tool cut marks are associated with the site.  The cave is called Trou Al’Wesse (“Wasp Cave” in Walloon) and thanks to a remarkable application of technology, scientists now know that some fifty thousand years ago, a Neanderthal relieved himself inside the cave.  That person’s urine and faeces may have long since decomposed but, left in the cave sediments were minute traces of his DNA.  Researchers have shown that they can find and identify such genetic traces of ancient humans, enabling them to test for the presence of ancient hominins even at sites where no human bones have been discovered.  In addition, the same technique can be used to map other mammalian fauna at these locations.  The scientists, including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig, Germany) propose that this technique could become a standard tool in palaeoarchaeology.

Excavations at the site of El Sidrón, (Spain) – One of the Cave Sites in the Study

Searching for evidence of ancient hominin DNA.

Excavations at the site of El Sidrón, Spain.

Picture Credit: El Sidrón research team

The Secrets of Cave Soils and Sediments

Human remains are extremely rare and although scientists are aware of the existence of ancient hominins such as the Denisovans, they are only known from a handful of fossilised bones (literally, a single finger bone and a possible femur, plus some teeth).  However, cave soils and sediments themselves can provide genetic evidence in the form of tiny traces of ancient hominin DNA.  By examining cave soils and sediments and extracting genetic traces, scientists can gain a better understanding of the evolutionary history of humans, even if no bones or stone tools are present.

The research team members collected eighty-five sediment samples from seven caves in Europe and Russia that humans are known to have entered or even lived in during the Pleistocene Epoch.  The samples dated from between 14,000 and 550,000 years ago.  Using a refined DNA analysis technique, one that was originally designed to identify plant and animal DNA, the team were able to search specifically for hominin genetic evidence.

Commenting on the significance of this research, Matthias Meyer (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) and co-author of the study published in the journal “Science” stated:

“We know that several components of sediments can bind DNA.  We therefore decided to investigate whether hominin DNA may survive in sediments at archaeological sites known to have been occupied by ancient hominins.”

Entrance to the Archaeological Site of Vindija Cave, Croatia

Searching for traces of ancient human DNA.

Entrance to the archaeological site of Vindija Cave, Croatia.

Picture Credit: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology/J.Krause

The picture above shows a view from the entrance of Vindija Cave in northern Croatia, one of the seven sites studied.  Analysis of microscopic amounts of mitochondrial DNA at the Vindija Cave location confirmed the presence of several large mammals including Cave Bears at this location.  The researchers found evidence of a total of twelve different mammalian families across the sites that were included in this study, including enigmatic, extinct species such as Woolly Mammoth, Woolly Rhinoceros and Cave Hyena.

 Mitochondrial DNA Helps Map the Presence of Large Mammals (Including Hominins)

DNA analysis identifies cave inhabitants.

DNA analysis helps map the presence of mammalian fauna in the absence of body fossils.

Picture Credit: Journal Science

Once animal DNA had been mapped the researchers turned their attention to identifying ancient human genetic traces within the samples.

Lead author of the research paper, PhD student Viviane Slon (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology), explained:

“From the preliminary results, we suspected that in most of our samples, DNA from other mammals was too abundant to detect small traces of human DNA.  We then switched strategies and started targeting specifically DNA fragments of human origin.”

In total, nine samples from four cave sites contained enough ancient hominin DNA to permit further analysis.  Of these, eight sediment samples contained Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA, either from one or multiple individuals, whilst one sample contained evidence of Denisovan DNA.  The majority of these samples were taken from archaeological layers or sites where no Neanderthal bones or teeth had been previously found.

A New, Important Tool for Palaeoanthropology

Svante Pääbo, another co-author of the paper and director of the Evolutionary Genetics department at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology commented that the ability to retrieve ancient hominin DNA from sediments represented a significant advance in palaeoanthropology and archaeology.  The use of this technique could become a standard analytical procedure in future.

A Sample Ready for Testing

Testing cave sediments for ancient human DNA.

A cave sediment sample is prepared for DNA testing.

Picture Credit: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology/S. Tüpke

Even sediment samples that were stored at room temperature for years still yielded DNA.  Analyses of these and of freshly-excavated sediment samples recovered from archaeological sites where no human remains are found will shed light on these sites’ former occupants and our joint genetic history.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the contribution of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in the compilation of this article.

25 04, 2017

Fossil Fungus Discovery Rocks Geology and Biology

By | April 25th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

Fungus-Like Forms Found in 2.4 Billion-Year-Old Rocks

An international team of researchers, including scientists from the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Stockholm University and the University of California, have identified microscopic structures found in tiny bubbles and pores in ancient basalt that resemble fungi.  If these fungi-like structures are indeed Palaeoproterozoic remnants of members of the Kingdom Fungi, then this discovery could push back the date for the oldest fungi by between 1,000 and 2,000 million years.

Thin Sections of the Ongeluk Basalt Showing Evidence of Mycelium

Ancient fungi in ancient marine rocks.

Views of treated micro-slides showing potential mycelium.

Picture Credit: Nature, Ecology and Evolution (Swedish Museum of Natural History)

Over the last few decades, cores drilled deep into the seabed and other exploration techniques utilised to build knowledge of the biota present in oceanic sediments and crustal rocks have revealed that many different types of fungi thrive in these environments.  The fossil record of fungi is extremely intermittent and the identification of possible fungal remnants in the fossil record is controversial to say the least, (look up the Devonian Prototaxites for further details).  However, many geologists and palaeontologists have proposed that the fossil record for such extremophiles does date back to at least the Early Devonian, a time when primitive plants and fungi were beginning to diversify and radiate in terrestrial environments.  Drill cores taken from the Ongeluk Formation in South Africa show microscopic signs of filamentous fossils in vesicles and fractures.  The filaments form mycelium-like structures growing from a basal film attached to the internal rock surfaces and they look very similar to the structures attributed to fungi found in rocks which are hundreds of millions of years younger.

The Ongeluk fossils, are two to three times older than current age estimates of the Kingdom Fungi. Unless they represent an unknown branch of fungus-like organisms, which are new to science, the fossils imply that the fungal clade is considerably older than previously thought, and that fungal origin and early evolution may lie in the deep ocean rather than in terrestrial environments.

The Ongeluk discovery suggests that life has inhabited deep sea oceanic rocks for more than 2.4 billion years.

The Impact on Eukaryotes

The jumbles of tangled threads, which are only a few microns across, if they are fungi, belong to the Eukaryote Domain (Eukarya), a diverse group containing at least four Phyla and some 6,000 species, (fungi include the familiar mushrooms and toadstools plus yeasts and moulds).  Eukaryotes have cells that are complex with a distinct nucleus protected by a membrane.  Animals and plants are also Eukaryotes and the discovery of such ancient life forms, preserved in ocean rocks has implications for the early history of the whole of the Eukarya, as well as potentially, pushing back the date for the evolution of the first fungi to around 2.4 billion-years-ago.

Commenting on the significance of this research, lead author of the scientific paper, Stefan Bengtson (Department of Palaeobiology and Nordic Center for Earth Evolution, Swedish Museum of Natural History), stated:

“The deep biosphere [where the fossils were found] represents a large portion of the Earth, but we know very little about its biology and even less about its evolutionary history.”

The Professor added, that there was a clear possibility that these fossils represent the world’s oldest fossil fungi, much older than anything else known to the scientific community.

He went onto state:

“If they are not fungi, they are probably an extinct branch of Eukaryotes or even giant Prokaryotes.”

The Impact on the Hunt for Extraterrestrial Life

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented that if these fossils represent fungi occupying gas bubbles in lava that form rocks in the seabed, it demonstrates how organisms can survive in extreme habitats.  Tests have indicated that the rocks where the structures were found could have been as hot as 250 degrees Celsius and these lifeforms would have had to survive without sunlight and cope with immense pressure.  If the fossil record for such fungi is extended by billions of years on our own planet, then it raises the intriguing possibility that such life forms may well have evolved and if they did, they probably still exist in extreme environments elsewhere in our solar system.  The watery environment trapped under the ice of Saturn’s moon Enceladus could harbour the sort of conditions where organisms such as these could still thrive.

Saturn’s Icy Moon Enceladus – Perhaps Home to Marine Crustal Fungi?

Saturn's icy moon Enceladus.

A view of the moon Enceladus – could this icy world harbour fungi?

Picture Credit: NASA

21 03, 2017

Defining Geologic Formations, Members and Horizons

By | March 21st, 2017|Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

What are Geologic Formations, Members and Horizons?

In amongst all the emails we receive on a daily basis, our team members get asked lots of questions about dinosaurs and prehistoric animals.  However, at the start of the week, we received one intriguing email that did not ask about ancient animals, fossils or anything to do with the Dinosauria, the sender simply wanted to know how rock formations are defined.  That’s a good question, so we thought we would publish a brief explanation listing the important things to consider.

What in Geology is a Horizon?

Most, but not all fossils are found in sedimentary rocks and these are usually deposited in layers.  A horizon is a distinctive area within a number of other layers, a thin bed of strata that has characteristic features, such as being associated with a particular set of fossils, or if it is composed of different sized grains of sandstone or perhaps it has a different colour to the preceding and succeeding layers.  Essentially, it highlights a definite change in deposition, it has a different lithology (the physical description of the unit of rock).

Identifying Fossil-Bearing Horizons in the Dinosaur Provincial Park (Alberta, Canada)

Looking for Late Cretaceous dinosaur fossils.

The red arrow in the picture highlights the Mercuriceratops fossil-bearing horizon.

Picture Credit: Professor Phil Currie (University of Alberta)

The picture above shows the location of the fossilised remains of a new species of horned dinosaur.

If the horizon contains distinctive fossils, then these fossils can help to give the relative age of that part of the rock sequence.  The fossils themselves, can help geologists to map a biostratigraphical sequence.  If layers of volcanic ash are associated with a specific rock sequence, then the zircon crystals and other deposits can help to date the rock layers found in association with the ash (radiometric dating).  Individual components of strata are referred to as beds, a bed marks the smallest division of a geological unit.

Defining a Member

In geology, a “Member” is a group of horizons and beds that can be united together as they share common characteristics and features that help to distinguish this group from the surrounding rocks.  The strata have distinct lithographic characteristics.  In the picture below, different coloured layers can be seen in the landscape, (most probably volcanic ash deposits), these represent horizons, but on the top of the cliff is a very different type of rock, a brown coloured unit that likely represents a different member.

Different Distinct Bands of Rock can be Seen with a Harder, Overlying Coarser Sandstone Member On Top

Chanares Formation (Argentina).

Distinctive bands of different types of rock can be made out.

What in Geology is a Formation?

A “Formation” is the basic unit of rock measurement in geology.  It consists of similar rock types that were originally continuous and created by related depositional events and environments.  A geologic formation is characterised by its composition, how it looks and how it is exposed over an area.  In older texts, a formation is defined as being large enough to be highlighted on a map with a scale of one inch to a mile.  Essentially, a formation must be distinct enough so that a geologist can readily discern it from other rock formations.

Hence, we have terms such as the Morrison Formation, a term given to a distinctive depositional sequence of Upper Jurassic sandstones, limestones, silts and mudstone centred in the Western United States but with outcrops within other parts of the America to, or the Wahweap Formation, Upper Cretaceous strata associated with Utah and Arizona.

A Stratigraphic Profile of the Wahweap and the Kaiparowits Formation (Western United States)

A stratigraphic profile of the Wahweap and the Kaiparowits Formation.

A stratigraphic profile of the Wahweap and the Kaiparowits Formation showing approximate location of horned dinosaur fossil material.

Picture Credit: Lund et al (PLOS ONE) with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

The Lithostratigraphic Hierarchy

Just like in taxonomy, there is a ranking system for rock units in geology, this is termed the lithostratigraphic hierarchy.  Formations for example, are united in “Groups” and above them comes “Supergroups”, the biggest, commonly recognised rock unit.

The main lithostratigraphic ranks in this hierarchy consist of (in order from largest to smallest)

  • Supergroup
  • Group
  • Formation
  • Member
  • Horizon
  • Bed

Separate units are usually named after a geographical locality, typically the place where the exposures were first described.

16 02, 2017

Helping to Organise a School Trip to Wren’s Nest

By | February 16th, 2017|Educational Activities, Geology, Main Page, Teaching|0 Comments

Wren’s Nest and School Trips

Everything Dinosaur has been contacted by a school based in the West Midlands, seeking advice about a trip to the famous Wren’s Nest National Nature Reserve, a place we know very well indeed!  This location is a popular destination for local schools which are studying fossils and rocks as part of the National Curriculum (England).  Wren’s Nest is to the north-east of the town of Dudley and it is a designated SSSI (site of special scientific interest), so no hammering at the cliffs of this former quarry is allowed. However, lots of fossils are being washed out of the scree slopes and there is something like seven hundred different types of fossil to collect, nearly ninety of which are unique to the Wren’s Nest area.

The Famous Ripple Beds at Wren’s Nest

Ripples preserved in limestone.

The famous ripple beds at Wren’s Nest SSSI located in the West Midlands.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows the famous “Ripple Bed Hill” at Wren’s Nest.  This near vertical cliff face was once at the bottom of a shallow sea.  The “ripples” are the preserved remains of wave action on the seabed, they are around 426 million years old.  Taking schoolchildren to this location, helps them to gain an appreciation of deep, geological time.

How Did the Ripple Beds Form?

These structures formed as a result of massive, probably seasonal storms that swept across the normally, relatively calm sea.  The huge waves generated by the storm, led to the seabed being disturbed, the waves created by the storm had much more energy and their effect was felt much deeper in the tropical sea than usual.  Sand and debris was picked up and washed backwards and forwards over the seabed, creating the ripples.  The seabed was nearly 100 feet (thirty metres), under water and normally it would have been unaffected by usual sea conditions.  However, the symmetrical ripples are evidence of storm damage to this part of the seabed back in the Late Silurian.

After the storm had passed, the sea would have once again returned to its relatively calm state.  Thirty metres down the seabed was once again protected by the effects of normal-sized waves, which could not penetrate deep enough to wipe away the ridges and ripples caused by the storm.  Crinoids, (sea-lilies) soon colonised this part of the sea floor. However, sometime later, perhaps a few months, or perhaps after several years a large amount of mud was dumped on top of the ripples, permitting their preservation.  The mud could have been deposited as a result of exceptional run-off from the land, or perhaps an earthquake or other seismic event led to a large amount of sediment being shifted.  Whatever, the cause the ripples (and the crinoids living on them), were buried.  Palaeontologists have identified a total of twenty-five ripple bed areas in the cliffs that make up this feature of Wren’s Nest.  Each ripple bed represents a separate storm event.

Fossils Galore to be Found

More than 700 different fossils found at Wren's Nest

Lots of brachiopod and coral fossils to find at Wren’s Nest.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Top Tips for a School Visit to Wren’s Nest

The site represents the remains of an ancient coral ecosystem dating between 423-426 million years ago (mya), it is Silurian in age and more than 700 different types of fossils have been found at this site.  A party of schoolchildren will not collect them all, but they are bound to find plenty of fossils to satisfy curious minds.  However, finding your own Trilobite fossil, a “Dudley Bug” Calymene blumenbachii, is most unlikely but you might find a fragment of the exoskeleton, a piece shed when the animal moulted.

• This is an SSSI (site of special scientific interest), no hammers or tools of any kind are permitted on site. However, you don’t need any tools as the constantly eroding scree provides lots of fossils that can simply be picked up.
• There are no toilet facilities at this location
• A mid-week visit is best, either quite early in the morning or in the afternoon, although, the area tends not to be that busy at most times
• When we visit we park close to the Caves Inn (car parking from 9.30am to 4pm Monday to Friday)
• The slopes are a magnet for young fossil hunters who love to try to climb them (and run up and down them), these slopes are very steep and very slippery after rain, so sensible precautions need to be taken.
• There is a slight risk of rock falls, after all, this is an old quarry site, but in all our visits, we have never seen any evidence of this.
• Contact Wren’s Nest here: Further information about Wren’s Nest. You might even be able to arrange short talk by one of the very knowledgeable wardens.

Typical Scree Slope at Wren’s Nest

Wren's Nest SSSI

A view of Wren’s Nest.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

12 02, 2017

Significant Rock Fall at Stonebarrow Hill

By | February 12th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Geology, Main Page, Press Releases|0 Comments

Rock Fall Highlights the Dangers of Dorset Cliffs

Everything Dinosaur team members have received reports about a large rock fall in the area of Stonebarrow Hill, east of the popular tourist destination – Charmouth (Dorset).  With many schools due to have their half-term break in the next couple of weeks or so, the beaches in this part of Lyme Regis will soon start to get busy with eager fossil collectors looking to find fossils washed out of the cliffs during the winter storms.  However, the significant rock fall highlights the potential dangers when fossil hunting close to unstable cliffs.

Large Boulders and Debris Under Stonebarrow Hill

Rock fall at Stonebarrow Hill (Dorset).

A significant rock fall at Stonebarrow Hill (Dorset).

Picture Credit: Brandon Lennon

Local fossil expert and fossil walks tour guide, Brandon Lennon commented:

“The large fall happened after the last storm.  Huge blocks came tumbling down onto the beach.  This area, the beach to the east of Charmouth, is a particularly popular fossil hunting location, especially for ammonites as the low tide washes fossils out of the mud slips.”

Blue-Grey Lower Lias Clays

The unstable and rapidly eroding cliffs to the east of the old cement works and Charmouth visitor centre are composed of blue-grey lower lias clays.  At low tide the foreshore area is exposed and this is a popular part of the Dorset coast for fossil collecting, especially in the early Spring after winter storms.  Like much of the coast in this part of Dorset, the cliffs are extremely dangerous and rock falls are common.  The cliffs rise steeply and any debris falling from them has the momentum to travel quite a long way onto the sandy beach before coming to rest.  We urge all would-be fossil hunters to take great care when visiting this part of the Dorset coast.

Stonebarrow Hill in Relation to the Charmouth Visitor Centre

Charmouth and Stonebarrow Hill.

The view east of Lyme Regis showing Charmouth and the location of Stonebarrow Hill.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above was taken in 2015 and it shows the location of Stonebarrow Hill in relation to Charmouth.  This is the view looking eastwards from the newly constructed coastal seawall at Lyme Regis.  A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“The fossil hunting season is nearly upon us!  Longer days and better weather (hopefully), we see popular fossil hunting places like Lyme Regis attracting large numbers of amateur fossil hunters and families keen to explore the area in the hope of finding some Jurassic-age marine fossils to take home.  However, the recent rock fall at Stonebarrow Hill highlights the potential dangers and we urge all visitors to stay away from the cliffs.”

The action of time and tide over the winter months will have exposed a lot of new material on the beaches to the east and west of the picturesque town of Lyme Regis.  There will be lots of fossils awaiting discovery and visitors do not have to stray too close to the cliffs to find them.

Eyes Down – Fossil Prospecting

Prospecting for fossils (Lyme Regis)

Looking for fossils at Lyme Regis.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The foreshore will contain plenty of fossils that have been washed down from the cliffs, this area, well clear of the cliffs, will still provide plenty of fun for families looking for ammonites, belemnite guards, crinoid stems and such like.  You might get really lucky and find an Ichthyosaur paddle bone or a vertebra.

The unstable cliffs coupled with dangerous tides can never be taken lightly.  Our best advice is to go on a guided fossil walk with a local expert.  A fossil expert, such as Brandon Lennon, with his wealth of knowledge, can show visitors to the Lyme Regis area, the best (and safest) places to find fossils.

For information on guided fossil walks: Lyme Regis Fossil Walks

6 02, 2017

Fossil Hunting at Nuremberg Airport

By | February 6th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Educational Activities, Geology, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Fossil Hunting at the Airport

Waiting at an airport can be quite boring.  Once check in and the security searches have been completed, then there is not much more to do prior to boarding your flight.  However, for Everything Dinosaur team members returning from Germany, one airport provided them with the opportunity to go on an unexpected fossil hunt.  The polished limestone floors at Nuremberg Airport (southern Germany), are full of Jurassic marine invertebrate fossils.

A Fossil Spotted at the Airport (Nuremberg Airport)

The stone floors at Nuremberg airport are full of fossils.

A cephalopod fossil (ammonite) on the airport stone floor.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Jurassic of Germany

In southern Germany, particularly the state of Bavaria, in the region from Nuremberg in the north to Munich in the south, there are many limestone exposures and limestone quarries to be found.  Formed from carbonate rich muds that once existed at the bottom of salty lagoons and shallow coastal margins, the rocks are famous for their fine-grained structure and flat cleaving.  These properties help to make this limestone ideal building material and the stone in this part of Germany (known as Plattenkalk), has been quarried for thousands of years.

Most of the limestone represents sediments laid down in the Middle and Late Jurassic and large areas are highly fossiliferous.  Travellers at Nuremberg Airport were quite surprised to see members of Everything Dinosaur on their hands and knees, examining and photographing various floor tiles.

Jurassic Invertebrate Fossils in Abundance at Nuremberg Airport

Jurassic fossils at Nuremberg Airport.

An ammonite fossil with the cross section of a belemnite guard.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

In the picture above, the cross section of a belemnite guard can be clearly seen on one tile, abutted up against it is another tile that shows the cross-sectional outline of an ammonite.  There are also numerous bivalve and brachiopod fossils preserved in the stone floor.  Thousands of people visit Nuremberg Airport every week, but we wonder how many of them actually notice what they are walking on!

 Ten years ago, Everything Dinosaur blogged about an innovative fossil hunting tour that could be undertaken by travellers at John Lennon Airport (Liverpool).  The ancient remains of long extinct sea creatures can be seen in the stone of the walls and floors of the concourse.  John Lennon Airport introduced the “JLA Fossil Mystery Tour” in collaboration with the Liverpool Geological Society.

To read more about the John Lennon Airport Fossil Hunting Tour: Why Not go on a Fossil Hunt Whilst Waiting at the Airport?

Perhaps the Nuremberg Airport authorities have missed a trick, with such a wonderful stone floor, travellers could be encouraged to have a go at finding fossils for themselves.  There are certainly many hundreds of fossils to see, perhaps if a tour could not be organised, then it might be a good idea to put up some information boards and displays.  You never know, it might encourage more tourists to visit the museums in the area such as the Naturhistorisches Museum of Nuremberg.

Ancient Traces Preserved in the Limestone Floor

Two fossils in the airport.

Fossils at Nuremberg airport.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows two more ammonite fossils, although it is difficult to identify genera, the larger specimen (bottom left), still shows its fine, straight ribs that would have adorned the outside of the shell.  The smaller ammonite cross section (right), shows some preservation of internal structure, could those be suture lines we are seeing?

What an Ammonite Actually Looked Like

A model of an Ammonite.

A great ammonite model for use in schools, museums and for model collectors.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows the excellent Wild Safari Prehistoric World ammonite model.  If you look carefully at the stone floors at Nuremberg Airport you can spot the preserved remains of Jurassic ammonites and other extinct marine creatures.

To view the range of prehistoric animal models including the Wild Safari Prehistoric World ammonite available from Everything Dinosaur: Wild Safari Prehistoric World Models

5 02, 2017

Ancient Rhino Remains on a Norfolk Beach

By | February 5th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

Storms Reveal Rhino Remains

The recent storms and high tides have further eroded the cliffs at the West Runton beach (Norfolk, East Anglia), revealing the beautifully preserved remains of a neck bone from an ancient rhinoceros that roamed this part of England around 700,000 years ago.  The fossilised remains of a single neck bone, the atlas (cervical 1), was spotted and local volunteers in collaboration with fossil conservation experts have carefully excavated and removed the rare find.

Spotted on West Runton Beach – A Fossil Neck Bone from a Rhino

Cervical vertebra of an ancient rhino.

The exposed elements of the Atlas (C1) of the rhinoceros found on West Runton beach.

Picture Credit: Martin Warren

West Runton Beach

The Norfolk cliffs at West Runton, just west of the town of Cromer are world-famous for their Pleistocene Epoch exposures, particularly the, peaty Upper Freshwater Bed which has produced a huge variety of vertebrate and invertebrate fossil remains.  Fossil expert and former curator at the nearby Cromer Museum, Martin Warren explained:

“There has been quite a bit of interest in scouring the Cromer cliff area for geological finds recently.  In the aftermath of storms, more people are coming to see what they can find, but the West Runton Freshwater Bed is a precious scientific resource.”

The area has SSSI status (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and hammering or digging into the cliffs is strictly forbidden.  However, time and tide is exposing this area’s ancient fauna and flora, although no formal identification of the atlas bone has been made, it is likely the fossil comes from a Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis, a rhino whose fossils are associated with the Upper Freshwater Bed locality.  A partial skull with teeth was found in January 2015, close to this new discovery.  It is not known whether the neck bone and the skull represent the same animal.

The Partial Skull and Teeth of S. hundsheimensis found in Early 2015

Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis fossils.

Stephanorhinus – Partial Skull and Teeth.

Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis

The neck bone has been dated to a warm interglacial period known as the Cromerian Interglacial.  Such is the importance of the West and East Runton beaches to geologists, that the Cromerian Interglacial was named after the nearby town of Cromer.  It was from these Norfolk beaches that geologists first identified fauna and flora indicating a period of global warming in between Ice Ages.

An Illustration of the Ancient Rhinoceros – Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis

Stephanorhinos hundsheimensis illustration.

An illustration of the prehistoric rhinoceros (Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis).

Picture Credit: C. C. Flerov, Sammlungen, Senckenberg Research Institute, Research Station of Quaternary Palaeontology,Weimar

Standing around 1.2 metres high at the shoulder Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis weighed around 750 kilogrammes and it was widespread across Europe for much of the Pleistocene Epoch.  Regarded as a generalist, living in both forest and more open habitats, this rhino, which was named from a fossil site in Austria, faced increasing competition when two, more specialised types of rhinoceros evolved.  Stephanorhinus kirchbergensis, also known as the Merck’s rhinoceros, began to displace the Hundsheim rhino in forest habitats and the Steppe rhino (Stephanorhinus hemitoechus) gradually replaced S. hundsheimensis on the grasslands.  One ancient rhino was superseded by better adapted species of rhinoceros, Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis became extinct around 580,000 years ago.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“Hopefully this new fossil will shed further light on the remarkable fauna of East Anglia during the Pleistocene Epoch.  Although we advise care, especially around the cliffs, local fossil hunters and collectors can often spot important specimens that might otherwise get washed into the sea.”

2 02, 2017

The Making of Antarctica

By | February 2nd, 2017|Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

Why Did Antarctica Suffer a Big Freeze?

The icebound, snowy wastes of Antarctica remain one of the most hostile environments for terrestrial animals, however our southernmost continent has not always been such a cold, inhospitable landmass.  In the past, dinosaurs roamed its lush polar forests and even after the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, Antarctica continued to remain largely unfrozen for tens of millions of years into the Cenozoic.  That all changed around 34 million years ago, when global temperatures plunged an average of five degrees Celsius, permitting the Antarctic ice sheets, the glaciers we know today to form.  The Antarctica big freeze has remained a mystery, but a team of scientists including researchers from McGill University (Montreal, Canada) may have worked out the answer.

The Antarctic Ice Sheets formed Around 34 Million Years Ago

A view from an icebreaker, looking back at Antarctica.

Antarctica was not always a frozen wasteland.

Picture Credit: Galen Halverson

Two Competing Theories

The new explanation for why Antarctica suffered a big freeze at the end of the Eocene Epoch, essentially combines two existing ideas.  One of the big mysteries in the scientific world is how the ice sheets of Antarctica formed so rapidly about 34 million years ago, helping to mark the boundary between the Eocene and Oligocene Epochs.

The Two Theories

  • The first explanation is based on global climate change.  Scientists have shown that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels declined steadily since the beginning of the Cenozoic Era, 66 million years ago.  Once CO2 dropped below a critical threshold, cooler global temperatures allowed the ice sheets of Antarctica to form.
  • The second theory focuses on dramatic changes in the patterns of ocean circulation.  The theory is that when the Drake Passage (which lies between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica) deepened dramatically about 35 million years ago, it triggered a complete reorganisation in ocean circulation.  The argument is that the increased separation of the Antarctic land mass from South America led to the creation of the powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current which acted as a kind of water barrier and effectively blocked the warmer, less salty waters from the North Atlantic and Central Pacific from moving southwards towards the Antarctic landmass leading to the isolation of the Antarctic region and lowered temperatures which allowed the ice sheets to form.

No one has thought to link these two competing explanations before

A group of scientists, including researchers at McGill University’s Dept. of Earth and Planetary Sciences now suggest that the best way to understand the creation of this phenomenon is, in fact, by linking the two explanations.

In a paper published on this important area of climatology published in “Nature Geoscience” earlier this week, they argue that:

•  The deepening of the Drake Passage resulted in a change in ocean circulation that resulted in warm waters being directed northwards in circulation patterns like those found in the Gulf Stream that currently warms north-western Europe.

•  That this shift in ocean currents, as the warmer waters were forced northward, lead to an increase in rainfall, which resulted in, beginning about 35 million years ago, reduced carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  Eventually, as the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dropped, as a result of a process known as silicate weathering (whereby silica-bearing rocks are slowly worn away by rainfall leading the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to eventually become trapped in limestone), there was such a significant drop in CO2 in the atmosphere that it reached a threshold where ice sheets could form rapidly in Antarctica.  Glaciation occurred in Antarctica.

Ocean Circulation and Climate Change

Galen Halverson teaches in the Dept. of Earth and Atmospheric Science at McGill and is one of the authors of the paper.  He believes that no one has thought of combining the two theories before because it’s not an intuitive idea to look at how the effects of changing patterns of ocean circulation, which occur on time scales of thousands of years, would affect global silicate weathering, which in turn controls global climate on time scales of hundreds of thousands of years.

Halverson commented:

“It’s an interesting lesson for us when it comes to climate change, because what we get is a thumbnail shift between two stable climatic states in Antarctica – from no glaciers to glaciers.  And what we see is both how complex climate changes can be and how profound an effect changing patterns of ocean circulation can have on global climate states, if looked at on a geological time scale.”

To scientific paper “Enhanced weathering and CO2 drawdown caused by latest Eocene strengthening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation,” by Geneviève Elsworth, et al in Nature Geoscience:

The research was funded by: the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of McGill University in the compilation of this article.

6 01, 2017

Tomato and Potato Ancestors Found in Eocene Rocks

By | January 6th, 2017|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

Fossil Fruit Reveal the Ancient Ancestry of the Nightshade Family of Flowering Plants

Scientists working in a remote part of Chubut Province, Argentina, have found evidence of the ancient berries of a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae).  Today, some 2,500 species of this diverse plant family are known, many of these plants are economically important (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, tobacco and petunias).  The complex chemical compounds several species produce, have proved to be invaluable to medical research, but until now, molecular data from extant species suggested that these types of flowering plants evolved some ten million years ago.

The Fossil Species Has Been Named Physalis infinemundi

Physalis infinemundi.

The papery husk can be clearly seen on this specimen of Physalis infinemundi.

Picture Credit: Ignacio Escapa / Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio

Writing in the journal “Science”, researchers including Professor Peter Wilf (Pennsylvania State University), have identified the fossilised delicate, lantern-like husks of a type of a type of Physalis, complete with impressions of the plant’s fruit, completely turned to carbon due to the fossilisation process.

The strata in which the two fossil lantern fruit specimens were found has been dated using palaeomagnetism and volcanic ash deposits.  These rock layers were deposited some 52 million-years-ago.  The Physalis genus contains ground cherries and husk tomatoes as well as tomatillos, a staple of Mexican cuisine.  The entire family, like many plant families has a very sparse fossil record, however, all that changed when a team of international scientists explored the Eocene deposits at Laguna del Hunco, (Chubut Province, Patagonia, Argentina), a location where the fossils of a temperate rainforest have been preserved.  More than six thousand fossil specimens have been excavated and the site has been the focus of a Pennsylvania State University, Museo Palentologico Egidio Feruglio, Trelew, Argentina, and Cornell University (New York), project for more than a decade.

The Remote Laguna del Hunco Location

Exploring an Eocene temperate rainforest.

The remote Laguna del Hunco, (Chubut Province), fossil site.

Picture Credit: Peter Wilf/Pennsylvania State University with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

The red arrow in the picture points to a group of researchers looking for fossils.

Southern Gondwana

Around 52 million-years-ago, a substantial temperate rainforest covered this part of the remnants of the giant, southern, super-continent Gondwana.  Although, the climate was warmer than today, the ecosystem would have superficially resembled those fragments of forests found in the Lake District, the West Country, parts of Wales and western Scotland, where Atlantic winds bring huge amounts of rain to woodlands.

Commenting on the exceptionally rare fossil discovery, Peter Wilf (Professor of Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University) stated:

“These astonishing, extremely rare specimens of Physalis fruits are the only two fossils known of the entire nightshade family that preserve enough information to be assigned to a genus within the family.  We exhaustively analysed every detail of these fossils in comparison with all potential living relatives and there is no question that they represent the world’s first Physalis fossils and the first fossil fruits of the nightshade family.  Physalis sits near the tips of the nightshade family’s evolutionary tree, meaning that the nightshades as a whole, contrary to what was thought, are far older than 52 million years.”

 

Fossil Indicates that the Solanaceae Are a Very Ancient Plant Family

Ancient nighshade fossil.

Physalis infinemundi fossil. In this specimen, the former papery and lobed husk is broken at top to reveal the large, fleshy berry underneath

Picture Credit: Peter Wilf/Pennsylvania State University

Mónica Carvalho, a former student at Pennsylvania State University and a co-author of the scientific paper explained:

These fossils are one of a kind, since the delicate papery covers of lantern fruits are rarely preserved as fossils.  Our fossils show that the evolutionary history of this plant family is much older than previously considered, particularly in South America, and they unveil important implications for understanding the diversification of the family.

All extant members of the Physalis genus are found in the New World and the research team notes that the Physalis fossils show a rare link from ancient Patagonia, to living Physalis plants of the Americas.  However, most other fossil plants such as Eucalyptus, found at Laguna del Hunco have living relatives concentrated in Australasia.  This distribution pattern reflects the geographical connection between South America, Antarctica and Australia.  This new study raises the intriguing possibility that more, potentially older Solanaceae fossils might be discovered at more southerly latitudes.

The researchers conclude that their results reinforce the emerging pattern wherein numerous fossil plant taxa from southern Argentina and Antarctica are substantially older than their dates of origin derived from molecular research.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the contribution of Pennsylvania State University in the compilation of this article.

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