Category: Geology

Tomato and Potato Ancestors Found in Eocene Rocks

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.

A Moroccan Fossil Safari

Amazing Trilobite Fossils from Morocco

Morocco is a very beautiful country.  Tourists might be attracted to its wonderful beaches as well as the bustling bazaars and souks but there is much more to this part of north Africa, especially if you are a keen fossil hunter.  Take for example, the fossil hunting trips organised by young geologist Mohamed Koumali, he and his enthusiastic team give clients the opportunity to explore the amazing and highly fossiliferous deposits of Tinghir Province, a part of the world famous for its Trilobite fossils.

A Wonderful Example of a Moroccan Trilobite

A prepared fossil Trilobite.

A fantastic Moroccan Trilobite fossil.

Picture Credit: Koumali Trilobites

The picture above shows one of the amazing Trilobite fossils from south-eastern Morocco.  The specimen has been carefully prepared and fine details of the exoskeleton have been revealed.

Trilobita from Morocco

Team members from Everything Dinosaur have been lucky enough to visit Morocco on numerous occasions.  The geology of the country is truly remarkable and fans of the Trilobita can acquire specimens that represent at least nine Orders of Trilobites, and we thought Wales was at the heart of Trilobite fossil hunting adventures!  Morocco has a number of advantages over Wales when it comes to going on a Trilobite hunt.  For a start, the weather tends to be warmer, sun protection is definitely recommended, as is cool clothing and a hat.  The hot, dry winds have removed what soil there was exposing, great rocky pavements, although some of the fossil bearing strata is as hard as concrete and expert guides are required to help give visitors the best chance of finding a prize fossil specimen.

A Chance to Explore the Palaeozoic Past of Morocco

A Moroccan Trilobite hunting trip.

Spectacular views are guaranteed on a Moroccan Trilobite hunt.

Picture Credit: Koumali Trilobites

Depending upon which part of the country you visit, tourists can search for some of the best examples of Late Cambrian Trilobite specimens, but there are also great swathes of Ordovcian and Devonian-aged strata to explore.  The range of Trilobite specimens associated with rocks of Devonian age is particularly diverse, Mohamed’s home time of Alnif is regarded by many invertebrate palaeontologists as the best place in the world to find complete fossils of the spiny, thumb-sized Trilobite Dicranurus monstrosus.  This part of Morocco has yielded much larger examples of Devonian Trilobite fauna.  The Bou Dîb Formation exposures have provided scientists with some wonderful examples of the hand-sized Drotops megalomanicus, complete with huge, compound eyes.  The team at Koumali Trilobites take parties out to explore the remarkable rock formations and with a little luck, they too, can uncover an amazing Trilobite fossil.

Cracking Open a Nodule to Reveal the Fossil Treasure Within

A Moroccan Trilobite fossil.

The slab and counter slab of a Trilobite fossil.

Picture Credit: Koumali Trilobites

Fluent in both English and French, Mohamed enjoys taking visitors out on fossil hunting trips, helping to educate and to inform people about the rich fossil heritage of his home.  He has also had the opportunity to exhibit at several European fossil trade shows, including the prestigious Saint Marie-Aux-Mines Mineral and Gem show in France.

To enquire about tours, email: koumali.trilobite@yahoo.fr for information.  Or why not check out Mohamed’s Facebook page for further details: Message Mohamed Koumali via Facebook

An Amazing Day Exploring the Geology of South-eastern Morocco

Hunting for Moroccan Trilobites.

Out on a Trilobite hunt.

Picture Credit: Koumali Trilobites

A guided tour, a fossil walk through the beautiful Moroccan landscape with an expert guide, is one of the best ways for amateur fossil hunters to explore the geology of North Africa.

Fossilised Bacteria Shed Light on Life Before Oxygen

Ancient African Rocks Provide Evidence of Life Before Oxygen

The fossils of ancient bacteria that existed in deep water environments during the Neoarchean Era some 2.52 billion years ago, have been identified by an international team of researchers.  They don’t represent the oldest known life on our planet, recently, Everything Dinosaur published an article on some new research that postulates that microbial colonies existed on Earth some 3.7 billion years ago*, but these South African fossils may represent the oldest evidence of a bacteria capable of oxidising sulphur (within the Class Gamma Proteobacteria), found to date.

A Highly Magnified Image of a Fossilised Bacteria

Fossilised bacteria.

A view of one of the spherical structures identified as fossil bacteria.

Picture Credit: Andrew Czaja

This discovery is significant as it sheds light on a time in Earth’s history, when, essentially, all the microbial forms that exist today had probably evolved, but the fossil record for their existence is particularly sparse. Writing in the journal of the Geological Society of America, the researchers which include scientists from the University of Cincinnati and the University of Johannesburg, report on large, organic, smooth-walled, spherical microfossils representing organisms that lived in deep water, when our planet’s atmosphere had less than one-thousandth of one percent of the oxygen we have today.

Microscopic Life in the Archean

The research team discovered the microscopic fossils preserved in black chert that had been laid down at the bottom of a deep ocean, in the Griqualand West Basin of the Kaapvaal craton of South Africa (Northern Cape Province).  Geologist Andrew Czaja (University of Cincinnati), explained that this part of South Africa was one of the few places in the world where rocks of this great age were exposed.  The fossils are very significant as they represent bacteria surviving in a very low oxygen environment, the bacteria existed prior to “Great Oxygenation Event”, sometimes referred to as the GOE, a period in Earth’s history from about 2.4 billion to 2.2 billion years ago, when water-borne cyanobacteria (blue-green bacteria), evolved photosynthesis and as a result, oxygen was released into the atmosphere.  More oxygen in our atmosphere helped drive the evolution of complex organisms, eventually leading to the development of multi-cellular life.

Commenting on this research Assistant Professor Andrew Czaja stated:

“These are the oldest reported fossil sulphur bacteria to date and this discovery is helping us reveal a diversity of life and ecosystems that existed just prior to the Great Oxidation Event, a time of major atmospheric evolution.”

Radiometric dating and geochemical isotope analysis suggest that these fossils formed on an ancient seabed more than one hundred metres down.  The bacteria fed on sulphates that probably originated on the early super-continent Vaalbara (a landmass that consisted of parts of Australia and South Africa).  With the fossils having been dated to 2.52 billion years ago, the bacteria were thriving just before the GOE, when shallow water bacteria began creating more oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis.

Czaja’s fossils show the Neoarchean bacteria in plentiful numbers while living within the muddy sediment of the seabed.  The assistant professor and his co-researchers postulate that these early bacteria were busy ingesting volcanic hydrogen sulphide, the molecule known to give off a rotten egg smell, then emitting sulphate, a gas that has no smell.  This is the same process that goes on today as extant microbes recycle decaying organic matter into minerals and gas.  The team surmise that the ancient oceanic bacteria are likely to have consumed the molecules dissolved from sulphur rich minerals that came from the land rocks associated with Vaalbara or from volcanic rocks on the seabed.

Andrew Czaja Points to the Rock Layer where the Fossil Bacteria was Found

Indicating the layer of rock from which the fossil bacteria was collected.

Andrew Czaja (University of Cincinnati), points to the rock layer from which fossil bacteria was collected.

Picture Credit: Aaron Satkoski

Sizeable Bacteria

These fossils occur mainly as compressed and flattened solitary shapes that resemble a flattened, microscopic beach ball.  They range in size from 20 microns (µm), about half the thickness of a human hair, up to a whopping 265 µm, that’s some very large bacteria, about forty times bigger than a human red blood cell, making the fossils exceptionally large for an example of bacteria.  The research team hypothesis that these ancient bacteria were similar in habit to the modern, equally large-sized bacteria Thiomargarita, which lives in oxygen-poor, deep water environments.

Described as being morphologically similar to Proterozoic and Phanerozoic acritarchs and to certain Archaean fossils interpreted as possible blue-green bacteria (cyanobacteria), these fossils are the oldest reported sulphur processing bacteria described to date.  They reveal that microbial life was diverse as early as 2.5 billion years ago and provide further evidence that organisms can thrive in very low oxygen environments.  This may have implications for astronomers as they search for evidence of life on other planets and moons within our solar system.

Images of the Microstructures (Dark, Round Spots within Ancient Rocks)

Microstructures indicate sulphur oxidising bacteria.

Images of microstructures that have physical characteristics with the remains of spherical bacteria.

Picture Credit: Andrew Czaja

*To read Everything Dinosaur’s recently published article (September 2016), about the possible identification of evidence of microbial colonies in strata some 3.7 billion years old: 3.7 Billion-Year-Old Microbes

The scientific paper: “Sulfur-oxidizing Bacteria prior to the Great Oxidation Event from the 2.52 Ga Gamohaan Formation of South Africa”, published in “Geology” the journal of the Geological Society of America.

The Significance of Stromatolites

Praising Stromatolites

As Everything Dinosaur’s focus is on the Dinosauria, just one part of the vertebrate family tree, a tiny portion of the Phylum Chordata, we occasionally get reminded, usually by invertebrate palaeontologists or those scientists that specialise in studying micro-fossils, about the varied and diverse fossils of the Proterozoic Eon and the early part of the Phanerozoic (the eon of visible life).  Today, we would like to focus on one group of highly significant fossils from the Paleoproterozoic onwards, stromatolites.

Extant Colonies of Cyanobacteria (Shark Bay, Western Australia)

Stromatolites at Shark Bay (Western Australia)

Stromatolite structures exposed at low tide (Shark Bay)

Picture Credit: sharkbay.org

What is a Stromatolite?

The term stromatolite means “layered rock”, these are solid, rocky structures created by the activity of colonies of single-celled bacteria, mostly cyanobacteria, which were formerly known as blue-green algae.  The bacteria live in mats at the top of the structure and they are very primitive organisms, whose fossil record dates back as far as 3.7 billion years, possibly (see note below*).  Cyanobacteria are classified as prokaryotes, that is, they lack a nucleus and although regarded as “simple” forms of life, they were ultimately responsible for one of the most significant changes to our planet that permitted more complex life to evolve.  Stromatolites photosynthesise, they use the sun’s energy to make food.  As the stromatolites absorb sunlight they are able to break the chemical bonds in water releasing oxygen.  At first, this free oxygen, reacted with the iron rich water to create iron oxides (rust) which formed the bands of iron ore that is mined today.  Eventually, all the iron in the water was combined with oxygen, but the stromatolites kept producing oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis and it was this oxygen that began to increase the concentration of O2 in the atmosphere.  This led to the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) which increased the level of atmospheric oxygen, forming the ozone layer helping to protect the Earth from harmful cosmic rays.  The increased oxygen permitted more biological diversification and speeded up the radiation of the eukaryotes (organisms with a nucleus) and the evolution of multi-cellular lifeforms.

The cyanobacteria form structures by trapping sediment with their sticky surface coatings.  The trapped sediment reacts to calcium carbonate in the water to form limestone.  These limestone deposits build up extremely slowly, it has been calculated that one centimetre of structure takes around 25 years to be laid down.

Shark Bay – The Most Westerly Point of Australia

The photograph above, shows a view of Shark Bay, the most westerly point of Australia, one of the few places in the world where hypersaline conditions occur to permit the unrestricted growth of the cyanobacteria colonies.  The stromatolites are found around the shallows of Hamelin Pool, which is located in the southern part of the bay area.  Around 5,000 years ago, a huge bank of seagrass called the Fauré Sill began to impede the tidal flow into the bay, this led to a build up of salt in the water.  The hypersaline conditions prevent most other types of marine animal from surviving, so the cyanobacteria have essentially, no predators.  This area is one of the planet’s best examples of a living analogue for the study of life prior to the Cambrian faunal explosion.  This part of Western Australia’s coastline has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

A Cross section of a Stromatolite Colony Preserved in the Fossil Record

A stromatolite fossil

The layered structure of the stromatolite colony can be made out in this fossil.

In the rock record, stromatolites can be recognised by characteristic laminar structures, (layers).  This is a cross section of a fossilised columnar stromatolite, it is very similar to those structures found in Shark Bay.

*Back in the early autumn of 2016, Everything Dinosaur published an article about some new research that suggests cyanobacteria colonies could have existed some 3, 700 million years ago.  To read our article on this recently published scientific paper: Ancient Microbial Structures 3.7 Billion Years Old

Article about the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE): Fossilised Bacteria Shed Light on Life Before Oxygen

Our thanks to all the cyanobacteria for helping to create the conditions to permit more complex life to evolve.

Scars on the Moon Hint at Protoplanetary Impacts

Non-radial Imbrium Sculpture on the Moon – our Violent Past

Between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago, our young planet (and much of the inner solar system for that matter), was subjected to an intense bombardment of space debris left over from the formation of the planets.  This period in Earth’s history is known as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB) and if you look at the moon with a pair of binoculars or study pictures of the surface of Mercury or Venus you will see that much of the moon and these rocky planets is pot-marked with huge numbers of craters.  These craters are a testament to our solar system’s violent, destructive past.  Writing in the journal “Nature” astronomers from Brown University (Rhode Island) and Sandia National Laboratories (New Mexico), have conducted a detailed analysis of one such impact crater on the moon.  Their research suggests the type of objects that caused many of the craters were substantially bigger than previously thought.  The rocky bodies of the early solar system were subjected to bombardment from many protoplanets.

Analysing the Geology of the Imbrium Crater on the Moon

Imbrium basin ejector.

The trajectory of debris is plotted (green lines), whilst most ejecta radiates from the centre outwards other debris paths show an entirely different route.

Picture Credit: Professor Schultz

Looking up into the Man in the Moon’s Right Eye

The scientists concentrated their study on the Mare Imbrium, part of an extensive basin (Imbrium basin), located in the northern hemisphere of our satellite.  The 750 miles-wide Imbrium basin, which can be seen with the naked eye, is better known as the man in the moon’s right eye.  The researchers have calculated that this feature came about due to the impact of a huge object, a protoplanet bigger than Wales.  This object sent ejecta flying in all directions helping to fuel the Late Heavy Bombardment of Earth.  Previous models had suggested that the Imbrium basin was formed after an impact from a chunk of space rock some fifty miles in diameter, in this new paper, the scientists have calculated that the body that caused this particular feature on the moon was at least three times as big.

Rimmed grooves, lineations and elongate craters around Mare Imbrium shape much of the nearside Moon.  This pattern was coined the Imbrium Sculpture by astronomers, most of these features emanate radially outward from the impact crater’s centre, what you would expect to see from a collision event.  These features were created by rocks blasted from the crater when it was formed, and they are concentrated on the basin’s south-eastern side, suggesting the impact came from a north-westerly direction.  However, there are other scars on the moon’s landscape in the Imbrium basin that do not conform to this model, they don’t converge on the crater’s centre.

A Map of the Nearside of the Moon Showing the Location of the Imbrium Basin

The Imbrium basin on the moon.

A map of the nearside of the moon showing the Imbrium basin outlined in red.

Picture Credit: NASA

Blasting Objects from a Gun Designed by NASA

In order to understand how these strange features were formed, the researchers commissioned a large gun created by NASA to help them understand the nature of the surface of the moon.  The team then shot projectiles out of this gun at supersonic speeds to recreate the conditions of the LHB.

The corresponding author of this new paper, Professor Peter Schultz (Planetary Geosciences Group at Brown University), explained about the use of the NASA facility.

“It’s a three-storey tall gun at NASA’s Ames Research Centre [California], that was created during the Apollo programme to understand better the nature of the lunar surface.  It fires small projectiles at six to seven kilometres per second.  What this does is reveal dynamics you can’t recreate with a slingshot, because the objects are going so fast that they let off strong shockwaves.”

A sophisticated high speed camera was used to record the simulated impact events.  These images revealed that pieces of material break off up-range of the main crater and these items continue to travel at very high speeds scouring the impact crater’s surface in a non-radial fashion, reminiscent to the features seen on the moon in the vicinity of the Imbrium basin.

This research explains the non-radial scars observed in the area of the Mare Imbrium.  It also permitted the research team to estimate the impact object’s size based on the signature impact pattern that was created.  According to the team’s calculations the object that struck the northern hemisphere of the moon was many times larger than previously thought, it was a protoplanet.  A protoplanet is a large body in orbit around a sun that is becoming rounded by its own gravity and is massive enough to show signs of internal melting to produce a differentiated interior.

The research team then conducted a similar analysis on other moon features including the Mare Moscoviense and the Mare Orientale which are found on the far side of our satellite (does not face Earth).  The scientists concluded that these features too, were probably as a result of protoplanet impacts.

Experiments and Computer Models Assess Impact Events

Experiments to assess how moon craters were formed.

A comparison of scouring marks produced in the NASA experiments (top) and those produced in a computer modelling exercise assessing the impact of a 60-mile-wide object on the moon.

Picture Credit: Professor Schultz

Professor Schultz stated:

“We are not claiming the entire Late Heavy Bombardment was from protoplanets – other asteroids were going bump in the night as well, but this paper does suggest there were a lot of large protoplanets roaming the inner solar system.”

By modelling what happened after the Imbrium basin was created, Professor Schultz and his co-authors have shown that protoplanet impact events could have been responsible for many of the other smaller features on the moon.  Ejecta from the impact would have “rained down” onto the moon creating the pot-marked surface we see today.

The professor explained:

“It’s like shrapnel ripping off and coming back to hit us again and again.”

The research team are hoping to apply their modelling methodology to allow them to study impact craters on other rocky planets such as those found on Mercury.  Their research could also help to improve our understanding of the geography of Mars, the fourth rocky planet in our solar system, one that like Earth, was affected by the LHB and just like our own planet, subsequent erosion has masked the impact craters.

The scientific paper: “Origin and Implications of Non-radial Imbrium Sculpture on the Moon.”

Fossil Hunting at Biddulph Grange

Already for the Fossil Hunting at Biddulph Grange

Last Sunday, Everything Dinosaur team members visited Biddulph Grange Garden in Staffordshire as part of the dinosaur themed activities that had been organised at the National Trust property.  Our staff arrived nice and early and set up a fossil hunting activity for the budding young palaeontologists in the specially erected marquee that had been provided.

All Ready for the Fossil Hunting Activity at Biddulph Grange Garden

Everything Dinosaur fossil hunting activity.

Fossil trays laid out at Biddulph Grange Gardens.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows the marquee starting to get prepared for all the visitors we were expecting that day.  The event, part of The National Trust’s promotional campaign to raise awareness about the restoration of the unique Geology Gallery at Biddulph Grange, had been sold out for some weeks.  However, on the day itself our dedicated team met up with a number of other visitors to the beautiful gardens and we even gave away some fossils to visitors who had been unaware of the event and “popped into the tent to have a look around”.

Preparing the Tables to Help Identify the Fossils

Everything Dinosaur at Biddulph Grange Gardens 2016.

Fossil trays laid out at Biddulph Grange Gardens.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Giving Away Fossils

We put lots of gravel into the trays on the floor and then carefully added a variety of fossils so that visitors could have a go at spotting fossils amongst the stones.  There were shark teeth, bivalves, brachiopods, fossilised wood, trilobites, ammonites, belemnite guards and even pieces of fossilised bone.  We certainly had a busy day, our early arrival allowed us to get organised and lay out all the helpful fossil identification charts that we had prepared.  We had to keep up topping up the fossil hunting trays, the visitors were finding so many specimens.

The early arrival also allowed Everything Dinosaur team members to visit the partially restored Geology Gallery.  When completed (late spring 2017), the gallery will house many fossils and casts that help explain about prehistoric animals and life in the past.  Mr James Bateman, the former owner of Biddulph Grange and Gardens, built a wonderful gallery dedicated to uniting the ideas of a biblical creation with the newly emerging sciences of geology and palaeontology, scientific ideas that were beginning to take root in the 1860’s.

Day V (Five) in the Geology Gallery

Biddulph Grange Geology Gallery.

Part of the Geology Gallery at Biddulph Grange Gardens, ready for restoration.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows the spaces in the walls where the original fossils were housed.  The large, almost triangular space at the top of the photograph was the location of a partial Ichthyosaur skull (Temnodonotosaurus platydon).  Sadly, very little documentation regarding the gallery and its contents have been preserved.  One of the fascinating problems associated with this particular restoration project is trying to work out what fossils went into the various spaces.  Only one of the original fossils remains, a section of Lepidodendron bark with its characteristic diamond shaped leaf scars.

The Lepidodendron Bark Fossil in the Geology Gallery

A piece of fossilised bark (Lepidodendron).

The Lepidodendron fossil (ancient bark).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Although the term Lepidodendron is used to refer to a genus of tree-sized lycopsid, strictly, only the scale bark on the uppermost part of the plant is named Lepidodendron.  Plants are rarely preserved as whole fossils but normally occur as isolated fragments, often representing different parts of the organism, the leaves, roots, trunk, stems, fruiting bodies, flowers and such like.  As these different parts are found separately, each plant tends to get a separate scientific name.  Hence, the roots of this lycophyte are referred to as Stigmaria and the base of the trunk is called Knorria.

Lepidodendron is derived from the Greek, it means “scale tree”, a very apt description for the diamond-shaped leaf scales which can be clearly seen in the Biddulph Grange fossil.

Fossil Hunting Event at Biddulph Grange Garden

Budding Palaeontologists Wanted at Biddulph Grange Garden – Sunday 30th October

On the cusp of “Dinovember” already and Sunday 30th October will see team members from Everything Dinosaur visiting the prestigious Biddulph Grange Garden (Staffordshire), to set up a fossil finding activity in support of the fund to help restore and refurbish the amazing Geological Gallery at this National Trust property.  The beautiful Biddulph Grange House and Gardens, a fine example of Victorian architecture and landscaping, hide a secret.  Theologian, lay preacher and naturalist James Bateman, the erstwhile owner of the house and gardens, built a unique gallery dedicated to uniting the ideas of a biblical creation with the newly emerging sciences of geology and palaeontology.

An Illustration of the Victorian Geological Gallery

An lithograph of the geological gallery at Bidduph Grange House.

An illustration of James Bateman’s amazing Geological Gallery in its Victorian heyday.

Picture Credit: National Trust

This amazing gallery is currently being restored and Everything Dinosaur will be inviting “palaeontologists in training” to brush up on their fossil hunting skills and help us to discover fossils.  What you find you can take home and keep!

For ticket prices and further information: Palaeontology Camp at Biddulph Grange Garden

Everything Dinosaur team members are busy sorting out all sorts of amazing fossils that they intend to giveaway to lucky fossil hunters on Sunday 30th October, with so many fossils to find, visitors to this fund-raising event are bound to come away with something special, we might even bring a few of our dinosaur fossils and other items along too.

Sorting Prehistoric Sharks Teeth Ready for the Fossil Hunt

fossilised shark teeth.

A successful fossil hunt.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A Unique Space

The Geological Gallery demonstrates the growing scientific understanding of ancient life on Earth and marries it with the biblical view of creation as outlined in the first book of the bible (Genesis).  James Bateman’s vision was to set out fossils and the history of prehistoric animals and plants in the context of the seven days of the Christian creation story.  The garden was a marvel of its age, providing a striking exhibition of beautiful fossils and colourful rocks.  A dedicated team of volunteers at the National Trust are setting out to restore the Geological Galley to its former glory and visitors on Sunday have the opportunity to see the progress, as well as to take home a little bit of Earth’s prehistory for themselves.  Team members at Everything Dinosaur might even play one or two games and provide some palaeontological puzzles to test the knowledge of the young fossil hunters who join us on the day (watch out mums, dads, grandparents and guardians, we might just teach you a thing or two too).

Chirotherium Fossil Track Being Restored to the Exhibit

A Chirotherium reptile print (Triassic).

Restoring one of the fossil exhibits in the Biddulph Grange Geological Gallery.

Picture Credit: National Trust

For further information on the exciting day of dinosaur themed activities (the fun starts at 11.30am Sunday morning), check out this link: Budding Palaeontologists at Biddulph Grange Garden!

Did a Comet Aid the Rise of Mammals?

A Change in Sorting Tray Colour Leads to New Comet Conclusions

The idea that a period of rapid global warming that occurred some 56 million years ago was caused by an extraterrestrial impact event has been postulated before.  However, a team of American scientists, writing in the journal “Science” have published a new paper that supports the idea that a comet striking the eastern coast of North America may have played a role in a dramatic climate change.  A change that greatly benefited the Mammalia and helped to establish them as the dominate megafauna on our planet.  Indeed, it could be argued that one group of mammals, the primates, did particularly well in the resulting “hot house Earth”, our ancient ancestors got a boost, which in the long-term contributed to our evolution.

Fresh evidence to support the idea of a body from outer space crashing into Earth which resulted in a spike in global temperature (referred to as the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or the PETM for short), came when scientists switched from black sorting trays to white-coloured ones when examining drill core sediments from three sites located off the Atlantic coast of the United States.  The white sorting trays allowed the researchers to identify many more black-coloured, glassy, silica spherules (called microtektites).  These objects suggest that there was some sort of high energy impact event, perhaps a six-mile wide comet crashing into the ocean.  This would have instigated a rapid release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which led to global temperatures rising by around six degrees Celsius over the next thousand years or so.   As temperatures soared, great swathes of the planet became densely forested, the poles were ice free, thus providing a whole range of new habitats for the mammals to exploit.

Spotting Tiny Black Objects Against the Background of a Black Sorting Tray

Finding black microtekites in a black sorting tray.

Microtektites as first seen in a sediment sample from the onset of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).

Picture Credit: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Finding Microtektites

The tiny, glassy, tear-shaped or round objects, the microtektites have been found in marine sediments from three locations near to the stratigraphic level of the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary.  The characteristics of these spherules are consistent with microtektites associated with debris caused during an extraterrestrial impact.

Morgan Schaller, an Assistant Professor of Earth and environmental sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and corresponding author of the scientific paper, explained that the microtektites provide evidence of a catastrophic impact event having taken place.

He explained:

“This tells us that there was an extraterrestrial impact at the time this sediment was deposited, a space rock hit the planet.  The coincidence of an impact with a major climate change is nothing short of remarkable.”

Assistant Professor Schaller was helped in the research by Professor Miriam Katz and graduate student Megan Fung, (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), along with James Wright and Professor Dennis Kent (Rutgers University).  Professor Kent first postulated the idea that a comet impact could have led to the release of large amounts of CO2 that resulted in climate change back in 2003.  He based his theory on magnetised clay particles found in New Jersey that he proposed were altered by the space impact.  However, his views have been challenged by a number of other scientists.  The idea of a comet striking the Earth has gained further credence following the discovery of relatively large amounts of microtektites from the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary.  These objects could have formed when molten material flung out by the impact solidified in mid-air.

A Photograph of One of the Microtektites from the Drill Cores

A close-up of a microtekite.

A close-up of one of the microtektites identified in the study.

Picture Credit: Megan Fung (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Black Trays and White Trays

The researchers were searching for micro-fossils in the drill cores (Foraminifera).  Assistant Professor Schaller was the first to notice a microtektite in the sediment he was studying.  Microtektites have not been found in Palaeocene-Eocene boundary strata in previous studies.  Schaller and his team suggest that this is so as microtektites being typically black are very difficult to spot against the dark colour of sorting trays.  When the sediment from the cores was put into white sorting trays the team were able to identify many more.  At peak abundance, the research team found as many as three microtektites per gramme of sediment examined.

Comets are known to contain a lot of carbon, an impact from a comet would release a lot of carbon dioxide, the lack of any iridium layer makes an impact from a rocky body such as an asteroid less likely.  Hence the suggestion that a comet hit the Earth some 56 million years ago.

Doubts Expressed

A number of scientists remain sceptical with regards to this idea.  The size of the microtektites has been noted.  They are all extremely small.  Professor Christian Koeberl, of the University of Vienna is an impact specialist and although he was not involved in this study, he states that the size of the spherules suggests that either they came from a long way away or that they were produced from a rather small impact event, one that would not have had the power to influence the global climate.  It is also possible that the particles may have been displaced from their original deposition, in the absence of dating information it cannot be confirmed that the microtektites come from the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary.

Rapidly Rising Temperatures May Have Helped the Evolution and Radiation of Primates

Ancient Anthropoid fossils from Asia.

The evolution and radiation of primates could have been helped by an extraterrestrial impact event.

Picture Credit: Nancy Perkins

This is an intriguing paper, an extraterrestrial impact very probably played a role in the ending of the “Age of Reptiles”, now it is suggested that ten million years later another impact event provided a stimulus to the radiation and diversification of the mammals.

3.7 Billion Year Old Microbial Structures?

A Rapid Emergence of Life on Earth?

When did life on Earth begin?  That is a very difficult question to answer, however, a team of scientists have published in the journal “Nature” this week suggesting that stromatolites (microbial colonies) existed in shallow marine environments as early as 3.7 billion years ago.  It’s all to do with waves and squiggles preserved in sedimentary strata from south-western Greenland.

Do These Wavy Lines and Structures Preserved in Ancient Sedimentary Rocks Indicate the Presence of Colonial Bacteria?

Are these wavy lines stromatolite fossils?

Evidence for ancient stromatolites?

Picture Credit: University of Wollongong

In the picture above the white scale bar represents 4 centimetres.

Although the paper is not without its controversy, if these waves and squiggles do turn out to be the ancient signatures left by mats of bacteria, then they would predate the previously oldest known fossils (from Australia) by some 200 million years or more.  Such claims are hotly contested, about as hot as the young Earth when the researchers (from a number of Australian institutions as well as from the UK), claim these stromatolites first existed.

The Isua Supercrustal Belt

The bleak, desolate uplands of south-western Greenland hold a secret.  The rocks here are the oldest surviving piece of the Earth’s surface.  As our planet continues to warm, so ice sheets shrink and slowly and surely, like the advance of geological time itself, new parts of our planet’s ancient crust are exposed.  This geological feature is called the Isua Supercrustal Belt (ISB).  Professor Martin van Kranendonk (University of New South Wales), specialises in the study of ancient life forms, dedicating his career to examining rocks for traces of Archean and Proterozoic life.  He and his colleagues hypothesise that the waves and cones seen in the ancient Greenland rocks are the traces of stromatolite stacks.

Researchers Exploring the ISB of Greenland

The Isua Supracrustal Belt of Greenland

The bleak and deserted part of south-western Greenland – on the hunt for ancient fossils.

Picture Credit: Picasa

Professor Kranendonk commented:

“We see the original unaltered sedimentary layers, and we can see how the stromatolite structures grow up through the sedimentary layering.  And we can see the characteristic dome and cone-shaped forms of modern stromatolites.”

If this is evidence of microbial colonies preserved in rocks some 3,700 million years old, then they predate by some 220 million years the previous most convincing and generally accepted evidence for the oldest life on Earth, the stromatolite fossils from the 3,480 million year old Dresser Formation of the Pilbara Craton, Australia.  These ancient rocks located in Western Australia are mostly volcanic in origin but the strata also preserves evidence of hydrothermal locations (hot springs), indicated by the presence of large quantities of the mineral barite.  These areas are associated with wrinkled structures, columns and cone shaped rocks, interpreted as evidence of stromatolite structures having existed within the hot springs and surrounding areas.

The ISB fossil material indicates the establishment of shallow marine carbonate production with biotic CO2 sequestration by 3,700 million years ago, close to the start of our planet’s sedimentary record.  If this is the case, then genetic molecular clock studies would push back the origin of life to before the Archaen Eon and into the Hadean Eon.  The Hadean Eon is the very oldest part of the Earth’s geological record.  It covers the period from our planet’s formation some 4.57 billion years ago to around 4 billion years ago (the start of the Archean Eon).  This suggests that life began on our planet when it was still being bombarded by extraterrestrial bodies, remnants from the formation of our solar system (the “Great Cometary Bombardment”).

Shark Bay Western Australia

Stromatolites can still be found today in various parts of the world (freshwater and marine environments).  For example, they can still be seen around the coast of Western Australia in a very saline body of water called Shark Bay.  The mushroom shaped structures found on the floor of the bay are the work of cyanobacterial communities.  Layers of mineral grains are glued together by the sticky, colonial bacteria.

Living Stromatolites (Shark Bay Western Australia)

Stromatolites at Shark Bay (Western Australia)

Stromatolite structures exposed at low tide (Shark Bay)

Picture Credit: sharkbay.org

To read an article from Everything Dinosaur published in 2010 about fossil evidence for the earliest animals found: Sponge-like Fossils May Be Earliest Animals

Scientists Search for Anthropocene “Spike”

Anthropocene Epoch Recommended by Geologists

The idea that we are now living in such a changed world as a result of the actions of our species, that a new geological epoch should be declared, is one step closer to reality.  A report from leading geologists presented at the 35th International Geological Congress held in Cape Town (South Africa), has recommended that the Anthropocene Epoch be added to the official geological history of Earth.  The decision to end the current epoch (the Holocene) and introduce a new geological time segment has not been finalised yet, more work needs to be done, specifically to decide at what point in time does the Holocene end and the new epoch, the Anthropocene (the age of humans), begin.

The Anthropocene Work Group (AWG)

A panel of experts has been put together to explore the possibility of creating a new epoch, the thirty-five members of the Anthropocene Work Group (AWG), presented their initial findings at the International Geological Congress and now work has started to identify the best point in time for the Holocene to end and the Anthropocene to start.  Twenty-eight of the panellists believe that the Anthropocene should be recorded as having started sometime in the 1950’s, the decade identified as being the start of intense human activity that increased the impact of our species.

Identifying a Suitable Marker in Time

The search is on to find a “golden spike”, to identify a suitable marker in the environment that epitomises the start of a new phase in our planet’s history.  Some of the panel members have argued that July 16th 1945 could be that marker.   On that day, the first test of a nuclear bomb took place in New Mexico (code name Trinity).  Plutonium fallout from nuclear bombs will be present in sediments laid down at the time and over thousands of years the sediments will eventually form strata and the layers with unnaturally high levels of plutonium could provide the long-term geological evidence to indicate the start of a new and distinct unit of deep time.  However, other geologists think that rocks that contain large amounts of plastic compounds would make a better starting point for the Anthropocene.

Scientists Aim to Pinpoint in Strata the Starting Point for the Anthropocene Epoch

Llanwit Major Jurassic Cliffs

Preserving our planet’s geological history.

Picture Credit: UK Fossils Network

Colin Waters (British Geological Survey), the secretary of the AWG, presented the team’s initial findings at the Congress he explained:

“This is an update on where we are in our discussions, we’ve got to a point where we’ve listed what we think the Anthropocene means to us as a working group.  The majority of us think that it is real, that there is something happening, that there are clearly signals in the environment that are recognisable and make the Anthropocene a distinct unit and the majority of us think it would be justified to formally recognise it.”

Atomic Testing and the Radioactive Particles Produced Could Provide a Marker in Deep Time

An atomic bomb and its mushroom cloud.

Scientists propose that atom bomb tests in the 1950’s could represent the start of a new geological epoch.

A Changing World

Our planet has gone through huge changes since the time of its formation some 4.58 billion years ago.  Geologists have broken down this immense period of time into units, with each component of the official timeline of our planet marked by distinct boundaries, preserved in the rocks.  This timeline of our Earth’s history is referred to as the Chronostratigraphic Chart and any changes made to it need to be agreed by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) and then be further ratified by the executive committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).  The Anthropocene Working Group hope to present their findings within two years so that by 2019, a new geological epoch could be established.

The last time there was a major revision of the Chronostratigraphic Chart was in 2009, when, in a controversial move, scientists agreed to revise the date of the Quaternary Period: The Quaternary Just Gained 800,000 years.

Although there is still debate as to the impact of our species on climate, most scientists and academics agree that we are entering a new phase of climate change.  Our world is getting warmer, the implications for a rapid and dramatic rise in global temperatures are frightening, hence the limits on temperature increases agreed at the recent Paris Conference (2015).  Creating a new geological epoch may seem like an exercise in semantics for some, but in reality, it would be an affirmation that our species H. sapiens is having such a profound effect on the planet that dramatic changes with far reaching consequences are now beginning to occur.  A new marker in the Chronostratigraphic Chart might help to drive change, providing a definitive rallying point for mankind to act collectively to put in place measures to help limit the impact we are having on the planet.

A related article on the global context of climate change: COP 21 – The Impact of Global Climate Change

Our Species Is Having a Dramatic Impact on the Planet

Plastic pollution, the impact of mankind on the environment

Non-biodegradable plastics and other debris on a beach.

A study that shows climate change between the Pliocene and Pleistocene may help our understanding of current climate change issues: Pliocene/Pleistocene Climate Studies Supports Current Climate Change Models.

The Impact of Ice Age Mammals (mega-fauna) on the start of the Holocene: Calls for the Start of the Holocene Epoch to be Altered.

Dr. Waters explained that in the past, climate change had taken place due to natural oscillations within our Earth’s ecosystems and environments, however: “in the last Century we have had such a huge impact that we’re actually taking the planet away from that natural oscillation and changing the trend for global temperatures from what should have been a cooling trend to a warming trend.”

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