Category: Geology

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.

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.”

Thirsty Woolly Mammoths of St. Paul Island

St. Paul’s and Wrangel Island Woolly Mammoth Populations

This week has seen the publication of research undertaken by an international team of scientists led by academics from the University of Pennsylvania, that explains the demise of one of the last populations of Woolly Mammoths to have lived on Earth.  Mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) survived on the remote Alaskan island of St. Paul until around 5,600 years ago (+/- 100 years or so), whilst their mainland cousins were extinct by about 10,500 years ago.  Writing in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (United States), the researchers conclude that a warming climate which led to rising sea levels caused the amount of freshwater available to fall dramatically, in essence the Woolly Mammoths died of thirst.

Study Suggests Some of the Last of the Woolly Mammoths were Unable to Quench Their Thirst

Mammoths died of thirst on St. Paul Island.

Lack of freshwater is suspected to have led to the demise of the Woolly Mammoth population on St. Paul Island.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Island of St. Paul in Relation to Wrangel Island

Readers of this blog will probably know that the very last population of Woolly Mammoths to have existed, survived on Wrangel Island until about 4,300 years ago (although an extinction date of as recently as about 1,700 B.C. has been proposed).  Both St. Paul Island and Wrangel are remote locations deep within the Arctic circle, however, there are considerable differences between these two islands and whilst scientists such as Professor Russell Graham (University of Pennsylvania) and lead author of the St. Paul Island study, propose that a lack of drinking water led to the St. Paul’s Island Mammoth population dying out, debate remains as to the probable cause of the Wrangel Island extinction.  In both cases the presence of humans impacting on the population of Mammoths can be ruled out, these hairy elephants were long gone before the first humans visited these isolated, desolate places (once sea levels rose).

The Location of St. Paul Island in Relation to Wrangel Island

The location of the last of the Woolly Mammoths (St. Paul Island and Wrangel Island).

The dark grey areas represent today’s landmass, the light grey areas show the extent of the Bering Land Bridge (Beringia).

Picture Credit: PNAS with additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows the approximate position of the Bering Land Bridge (Beringia) in light grey compared to the landmasses of Siberia and Alaska today (dark grey).  At its maximum during the Quaternary glacial intervals, the land joining Asia to North America would have been over six hundred miles wide, over the last 20,000 years rising sea levels led to the eventual loss of a land link between the continents of North America and Asia.

St. Paul Island was part of the southern portion of Beringia. Today, it is located in the Bering Sea.  In contrast, the much larger Wrangel Island is found in what was the northern portion of Beringia and it is located today in the Arctic Ocean.  Wrangel Island is over seventy times bigger than St. Paul Island, in the past both these islands were considerably bigger but with a warming climate in the latter stages of the Pleistocene and into the Holocene Epoch, sea levels rose and St. Paul Island in particular began to shrink.  The island is presently, around forty square miles in size, the researchers used a variety of techniques to plot the ingress of sea water and the decline of freshwater on the island over the last fifteen thousand years.

The Reduction of St. Paul Island from the Late Pleistocene to the Present Day

St. Paul Island 15,000 years ago to the present day.

The shrinking of St. Paul Island over the last fifteen thousand years.

Picture Credit: PNAS

The picture above shows a palaeogeographical map compiled by the research team that plots the reduction in the size of St. Paul Island over the last 15,000 years or so.  The red dot in the centre of the island (present size is outlined in brown), represents Lake Hill, a small, freshwater lake from which a series of sediment cores were extracted so that the scientists could trace the history of the location and how changes in climate affected the fauna and flora of the island.

The sediment cores (taken in 2013), built on data generated from core samples taken back in the 1960’s and they have provided a number of independent indicators to suggest that the Mammoth population survived until around 5,600 years ago.  The flora of St. Paul Island remained relatively unchanged, however, the scientists were able to deduce that St. Paul Island shrank rapidly due to rising sea levels until about 9,000 years ago.  It continued to shrink, albeit more slowly until around 6,000 years ago but declining freshwater sources and a generally drier climate with reduced precipitation from around 7,850 years ago to the time of the Mammoth’s extinction was probably the cause of the demise of this elephant population.

Independent Indicators of Mammoth Extinction

  • Analysis of sedimentary ancient DNA (sedaDNA) to provide an understanding of the ancient flora of the environment and how a drying climate and rising sea levels impacted upon it.
  • The level of fungal spores that are associated with animal dung (coprophilous fungal spore types).  Three types of fungal spore were studied, this fungi would have thrived on Mammoth dung, the sudden elimination of the fungal spores from the core samples indicate a mega fauna extinction.
  • Micro fossils such as those of water fleas (indicating freshwater) and pollen grains along with diatoms (different types of algae some of which are associated with sea water).
  • Magnetic susceptibility, in arbitrary units (AU) of Lake Hill sediments from the cores, this data looks at the differences between different types of sediment and from this an understanding of changes in the palaeoenvironment over time can be mapped.
  • Radiocarbon dating, isotope degradation analysis and analysis of protein remnants from St. Paul Island Mammoth remains.

Given the variety of information sources, the “best fit” for the Mammoth extinction is approximately 5,600 years ago (+/- 100 years).

The Mammoths Contributed to Their Own Downfall

As sources of freshwater dwindled, so the Mammoths would have congregated around the remaining waterholes.  More intensive, localised Woolly Mammoth activity would have accelerated the fall in water levels.  Vegetation would have been consumed therefore exposing sediments that would have been washed into the lakes and ponds thus degrading the water quality, reducing water levels further and exacerbating the already acute water shortage.

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“Extant Indian elephants can consume as much as two hundred litres a day, sometimes more if it is a lactating female.  We suspect Mammoths too, had a high demand for drinking water.  A concentration of mega fauna around remaining sources of drinking water on St. Paul Island would have probably accelerated the extinction.  It is also likely, that with large animals having to survive on an ever diminishing landmass, the elephant population was already probably under considerable environmental stress.”

Lead author of the PNAS paper, Professor Russell Graham explained a likely extinction scenario:

“They [the Mammoths] were milling around, which would destroy the vegetation, we see this with modern elephants.  This allows for the erosion of sediments to go into the lake, which is creating less and less fresh water.  The Mammoths were contributing to their own demise.”

The scientific paper: “Timing and causes of mid-Holocene Mammoth extinction on St. Paul Island, Alaska”.

Concerns for the Coastal Norfolk Fossil Sites

Experts Fear for Fossils and Safety of Fossil Hunters

Scientists at the Norfolk Museums Service along with British palaeontologists and geology societies have expressed concern over the rise in unscrupulous fossil hunting activities being reported from parts of the Norfolk coast.  These famous Pleistocene age deposits have yielded an extensive array of vertebrate fossils including many large mammals such as rhino and elephant.  One of England’s most important fossil finds, the spectacular West Runton elephant (more correctly termed a Steppe Mammoth – Mammuthus trogontherii), was found in the cliffs.  The discovery, the first bones were found in 1990, represents the largest and oldest nearly complete fossil mammoth from the UK.  Bones and teeth can still be found on the foreshore but sadly, there has been a rise in reports of fossil hunters digging into the cliffs in a bid to find more specimens.

A spokesperson for the Norfolk Museums Service advised against such excavation, not only would the digging potentially damage any fossil material but as the cliffs were unstable, working so close to the cliffs was very dangerous.  He expressed grave concern following reports of a rise in the number of fossil hunters “hacking into the cliff tops”

The Foreshore and Cliffs at West Runton (North Norfolk)

A view of the famous West Runton beach, a great place to find fossils.

A view of the famous West Runton beach, a great place to find fossils.

Picture Credit: ukfossils.co.uk

The freshwater Pleistocene deposits and associated Cretaceous chalks yield a large number of different types of fossil.  As well as freshwater molluscs and mammal remains from the freshwater beds, the chalk is highly fossiliferous and different types sea urchin and fossil sponges can be found.  The picture above shows a view of West Runton beach and the dangerous cliffs, the pier at Cromer can be seen in the background.

A team member from Everything Dinosaur commented:

“This part of the Norfolk coast is subject to high levels of erosion, we would urge all fossil collectors to stay on the beach and look for fossils at low tide along the foreshore, the rapidly eroding cliffs are delivering lots of fossil material onto the beach area and this is a wonderful location for a family fossil hunt.  However, please don’t dig into the cliffs and we urge all visitors to follow the fossil collecting code.”

For an article on the fossil collecting code and a guide to safe collecting: Everything Dinosaur’s Guide to Fossil Collecting Safely

Register Fossil Finds with the Norfolk Museums Service

A partial Mammoth tooth was found nearby last month and no doubt other finds will be reported over the summer at this popular tourist attraction.  Palaeontologist Dr. Waterhouse of the Norfolk Museums Service and the leader of the Cromer Forest-bed Fossil Project reminded fossil hunters that it was good practice to report finds to the Norfolk Museum Service, the museum at Cromer just a few miles from West Runton, was a good place to take any fossil finds and team members from the Norfolk Museums Service would be happy to assist with identification.  As Mammoth fossils, especially tusks and teeth are very popular with collectors, it is likely that many of the overzealous fossil hunting activities have been driven by the high prices such fossils make on auction sites.

A Model of a Woolly Mammoth (M. primigenius)

A model of a Woolly Mammoth.

A model of a Woolly Mammoth.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Dr. Waterhouse said:

“Norfolk is the best place in the country and probably Europe to find Mammoth remains because they went through about six sets of teeth in their lifetime, so there is a lot more teeth than there were Mammoths.  Something that I think needs highlighting is poor and even dangerous fossil collecting by people hacking into the cliffs at places like West Runton.  Ethical collecting is high on my agenda, and also recording fossil finds as part of the Cromer Forest-bed Fossil Project, so that important scientific information isn’t lost forever.”

At Everything Dinosaur we echo the views of Dr. Waterhouse and we urge fossil hunters to take care and to abide by the fossil collecting code as well as local bye laws and regulations.

Antarctic Expedition Provides Window into Late Cretaceous Seacape

Fossilised Birds, Ammonites and Giant Marine Reptiles

A team of international scientists including researchers from the University of Queensland and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, have been showing off their vast collection of fossils after a very successful expedition to Antarctica earlier this year.  The fossils, estimated to weigh over 1,000 lbs, provide evidence of life in a shallow sea close to land some 71 million-years-ago (Late Cretaceous).  The specimens were collected from James Ross Island, a forty mile long island on the south-eastern side of the Antarctic peninsula, a long finger of land that points towards South America, although the island itself is more than six hundred miles from the Chilean mainland.

Some of the Fossils Found During the Two-Month Long Antarctic Expedition

Spectacular fossils preserved in nodules found in Antarctica.

Spectacular fossils preserved in nodules found in Antarctica.

Picture Credit: University of Queensland

The picture above shows a number of split nodules that contain invertebrate fossils of various kinds including a number of Ammonite specimens.  The geological hammer, probably the one used to split the nodules provides scale.  Over two hundred different fossils have been collected by the scientists.

Marine Reptiles and Dinosaurs

One of the main objectives of the research team over the two month period of the expedition (February to March) was to search for vertebrate fossils to provide information on the marine and terrestrial fauna that existed in this part of Gondwana towards the end of the Cretaceous.  Giant shark vertebrae the size of saucers, as well as Plesiosaur and Mosasaur remains along with bird fossils were discovered, these fossils along with the other specimens are currently being stored in Chile prior to onward transport to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) for preparation and study.  It is likely that a number of new species will be identified.

Palaeontologists Working on a Plesiosaur Shoulder Girdle

Palaeontologists carefully excavate the shoulder girdle of a Plesiosaur (James Ross Island).

Palaeontologists carefully excavate the shoulder girdle of a Plesiosaur (James Ross Island).

Picture Credit: Dr.  Matthew Lamanna (Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

The picture above shows graduate student Abby West (American Museum of Natural History) working alongside Dr. Steve Salisbury (University of Queensland) and marine technician Julia Carlton as they carefully prepare the shoulder girdle of a Plesiosaur for extraction by helicopter.  The location of the fossil sites are so inaccessible that they only way such large specimens could be removed was by helicopter.  The choppers used to support the field team were called “raptors” – very Jurassic Park as one expedition member quipped.

The photograph was taken by Dr. Lamanna (Assistant Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology), an expert on the terrestrial fauna of Gondwana, a few days ago, Everything Dinosaur reported on the naming of a new giant Titanosaur from Argentina that had been named based on the extensive study of a beautifully preserved skull and neck elements that had been found some years before (Sarmientosaurus musacchioi).

To read more about this story: Late Cretaceous Titanosaur from Patagonia

Identifying New Fossil Sites

The scientists are part of an international Antarctic research project – Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project (forgive the Americanised spelling), or AP3 for short.  Consisting of specialists in vertebrate palaeontology and geology, the team heralds from universities and museums from the United States, Australia, South Africa, Chile and the UK.  Located a gruelling six mile hike from the team’s base camp the main fossil bearing beds are located on the steeply sloping south-western flank at Sandwich Bluff on Vega Island, which is located just a few thousand metres to the north-west of James Ross Island.  Much of the strata exposed around James Ross Island dates from the very Late Cretaceous and from the very Early Palaeogene.  A number of new fossil bearing sites have already been located including several plant remains beds and two previously undocumented Cretaceous exposures that were targeted for future field work.

The Late Antarctic Summer – Hiking Looking for Fossils

Isolated and very difficult to reach - fossil hunting in Antarctica.

Isolated and very difficult to reach – fossil hunting in Antarctica.

Picture Credit: The Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The Antarctic A Potential Treasure Trove of Fossils

The James Ross Island basin is one of the few parts of Antarctica where the snow and ice melts sufficiently to expose the rock strata below.  The absence of soil helps with the exploration, although we tip our hard hats to the research team members who braved freezing temperatures, howling gales and sea sickness just to reach the fossil quarries.  The specimens were excavated from the Upper Cretaceous Sandwich Bluff Member of the López de Bertodano Formation.  The beds here represent deposits in a shallow, marine environment with occasional occurrences of terrestrial material (particularly plant remains) that would have been washed into the sea from the nearby land.  Dinosaur fossils were found, although fragmentary, the palaeontologists are confident that these fossils will help to extend our understanding of the Late Cretaceous dinosaur fauna of Antarctica.

Commenting on the research, Dr. Salisbury explained:

“It’s a very hard place to work, but it’s an even harder place to get to.  A lot of the bigger bones will need quite a bit of preparation before we can do much research on them.  Working in Antarctica is tough!”

Fossilised remains of birds were also found, including early ducks dating from the end of the Cretaceous period.

It’s a Tough Job – Searching for Fossils in the James Ross Island Basin

Lying down on the job!  Looking for fossils in the Antarctic.

Lying down on the job! Looking for fossils in the Antarctic.

Picture Credit: Carnegie Museum of Natural History

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur paid tribute to the research team and their supporters stating:

“The Antarctic provides vertebrate palaeontologists the opportunity to explore pristine fossil bearing environments without the risk of damage from vandals or illegal fossil hunters.  This treasure trove of fossils, currently in Chile, will provide scientists with a great deal of data regarding the fauna and flora at what was a pivotal moment in the history of life on Earth.”

In the summer of 2015, Everything Dinosaur reported on the discovery of a Plesiosaur, but this time from the other end of the world – the Arctic.

To read an article about this amazing fossil find: Elasmosaur Fossil from Alaska

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