Category: Geology

Helping to Organise a School Trip to Wren’s Nest

Wren’s Nest and School Trips

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

The Famous Ripple Beds at Wren’s Nest

Ripples preserved in limestone.

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

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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

How Did the Ripple Beds Form?

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

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

Fossils Galore to be Found

More than 700 different fossils found at Wren's Nest

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

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Top Tips for a School Visit to Wren’s Nest

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

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

Typical Scree Slope at Wren’s Nest

Wren's Nest SSSI

A view of Wren’s Nest.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Significant Rock Fall at Stonebarrow Hill

Rock Fall Highlights the Dangers of Dorset Cliffs

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

Large Boulders and Debris Under Stonebarrow Hill

Rock fall at Stonebarrow Hill (Dorset).

A significant rock fall at Stonebarrow Hill (Dorset).

Picture Credit: Brandon Lennon

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

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

Blue-Grey Lower Lias Clays

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

Stonebarrow Hill in Relation to the Charmouth Visitor Centre

Charmouth and Stonebarrow Hill.

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

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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

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

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

Eyes Down – Fossil Prospecting

Prospecting for fossils (Lyme Regis)

Looking for fossils at Lyme Regis.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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

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

For information on guided fossil walks: Lyme Regis Fossil Walks

Fossil Hunting at Nuremberg Airport

Fossil Hunting at the Airport

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

A Fossil Spotted at the Airport (Nuremberg Airport)

The stone floors at Nuremberg airport are full of fossils.

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

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Jurassic of Germany

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

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

Jurassic Invertebrate Fossils in Abundance at Nuremberg Airport

Jurassic fossils at Nuremberg Airport.

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

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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

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

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

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

Ancient Traces Preserved in the Limestone Floor

Two fossils in the airport.

Fossils at Nuremberg airport.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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

What an Ammonite Actually Looked Like

A model of an Ammonite.

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

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

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

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

Ancient Rhino Remains on a Norfolk Beach

Storms Reveal Rhino Remains

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

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

Cervical vertebra of an ancient rhino.

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

Picture Credit: Martin Warren

West Runton Beach

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

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

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

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

Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis fossils.

Stephanorhinus – Partial Skull and Teeth.

Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis

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

An Illustration of the Ancient Rhinoceros – Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis

Stephanorhinos hundsheimensis illustration.

An illustration of the prehistoric rhinoceros (Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis).

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

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

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur commented:

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

The Making of Antarctica

Why Did Antarctica Suffer a Big Freeze?

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

The Antarctic Ice Sheets formed Around 34 Million Years Ago

A view from an icebreaker, looking back at Antarctica.

Antarctica was not always a frozen wasteland.

Picture Credit: Galen Halverson

Two Competing Theories

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

The Two Theories

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

No one has thought to link these two competing explanations before

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

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

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

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

Ocean Circulation and Climate Change

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

Halverson commented:

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

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

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

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

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.”

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