Category: Geology

The Dinosauria Sprinted Out of the Blocks

New Study Suggests the Dinosaurs Evolved Quickly

An international team of researchers have accurately dated rock layers exposed in north-western Argentina deposited during the Triassic.  The subsequent geological timeline they have been able to construct suggests that the time elapsed between the emergence of early dinosaur relatives and the origin of the first dinosaurs is much shorter than previously believed.  In essence, the Dinosauria evolved much more quickly than previously thought.

North-western Argentina Around 235 Million Years Ago

Diverse fauna of north-western Argentina

Diverse fauna of north-western Argentina including ancestral dinosaurs.

Picture Credit: Victor-Leshyk

The Triassic A Time of Transition

The vertebrate fauna of the Triassic (approximately 251 million to 201 million years ago), changed dramatically.  Few of the fossil lineages found in Lower Triassic rock formations can be found in strata laid down later on.  The mass extinction event that marked the end of the Palaeozoic and the beginning of the Mesozoic led to a radical shift in the diversity, type and geographical distribution of back-boned land animals and arguably, the emergence of more modern-looking ecosystems.  To help unravel some of the mysteries surrounding this “faunal shift” and to more accurately date the appearance of the first dinosaurs, the scientists travelled to north-western Argentina (La Rioja Province) and set about dating different beds that make up the exposed sandstones and mudstones of the Chañares Formation.

The debate as to where and exactly when the first dinosaurs evolved is one of those topics that comes up frequently at symposiums and conventions.  The evidence suggests that the Dinosauria first appeared in the southern hemisphere and for a long time South America was thought to have been the place they originated from.  Research published in 2013 challenged this idea, proposing that Africa may have been home to the first dinosaurs, but exactly when did the dinosaurs as an Order of reptiles (Dinosauria) really take off?  At what point in geological time did the dinosaurs commence their journey to becoming the dominate terrestrial life forms of the Mesozoic?

To read an article regarding the possibility of dinosaurs having first evolved in Africa: Africa – The Cradle of the Dinosauria?

Problems Accurately Dating Deep Time

The sedimentary exposures of the Chañares Formation permit accurate stratigraphic dating because of a quirk of fate.  Back in the Triassic, this part of the world was a lush, tropical paradise, however, nearby volcanoes from time to time deposited vast amounts of ash in the area.  These ashes formed easily recognisable layers (called tuffs) and within these layers the scientists, which included researchers from the University of Buenos Aires, the University of Brasília (Brazil), along with American colleagues and collaborators from Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council, were able to identify microscopic crystals called zircons.  It is these zircon crystals that hold the key to accurate dating of geological deposits.

Zircon Crystals and Radiometric Dating of the Chañares Formation

The uniform decay of radioactive elements allows an accurate date of geological formations.

The uniform decay of radioactive elements allows an accurate date of geological formations.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The research team took samples from the various ash layers and noted their position within the sedimentary beds and the vertebrate fossils associated therein.  Zircon crystals were identified within the volcanic layers and these were radiometrically dated using the ratio of uranium decay to lead isotopes.  In this way, thanks to advances in mass spectrometry the team were able to determine an accurate age of the zircon and by inference the age of the fossil bearing sedimentary layers above and below the ash layers.  The technique has been used before, for example to date the lower portions of the Chinle Formation of the United States (U-PB ID-TIMS zircon geochronology dating method [uranium to lead]).

So what would have been bad luck for the fauna and flora around at the time, a devastating deposit of choking volcanic ash, has permitted palaeontologists to be able to date with considerable accuracy the deposition timeline of this part of the Chañares Formation.

Identifying the Ash Layers for Sampling (Chañares Formation)

Co-author Adriana Mancuso (right) points to a volcanic ash layer (tuff) in the Chañares Formation that was sampled for radioisotopic dating.

Co-author Adriana Mancuso (National Scientific and  Technical Research Council) points to a volcanic ash layer (tuff) in the Chañares Formation that was sampled for radiometric dating.

Picture Credit: Randall Irmis (University of Utah)

What Does the Accurate Triassic Timeline Reveal?

It had been thought that the strata was around 226 to 228 million years old (early Late Triassic, the Carnian faunal stage).  However, this study indicates that these rocks were laid down much earlier in the Triassic, perhaps 5 to 10 million years earlier, making the rocks, effectively Middle Triassic in age (234 to 236 million years old, the Ladinian faunal stage).  Fossils of dinosaur precursors, known as dinosauromorphs, Archosaurs that are very closely related to the Dinosauria and the ancestors of the dinosaurs are found in these rocks.  The first dinosaur fossils date from around 230 million years ago approximately, perhaps even earlier.  This means that the true dinosaurs evolved from the dinosauromorphs much quicker than previously thought.  There was a much more rapid transition from a world with dinosauromorphs to a terrestrial ecosystem with dinosaurs in it.  In short, dinosaurs very quickly became established.

The Fossil Assemblage of the Chañares Formation (Schematic Diagram

Vertebrate fossils found include a range of Tetrapods including Dinosauropmorphs and Dicynodonts.

Vertebrate fossils found include a range of Tetrapods including Dinosauromorphs and Dicynodonts.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur (inset photograph Randall Irmis)

Commenting on the significance of this new study, which has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), Randall Irmis stated:

“To discover that these early dinosaur relatives were geologically much younger than previously thought was totally unexpected.”

What Does This Mean for Other Middle Triassic Formations Elsewhere?

This shift in the date for these deposits that make up a portion of the Chañares Formation has serious implications for other fossil-bearing strata that were also believed to represent the Middle Triassic.  Similar types of vertebrate fossil are found in the Santa Maria Formation (southern Brazil) and in the Karoo Basin (South Africa), but none of these formations have been radiometrically dated.  These too, could be 5 to 10 million years older than previously thought.

Summarising the research a spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur explained:

“The geological dates for certain fossil assemblages may have to be reconsidered in the light of these findings.  The evolution and subsequent radiation of the Dinosauria has become somewhat concertinaed.  This research suggests a much more rapid evolution from dinosauromorphs to true dinosaurs than previously thought.”

Why Did the Dinosaurs Evolve Rapidly?

The first dinosaurs believed to have evolved were the Saurischian Theropods.  These Archosaurs were bipeds and their skeletons show that they had an advantage over many of the other predators (bipedal and quadrupedal) around at the time.  Firstly, the pelvic area has a fully open acetabulum (the rounded hole in the pelvis where the head of the femur fits).  This allows the hind legs to locate much more directly under the body, providing a more efficient locomotion.  Secondly, the femur itself has a ball-shaped head turned slightly inward to slot into the acetabulum.  This arrangement, also supports the hind legs located directly under the hips.  These anatomical features, (plus one or two others), evolved to permit these Theropods to develop stronger legs making them faster and more powerful than other Archosaurs.  These strong legs seem to have enabled the dinosaurs to “sprint out of the evolutionary blocks”, leading to their domination of terrestrial ecosystems for the best part of 160 million years or so.

COP 21 – Global Climate Change

Global Climate Change in a Geological Context

Our planet’s climate has changed dramatically over deep time.  The immense geological record of our Earth and the fossils contained within certain strata point to several periods of dramatic mass extinction.  The Earth’s climate does change, it rarely remains stable for any length of geological time.  Whilst writing this piece and glancing out of the window it is difficult to believe that just a few thousand years ago our part of the world was covered in ice sheets.  Around 20,000 years ago, a mere blink in geological time, this portion of Cheshire was covered in ice approaching 1,000 metres thick, to the east, the prominent, coarse grained sandstones are testament to a vast expanse of desert that existed some 270 million years ago.

Cheshire (North-west England) during the Permian Period

Sand dunes once covered north-west England.

Sand dunes once covered north-west England.

Picture Credit: David Reimer

Global temperatures have also fluctuated widely.  The average global temperature in the first few years of the 21st Century is around 14-15 degrees Celsius, although there is plenty of geological evidence to suggest average global temperatures were much higher and lower in the past.  However, the rate of change is the concern.  Scientists and politicians are becoming increasingly aware that human activity has interrupted the natural, planetary circle and that human-induced global warming has serious implications for the stability of the Earth’s climate and the changes, if allowed to take place, could lead to the extinction of our species and a lot of other species too.  2015 is on course to become the warmest year in recorded history.  Thirteen of the fourteen warmest years were recorded in this Century.  Fortunately, measures are being put in place to try to minimise the effects of global warming.

COP 21

World leaders, politicians, scientists, environmentalists and lobbyists are gathering in Paris for the start of the global warming conference (COP 21).  COP 21 stands for the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  A convention signed in 1994 commits the majority of the countries of the world to work together to lessen the impact of global warming.
That long winded title was created in Rio in 1992 where countries concerned about the impacts of climate change came together under the United Nations to do something about it.  The key aim is the “stabilisation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

The term anthropogenic refers to something that has been caused by or relates to our species (Homo sapiens).

Time May Be Running Out to Reduce the Impact of Climate Change

Climate change, time is running out.

Climate change, time is running out.

Picture Credit: Associated Press

The conference will run from November 30th to December 11th and its aim is to fundamentally re-order the economies of our planet to permit the reduction of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide that contribute to the global warming of our world.

When the Earth warms about 2°C above pre-industrial revolution times, scientists say there will be dangerous and unpredictable impacts on our climate system.  Our planet is already half way to that danger point.
So the purpose of the Paris conference is to work out a way of limiting emissions of greenhouse gases, while allowing countries to continue to grow their economies, and providing assistance to the least developed and those most affected by rising temperatures.

We wish all those taking part in the conference ever success with this enormous undertaking.  Let us hope that common sense, mediation and a common sense of purpose win the day.  It is not too late, but the window of opportunity is closing.  Our species is not capable of managing the Earth’s climate, however, we are capable of putting in place changes that will minimise our effect on the planet and the natural order.  Ice sheets will one day return to north-western England, deserts will also be here once again, just like they were millions of years ago.  Our planet’s climate changes, what we must do is to have the courage to build a consensus to help minimise our impact and to reduce the speed of change.  Failure to do so is not an option and the geology of our planet will bear testimony to how successful we prove to be in this undertaking.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of the BBC in the compilation of this article.

Life on Earth May Have Begun Earlier Than Previously Thought

Study Finds Potential Evidence of Life 4.1 Billion Years Ago

Scientists from the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences, University of California, (Los Angeles), in collaboration with colleagues from the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University, also in California, have published research that suggests that life on Earth may have existed as far back as 4.1 billion years ago.  A remarkable claim considering that our planet is believed to be around 4.54 billion years old.  This new research hints at life evolving some 300 million years earlier than previously thought, although the evidence of these claims is likely to be disputed.

The study has just been published in the on line edition of the academic journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”.  The team identified graphite (a form of carbon), trapped inside a single ancient zircon crystal in a stud of these ancient time capsules from the some of the oldest rocks known on Earth, strata found in Western Australia.  The carbon form identified is one that is associated with the process of photosynthesis, therefore, this could be a by-product of a life process.

Co-author of the research, Professor Mark Harrison (University of California, Los Angeles) stated:

“Twenty years ago, this would have been heretical, finding evidence of life 3.8 billion years ago was shocking.  Life on Earth may have started almost instantaneously, with the right ingredients life seems to form very quickly.”

Professor Mark Harrison (University of California, Los Angeles)

Professor Mark Harrison.

Professor Mark Harrison.

Picture Credit: University of California, Los Angeles

One of the implications of this new study is that if life forms very quickly, then the possibility of it forming elsewhere in the universe, under the right conditions, is dramatically increased.   Life in the universe could be abundant.

The scientists came to their conclusion after analysing more than 10,000 zircons – heavy, durable crystals, which had formed from molten rock in Western Australia (the Jack Hills area).  An earlier study (2008), identified carbon captured in the zircon crystals as they formed.  These were dated to around 3.8 billion years ago, at the time this was thought to be the earliest time that life could have begun on our planet.  Around 100 million years early, the inner solar system had been subjected an intense bombardment from asteroids and other space debris left over from the formation of the planets.  This is called the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB) and is believed to have lasted until around 3.9 billion years ago.  It was this bombardment that created most of the craters on the moon.  These craters are still visible today.  This study suggests that life existed on our planet before these moon craters were formed.

Co-author of the research paper, Patrick Boehnke, a graduate student in the Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences (University of California, Los Angeles) exaplained:

“If all life on Earth died during this bombardment, which some scientists have argued, then life must have restarted quickly.” 

Looking for Evidence Preserved in Deep Time

The scientists, led by Elizabeth Bell, (postdoctoral student, at the University of California, Los Angeles), examined more than 10,000 zircons.  Of the zircons included in this study, 656 were identified as containing dark specks preserved inside their structure.  These minute particles were captured when the zircon was formed, trapping and recorded evidence of the extremely ancient Earth.  Ramon spectroscopy was used to analyse the molecular and chemical structure of these dark specks, the team were looking for pure carbon, one of the building blocks of life.

One of the zircons contained two areas of graphite, a form of pure carbon.  Graphite was found in two locations within the zircon crystal.

Dark Specks Inside A Zircon Crystal Identified as Carbon

The zircon is about the width of a human hair.

The zircon is about the width of a human hair.

Picture Credit: University of California, Los Angeles

Stating that the team were confident that the carbon is evidence of biological activity and that the graphite formed due to biological activity, Professor Harrison said:

“There is no better case of a primary inclusion in a mineral ever documented and nobody has offered a plausible alternative explanation for graphite of non-biological origin into a zircon.”

According to the researchers, the graphite is actually older than the ziron containing it.  The isotope ratio between the uranium and lead indicates that the zircon itself is 4.1 billion years old, but for the moment they do not know how much older the graphite might be.

The research suggests life in the universe could be abundant, Professor Harrison concluded.  On our planet, the third rock from the sun, simple life appears to have formed quickly, but it likely took many millions of years for very simple life to evolve the ability to photosynthesise.  Yet the carbon contained in the zircon has a very characteristic chemical signature.  The specific ration of carbon 12 to carbon 13 isotopes is evidence of photosynthesis having taken place on the early Earth.

In July, Everything Dinosaur published an article about research that suggested the Earth’s magnetic field formed earlier than previously thought: Our Magnetic Shield is Older than Previously Thought

In 2014, Everything Dinosaur reported on research that suggested that the Earth cooled more rapidly than earlier studies had suggested: The Earth Cooled Earlier Than Previously Thought

Celebrating Earth Science Week Top 100 Geology Locations

Top One Hundred Sites Related to Geology UK and Ireland

In celebration of Earth Science week, an annual commemoration of the contribution to geology made by the British Isles (UK and Ireland), the London-based British Geological Society have published the results of a survey to find the most popular geology related sites from the United Kingdom and Ireland.  The wide ranging and eclectic list demonstrates the incredible variety of the geology of these islands, which are regarded as the birthplace of the science of geology.  After all, the Geological Society, which was founded in 1807, is the oldest geological society in the world.

The chart-topping locations were compiled from over four hundred public nominations, divided into ten categories which include landscape, historical and scientific importance, human habitation, industrial and economic importance, educational, coastal, folding and faulting, outcrops, adventurous and fire and ice.

Voted Number One in the Poll

Voted number one in the British Geological Society Survey.

Voted number one in the British Geological Society Survey.

Picture Credit: British Geological Survey

The picture above shows the bizarre and spectacular rocky mountains, sculpted by deep time and ravages of the Ice Ages.  These are the Foreland Mountains of Assynt.

Around thirty of the top one hundred (including four in the top ten) come from Scotland.  Wales contributes ten, a surprise given the beauty of Wales form the rugged peaks of Snowdonia, the amazing coastline and the rich diversity of fossils found in the country.  Northern Ireland has five and like Wales, it has none in the top ten as voted for by members of the public.  Ireland fares slightly better with a total of nine.  The rest of the locations can be found in England (the other six in the top ten are to be found in England).

The range includes The Channel Tunnel (24), the building home to the Natural History Museum (39), the Geevor Tin Mine in Cornwall (23).  Also included are a number of locations that team members at Everything Dinosaur are very fond of, these locations have been the destination of choice for geology field trips for generations, places such as Wrens Nest (42), the Laxford Brae road section in northern Scotland (38) and South Stack Formation on the island of Anglesey (85).

Wrens Nest Features in the Top One Hundred

Amazing geological feature.

Amazing geological feature.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture above shows the fantastic ripple beds preserved in the limestone of the Wrens Nest nature reserve (Dudley, West Midlands).

The Top Ten Locations – “The People’s Favourites”

  1. The Foreland Mountains Assynt (Sutherland, Scotland) with its breath-taking isolated mountains (see picture in this article).
  2. Ironbridge Gorge (Shropshire) regarded as the birth place of the industrial revolution.
  3. Siccar Point (Scotland) the site of a world famous unconformity where the junction between the older, tilted layers of greyish sandstone and the younger Old Red Sandstone can be clearly made out.
  4. The Rotunda Museum (North Yorkshire) built to a design suggested by William Smith regarded by many as the “father of geology”.
  5. Staffa – the basaltic columns to be found on this island that forms part of the Inner Hebrides.
  6. Stonehenge, located in Wiltshire.
  7. Hunstanton Cliffs – highly fossiliferous cliffs on the Norfolk coast where the red limestone contrasts sharply with the overlying chalk.
  8. The Craster Coastline, with its unusual geology and notable outcrops.
  9. Millook Haven which runs from North Cornwall into Devon showing spectacular folds of inter-bedded sandstones and shales.
  10. Glencoe (Scotland), the remnants of a long extinct super volcano.

From a fossil collecting and fossil observation perspective, a number of other sites are also included notably the beaches of Lyme Regis (44), Kimmeridge Bay (20) and the dinosaur footprints preserved in the Bendrick rocks (south Wales – number 45).

Lyme Regis (Number Forty-Five)

Good idea to go fossil collecting on a falling tide and to keep away from the steep cliffs.

The beaches at Lyme Regis such as Monmouth Beach make the list.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Notes on Lyme Regis

A Private Fossil Walk Represents Good Value

With the completion of the eastern sea wall at Lyme Regis last year the access to the beach between the town and Charmouth has certainly got easier.  No more climbing over the slippery rocks and the groynes that laid between the end of the beach front and the Church Cliffs.  That might sound like good news and it certainly is, especially for families trying to access the beach.  There is a downside to the new sea defences though, greater access has meant that over the summer months there have been more people than ever scouring the beach between Charmouth and Lyme Regis looking for fossils.  Pickings can be somewhat slim as a result.

The Newly Completed Magnificent Sea Wall at Lyme Regis

Part of the coastal defences at Lyme Regis

Part of the coastal defences at Lyme Regis

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The sea wall is part of an extensive array of features to help secure the cliffs and the land immediately behind them in a bid to protect the area from further land slips.  Eventually, these defences will give way but the engineering works has probably given the many houses on the cliffs another fifty years of life or so.  Whether or not the sea wall and other defences such as the remodelled beach area close to the famous Cobb has had an impact on the way in which the waves scour the beaches remains uncertain, time will tell, although we have heard from one reliable source that there seems to be a greater amount of sediment deposited out into Lyme Bay.  To help stabilise the cliffs, the slopes have been planted with thousands of small bushes and other plants to help anchor the soil.

The Cliffs have been Planted to Help Prevent Further Land Slides

Stonebarrow and Golden Cap can be seen in the background.

Stonebarrow and Golden Cap can be seen in the background.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

What Do the Changes Mean for Fossil Hunters?

Lyme Regis has always been a popular destination for would-be fossil hunters. With easier access to the beaches to the east of the town, there is a feeling amongst locals that finding fossils along the shoreline is getting harder.  There are certainly lots of fossils to be found, but large pieces of ammonite and any Ichthyosaur vertebrae are increasingly rare.  For example, during a recent trip to Lyme Regis, we spent a morning on the beach walking slowly up to Charmouth and we were surprised by the lack of fossils.  Belemnite guards were still plentiful, especially as we approached the “Belemnite Beds” but we found no fossils of Promicroceras, which surprised us somewhat.  This small ammonite used to be a relatively common fossil find, there was also a lack of nodules on the beach, although from the scattered shards of split rock there was plenty of evidence of previous visitors having hammered away quite happily at any stone bigger than a house brick, whether or not it was likely to contain a specimen inside.

Not a Very Successful Fossil Hunt

Fossils are becoming more difficult to find at Lyme Regis.

Fossils are becoming more difficult to find at Lyme Regis.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Advice for Visitors to Lyme Regis

With the popularity of fossil collecting on the increase and with the easier access to the beach, visitors to Lyme Regis might be disappointed by their lack of fossil discoveries.  One way of helping to get the most out of a visit is to book yourself onto an organised public walk.  There are a number of professional fossil hunters and guides who offer public walks.  These are a very good idea, especially when one considers the risk of getting cut off by an incoming tide or the hazards of rocks falling from the cliffs.  On a public walk your knowledgeable guide should be able to provide you with a very informative tour of the geology and help you to find a few fossils along the way.

Private Fossil Walks are Best

However, if you really want to make the best use of your time, try booking a private walk.  On some public walks that we have observed there can be as many as fifty people in the party.  Simply, getting a question answered amongst a throng of eager fossil hunters that size can be quite an ordeal, even the most dedicated guide can struggle to accommodate everybody’s needs.  Public walks tend to take place on the weekend, a time when the beaches are likely to be congested.  Private walks can be booked at a time to suit you (tides permitting) and you can be assured that your party will be very well looked after by the guide.  You are also more likely to be directed to the best fossil hunting locations, local knowledge wins out every time.  For example, for that beautiful Promicroceras ammonite, your best chance might be to sieve for fossils.  On a private walk, the guide can provide suitable sieves and show you the best technique to help you make your very own fossil discovery.  Knowing exactly where to start sieving on the beach is half the battle.

Still Fossils to be Found but Local Knowledge is Key

Fossils can still be found on the shore.

Fossils can still be found on the shore.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Private walks book up very quickly in advance, if you are thinking of visiting the Dorset coast next year, now is an ideal time to get yourself and your family booked on one.  Fossil walks are arranged around safe tide times so be aware that some preferred days may not be suitable.  Most organisers of private fossil walks ask for children to be at least five years old.  Walks take around three to four hours, advice can be provided on where to park any vehicles and as for what you should bring here is a quick check list:

  • Suitable clothing, wellington boots or other stout footwear.  Warm clothing especially in the winter and early spring, having  a waterproof jacket on hand is very sensible, gloves in cold weather too.
  • Bring a snack and a drink although remember to take your rubbish home with you.
  • Bathroom breaks – there are no toilet facilities on the beaches, although most walks commence from the town centre and there are toilet facilities here at the start of the walk.
  • Tools to bring – most guides will be happy to break any nodules open for you, hammers are not usually supplied.  If you do bring your own hammer (please make sure it is a geological hammer), then remember the safety specs and tough gardening gloves.  For advice on the difference between geological hammers and tool box hammers: Geological Hammers What’s So Special About Them?

The fossil walk guide will be able to provide you with the very best chance of finding a top quality fossil and also be able to point out the best places to look.  You will learn a lot more about the history of the local area as well as having the opportunity to get one to one assistance and support.  Private fossil walks really do offer excellent value and they usually cost less than a family three-course meal in a pub.

For further information on private walks (public walks as well), Everything Dinosaur recommends: Lyme Regis Fossil Walks (Public and Private)

Private fossil hunting walks at Lyme Regis can prove to be a very worthwhile investment and provide visitors to the Jurassic Coast with an excellent opportunity to learn more about this fascinating area of Britain.

Out of Africa and Into Arabia

A New Look at the Spread of Modern Humans

A team of international scientists from a variety of disciplines have pooled their skills and shed light on the role of the Arabian Peninsula in the migration of our species out of Africa.  A migration that was to eventually lead to human beings (Homo sapiens) spreading to every continent on the planet.  A consequence of this exodus may have been the extinction of other types of hominins such as the Neanderthals and the Denisovans.

Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is very arid today and much of the country is classified as desert, back in the Pleistocene Epoch, it looked very different.  Palaeontologists have been working with archaeologists, cartographers and experts in geochronology helping to map the ancient landscape of the peninsula.  It turns out that much of Arabia was once a lush and fertile land teeming with game and with plenty of navigable rivers for our ancestors to exploit.

This the first time, such a group of technical experts have worked together to plot the palaeoenvironment of this part of the world.  It seems that the Arabian Peninsula was not just a stopping over point for human migration, but this now largely arid landscape once offered hunter/gatherers rich pickings indeed.

The head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz explained that this new study suggests that the Arabian Peninsula had human settlements for long periods of time and that it was not just merely a transit point, as was previously thought by many anthropologists and other scientists.

He stated:

“The Arabian Peninsula has witnessed dramatic changes in climate.  In the middle Pleistocene this encouraged early man to make for the then-green peninsula as his destination.”

Green Arabia – Scientists Have Identified a Number of Ancient Lakes and River Systems

A green and pleasant land.

A green and pleasant land.

Picture Credit: Crassard et al. 2013

Two main human migration routes have been identified from Africa to Arabia.  The first was a northern route via the Nile Delta into Arabia from what was to become Egypt.  The second route is much further south and involved early humans crossing over from the horn of Africa.  The multi-disciplinary team have put together a picture of an Arabian environment that has changed much in the last few hundred thousand years.  Over 10,000 ancient lakes have been identified including a number in what is now the barren Nafud desert.  These findings are supported by fossil evidence as the palaeontologists have found the fossilised remains of hippos, elephants, shellfish and crocodiles.

Although the climate has changed over time, the researchers also identified several settled, stable periods during the Pleistocene when the climate was humid with reliable rainfall.

The Limestone Fossils of Dudley (Wrens Nest)

Visit to the Wrens Nest Nature Reserve (Dudley, West Midlands)

Prior to the first of Everything Dinosaur’s summer schools just time for team members to take in a quick trip to the famous Wrens Nest National Nature Reserve (Dudley, West Midlands).  It was an early start, (yet again), but it did prove worth it as the weather behaved and team members were able to enjoy a walk around this very significant part of the world (in terms of geology anyway), before having a picnic close to the famous Silurian ripple beds.  The Silurian ripple beds are just one of the amazing geological features to be found in this abandoned quarry.  The area was declared a National Nature Reserve back in 1956 due to the amazing fossil assemblage that can be found over the 100 acres or so of the Reserve.  Some seven hundred different invertebrate fossils have been identified at the site, they date from the Silurian age (approximately 423 million  years ago), the rocks themselves being part of the Wenlock Group.  Eighty-six of the fossil types are unique to Dudley, they have been found nowhere else in the world.

The Amazing Ripple Beds of Wrens Nest

Amazing geological feature.

Amazing geological feature.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A Close up of the Silurian-aged Ripple Beds of Wrens Nest National Nature Reserve

Preseved in limestone, the ripple beds.

Preserved in limestone, the ripple beds.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The quarry work ended in 1925 and when the Reserve was created it was the UK’s first ever geological National Nature Reserve.  It the area has also SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status due to its geological, palaeontological and historical significance.  It is also home to a wide variety of wild flowers and the caverns, now barricaded to prevent human visitors provide invaluable overwintering habitats for a number of species of bats.

Although this picturesque nature reserve is enjoyed by local residents and visitors alike, it is the huge variety of invertebrate fossils that amazes team members.  Whilst we enjoyed our picnic (taking great care to remove all our litter), we marvelled at the array of fossils that can be found eroding out of the limestone beds (no hammers allowed).  We contented ourselves by taking some pictures of the rich fossil assemblage, fossils to be found at this location include corals (tabulate and rugose forms), crinoids (sea lilies), brachiopods, bivalves, gastropods and some trace fossils (worm tubes).  Sadly, the trilobite fossils that made this part of the world so famous are increasingly rare.

A Close up of the Amazing, Highly Fossiliferous Limestone at Wrens Nest

A huge variety of fossils can be found.

A huge variety of fossils can be found.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The exposed rock faces of the various quarry sites give geologists a unique opportunity to teach Silurian geology to students in an outdoor setting.  The location provides a definitive section through the Wenlock Formation.  The town of Dudley, is synonymous with the Wenlock limestone strata and the fossil assemblage contained therein.  This internationally famous location has provided a valuable insight into the marine life in coral sea environments during the Late Silurian geological period.  Both macro and micro-fossils have been preserved at this site.

Everything Dinosaur team members certainly enjoyed their visit to the fossil rich Wrens Nest National Nature Reserve to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the company.

Earth’s Magnetic Shield is Older than Previously Thought

Plate Tectonics Got Started Early in our Planet’s History

Our planet has a magnetic field, similar to the magnetic field that can be generated by a simple bar magnet.  This field is aligned close to but not directly with the Earth’s axis of rotation.  The magnetic poles lie some way from the geographic poles (separated by approximately eleven degrees).  Earth’s magnetism is powered by fluid motion inside our planet and this field protects all life from the harmful solar winds that are expelled by the sun.  When this field was first generated has remained a mystery.  It had been thought that the Earth’s magnetic field had been around for some 3.45 billion years, now new research conducted by scientists at the University of Rochester (New York) suggests that this magnetic field is actually much older.

John Tarduno, a geophysicist at the University of Rochester and lead author of a paper published in the journal “Science” estimates that the Earth’s magnetic field was formed at least four billion years ago.  This is much earlier in our planet’s history than previously thought, it is estimated that Earth was formed some 4.56 billion years ago.

Since 2010, the best estimate of the age of Earth’s magnetic field has been 3.45 billion years. But now a researcher responsible for that finding has new data showing the magnetic field is far older.

Why is a Magnetic Field Important?

It has to do with our sun and cosmic radiation.  As well as visible light, the sun sends out streams of charged particles into space, it is not the only source of cosmic radiation, any luminous body in the universe produces radiation, but since the sun is 93 million miles away, at the centre of our solar system and with a radius of approximately 700,000 kilometres it is the biggest contributor to the harmful cosmic rays that get sent our way.  Particles of different wavelengths and energies are being generated all the time by our sun and it is these higher energy radioactive particles that are dangerous to life forms.  Thankfully, those that make it to Earth are deflected away by our planet’s strong magnetic field.  This magnetism acts as a shield helping to protect our planet and the life that exists on it.

An Artist’s Illustration of the Earth’s Magnetic Field Deflecting Particles

Helping to keep our planet habitable.

Helping to keep our planet habitable.

Picture Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester

Professor Tarduno explained:

“A strong magnetic field provides a shield for the atmosphere.  This is important for the preservation of habitable conditions on Earth.”

This life saving magnetic field is also responsible for producing the Aurorae (northern lights – Aurora Borealis and southern lights Aurora Australis), spectacular light shows that are created when the solar wind and its charged particles interacts with our planet’s magnetic field and atmosphere.  As these particles approach Earth, they distort our magnetic field and allow some charged, high energy particles to enter our atmosphere at the magnetic north and south poles.  These charged particles interact with gases in our atmosphere and “excite” the gas particles which in turn glow, just like the gas in a florescent tube light you might have in your kitchen.

A Spectacular Light Show (Northern Lights Seen in North Yorkshire)

Aurora Borealis seen in northern England.

Aurora Borealis seen in northern England.

Picture Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA

Our planets magnetism is generated in its liquid iron core.  It acts as a “geodynamo” and requires regular releases of heat from our planet to function.  This heat release is aided by plate movements at the Earth’s crust.  Convection allows the transfer of heat from the interior to our planet’s surface, but the origin of our tectonic plates is contentious, with many physicists suggesting that our planet lacked a magnetic field for more than a billion years after it was formed.

A study of the mineral magnetite found within zircon crystals collected from the ancient rocks of the Jack Hills of Western Australia has helped the Rochester University to determine that the Earth’s magnetic field is older than previously thought at around 4 billion years of age.

Magnetite is a naturally occurring magnetic iron oxide, it locks in information about the Earth’s magnetic field as it cools and forms from its molten state.  The ancient rock deposits of the Jack Hills represent some of the oldest strata on our planet and zircons from these rocks have already been used to help determine how quickly the Earth cooled after its initial formation.

To read more about this 2014 study by scientists from the University of Wisconsin- Madison: The Earth Cooled Earlier Than Previously Estimated

In order for the team to get reliable, accurate results, it was crucial that the minerals remained unchanged over the vast period of time since their formation.  Professor Tarduno’s study of the magnetic field strength preserved inside the pristine zircon crystals has enabled the team to build up a picture of the Earth’s magnetic field over time.  The microscopic zircons were analysed using a superconducting, quantum interference device, which is unique to the University, the sensitive instrument (called a SQUID magnetometer), showed that the intensity measurements recorded in the samples were indeed as old as four billion years.

Implications for Life on Earth and Other Planets

The intensity measurements reveal information about the presence of a “geodynamo” at the Earth’s core.  Tarduno explained that solar winds could interact with the Earth’s atmosphere to create a small magnetic field, even in the absence of this core dynamo.  Under those circumstances, it has been calculated that the maximum strength of a magnetic field would be 0.6 μT (micro-Teslas).  The values measured by Professor Tarduno and his colleagues were much higher than 0.6 μT, suggesting the presence of a “geodynamo” at the planet’s core, as well as indicating the existence of the active plate tectonics needed to release the built-up heat.

Professor Tarduno added:

“There has been no consensus among scientists on when plate tectonics began.  Our measurements, however, support some previous geochemical measurements on ancient zircons that suggest an age of 4.4 billon years.”

Four billion years ago, our sun was much younger and it was sending out much more powerful solar winds which were up to a hundred times stronger than today’s.  In the absence of this nascent magnetic field the high energy particles that make up the solar wind would have ionised and blasted away light elements (those with a relatively low atomic mass), from the atmosphere, elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon and oxygen.  The loss of these elements would have made the evolution of complex life on our planet almost impossible (probably completely impossible).

Our planet, may have come to resemble that of our second nearest planetary neighbour, Mars.  Mars is approximately half the size of Earth, the mass of Mars is around ten percent of the Earth, it may once have had an active “geodynamo” for a time after its formation, but due to the planet’s size, this active, convectional dynamo seems to have run out of energy and ceased.  This led to the Red Planet losing any magnetic field that it had.  The atmosphere was blasted away by the solar wind.  Today, scientists are confident that Mars once had liquid water but it is likely that this water was driven off along with most of the light elements in the atmosphere and on the surface of the planet.

Professor Tarduno believes that the loss of the “geodynamo” dramatically altered the history of Mars.  He stated:

“It may also be a major reason why Mars was unable to sustain life.”

Mars does have an atmosphere, it consists of nitrogen and carbon dioxide but it is just one percent the thickness of our own planet’s atmosphere.  Unmanned, robotic vehicles like the Mars Rover may have provided us with evidence that Mars may once have had vast amounts of liquid water – so much water in fact that there is evidence of global scale floods on its barren, rocky surface.

It seems we have a lot to be grateful for when it comes to our magnetic field and its early establishment may have assisted in the development of life on our own planet.

Dinosaur and Science Speed Stacking Memory Game (Key Stages 3 and 4)

Speed Stacking Memory Game – Science Learning (Key Stages 3 and 4)

With a greater emphasis on factual recall enshrined within the new national curriculum here’s a simple idea to help young scientists remember terms and sequences as part of their science studies.  Create a fun speed stacking memory game that will help pupils to memorise key points and key items of information.  This idea can be modified to fit all sorts of teaching objectives and best of all, it gives teachers and home educationalists a wonderful opportunity to introduce how data can be plotted and shown visually.

Dinosaurs and Science Speed Stacking Game

Simple memory game to help young scientists.

Simple memory game to help young scientists.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur


  • Plastic cups (raid the water cooler)!
  • Sheet of labels (Everything Dinosaur supplies various sets of labels – size of dinosaurs, sorting out geological periods and for older students, Linnaean hierarchy labels on the “dinosaurs for schools” website).
  • Sticky tape to secure labels to the bottom of the plastic cups.
  • A stop watch or other timing device (Ipad, Smart phone and so forth).

To access the free, downloadable Everything Dinosaur school resources: Dinosaurs for School Website visit the downloads section for the free, teaching and educational resources.

Let’s imagine that you have to explain about deep time and the geological periods as part of the teaching involved at Key Stage Three (genetics and evolution).  To help reinforce learning, challenge the students to create a stack of plastic cups in the correct geological order, mapping out the fossil record of visible life.  Just stick labels to the bottom of the cups – Cambrian, Cretaceous, Jurassic and so forth and once having explained about geological time challenge the class to stack the cups in the correct order in the fastest possible time.  As an extension you can plot the results and the class to work out the best way to make a visual representation of the data – bar charts, line graphs perhaps?

Handy Labels for the Speed Stacking Game?

Learn how animals are classified, learn the geological timescale with this speed stacking game.

Learn how animals are classified, learn the geological timescale with this speed stacking game.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Perhaps, you are working with Key Stage 4 and you are covering how changes in biology have led to a better understanding of the process of evolution.  You want to explain how life is classified and introduce Linnaean classification, from a Domain down to a Species a simple stacking game can help to reinforce learning and to introduce a fun element into the lesson plan.  Record how long it takes each student to stack the cups in the correct sequence.  As an extension, can the class calculate the mean, mode and median stacking times?

Getting to Grips with Scientific Classification

Just add the labels to the plastic cups to make a fun memory game.

Just add the labels to the plastic cups to make a fun memory game.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

This is a very simple but effective science speed stacking game.  It is great for helping students to memorise terms and sequences such as geological periods.  Lots of different labels can be created, perhaps even leading to the development of a dinosaur themed speed stacking game.

Extension Ideas

  • Challenge the students to create the best way of visually displaying the data
  • Can the class calculate the mode, median and mean
  • Plot a distribution curve of the timing results, what are the variances?
  • Can the students devise science themed speed stacking games of their own?

For prehistoric animal themed teaching resources including model kits, crafts and real fossils: Dinosaur Teaching Resources

Take Care When Fossil Hunting on the “Jurassic Coast”

Warning Issued to Holiday Makers

Dorset is one of the prettiest and most majestic of all the English counties.  This summer, there are going to huge numbers of holidaymakers heading down to England’s “Jurassic Coast” and we expect there are going to be great many visitors to picturesque Lyme Regis.  However, as the school holidays have started, we at Everything Dinosaur, think it appropriate to issue a warning about straying too close to the cliffs that occur along the Dorset and Devon coast.

Beautiful Charmouth and Lyme Regis – Very Popular Holiday Destinations

Photograph taken in 2009.

Photograph taken in 2009.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Many locals tell us that this part of the world has its own “mini climate”, it most certainly has lots of sunshine and there is always plenty to do and see in this, in our opinion, one of the most attractive parts of southern England, but we would advise visitors to the beach, especially would-be fossil hunters in the Lyme Regis and Charmouth areas to steer well clear of the cliffs. Rock falls and mudslides are very common and sadly serious accidents and even fatalities can occur.

On July 25th 2012, Everything Dinosaur reported on a fatal incident that occurred at Hive Beach, near Bridport just a few miles east of Charmouth.   Last month, we reported on another landslide fatality, this time from the popular Llanwit Major area of South Wales, another favourite location with fossil hunters.

To read more about this tragic event: Woman Killed by Rock Fall at Popular Fossil Hunting Site in Wales

Whilst areas such as the famous “Ammonite Pavement” that can be seen to the west of the town (Lyme Regis), is located quite far from the cliffs, any rocks and other material that fall are likely to travel quite a distance so it is sensible to heed the advice of locals and ensure that you are a safe distance away from any hazards.  It is also good advice to familiarise yourself with the tide times.  As landslides have altered the shape of the coastline it is all too easy to find yourself getting cut off during an incoming tide.  Everything Dinosaur team members advise always go fossil hunting at a beach location on an outgoing tide.  With so many fossils to be found at Lyme Regis and Charmouth along the foreshore, there is no need to approach the cliffs and a lot of fun can be had searching along the shoreline for fossils in a couple of hours or so as the tide recedes.

Lots of Fossils to Spot Away from the Jurassic Coast Cliffs

A big fossil close to the Ammonite Pavement.

A big fossil close to the Ammonite Pavement.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

 Lyme Regis fossil expert Brandon Lennon commented that there was glorious weather in the Lyme Bay area yesterday, but today, (Sunday), there was quite a gale blowing.  Despite this, large numbers of tourists were on the beach and many of them were too close to the cliffs.

Brandon said:

“People are right up under the cliffs looking for fossils and they should definitely not do this as it is incredibly dangerous.  I think it is going to be very busy in Lyme Regis this summer, even with the occasional little bit of bad weather at times.”

With the popularity of the film “Jurassic World”, the Lyme Regis area can expect record numbers of fossil hunters to visit the area over the summer, but just like Brandon, we advise visitors to the beaches to take care and heed any council notices.

Brandon conducts organised fossil hunting walks and these are a great way to go fossil hunting safely as well as learning about the amazing local geology.  These walks take place on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays and private bookings can also be made, to learn more about organised, conducted fossil hunting tours: Lyme Regis Fossil Walks

 The Amazing Ammonite Pavement (Monmouth Beach)

Falling tides reveal the extensive Ammonite Pavement sometimes referred to as the Ammonite Graveyard.

Falling tides reveal the extensive Ammonite Pavement sometimes referred to as the Ammonite Graveyard.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“Whilst fossil hunting can be a very enjoyable experience for families, we do urge all visitors to take great care when visiting locations such as Charmouth and Lyme Regis.  Landslides are a very common occurrence and going fossil collecting with an expert is a sensible option.”

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