All about dinosaurs, fossils and prehistoric animals by Everything Dinosaur team members.
/Geology

Articles, features and stories with an emphasis on geology.

19 12, 2018

Dozens of Dinosaur Footprints Exposed at Hastings

By | December 19th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Geology, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|2 Comments

Dinosaur Footprints Exposed by Cliff Erosion

The seaside town of Hastings in East Sussex is steeped in history.  It is synonymous with the battle that began the Norman conquest back in 1066 but scientists have been aware for many years that the cliffs to the east of the town contain evidence of much older inhabitants – dinosaurs.  Researchers from the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University have published a paper this week documenting dozens of Early Cretaceous dinosaur tracks and footprints that represent at least seven different kinds of dinosaur.

Two Iguanodontian Prints from the Lee Ness Sandstone (Ashdown Formation) Exposed at Hastings

Two iguanodontian footprints from the Lee Ness Sandstone.

Examples of two iguanodontian footprints from the Lee Ness Sandstone (Ashdown Formation).

Picture Credit: Neil Davies/University of Cambridge

A Rich and Diverse Dinosaur Fauna

The footprints and trackways were identified and mapped by a team of researchers from Cambridge University between 2014 and 2018, following periods of extensive coastal erosion along the cliffs to the east of Hastings.  The footprints range in size from 2 cm wide to over 60 cm across.   These prints and tracks record a rich and diverse dinosaur fauna from the Lower Cretaceous – Lee Ness Sandstones (Ashdown Formation), which date from approximately 140 million years ago (Berriasian faunal stage of the Cretaceous).

The exact age of the Lee Ness Sandstone strata is unknown, however, the Ashdown Formation is estimated to be around 145-133 million years old, based on relative dating of ostracod fossils.

The researchers, writing in the academic journal ” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology”, report on more than 85 exceptionally well-preserved dinosaur footprints, comprising prints from at least seven different types of dinosaur (ichnogenera).  They document the trace fossils eroding out of cliffs and their work records the greatest diversity of dinosaurs in a single location in Cretaceous-aged rocks found in the UK.  In particular, a variety of armoured dinosaurs (Thyreophora) are represented.

One of the Many Different Types of Armoured Dinosaur Print Found

Armoured dinosaur footprint - Ashdown Formation (Hastings).

A footprint ascribed to an armoured dinosaur (Thyreophora) from the Lee Ness Sandstone (Ashdown Formation).  The print has been assigned to the Tetrapodosaurus ichnogenus.

Picture Credit: Neil Davies/University of Cambridge

Details of Skin, Scales and Claws are Visible

The trace fossils are preserved in remarkable detail.  Impressions of skin, scales and even toe claw impressions have been preserved.

A Close View of an Iguanodontian Print Showing a Distinct Claw Impression

Preserved iguanodontian claw impression.

A close view of an iguanodontian claw impression preserved within one of the dinosaur footprints.

Picture Credit: Neil Davies/University of Cambridge

An Iguanodontian Footprint with Preserved Skin Impressions

Iguanodontian footprint showing skin impressions.

Some of the tracks from recent rock falls show skin impressions.  This is the skin impression from the underside of an iguanodontian footprint.

Picture Credit: Neil Davies/University of Cambridge

The best preserved prints come from large blocks of stone that are mapped and photographed after recently falling from the cliff.  The tracks are quickly eroded with prolonged exposure to the elements and from damage caused by further rock falls.  When dealing with a rapidly eroding cliff, it is essential that any fresh rock falls are examined and any fossils contained within the blocks are mapped and measured.

Two Photographs (February 2017 and February 2016) Showing the Extent of the Trace Fossil Erosion

Weathering of the dinosaur tracks at Hastings.

The effect of weathering on the trace fossils.  Over 12 months the tracks are heavily eroded.

Picture Credit: Neil Davies/University of Cambridge

Wealden Group Trace Fossils

The Ashdown Formation is part of the Wealden Group of rock formations, the most important sequence of dinosaur fossil bearing strata in England.  Numerous fossilised footprints are associated with the Wealden Group and the first report of tracks was made in 1846 by the Reverend Tagart, who described a series of three-toed prints, which he thought had been made by giant birds.  Never before has such a diverse footprint assemblage been mapped and documented in the British Isles.

A Table Showing the Different Types of Dinosaur Footprint (Morphotypes) Mapped at the Location

Lee Ness Sandstone dinosaur footprint analysis.

A table showing the number and characteristics of the Hastings dinosaur footprint fossils.

Table Credit: Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology with additional notation from Everything Dinosaur

One of the authors of the scientific paper, Anthony Shillito, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences commented:

“Whole body fossils of dinosaurs are incredibly rare.  Usually you only get small pieces, which don’t tell you a lot about how that dinosaur may have lived.  A collection of footprints like this helps you fill in some of the gaps and infer things about which dinosaurs were living in the same place at the same time.”

Different Kinds of Theropod Dinosaurs

The footprints along with the various plant fossils and invertebrate trace fossils (burrows), are helping the scientists to put together a picture of life in this part of the world in the Early Cretaceous.  Dinosaurs dominated the biota, with several different types of meat-eating dinosaur (Theropods) identified, including a potential dromaeosaurid-like dinosaur, as two-toed prints (didactyl) have been found.

Different Types of Theropod Track Have Been Found

Different types of Theropod footprint. Scale bars = 5 cm.

Examples of different types of Theropod footprint (Lee Ness Sandstone – Ashdown Formation).

Picture Credit: Neil Davies/University of Cambridge

The picture above shows four different types of Theropod footprint identified at the Hastings site.  Picture (A) shows a large tridactyl (three-toed) cast with a long digit III and a faint heel impression.  The footprint in (B), is also large but the toes are narrower and elongated, maintaining a consistent width for their whole length.  The cast has no heel pad impression.  The Theropod morphotype (C), represents a much smaller animal with digit III being much longer than digits II and IV.  Intriguingly, the researchers have also logged potential two-toed prints (D), this suggests that this floodplain, braided environment might have been home to dromaeosaurid-like dinosaurs.

PhD student Shillito added,

“You can get some idea about which dinosaurs made them from the shape of the footprints, comparing them with what we know about dinosaur feet from other fossils lets you identify the important similarities.  When you also look at footprints from other locations you can start to piece together which species were the key players.”

Although, the majority of the footprints have been ascribed to Ornithopods, and several are referred to as iguanodontian, none of these prints were made by a member of the Iguanodon genus.  Iguanodon (I. bernissartensis), lived many millions of years after these prints were formed.  There have been many different types of iguanodont described, it is possible that the larger prints were made by an animal such as Barilium dawsoni.  The slightly smaller prints could have been created by the iguanodontid Hypselospinus (H. fittoni).

The Three-toed Tracks of a Small Ornithopod Dinosaur

Small Ornithopod trackway (Ashdown Formation).

Trackway assigned to a small, Ornithopod dinosaur.

Picture Credit: Neil Davies/University of Cambridge

Dinosaurs Helping to Shape the Environment

Anthony Shillito is focusing on the role played by dinosaurs in terms of shaping their environment, how dinosaurs behave as zoogeomorphic agents.  Large animals today, such as elephants and hippos can alter their habitats as they interact with their environment.  Hippos for example, can create river channels and divert the course of water flow.  Dinosaurs very probably did the same, with larger dinosaurs having a bigger impact than smaller dinosaurs.

The student commented:

“Given the sheer size of many dinosaurs, it’s highly likely that they affected rivers in a similar way, but it’s difficult to find a ‘smoking gun’, since most footprints would have just washed away.  However, we do see some smaller-scale evidence of their impact; in some of the deeper footprints you can see thickets of plants that were growing.  We also found evidence of footprints along the banks of river channels, so it’s possible that dinosaurs played a role in creating those channels.”

Evidence of Sauropods?

Footprint evidence indicating the largest dinosaurs of all, the presence of Sauropods is virtually absent from the site.  Three poorly preserved trace fossils have been tentatively ascribed to the Sauropoda, although they are very indistinct and could represent under traces representing the tracks of other ichnogenera.

It is very likely that there are many more dinosaur footprints hidden within the eroding sandstone cliffs of East Sussex, but the construction of sea defences in the area to slow or prevent the process of coastal erosion may mean that they remain locked away within the rocks.

The scientific paper: “Dinosaur-landscape Interactions at a Diverse Early Cretaceous Tracksite (Lee Ness Sandstone, Ashdown Formation, southern England)” by Anthony P. Shillito and Neil S. Davies published in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

9 12, 2018

“A Guide to Fossil Collecting on the West Dorset Coast”

By | December 9th, 2018|Book Reviews, Dinosaur Fans, Geology, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils, Press Releases|0 Comments

“A Guide to Fossil Collecting on the West Dorset Coast” – Book Review

At a conference in a rather chilly Helsinki held seventeen years ago this week, delegates of the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), confirmed that World Heritage Site status would be conferred upon a 95-mile stretch of the coastline of southern England covering the east Devon and Dorset coast.

In the minutes of the conference, the reason for this award was recorded:

“The Dorset and East Devon Coast provides an almost continuous sequence of Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous rock formations spanning the Mesozoic Era, documenting approximately 185 million years of Earth history.  It also includes a range of internationally important fossil localities – vertebrate and invertebrate, marine and terrestrial – which have produced well-preserved and diverse evidence of life during Mesozoic times.”

However, this description does not convey the true majesty of this location, nor does it provide a sense of awe that this part of the British Isles inspires in so many people.  Neither does it do justice to the simple pleasure of finding a fossil, gazing at it and realising that you are the first living creature in 180 million years to set eyes upon the petrified remains of what was once another inhabitant of our planet.

Then a book is published, a book that provides a sense of the stunning natural landscape, a book that transports the reader back in time, a book that conveys the sense of excitement and achievement associated with fossil collecting – “A Guide to Fossil Collecting on the West Dorset Coast” – does all this and more.

The Front Cover of “A Guide To Fossil Collecting on the West Dorset Coast”

"A Guide to Fossil Collecting on the West Dorset Coast" published by Siri Scientific Press

A beautifully illustrated guide to fossil hunting on the West Dorset coast.  RRP of £18.95 – highly recommended.

Picture Credit: Siri Scientific Press

Conveying a Sense of Beauty, Conveying a Sense of Wonder

Authors Craig Chivers and Steve Snowball focus on one part of the “Jurassic Coast”, that beautiful coastline that runs east from Lyme Regis to the foreboding cliffs of Burton Bradstock.  First the scene is set.  There is a brief description of the geological setting and an outline of the contribution to science of arguably Dorset’s most famous former resident, Mary Anning, and then the reader is taken in Mary’s footsteps through a series of guided walks travelling eastwards along the coast and forwards in time to explore the geology and remarkable fossil heritage of this unique sequence of sedimentary strata.

The Book is Filled with Stunning Photographs of Fossil Discoveries

Prepared specimen of Becheiceras gallicum.

A Lower Jurassic ammonite (Becheiceras gallicum) from the Green Ammonite Member (Seatown, Dorset).

Picture Credit: Siri Scientific Press (fossil found and prepared by Lizzie Hingley)

A Reference for All Collectors and Fossil Enthusiasts

Drawing on their detailed knowledge of fossil collecting, Craig and Steve describe what to look for and where to find an array of fossil specimens along this part of the “Jurassic Coast”.  The landscape is vividly portrayed and the book provides a handy, rucksack-sized reference for fossil collectors, whether seasoned professionals or first time visitors to Dorset.  We commend the authors for including copious amounts of helpful information on responsible fossil collecting and for publishing in full the West Dorset Fossil Collecting Code.

Breath-taking Views of the Natural Beauty of the Coastline

Fossil hunting around Seatown.

Golden Cap – excursions around Seatown.  Majestic views of the “Jurassic Coast”.

Picture Credit: Siri Scientific Press

Recreating Ancient Environments

Talented palaeoartist Andreas Kurpisz provides readers with digital reconstructions of ancient environments and brings to life the fossil specimens, showing them as living creatures interacting with other prehistoric animals in a series of Jurassic landscapes and seascapes.  These reconstructions help to document the changing environments that are now preserved within the imposing cliffs of this remarkable part of the British coastline.

Crinoids (Sea Lilies) from the West Dorset Coast

Crinoids from the "Jurassic Coast".

The book contains stunning photographs of fossils from the “Jurassic Coast”.

Picture Credit: Siri Scientific Press

Spokesperson for Everything Dinosaur, Mike Walley commented:

“This guide manages to capture the beauty and the fascination of this part of the “Jurassic Coast”.  It is a “must have” for all fossil collectors and if ever the delegates at that UNESCO conference needed to reaffirm their decision to grant this stunning part of the British coastline World Heritage Site status, this book provides ample evidence to justify their original decision.”

For further information and to order this exquisite guide book: Order “A Guide to Fossil Collecting on the West Dorset Coast”

8 12, 2018

Animantarx Fact Sheet

By | December 8th, 2018|Dinosaur Fans, Everything Dinosaur Products, Geology, Main Page, Photos of Everything Dinosaur Products, Press Releases|0 Comments

Preparing a Fact Sheet for the Schleich Animantarx Model

Team members at Everything Dinosaur have been busy preparing for the arrival of the first batch of new for 2019 Schleich prehistoric animal figures.  In this first set of models from the German-based manufacturer, there is a replica of the armoured dinosaur called Animantarx (Animantarx ramaljonesi), a fact sheet providing information about this nodosaurid is being compiled, so that customers of Everything Dinosaur can learn about this enigmatic member of the Thyreophora (shield-bearers).

New for 2019 the Schleich Animantarx Dinosaur Model

The new for 2019 Schleich Animantarx dinosaur model.

The Schleich Animantarx dinosaur model (new for 2019).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Using Ankylosaurs for Biostratigraphical Dating of the Cedar Mountain Formation

The disarticulated and fragmentary fossils representing a single, individual animal were described in 1999 (Carpenter, Kirkland, Burge and Bird) and Animantarx is one of numerous Ankylosaurs known from the Cedar Mountain Formation of the western United States.  The Cedar Mountain Formation has the highest concentration of ankylosaurid species of any Lower Cretaceous formation, it is hoped that further field work will help palaeontologists to build up a better picture of their evolution and subsequent radiation.

The list of armoured dinosaurs is quite long for example:

  • Sauropelta – Poison Strip Sandstone
  • Cedarpelta – Mussentuchit Member
  • Animantarx – Mussentuchit Member
  • Peloroplites – Mussentuchit Member
  • Gastonia – Yellow Cat Member

It has been suggested that given the numbers of armoured dinosaurs present in the strata, ankylosaurids can be used to help with relative dating of rock layers (biostratigraphy).

A Scale Drawing of Animantarx

Animantarx Scale Drawing.

A scale drawing of the armoured dinosaur from Utah – Animantarx ramaljonesi.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Distinct Cretaceous Dinosaur Faunas

Recent research has identified three distinct dinosaur-based faunas represented by the vertebrate fossils from the Cedar Mountain Formation.  Ankylosaurs are the most common dinosaur of the upper part of the Yellowcat Member and Poison Strip Sandstone of the Cedar Mountain Formation but are rare in other members.  This scarcity may be due to insufficient collecting in the middle and upper parts of the Cedar Mountain.  Nevertheless, Ankylosaur dinosaurs indicate a three-fold division of the Cedar Mountain dinosaur faunas.  Intriguingly, Animantarx is known from the youngest member of the Cedar Mountain Formation (Mussentuchit Member).  These rocks hold a mixture of Early and Late Cretaceous dinosaur fossils – tyrannosaurids, ceratopsids, iguanodonts, ankylosaurids etc.  The strata might document a migration event whereby Asian dinosaurs moved into North America via an Alaskan land bridge.  This migration may have contributed to the extinction of several types of endemic North American members of the Dinosauria.

To view the range of Schleich prehistoric animal figures available from Everything Dinosaur: Schleich Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animal Models

15 09, 2018

A View of the Jurassic Coast

By | September 15th, 2018|Geology, Main Page, Photos|0 Comments

Viewing the “Jurassic Coastline”

The famous “Jurassic Coast” stretches for 95 miles (155 kilometres).  It runs from Exmouth in East Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset and the layers of sedimentary rock record approximately 185 million years of Earth’s history. This coastline on the English Channel was designated at England’s first UNESCO natural World Heritage Site back in 2001 and although it attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every month during the summer, there are still quiet parts to be explored and enjoyed.

A View of the Jurassic Coast Towards Burton Bradstock East of Lyme Regis

Heading east from Lyme Regis to Burton Bradstock.

The view towards West Bay and Burton Bradstock.  A beautiful day on the UNESCO World Heritage site, the “Jurassic Coast”.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The photograph shows a section of the sandstone cliffs that lie to the east of Seatown in Dorset, the view shows West Bay and on the far right the sheer sandstone cliffs of Burton Bradstock can just be made out.

What a terrific view, this area of southern England may attract huge numbers of visitors every year, but there are still some areas, especially those more difficult to access parts of the coastline, that can provide opportunities to have a small section of a UNESCO World Heritage site, all to yourself, for a few minutes at least.

18 07, 2018

The Dinosaur Park and Hell Creek Formations

By | July 18th, 2018|Adobe CS5, Dinosaur Fans, Everything Dinosaur News and Updates, Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

The Dinosaur Park Formation (DPF) and the Hell Creek Formation (HCF)

We have been asked to give a brief explanation of the different dinosaurs associated with two famous North America rock formations.  A comment on the different dinosaur faunas associated with the Dinosaur Park Formation (DPF) of southern Alberta and the Hell Creek Formation (HCF), which is mostly associated with the state of Montana but also outcrops in North and South Dakota as well as Wyoming.

The Badlands of the Dinosaur Park Formation (DPF) – Hunting for Dinosaur Fossils

Looking for Late Cretaceous dinosaur fossils.

A typical view of the “Badlands” of the Dinosaur Park Formation.  The red arrow in the picture highlights the layer in which the fossils of a new type of horned dinosaur were discovered.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The Badlands

Both the Hell Creek Formation and the Dinosaur Park Formation are referred to as “Badlands”, this term is derived from the French phrase “les mauvaises terres” and dates back to the early years of exploration of these vast tracts of land.  The term describes an area largely devoid of vegetation that is subjected to rapid erosion caused by wind, rain and running water.  The DPF is older, the strata were laid down between 76.5 and 75 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous (Campanian faunal stage).  In contrast, the Hell Creek Formation is younger.  The rocks were formed at the very end of the Cretaceous (Maastrichtian faunal stage) and the strata records the transition from the end of the Cretaceous into the Palaeocene, the first Epoch of the Cenozoic.  The HCF spans approximately 66.8 to 66 million years ago and documents evidence of an extra-terrestrial impact event preserved as a thin clay layer that contains large quantities of the rare Earth element iridium, marking the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary, representing an extinction event denoting the end of the age of the dinosaurs and the start of the Cenozoic.

Looking for Fossils – Hell Creek Formation

Looking for fossils - Hell Creek Formation.

Prospecting for fossils – Hell Creek Formation (Montana).

Picture Credit: University of California Museum of Palaeontology

The Ancient Environments

The strata that forms the DPF represents a coastal plan environment, crossed by numerous large rivers.  The majority of the rocks are sandstones and mudstones, although there are layers of volcanic ash (bentonite), which resulted from the sporadic eruptions of volcanoes in the region. In the upper part of the DPF, coal deposits can be found (Lethbridge coal zone), representing deposition in a swampy environment.  The sea gradually encroached onto this coastal plain and the area was eventually flooded, resulting in the deposition of the marine shales that represent the Bearpaw Formation that overlies the DPF.

The Hell Creek Formation was created under similar circumstances.  It too represents clays, mudstones and sandstones deposited on a delta, a low-lying flood plain crossed by many rivers.  The HCF also has peaty, coal-like deposits (lignite), representing deposition in coastal swampy environments.

The Palaeoenvironment of the Dinosaur Park Formation

The fauna and flora of Alberta 75 million years ago

Alberta around 75 million years ago (Dinosaur Park Formation).

Picture Credit: Julius Csotonyi

A Chasmosaurus and a Lambeosaurus feeding during the late evening, a typical scene representing the biota associated with the DPF.

The Palaeoenvironment of the Hell Creek Formation

Triceratops dinosaur illustration.

Triceratops was one of the last dinosaurs to evolve.  A resident of the Hell Creek Formation.

Picture Credit: Julius Csotonyi

A Triceratops grazes next to a palm tree on the coastal plain that is represented by deposits that help to make up the Hell Creek Formation of Montana.

Different Time Periods – Different Dinosaurs

Both the HCF and the DPF are famous for extensive dinosaur fossils.  It is worth remembering that numerous other kinds of animal (and plants) are represented in the fossil record of these two formations.  Although, the dinosaur fauna is similar between the DPF and the HCF, for example the terrestrial large herbivores are dominated by duck-billed dinosaurs and Ceratopsians, the genera represented are very different.

In simple terms, the stage scenery might be similar and the cast of characters reminiscent but the actors on the stage are different.

Typical Dinosaurs from the Dinosaur Park Formation (Campanian Faunal Stage of the Cretaceous)

Dinosaur Park Formation dinosaurs.

Typical dinosaur fauna of the Dinosaur Park Formation (Alberta, Canada).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Typical Dinosaurs from the Hell Creek Formation (Maastrichtian Faunal Stage of the Cretaceous)

Dinosaurs of the Hell Creek Formation.

Typical dinosaurs of the Hell Creek Formation.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

We are looking forward to our visit to the Beacon Museum at Whitehaven (Cumbria).  Everything Dinosaur will be taking visitors on a fossil hunt and we hope to be able to give away real dinosaur bones.

15 07, 2018

Carboniferous Fossils on a Welsh Hillside

By | July 15th, 2018|Geology, Main Page, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Mynydd Marian Nature Reserve and Fossils

Overlooking the Welsh coast between Llandudno and Rhyl is the beautiful but quite compact nature reserve of Mynydd Marian.  It forms part of a range of low limestone hills that can be found along this part of the coast of North Wales.  The location, a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), is popular with walkers keen to spot the myriad of different insects and the orchids that thrive on the limestone soils.  The exposed cliffs that were once quarried for their limestone, attract local climbing groups.  However, there is plenty to see for fossil hunters too.  The strata were laid down over 320 million years ago (Carboniferous), it was formed from the compressed shells of countless marine invertebrates that thrived in a warm, shallow sea.  If the numerous stone walls are examined carefully, then lots of fossils of brachiopods and the button-like segments of marine crinoids can be spotted.

A Crinoid Segment Spotted in a Dry-stone Wall (Mynydd Marian)

Spotting a piece of a Carboniferous crinoid.

A crinoid stem exposed in a stone wall at Mynydd Marian nature reserve.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

There is little scree to be found and we would not advise climbing the steep faces of the quarry but if the rocks that comprise the stone walls are examined, then many fossils can be seen.

Spotting Fossils at Mynydd Marian Nature Reserve

Spotting fossils at Mynydd Marian

A crinoid segment (red arrow) and a mould revealing the impression of a brachiopod shell (green arrow) on the surrounding rock.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The picture (above), shows two fossils preserved in the rocks of a dry-stone wall.  The red arrow is pointing to a crinoid segment, whilst the green arrow indicates a mould left in the surrounding matrix by a brachiopod shell.  There is no need to disturb the rocks in the wall, careful observation is all that is required and you will soon start to discern the different types of fossil.

An Impression of the Shell of a Brachiopod preserved in the Limestone

A view of a lost world, an impression of the shell of a brachiopod preserved in the limestone rock.

A glimpse into a lost world, an impression of the shell of a brachiopod preserved in the limestone.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

12 07, 2018

In the Pink! Life’s First Colour

By | July 12th, 2018|Geology, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Scientists Identify the World’s Oldest Biological Colours

A team of international scientists including researchers from the University of Liège, Florida State University and the Australian National University, in collaboration with a colleague based in Japan have discovered the oldest colours preserved in the fossil record.  An analysis of the remains of microscopic, 1.1 billion-year-old cyanobacteria suggest that life back in the Proterozoic was “in the pink”.  Pink coloured pigments have been extracted from ancient marine shales that form part of the Taoudeni Basin of Mauritania (north-western Africa).

When Held Up in the Light the Pink Colouration can be Seen

A vial of pink pigments porphyrins - representing the oldest intact pigments in the world.

The oldest colours found to date.

Picture Credit: Australian National University

One of the authors of the scientific paper, published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA”, Dr Nur Gueneli (Australian National University), explained that the pigments taken from the marine black shales were more than six hundred million years older than previous pigment discoveries.

Dr Gueneli commented:

“The bright pink pigments are the molecular fossils of chlorophyll that were produced by ancient photosynthetic organisms inhabiting an ancient ocean that has long since vanished.”

Samples of the shales laid down during the Stenian, the last geological period of the Mesoproterozoic Era, were ground into fine powder before the ancient molecules of long extinct cyanobacteria could be extracted and analysed.  The fossils reveal a range of colours from a blood red to a deep purple in their concentrated form, but when diluted, it is the colour pink that dominates.

Dr Gueneli, who undertook this research whilst studying for a PhD added:

“The precise analysis of the ancient pigments confirmed that tiny cyanobacteria dominated the base of the food chain in the oceans a billion years ago, which helps to explain why animals did not exist at the time.”

Lack of Things for Higher Organisms to Eat

Complicated animal life was not able to evolve, according to one hypothesis, as it was restrained by the lack of food in the ocean.  In essence, life on Earth could not pick up the evolutionary pace as food webs were constrained by the amount of primary producers in the ecosystem.  Through the team’s discovery of molecular fossils of the photopigment chlorophyll in 1.1-billion-year-old marine sedimentary rocks, they were able to quantify the abundance of different organisms that uses the sun’s energy to produce food (phototrophs).  Nitrogen isotopic values of the fossil pigments revealed that the Pan-African Ocean was dominated by cyanobacteria, while larger planktonic algae were very scarce.  These findings support the hypothesis that small cells at the base of the food chain limited the flow of energy to higher trophic levels, potentially retarding the emergence of large and complex life.

Associate Professor Jochen Brooks, of the Research School of Earth Sciences (Australian National University), one of the authors of the scientific paper, stated that the emergence of more complex life forms was likely to have been restricted by the limited supply of larger food particles, such as algae.

Associate Professor Brooks explained:

“Algae, although still microscopic, are a thousand times larger in volume than cyanobacteria, and are a much richer food source.  The cyanobacterial oceans started to vanish about 650 million years ago, when algae began to rapidly spread to provide the burst of energy needed for the evolution of complex ecosystems, where large animals, including humans, could thrive on Earth.”

5 07, 2018

Scientists Turn to Fossil Plants to Determine Tibetan Plateau Uplift

By | July 5th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

Plant Fossils Pinpoint the Timing of the Uplift of South-eastern Tibet

The immense Tibetan Plateau which borders the Himalayas, is sometimes referred to as the “roof of the world”.   This foreboding landscape rises thousands of metres above sea level, it harbours a unique ecosystem and is the source of some of the most economically significant rivers in the world.  However, when this plateau was formed and the geological mechanisms that led to this part of Asian being uplifted to form this elevated plain, are poorly understood.

Fossilised plants may help determine when the uplift occurred.  This may seem unlikely, when studying tectonic forces, but by looking at living flora, scientists can determine information about the climate and habitat that the plants are living in from their shape, leaf size and structure.  These same pointers can be identified in fossil plants too.

Plant Fossils Helping to Unlock the Geology of South-eastern Asia

Plant fossils from south-eastern Tibet.

Plant fossils associated with different layers in the Markan Basin provide an indication of climate change and geological uplift.

Picture Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

Plants Interact with Their Environment

Plants live at the Earth’s surface and have to constantly interact with the atmosphere, their leaves are very good at recording their surroundings, including properties of the atmosphere that are related to altitude.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), more specifically from the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG), have been examining plant fossils from the Lawula Formation in the Markan Basin, south-eastern Tibet.  They have used plant fossil evidence to assess the date of the uplift of south-east Tibet.  The mountain range building may have been accelerated when the Tibetan Plateau was already around three kilometres above sea level and rising to its present-day height.

Fortunately, the strata with plant fossils were found between volcanic ash layers that allowed them to be precisely dated using argon isotope degradation analysis.  It turned out that the fossil assemblages were much older than their relatively modern appearance would suggest.  Several thousand fossil leaves were examined from four different layers of sediment.  Two fossiliferous layers proved to be the most important for this study.  The lower level (MK3), was dated using the isotope analysis to around 34.6 million years ago, whilst the upper layer (MK1), was dated to 33.4 million years ago.  As such, these deposits span the Eocene-Oligocene Epoch Transition (around 33.9 million years ago), a time when there was dramatic climate change.

One of the Fossil Sites (Kajun Village, Markan Basin)

The Markan Basin (south-eastern Tibet).

A view of one of the fossil sites (Kajun Village) currently at around 3,900 metres above sea level.

Picture Credit: Science China Press

Intriguingly, the older layer MK3 is dominated by leaves of the ring-cupped oak and members of the birch family, whereas MK1 consists almost exclusively of alpine taxa with small leaves.  The plant fossils suggest that the habitat changed from a relatively temperate evergreen and deciduous broad-leaved plant dominated flora to alpine scrub.

The CAS research team concluded that during the Eocene-Oligocene Transition, south-eastern Tibet was around three kilometres high and actively rising, close to its present-day height.  The team’s results demonstrate that the onset of geological uplift took place earlier, some ten million years earlier than previously suggested.

The results show that the elevation of south-eastern Tibet took place largely in the Eocene, which has major implications for uplift mechanisms, landscape development and the evolution of the flora and fauna of this region.

The argon isotope analysis of the volcanic ash layers helping to date the Markan Basin fossils, adds to a growing list of Palaeogene sites in this part of Asia, which are actually far older than biostratigraphic and lithostratigraphic data indicate.  The researchers postulate that their study supports the growing body of scientific opinion that the evolution of the highly diverse Asian biota is s Palaeogene, not a Neogene phenomenon and took place before the end of the Eocene.  The evolution of modern-day ecosystems may be deeply-rooted in the Palaeogene and this may have been driven by the changing and complex Tibetan topography and resultant climate change.

The scientists from the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden are continuing to collect plant fossils from different parts of Tibet.  They hope to build a model framework which permits a much better understanding of the uplift and the forces involved over deep time.

16 06, 2018

4D Scanning Technology Helps to Predict Lava Flows

By | June 16th, 2018|Geology, Main Page|0 Comments

New Research Helps to Predict Unpredictable Lava Flows

Scientists, including researchers from Manchester University are using the latest 4D technology to predict the behaviour of lava flows after a volcanic eruption.  The results, published in the journal “Scientific Reports” help explain why some lava flows can cover many miles in just a few hours, whilst others travel much more slowly.  Highlighting the hazards posed by fast-moving flows will help to save lives and could lead to better management strategies.

New Technology Helping to Minimise the Threat of Lava Flows following Volcanic Eruptions

Volcanic eruptions in future may not be so deadly.

New technology is helping to predict lava flows.

Picture Credit: Universal Pictures

The research involves studying the processes that take place during crystallisation in basaltic magmas, 4D synchrotron X-ray microtomography technology is being utilised to study lava flow.  It is the first time this kind of 4D scanning technology has been used for investigating crystallisation during volcanic eruptions and for simulating the behaviour of these potentially devastating natural events.

The team, led by Professor Mike Burton, (Chair of Volcanology at Manchester University), monitored crystallisation in magmas, a fundamental process that drives eruptions and controls different kinds of volcanic activity.  Using this new and novel approach the team can, for the first time, watch the crystals grow in three dimensions in real-time, simulating the behaviour of lava flows once a volcano has erupted.  The process is similar to scenes recently witnessed at Kilauea in Hawaii.

The professor explained:

“During volcanic eruptions small crystals grow within magma.  These crystals can greatly change the way magma flows.  Simply put, the more crystals there are the slower the eruption will be which also reduces the speed and distance travelled by lava flows.  The fewer crystals present in the lava means the eruption will speed up, potentially becoming more powerful and devastating.  Our research and this new approach open an entirely new frontier in the study of volcanic processes.”

Studying Samples from Real Volcanic Eruptions

To study the rate of crystal growth, the team set up a sample from a real eruption in a high temperature cell, before performing X-ray CAT scans whilst controlling the temperature of the magma. This allowed the researchers to visualise the formation and growth of crystals, and measure how quickly they grew.

Using this method and technology the researchers can collect hundreds of 3D images during a single experiment. This data is then used in complex, numerical models to fully characterise the behaviour of volcanic eruptions more accurately.

Lead author of the recently published paper, Dr Margherita Polacci (University of Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences), added:

“Being able to more accurately predict the behaviour of lava flows could also allow us to help relevant safety agencies devise and develop new safety strategies and actions when dealing with eruptions in populated areas.”

Predicting the Flow of Lava Will Help to Save Lives

Dangerous lava flows.

Dangerous lava flows (Kilauea in Hawaii).

Picture Credit: Reuters

Extending this Technology into Other Fields

The researchers are confident that predicting lava flows will not be the only application for this new technology.  The team expect their research to have implications for mineral extraction as well as other geological processes.  For the time being, any advances in the prediction models for the behaviour of lava flows would be welcomed, given the obvious benefits such tools will have to the authorities when it comes to planning evacuations and minimising the risk to life.

The scientific paper: “Crystallisation in Basaltic Magmas Revealed via in situ 4D synchrotron X-ray Microtomography” by M. Polacci, F. Arzilli, G. La Spina, N. Le Gall, B. Cai, D. Di Genova, N. T. Vo, S. Nonni, R. C. Atwood, E. W. Llewellin, P. D. Lee and M. R. Burton published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Everything Dinosaur acknowledges the help of a press release from the University of Manchester in the compilation of this article.

9 05, 2018

A Weather Forecast from the Cambrian

By | May 9th, 2018|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Geology, Main Page, Palaeontological articles, Photos/Pictures of Fossils|0 Comments

Tiny Fossils Provide Clues to Earth’s Climate 500 Million Years Ago

A joint team of scientists from France and the UK, have plotted the temperature of our planet’s oceans over half a billion years ago using a combination of fossil data and computer-based climate models.  Think of it as a sort of weather forecast from the Cambrian.  This newly published research suggests that the first hard-bodied animals diversified in warms seas, heated by a greenhouse world.  The team’s findings help to expand our knowledge of the environment at the time of the Cambrian explosion, a period in Earth’s history that saw a huge increase in the number and type of marine animal forms.

Life in the Late Cambrian Period

Cambrian life.

Life in the Late Cambrian by Zdeněk Burian.

Picture Credit: Zdeněk Burian

Writing in the academic journal “Science Advances”, the scientists, led by researchers from the University of Leicester, used climate models and the chemical analysis of tiny, shelly fossils preserved in limestone from Shropshire (central England), to calculate the sea temperature during a time of rapid diversity of animal life in the Palaeozoic.  From around 540 to 510 million years ago, the fossil record shows a marked change, as during this period of Earth’s history, virtually all of the animal phyla (including the Chordata – our phylum) appeared.  The idea of a “Cambrian explosion” is a little misleading, the appearance of many new forms of complex animal life may have been gradual, but in terms of the fossil record, sites such as the famous Burgess Shale of British Columbia and Yunnan Province (southern China), have revealed extensive and varied marine ecosystems with large numbers of new types of animal being recorded in the strata.

Analysis of Some of the First Shelly Fossils

Scientists had thought that for much of the Cambrian, our planet was warmer that it is today with no polar ice caps present.  A study of tiny 1 mm long fossils of some of the first animals to produce a hard, shelly exoskeleton has confirmed this hypothesis.  Analysis of isotopes from the tiny shells in combination with the climate models show that at high latitudes (around 65 degrees south), sea temperatures were in excess of 20 degrees Celsius.  This might seem very warm, especially when you consider that this is an evaluation of sea temperatures at approximately 65 degrees south, today, travelling to that latitude would put you on the southernmost fringes of the Southern Ocean and close to Antarctica.  However, the data generated is similar to more recent, better understood, greenhouse climates such as that of the Late Cretaceous.

Reflected Light Microscopy – Brachiopod Fossils Used in the Study

Reflected light microscope images of Cambrian brachiopods.

Reflected light microscope images of some of the brachiopod fossils (phosphatic microfossils), used in this study.

Picture Credit: Leicester University

Co-author of the open access paper, PhD student Thomas Hearing (University of Leicester’s School of Geography, Geology and the Environment), explained:

“Because scientists cannot directly measure sea temperatures from half a billion years ago, they have to use proxy data, these are measurable quantities that respond in a predictable way to changing climate variables like temperature.  In this study, we used oxygen isotope ratios, which is a commonly used palaeothermometer.  We then used acid to extract fossils about 1 mm long from blocks of limestone from Shropshire, UK, dated to between 515 – 510 million years old.  Careful examination of these tiny fossils revealed that some of them have exceptionally well-preserved shell chemistry which has not changed since they grew on the Cambrian sea floor.” 

High Resolution Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Images of Brachiopod Fossils Used in the Study

SEM images of brachiopods.

Electron microscope images of some of the brachiopod fossils used in this study. Electron microscopy allows much higher resolution imaging of small structures than normal light microscopy.

Picture Credit: Leicester University

Dr Tom Harvey (University of Leicester) added:

“Many marine animals incorporate chemical traces of seawater into their shells as they grow.  That chemical signature is often lost over geological time, so it’s remarkable that we can identify it in such ancient fossils.” 

Analyses of the oxygen isotopes of these fossils suggested very warm temperatures for high latitude seas (~65 °S), probably between 20 °C to 25 °C.  To see if these were feasible sea temperatures, the researchers carried out climate model simulations for the Cambrian.  The climate model scenarios suggest that the Earth’s climate was in a “typical” greenhouse state, with temperatures similar to more recent and better understood greenhouse intervals known from the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic eras.  Ultimately, this study will help to expand our knowledge of the ecosystem that existed during the Cambrian.

The Highly Fossiliferous Comley Limestones (Shropshire, UK)

A thin section of highly fossiliferous rock of Cambrian age.

A thin section slice through the trilobite-rich Comley Limestones (Shropshire, UK).

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

The curves and white wavy lines in the photograph (above), are preserved exoskeletons of numerous trilobites.

Thomas Hearing concluded:

“We hope that this approach can be used by other researchers to build up a clearer picture of ancient climates where conventional climate proxy data are not available.”

The research was carried out as an international collaboration involving scientists from the University of Leicester (UK), British Geological Survey (BGS; UK), and CEREGE (France).

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

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