Murusraptor barrosaensis, a new species in the megaraptorid clade.

Body reconstruction of Murusraptor barrosaensis (From Coria et al., 2016)

Body reconstruction of Murusraptor barrosaensis (From Coria et al., 2016)

Patagonia has yielded the most comprehensive fossil record of Cretaceous theropods from Gondwana, including Megaraptora, a clade of medium-sized and highly pneumatized theropods represented by Megaraptor, Orkoraptor and Aerosteon, and characterized by the formidable development of their manual claws on digits I and II and the transversely compressed and ventrally sharp ungual of the first manual digit (Novas et al, 2013). The enigmatic nature of this group has been a matter of discussion since the description of the first megaraptoran, Megaraptor namunhaiquii. For years, Megaraptor has been alternatively interpreted as belonging to different theropod lineages: as basal coelurosaurians (Novas,1998), basal tetanurans (Calvo et al.,2004; Smith et al., 2008), and allosauroids closely related with carcharodontosaurids (Smith et al., 2007; Benson et al., 2010; Carrano et al., 2012). The main reason for so many different interpretations is the incomplete nature of most available megaraptorid skeletons and the little information about their cranial anatomy.

Murusraptor barrosaensis, from the Upper Cretaceous of Neuquén Province, Argentina, belongs to a Patagonian radiation of megaraptorids together with Aerosteon, Megaraptor and Orkoraptor. Murusraptor, meaning “Wall Raptor”, was discovered in a canyon wall in 2001 during an expedition to Sierra Barrosa in northwestern Patagonia. The holotype specimen includes much of the skull, axial skeleton, pelvis and tibia. The braincase is intact and most of the sutures are still visible, indicating that this was not a fully mature animal.

Different appendicular elements of Murusraptor in their original burial positions (From Coria et al., 2016)

Different appendicular elements of Murusraptor in their original burial positions (From Coria et al., 2016)

Murusraptor barrosaensis is unique in having anterodorsal process of lacrimal longer than height of preorbital process; sacral ribs hollow and tubelike; short ischia distally flattened and slightly expanded dorsoventrally.

Murusraptor shares with all Megaraptoridae two unambiguous synapomorphies: teeth with no enamel wrinkles (interpreted as a reversion to primitive condition in Theropoda); and anterior caudal vertebrae with neural arch bearing prominent centrodiapophysial laminae that define a deep infradiapophysial fossa. Murusraptor also exhibits some characters that are interpreted as convergencies of this taxon with non-tyrannosauroid theropods, including lacrimal with a small pneumatic recess; and a highly pneumatic braincase (Coria et al., 2016)

References:

Rodolfo A. Coria, Philip J. Currie. A New Megaraptoran Dinosaur (Dinosauria, Theropoda, Megaraptoridae) from the Late Cretaceous of Patagonia. PLOS ONE, 2016; 11 (7): e0157973 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0157973

Porfiri, J. D., Novas, F. E., Calvo, J. O., Agnolín, F. L., Ezcurra, M. D. & Cerda, I. A. 2014. Juvenile specimen of Megaraptor (Dinosauria, Theropoda) sheds light about tyrannosauroid radiation. Cretaceous Research 51: 35-55.

 

Introducing Gualicho.

Gualicho shinyae, at the Centro Cultural de la Ciencia.

Gualicho shinyae, at the Centro Cultural de la Ciencia.

The Cretaceous beds of Patagonia have yielded the most comprehensive record of Cretaceous theropods from Gondwana and includes at least five main theropod lineages: Abelisauroidea, Carcharodontosauridae, Megaraptora, Alvarezsauridae, and Unenlagiidae. The best represented theropod clades in the Late Cretaceous terrestrial strata of the Neuquén Basin are the Abelisauroidea and the Carcharodontosauridae. The  Abelisauroidea has been divided in two main branches: the Noasauridae which includes the small-sized abelisauroids, and the Abelisauridae which comprises medium to large-sized animals, like the popular Carnotaurus sastrei. The group exhibits strongly reduced forelimbs and hands, stout hindlimbs, with a proportionally robust and short femur and tibia.  The Carcharodontosauridae includes the largest land predators in the early and middle Cretaceous of Gondwana, like the popular, Giganotosaurus carolinii. The group evolved large skulls surpassing the length of the largest skull of Tyrannosaurus rex.  Another common trait is the fusion of cranial bones. Gualicho shinyae gen. et sp. nov, a partially articulated mid-sized theropod (about 7.6m long and 450kg in weight) represents a new tetanuran theropod taxon from the Huincul Formation.

Articulated right foot of the holotype of Gualicho shinyae during excavation (from Apesteguía et al., 2016)

Articulated right foot of the holotype of Gualicho shinyae during excavation (from Apesteguía et al., 2016)

The new specimen exhibits a new and unusual combination of characters observed in various remotely related clades including ceratosaurs, tyrannosaurids, and megaraptorans. The didactyl manus with a semilunate distal carpal are indicative of derived tetanuran affinities, while the expanded posterior margin of the metatarsal III proximal articulation, are shared with ceratosaurs. The reduced forelimbs with didactyl manus are similar to those of the tyrannosaurids. However, in tyrannosaurids, the carpal elements are reduced and proximodistally flattened, whereas in Gualicho the semilunate and scapholunare carpals retain a more complex shape typical of the carpal elements of most non-coelurosaurian tetanurans. In addition, the manus of Gualicho differs from tyrannosaurids in having a proportionately more robust metacarpal I with a rectangular, rather than triangular, proximal articulation in end view (Apesteguía et al., 2016).

Left humerus of the of the holotype specimen of Gualicho shinyae (MPCN PV 0001) in (A) anterior, (B) posterior, (C) proximal, and (D) distal views. Abbreviations: dpc, deltopectoral crest; ics, intercondylar sulcus; it, internal tuberosity; msh, scar for insertion of m. scapulohumeralis (From Apesteguía et al., 2016).

Left humerus of the of the holotype specimen of Gualicho shinyae (MPCN PV 0001) in (A) anterior, (B) posterior, (C) proximal, and (D) distal views. Abbreviations: dpc, deltopectoral crest; ics, intercondylar sulcus; it, internal tuberosity; msh, scar for insertion of m. scapulohumeralis (From Apesteguía et al., 2016).

Gualicho shares several derived characters with the African theropod Deltadromeus, including reduced distal humeral articulations, and an expanded lobe bearing a medial trough on the proximocaudal aspect of the fibula. The faunal resemblances between strata in the Neuquén and San Jorge Basins of Patagonia and North African Cenomanian beds are intriguing, but difficult to interpret due to a lack of well sampled, age equivalent strata elsewhere.

Gualicho was discovered on a paleontological expedition led by Sebastian Apesteguía in 2007. The name derived from the Gennaken (Northern Tehuelche languaje) watsiltsüm, an old goddess now considered a source of misfortune. The name was chosen to reflect the difficult circumstances surrounding the discovery and study of the specimen. The specific name honors Ms. Akiko Shinya, Chief Fossil Preparator at the Field Museum.

References:

Apesteguía S, Smith ND, Juárez Valieri R, Makovicky PJ (2016) An Unusual New Theropod with a Didactyl Manus from the Upper Cretaceous of Patagonia, Argentina. PLoS ONE 11(7): e0157793. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0157793

A Tale of Two Exctintions.

The permian triassic boundary at Meishan, China (Photo: Shuzhong Shen)

The Permian Triassic boundary at Meishan, China (Photo: Shuzhong Shen)

Extinction is the ultimate fate of all species. The fossil record indicates that more than 95% of all species that ever lived are now extinct. Over the last 3 decades, mass extinction events  have become the subject of increasingly detailed and multidisciplinary investigations. In 1982, Jack Sepkoski and David M. Raup identified five major extinction events in Earth’s history: at the end of the Ordovician period, Late Devonian, End Permian, End Triassic and the End Cretaceous. These five events are know as the Big Five.

The end-Permian extinction is the most severe biotic crisis in the fossil record, with as much as 95% of the marine animal species and a similarly high proportion of terrestrial plants and animals going extinct . This great crisis occurred 252 million years ago (Ma) during an episode of global warming. The End-Triassic Extinction  is probably the least understood of the big five. Most mammal-like reptiles and large amphibians disappeared, as well as early dinosaur groups. In the oceans, this event eliminated conodonts and nearly annihilated corals, ammonites, brachiopods and bivalves. Although it’s almost impossible briefly summarize all the changes in biodiversity associated with both extinction events, we can describe their broad trends.

 

Flow chart summarizing proposed cause-and-effect relationships during the end-Permian extinction (From Bond and Wignall, 2014)

Flow chart summarizing proposed cause-and-effect relationships during the end-Permian extinction (From Bond and Wignall, 2014)

Both extinction events are commonly linked to the emplacement of the large igneous provinces of the Siberian Traps and the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province. Massive volcanic eruptions with lava flows, released large quantities of sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, thermogenic methane and large amounts of HF, HCl, halocarbons and toxic aromatics and heavy metals into the atmosphere. Furthermore, volcanism contribute gases to the atmosphere, such as Cl, F, and CH3Cl from coal combustion, that suppress ozone formation. Acid rain likely had an impact on freshwater ecosystems and may have triggered forest dieback. Mutagenesis observed in the Lower Triassic herbaceous lycopsid Isoetales has been attributed to increased levels of UV-radiation. Charcoal records point to forest fires as a common denominator during both events. Forest dieback was accompanied by the proliferation of opportunists and pioneers, including ferns and fern allies. Moreover, both events led to major schisms in the dominant terrestrial herbivores  and apex predators, including the late Permian extinction of the pariaeosaurs and many dicynodonts and the end-Triassic loss of crurotarsans (van de Schootbrugge and Wignall, 2016).

Aberrant pollen and spores from the end-Triassic extinction interval (scale bars are 20 μm). (a) Ricciisporites tuberculatus from the uppermost Rhaetian deposits at Northern Ireland (adapted from van de Schootbrugge and Wignall, 2016)

Aberrant pollen and spores from the end-Triassic extinction interval (scale bars are 20 μm). (a) Ricciisporites
tuberculatus and b) Kraeuselisporites reissingerii (adapted from van de Schootbrugge and Wignall, 2016)

During the end-Permian Event, the woody gymnosperm vegetation (cordaitaleans and glossopterids) were replaced by spore-producing plants (mainly lycophytes) before the typical Mesozoic woody vegetation evolved. The palynological record suggests that wooded terrestrial ecosystems took four to five million years to reform stable ecosystems, while spore-producing lycopsids had an important ecological role in the post-extinction interval. A key factor for plant resilience is the time-scale: if the duration of the ecological disruption did not exceed that of the viability of seeds and spores, those plant taxa have the potential to recover (Traverse, 1988). Palynological records from across Europe provide evidence for complete loss of tree-bearing vegetation reflected in a strong decline in pollen abundance at the end of the Triassic. In the Southern Hemisphere, the vegetation turnover consisted in the replacement to Alisporites (corystosperm)-dominated assemblage to a Classopollis (cheirolepidiacean)-dominated one.

Comparison of extinction rates for calcareous organisms during the end-Permian and end-Triassic extinction event (from van de Schootbrugge and Wignall, 2016)

Comparison of extinction rates for calcareous organisms during the end-Permian and end-Triassic extinction event (from van de Schootbrugge and Wignall, 2016)

Rapid additions of carbon dioxide during extreme events may have driven surface waters to undersaturation. Acidification affects the biogeochemical dynamics of calcium carbonate, organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the ocean and interferes with a range of processes, including growth, calcification, development, reproduction and behaviour in a wide range of marine organisms like foraminifera, planktonic coccolithophores, pteropods and other molluscs,  echinoderms, corals, and coralline algae. Both extinction events led to near-annihilation of cnidarian clades and other taxa responsible for reef construction, resulting in ‘reef gaps’ that lasted millions of years. Black shales deposited across both extinction events also contain increased concentrations of the biomarker isorenieratane, a pigment from green sulphur bacteria, suggesting that the photic zone underwent prolonged periods of high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide. Following the end-Triassic extinction, Early Jurassic shallow seas witnessed recurrent euxinia over a time span of 25 million years, culminating in the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event.

 

References:

BAS VAN DE SCHOOTBRUGGE and PAUL B. WIGNALL (2016). A tale of two extinctions: converging end-Permian and end-Triassic scenarios. Geological Magazine, 153, pp 332-354. doi:10.1017/S0016756815000643.

BACHAN, A. & PAYNE, J. L. 2015. Modelling the impact of pulsed CAMP volcanism on pCO2 and δ13C across the Triassic-Jurassic transition. Geological Magazine, published online

Retallack, G.J. 2013. Permian and Triassic greenhouse crises. Gondwana Research 24:90–103.

 

Once upon a time, there was a Dodo.

Painting of the Dodo by Roelandt Savery executed in ca. 1626 and held at the NHMUK, London.

Painting of the Dodo by Roelandt Savery executed in ca. 1626 and held at the NHMUK, London.

The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus Linnaeus, 1758) a giant, flightless pigeon endemic to the Mascarene island of Mauritius, became extinct just three centuries ago. As one of the earliest species to be identified as extinct, the Dodo gained tremendous celebrity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was first used as the prime example of a species wiped out by recent human activity in the Penny Magazine (Broderip 1833; reprinted in the Penny Cyclopaedia), where the author wrote that: “The agency of man, in limiting the increase of the inferior animals, and in extirpating certain races, was perhaps never more strikingly exemplified than in the case of the Dodo. That a species so remarkable in its character should become extinct, within little more than two centuries, so that the fact of its existence at all has been doubted, is a circumstance which may well excite our surprise, and lead us to a consideration of similar changes which are still going on from the same cause.”

Much greater public awareness of the Dodo’s demise followed publication of the monograph The Dodo and Its Kindred (Strickland and Melville 1848). Shortly after, a life-size reconstruction of a Dodo was displayed in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London and later exhibited at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. Even Lewis Carroll featured the Dodo as a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and firmly established the bird as a popular figure in Victorian culture.

The Oxford dodo head (From Wikimedia Commons)

The Oxford dodo head (From Wikimedia Commons)

In 1828, John Duncan, curator at the Ashmolean Museum, described a desiccated dodo head and foot held at the museum. In 1842, John Theodore Reinhardt, a Danish professor, examined a second dodo skull at the Copenhagen Museum and concluded that it was a giant pigeon. Prior to Reinhardt’s proposal, the Dodo had variously been considered a diminutive ostrich, a rail, or even a kind of vulture.

The publication of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ coincided with a spectacular discovery of subfossil dodo bones from a marsh called the Mare aux Songes in Mauritius in 1865.  George Clark, discoverer of the fossil site, sent consignments of bones initially to Richard Owen  and subsequently to Alfred Newton. A year later, Owen described the bones in Memoir on the Dodo. He reconstructed the bird using the most famous of the contemporary Dodo paintings, one by the Dutch artist Roelandt Savery. Three years later, Owen rectified his mistake by reconstructing the bird in a natural more upright position.

Amateur naturalist and barber Louis Etienne Thirioux (1846–1917),  collected two of the most important dodo skeletons known to science around the turn of the 19th century. Thirioux’s dodos were discovered in the foothills and valleys of Le Pouce and surrounding mountains, but their exact provenance has not been recorded.

Owen’s (1866) original reconstruction of the dodo.

Owen’s (1866) original reconstruction of the dodo.

In 1896, Hilaire Belloc wrote a beautiful poem about the dodo in his Bad Child’s Book of Beasts.

The Dodo used to walk around,
And take the sun and air.
The sun yet warms his native ground –
The Dodo is not there!

The voice which used to squawk and squeak
Is now for ever dumb –
Yet may you see his bones and beak
All in the Mu-se-um.

References:

Kenneth F. Rijsdijk, Julian P. Hume, Perry G. B. De Louw, Hanneke J. M. Meijer, Anwar Janoo, Erik J. De Boer, Lorna Steel, John De Vos, Laura G. Van Der Sluis, Henry Hooghiemstra, F. B. Vincent Florens, Cláudia Baider, Tamara J. J. Vernimmen, Pieter Baas, Anneke H. Van Heteren, Vikash Rupear, Gorah Beebeejaun, Alan Grihault, J. (Hans) Van Der Plicht, Marijke Besselink, Juliën K. Lubeek, Max Jansen, Sjoerd J. Kluiving, Hege Hollund, Beth Shapiro, Matthew Collins, Mike Buckley, Ranjith M. Jayasena, Nicolas Porch, Rene Floore, Frans Bunnik, Andrew Biedlingmaier, Jennifer Leavitt, Gregory Monfette, Anna Kimelblatt, Adrienne Randall, Pieter Floore & Leon P. A. M. Claessens (2015) A review of the dodo and its ecosystem: insights from a vertebrate concentration Lagerstätte in Mauritius, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 35: sup1, 3-20, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1113803

Turvey, S. T.; Cheke, A. S. (2008). “Dead as a dodo: The fortuitous rise to fame of an extinction icon”. Historical Biology 20 (2): 149–163

Mary Anning and the flying dragon.

The holotype specimen of Dimorphodon macronyx found by Mary Anning in 1828 (From Wikimedia Commons)

The holotype specimen of Dimorphodon macronyx found by Mary Anning in 1828 (From Wikimedia Commons)

The nineteen century was the “golden age” of Geology. The Industrial Revolution ushered a period of canal digging and major quarrying operations for building stone. These activities exposed sedimentary strata and fossils. So, the concept of an ancient Earth became part of the public understanding and Literature influenced the pervasiveness of geological thinking. The most popular aspect of geology was  the collecting of fossils and minerals and the nineteenth-century geology, often perceived as the sport of gentlemen, was in fact, “reliant on all classes” (Buckland, 2013). Women were free to take part in collecting fossils and mineral specimens, and they were allowed to attend lectures but they were barred from membership in scientific societies.

By 1828, Mary Anning (21 May 1799–9 March 1847) had been collecting fossils from Lyme Regis for at least 17 years. Her father was a carpenter and an amateur fossil collector who died when Mary was eleven. He trained Mary and her brother Joseph in how to look and clean fossils. After the death of her father, Mary and Joseph used those skills to search fossils on the local cliffs, that sold as “curiosities”. The source of the fossils was the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, one of the richest fossil locations in England and part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias.

A) Mary Anning (1799- 1847) B) William Buckland (1784- 1856)

A) Mary Anning (1799- 1847) B) William Buckland (1784- 1856)

On December of 1828, Mary found the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany. The first pterosaur described by Collini in 1784, was named Pterodactylus antiquus. The second holotype was discovered in 1812 and was named Ornithocephalus brevirostris. William Buckland made the announcement of Mary’s discovery in the Geological Society of London and named Pterodactylus macronyx in allusion to its large claws. The animal had a wingspan of around 1.4 m with an elongate tail. The specimen was twice the size of Pterodactylus antiquus.

The skull of Anning’s specimen had not been discovered, but Buckland thought that the fragment of jaw in the collection of the Philpot sisters of Lyme belonged to a pterosaur. In the 1850s, another specimen was found, this time with a skull at Lyme and another skull was found later. The skulls of the Lyme Regis pterosaurs bore no resemblance to those of the Solnhofen Limestone in Germany, so Richard Owen erected the new generic name Dimorphodon (Martill, 2013).

Water colour by the Reverend G. E. Howman (From Martill 2015)

Water colour by the Reverend G. E. Howman (From Martill 2013)

In 1829 the Reverend George Howman painted the earliest restoration of a pterosaur. The watercolour also incorporates a ruined castle and a ship, but amazingly predicts aspects of the anatomy of pterosaurs not brought to light by fossils discovered until a few decades later. For instance, the first pterosaur with a preserved head crest was not described until 1876. The animal painted by Howman had an elongate head with small, widely spaced teeth in a long rostrum – exactly like those of the Pterodactylus antiquus described by Collini. However, Howman’s depiction of the wings is seriously flawed except for the presence of a membranous flight surface.

There’s little doubt that the watercolour by Howman was intended to represent the Pterodactylus discovered by Mary Anning. A label on the back of the work reads: ‘By the Revd G. Howman from Dr [Burckhardt’s] account of a flying dragon found at Lyme Regis supposed to be noctivagous’ .

In her later years, Mary Anning suffered some serious financial problems. Henry De la Beche helped her during those hard times. Also William Buckland persuaded the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the British government to award her an annuity of £25, in return for her many contributions to the science of geology.

References:

Hugh Torrens, Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme; ‘The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew’, The British Journal for the History of Science Vol. 28, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 257-284. Published by: Cambridge University Press.

Davis, Larry E. (2012) “Mary Anning: Princess of Palaeontology and Geological Lioness,”The Compass: Earth Science Journal of Sigma Gamma Epsilon: Vol. 84: Iss. 1, Article 8.

Martill, D.M., Dimorphodon and the Reverend George Howman’s noctivagous flying dragon: the earliest restoration of a pterosaur in its natural habitat. Proc. Geol. Assoc. (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pgeola.2013.03.003

Martill, D.M., 2010. The early history of pterosaur discovery in Great Britain. In: Moody, R.T.J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D., Martill, D.M. (Eds.), Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, 287–311.

 

 

The EECO, the warmest interval of the past 65 million years.

Cenozoic strata on Seymour Island, Antarctica (© 2016 University of Leeds)

Cenozoic strata on Seymour Island, Antarctica (© 2016 University of Leeds)

During the last 540 million years, Earth’s climate has oscillated between three basic states: Icehouse, Greenhouse (subdivided into Cool and Warm states), and Hothouse (Kidder & Worsley, 2010). The “Hothouse” condition is relatively short-lived and is consequence from the release of anomalously large inputs of CO2 into the atmosphere during the formation of Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs), when atmospheric CO2 concentrations may rise above 16 times (4,800 ppmv), while the “Icehouse” is characterized by polar ice, with alternating glacial–interglacial episodes in response to orbital forcing. The ‘Cool Greenhouse” displays  some polar ice and alpine glaciers,  with global average temperatures between 21° and 24°C. Finally, the ‘Warm Greenhouse’ lacked of any polar ice, and global average temperatures might have ranged from 24° to 30°C.

Reconstructions of Earth’s history have considerably improved our knowledge of episodes of rapid emissions of greenhouse gases and abrupt warming. Consequently, the development of different proxy measures of paleoenvironmental parameters has received growing attention in recent years.

A) Scanning electron microphotographs of fossil Ginkgo adiantoides cuticle showing stomata (arrows) and epidermal cells. B) Scanning electron microphotographs of modern Ginkgo biloba cuticle.

A) Scanning electron microphotographs of fossil Ginkgo adiantoides cuticle showing stomata (arrows) and epidermal cells. B) Scanning electron microphotographs of modern Ginkgo biloba cuticle (From Smith et al. 2010)

The early Eocene was characterized by a series of short-lived episode  of global warming, superimposed on a long-term early Cenozoic warming trend. Atmospheric CO2 was the major driver of the overall warmth of the Eocene. For  the  Paleocene-Eocene  Thermal  Maximum (PETM; 55.8 million years ago), and the Early Eocene Climate Optimum (EECO; 51 to 53 million years ago) the transient rise of global temperatures has been estimated to be 4 to 8° (Hoffman et al., 2012).

Reconstructions using multiple climate proxy records, identified the EECO as the warmest interval of the past 65 million years. One such proxy measure is the stomatal frequency of land plants, which has been shown in some species to vary inversely with atmospheric pCO2 and has been used to estimate paleo-pCO2 for multiple geological time periods. Stomata are the controlled pores through which plants exchange gases with their environments, and play a key role in regulating the balance between photosynthetic productivity and water loss through transpiration. (Smith et al., 2010).

Sin título

Foraminiferal assemblage of the EECO (From KHANOLKAR and SARASWATI, 2015)

Pollen and other palynomorphs proved to be an extraordinary tool to palaeoenvironmental reconstruction. Terrestrial  microflora from the EECO indicates a  time  period  with  warm  and  humid  climatic  conditions and displays a higher  degree  of tropicality  than the microflora of  the PETM.

A new high-fidelity record of CO2 can be obtained by using the boron isotope of well preserved planktonic foraminifera. The boron isotopic composition of seawater is also recquiered to estimate the pH. The global mean surface temperature change for the EECO is thought to be ~14 ± 3 °C warmer than the pre-industrial period, and ~5 °C warmer than the late Eocene.

Evolution of atmospheric CO2 levels and global climate over the past 65 million years

Evolution of atmospheric CO2 levels and global climate over
the past 65 million years (From Zachos et al., 2008)

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution the anthropogenic release of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere has increased a 40%. Glaciers  from the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets are fading away, dumping 260 billion metric tons of water into the ocean every year. The ocean acidification is occurring at a rate faster than at any time in the last 300 million years, and  the patterns of rainfall and drought are changing and undermining food security which have major implications for human health, welfare and social infrastructure. These atmospheric changes follow an upward trend in anthropogenically induced CO2 and CH4. If  fossil-fuel emissions continue unstoppable, in less than 300 years pCO2 will reach a level not present on Earth for roughly 50 million years.

 

References:

Eleni Anagnostou, Eleanor H. John, Kirsty M. Edgar, Gavin L. Foster, Andy Ridgwell, Gordon N. Inglis, Richard D. Pancost, Daniel J. Lunt, Paul N. Pearson. Changing atmospheric CO2 concentration was the primary driver of early Cenozoic climate. Nature, 2016; DOI: 10.1038/nature17423

Zachos, J. C., Dickens, G. R. &  Zeebe, R. E. An early Cenozoic perspective on greenhouse warming and carbon-cycle dynamics. Nature 451, 279283(2008)

Loptson, C. A., Lunt, D. J. & Francis, J. E. Investigating vegetation-climate feedbacks during the early Eocene. Clim. Past 10, 419436 (2014)

Robin Y. Smith, David R. Greenwood, James F. Basinger; Estimating paleoatmospheric pCO2 during the Early Eocene Climatic Optimum from stomatal frequency of Ginkgo, Okanagan Highlands, British Columbia, Canada; Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 293, Issues 1–2, 1 (2010).

Unlocking the secrets of the Crater of Doom.

Luis and Walter Alvarez at the K-T Boundary in Gubbio, Italy, 1981 (From Wikimedia Commons)

Luis and Walter Alvarez at the K-T Boundary in Gubbio, Italy, 1981 (From Wikimedia Commons)

The noble and ancient city of Gubbio laid out along the ridges of Mount Ingino in Umbria, was founded by Etruscans between the second and first centuries B.C. The city has an exceptional artistic and monumental heritage which includes marvelous examples of Gothic architecture, like the Palazzo dei Consoli and the Palazzo del Bargello. The rich history of the city is recorded in those buildings. Outside the city, there are exposures of pelagic sedimentary rocks that recorded more than 50 million years of Earth’s history. In the 1970s it was recognized that these pelagic limestones carry a record of the reversals of the magnetic field. The  K-Pg boundary occurs within a portion of the sequence formed by pink limestone containing a variable amount of clay. This limestone, know as the “Scaglia rossa”, is composed by calcareous nannofossils and planktonic foraminifera.

In 1977, Walter Alvarez – an associate professor of geology University of California, Berkeley – was collecting samples of the limestone rock for a paleomagnetism study. He found that the foraminifera from the Upper Cretaceous (notably the genus Globotruncana) disappear abruptly and are replaced by Tertiary foraminifera. The extinction of most of the nannoplankton was simultaneus with the disappearance of the foraminifera (Alvarez et al., 1980).

Forams from the Upper Cretaceous vs. the post-impact foraminifera from the Paleogene. (Images from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History)

Forams from the Upper Cretaceous vs. the post-impact foraminifera from the Paleogene. (Images from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History)

At Caravaca on the southeast coast of Spain, Jan Smith, a Dutch geologist, had noticed a similar pattern of changes in forams in rocks around the K-T boundary. Looking for clues, Smith contacted to Jan Hertogen who found high iridium values at the clay boundary. At the same time, Walter Alvarez  gave his father, Luis Alvarez – an American physicist who won the  Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968 – a small polished cross-section of Gubbio  K-Pg boundary rock. The Alvarez gave some samples to Frank Asaro and Helen Michel, who had developed a new technique called neutron activation analysis (NAA). They also discovered the same iridium anomaly. The sea cliff of Stevns Klint, about 50 km south of Copenhagen, shows the same pattern of extinction and iridium anomaly. Another sample from New Zeland also exhibits a spike of iridium. The phenomenon was global.

Iridium is rare in the Earth’s crust but metal meteorites are often rich in iridium. Ten years before the iridium discovery, physicist Wallace Tucker and paleontologist Dale Russell proposed  that a supernova caused the mass extinction at the K-Pg boundary. Luis Alvarez realised that  a supernova would have also released plutonium-244, but there was no plutonium in the sample at all. They concluded that the anomalous iridium concentration at the K-Pg boundary is best interpreted as the result of an asteroid impact, which would explain the iridium and the lack of plutonium. In 1980, they published their seminal paper on Science, along with Asaro and Michel, and ignited a huge controversy. They even calculated the size of the asteroid (about 7 km in diameter) and the crater that this body might have caused (about 100–200 km across).

A paleogeographic map of the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the Cretaceous (From Vellekoop, 2014)

A paleogeographic map of the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the Cretaceous (From Vellekoop, 2014)

In 1981, Pemex (a Mexican oil company) identified Chicxulub as the site of a massive asteroid impact. In 1991, Alan Hildebrand, William Boynton, Glen Penfield and Antonio Camargo, published a paper entitled “Chicxulub crater: a possible Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary impact crater on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.” They had found the long-sought K/Pg impact crater.

The crater is more than 180 km (110 miles) in diameter and 20 km (10 miles) in depth, making the feature one of the largest confirmed impact structures on Earth. The  Chicxulub impact released an estimated energy equivalent of 100 teratonnes of TNT and produced high concentrations of dust, soot, and sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere. Model simulations suggest that the amount of sunlight that reached Earth’s surface was reduced by approximately 20%.This decrease of sunlight caused a drastic short-term global reduction in temperature. This phenomenon is called “impact winter”. Cold and darkness lasted for a period of months to years.  Photosynthesis stopped and the food chain collapsed. This period of reduced solar radiation may only have lasted several months to decades. Three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth disappeared. Marine ecosystems lost about half of their species while freshwater environments shows low extinction rates, about 10% to 22% of genera. Additionally, the vapour produced by the impact  could have led to global acid rain and a dramatic acidification of marine surface waters.

The Chicxulub asteroid impact was the final straw that pushed Earth past the tipping point.  The K-Pg extinction that followed the impact was one of the five great Phanerozoic  mass extinctions. Currently about 170 impact craters are known on Earth; about one third of those structures are not exposed on the surface and can only be studied by geophysics or drilling. Now, a new drilling platform in the the Gulf of Mexico, sponsored by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, will looking rock cores from the site of the impact. The main object is learn more about the scale of the impact, and the environmental catastrophe that ensued.

References:

Alvarez, L., W. Alvarez, F. Asaro, and H.V. Michel. 1980. Extraterrestrial cause for the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction: Experimental results and theoretical interpretation. Science 208:1095–1108.

Alvarez, W. (1997) T. rex and the Crater of Doom. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Hildebrand, A.R., G.T. Penfield, D.A. Kring, M. Pilkington, A. Camargo, S.B. Jacobsen, and W.V. Boynton. 1991. Chicxulub crater: A possible Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary impact crater on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Geology 19:867–71.

 

 

Darwin’s Fossil Mammals.

Portrait of Charles Darwin painted by George Richmond (1840)

Portrait of Charles Darwin painted by George Richmond (1840)

When Charles Darwin arrived to South America, he was only 22 years old. He was part of the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle. During the first two years of his voyage aboard HMS Beagle, Darwin collected a considerable number of fossil mammals from various South American localities. He sent all the specimens, to his mentor John Stevens Henslow. The samples were deposited in the Royal College of Surgeons where Richard Owen began its study. Between 1837 and 1845, Owen described eleven taxa, including: Toxodon platensis, Macrauchenia patachonica, Equus curvidens, Scelidotherium leptocephalum, Mylodon darwinii and Glossotherium sp. Previous to this expedition, the first news of “fossils” in South American were reported by early Spanish explorers, and George Cuvier, in 1796,  published the first scientific work about Megatherium americanum, based on the specimen recovered by Fray Manuel Torres from Lujan, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Darwin recovered his first fossil at Punta Alta (Buenos Aires Province, Argentina) on September 23, 1832, and continued collecting intermittently at this locality until October 16. Later, he went to Monte Hermoso and returned to Punta Alta between August 29 – 31, 1833. Then, he moved to Guardia del Monte (Buenos Aires Province); the Rio Carcarañá (Santa Fe Province, Argentina), and the Bajada Santa Fe (Paraná, Entre Ríos Province, Argentina). After a short stay in Uruguay, Darwin returned to Argentina and collected his last specimens at Puerto San Julián (Santa Cruz Province) in 1834. During his journey between Buenos Aires and Santa Fe he wrote “We may therefore conclude that the whole area of the Pampas is one wide sepulchre for these extinct quadrupeds” (Voyage of the Beagle, Chapter VII, Oct. 1833).

Fossil Toxodon on display at Bernardino Rivadavia Natural Sciences Museum.

Fossil Toxodon on display at Bernardino Rivadavia Natural Sciences Museum.

Toxodon was named by Owen based on a large skull purchased by Darwin. He paid 18 pence for it. Darwin described it as “one of the strangest animals, ever discovered…” Owen bestowed the name because its upper incisors were strongly arched (Toxodon means “arched tooth”). He also recognized Toxodon as “A gigantic extinct mammiferous animal, referable to the Order Pachydermata, but with affinities to the Rodentia, Edentata, and Herbivorous Cetacea”. Toxodonts shares a number of dental, auditory and tarsal specializations. They had  short hippopotamus-like head with broad jaws filled with bow shaped teeth and incisors, a massive skeleton with short stout legs with three functional toes. The estimated weight is over a tonne. About the different groups that appeared to be related to Toxodon, Darwin stated:“How wonderfully are the different orders, at the present time so well separated, blended together in different points of the structure of Toxodon”

A recent phylogenetic analysis indicates that Toxodon is most closely related to perissodactyls, a group that includes rhinos, tapirs, and horses.

Macrauchenia patachonica by Robert Bruce Horsfall.

Macrauchenia patachonica by Robert Bruce Horsfall.

Macrauchenia, meaning “big neck,” was named by Owen based on limb bones and vertebrae collected by Darwin in January 1834 at Puerto San Julian, in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. The bizarre animal had a camel-like body, with sturdy legs, a long neck and a relatively small head. Owen described as “A large extinct Mammiferous Animal, referrible to the Order Pachydermata; but with affinities to the Ruminantia, and especially to the Camelidae”. Macrauchenia is now considered among the more derived native South American litopterns. Darwin also made inferences about the environment which Macrauchenia lived: “Mr. Owen… considers that they form part of an animal allied to the guanaco or llama, but fully as large as the true camel. As all the existing members of the family of Camelidae are inhabitants of the most sterile countries, so we may suppose was this extinct kind… It is impossible to reflect without the deepest astonishment, on the changed state of this continent. Formerly it must have swarmed with great monsters, like the southern parts of Africa, but now we find only the tapir, guanaco, armadillo, capybara; mere pigmies compared to antecedents races… Since their loss, no very great physical changes can have taken place in the nature of the Country. What then has exterminated so many living creatures?…We are so profoundly ignorant concerning the physiological relations, on which the life, and even health (as shown by epidemics) of any existing species depends, that we argue with still less safety about either the life or death of any extinct kind” (Voyage of the Beagle, Chapter IX, Jan. 1834).

Scelidotherium leptocephalum, Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, Paris (From Wikimedia Commons)

Scelidotherium leptocephalum, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris (From Wikimedia Commons)

Darwin recovered fossil remains of at least five species of giant ground sloth. In a letter sent to John Stevens Henslow in November, 1832, Darwin listed the fossils collected, among which he emphasized “… the upper jaw & head of some very large animal, with 4 square hollow molars — & the head greatly produced infront. — I at first thought it belonged either to the Megalonyx or Megatherium.” Darwin decided in favor of Megatherium based on the presence of osteoderms collected in the same formation, but Owen (1838-1840) recognized the specimens assigned by Darwin to Megatherium as glyptodonts, toxodonts, and large ground sloths (Fernicola et al., 2009; Allmon 2015). Scelidotherium, was described by Owen on the basis of the only nearly complete skeleton found by Darwin at Punta Alta (Buenos Aires Province). Darwin considered the specimen as “allied to the Rhinoceros”. Scelidotherium is distinctive by an elongated, superficially anteater-like head. Another sloth, Mylodon was named by Richard Owen on the basis of a nearly complete lower jaw with teeth, which was found by Charles Darwin at Punta Alta (Buenos Aires Province). Owen (1839b) erected Mylodon for two species, Mylodon darwini and Mylodon harlani. The former species was based on a left dentary from Punta Alta (Buenos Aires Province), whereas the second was based on a cast of a mandible from North America.

Fossil mammals collected by Charles Darwin in South America during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (From Allmon, 2015).

Fossil mammals collected by Charles Darwin in South America during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (From Allmon, 2015).

Darwin also found fossil horse teeth assignable to the modern genus Equus. The two molars from Argentina were recovered from Punta Alta (Buenos Aires Province) and Bajada Santa Fe (Entre Rios Province), and represent the first fossil horses found in South America. He wrote: “Certainly it is a marvellous event in the history of animals that a native kind should have disappeared to be succeeded in after ages by the countless herds introduced with the Spanish colonist! (1839, p. 150).

By the end of the expedition, Darwin was already earned a name as a geologist and fossil collector. He narrated his experiences in his book “Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836″, published in 1839 and later simply known as “The Voyage of the Beagle”. When Darwin wrote his memories in 1858, he described the expedition in one strong and powerful sentence: “the voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career”.

 

References:

Warren D. Allmon (2015): Darwin and palaeontology: a re-evaluation of his interpretation of the fossil record, Historical Biology, DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2015.1011397

Fernicola JC, Vizcaíno SF, de Iuliis G. 2009. The fossil mammals collected by Charles Darwin in South America during his travels on board the HMS Beagle. Revista de la Asocición Geológica Argentina. 64(1):147–159.

Fariña, Richard A.; Vizcaíno, Sergio F.; De Iuliis, Gerry (2013). Megafauna. Giant Beasts of Pleistocene South America. Indiana University Press.

 

Palynology of the Ischigualasto Formation.

Ischigualasto-perfil-gusano-montañas

Image from Ischigualasto Park (http://www.ischigualasto.gob.ar/)

Ischigualasto is an arid, sculpted valley, in northwest Argentina (San Juan Province), limiting to the north with the Talampaya National Park, in La Rioja Province. Both areas belong to the same geological formation: the Ischigualasto-Villa Unión Basin which is centered on a rift zone that accumulated thick terrestrial deposits during the Triassic. This basin preserves a complete and continuous fossiliferous succession of continental Triassic rocks.

The Ischigualasto Formation is known worldwide for its tetrapod assemblage, which included the oldest known record of dinosaurs. Adolf Stelzner in 1889 published the first data on the geology of Ischigualasto, but it was not until 1911, that Bondenbender briefly refers to the fossils of the site. Several thin volcanic ash horizons, indicates that the deposition of the Ischigualasto Formation began at the Carnian Stage (approximately 228 mya), and consists of four lithostratigraphic members which in ascending order include the La Peña Member, the Cancha de Bochas Member, the Valle de la Luna Member, and the Quebrada de la Sal Member.

1–3. Retusotriletes herbstii sp. nov; 4–5. Rogalskaisporites cicatricosus; 6. Rugulatisporites

1–3. Retusotriletes herbstii sp. nov; 4–5. Rogalskaisporites cicatricosus; 6. Rugulatisporites

During the Late Triassic two distinct microfloras have been recognised in the southern hemisphere: the Ipswich microflora and the Onslow microflora. The Ipswich province, characterized by the abundance of bisaccate pollen, monosulcate pollen and trilete spores, evolved in southern and eastern Australia, Transantarctic Mountains region, South Africa and Argentina. The Onslow province is a mixture of Gondwanan and European taxa recognized in of north-western Australia, Madagascar, East Africa, Indian, and East Antarctic (Cesari and Colombi; 2013).

The recognition of Carnian European species in the Valle de la Luna Member of the Ishchigualasto Formation expands the distribution of the Onslow-type palynofloras. This assemblage was recovered from the site known as “El Hongo” in the Provincial Park, and contain the diagnostic “Onslow” species: Samaropollenites speciosus, Enzonalasporites vigens, Patinasporites densus, Vallatisporites ignacii, Ovalipollis pseudoalatus and Cycadopites stonei. This assemblage indicates that the Valle de la Luna Member was likely deposited under more humid conditions. It also implies the existence of a latitudinal floral belt from Timor (through the Circum-Mediterranean area) to western Argentina.

 

References:

Cesari, Silvia N., Colombi, Carina, Palynology of the late Triassic ischigualasto formation, Argentina: Paleoecological and paleogeographic implications, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (2016), doi: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.02.023

Césari, S. N., Colombi, C. E., 2013. A new Late Triassic phytogeographical scenario in westernmost Gondwana. Nature communications, 4.

Spalletti, L. A. Artabe, A. E. & Morel, E. M. Geological factors and evolution of southwestern Gondwana Triassic plants. Gondwana Res. 6, 119–134 (2003).

 

The Pliocene Warm Period, an analogue of a future warmer Earth.

 

Tuktoyuktuk Beach on the Arctic Ocean (From Wikipedia)

Tuktoyuktuk Beach on the Arctic Ocean (From Wikipedia)

Microfossils from deep-sea are crucial elements for our understanding of past and present oceans. Their skeletons take up chemical signals from the sea water, in particular isotopes of oxygen and carbon. Over millions of years, these skeletons accumulate in the deep ocean to become a major component of biogenic deep-sea sediments. The incorporation of Mg/Ca into the calcite of marine organisms, like foraminifera, is widely used to reconstruct the thermal evolution of the oceans throughout the Cenozoic. Planktic foraminifer Globigerinoides ruber is perhaps one of the most widely used species for reconstructing past sea-surface conditions. Additionally, Mg/Ca–oxygen isotope measurements of benthic foraminifera may be related to global ice volume and by extension, sea level (Evans et al., 2016). The importance of microfossils as tool for paleoclimate reconstruction was recognized early in the history of oceanography. John Murray, naturalist of the CHALLENGER Expedition (1872-1876) found that differences in species composition of planktonic foraminifera from ocean sediments contains clues about the temperatures in which they lived.

Scanning Electron Micrographs of Globigerinoides ruber (adapted from Thirumalai et al., 2014)

Scanning Electron Micrographs of Globigerinoides ruber (adapted from Thirumalai et al., 2014)

The most recent investigations have focused on unravelling the Pliocene Warm Period, a period proposed as a possible model for future climate. The analysis of the evolution of the major ice sheets and the temperature of the oceans indicates that during the middle part of the Pliocene epoch (3.3 Ma–3 Ma), global warmth reached temperatures similar to those projected for the end of this century, about 2°–3°C warmer globally on average than today.

The mid-Pliocene is used as an analog to a future warmer climate because it’s geologically recent and therefore similar to today in many aspects like the land-sea configuration, ocean circulation, and faunal and flora distribution. Mid- Pliocene sediments containing fossil proxies of climate are abundant worldwide, and many mid- Pliocene species are extant, making faunal and floral paleotemperature proxies based on modern calibrations possible (Robinson et al., 2012).

Surface air temperature anomalies of (top) the late 21st century and (bottom) the mid-Pliocene (from Robinson et al., 2012)

Surface air temperature anomalies of (top) the late 21st century and (bottom) the mid-Pliocene (from Robinson et al., 2012)

Foraminiferal Mg/Ca data suggest that the Pliocene tropics were the same temperature or cooler than present. At high latitudes, mid- Pliocene sea surface temperatures (SSTs) were substantially warmer than modern SSTs. These warmer temperatures were reflected in the vegetation of Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica. Coniferous forests replaced tundra in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Additionally, the Arctic Ocean may have been seasonally free of sea-ice, and were large fluctuations in ice cover on Greenland and West Antarctica (Dolan et al., 2011; Lunt et al., 2012).  These results highlights the importance of the Pliocene Warm Period to better understand future warm climates and their impacts.

Reference:

David Evans, Chris Brierley, Maureen E. Raymo, Jonathan Erez, Wolfgang Müller; Planktic foraminifera shell chemistry response to seawater chemistry: Pliocene–Pleistocene seawater Mg/Ca, temperature and sea level change; Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Volume 438, 15 March 2016, Pages 139-148

Jochen Knies, Patricia Cabedo-Sanz, Simon T. Belt, Soma Baranwal, Susanne Fietz, Antoni Rosell-Mel. The emergence of modern sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean. Nature Communications, 2014; 5: 5608 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms6608

Robinson, M.; Dowsett, H. J.; Chandler, M. A. (2008). “Pliocene role in assessing future climate impacts”; Eos 89 (49): 501–502.