Clarkia Flora: 16-million-year-old plants offer a window into the past

Margret Steinthorsdottir and Helen K Coxall (Sweden) Near the small town of Clarkia in Shoshone County, Idaho in the USA, exists a rich and unique fossil deposit. The Clarkia fossils, or Clarkia Flora, as the deposit is mostly called due to the abundance of fossil plants, is so well preserved that the assemblage is referred to as a “lagerstätte”, a scientific term reserved for the world’s very finest fossil deposits. The Clarkia fossils are found in sediments that are now known to be about 16 million years old and belong to a period in Earth history called the Miocene. By this time, the (non-avian) dinosaurs were long extinct (the last of these dinosaurs disappeared about 66 million years ago), the Earth’s continents were more or less in the same position as today, and many of the animals and plants would have started looking familiar to modern humans (who emerged much later, about 200,000 years ago). Fig. 1. The entrance to the “Fossil Bowl” motocross racetrack and fossil locality near Clarkia, Idaho. Among the Clarkia fossils can be found various insects, fish and occasionally the remains of small mammals. However, most striking is the wealth of plant fossils in the form of exceptionally well-preserved leaves, nuts, seeds and wood. Impressively, one can find leaves of oak, laurel, pine and birch that look virtually identical to those we find today. If you look quickly when a new fossil is newly exposed from within the host sediments, you may occasionally even see the … Read More

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Rocks in Roslin Glen: A record of a swampy past

Mark Wilkinson and Claire Jellema (UK) Midlothian is an area of central Scotland that lies to the west of Edinburgh and is an area with strong geological connections due to a history of mining for both coal and oil shale. As a part of the annual Midlothian Science Festival (http://midlothiansciencefestival.com/), the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh offered a walk to look at some local geology and a talk about climate change research on the Greenland icecap. In addition, a ‘Dino and Rocks Day’ was attended by 380 people, proof (as if it were needed) that dinosaurs continue to fascinate the general public. The Edinburgh Geological Society also contributed with a session about Midlothian Fossils and a local historian talked about the history of coal mining in the area. The geology walk visited local exposures, in this case Carboniferous sediments including what may be the best exposed fluvial sediments in the area. The walk was advertised as “Rocks in Roslin Glen: a Record of a Swampy Past” and all 25 spaces were quickly booked. The location was Roslin Glen, which may sound familiar if you’ve seen the film, The Da Vinci Code, based on the novel by Dan Brown. We have not misspelled the name of the glen incidentally. For some reason, Rosslyn Chapel lies on the edge of Roslin Glen and the country park of the same spelling. The glen itself is a steep-sided valley of around 20m in depth, which carries the River North Esk roughly … Read More

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Fossil fish from northern Scotland

 Bob Davidson (UK) The north of Scotland is famous to scientists and amateur collectors for its wealth of localities where fossil fish of Devonian age can be collected. From plate tectonics, we know that in Devonian times Scotland was situated just below the equator, as part of a continent that was largely arid desert and where land plants were only just emerging. Most life on earth was still aquatic and fishes were the most successful backboned animals. The fossil fish of the area are unique in many ways. They present a window on the development of vertebrates, in which many of the innovations necessary to pave the way for the next great evolutionary step (the invasion by tetrapods of the land) were already in place. The fauna contains the acanthodians, one of the first group of vertebrates to evolve jaws, and the lobe finned fishes, so called because of their fleshy lobes supporting their pectoral and pelvic fins. The lobe fins also include the lungfish. Their fleshy fin lobes played an important role in the development of the limbs of early four-legged animals (tetrapods) and ultimately to all terrestrial vertebrates today – including ourselves. The classic Middle Devonian (380 to 375Ma old) locality is Achanarras Quarry in Caithness, where exquisitely preserved fish can be collected in an old roof tile quarry. Many such quarries existed in the past and fish have been widely collected from several localities over the years. The fish are preserved in thinly laminated siltstones and limestones, … Read More

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Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS): Using geology to fight climate change

Mark Wilkinson (UK) Practically everyone has an opinion on climate change by now, although for the vast majority of scientists, the weight of evidence is overwhelming – emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are causing climate change, sometimes referred to as global warming. One possible technology for fighting climate change is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in which geology plays an important role. In fact, future generations of geologists may be employed searching for CO2 storage sites in the subsurface, rather than for the more traditional search for oil and gas. The aim of CCS is simple – to allow the continuing use of fossil fuels while reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In the long term, the burning of fossil fuels will probably cease, but until we can rely on renewable sources of energy, we are stuck with these fuels as a cheap and reliable energy source. CO2 is emitted during many activities, including driving cars and heating homes, but the largest single sources are fossil fuel power plants, which generate electricity, followed by industries, such as steel works and cement plants. It is these that most research has been focussed on. And, in principle, the technology is simple – capture the CO2 from a source (such as a power plant; Fig. 1) before it gets into the atmosphere, then transport it to a suitable storage site and inject it into the ground where it will remain for tens of thousands of years. Fig. … Read More

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Humble flint sea urchins and the stories they tell

Joe Shimmin (UK) Flint is a very hard-wearing rock from the chalk of the Upper Cretaceous. Whole beaches made of flint pebbles can be found many miles away from the chalk strata that the nodules originated in, owing to the rock’s ability to withstand the processes that destroy other rocks quickly. Flint sea urchins are especially hard-wearing, as their rounded shapes require a lot of force to damage, while less-rounded flints tend to break up over time if subjected to high-energy environments, such as beaches and fast-flowing rivers. Because of this robustness, it is possible to find flint urchins, which have undergone some very interesting journeys before being collected, adding to their interest for fossil hunters. Fig. 1. The hardness of flint and the rounded shape of flint urchins make them extremely robust fossils. All flints start off within chalk strata. Where these strata are exposed at the coast or in quarries and cuttings, it is possible to collect flint sea urchins, which, at first, look very much as if they are preserved like every other urchin found in chalk. They have a white calcite-replaced test and all that can be seen of the flint within is a slight blueish tint or maybe a glimpse of the nodule through the anal or oral apertures. Of course, flints can also be found that partially or fully envelop an urchin and, in these cases, highly aesthetic display pieces can sometimes occur. Fig. 2. Two of these pristine fossil urchins, extracted straight from … Read More

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