Category Archives: Geobiology, palaeontology, and evolution

The rise of the eukaryotes

You and I, and all the living things that we can easily see belong to the most recently evolved of the three great domains of life, the Eukarya. The vast bulk of organisms that we can’t see unaided are prokaryotes, divided into the Bacteria and the Archaea. Their genetic material floats around in their cell’s fluid, while ours resides mainly in the eukaryote cell’s nucleus with a bit in various organelles known as mitochondria and the chloroplasts of plant cells. Unlike the chicken and egg question, that concerning which came first, prokaryotes or eukaryotes, is answered by DNA. Eukaryote DNA contains a lot from prokaryotes, but the converse does not hold. That contrast posed the question of how eukaryotes arose from the two earlier, simpler forms of life, the answer to which Lynn Margulis suggested to be a whole series of symbiotic relationships among various prokaryotes that shared a host cell; her hypothesis of endosymbiosis. Now, the vast majority of eukaryotes depend on free oxygen for their metabolism, so when the first of them arose boils down to the period of geological history following the Great Oxidation Event around 2.4 billion years ago.

Structure of a typical animal cell

Structure of a typical eukaryote (animal) cell (credit: Wikipedia)

Molecular-clock estimates based on the range of variation in the genomes of a wide range of eukaryotes suggest it took place sometime between 1000 and 2000 Ma. A better means of homing in on a date for the Last Eukaryote Common Ancestor (LECA – as opposed to that of the first organism LUCA) would be that of the earliest fossil to show eukaryote affinities. Grypania from 1.85 Ga, a sort of whorl-like fossil, is a good candidate and is widely thought to be the earliest of our kind but lacks signs of actual cells. More convincing fossils – known generically as acritarchs – from times between 1.5 and 1.0 Ga look like primitive fungi, red algae and slime moulds. A comprehensive review of the microfossils of the Palaeoproterozoic (2.5 to 1.6 Ga) includes both prokaryotes and probable early eukaryotes (Javaux, E.J. & Lepot, K. 2017. The Paleoproterozoic fossil record: Implications for the evolution of the biosphere during Earth’s middle-age. Earth Science Reviews, v. 176, p. 68-86; doi: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2017.10.0001). Yet, despite rapidly accumulating evidence, especially from rocks in China, the picture remains one of monotony; for instance Grypania spans the best part of half a billion years. Bacteria and Archaea cannot be distinguished easily in the absence of preserved DNA. Despite evidence for oxygen in the oceans and atmosphere, apart from a few shallow-water oxygenated examples the chemistry of Palaeoproterozoic marine sediments is dominated by mineralogical outcomes of reducing chemistry. Many chemical isotopic environmental proxies ‘flat-line’ to the extent that the early Proterozoic is sometimes referred to as the ‘boring billion’, yet our ultimate precursors were part of the marine ecosystem. That is, unless one accepts the possibility that that fossils labelled ‘eukaryote’ are colonial prokaryotes – evidence for cell nuclei is sparse. Endosymbiosis, although an attractive model for eukaryote origins, is not proven. The reason for lingering scepticism is that there are only a tiny number of modern examples of prokaryote cells ending up inside those of other prokaryotes.

Whatever, chemical biomarkers in sediments older than about 720 Ma indicate that prokaryotes were the only notable primary producers in the oceans until the Neoproterozoic. Microscopic fossils that are inescapably eukaryotes in the form of amoeba suddenly emerge around that time. This development from the lingering marginality of early eukaryotes to thriving ecosystems that they dominated thereafter is a puzzle seeking a plausible explanation. It coincides with the onset of the Snowball Earth glaciations of the Cryogenian Period (850 to 635 Ma) and a rise in atmospheric and presumably oceanic oxygen. Then macroscopic eukaryotes ‘bloomed’ into distinctively different forms in the Ediacaran Period (635 to 541 Ma) and thereafter. Before the Cryogenian we can perhaps regard eukaryan life and the endosymbiosis that may have given rise to it as a series of ecological experiments repeatedly knocked-back by chemical conditions and competition with the vastly more abundant prokaryotes.

 

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Banded iron formations (BIFs) reviewed

This image shows a 2.1 billion years old rock ...

2.1 billion years old boulder of banded ironstone. (credit: Wikipedia)

During most of the last hundred years every car body, rebar rod in concrete, ship, bridge and skyscraper frame had its origins in vividly striped red rocks from vast open-pit mines. Comprising mainly iron oxides with some silica, these banded iron formations, or BIFs for short, occur in profitable tonnages on every continent. But commercial reserves are confined mainly to sedimentary sequences dating from about 3 to 2 billion years ago. They are not the only commercial iron formations, but dominate supplies from estimated reserves of around 105 billion tons. From a non-commercial standpoint they are among the most revealing kinds of sediment as regards the Earth system and its evolution. All scientific aspects of BIFs and similar Fe-rich sediments are reviewed in a recent volume of Earth Science Reviews. (Konhauser, K.O. and 12 others 2017. Iron formations: a global record of Neoarchaean to Palaeoproterozoic environmental history. Earth Science Reviews, v. 172, p. 140-177; doi: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2017.06.012).

The chemical, mineral and isotopic compositions of BIFs form a detailed repository of the changing composition of seawater during a crucial period for the evolution of Earth and life – the transition from an anoxic surface environment to one in which water and air contained a persistent proportion of oxygen, known as the Great Oxidation Event (GOE). Paradoxically, BIFs are highly oxidized rocks, the bulk of which formed when other rocks show evidence for vanishingly small amounts of oxygen in the surface environment. The paradox began to be resolved when it was realized that ocean-ridge basaltic volcanism and sea-floor hydrothermal activity would have released vast amounts of soluble, reduced iron-2 into anoxic seawater, in the upper parts of which the first photosynthetic organisms evolved. Evidence for the presence of such cyanobacteria first appears around 3.5 billion years ago, in the form of carbonates whose structure suggests they accumulated from growth of microbial mats. Oxygen generated by photosynthesis in iron-rich water immediately acts to oxidize soluble iron-2 to iron-3 to yield highly insoluble iron oxides and hydroxides and thus deposits of BIFs. While oceans were iron-rich, formation of ironstones consumed ecologically available oxygen completely.

Other biological processes seem to have been involved in ironstone formation, such as photosynthesis by other bacteria that used dissolved iron-2 instead of water as a reductant for CO2, to release iron-3 instead of oxygen. That would immediately combine with OH­ ions in water to precipitate iron hydroxides. Konhauser and colleagues cogently piece together the complex links in chemistry and biology that emerged in the mid- to late Archaean to form a linkage between carbon- and iron cycles, which themselves influenced the evolution of other, less abundant elements in seawater from top to bottom. The GOE is at the centre. The direct evidence for it lies in the sudden appearance of ancient red soils at about 2.4 billion years, along with the disappearance of grains of sulfides and uranium oxides – both readily oxidized to soluble products – from riverine sandstones, which signifies significant oxygen in the atmosphere. Yet chemical changes in Precambrian marine sediments perhaps indicate that oxygen began to rise in ocean water as early as 3 billion years ago. That suggests that for half a billion years biogenic and abiogenic processes in the oceans were scavenging oxygen as fast as it could be produced so that only tiny amounts, if any, escaped into the atmosphere. Among other possible factors, oceanic methane emissions from methanogen bacteria may have consumed any atmospheric oxygen – today methane lasts only for about 9 years before reaction with oxygen forms CO2. If and when methanogens declined free oxygen would have been more likely to survive in the atmosphere.

The theme running through the review is that of changing and linked interactions between life and the inorganic world, mantle, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere that involved all available chemical elements. The dominant chemical process, as it is today, was the equilibrium between oxidation and reduction – the loss and gain of electrons among possible chemical reactions and in metabolic processes. Ironstones were formed more commonly between 3 to 2 Ga than at any time before or since, and form a substantial part of that periods sedimentary record. Their net product and that of the protracted organic-inorganic balancing act – oxygenation of the hydrosphere and atmosphere – opened the way for eukaryote organisms, their reproduction by way of the splitting and recombination of nuclear DNA and their evolutionary diversification into the animal and plant life that we know today and of which we are a part. It is possible that even a subtly different set of global processes and interactions set in motion during early evolution of a planet apparently like Earth may have led to different and even unimaginable biological outcomes in later times. The optimism of exobiologists should be tempered by this detailed review.

Shock and Er … wait a minute

Chicxulub2

Enhanced gravity map of the Chicxulub crater (credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Rampino has produced a new book (Rampino, M.R. 2017. Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century. Columbia University Press; New York). As the title subtly hints, Rampino is interested in mass extinctions and impacts; indeed quite a lot more, as he lays out a hypothesis that major terrestrial upheavals may stem from gravitational changes during the Solar System’s progress around the Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers reckon that this 250 Ma orbit involves wobbling through the galactic plane and possibly varying distributions of mass – stars, gas, dust and maybe dark matter – in a 33 Ma cycle. Changing gravitational forces affecting the Solar System may possibly fling small objects such as comets and asteroids towards the Earth on a regular basis. In the 1980s and 90s Rampino and others linked mass extinctions, flood-basalt outpourings and cratering events, with a 27 Ma periodicity. So the books isn’t entirely new, though it reads pretty well.

Such ideas have been around for decades, but it all kicked off in 1980 when Luis and Walter Alvarez and co-workers published their findings of iridium anomalies  at the K-Pg boundary and suggested that this could only have arisen from a major asteroid impact. Since it coincided with the mass extinction of dinosaurs and much else besides at the end of the Cretaceous it could hardly be ignored. Indeed their chance discovery launched quite a bandwagon. The iridium-rich layer also included glass spherules, shocked mineral grains, soot and other carbon molecules –nano-scale diamonds, nanotubes and fullerenes whose structure is akin to a geodesic dome – and other geochemical anomalies. Because the Chicxulub crater off the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico is exactly the right age and big enough to warrant a role in the K-Pg extinction, these lines of evidence have been widely adopted as the forensic smoking gun for other impacts. In the last 37 years every extinction event horizon has been scrutinized to seek such an extraterrestrial connection, with some success, except for exactly coincident big craters.

The K-Pg event is the only one that shows a clear temporal connection with a small mountain falling out of the sky, most of the others seeming to link with flood basalt events and their roughly cyclical frequency – but hence Rampino’s Shiva hypothesis that impacts may have caused the launch of mantle plumes from the core-mantle boundary. Others have used the ‘smoking gun’ components to link lesser events to a cosmic cause, the most notorious being the 2007 connection to the extinction of the North American Pleistocene megafauna and the start of the Younger Dryas return of glacial conditions. Since 1980 alternative mechanisms for producing most of the impact-connected materials have been demonstrated. It emerged in 2011 that nano-diamonds and fullerenes may form in a candle flame and their global distribution could be due to forest fires. And now it seems that shocked mineral grains can form during a lightning strike (Chen, J. et al. 2017. Generation of shock lamellae and melting in rocks by lightning-induced shock waves and electrical heating. Geophysical Research Letters, v. 44, p. 8757-8768; doi:10.1002/2017GL073843). Shocked or not, quartz and feldspar grains are resistant enough to be redistributed into sediments. Although platinum-group metals, such as iridium, are likely to be mainly locked away in Earth’s core, some volcanic exhalations and many flood basalts – especially those with high titanium contents – significantly are enriched in them. So even the Alvarez’s evidence for a K-Pg impact has an alternative explanation. Rampino is to be credited for acknowledging that in his book.

An awful lot of ideas about rare yet dreadful events in the biosphere depend, like many criminal cases, on the ‘weight of evidence’ and defy absolute proof. The evidence generally permits alternatives, such the cunning Verneshot hypothesis for the extinction-flood basalt connection supported by one of the founders of plate tectonics, W. Jason Morgan. As regards The K-Pg extinction, it is certain that a very large mass did fall on Chicxulub at the time of the mass extinction, whereas the Deccan flood basalts span a million years or so either side. But the jury is out on whether either or both did the deed. For other events of this scale and larger ones the money is on internal origins. As for Rampino’s galactic hypothesis, the statistics are decidedly dodgy, but chasing down more forensics is definitely on the cards.

English: From source; an animation showing the...

Animation showing the Chicxulub Crater impact. ( credit: University of Arizona, Space Imagery Center)

Ancient footprints

To see traces of where our forebears walked, such as the famous Australopithecus afarensis trackway at Laetoli in Tanzania, the footprints of Neanderthal children in 350 ka old Italian volcanic ash (The first volcanologists? Earth Pages March 2003) or even those of Mesolithic families in estuarine mud is about as heart stopping as it gets for a geologist. But imagine the astonishment of members of a multinational team working on Miocene shore-line sediments on Crete when they came upon a bedding surface covered with what are almost certainly the footprints of another bipedal animal from 5.7 Ma ago (Gierliński, G.D. et al. 2017. Possible hominin footprints from the late Miocene (c. 5.7 Ma) of Crete? Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, online; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pgeola.2017.07.006). Trackways preserve a few moments in time, however old they are and the chances of their being preserved are very small, yet they can supply information that is lost from even the best preserved fossil, such as gait, weight, speed and so forth.

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Track bearing surface; (b) two footprints in 5.7 Ma old Miocene sediments at Trachilos, Crete (credit: Gierliński, G.D. et al. 2017; Figures 2 and 8)

The tracks clearly indicate that whatever left them was bipedal and lacked claws, and closely resemble those attributed to A. afarensis at Laetoli in a 3.7 Ma old volcanic ash. What they do not resemble closely are those of non-hominin modern primates, such as chimpanzees. They are diminutive compared with adult modern human prints, being about 12.5 cm long (equivalent to a UK child’ shoe size 4 – US size 4.5, EU 20) and about a third to half the size of those at Laetoli. Were they around the age of those at Laetoli or younger there seems little doubt that they would be widely interpreted as being of hominin origin. But being from an island in the Mediterranean as well as far from sites in Africa that have yielded Miocene hominins (Ardipithecus kadabba from Ethiopia, Orrorin from Kenya and Sahelanthropus from Chad),  such an interpretation is bound to create controversy. Somewhat less controversial might be to regard them as having been created by a late-Miocene primate that convergently evolved a hominin-like upright gait and foot. Being preserved in what seem to be coastal marine sediments, there is probably little chance of body fossils being preserved in the exposed horizon. Since foot bones are so fragile, even if a primate fossil is discovered in the late Miocene of Crete the chances of resolving the issue are pretty remote. Yet fossil primate specialists will undoubtedly beat a well-trodden path to the Trachilos site near Kissamos on Crete

Wildfires and climate at the K-Pg boundary

It is now certain that the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary 66 Ma ago coincided with the impact of a ~10 km diameter asteroid that produced the infamous Chicxulub crater north of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. Whether or not this was the trigger for the mass extinction of marine and terrestrial fauna and flora – the flood basalts of the Deccan Traps are still very much in the frame – the worldwide ejecta layer from Chicxulub coincides exactly with the boundary that separates the Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras. As well as shocked quartz grains, anomalously high iridium concentrations and glass spherules the boundary layer contains abundant elemental carbon, which has been widely ascribed to soot released by vegetation that went up in flames on a massive scale. Atmospheric oxygen levels in the late Cretaceous were a little lower than those at present, or so recent estimates from carbon isotopes in Mesozoic to Recent ambers suggest (Tappert, R. et al. 2013. Stable carbon isotopes of C3 plant resins and ambers record changes in atmospheric oxygen since the Triassic. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, v. 121, p. 240-262,) – other estimates put the level substantially above that in modern air. Whatever, global wildfires occurred within the time taken for the Chicxulub ejecta to settle from the atmosphere; probably a few years. It has been estimated that about 700 billion tonnes of soot were laid down, suggesting that most of the Cretaceous terrestrial biomass and even a high proportion of that in soils literally went up in smoke.

Charles Bardeen and colleagues at the University of Colorado, Boulder, have modelled the climatic and chemical effects of this aspect of the catastrophe (Bardeen, C.G. et al. 2017. On transient climate change at the Cretaceous−Paleogene boundary due to atmospheric soot injections. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; doi:10.1073/pnas.1708980114). Despite the associated release of massive amounts of CO2 and water vapour by both the burning and the impact into seawater, giving increased impetus to the greenhouse effect, the study suggests that fine-grained soot would have lingered as an all enveloping pall in the stratosphere. Sunlight would have been blocked for over a year so that no photosynthesis would have been possible on land or in the upper ocean, the temperatures of the continent and ocean surfaces would have dropped by as much as 28 and 11 °C respectively to cause freezing temperatures at mid-latitudes. Moreover, absorption of solar radiation by the stratospheric soot layer would have increased the temperature of the upper atmosphere by several hundred degrees to destroy the ozone layer. Consequently, once the soot cleared the surface would have had a high ultraviolet irradiation for around a year.

The main implication of the modelling is a collapse in both green terrestrial vegetation and oceanic phytoplankton; most of the food chain would have been absent for long enough to wipe out those animals that depended on it entirely. While an enhanced greenhouse effect and increased acidification of the upper ocean through CO2 emissions by the Deccan flood volcanism would have placed gradually increasing and perhaps episodic stresses on the biosphere, the outcome of the Chicxulub impact would have been immediate and terrible.

More on mass extinctions and impacts here and here

The late-Ordovician mass extinction: volcanic connections

The dominant feature of Phanerozoic stratigraphy is surely the way that many of the formally named major time boundaries in the Stratigraphic Column coincide with sudden shifts in the abundance and diversity of fossil organisms. That is hardly surprising since all the globally recognised boundaries between Eras, Periods and lesser divisions in relative time were, and remain, based on palaeontology. Two boundaries between Eras – the Palaeozoic-Mesozoic (Permian-Triassic) at 252 Ma and Mesozoic-Cenozoic (Cretaceous-Palaeogene) at 66 Ma – and a boundary between Periods – Triassic-Jurassic at 201 Ma – coincide with enormous declines in biological diversity. They are defined by mass extinctions involving the loss of up to 95 % of all species living immediately before the events. Two other extinction events that match up to such awesome statistics do not define commensurately important stratigraphic boundaries. The Frasnian Stage of the late-Devonian closed at 372 Ma with a prolonged series of extinctions (~20 Ma) that eliminated  at least 70% of all species that were alive before it happened. The last 10 Ma of the Ordovician period witnessed two extinction events that snuffed out about the same number of species. The Cambrian Period is marked by 3 separate events that in percentage terms look even more extreme than those at the end of the Ordovician, but there are a great many less genera known from Cambrian times than formed fossils during the Ordovician.

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Faunal extinctions during the Phanerozoic in relation to the Stratigraphic Column.

Empirical coincidences between the precise timing of several mass extinctions with that of large igneous events – mainly flood basalts – suggest a repeated volcanic connection with deterioration of conditions for life. That is the case for four of the Famous Five, the end-Ordovician die-off having been ascribed to other causes; global cooling that resulted in south-polar glaciation of the Gondwana supercontinent and/or an extra-solar gamma-ray burst (predicated on the preferential extinction of Ordovician near-surface, planktonic fauna such as some trilobite families). Neither explanation is entirely satisfactory, but new evidence has emerged that may support a volcanic trigger (Jones, D.S. et al. 2017. A volcanic trigger for the Late Ordovician mass extinction? Mercury data from south China and Laurentia. Geology, v. 45, p. 631-634; doi:10.1130/G38940.1). David Jones and his US-Japan colleagues base their hypothesis on several very strong mercury concentrations in thin sequences in the western US and southern China of late Ordovician marine sediments that precede, but do not exactly coincide with, extinction pulses. They ascribe these to large igneous events that had global effects, on the basis of similar Hg anomalies associated with extinction-related LIPs. Yet no such volcanic provinces have been recorded from that time-range of the Ordovician, although rift-related volcanism of roughly that age has been reported from Korea. That does not rule out the possibility as LIPs, such as the Ontong Java Plateau, are known from parts of the modern ocean floor that formed in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. Ordovician ocean floor was subducted long ago.

The earlier Hg pulses coincide with evidence for late Ordovician glaciations over what is now Africa and eastern South America. The authors suggest that massive volcanism may then have increased the Earth’s albedo by blasting sulfates into the stratosphere. A similar effect may have resulted from chemical weathering of widely exposed flood basalts which draws down atmospheric CO2. The later pulses coincide with the end of Gondwanan glaciation, which may signify massive emanation of volcanic CO2 into the atmosphere and global warming. Despite being somewhat speculative, in the absence of evidence, a common link between the Big Five plus several other major extinctions and LIP volcanism would quieten their popular association with major asteroid and/or comet impacts currently being reinvigorated by drilling results from the K-Pg Chicxulub crater offshore of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Earliest hydrothermal vents and evidence for life

 

That seawater circulates through the axial regions of rifts associated with sea-floor spreading has been known since well before the acceptance of plate tectonics. The idea stems from the discovery in 1949 of brines with a temperature of 60°C on the central floor of the Red Sea, which in the early 60s turned out to be anomalously metal-rich as well. Advanced submersibles that can withstand the high pressures at great depth a decade later produced images of swirling clouds of sediment from large sea-floor springs, first on the Galapagos rift and subsequently on many others. The first shots were of dark, turbulent clouds, prompting the term ‘black smoker’ for such hydrothermal vents and it turns out that others produce light-coloured clouds – ‘white smokers’. Sampling revealed that the sediments in black smokers were in fact fine-grained precipitates of metallic sulfides, whereas those forming white smokers were sulfates, carbonates and oxides of barium calcium and silicon also precipitated from solute-rich brines produced by partial dissolution of ocean floor through which they had passes.

A black smoker known as "the brothers".

A black smoker with associated organism. (credit: Wikipedia)

Excitement grew when hydrothermal vents were shown to have complex animal ecosystems completely new to science. A variety of chemical evidence, most importantly the common presence of proteins and other cell chemicals built around metal sulfide groups in most living organisms, prompted the idea that hydrothermal vents may have hosted the origins of life on Earth. Many fossil vent systems also contain fossils; macrofossils in the Phanerozoic and microbial ones from the Precambrian. But tangible signs of life, in the form of mats ascribed to bacteria or archaea holding together fine-grained sediments, go back no further than 3830 Ma in the Isua area of SW Greenland. Purely geochemical evidence that carbonaceous compounds may have formed in living systems  are ambiguous since quite complex hydrocarbons can be synthesised abiogenically by Fischer-Tropsch reactions between carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Signs of deep sea hydrothermal activity are common in any geological terrain containing basalt lavas with the characteristic pillows indicating extrusion beneath water. So to trace life’s origins all that is needed to trigger the interest of palaeobiologists are the oldest known pillow lavas. Until quite recently, that meant the Isua volcano-sedimentary association, but heating, high pressures and  very strong deformation affected those rocks when they were metamorphosed half a billion years after they were formed; a cause for skepticism by some geoscientists.

The primacy of Isua metavolcanic rocks has been challenged by more extensive metamorphosed basalts in the Nuvvuagittuk area in Quebec on the east side of Hudson Bay, Canada. They contain hydrothermal ironstones associated with pillowed basalts that are cut by more silica-rich intrusive igneous rocks dated between 3750 and 3775 Ma. That might place the age of basalt volcanism and the hydrothermal systems in the same ball park as those of Isua, but intriguingly the basalts’ 146Sm-142Nd systematics suggest a possible age of magma separation from the mantle of 4280 Ma (this age is currently disputed as it clashes with  U-Pb dates for zircon grains extracted from the metabasalts around the same as the age at Isua). Nonetheless, some parts of the Nuvvuagittuk sequence are barely deformed and show only low-grade metamorphism, and they contain iron- and silicon-rich hot spring deposits (Dodd, M.S. et al. 2017. Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates. Nature, v. 543, p. 60-64; doi:10.1038/nature21377). As at Isua, the ironstones contain graphite whose carbon isotope proportions have an ambiguous sign of having formed by living or abiotic processes. It is the light deformation and low metamorphism of the rocks that gives them an edge as regards being hosts to tangible signs of life. Extremely delicate rosettes and blades of calcium carbonate and phosphate, likely formed during deposition, remain intact. These signs of stasis are in direct contact with features that are almost identical to minute tubes and filaments formed in modern vents by iron-oxidising bacteria. All that is missing are clear signs of bacterial cells. Ambiguities in the dating of the basalt host rocks do not allow the authors claims that their signs of life are significantly older than those at Isua, but their biotic origins are less open to question. Neither offer definitive proof of life, despite widespread claims by media science correspondents, some of whom tend  metaphorically to ‘run amok ‘ when the phrase ‘ancient life’ appears; in this case attempting to link the paper with life on Mars …

You can find more on early life here

 

Dinosaurs in the flesh and feathers

Until only a few decades ago artistic portrayals of dinosaurs had them as leathery and scaled like lizards or crocodiles, as indeed rare examples of their fossilized skin seemed to suggest. The animatronic and CGI dinosaurs of the first Jurassic Park film were scary, but brownish grey. Later films in the franchise had them mottled and sometimes in colour, but still as mainly scaled leathery monsters. Reality soon overtook imagination as more and more exquisitely preserved fossils of small species were turned up, mainly in China, that were distinctly furry, fuzzy or feathered as shown below in a Microraptor gui fossil. It is now well-established that birds arose in the Jurassic from saurischian  dinosaurs, the order that also included all of the large carnivorous dinosaurs as well as the many more nimble and diminutive ones whose feathers sometimes conferred an ability to glide or fly. Even the other main order, the ornithischia noted for hugeness and herbivory, has yielded fossil skin that suggest furry or feathered pelts. Once fur and feathers had been found, the next big issue became whether or not dinosaurs may have been as gaudy as many modern birds.

 

Fossil of a feathered dinosaur Microraptor gui from the early Cretaceous Jiufotang Formation in China (source: Wikipedia)

Fossil of a feathered dinosaur Microraptor gui from the early Cretaceous Jiufotang Formation in China (source: Wikipedia)

One of the first palaeobiologists to become immersed in the search for colourful dinosaurs was Jakob Vinther, now of Britain’s Bristol University. In The March 2017 issue of Scientific American he summarises the progress that he and his colleagues have made (Vinther, J. 2017. The true colors of dinosaurs. Scientific American, v. 316(3), p. 42-49). On his account, the major breakthrough was Vinther’s discovery of tiny spherules in fossilised octopus ink that were identical to the granules of the pigment melanin that give the famous cephalopod ‘smoke screen’ its brownie-black colour. Melanin, or more precisely the melanosomes in which it is enclosed, is a key to coloration throughout much of the animal kingdom, especially in fur and feathers. There are two basic kinds, one conferring blackness and the other that imparts a rusty red hue, which combined with paleness due to lack of melanin together produce a gamut of greys, reds, browns oranges and yellows.  Elongated melanosomes when lined up produce the phenomenon of interference fringes that yield iridescence, responsible for the bright colours of starlings, hummingbirds and some ducks when in bright light. There are other pigments, such as carotenoids (bright reds and yellows) and porphyrins (green, red and blue) that add to the gamut possible in animals, but it was melanosomes that captured Vinther’s attention because of their importance in living feather colours.

Melanosomes occur in distinctively grouped assemblages, according to actual colour, and very similar microscopic structures turned up in the first fossil bird feathers that he studied. Others had assumed that they were bacterial colonies, which had grown during decay. The breakthrough was finding a fossil bird feather in which different structures were arranged in stripes; clear signs of patterning. Vinther’s concept bears fruit in a range of furry and feathered dinosaurs. One (Anchiornis) with a black and white body and limb speckles had a bright red crest and another (Sinosauropterix) was ginger over its back with a tiger striped tail and a white underside; an example of countershaded camouflage. His team has even been able to assign different kinds of patterning to a variety of possible habitats. Given superbly preserved specimens it seems likely that dinosaur and bird coloration may be traceable back more than 200 Ma.

English: Illustration of the small theropod di...

Artist’s impression of the small theropod dinosaur Microraptor showing colours predicted by analysis of melanosomes on its feathers.(credit: Wikipedia)

Another aspect of the filmic licence of Jurassic Park was its hinging on preservation of genetic material from the Mesozoic, specifically in a parasite preserved in amber, so that the creatures could be resurrected by bio-engineering. The only relevant find is a 46 Ma old mosquito whose abdomen was blood-engorged when it was fossilised. But all that remains are high iron concentrations the organic molecule porphyrin; break-down products of haemoglobin. Given that fossil DNA can only be reassembled from millions of fragmentary strands found in fossils in digital form that corresponds to the order of AGCT nucleobases that is barely likely to be possible – the oldest full genome yet analysed is that of a 700 ka horse. However, another biological material that varies hugely among living animals, protein, has proved to be tractable, albeit in a very limited way. Frozen mammoth meat, somewhat bloody, is sometimes unearthed from Siberian permafrost, but according to one Russian mammoth expert even the best preserved is inedible.

Beyond the Pleistocene the search for fossilised proteins has been hesitant and deeply controversial, particularly in the case of that from dinosaurs, for the obvious reason of publicity suspicions. But again, it is a story of persistence and patience. Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University claimed in 2007 that she had found some, but was howled down by other palaeontologists on the issues of its unlikely survivability and contamination. But other researchers had pushed back the age limits. By repeating their earlier analyses with the greatest possible care Schweitzer’s team confirmed their earlier results with several strands of the protein collagen about 15 amino acids in length from an 80 Ma old duck-billed dinosaur. Moreover they were able to show a closer affinity of the partial proteins to those of modern birds than to other reptiles, tallying with tangible fossil evidence (Schroeter, E.R  and 8 others 2017. Expansion for the Brachylophosaurus canadensis Collagen I Sequence and Additional Evidence of the Preservation of Cretaceous Protein. Journal of Proteome Research, v. 16, p. 920-932). The work continues for other dinosaurs and early fossil birds, with better reason for confidence and a chance of tying-down genetic relatedness. Another approach shows that collagen may still be preserved in a Jurassic (195 Ma) sauropod dinosaur’s rib (Lee, Y-C. and 9 others 2017. Evidence of preserved collagen in an Early Jurassic sauropodomorph dinosaur revealed by synchrotron FTIR microspectroscopy. Nature Communications, v. 8 doi:10.1038/ncomms14220).

See also: Service, R.F. 2017. Researchers close in on ancient dinosaur remains. Science (News in depth), v. 355, p. 441- 442.

Earliest signs of vertebrates’ ancestor?

Studies of DNA among living animals suggest that our own group, the vertebrates of the phylum Chordata, originated from a common ancestor that we share with echinoderms (sea urchins, star fish, sea cucumbers etc) and one of many worm-like phyla. This superphylum comprises the deuterostomes, but it is just one of several that encompass all animals and happens to be one of the smallest in terms of the number of living species that belong to it. We deuterostomes are vastly outnumbered by arthropods, nematodes, other worm-like creatures, molluscs, the rest of the animal kingdom and, of course, single-celled organisms, plants and fungi. Yet the DNA-based Circle of Life reveals that the deuterostome ancestral spoke originated early on in animal evolution.

The ‘Circle of Life’ as compiled by Cody Hinchliffe of the University of Michigan and 21 collaborators from the USA, and partly based on Fischetti, M. 2016. The circle of life. Scientific American, v. 314 (March 2016).

The ‘Circle of Life’ as compiled by Cody Hinchliffe of the University of Michigan and 21 collaborators from the USA, and partly based on Fischetti, M. 2016. The circle of life. Scientific American, v. 314 (March 2016).

The majority of animals of all kinds are blessed with a mouth separate from means of expelling waste products and can be divided into two similar halves, hence their name bilaterians. The earliest fossils judged to be of this kind date to about 580 to 600 Ma ago, in the Doushantuo Formation of southern China, all of them visible only using microscopes. A DNA-based molecular clock hints at around 900-1000 Ma for the emergence of all animal body plans known today. Now another important time marker has turned up, again in sediments showing exquisite fossil preservation from China (Han, J. et al. 2017. Meiofaunal deuterostomes from the basal Cambrian of Shaanxi (China). Nature, v. 542, (online); doi: 10.1038/nature21072). The Chinese-British team of palaeontologists has found tiny, bag-like fossils preserved in phosphate, which have a mouth surrounded by folds and conical openings on either side of the body. They lived in limy muds on the sea bed now preserved as limestones at the base of the Cambrian System (541 Ma) and probably had a habit akin to worms in the most general sense. The authors sifted through 3 tonnes of rock to recover the fossils, rather than relying on a lucky hammer stroke.

Reconstruction of Saccorhytus coronarius from the lowest Cambrian of Shaanxi, China. (credit: Han et al 1917)

Reconstruction of Saccorhytus coronarius (diameter about 1 mm) from the lowest Cambrian of Shaanxi, China. (credit: Han et al 1917)

Not especially prepossessing, the fossils are said to show more affinity to deuterostomes than anything else and to be the earliest known fossil examples. Yet the world’s media pounced on them as the ‘earliest known human ancestors’, which is a bit rich as they could equally be the earliest sea urchins or may have led to several odd-looking fossils known only from the later Cambrian. It isn’t possible to say with any certainty that they lie on the path that led to chordates and thus ourselves. Of course, that would not raise headlines in newspapers of record, such as Britain’ Daily Telegraph, on the BBC News website or Fox News.  The authors are much more honest, claiming only that the Saccorhytus coronarius fossils are probably deuterostomes whose affinities and later descendants are obscure. Their most important conclusion is that the cradle of our branch of animals lay in deep water muds laid down around the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary, ideal for subtly varied small, flabby creatures behaving like worms.  Many more varieties are likely remain to be found in similar rocks of the late Precambrian and slightly younger Cambrian when they are studied painstakingly in microscopic detail. A start has been made, that’s all.

For more on early evolution see here and here

Amazonian forest through the last glacial maximum

Accelerated evolution may occur when a small population of a species – whose genetic variability is therefore limited – becomes isolated from all other members. This is one explanation for the rise of new species, as in the Galapagos archipelago. Creation of such genetic bottlenecks encourages rapid genetic drift away from the main population. It has been suggested to explain sudden behavioural shifts in anatomically modern humans over the last hundred thousand years or so, partly through rapid and long-distance migrations and partly through a variety of environmental catastrophes, such as the huge Toba eruption around 74 ka. Another example has been proposed for the teemingly diverse flora and fauna of the Amazon Basin, particularly among its ~7500 species of butterflies, which has been ascribed to shrinkage of the Amazonian rain forest to isolated patches that became refuges from dry conditions during the last glacial maximum.

Top: Arid ice age climate Middle: Atlantic Per...

Potential forest cover inferred from global climate models for the last glacial maximum (top) the Holocene thermal maximum and at present.. (credit: Wikipedia)

A great deal of evidence suggests that during glacial maxima global climate became considerably drier than that in interglacials, low-latitude deserts and savannah grasslands expanding at the expense of humid forest. Yet the emerging complexity of how climate change proceeds from place to place suggests that evidence such continental drying from one well-documented region, such as tropical Africa, cannot be applied to another without confirming data. Amazonia has been the subject of long-standing controversy about such ecological changes and formation of isolated forest ‘islands’ in the absence of definitive palaeoclimate data from the region itself. A multinational team has now published data on climatic humidity changes over the last 45 ka in what is now an area of dense forest but also receives lower rainfall than most of Amazonia; i.e. where rolling back forest to savannah would have been most likely to occur during the last glacial maximum (Wang, X. et al. 2017. Hydroclimate changes across the Amazon lowlands over the past 45,000 years. Nature, v. 541, p. 204-207; doi:10.1038/nature20787).

Their study area is tropical karst, stalagmites from one of whose caves have yielded detailed oxygen-isotope time series. Using the U/Th dating technique has given the data a time resolution of decades covering the global climatic decline into the last glacial maximum and its recovery to modern times. The relative abundance of oxygen isotopes (expressed by δ18O) in the calcium carbonate layers that make up the stalagmites is proportional to that of the rainwater that carried calcium and carbonate ions dissolved from the limestones. The rainwater δ18O itself depended on the balance between rainfall and evaporation, higher values indicating reduced precipitation. Relative proportions of carbon isotopes in the stalagmites, expressed by δ13C, record the balance of trees and grasses, which have different carbon-isotope signatures. Rainfall in the area did indeed fall during the run-up to the last glacial maximum, to about 60% of that at present, then to rise to ~142% in the mid-Holocene (6 ka). Yet δ13C in the stalagmites remained throughout comparable with those in the Holocene layers, its low values being incompatible with any marked expansion of grasses.

English: View of Amazon basin forest north of ...

Amazonian rain forest north of Manaus, Brazil. (credit: Wikipedia)

One important factor in converting rain forest to grass-dominated savannah is fire induced by climatic drying. Tree mortality and loss of cover accelerates drying out of the forest floor in a vicious circle towards grassland, expressed today by human influences in much of Amazonia. Fires in Amazonia must therefore have been rare during the last ice age; indeed sediment cores from the Amazon delta do not reveal any significant charcoal ‘spike’.

See also: Bush, M.B 2017. The resilience of Amazonian forests. Nature, v. 541, p. 167-168; doi:10.1038/541167a