A lowly worm from the Ediacaran?

Humans are more or less symmetrical, our left and right sides closely resembling each other. That is not so comprehensive for our innards, except for testes and ovaries, kidneys, lungs, arteries and veins, lymph and nervous systems. We have front- and rear ends, top and bottom, input and output orifices. All that we share with almost all other animals from mammals to worms, particularly at the earliest, embryonic stage of development. We are bilaterians, whereas sponges, ctenophores, placozoans and cnidarians are not – having either no symmetry at all, or just a bottom and a top – and are in a minority.  Fossil collections from Cambrian times also reveal bilaterians in the majority, at least insofar as preservation allows us to tell. Before 541 Ma ago, in the Precambrian, there are few signs of such symmetry and faunas are dominated by the flaccid, bag like creatures that form much of the Ediacaran Fauna, although there are traces of creatures that could move and graze, and had a rudimentary sense of direction (see: Burrowers: knowing front from back, July 2012 and Something large moved 2 billion years ago). Unsurprisingly, palaeobiologists would like to know when ‘our lot’ arose. One route is via comparative genetics among living animals, using DNA differences and the ‘molecular clock’ approach to estimate the age of evolutionary separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. But the spread of estimated ages is so broad as to render them almost meaningless. And the better constrained ages of very old trace fossils rely on accepting an assumption that they were, indeed, formed by bilaterians. Yet ingenuity may have revealed an actual early bilaterian from such traces.lowly worm

Palaeobiologists from the US and Australia have scoured the famous Ediacara Hills of South Australia for traces of burrowing and signs of the animal that did it (Evans, S.D. et al. 2020. Discovery of the oldest bilaterian from the Ediacaran of South Australia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 117, online; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2001045117). One Ediacaran trace fossil, known as Helminthoidichnites is preserved as horizontal trails on the tops and bottoms of thin, discontinuous sand bodies. Luckily, these are sometimes accompanied by elongate ovoids, like large grains of rice. From numerous laser scans of these suspected burrowers, and the traces that they left the authors have reconstructed them as stubby, possibly segmented, worm-like animals that they have called Ikaria wariootia, which may have grazed on algal mats. This name is derived from the local Adnyamathanha people’s word (Ikara  or ‘meeting place’) for the locality, a prominent landmark, near Warioota Creek. The age of the sedimentary sequence is between 551 to 560 Ma, and perhaps a little earlier. They could be the earliest-known bilaterians, but the sandy nature of the rocks in which they occur precludes preservation of the necessary detail to be absolutely sure: that would require silt- or. clay-sized granularity

See also: Fossil worm shows us our evolutionary beginnings (BBC, Science and Environment)

Dinosaur corner

Many adjectives have been applied to dinosaurs: terrifying; lumbering; long-dead; fierce; huge; nimble, carnivorous; herbivorous and so on. But exquisite and tiny do not immediately spring to mind. The mineral amber – strictly speaking a mineraloid because it isn’t crystalline – having formed from resins exuded by trees, preserves materials, including animals, that became trapped in the resin. The shores of the Baltic Sea used to be the main source of this semi-precious gemstone, but it has been overtaken by high-quality supplies from Kachin State in Myanmar. Most specimens contain small invertebrates, including spiders and insects, in varying states of preservation. Once in a while truly spectacular amber pebbles turn up. In early March 2020 the world’s media splashed a unique find: a miniature dinosaur (Xing, L. et al. 2020. Hummingbird-sized dinosaur from the Cretaceous period of Myanmar. Nature v. 579, p. 245–249; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2068-4).

Amber pebble from Myanmar containing a tiny vertebrate’s skull (credit: Lida Xing, China University of Geosciences)

The amber specimen, from Middle Cretaceous (99 Ma) sediments, contains a perfectly preserved skull less than 2 cm long. At first glance it appears to be that of a tiny bird. The authors used micro-CT scanning to reconstruct the entire skull in 3-D. Although superficially resembling that of a bird, with eye sockets ringed by scleral ossicles that modern birds also have. These suggest that the animal was active during the daytime. Its beak-like jaws have many small teeth, as do many ancient fossil birds but not modern ones. These features led to its name: Oculudentavis khaungraaeI, translated as ‘eye-tooth bird’. So, is it a bird? A number of features shown by the skull suggest that, strictly speaking, it is not. Anatomically, it is a dinosaur, possibly descended from earlier types, such as the Jurassic winged and feathered dinosaur Archaeopterix, which evolved to early, true birds with which Oculudentavis coexisted during the Cretaceous Period. Having teeth, it was probably carnivorous and preyed on invertebrates: it may have been fatally attracted to tree resin in which insects had been trapped.

Micro-CT image of Oculudentavis khaungraaeI skull (top); artist’s impression of it in life (bottom) (credits: Xing, L. et al. 2020; Jingmai O’Connor, China University of Geosciences)

Even if it was a bird , it is smaller than the smallest living example, the bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) and, weighing an estimated 2 grams,  Oculudentavis is about one-sixth the size of the smallest known fossil bird. As a dinosaur, it is two orders of magnitude smaller than the most diminutive example of those found as fossils, the chicken-sized Compsognathus. Rather than being just an oddity, Oculudentavis demonstrates that extreme miniaturisation among avian dinosaurs held out evolutionary advantages.

Watch a video about the discovery and analysis of the tiny dinosaur

See also: Benson, R.B.J. 2020. Tiny bird fossil might be the world’s smallest dinosaur. Nature, v. 579, p. 199-200; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-00576-6.

Artist’s rendering of a Middle Jurassic coastal plain in what is now the Isle of Skye across which a mixed dinosaur megafauna is migrating (credit: De Polo et al. 2020; Fig. 24; artist Jon Hoad)

And now for the lumbering and sometimes scary kinds of dinosaur. Since discovery of Middle Jurassic sauropod and theropod trackways with up to 0.5 m wide footprints at Brothers’ Point on the Trotternish Peninsula of Skye, the Inner Hebridean island has become a magnet for those wishing to commune with big beasts. Now the same team from the University of Edinburgh report more from the same locality (De Polo, P.E. and 9 others 2020. Novel track morphotypes from new tracksites indicate increased Middle Jurassic dinosaur diversity on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. PLoS ONE, v. 15, article e0229640; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0229640). One set, referred to as Deltapodus was probably made by a species of stegosaur: the one with vertical plates on its back and a tail armed with large spikes, animated caricatures of which figure in inane YouTube clips, especially beating off Tyrannosaurs. The new locality preserves 50 dinosaur tracks that suggest a rich community of species. The most prominent suggest bipedal ornithopod herbivores and small, possible carnivorous theropods, both with three-toed feet, large quadripedal sauropods whose prints resemble those of elephants, as well as those with larger back feet than front attributed to stegosaurs. The sediment sequence displaying the tracks contains structures typical of deposition on a wide coastal plain.

Earliest plate tectonics tied down?

Papers that ponder the question of when plate tectonics first powered the engine of internal geological processes are sure to get read: tectonics lies at the heart of Earth science. Opinion has swung back and forth from ‘sometime in the Proterozoic’ to ‘since the very birth of the Earth’, which is no surprise. There are simply no rocks that formed during the Hadean Eon of any greater extent than 20 km2. Those occur in the 4.2 billion year (Ga) old Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt on Hudson Bay, which have been grossly mangled by later events. But there are grains of the sturdy mineral zircon ZrSiO4)  that occur in much younger sedimentary rocks, famously from the Jack Hills of Western Australia, whose ages range back to 4.4 Ga, based on uranium-lead radiometric dating. You can buy zircons from Jack Hills on eBay as a result of a cottage industry that sprang up following news of their great antiquity: that is, if you do a lot of mineral separation from the dust and rock chips that are on offer, and they are very small. Given a laser-fuelled SHRIMP mass spectrometer and a lot of other preparation kit, you could date them. Having gone to that expense, you might as well analyse them chemically using laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) to check out their trace-element contents. Geochemist Simon Turner of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and colleagues from Curtin University in Western Australia and Geowissenschaftliches Zentrum Göttingen in Germany, have done all this for 32 newly extracted Jack Hills zircons, whose ages range from 4.3 to 3.3 Ga (Turner, S. et al. 2020. An andesitic source for Jack Hills zircon supports onset of plate tectonics in the HadeanNature Communications, v. 11, article 1241; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-14857-1). Then they applied sophisticated geochemical modelling to tease out what kinds of Hadean rock once hosted these grains that were eventually eroded out and transported to come to rest in a much younger sedimentary rock.

Artist’s impression of the old-style hellish Hadean (Credit : Dan Durday, Southwest Research Institute)

Zircons only form duuring the crystallisation of igneous magmas, at around 700°C, the original magma having formed under somewhat hotter conditions – up to 1200°C for mafic compositions. In the course of their crystallising, minerals take in not only the elements of which they are mainly composed, zirconium, silicon and oxygen in the case of zircon , but many other elements that the magma contains in low concentrations. The relative proportions of these trace elements that are partitioned from the magma into the growing mineral grains are more or less constant and unique to that mineral, depending on the particular composition of the magma itself. Using the proportions of these trace elements in the mineral gives a clue to the original bulk composition of the parent magma. The Jack Hills zircons  mainly  reflect an origin in magmas of andesitic composition, intermediate in composition between high-silica granites and basalts that have lower silica contents. Andesitic magmas only form today by partial melting of more mafic rocks under the influence of water-rich fluid driven upwards from subducting oceanic lithosphere. The proportions of trace elements in the zircons could only have formed in this way, according to the authors.

Interestingly, the 4.2 Ga Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt contains metamorphosed mafic andesites, though any zircons in them have yet to be analysed in the manner used by Turner et al., although they were used to date those late-Hadean rocks. The deep post-Archaean continental crust, broadly speaking, has an andesitic composition, strongly suggesting its generation above subduction zones. Yet that portion of Archaean age is not andesitic on average, but a mixture of three geochemically different rocks. It is referred to as TTG crust from those three rock types (trondhjemite, tonalite and granodiorite). That TTG nature of the most ancient continental crust has encouraged most geochemists to reject the idea of magmatic activity controlled by plate tectonics during the Archaean and, by extension, during the preceding Hadean. What is truly remarkable is that if mafic andesites – such as those implied by the Jack Hills zircons and found in the Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt – partially melted under high pressures that formed garnet in them, they would have yielded magmas of TTG composition. This, it seems, puts plate tectonics in the frame for the whole of Earth’s evolution since it stabilised several million years after the catastrophic collision that flung off the Moon and completely melted the outer layers of our planet. Up to now, controversy about what kind of planet-wide processes operated then have swung this way and that, often into quite strange scenarios. Turner and colleagues may have opened a new, hopefully more unified, episode of geochemical studies that revisit the early Earth . It could complement the work described in An Early Archaean Waterworld published on Earth-logs earlier in March 2020.

Further back in the Eurasian human story

About 800 to 950 thousand years (ka) ago the earliest human colonisers of northern Europe, both adults and children, left footprints and stone tools in sedimentary strata laid down by a river system that then drained central England and Wales. The fossil flora and fauna at the Happisburgh (pronounced ‘Haze-burra’) site in Norfolk suggest a climate that was somewhat warmer in summers than at present, with winter temperatures about 3°C lower than now: similar to the climate in today’s southern Norway. At that time the European landmass extended unbroken to the western UK, so any hunter-gatherers could easily follow migrating herds and take advantage of seasonal vegetation resources. These people don’t have a name because they left no body fossils. A group known from their fossils as Homo antecessor had occupied Spain, southern France and Italy in slightly earlier times (back to 1200 ka). Since the discovery of their unique mix of modern and primitive traits, they have been regarded as possible intermediaries between H. erectus and H. heidelbergensis – once supposed to be the predecessor of Neanderthals and possibly anatomically modern humans (AMH). Since the emergence about 10 years ago of ancient genomics as the prime tool in examining human ancestry the picture has been shown to be considerably more complex. Not only had AMH interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans, those two groups were demonstrably interfertile too, and a complex web of such relationships had been pieced together by 2016. But there has been a new development.

700 ka Homo erectus from Java: a possible Eurasian ‘super-archaic’ human (credit: Gibbons 2020)

Population geneticists at the University of Utah, USA, have devised sophisticated means of making more of the detailed ATCG nucleotide sequences in ancient human DNA, despite there being very few full genomes of Neanderthals and Denisovans (Rogers, A.R. et al. 2020. Neanderthal-Denisovan ancestors interbred with a distantly related hominin. Science Advances, v. 6, article eaay5483; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay5483). In Earth-logs you may already have come across the idea of the ancestral ‘ghosts’ that are represented by unusual sections of genomes from living West African people. Those sections seem likely to have resulted from interbreeding with an unknown archaic population – i.e. neither Neanderthal nor Denisovan. It now seems that both Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes also show traces of such introgression with ‘ghost’ populations during much earlier times. The ancestors of both these groups separated from the lineage that led to AMH perhaps 750 ka ago. Rogers et al. refer to the earliest as ‘neandersovans’ and consider that they split into the two groups after they entered Eurasia, at some time before 600 ka – perhaps around 740 ka. This division may well have occurred as a result of a population of ‘neandersovans’ having spread over the vastness of Eurasia and growing genetic isolation. The reanalysis of both sets of genomes show evidence of a ‘neandersovan’ population crash before the split. Thereafter, the early Neanderthal population may have risen to around 16 thousand then slowly declined to ~3400 individuals.

A ‘state-of-play’ view of human interbreeding in Eurasia since 2 Ma ago (credit: Gibbons 2020)

However, the ‘neandersovans’ did not enter a new continent devoid of hominins, for as long ago as 1.9 Ma archaic H. erectus had arrived from Africa.  Both Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes record the presence of sections of ‘super-archaic’ DNA, which reflect early  interbreeding with earlier Eurasian populations. Indeed, Denisovans seem to have repeated their ancestors’ sexual exploits, once they became a genetically distinct group.  From the ‘ghost’ DNA fragments Rogers et al. conclude that the ‘super-archaics’ separated from other humans about two million years ago. They were descended from the first ‘Out-of-Africa’ wave of humans, represented by the fossils humans from Dmanisi in Georgia (see First out of Africa, November 2003 and An iconic early human skull,  October 2013 in Earth-logs Human evolution and migrations). A measure of the potential of novel means of analysing available ancient human DNA is the authors’ ability even to estimate the approximate population size of the interbreeding ‘super-archaic’ group at 20 to 50 thousand. Long thought to be impossible, it now seems possible to penetrate back to the very earliest human genetics, and the more DNA that can be teased out of other Neanderthal and Denisovan fossils the more we will know of our origins.

See also: Gibbons, A. 2020. Strange bedfellows for human ancestors. Science, v. 367, p. 838–839; doi:10.1126/science.367.6480.838

An Early Archaean Waterworld

In Earth-logs you may have come across the uses of oxygen isotopes, mainly in connection with their variations in the fossils of marine organisms and in ice cores. The relative proportion of the ‘heavy’ 18O isotope to the ‘light’ 16O, expressed by δ18O, is a measure of the degree of fractionation between these isotopes under different temperature conditions when water evaporates. What happens is that H216O, in which the lighter isotope is bound up, slightly more easily evaporates thus enriching the remaining liquid water in H218O. As a result the greater the temperature of surface water and the more of evaporates, the higher is its δ18O value. Shells that benthonic (surface-dwelling) organism secrete are made mainly of the mineral calcite (CaCO3). Their formation involves extracting dissolved calcium ions and CO2 plus an extra oxygen from the water itself, as calcite’s formula suggests. So plankton shells fossilised  in ocean-floor sediments carry the δ18O and thus a temperature signal of surface water at the place and time in which they lived. Yet this signal is contaminated with another signal: that of the amount of water evaporated from the ocean surface (with lowered  δ18O) that has ended up falling as snow and then becoming trapped in continental ice sheets. The two can be separated using the δ18O found in shells of bottom-dwelling (benthonic) organisms, because deep ocean water maintains a similar low temperature at all time (about 2°C). Benthonic δ18O is the main guide to the changing volume of continental ice throughout the last 30 million year or so. This ingenious approach, developed about 50 years ago, has become the key to understanding past climate changes as reflected in records of ice volume and ocean surface temperature. Yet these two factors are not the only ones at work on marine oxygen isotopes.

Artistic impression of the Early Archaean Earth dominated by oceans (Credit: Sci-news.com)

When rainwater flows across the land, clays in the soil formed by weathering of crystalline rocks preferentially extract 18O and thus leave their own δ18O mark in ocean water. This has little, if any, effect on the use of δ18O to track past climate change, simply because the extent of the continents hasn’t changed much over the last 2 billion years or so. Likewise, the geological record over that period clearly indicates that rain, wet soil and water flowing across the land have all continued somewhere or other, irrespective of climate. However, one of the thorny issues in Earth science concerns changes of the area of continents in the very long term. They are suspected but difficult to tie down. Benjamin Johnson of the University of Colorado and Boswell Wing of Iowa State University, USA, have closely examined oxygen isotopes in 3.24 billion-year old rocks from a relic of Palaeoarchaean ocean crust from the Pilbara district of Western Australia that shows pervasive evidence of alteration by hot circulating ocean water (Johnson, B.W. & Wing, B.A. 2020. Limited Archaean continental emergence reflected in an early Archaean 18O-enriched ocean. Nature Geoscience, v. 13, p. 243-248; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-020-0538-9). Interestingly, apart from the composition of the lavas, the altered rocks look just the same as much more recent examples of such ophiolites.

The study used many samples taken from the base to the top of the ophiolite along some 20 traverses across its outcrop. Overall the isotopic analyses suggested that the circulating water responsible for the hydrothermal alteration 3.2 Ga ago was much more enriched in 18O than is modern ocean water. The authors’ favoured explanation is that much less continental crust was exposed above sea level during the Palaeoarchaean Era than in later times and so far less clay was around on land. That does not necessarily imply that less continental crust existed at that time compared with the Archaean during the following 700 Ma , merely that the continental ‘freeboard’ was so low that only a few islands emerged above the waves. By the end of the Archaean 2.5 Ga ago the authors estimate that oceanic δ18O had decreased to approximately modern levels. This they attribute to a steady increase in weathering of the emerging continental landmasses and the extraction of 18O into new, clay-rich soils as the continents emerged above sea level. How this scenario of a ‘drowned’ world developed is not discussed. One possibility is that the average depth of the oceans then was considerably less than it was in later times: i.e. sea level stood higher because the volume available to contain ocean water was less. One possible explanation for that and the subsequent change in oxygen isotopes might be a transition during the later Archaean Eon into modern-style plate tectonics. The resulting steep subduction forms deep trench systems able to ‘hold’ more water. Prior to that faster production of oceanic crust resulted in what are now the ocean abyssal plains being buoyed up by warmer young crust that extended beneath them. Today they average around 4000 m deep, thanks to the increased density of cooled crust, and account for a large proportion of the volume of modern ocean basins.

Soluble iron and global climate

The environment that humans inhabit is better described as the Earth System, for a good reason. Every part of our planet, the living and the seemingly inert, from the core to the outermost atmosphere, is and always has been interacting with all the others in one way or another. Earth-logs aims to express that, as does my recently revised and now free book Stepping Stones. The vagaries of the Earth’s climate present good examples, the most obvious being the role of chemistry in the form of atmospheric greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, and their interaction with other parts of the Earth System.

Carbon and oxygen atoms that make up CO2 are also present in dissolved form in rain, freshwater and the oceans as the dissolved gas itself, carbonic acid (H2CO­3­) and the soluble bicarbonate ion HCO3, in proportions that depend on water temperature and acidity (pH). Those forms make the oceans an extremely large ‘sink’ for carbon; i.e. CO2 in dissolved form is removed from the atmospheric greenhouse effect. In the short term, there is a rough balance because water bodies also emit CO2, particularly when they heat up.

Phytoplankton bloom in the Channel off SW England (Landsat image)

Carbon dioxide enters more resilient forms through the marine part of the biosphere, at the base of which is photosynthesising phytoplankton. Photosynthesisers ‘sequester’ CO2 from the oceans as various carbohydrates in their soft tissue. Some of them use bicarbonate ions to form calcium carbonate in shells or tests. Once the organisms die both their soft and hard parts may end up buried in ocean-floor sediments: a longer-term sink. How much carbon is buried in these two forms depends on whether bacteria break down the soft tissues by oxidation and on the acidity of water that tends to dissolve the carbonate. Both processes ultimately yield dissolved CO2 that returns to the atmosphere.

Even the simplest phytoplankton cannot live on carbon dioxide and water alone: they need nutrients. The most familiar to any gardener are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These are mainly supplied in runoff from the continents; although marine upwellings supply large amounts where deep ocean water is forced to the surface. Large tracts in the central parts of the oceans are, in effect, marine deserts whose biological productivity is very low. Surprisingly this is not because of severe shortages of N, P and K. This is because a key nutrient, albeit a minor one, is missing; dissolved iron that phytoplankton and ocean fertility in general depend on. This was discovered in the 1970s by US oceanographer John Martin. Just how important iron is to fertility of the oceans and to global climate emerged from studies of ice cores from the Antarctic ice sheet. Air bubbles in the myriad annual layers reveal that their CO2 content falls with each change in oxygen isotopes related to the periodic build up of polar ice caps during cold periods. The greenhouse effect diminished as a result during each stadial, for the simple reason that up to a third of all atmospheric carbon dioxide – about 200 billion tonnes – was withdrawn. The clearest of these are at the last glacial maximum and during the rapid build up glacial ice between 70 and 60 thousand years ago; a time of low sea level when a major ‘out-of-Africa’ human migration took place. A possible candidate for achieving this could have been massively increased ocean fertility and the burial of dead phytoplankton and their shells.

Analyses of Antarctic ice cores record fluctuations in atmospheric CO2 trapped in bubbles during the last ice age (top) and how iron-rich dust deposition onto the ice increased hugely during two major cold periods (bottom) – the last glacial maximum (35 to 18 ka) and between 70 and 60 ka. (Credit, Stoll; Fig. 1)

During stadials the ice cores also reveal that a great deal more dust found its way from the continents to the polar ice sheets. Analysing the dusty layers showed that to have included lots of iron. Falling into the cold ocean-surface waters around the polar regions would have added this crucial nutrient to a medium already rich in CO2 – the colder water is the more gas it will dissolve. These distant oceans bloomed with phytoplankton, speeding up the sequestration of carbon into ocean-floor sediments. Iron may have triggered a biological pump of gargantuan proportions that amplified ice-age cooling. Today the remotest parts of the world’s oceans are starved of iron so the pump only functions in a few places where iron is supplied by rivers or upwellings of deep ocean water

The marine biosphere is clearly a very important active component in the Earth’s climate subsystem. Climate’s continually changing interactions with the rest of the Earth System make climate change hugely complex. It is difficult to predict but growing understanding of its past behaviour is helpful. The late John Martin’s hypothesis of the effects on climate of changing iron concentrations in surface ocean water has a corollary: the stronger the biological pump the more oxygen in deep water must be used up in bacterial decay of descending organic matter. Indeed it was as recent estimates of the degree of oxygenation in ocean-sediment layers correlate with changes in climate that they also reveal.

So, would deliberate iron-fertilisation of polar oceans help draw down greenhouse warming? When several small patches of the Southern Ocean were injected with a few tonnes of dissolved iron they did indeed respond with phytoplankton blooms. However, it is impossible to tell if that had any effect on the atmosphere. ‘Going for broke’ with a massive fertilisation of this kind has been proposed, but this ventures dp into the political swamp that currently surrounds global warming and the wider environment. It is becoming possible to model such a strategy by using the data from the experiments and from ice cores, and early results seem to confirm the role of iron and the biological pump in CO2 sequestration by suggesting that half the known draw-down during ice ages can be explained in this way.

Based on a review by: Heather Stoll in February 2020. (30 years of the iron hypothesis of ice ages. Nature, v. 578, p. 370-371; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-020-00393-x}

How did the planets form?

Animation of the 3-D shape of planetesimal Arrokoth. (Credit: Roman Tkachenko, NASA)

The latest addition to knowledge of the Solar System looks a bit like a couple of potatoes that have lain together and dried over several years. It also has a name – Arrokoth – that might have been found in a novel by H.P. Lovecraft. In fact Arrokoth meant ‘sky’ in the extinct Powhatan language once spoken by the native people of Chesapeake Bay. The planetesimal was visited by the New Horizons spacecraft two years after it had flown by Pluto (see; Most exotic geology on far-off Pluto, Earth-logs 6 April 2016). It is a small member of the Kuiper Belt of icy bodies. Data collected by a battery of imaging instruments on the spacecraft has now revealed that it has a reddish brown coloration that results from a mixture of frozen methanol mixed with a variety of organic compounds including a class known as tholins – the surface contains no water ice. Arrokoth is made of two flattened elliptical bodies (one 20.6 × 19.9 × 9.4 km the smaller 15.4 × 13.8 × 9.8 km) joined at a ‘waist’. Each of them comprises a mixture of discrete ‘terrains’ with subtly different surface textures and colours, which are likely to be earlier bodies that accreted together. On 13 February 2020 a flurry of three papers about the odd-looking planetesimal appeared in Science.

The smooth surface implies a lack of high-energy collisions when a local cluster of initially pebble sized icy bodies in the sparsely populated Kuiper Belt gradually coalesced under extremely low gravity. The lack of any fractures suggests that the accretions involved relative speeds of, at most, 2 m s-1; slow-walking speed or spacecraft docking (McKinnon, W.B. and a great many more 2020. The solar nebula origin of (486958) Arrokoth, a primordial contact binary in the Kuiper Belt. Science, article eaay6620; DOI: 10.1126/science.aay6620). The authors regard this quiet, protracted, cool accretion to have characterised at least the early stages of planet formation in the Outer Solar System. The extent to which this can be extrapolated to the formation of the giant gas- and ice worlds, and to the rocky planets and asteroids of the Inner Solar System is less certain, to me at least. It implies cold accretion over a long period that would leave large worlds to heat up only through the decay of radioactive isotopes. Once large planetesimals had accreted, however that had happened, the greater their gravitational pull the faster other objects of any size would encounter them. That scenario implies a succession of increasingly high-energy collisions during planet formation.

This hot-accretion model, to which most planetary scientists adhere, was supported by a paper published by Science a day before those about Arrokoth hit the internet (Schiller, M. et al. 2020. Iron isotope evidence for very rapid accretion and differentiation of the proto-Earth. Science Advances, v. 6, article eaay7604; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay7604). This work hinged on the variation in the proportions of iron isotopes among meteorites, imparted to the local gas and dust cloud after their original nucleosynthesis in several supernovas in the Milky Way galaxy during pre-solar times. Iron found in different parts of the Earth consistently shows isotopic proportions that match just one class of meteorites: the CI carbonaceous chondrites. Yet there are many other silicate-rich meteorite classes with =different iron-isotope proportions. Had the Earth accreted from this mixed bag by random ‘collection’ of material over a protracted period prior to 4.54 billion years ago, its overall iron-isotope composition would have been more like the average of all meteorites than that of just one class. The authors conclude that Earth’s accretion, and probably that of the smaller body that crashed with it to form the Moon at about 4.4 Ga, must have taken place quickly (<5 million years) when CI carbonaceous chondrites dominated the inner part of the protoplanetary disc.

See also: Barbuzano, J. 2020. New Horizons Reveals Full Picture of Arrokoth . . . and How Planets Form. Sky & Telescope

Finding Archaean atmospheric composition using micrometeorites

Modern micrometeorites (about 20 μm in diameter) from deep-sea sediments, with shiny magnetite-rich veneers (Credit: D. E. Brownlee)

The gases making up the Earth’s atmosphere and their relative proportions before 2.5 billion years (Ga) ago are known with very little certainty. Carbonate rocks are rare, indicating that the oceans were more acidic, which implies that they had dissolved more CO2 from the atmosphere, which, in turn implies that there was much more of that gas than in present air. There are few signs of widespread glaciogenic sediments of Archaean age, at a time when the Sun’s energy output is estimated to have been at 70 to 75% of its present level. Without an enhanced greenhouse effect oceans would have been frozen over; so that supports high CO2 concentrations too. The fact that water worn grains of minerals such as uraninite (UO2) and pyrite (FeS2), which are stable only in reducing conditions, occur in Archaean conglomerates is a good indicator that there were only vanishingly small amounts of oxygen in the air. That was not to change until marine photosynthesisers produced enough to overcome the general reducing conditions at the Earth’s surface, marked by the Great Oxidation Event at around 2.4 Ga (see: Massive event in the Precambrian carbon cycle; Earth-logs, January 2012. Search for more articles in sidebar at Earth-logs home page). It was then that ancient soils (palaeosols) became the now familiar red colour because of their content of ferric iron oxides and hydroxides The problem is that reliable numbers cannot be attached to these kinds of observation. A common means of estimating CO2 levels comes from the way in which the gas reacts with silicates as soils form at the land surface, estimated from carbon isotopes in soil carbonate nodules. Since the rise of land plants around 400 Ma ago the distribution of pores (stomata) in fossil leaves provides a more precise estimate: the more CO2 in air the less densely packed are leaf stomata. For the Precambrian we are stuck with estimates based on chemical reactions of minerals with the atmosphere. Until recently, one reaction that must always have been extremely common was overlooked.

When meteorite pass through the atmosphere at very high speed friction heats them to incandescence. Their surfaces not only melt but the minerals from which they are composed react very strongly with air. The reaction products should therefore provide chemical clues to the relative proportions of atmospheric gases. Both oxygen and carbon dioxide are reactive at such temperatures, although nitrogen is virtually inert, yet it tends to buffer oxidation reactions. The rest of the atmosphere comprises noble gases – mainly argon – and by definition they are completely unreactive. Pure-iron micrometeorites collected from 2.7 Ga old sediments in the Pilbara Province of Western Australia are veneered with magnetite (Fe3O4) and wüstite (FeO), thus preserving a record of their passage through the Neoarchaean atmosphere. If the oxidant had been oxygen, for these minerals to form from elemental iron suggests oxygen levels around those prevailing today: clearly defying the abundant evidence for its near-absence during the Archaean. Carbon dioxide is the only candidate. Two studies have produced similar results (Lehmer, O. R. et al. 2020. Atmospheric CO2 levels from 2.7 billion years ago inferred from micrometeorite oxidationScience Advances, v. 6, article aay4644;  DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aay4644 and Payne, R.C. et al. 2020. Oxidized micrometeorites suggest either high pCO2 or low pN2 during the Neoarchean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 117 1360 DOI:10.1073/pnas.1910698117). Both use complex modelling of the chemical effects of meteorite entry. Lehmer and colleagues estimated that the Neoarchaean atmosphere contained about 64% CO2, with a surface atmospheric pressure about half that at present. This would be sufficient for a surface temperature of about 30°C achieved by the greenhouse effect, taking into account lower solar heating. The team led by Payne concluded a lower concentration (25 to 50%) and a somewhat cooler planet at that time. Both results suggest ocean water considerably more acid than are today’s. The combined warmth and acidity would have had a fundamental bearing on both the origin, survival and evolution of early life.

See also: Carroll, M. 2020. Meteorites reveal high carbon dioxide levels on early Earth; Yirka, R. Computer model shows ancient Earth with an atmosphere 70 percent carbon dioxide. (both from Phys.org)

Everyone now has their Inner Neanderthal

For 20 years, we have known the full human genome. For 10 years the full content of Neanderthal DNA has been available, courtesy of Svante Paabo’s team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The two were compared and suddenly every living person with a Eurasian ancestry learned that they had significant and functional bits of Neanderthal in their make-up: some beneficial, some not so good (see: Yes, it seems that they did… in Human evolution and migrations, May 2010). Then the Denisovan connection emerged for East Asians and original populations of Australasia. Africans seemed not to share such a privilege. But now it seems that they do, but as a result of a somewhat tortuous route (Lu Chen et al. 2020. Identifying and interpreting apparent Neanderthal ancestry in African individuals. Cell v. 180, p. 1–11; DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2020.01.012).

Reconstruction of Neanderthal male

Lu and colleagues used a new approach to discover that 2500 people from five widespread subpopulations living in Africa carry in their DNA several million base-pairs of Neanderthal origin (about 0.3% of their genomes). This happened in two steps. The most recent resulted when ancient anatomically modern humans (AMH), who carried Neanderthal DNA as a result of repeated interbreeding, migrated back to Africa from Europe about 20 thousand years ago. But the modern Africans’ DNA also suggests that their ancestral Neanderthals had also interbred with a much earlier group of Africans who had left their home continent between 150 to 100 thousand years ago. The Neanderthals already carried sections of that earlier AMH genome. The relationship between modern humans and Neanderthals seems to have been a great deal more complex that previously thought.

The authors conclude, …  our data show that out-of-Africa and in-to-Africa dispersals must be accounted for when interpreting archaic hominin ancestry in contemporary human populations. It is notable that Neanderthal sequences have been identified in every contemporary modern human genome analyzed to date. Thus, the legacy of gene flow with Neanderthals likely exists in all modern humans, highlighting our shared history’. Palaeo-geneticists have also shown that a similarly complex social relationship may have characterised Neanderthals and Denisovans, where their ranges overlapped (see Neanderthal Mum meets Denisovan Dad in Human evolution and migrations, August 2018). It would come as no surprise to learn, eventually, that wherever different human groups crossed paths in the more distant past they engaged in similar practices, that is, they behaved humanly. Things have changed a bit in recorded history, when only a single human group has existed; perhaps a consequence of the emergence of what today passes for ‘economy’.

Watch Chris Stringer discussing his views on Neanderthal-AMH interactions

See also: Price, M. 2020. Africans, too, carry Neanderthal genetic legacy. Science, v. 367, p. 497; DOI: 10.1126/science.367.6477.497

Note added 14 February 2020

Several studies of DNA from living Africans have suggested introgression (interbreeding) of an even earlier archaic population into ancient AMH in Africa. Because this cannot be related to any known fossils, such as Homo erectus, such a population is known in palaeogenetic circles as a ‘ghost’. A new paper (Durvasula, A. & Sankararaman, S. 2020. Recovering signals of ghost archaic introgression in
African populationsScience Advances, v. 6, article eaax5097; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax5097) suggests that two living groups from West Africa (Yoruba and Mende) derive 2 to 19% of their genetic ancestry from such a ‘ghost’ population. It seems that this archaic group diverged from the descent path of AMH before the split of Neanderthals and AMH. But when the Neanderthal-AMH event took place is uncertain, estimates ranging from 185 to 800 ka. This time uncertainty further obscures the genetic ‘trail’. Curiously, as far as I know non-Africans whose AMH ancestors were of African origin, show no sign of this particular ‘ghost’ among their forebears. That perhaps suggests that few if any West Africans engaged in ‘out-of-Africa’ migrations …

Closure for the K-Pg extinction event?

Anyone who has followed the saga concerning the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period (~66 Ma ago) , which famously wiped out all dinosaurs except for the birds, will know that its cause has been debated fiercely over four decades. On the one hand is the Chicxulub asteroid impact event, on the other the few million years when the Deccan flood basalts of western India belched out gases that would have induced major environmental change across the planet. Support has swung one way or the other, some authorities reckon the extinction was set in motion by volcanism and then ‘polished-off’ by the impact, and a very few have appealed to entirely different mechanism lumped under ‘multiple causes’. One factor behind the continuing disputes is that at the time of the Chicxulub impact the Deccan Traps were merrily pouring out Disentanglement hangs on issues such as what actual processes directly caused the mass killing. Could it have been starvation as dust or fumes shut down photosynthesis at the base of the food chain? What about toxic gases and acidification of ocean water, or being seared by an expanding impact fireball and re-entering incandescent ejecta? Since various lines of evidence show that the late-Cretaceous atmosphere had more oxygen that today’s the last two may even have set the continents’ vegetation ablaze: there is evidence for soots in the thin sediments that mark the K-Pg boundary. The other unresolved issue is timing: of volcanogenic outgassing; of the impact, and of the extinction itself. A new multi-author, paper may settle the whole issue (Hull, P.M and 35 others 2020. On impact and volcanism across the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. Science, v. 367, p. 266-272; DOI: 10.1126/science.aay5055).

K-Pg oxygen
Marine temperature record derived from δ18O and Mg/Ca ratios spanning 1.5 Ma that includes the K-Pg boundary: the bold brown line shows the general trend derived from the data points (Credit: Hull et al. 2020; Fig 1)

The multinational team approached the issue first by using oxygen isotopes and the proportion of magnesium relative to calcium (Mg/Ca ratio) in fossil marine shells (foraminifera and molluscs) in several ocean-floor sediment cores, through a short interval spanning the last 500 thousand years of the Cretaceous and the first  million years of the Palaeocene. The first measures are proxies for seawater temperature. The results show that close to the end of the Cretaceous temperature rose to about 2°C above the average for the youngest Cretaceous (the Maastrichtian Age; 72 to 66 Ma) and then declined. By the time of the mass extinction (66 Ma) sea temperature was back at the average and then rose slightly in the first 200 ka of Palaeocene to fall back to the average at 350 ka and then rose slowly again.

Changes in carbon isotopes (δ13C) of bulk carbonate samples from the sediment cores (points) and in deep-water foraminifera (shaded areas) across the K-Pg boundary. (Credit: Hull et al. 2020; Fig 2A)

The second approach was to look in detail at carbon isotopes (δ13C) – a measure of changes in the marine carbon cycle –  and oxygen isotopes (δ18O) in deep water foraminifera and bulk carbonate from the sediment cores, in comparison to the duration of Deccan volcanism (66.3 to 65.4 Ma). The δ13C measure from bulk carbonate stays roughly constant in the Maastrichtian, then falls sharply at 66 Ma.  The δ13C of the deep water forams rises to a peak at 66 Ma. The δ18O measure of temperature peaks and declines at the same times as it does for the mixed fossils. Also examined was the percentage of coarse sediment grains in the muds from the cores. That measure is low during the Maastrichtian and then rises sharply at the K-Pg boundary.

Since warming seems almost certainly to be a reflection of CO2 from the Deccan (50 % of total Deccan outgassing), the data suggest not only a break in emissions at the time of the mass extinction but also that by then the marine carbon system was drawing-down its level in air. The δ13C data clearly indicate that the ocean was able to absorb massive amounts of CO2 at the very time of the Chicxulub impact and the K-Pg boundary. Flood-basalt eruption may have contributed to the biotic aftermath of the extinction for as much as half a million years. The collapse in the marine fossil record seems most likely to have been due to the effects of the Chicxulub impact. A third study – of the marine fossil record in the cores – undertaken by, presumably, part of the research team found no sign of increased extinction rates in the latest Cretaceous, but considerable changes to the marine ecosystem after the impact. It therefore seems that the K-Pg boundary impact ‘had an outsized effect on the marine carbon cycle’. End of story? As with earlier ‘breaks through’; we shall see.

See also: Morris, A. 2020 Earth was stressed before dinosaur extinction (Northwestern University)