Wider traces of the elusive Denisovans

We know that when anatomically modern humans (AMH) arrived in Asia they shared the landscape with ‘archaic’ humans that had a much longer pedigree. In 2010 an individual’s little-finger bone dated to around 30 to 49 ka old was found in the Denisova Cave in central Siberia (at 50°N). It yielded a full genome that was distinctly different from those of AMH and Neanderthals (see: Other rich hominin pickings; May 2010). Four other fossils found subsequently in the Denisova Cave contained similar DNA. Checking the DNA of living humans and fossil Neanderthal remains revealed that the newly discovered human group had interbred with both. In the case of AMH, segments of Denisovan DNA are found in the genomes of indigenous people living in East and South Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands and the Americas, at levels of 0.2%, rising to 6% in Melanesian people of Papua-New Guinea. But such introgressions have not been found in Europeans (but see below), suggesting that the Denisovans were restricted to Asia.

There have been suggestions that at least some of the ‘archaic’ human remains found widely and abundantly in China may have been Denisovans; although they might equally be of Homo erectus. But none of the Chinese fossils have been subjected to gene sequencing – those found in caves outside tropical and sub-tropical climates might retain DNA just as well as Neanderthal and even older remains in temperate Europe. Yet a partial lower jaw discovered in a cave on the Tibetan Plateau (at 35°N) did yield proteins that had close affinities to those recovered from Siberian Denisovans. Now similar analyses have been performed on an abnormally large molar found in a cave in Northern Laos, showing that it too is most likely to be from a young (as suggested by its being little worn), possibly female (it lacks male-specific peptides), Denisovan. The locality lies at about 20°N, far to the south of the other two Denisovan sites (Demeter, F. et al. A Middle Pleistocene Denisovan molar from the Annamite Chain of northern Laos. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 2557; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-29923-z). Sparse as the evidence is, Denisovans were able to tolerate climate differences across 30 degrees of latitude.

A probable Denisovan molar from 164 to 131 ka old cave sediments in northern Laos. (credit: Demeter, et al.; Fig. 2)

The Wikipedia entry for Denisovans is a mine of additional information. For instance, detailed analysis of the roughly 5% of their genome that indigenous people of New Guinea carry suggests that the two groups may have interbred there as late as 30 ka. Since Both New Guinea and Australia were until 8 thousand years ago part of the Sahul landmass when sea level was low during the last ice age, these inferences add tropical occupancy to the Denisovan range. Does this suggest that Papuans and indigenous Australians migrated with Denisovans, or had the latter crossed the sea from Timor earlier and independently, after moving from Asia by ‘hopping’ from island to island through eastern Indonesia? There is a possibility that Denisovans could even have survived in Sahul until as late as 14.5 ka. Even more odd, modern Icelandic people are unique among Europeans in having detectable traces of Denisovan DNA. However, rather than having been directly shared between Denisovans and ancestral Scandinavians – a possibility – it may have been carried by Neanderthal-Denisovan hybrids migrating westwards from Siberia with whom the Icelanders’ ancestors interbred. There are other interesting points in the Wikipedia entry. One is that the consistently lower Denisovan ancestry in living East Asians compared with people of Oceania, may indicate two separate waves of eastward migration by AMH. The latter may have arrived first, had greater contact with Denisovans and then moved on across seaways to remain isolated from the later migrants.

Finally, something that puzzles me as a non-geneticist. If both Denisovans and Neanderthals died out as genetically distinct groups tens of millennia ago how could the genetic traces of interbreeding with AMH have been retained at such high levels until the present; i.e. through thousands of generations? Each of us carries a 50% deal of genes from our parents. Then with each subsequent generation the proportion is diluted, so that we inherit 25% from grandparents, 12.5 % from great-grandparents and so on. Yet Papuans still have 5 to 6 percent of Denisovan DNA: much the same holds for Europeans’ Neanderthal heritage. Does such a high level of retention of this ancestry suggest that a large proportion of the earliest migrating AMH individuals stemmed from generation to generation interbreeding on a massive scale? Did the ‘newcomers’ and ‘locals’ band eventually together almost completely to merge genetically, or am I missing something … ? Probably

The end of the Carboniferous ‘icehouse’ world

From about 340 to 290 Ma the Earth experienced the longest episode of repeated ice ages of the Phanerozoic. The climate then was similar in many ways to that of the Pleistocene. The South Polar region was then within the Pangaea supercontinent and thus isolated from any warming effect from the surrounding ocean: much the same as modern Antarctica but on a much larger scale. Glaciation extended as far across what became the southern continents and India as did the continental ice sheets of the Northern Hemisphere during Pleistocene glacial maxima. Tropical sedimentary rocks of the time, display evidence for repeated alternations of high and low sea levels that mark cycles of glacial maxima and interglacial episodes akin to those of the Pleistocene. In fact they probably reflect the influence of changes in the Earth’s orbit and geometry of its axis of rotation very similar to those predicted by Milankovich from astronomical factors to explain Pleistocene climatic cycles. At the end of the Carboniferous what was an ‘ice-house’ world changed suddenly to its opposite – ‘greenhouse’ conditions – that persisted through the Mesozoic Era until the later part of the Cenozoic, when Antarctica developed is ice cap and global climate slowly cooled to become extremely cyclical once again.

Sedimentary evidence for global climates 320 Ma ago. As well as the large tracts of glaciogenic sediments, smaller occurrences and examples of polished rock surfaces over which ice had passed show the probable full extent (blue line) of ice sheets across the southern, Gondwana sector of Pangaea (Credit: after Fig 7.3, S104, Earth and Space, ©Open University 2007)

The end of the Carboniferous witnessed the collapse of the vast Equatorial rainforests, which formed the coal deposits that put ‘Carbon’ into the name of the Period. By its end this ecosystem had vanished to result in a minor mass extinction of both flora and fauna. Temperatures rose and aridity set in, to the extent that the latest Carboniferous in the British coalfields is marked by redbeds that presage the spread of desert conditions across the Equatorial parts of Pangaea during the succeeding Permian. A team of researchers based at the University of California at Davis have been studying data pertaining to this sudden change have now published their findings (Chan J. and 17 others 2022. Marine anoxia linked to abrupt global warming during Earth’s penultimate icehouse. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 119, article e2115231119; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2115231119). They used carbon-, oxygen- and uranium isotopes, together with proxies for changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, to model changes in the carbon cycle in the Late Carboniferous of China.

Changes in uranium isotopes within marine carbonates are useful indicators of the amount of oxygen available in ocean water at the sea floor. Between 304 and 303.5 Ma ago oxygen content declined by around 30%, the peak of this anoxia being at 303.7 Ma. This occurred about 100 ka after atmospheric CO2 had risen to ~700 parts per million (ppm) from around 350 ppm in the preceding 300 ka, as marked by several proxies.  The authors suggest that the lower ‘baseline’ for the main greenhouse gas marked an extreme glacial maximum. Changes in the proportions of 18O relative to ‘lighter’ 16O in fossil shells suggest that sea-surface temperatures increased in step with the doubling of the greenhouse effect. At the same time there was a major marine transgression as sea level rose. This would have been accompanied by a massive increase in low density freshwater in surface ocean water derived from melting of Pangaea’s ice cap. The team suggests that the freshened surface layer could not sink to carry oxygen to deeper levels, thereby creating anoxic conditions across an estimated 23% of the global seafloor, and thus toxic ‘death zones’ for marine organisms.

One possibility for this sudden rise of atmospheric CO2 is a massive episode of volcanism, perhaps a large igneous province, but there is scanty evidence for that at the end of the Carboniferous. A coinciding sharp decrease in δ13C  in carbonate shells suggests that the excess carbon dioxide probably had an organic origin. So a more plausible hypothesis is massive burning on the continental surface. In the tropics, the huge coals swamps would have contained vast amounts of peat-like decayed vegetable matter as well as living green vegetation. How might that have caught fire? The peat precursor to Carboniferous coal deposits derived from photosynthesis on an unprecedented, and never repeated, scale during tens of million years of thriving tropical rain forest during that Period. This built up atmospheric oxygen levels to about 35%, compared with about 21% today. Insects, whose maximum size is governed by their ability to take in oxygen through spiracles in their bodies, and by the atmospheric concentration of oxygen, became truly huge during the earlier Carboniferous. The more oxygen in the air, the greater the chance that organic matter will catch fire. In fact wet vegetation can burn if oxygen levels rise above 25%. At the levels reached in the Carboniferous huge wildfires in forests and peatlands would have been inevitable. Evidence that huge fires did occur comes from the amount of charcoal found in Carboniferous coal seams, which reach 70% compared with the 4 to 8 % in more recent coals. They may have been ignited by lightning strikes or even spontaneous combustion if decay of vegetation generated sufficient heat, as sometimes happens today in wet haystacks or garden compost heaps.  But how in a short period around 304 Ma could 9 trillion tons of carbon dioxide be released in this way. The preceding  glacial super-maximum, like glacial maxima of the Pleistocene, may have been accompanied by decreased atmospheric humidity: this would dry out the vast surface peat deposits.

The succeeding Permian is famous for its extensive continental redbeds, and so too those of the Triassic. They are red because sediment grains are coated in the iron oxide hematite (Fe2O3). As on Mars, the redbeds are a vast repository for oxygen sequestered from the atmosphere by the oxidation of dissolved Fe2+ to insoluble Fe3+. This had been going on throughout the Permian, the nett result being that by 250 Ma atmospheric oxygen content has slumped to 16% and remained so low for another 50 million years. Photosynthesis failed to resupply oxygen against this inorganic depletion, and there are few coal deposits of Permian or Triassic age: for about 100 Ma Earth ceased to have green continents.

See also: Carbon, climate change and ocean anoxia in an ancient icehouse world. Science Daily, 2 May 2022. 

Evidence for an early Archaean transition to subduction

Modern plate tectonics is largely driven by slab-pull: a consequence of high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphism of the oceanic crust far from its origin at an oceanic ridge. As it ages, basaltic crust cools, become increasingly hydrated by hydrothermal circulation of seawater through it and its density increases. That is why the abyssal plains of the ocean floor are so deep relative to the shallower oceanic ridges where it formed. Due to the decrease in the Earth’s internal heat production by decay of radioactive isotopes, once oceanic lithosphere breaks and begins to descend high-P low-T metamorphism transforms the basaltic crust to a denser form: eclogite, in which the dense, anhydrous minerals garnet and sodium-rich pyroxene (omphacite) form. Depending on local heat flow, the entire oceanic slab may then exceed the density of the upper mantle to drag the plate downwards under gravity. Metamorphic reactions of any P-T regime creates minerals less capable of holding water and drive H2O-rich fluids upwards into the overriding lithosphere, thus inducing it to partially melt. Magmas produced by this create volcanism at the surface, either at oceanic island arcs or near to continental margins, depending on the initial position of the plate subduction.

A direct proof of active subduction in the geological record is the presence of eclogite and related blueschists. Such rocks are unknown before 2100 Ma ago (mid-Palaeoproterozoic of the Democratic Republic of Congo) but there are geochemical means of ‘sensing’ plate tectonic control over arc magmatism (See: So, when did plate tectonics start up? February 2016).  The relative proportions of rare-earth elements in ancient magmatic rocks that make up the bulk of continental crust once seemed to suggest that plate tectonics started at the end of the Archaean Eon (~2500 Ma). That method, however, was quite crude and has been superseded by looking in great detail at the geochemistry of the Earth’s most durable mineral: zircon (ZrSiO4), which began more than two decades ago. Minute grains of that mineral most famously have pushed back the geological record into what was long believed to be half a billion years with no suggestion of a history: the Hadean. Zircon grains extracted from a variety of ancient sediments have yielded U-Pb ages of their crystallisation from igneous magma that extend back 4.4 billion years (Ga) (see: Pushing back the “vestige of a beginning”;January 2001).  

Though simple in their basic chemical formula, zircons sponge-up a large range of other trace elements from their parent magma. So, in a sense, each tiny grain is a capsule of their geochemical environment at the time they crystallised. In 2020 Australian geochemists presented the trace-element geochemistry of 32 zircons extracted from a 3.3 Ga old sedimentary conglomerate in the Jack Hills of Western Australia, which lie within an ancient continental nucleus or craton. They concluded that those zircons mainly reveal that they formed in andesitic magmas, little different from the volcanic rocks that are erupted today above subduction zones. From those data it might seem that some form of plate tectonics has been present since shortly after the Earth’s formation. Oxygen-isotope data from zircons are useful in checking whether zircons had formed in magmas derived directly from partial melting of mantle rocks or by recycling of crustal magmatic rocks through subduction. Such a study in 2012 (see: Charting the growth of continental crust; March 2012) that used a very much larger number of detrital zircon grains from Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America seemed, in retrospect, to contradict a subduction-since-the-start view of Earth dynamics and crust formation. Instead it suggested that recycling of crust, and thus plate-tectonic subduction, first showed itself in zircon geochemistry at about 3 Ga ago.

Detailed chemical and isotopic analysis of zircons using a variety of instruments has steadily become faster and cheaper. Actually finding the grains is much easier than doing interesting things with them. It is a matter of crushing the host rock to ‘liberate’ the grains. Sedimentary hosts that have not been strongly metamorphosed are much more tractable than igneous rocks. Being denser than quartz, the dominant sedimentary mineral, zircon can be separated from it along with other dense, trace minerals, and from them in turn by various methods based on magnetic and electrical properties. Zircons can then be picked out manually because of their distinctive colours and shapes. A tedious process, but there are now several thousand fully analysed zircons aged between 3.0 to 4.4 Ga, from eleven cratons that underpin Australia, North America, India, Greenland and southern Africa. The latest come from a sandstone bed laid down about 3.31 Ga ago in the Barberton area of South Africa (Drabon, N. et al. 2022. Destabilization of Long‐Lived Hadean Protocrust and the Onset of Pervasive Hydrous Melting at 3.8 GaAGU Advances, v. 3, article e2021AV000520; DOI: 10.1029/2021AV000520). The authors measured lutetium (Lu), hafnium (Hf) and oxygen isotopes, and concentrations of a suite of trace element in 329 zircons from Barberton dated between 3.3 to 4.15 Ga.

A schematic model of transition from Hadean-Eoarchaean lid tectonics to a type of plate tectonics that subsequently evolved to its current form, based on hafnium isotope data in ancient zircons (credit: Bauer et al. 2020; Fig 3)

The Hf isotopes show two main groups relative to the values for chondritic meteorites (assumed to reflect the composition of the bulk Earth). Zircons dated between 3.8 and 4.15 Ga all show values below that expected for the whole Earth. Those between 3.3 and 3.8 Ga show a broader range of values that extend above chondritic levels. The transition in data at around 3.8 Ga is also present in age plots of uranium relative to niobium and scandium relative to ytterbium, and to a lesser extent in the oxygen isotope data. On the basis of these data, something fundamentally changed in the way the Earth worked at around 3.8 Ga. Nadja Drabon and colleagues ascribe the chemical features of Hadean and Eoarchaean zircons to an early protocrust formed by melting of chemically undepleted mantle. This gradually built up and remained more or less stable for more than 600 Ma, without being substantially remelted through recycling back to mantle depths. After 3.8 billion years ago, geochemical signatures of the zircons start showing similarities to those of zircons derived from modern subduction zones. Hf isotopes and trace-element geochemistry in 3.6 to 3.8 Ga-old  detrital zircons from other cratons are consistent with a 200 Ma transition from ‘lid’ tectonics (see: Lid tectonics on Earth; December 2017) to the familiar tectonics of rigid plates whose basalt-capped lithosphere ultimately returns to the mantle to be involved in formation of new magmas from which continental crust stems. Parts of plates bolstered by this new, low density crust largely remain at the surface.

While Drabon et al. do provide new data from South Africa’s Kaapvaal craton, their conclusions are similar to earlier work by other geochemists based on data from other area (e.g. Bauer, A.M. et al. 2020. Hafnium isotopes in zircons document the gradual onset of mobile-lid tectonicsGeochemical Perspectives Letters, v. 14; DOI: 10.7185/geochemlet.2015), which the accompanying figure illustrates.

See also: Earliest geochemical evidence of plate tectonics found in 3.8-billion-year-old crystal. Science Daily, 21 April 2022. 3.8-Billion-Year-Old Zircons Offer Clues to When Earth’s Plate Tectonics Began. SciNews, 26 April 2022

Evidence for oldest microbes from Arctic Canada

Among the oldest known rocks are metamorphosed pillow basalts on Nuvvuagittuk Island in Quebec on the east side of Hudson Bay, Canada. They contain red and orange, iron-rich sediments probably formed by hydrothermal activity associated with sea water passing through hot basalts. The ironstones are made of silica in the form of jasper (SiO2) and carbonates that are coloured by hematite (Fe2O3). This rock sequence is cut by silica-rich intrusive igneous rocks dated between 3750 and 3775 Ma: a minimum, Eoarchaean age for the sequence. This is roughly the same as the age of the famous Isua supracrustal rocks of West Greenland, but dating of the basalts using the samarium–neodymium method suggested that they formed in the Hadean about 4300 Ma ago, which would make them by far the oldest known rocks. However, that date clashes with a zircon U-Pb age of 3780 Ma for associated metasedimentary mica schists: a still ‘live’ controversy. The ironstones have been suggested to contain signs of life, in the form of minute tubes and filaments similar to those formed in modern hydrothermal vents by iron-oxidising bacteria (see: Earliest hydrothermal vent and evidence for life, March 2017). If that can be proven this would push back the age of the earliest known life by at least 300 Ma and maybe far more if the Hadean Sm-Nd age is confirmed

The Nuvvuagittuk material has recently been re-examined by its original discoverers using a variety of advanced microscope techniques (Papineau, D. et al 2022. Metabolically diverse primordial microbial communities in Earth’s oldest seafloor-hydrothermal jasper. Science Advances, v. 8, article 2296; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm2296.). The most revealing of these involve two very-high resolution imaging systems: X-ray micro-tomography and electron microscopy armed with a focused ion beam that repeatedly shaves away 200 nm of rock from a sample. Both build up highly detailed 3-D images of any minute structures within a sample. The techniques revealed details of twisted filaments, tubes, knob-like and branching structures up to a centimetre long. While the first three could possibly have some inorganic origin, a ‘comb-like’ branch, likened to a moth’s antenna, has never been known to have formed by chemical reactions alone.

An image of hematite tubes from microfossils discovered in hydrothermal vent precipitates in the Nuvvuagittuk ironstones, reconstructed from X-ray and ion-beam micro-tomography (credit: Matthew Dodd, UCL)

All the structures are formed from hematite within a silica or carbonate (mainly calcite CaCO3 and ankerite Ca(Fe,Mg,Mn)(CO3)2) matrix. Some of the hematite (dominated by Fe3+) contains significant amounts of reduced Fe2+. The structures also contain tiny grains of graphite (C), phosphate (apatite Ca5(PO4)3(F,Cl,OH)) and various metal (Mn, Co, Cu, Zn, Ni, Cd) sulfides. The presence of graphite obviously suggests – but does not prove – a biological origin. However, all Phanerozoic jaspers formed from hydrothermal fluids contain undisputed organic material and appear little different from these ancient examples. Filaments, tubes and comb-like structures are displayed by various iron-oxidising bacteria found living in modern sea-floor hydrothermal vent systems. The sulfur isotopes in metal sulfides suggest their formation in an environment with vanishingly low oxygen content. Carbon isotopes in graphite are more enriched in light 12C relative to 13C than those in associated carbonates, a feature produced by living organic processes today. Patterns in plots of rare-earth elements (REE) from the Nuvvuagittuk jaspers are similar to those from modern examples and suggest high-temperature interactions between sea water and basaltic igneous rocks.

It is clear from the paper just how comprehensively the team of authors have considered and tested various biotic and abiotic options for the origin of the features found in the Nuvvuagittuk jasper samples. They conclude that they probably do represent an ancient microbial ecosystem associated with sea-floor hydrothermal vents; a now widely supported scenario for the origin of life on Earth. But what metabolic processes did the Nuvvuagittuk microbes use? Their intimate association with Fe3+ oxides that contain some reduced Fe2+ suggests that they exploited chemical ‘energy’ from oxidation reactions that acted on Fe2+ dissolved in hydrothermal fluids. This would have been impossible by inorganic means because of the very low oxygen content of seawater shown by the sulfur isotopes in associated sulfide minerals. Iron oxidation and precipitation of iron oxide by organic processes must have involved dissociation of water to yield the necessary oxygen and loss of electrons from available Fe2+, a process used by modern deep-water bacteria that depends on the presence of nitrates. That can power the metabolism of inorganic carbon dissolved in water as, for instance, bicarbonate ions and water to yield cell-building carbohydrates: a form of autotrophy. There may have been other metabolic routes, such as reducing dissolved sulfate ions to sulfur, as suggested by the association of metal sulfides. If the sea floor was shallow enough to be lit CO2 and water may have been converted to carbohydrates by a form of photosynthesis that does not release oxygen, analogous to modern purple bacteria.

There may have been considerable biodiversity in the Nuvvuagittuk ecosystem. So despite its vast age – it may have been active only 300 Ma after the Earth formed, if the oldest date is verified – it has to be remembered that a great many earlier evolutionary steps, both inorganic and organic, must have been accomplished to have allowed these organisms to exist. The materials do not signify the origin of life, but life that was chemically extremely sophisticated: far more so than anything attempted so far in laboratories to figure out the tricks performed by natural inorganic systems. DNA and RNA alone are quite a challenge!

See also: Video by authors of the paper (YouTube) Diverse life forms may have evolved earlier than previously thought. ScienceDaily, 13

Conditions that may have underpinned the ‘Cambrian Explosion’

Geologists of my generation leaned that the earliest signs of abundant and diverse animal life were displayed by an extraordinary assemblage of fossils in a mudstone exposure high on a ridge in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. The Burgess Shale lagerstätte, or ‘site of exceptional preservation’, was discovered by Charles Walcott in 1909. It contained exquisite remains, some showing signs of soft tissue, of a great range of animals, many having never before been seen. Though dated at 509 Ma (Middle Cambrian) it was regarded for much of the 20th century as the sign of a sudden burgeoning from which all subsequent life had evolved: the Cambrian Explosion. Walcott only scratched the surface of its riches, its true wonders only being excavated and analysed later by Harry Whittington and his protégé Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University. Their results were summarised and promoted in one of the great books on palaeontology and evolutionary biology, Wonderful Life (1989) by Steven Jay Gould.

Harbingers of animal profusion first appear around 635 Ma in the Late Neoproterozoic as the Ediacaran Fauna, with the oldest precursors turning up around a billion years ago in the Torridonian Sandstone Formation of northern Scotland. The evolutionary links between them and the Cambrian Explosion are yet to be documented, as creatures of the Ediacaran remain elusive in the earliest Phanerozoic rocks. As regards the conditions that promoted the explosion of animal faunas, the Burgess Shale is a blank canvas, for its riches were not preserved in situ, but had drifted onto deep, stagnant ocean floor to be preserved in oxygen-poor muds that enabled their intricate preservation. The animals could not have lived and evolved without abundant oxygen: what that environment was is not recorded by Walcott’s famous stratigraphic site.

Artistic impression of the Chengjian Biota

China, it has emerged, offers a major clue from around 40 lagerstätten in Chengjian County, Yunnan. They are not only older (518 Ma) than the Burgess Shale but contain 27 percent more faunal diversity: 17 phylums and more than 250 species. Since the discovery of the Chengjian Biota in the first decade of the 21st century palaeontologists have, understandably, been preoccupied by describing its riches in hundreds of scientific papers. The nature of the ecosystem has remained as obscure as that of the Burgess Shale, largely due to the exposed host rocks (laminated siltstones and mudstones) having been weathered. They are superficially similar to the Burgess Shale. In March 2022, 10 scientists working at laboratories in China, Canada, Switzerland and the UK published the results of their painstaking sedimentological investigation of a core dilled through through the entire fossiliferous sequence (Salih, F. and 9 others 2022. The Chengjiang Biota inhabited a deltaic environment. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 1569; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-29246-z).

Reconstruction of the near-shore deltaic environment in which the Chengjian Biota lived and evolved. Several rock types and the sedimentary processes that probably formed them shown in ‘cores’ (Credit: Salih et al. Figure 3)

The unweathered core displays a variety of tiny sedimentary structures. These include cross laminations formed by migrating ripples, occasional fine sandstones that include signs of burrowing, graded bedding formed by minor turbidity currents, hummocks formed by back and forth water flow, ripples formed by flow in a single direction and small channels. Unlike the Burgess Shale, the fine-grained Chengjian sediments seem to have been deposited in environments that were far from stagnant and deep. They most closely resemble the offshore parts of the delta of a predominantly muddy river, subject to occasional floods and storms and characterised by large and rapid accumulation of mud and silt by dense sediment-loaded river water flowing down a gently sloping seabed into clearer seawater. That the sediment supply was full of nutrients and oxygen is reflected by small organisms living in burrows. The high-quality preservation of fossils in some layers can be attributed to sudden influxes of freshwater into their marine habitat during storms, so that they were killed in place. Such a near-shore environment, full of nutrients and oxygen but subjected to repeated geochemical and physical stresses, can explain adaptive radiation and evolution at a fast pace. Clearly, that is by no means a full explanation of the Cambrian Explosion, but offers sufficient insight for research to proceed fruitfully.

See also: Modern Animal Life Could Have Origins in a Shallow, Nutrient-Rich Delta, SciTechDaily, 23 March 2022.

Lower-mantle blobs may reveal relics of event going back to the Hadean

The World-Wide Standardised Seismograph Network (WWSSN) records the arrivals of waves generated by earthquakes that have passed through the Earth’s interior. There are two types of these body waves: S- or shear waves that move matter at right angles to their direction of movement; compressional or P-waves that are a little like sound waves as materials are compressed and expanded along the direction of movement. Like sound, P-waves can travel through solids, liquids and gases. Since liquids and gases are non-rigid they cannot sustain shearing, so S-waves only travel through the solid Earth’s mantle but not its liquid outer core. However, their speed is partly controlled by rock rigidity, which depends on the temperature of the mantle; the hotter the lower the mantle’s rigidity.

Analysis of the S-wave arrival times throughout the WWSSN from many individual earthquakes enables seismologists to make 3-D maps of how S-wave speeds vary throughout the mantle and, by proxy, the variation of mantle rigidity with depth. This is known as seismic tomography, which since the late 1990s has revolutionised our understanding of mantle plumes and subduction zones, and also the overall structure of the deep mantle. In particular, seismic tomography has revealed two huge, blob-like masses above the core-mantle boundary that show anomalously low S-wave speeds, one beneath the Pacific Ocean and another at about the antipode beneath Africa: by far the largest structures in the deep mantle. They are known as ‘large low-shear-wave-velocity provinces’ (LLSVPs) and until recently they have remained the enigmatic focus of much speculation around two broad hypotheses: ‘graveyards’ for plates subducted throughout Earth history; or remnants of the magma ocean thought to have formed when another protoplanet impacted with the early Earth to create the Moon about 4.4 billion years ago.

Three-dimensional rendition of seismic tomography results beneath Africa. Mantle with anomalously low S-wave speeds is show in red, orange and yellow. The faint grey overlay represents the extent of surface continental crust today – Horn of Africa at right and Cape Town at the lower margin – the blue areas near the top are oceanic crust on the floor od the Mediterranean Sea. (Image credit: Mingming Li/ASU)

Qian Yuan and Mingming Li of Arizone State University, USA have tried to improve understanding of the shapes of the two massive blobs (Yuan, Q. & Li, M. 2022. Instability of the African large low-shear-wave-velocity province due to its low intrinsic density. Nature Geoscience, v. 15  DOI: 10.1038/s41561-022-00908-3) using advanced geodynamic modelling of the seismic tomography. Their work reveasl that the Pacific LLSVP extends between 500 to 800 km above the core-mantle boundary. Yet that beneath Africa reaches almost 1000 km higher, at 1300 to 1500 km. Both of them are less rigid and therefore hotter than the surrounding mantle. In order to be stable they must be considerably denser than the rest of the mantle surrounding them. But, because it reaches much higher above the core, the African LLSVP is probably less dense than the Pacific one. A lower density suggests two things: the African blob may be less stable; the two blobs may have different compositions and origins.

Both the Pacific Ocean floor and the African continent are littered with volcanic rocks that formed above mantle plumes. The volcanic geochemistry above the two LLSVPs differs. African samples show signs of a source enriched by material from upper continental crust, whereas those from the Pacific do not. Yuan and Li suggest that the enrichment supports the ‘plate graveyard’ hypothesis for the African blob and a different history beneath the Pacific. The 3-D tomography beneath Africa (see above) shows great complexity, perhaps reflecting the less stable nature of the LLSVP. Interestingly, 80 % of the pipe-like African kimberlite intrusions that have brought diamonds up from mantle depths over that last 320 Ma formed above the blob.

But why are there just two such huge blobs of anomalous material that lie on opposite sides of the Earth rather than a continuous anomaly or lots of smaller ones? The subduction graveyard hypothesis is compatible with the last two distributions. In a 2021 conference presentation the authors suggest from computer simulations that the two blobs may have originated at the time of the Moon’s formation after a planetary collision (Yuan, Q. et al. 2021. Giant impact origin for the large low shear velocity provinces. Abstracts for the 52nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference: Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston). Specifically, they suggest that the LLSVPs originated from the mantle of the other planet (Theia) after its near complete destruction and melting, which sank without mixing through the magma ocean formed by the stupendous collision. Yet, so far, no geochemists have been bold enough to suggest that there are volcanic rocks of any age that reveal truly exotic compositions inherited from deep mantle material with such an origin. If Theia’s mantle was dense enough to settle through that of the Earth when both were molten, it would be sufficiently anomalous in its chemistry for signs to show up in any melts derived from it. There again, because of a high density it may never have risen in plumes to source any magma that reached the Earth’s surface …

Note added later: Simon Hamner’s Comment about alternative views on seismic tomography has prompted me to draw attention to something I wrote 19 years ago

Signs of massive hydrocarbon burning at the end of the Triassic

One of the ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions occurred at the end of the Triassic Period (~201 Ma), whose magnitude matches that of the more famous end-Cretaceous (K-Pg) event. It roughly coincided with the beginning of break-up of the Pangaea supercontinent that was accompanied by a major episode of volcanism preserved in the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP). Eastern North America, West Africa and northern South America reveal scattered patches of CAMP flood basalts, swarms of dykes and large intrusive sills. Like all mass extinctions, that at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary left a huge selection of vacant or depleted ecological niches ready for evolution to fill by later adaptive radiation of surviving organisms. Because it coincided with continental break-up and drift, unlike other such events, evolution proceeded in different ways on the various wandering land masses and in newly formed seas (see  an excellent animation of the formation and break-up of Pangaea – move the slider to 3 minutes for the start of break-up). The Jurassic was a period of explosive evolution among all groups of organisms. The most notable changes were among marine cephalopods, to give rise to a bewildering variety of ammonite species, and on land with the appearance and subsequent diversification of dinosaurs.

Pangaea at the end of the Triassic (top) and in Middle Cretaceous times (Credit: screen shots from animation by Christopher Scotese)

Many scientists have ascribed the origin of these events to the CAMP magmatic activity and the release of huge amounts of methane to trigger rapid global warming. In October 2021 one group focused on a special role for the high percentages of magma that never reached the surface and formed huge intrusions that spread laterally in thick sedimentary sequences to ‘crack’ hydrocarbons to their simplest form, CH4 or methane. A sedimentary origin of the methane, rather than its escape from the mantle, is indicated by the carbon-isotope ‘signature’ of sediments deposited shortly after the Tr-J event. The lighter isotope 12C rose significantly relative to 13C, suggesting an organic source – photosynthesis selectively takes up the lighter isotope.

By examining the element mercury (Hg) in deep ocean sediments from a Tr-J sedimentary section now exposed in Japan, scientists from China, the US and Norway have added detail to the methane-release hypothesis (Shen, J et al. 2022. Mercury evidence for combustion of organic-rich sediments during the end-Triassic crisis. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 1307; DOI:10.1038/s41467-022-28891-8). The relative proportions of Hg isotopes strongly suggest that the mercury had been released, as was the methane, from organic-rich sediments rather than from the CAMP magmas (i.e. ultimately from the mantle) through gasification and then burning at the surface.

The hypothesis is enlivened by a separate study (Fox C.P. et al. 2022. Flame out! End-Triassic mass extinction polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons reflect more than just fire. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 584, article 117418; DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2022.117418) that sees magmatic heating as being not so important. Calum Fox and colleagues at Curtin University, Western Australia analysed sediments from a Triassic-Jurassic sedimentary sequence near the Severn Bridge in SW England, focusing on polycyclic hydrocarbons in them. Their results show little sign of the kinds of organic chemical remnants of modern wildfires. Instead they suggest a greater contribution from soil erosion by acid rain that increased input of plant debris to a late Triassic marine basin

See also: How a major volcanic eruption paved the way for the rise of the dinosaurs Eureka Alert 23 March 2022;  Soil erosion and wildfire: another nail in coffin for Triassic era. Science Daily, 21 March 2022

‘Smoking gun’ for Younger Dryas trigger refuted

In 2018 airborne ice-penetrating radar over the far northwest of the Greenland revealed an impact crater as large as the extent of Washington DC, USA beneath the Hiawatha Glacier. The ice surrounding it was estimated to be younger than 100 ka. This seemed to offer a measure of support for the controversial hypothesis that an impact may have triggered the start of the millennium-long Younger Dryas episode of frigidity (12.9 to 11.7 ka). This notion had been proposed by a group of scientists who claimed to have found mineralogical and geochemical signs of an asteroid impact at a variety of archaeological sites of roughly this age in North America, Chile and Syria. A new study of the Hiawatha crater by a multinational team, including the original discoverers of the impact structure, has focussed on sediments deposited beyond the edge of the Greenland ice cap by meltwater streams flowing along its base. (Kenny, G.G. et al. 2022. A Late Paleocene age for Greenland’s Hiawatha impact structure. Science Advances, v.8, article eabm2434; DOI: 10.1126/science.eabm2434).

Colour-coded subglacial topography from airborne radar sounding over the Hiawatha Glacier of NW Greenland (Credit: Kjaer et al. 2018; Fig. 1D)

Where meltwater emerges from the Hiawatha Glacier downstream of the crater there are glaciofluvial sands and gravels that began to build up after 2010 when rapid summer melting began, probably due to global warming. As luck would have it, the team found quartz grains that contained distinctive planar features that are characteristic of impact shock. They also found pebbles of glassy impact melts that contain clasts of bedrock, further grains of shocked quartz and tiny needles of plagioclase feldspar that crystallised from the melt. Also present were small grains of the mineral zircon (ZrSiO4), both as pristine crystals in the bedrock clasts and porous, grainy-textured grains showing signs of deformation in the feldspathic melt rock. So, two materials that can be radiometrically dated are available: feldspars suitable for the 40Ar/39Ar method and zircons for uranium-lead (U-Pb) dating. The feldspars proved to be about 58 million years old; i.e. of Late Palaeocene age. The pristine zircon grains from bedrock clasts yielded Palaeoproterozoic U-Pb ages (~1915 Ma), which is the general age of the Precambrian metamorphic basement that underpins northern Greenland. The deformed zircon samples have a very precise U-Pb age of 57.99±0.54 Ma. There seems little doubt that the impact structure beneath the Hiawatha Glacier formed towards the beginning of the Cenozoic Era.

During the Palaeocene, Northern Greenland was experiencing warm conditions and sediments of that age show that it was covered with dense forest. The group that since 2007 has been advocating the influence of an impact over the rapid onset of the Younger Dryas acknowledges that the Hiawatha crater cannot support their view. But they have an alternative: an airburst of an incoming projectile. Although scientists know such phenomena do occur, as one did over the Tunguska area in Siberia on the morning of 30 June 1908. Research on the Tunguska Event has discovered  geochemical traces that may implicate an extraterrestrial object, but coincidentally the area affected is underlain by the giant SIberian Traps large igneous province that arguably might account for geochemical anomalies. Airbursts need to have been observed to have irrefutable recognition. Two posts from October 2021 – A Bronze Age catastrophe: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? and Wide criticism of Sodom airburst hypothesis emerges – suggest that some scientists question the data used repeatedly to infer extraterrestrial events by the team that first suggested an impact origin for the Younger Dryas.

See also: Voosen, P, 2022. Controversial impact crater under Greenland’s ice is surprisingly ancient. Science, v. 375, article adb1944;DOI: 10.1126/science.adb1944

New book on geology and landscape of the Britsh Lake District

I don’t often review books on Earth-logs, but one that is pending publication may interest readers (Ian Francis, Stuart Holmes and Bruce Yardley 2022. The Lake District: Landscape and Geology. Marlborough: The Crowbrook Press; ISBN: 078 0 7198 4011 1). Ian Francis urged me to create Earth Pages, the predecessor to Earth-logs. One good turn deserves another, but this is a very good book. Unlike nearly all area-specific geoscientific books it is not primarily a guidebook. Instead it uses the internationally famous Lake District as a means of teaching how to fathom what a landscape represents. In this case, one with a history going back half a billion years, involving closure of an ocean, destruction of a mountain chain and sediment deposition in a ‘shallow, inland sea’. The last couple of million years or so of cycles of glaciation and river erosion have sculpted its present form. Finally, it became the home range of human hunter gatherers, once the ice had melted away around 10 thousand years ago. Britain’s first stone-age tillers and herders colonised its lower elevations, followed by miners and metal smelters, Roman, Viking and Anglo Saxon invaders and settlers. Its beauty and complexity have inspired poets and artists, and they in turn have drawn in more visitors per km2 than perhaps any other National Park on Earth, and far more per annum than its indigenous population.

Cover of The Lake District: Landscape and Geology

Ian, Stuart and Bruce lace their book with some of the best landscape images of the Lake District that I have come across, which invite you to read the text. The Lake District is pitched at a level that anyone can understand, with a minimum of jargon and a pleasant style. Basic geological concepts are covered in separate ‘boxes’, where the main thread requires them and for those who want a little more science. Geology being an observational science, there is some emphasis on indicators of natural processes, such as elliptical drumlins whose sculpting by flowing ice aligns their long axes, and exotic boulders made of rocks only present miles away whose presence suggests the source of the ice that had moved them. Solid rock outcrops in the Lakes are products of many Earth processes, both internal and at the former surface. There are granitic rocks that intruded through once volcanic and sedimentary rocks. Their internal features tell the rocktypes apart, such as the layering of sediments, often cleaved and folded by deformation. and the lack of structure in granite that cuts the layering, yet imparts new minerals to the older marine rocks as a result of igneous heating to very high temperatures.

Most of the geological concepts raised in the main text are amplified by narratives of seven field trips; provided the reader physically walks through them. And why shouldn’t they? Each of them involves only a few kilometres of gentle walking from parking spaces on metalled roads.  They cover all the solid geology, from the regionally oldest rocks, the Early-Ordovician, deep-water Skiddaw Slates; upwards in geological time through the varied products of later Ordovician volcanism and marine sediments; the thick Silurian mudstones and silts; and the youngest and structurally simplest shallow-marine Carboniferous limestone. The sediments all contain fossils and the volcanics are full of evidence of the environment onto which they poured – an oceanic island arc. A simple story is unveiled by all, such as following a track on the flanks of Blencathra, a hill in the Northern Fells. From slates with cleavage formed by compressive forces acting on muds; to a point where new minerals have grown in them through later heating; then to where heat was so intense that the slates came to resemble igneous rocks; and finally outcrops of a granite whose much later intrusion as magma explains the simple sequence. All the trips are like that: not too much to take in, but enough to hammer home the various rudiments of geology.

Britain was where the modern Earth sciences were largely forged. But that was in the absence of complete exposure of all the solid rock that underpins it. What lies between outcrops is the modern natural world and a diversity of ecosystems to which The Lake District also draws attention. Even professional geologists get bored to tears by trudging unendingly over nothing but rock. They enjoy flowers, trees, birds, streams and tarns with fish as a relief. Some of the text also taught me about oddities created by Cumbrian farmers: bields, which are shelters for shepherds and sheep; washfolds where sheep used to be gathered and cleaned prior to shearing, and lots more about the unique upland farming culture of Cumbria. I hope the book proves physically durable, for it will surely find its way into secondary-school and first-year undergraduate field trips. It is also ideal for any family aiming at a fortnight’s holiday in the Lakes, but wondering what to do. The book will get well-thumbed and wet – the one drawback of the Lake District is its annual rainfall, averaging 3.3 metres! Go in April, May or early June to escape the worst of it and that of tourists, and to see its ecology at its best. I’m giving my complimentary copy to my grandchildren, because I get annoyed when they complain of boredom!

End-Cretaceous mass extinction occurred in northern spring

This post’s title seems beyond belief for an event that occurred 66 million years ago: how can geologists possibly say that with any conviction? The claim is based on fossil fishes found in the Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation of North Dakota (see: A bad day at the end of the Cretaceous. April, 2019), described in a paper published on 1 April 2019. The horizon that displays all the classic evidence for an impact origin for the K-Pg extinction is a freshwater sediment laid down by a surge into a river system: the upstream result of the mega-tsunami driven by the Chicxulub impact in the Gulf of Mexico. Amongst much else it contains intact marine ammonites – the last of their kind – and freshwater paddlefish and sturgeon. The fishes are preserved exquisitely, with no sign of scavenging. Parts of their gills are clogged with microscopic spherules made of impact glass. They are pretty good ‘smoking guns’ for an impact, and are accompanied by dinosaur remains – an egg with an embryo, hatchlings and even a piece of skin.

A group of scientists from the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and the UK examined thin sections of the fishes’ bones (During, M.A.D. et al. 2022. The Mesozoic terminated in boreal springNature online publication, 23 February 2022; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04446-1). These revealed growth layers that show lines of arrested growth (LAGs) separated by thicker layers. Such LAGs in modern paddlefish and sturgeon bones may indicate conditions of low food availability in winter, most growth being during warmer times of year. Each bone that was examined has only a thin outer zone of accelerated growth following its last LAG. So it seems that each specimen died in the Northern Hemisphere spring. This was confirmed by variations within the cyclic zonation of the relative proportions of carbon isotopes 13C and 12C, expressed as δ13C. In the LAGs δ13C is lower than in the thicker zones, which is consistent with decreased prey availability in winter, but see below.

Thin sections of fish bones from the K-Pg boundary layer in the Hell Creek Formation, showing lines of arrested growth marked by red arrowheads. The outermost (top) LAGs are succeeded by only a thin zone of accelerated growth during their last weeks of the fishes’ lives (credit: During et al., Fig. 2)

The paper by During et al. follows one with very similar content from the same deposit that was published about 12 weeks earlier (DePalma, R.A., et al. 2021. Seasonal calibration of the end-cretaceous Chicxulub impact event. Nature Science Reports, v. 11, 23704; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-03232-9). Yet During et al. do not refer to it, despite acknowledging DePalma’s guidance in the field and his granting access to his team’s specimens: maybe due to poor communications … or maybe not. DePalma et al. note thatmodern sturgeons are able to spend winters in the sea, which may also explain the low δ13C in the LAGs, as well as decreased prey availability does. They also examined damage by leaf-mining insects in fossil leaves at the site, which supports the springtime extinction hypothesis. Another study in DePalma et al. is the size range of newly hatched fish of three different Families that are founds as fossils in the K-Pg deposit. By comparing them with the growth histories of closely-related modern hatchlings they conclude that perhaps late spring to early summer is implied. Whatever, both papers go on to discuss the implications of their basic conclusions. Spring is a particularly sensitive time for the life cycles of many organisms; i.e. annual reproduction and newborns’ early growth. But some groups of egg-laying animals, such as perhaps dinosaurs, require longer incubation periods than do others, e.g. birds, and may be more vulnerable to rapid environmental change. That may explain the demise of the dinosaurs while their close avian relatives, or at least some of them, survived.  Yet the season in the Southern Hemisphere when the Chicxulub impact occurred would have been autumn. That may go some way towards explaining evidence that ecological recovery from mass extinction in the southern continents seems to have been faster. Almost certainly, the impact would have induced a double climatic whammy: warming in its immediate aftermath followed by global cooling plus a shutdown of photosynthesis as dust clouds enveloped the planet. Then there is the issue of contamination by potentially toxic compounds raised by Chicxulub. The K-Pg boundary seems likely to run and run as a geoscientific story more than four decades since it was first proposed.

See also: Sample, I. 2022. Springtime asteroid ramped up extinction rates, say scientists. The Guardian, 23 September 2022.