How did the earliest animals feed?

Among the strange early animals of the latest Precambrian, known as the Ediacaran fauna, is the slug-like Kimberella. Unlike most of its cohort, which are impressions in sediment or trace fossils,  Kimberella is a body fossil in which can be seen signs of a front and back, i.e. mouth and anus (See also: A lowly worm from the Ediacaran?). In that respect they are the same as us: bilaterians both. Indeed, Kimberella may be one of the oldest of our broad kind that we will ever be able to see. Rare examples have fans of grooves radiating from their ‘front’. It may have grated its food, a bit like a slug does, but drew it in to its mouth. Some enthusiasts have likened the little beasty to a JCB digger, able to rotate and rake stuff into its mouth. In that case, Kimberella would have moved ‘backwards’ while feeding. If it can be likened to any modern animals, it may be a simple mollusc.

A Kimberella fossil, about 10 centimetres long, and a speculative reconstruction showing its feeding apparatus.

Other Ediacaran animals show no such mouth-gut-anus symmetry. Some have tops and bases, but most show no symmetry at all, being flaccid bag-like creatures. Palaeontologists provisionally suggest that they are primitive sponges, ctenophores, placozoans and cnidarians. Such animals excrete through pores on their surfaces and draw food in either through a simple mouth or their skins. The early bilaterians probably ‘grazed’ on bacterial or algal mats, but until now that has been conjectural. Ilya Bobrovskiy of the Australian National University and colleagues from Russia and Australia have managed to extract and analyse biomarker chemicals contained in well-preserved specimens of three Ediacaran animals from strata on the White Sea coast of Russia (Bobrovskiy, I. et al. 2022. Guts, gut contents, and feeding strategies of Ediacaran animals. Current Biology, v. 32,   ; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.10.051). Biomarkers are molecules, such as fatty acids, phospholipids, triglycerides, hopanes and steranes, that definitively indicate metabolic processes of once living organisms, sometimes referred to as ‘molecular fossils’. Their varying proportions relative to one another are key to recognising the presence of different groups of organisms.

Specifically, hopane molecules are the best indicators of the former metabolism of bacteria whereas steranes (based on linked chains of carbon atoms bonded in rings) are typical products of degradation of sterols in eukaryotes. One sterane group involving 27 carbon atoms (C27 steranes) are typically formed when and animal dies and decays.   C28 and C29 steranes likely form when algae decay, as when they are digested in the gut of a herbivore. Specimens of one of the Ediacaran animals analysed by the team – Dickinsonia – contained far more C27 steranes than C28 and C29, a sign of biomarkers associated with its decay. It probably absorbed food, weirdly, through its skin. Kimberella and a worm-like animal – Calyptrina – had sterane proportions which suggested that they digested algae or bacteria in a gut, as befits bilaterians. Simple as they may appear, these are among the earliest ancestors of modern animals, including us: of course!

See also: Lu, D. 2022. The real paleo diet: researchers find traces of world’s oldest meal in 550m-year-old fossil. The Guardian, 22 November 2022.;  World’s oldest meal helps unravel mystery of our earliest animal ancestors. scimex, 23 November 2022

Early land plants and oceanic extinctions

In September 2022 Earth-logs highlighted how greening of the continents affected the composition of the continental crust. It now seems that was not the only profound change that the first land plants wrought on the Earth system. Beginning in the Silurian, the spread of vegetation swept across the continents during the Devonian Period. From a height of less than 30 cm among the earliest species by the Late Devonian the stature of plants went through a large increase with extensive forests of primitive tree-sized conifers, cycads, horsetails and sporiferous lycopods up to 10 m tall. Their rapid evolution and spread was not hampered by any herbivores. It was during the Devonian that tetrapod amphibians emerged from the seas, probably feeding on burgeoning terrestrial invertebrates. The Late Devonian was marked by five distinct episodes of extinction, two of which comprise the Devonian mass extinction: one of the ‘Big Five’. This affected both marine and terrestrial organisms. Neither flood volcanism nor extraterrestrial impact can be linked to the extinction episodes. Rather they marked a long drawn-out period of repeated environmental stress.

Phytoplankton bloom off the east coast of Scotland ‘fertilised’ by effluents carried by the Tay and Forth estuaries.

One possibility is that a side effect of the greening of the land was the release of massive amounts of nutrients to the seas that would have resulted in large-scale blooms of phytoplankton whose death and decay depleted oxygen levels in the water column. That is a process seen today where large amounts of commercial fertilisers end up in water bodies to result in their eutrophication. Matthew Smart and others from Indiana University-Purdue University, USA and the University of Southampton, UK, geochemically analysed Devonian lake deposits from Greenland and Scotland to test this hypothesis (Smart, M.S. et al. 2022. Enhanced terrestrial nutrient release during the Devonian emergence and expansion of forests: Evidence from lacustrine phosphorus and geochemical records. Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 134, early release article;  DOI: 10.1130/B36384.1).

Smart et al. show that in the Middle and Late Devonian the lacustrine strata show cycles in their abundance of phosphorus (P an important plant nutrient) that parallel evidence for wet and dry cycles in the lacustrine basins. The cycles show that the same phosphorus abundance patterns occurred at roughly the same times at five separate sites. This may suggest a climatic control forced by changes in Earth’s orbital behaviour, similar to the Milankovich Effect on the Pleistocene climate and at other times in Phanerozoic history. The wet and dry intervals show up in the changing ratio between strontium and copper abundances (Sr/Cu): high values signify wet conditions, low suggesting dry. The wet periods show high ratios of rubidium to strontium (Rb/Sr) that suggest enhanced weathering, while dry periods show the reverse – decreased weathering.

When conditions were dry and weathering low, P built up in the lake sediments, whereas during wet conditions P decreases; i.e. it was exported from the lakes, presumably to the oceans. The authors interpret the changes in relation to the fate of plants under the different conditions. Dry periods would result in widespread death of plants and their rotting, which would release their P content to the shallowing, more stagnant lakes. When conditions were wetter root growth would have increased weathering and more rainfall would flush P from the now deeper and more active lake basins. The ultimate repository of the sediments and freshwater, the oceans, would therefore be subject to boom and bust (wet and dry) as regards nutrition and phytoplankton blooms. Dead phytoplankton, in turn, would use up dissolved oxygen during their decay. That would lead to oceanic anoxia, which also occurred in pulses during the Devonian, that may have contributed to animal extinction.

See also: Linking mass extinctions to the expansion and radiation of land plants, EurekaAlert 10 November 2022; Mass Extinctions May Have Been Driven by the Evolution of Tree Roots, SciTechDaily, 14 November 2022.

Family links among the Neanderthals of Siberia

Caves used by the Neanderthals of southern Siberia: A – location map; B – Chagyrskaya Cave; C – Okladnikov Cave. (Credit: adapted from Skov et al.; Extended Data Fig. 1)

The early focus on Neanderthals was on remains found in Western Europe from the 19th century onwards. That has shifted in recent years to southern Siberia in the foothills of the Altai mountains, despite the fossils’ fragmentary nature: a few teeth and bits of mandible. The Denisova Cave became famous not just because it contained the easternmost evidence of Neanderthal occupation but through the genetic analysis of a tiny finger-tip bone. It proved not to be from a Neanderthal but a distinctly different hominin species, dubbed Denisovan (see: Other rich hominin pickings; May 2010). What Denisovans looked like remains unknown but genetic traces of them are rife among living humans of the western Pacific islands and Australia, whose ancestors interbred with Denisovans, presumably in East Asia. Modern people indigenous to Europe and the Middle East have Neanderthal genes in their genomes. Other bone fragments from Denisova Cave also yielded Neanderthal genomes, and the cave sediments yielded traces of both groups (see: Detecting the presence of hominins in ancient soil samples; April 2017). Then in 2018 DNA extracted from a limb bone from the cave clearly showed that it was from a female teenager who had had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father (see: Neanderthal Mum meets Denisovan Dad; August 2018). These astonishing and unexpected finds spurred further excavations and genetic analysis in other caves within 100 km of Denisova Cave. This was largely led by current and former co-workers of Svanti Pääbo, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany: Pääbo was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his coordination of research and discoveries concerning ancient human genomes. Their enormous field and laboratory efforts have paid astonishingly valuable dividends (Skov, L. and 34 others 2022. Genetic insights into the social organization of Neanderthals. Nature v. 610, p. 519–525; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05283-y).

To the previously analysed 18 Neanderthal genomes from 14 archaeological sites across Eurasia (including Denisova Cave) Skov et al. have added 13 more from just two sites in Siberia (the Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov caves). Each site overlooks valleys along which game still migrates, so they may have been seasonal hunting camps rather than permanent dwellings: they are littered with bison and horse bones. Tools in the two 59-51 ka old human occupation levels are different from those at the older (130 to 91 Ka) Denisova Cave about 100 km to the east. As at the much older site, human fossils include several teeth and fragments of bones from jaws, hands, limbs and vertebrae. The detailed genomes recovered from 17 finds shows them to be from 14 individuals (12 from Chagyrskaya, 2 from Okladnikov).

Chagyrskaya yielded evidence for 5 females (3 adults and 2 children) and 7 males (3 children and 4 adults). One female estimated to have lost a premolar tooth when a teenager was the daughter of a Chagyrskaya adult male. He, in turn, was brother or father to another male, so the girl seems to have had an uncle as well. Another male and female proved to be second-degree relations (includes uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, grandparents, grandchildren, half-siblings, and double cousins). The two people from Okladnikov were an adult female and an unrelated male child. The boy was not related to the Chagyrskaya group, but the woman was, her former presence at that cave lingering in its cave-sediment DNA. None of the newly discovered individuals were closely related to six of the seven much older Denisova Cave Neanderthals, but the Okladnikov boy had similar mtDNA to one individual from Denisova.

Further information about the Chagyrskaya group came from comparison of DNA in Y-chromosomes and mitochondria. The father of the teenage girl had two types of mtDNA – the unusual characteristic of heteroplasmy – that he shared with two other males. This suggests that three of the males shared the same maternal lineage – not necessarily a mother – and also indicates that they lived at roughly the same time. The mtDNA recovered from all Chagyrskaya individuals was much more varied than was their Y-chromosome DNA (passed only down male lineage). One way of explaining that would be females from different Neanderthal communities having migrated into the Chagyrskaya group and mated with its males, who largely remained in the group: a ‘tradition’ known as patrilocality, which is practised in traditional Hindu communities, for instance.

So, what has emerged is clear evidence for a closely related community of Neanderthals at Chagyrskaya, although it cannot be shown that all were present there at the same time, apart from the five who show first- or second-degree relatedness or mitochondrial heteroplasmy. Those represented only by individual teeth didn’t necessarily die there: adult teeth can be lost through trauma and deciduous teeth fall out naturally. There was also some individual physical connection between the two caves: The Okladnikov woman’s DNA being in the sediment at Chagyrskaya. Looking for DNA similarities more widely, it appears that all individuals at Chagyrskaya may have had some ancestral connection with Croatian Neanderthals, as did the previously mentioned mother of the Denisovan-Neanderthal hybrid girl. Four of the Chagyrskaya individuals can also be linked genetically to Neanderthals from Spain, more so than to much closer individuals found in the Caucasus Mountains. So, by around 59-51 ka the results of a wave of eastward migration of Neanderthals had reached southern Siberia. Yet the apparent matrilineal relatedness of the Okladnikov boy to the much older Neanderthals of Denisova Cave suggests that the earlier group continued to exist.

The new results are just as fascinating as the 2021 discovery that ancient DNA from Neolithic tomb burials in the Cotswolds of SW England suggests that the individual skeletons represent five continuous generations of one extended family. The difference is that they were farmers tied to the locality, whereas the Siberian Neanderthals were probably hunter gatherers with a very wide geographic range.  Laurits Skov and his colleagues have analysed less than one-quarter of the Neanderthal remains already discovered in Chagyrskaya and Okladnikov caves and only a third of the cave deposits have been excavated. Extracting and analysing ancient DNA is now far quicker, more detailed and cheaper than it was in 2010 when news of the first Neanderthal genome broke. So more Neanderthal surprises may yet come from Siberia. Progress on the genetics of their anatomically-modern contemporaries in NE Asia has not been so swift.

See also:  Callaway, E. 2022. First known Neanderthal family discovered in Siberian cave.  Nature online 19 October 2022.

Origin of animals at a time of chaotic oxygen levels

Every organism that you can easily see is a eukaryote, the vast majority of which depend on the availability of oxygen molecules. The range of genetic variation in a wide variety of eukaryotes suggests, using a molecular ‘clock’, that the first of them arose between 2000 to 1000 Ma ago. It possibly originated as a symbiotic assemblage of earlier prokaryote cells ‘bagged-up’ within a single cell wall: Lynn Margulis’s hypothesis of endosymbiosis. It had to have happened after the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE 2.4 to 2.2 Ga), before which free oxygen was present in the seas and atmosphere only at vanishingly small concentrations. Various single-celled fossil possibilities have been suggested to be the oldest members of the Eukarya but are not especially prepossessing, except for one bizarre assemblage in Gabon. The first inescapable sign that eukaryotes were around is the appearance of distinctive organic biomarkers in sediments about 720 Ma old. The Neoproterozoic is famous for its Snowball Earth episodes and the associated multiplicity of large though primitive animals during the Ediacaran Period (see: The rise of the eukaryotes; December 2017).

The records of carbon- and sulfur isotopes in Neo- and Mesoproterozoic sedimentary rocks are more or less flat lines after a mighty hiccup in the carbon and sulfur cycles that followed the GOE and the earliest recorded major glaciation of the Earth. The time between 2.0 and 1.0 Ga has been dubbed ‘the Boring Billion’. At about 900 Ma, both records run riot. Sulfur isotopes in sediments reveal the variations of sulfides and sulfates on the seafloor, which signify reducing and oxidising conditions respectively.  The δ13C record charts the burial of organic carbon and its release from marine sediments related to reducing and oxidising conditions in deep water. There were four major ‘excursions’ of δ13C during the Neoproterozoic, which became increasingly extreme. From constant anoxic, reducing conditions throughout the Boring Billion the Late Neoproterozoic ocean-floor experienced repeated cycles of low and high oxygenation reflected in sulfide and sulfate precipitation and by fluctuations in trace elements whose precipitation depends on redox conditions. By the end of the Cambrian, when marine animals were burgeoning, deep-water oxic-anoxic cycles had been smoothed out, though throughout the Phanerozoic eon anoxic events crop up from time to time.

Atmospheric levels of free oxygen relative to that today (scale is logarithmic) computed using combined carbon- and sulfur isotope records from marine sediments since 1500 Ma ago. The black line is the mean of 5,000 model runs, the grey area represents ±1 standard deviations. The pale blue area represents previous ‘guesstimates’. Vertical yellow bars are the three Snowball Earth events of the Late Neoproterozoic (Sturtian, Marinoan and Gaskiers). (Credit: Krause et al., Fig 1a)

The Late Neoproterozoic redox cycles suggest that oxygen levels in the oceans may have fluctuated too. But there are few reliable proxies for free oxygen. Until recently, individual proxies could only suggest broad, stepwise changes in the availability of oxygen: around 0.1% of modern abundance after the GOE until about 800 Ma; a steady rise to about 10% during the Late Neoproterozoic; a sharp rise to an average of roughly 80% at during the Silurian attributed to increased photosynthesis by land plants. But over the last few decades geochemists have devised a new approach based on variations on carbon and sulfur isotope data from which powerful software modelling can make plausible inferences about varying oxygen levels. Results from the latest version have just been published (Krause, A.J. et al. 2022. Extreme variability in atmospheric oxygen levels in the late Precambrian. Science Advances, v. 8, article 8191; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm8191).

Alexander Krause of Leeds University, UK, and colleagues from University College London, the University of Exeter, UK and the Univerisité Claude Bernard, Lyon, France show that atmospheric oxygen oscillated between ~1 and 50 % of modern levels during the critical 740 to 540 Ma period for the origin and initial diversification of animals. Each major glaciation was associated with a rapid decline, whereas oxygen levels rebounded during the largely ice-free episodes. By the end of the Cambrian Period (485 Ma), by which time the majority of animal phyla had emerged, there appear to have been six such extreme cycles.

Entirely dependent on oxygen for their metabolism, the early animals faced periodic life-threatening stresses. In terms of oxygen availability the fluctuations are almost two orders of magnitude greater than those that animal life faced through most of the Phanerozoic. Able to thrive and diversify during the peaks, most animals of those times faced annihilation as O2 levels plummeted. These would have been periods when natural selection was at its most ruthless in the history of metazoan life on Earth. Its survival repeatedly faced termination, later mass extinctions being only partial threats. Each of those Phanerozoic events was followed by massive diversification and re-occupation of abandoned and new ecological niches. So too those Neoproterozoic organism that survived each massive environmental threat may have undergone adaptive radiation involving extreme changes in their form and function. The Ediacaran fauna was one that teemed on the sea floor, but with oxygen able to seep into the subsurface other faunas may have been evolving there exploiting dead organic matter. The only signs of that wholly new ecosystem are the burrows that first appear in the earliest Cambrian rocks. Evolution there would have ben rife but only expressed by those phyla that left it during the Cambrian Explosion.

There is a clear, empirical link between redox shifts and very large-scale glacial and deglaciation events. Seeking a cause for the dramatic cycles of climate, oxygen and life is not easy. The main drivers of the greenhouse effect COand methane had to have been involved, i.e. the global carbon cycle. But what triggered the instability after the ‘Boring Billion’? The modelled oxygen record first shows a sudden rise to above 10% of modern levels at about 900 Ma, with a short-lived tenfold decline at 800 Ma. Could the onset have had something to do with a hidden major development in the biosphere: extinction of prokaryote methane generators; explosion of reef-building and oxygen-generating stromatolites? How about a tectonic driver, such as the break-up of the Rodinia supercontinent? Then there are large extraterrestrial events … Maybe the details provided by Krause et al. will spur others to imaginative solutions. See also: How fluctuating oxygen levels may have accelerated animal evolution. Science Daily, 14 October 2022

Seven thousand years of cultural sharing in Europe between Neanderthals and modern humans

Two years ago material excavated from the Bacho Kiro cave in Bulgaria revealed that anatomically modern humans (AMH) had lived there between 44 and 47 ka ago: the earliest known migrants into Europe. Bacho Kiro contains evidence of occupancy by both Neanderthals and AMH. This discovery expanded the time over which Europe was co-occupied by ourselves and Neanderthals. The latter probably faded from the scene as an anatomically distinct group around 41 to 39 ka, although some evidence suggests that they lingered in Spain until ~37 ka and perhaps as late as 34 to 31 ka in the northern Ural mountains at the modern boundary of Europe and Asia. For most of Europe both groups were therefore capable of meeting over a period of seven to eight thousand years.

Aside from interbreeding, which they certainly did, palaeoanthropologists have long pondered on a range of tools that define an early Upper Palaeolithic culture known as the Châtelperronian, which also spans the same lengthy episode. But there have been sharp disagreements about whether it was a shared culture and, if so, which group inspired it. Evidence from the Grotte du Renne in eastern France suggests that the Neanderthals did abandon their earlier Mousterian culture to use the Châtelperronian approach early in the period of dual occupancy of Europe.

Dated appearances in France and NE Spain of Neanderthal fossils (black skulls), Châtelperronian artefacts (grey circles) and proto-Aurignacian artefacts (white squares) in different time ‘slots’ between 43.4 and 39.4 ka. (Credit: Djakovic et al., Fig. 3)

Igor Djakovic of Leiden University in the Netherlands , Alastair Key of Cambridge University, UK, and Marie Soressi, also of Leiden University have undertaken a statistical analysis of the geochronological and stratigraphic context of artefacts at Neanderthal and AMH sites in France and NW Spain during the co-occupancy period (Djakovic, I., Key, A. & Soressi, M. 2022. Optimal linear estimation models predict 1400–2900 years of overlap between Homo sapiens and Neandertals prior to their disappearance from France and northern Spain. Scientific Reports, v. 12, article  15000; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-19162-z). Their study is partly an attempt to shed light on the ‘authorship’ of the novel technology. The results suggest that the Châtelperronian (Ch) started around 45 ka and had disappeared by ~40.5 ka, along with the Neanderthals themselves. Early AMH artefacts are known as proto-Aurignacian (PA) and bear some resemblance to those of Châtelperronian provenance. The issue revolves around 3 conceivable scenarios: 1. the earliest AMH migrants brought the PA culture with them that Neanderthals attempted to copy, leading to their Ch tools; 2. Neanderthals independently invented the Ch methodology, which AMH adopted to produce PA artefacts; 3. both cultures arose independently.

Djakovic and colleagues have found that the data suggest that the proto-Aurignacian first appeared in the area at around 42.5 ka. Maps of dated human remains and artefacts for six 400-year time ranges from 43.4 to 39.4 ka show only Neanderthal remains and Châtelperronian artefacts from the earliest range (a in the figure). Two sites with proto-Aurignacian artefacts appears in NW Spain during the next ‘slot’ (b) then grow in numbers (c to e) relative to those of Châtelperronian provenance, which are not present after 40 ka (f) and neither are Neanderthal remains. These data suggest that local Neanderthals may have made the technological breakthrough before the appearance of the AMH proto-Aurignacian culture, which supports scenario 2 but not 1. They also suggest that the sudden appearance of Ch in France and Spain and the abandonment of earlier Neanderthal artefacts known as Mousterian could indicate that the Ch culture may have been introduced by Neanderthals migrating into the area, perhaps from further east where they may have been influenced by the earliest known European AMH in Bulgaria: i.e. tentative support for 1 or 2.

However, well documented as Djakovic et al.’s study is, it considers only 17 sites across only a fraction of Europe and a mere 28 individual artefacts each from Neanderthal and AMH associations (56 altogether). More sites and data are bound to emerge. But the study definitely opens exciting new possibilities for cultural ‘cross fertilisation’ as well as the proven physical exchange of genetic material: the two seem very likely to go hand-in-hand. Seven thousand years (~350 generations) of mutual dependence on the resources of southern Europe surely signifies too that the initially distinct groups did not engage in perpetual conflict or ecological competition, as with small numbers of both one or the other would have been extinguished within a few generations.

 See also: Devlin, H. 2022. Neanderthals and modern humans may have copied each other’s tools. The Guardian, 13 October 2022; Davis, N. 2020. Humans and Neanderthals ‘co-existed in Europe for far longer than thought’. The Guardian, 11 May 2020.

Amber, palaeontologists and a military dictatorship

Most people are familiar with the term ‘blood diamonds’, meaning diamonds clandestinely exported from areas infested by the lethal activities of military and paramilitary forces. Indeed such conflicts are often fuelled by the large profits to be made from trading diamonds.  One such source was in Sierra Leone during the civil war of 1991-2002. Others include Liberia, Côte d’ Ivoire, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like illicit money, gemstones can be ‘laundered’ and find their way into conventional trade. To some extent the blood diamond trade has been slowed down by a programme of certification of packaged uncut diamond ‘rough’ by bona fide producers, and banning the sale of uncertified rough. The Kimberley Programme has been criticised because certificates can be issued in corrupt ways, so that blood diamonds probably still make their way to the international diamond markets: certification may hold no fears for those who force people to ine at gun point. However, because diamonds often show geochemical signatures and minute inclusions of other minerals that are unique to individual pipe-like intrusions of kimberlite that carry deep-mantle material to the surface. So, it is technically possible – but costly – to check for suspect rough. Such controls do not apply to other gemstones. A major source of very-high value gems is Myanmar (formerly Burma), whose widely condemned military dictatorship may be engaged in their unethical trade, including smuggling to neighbouring Thailand and China to avoid scrutiny.

Foot of bird chick preserved in Cretaceous amber from Kachin, Myanmar. Credit: Pinterest, Xing Lida, China University of Geosciences)

Myanmar is well endowed with sedimentary deposits that contain amber, the solidified resin from a variety of now extinct trees. Oddly, completely clear amber has low intrinsic value: it is semi-precious, albeit attractive. But it often contains inclusions of vegetation fragments, insects, feathers and small vertebrates, of interest to palaeontologists. Myanmar amber is especially interesting as it is dated to the Middle Cretaceous (~130 Ma), older than that found around the Baltic Sea (Eocene ~44 Ma), which was the main source for European jewellery since the 12th century, and that from Canada (Upper Cretaceous ~80 Ma). Myanmar amber has been used decoratively and medicinally in China since the 3rd century CE, and in Europe since prehistoric times. It is attractive but quite common, so historically amber never commanded high prices but was widely used as a trade item. Since the publicity attending the supposed extraction of dinosaur DNA from the bodies of reptile parasites to resurrect dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Jurassic Park, public and scientific interest in amber has boomed. It is primarily the exquisite preservation of encased organisms that piques the interest of palaeontologists. Papers that rely on the Myanmar amber have grown in number over the last ten years, despite the country being infamous for military repression of tribal and religious groups in its rural areas.

One of the most conflict-riven areas is the northern state of Kachin where the most interesting amber to palaeontologists is collected by the Kachin people of the Hukawng Valley. Government forces have been in conflict with the Kachin Independence Army since the 1960s, most particularly for control of the amber industry. A recent paper has focussed on the ethical issue of publications based on fossil-bearing amber from the area (Dunne, E.M. et al. 2022. Ethics, law, and politics in palaeontological research: The case of Myanmar amber. Communications Biology, v. 5, article no. 1023; DOI: 10.1038/s42003-022-03847-2).

In 2010 the military began forcibly to take over mines in Kachin.  Between 2014 and 2021 the annual number of publication underwent a tenfold growth from between 10 to 15 to over 150, despite the fact that in 2015 the government in Yangon prohibited removal of fossils from the country. But the export laws exempt gemstones, so the growing demand for fossiliferous amber is clearly reflected in its supply to foreign scientists.  Rare specimens that include vertebrate remains command prices up to US$100,000. The Myanmar amber trade is now estimated at around US$ 1 billion per annum. The Myanmar military took over all the mines in 2017, and is clearly the main supplier to palaeontologists.

In the seven-year period, only 3 papers out of 872 included contributors from Myanmar, which also suggests an element of ‘parachute science’: unsurprisingly Myanmar-based scientists also find it difficult to visit the Kachin area. Before 2014 most of the 69 publications involved scientists in the US; since then, the top spot has been occupied by Chinese scientists who have amassed 417. It seems clear that there is a web of contacts linking together the source of Myanmar amber, its market and science. In 2020 the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology called for a moratorium on publishing data from Kachin sources. But since then there is little sign that palaeontologists have taken any notice.

See also: Ortega, R.P. 2022. Violent conflict in Myanmar linked to boom in fossil amber research, study claims. Science v. 378, p.10-11; DOI: 10.1126/science.adf0973 (This commentary includes opinion that seeks to mitigate the views of Emma Dunne and colleagues)

Milankovich precession and the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum

About 56 Ma ago there occurred some of the most dramatic biological changes since the mass extinction at the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary. They included rapid expansion and diversification of mammals and land plants, and a plunge in the number of deep-water foraminifera. Global cooling from the Cretaceous hothouse was rudely reversed by sudden global warming of about 5 to 10°C. Some climatologists have ascribed bugbear status to the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) as a possible scenario for future anthropogenic global warming. The widely accepted cause is a massive blurt into the Palaeocene atmosphere of greenhouse gases, but what caused it is enthusiastically debated. The climate shift is associated with a sudden decrease in the proportion of 13C in marine sediments: a negative spike in δ13C. Because photosynthesis favours the lighter 12C, organic matter has a low δ13C, so a great deal of buried organic carbon may have escaped from the ocean floor, most likely in the form of methane gas. However, massive burning of living terrestrial biomass would produce the same carbon-isotope signal, but absence of evidence for mass conflagration supports methane release. Methane is temporarily held in marine sediments in the form of gas hydrate (clathrate), an ice-like solid that forms at low temperatures on the deep seafloor. Warming of deep sea water or a decrease in pressure, if sea level falls, destabilise clathrates thereby releasing methane gas: the ‘clathrate gun hypothesis’. The main issue is what mechanism may have pulled the trigger for a monstrous methane release.

Massive leak of natural gas – mainly methane – off Sweden in the Baltic Sea, from the probably sabotaged Nord Stream pipeline. (Source: Swedish coastguard agency)

Many have favoured a major igneous event. Between 55.0 and 55.8 Ma basaltic magmatism– continuing today in Iceland – formed the North Atlantic Igneous Province. It involved large-scale intrusion of sills as well as outpourings of flood basalts and coincided with the initial rifting of Greenland from northern Europe (see: Smoking gun for end-Palaeocene warming: an igneous connection; July/August 2004). The occurrence of impact ejecta in end-Palaeocene sediments off the east coast of the US has spawned an extraterrestrial hypothesis for the warming, which could account for the negative spike in δ13C as the product of a burning terrestrial biosphere (see: Impact linked to the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary event; October 2016). Less headline-grabbing is the possibility that the event was part and parcel of the Milankovich effect: an inevitability in the complex interplay between the three astronomical components that affect Earth’s orbital and rotational behaviour: eccentricity, axial tilt and precession. A group of geoscientists from China and the US, led by Mingsong Li of Peking University, have investigated in minute detail the ups and downs of δ13C around 56 Ma in drill cores recovered from a sequence of Palaeocene and Eocene continental-shelf sediments in Maryland, USA (Li, M., Bralower, T.J. et al. 2022. Astrochronology of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum on the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Nature Communications, v. 13, Article 5618; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-33390-x).

The study involved sampling sediment for carbon- and oxygen-isotope analysis at depth intervals between 3 and 10 cm over a 35 m section through the lower Eocene and uppermost Palaeocene. Calcium abundances in the core were logged at a resolution of 5 mm using an X-ray fluorescence instrument. The results link to variations in CaCO3 in the sediments across the PETM event. Another dataset involves semi-continuous measurements of magnetic susceptibility (MS) along the core. These measurements are able to indicate variations in delivery to the ocean of dissolved calcium and detrital magnetic minerals as climate and continental weathering vary through time. They are widely known to be good recorders of Milankovich cycles. After processing, the Ca and MS data sets show cyclical fluctuations relative to depth within the cores. ‘Tuning’ their frequencies to the familiar time series of Milankovich astronomical climate forcing reveals a close match to what would be expected if the climate fluctuations were paced by the 26 ka axial precession signal. My post of 17 June 2022 about the influence of precession over ‘iceberg armadas’ during the Pleistocene might be useful to re-read in this context. This correlation enabled the researchers to convert depth in the cores to time, so that the timing of fluctuations in carbon- and oxygen-isotope data that the PETM had created could be considered against various hypotheses for its cause. The ‘excursions’ of both began at the same time and reached the maxima of their changes from Palaeocene values over about 6,000 years. The authors consider that is far too long to countenance the release of methane as a result of asteroidal impact, or by massive burning of terrestrial vegetation. The other option that the beginning of the North Atlantic Igneous Province had been the trigger may also be ruled out on two grounds: the magmatism began earlier, and it continued for far longer. The onset of the PETM coincides with an extreme in precession-related climatic forcing. So Li et al. consider that a quirk in the Milankovich Effect could have played a role in triggering massive methane release. This might also explain features of the global calcium record in seafloor sediments as results of a brief period of ocean acidification during the PETM. Such an event would play havoc with carbonate-secreting organisms, such as foraminifera, by lowering the dissolved carbonate ion content on which they depend for their shells: hence their suffering considerable extinction. Of course, the other elements of astronomical forcing – eccentricity and axial tilt – would also have been operating on global climate at the time.  The long-term 100 and 405 ka eccentricity cycles may have played a role in amplifying warming, which may have resulted in increased burial of organic carbon and thus the amount of methane buried beneath the seabed.

British government fracking fan fracked

In November 2019 the Conservative government of Boris Johnson declared a moratorium on development of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) in England. This followed determined public protests at a number of potential fracking sites, the most intransigent being residents of Lancashire’s Fylde peninsula. They had been repeatedly disturbed since mid 2017 by low-magnitude earthquakes following drilling and hydraulic-fluid injection tests by Cuadrilla Resources near Little Plumpton village. Their views were confirmed in a scientific study by the British Geological Survey for the Oil and Gas Authority that warned of the impossibility of predicting the magnitude of future earthquakes that future fracking might trigger. The shale-gas industry of North America, largely in areas of low population and simple geology, confirmed the substantial seismic hazard of this technology by regular occurrences of earthquakes up to destructive magnitudes greater than 5.0. The Little Plumpton site was abandoned and sealed in February 2022.

Cuadrilla’s exploratory fracking site near Little Plumpton in Fylde, Lancashire. (Credit: BBC)

On 22 September 2022 the moratorium was rescinded by Jacob Rees-Mogg, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the new government of Liz Truss, two weeks after his appointment. This was despite the 2019 Conservative manifesto pledging not to lift the moratorium unless fracking was scientifically proven to be safe. His decision involved suggesting that the seismicity threshold for pausing fracking operations be lifted from magnitude 0.5 to 2.5, which Rees-Mogg claimed without any scientific justification to be ‘a perfectly routine natural phenomenon’.  He further asserted that opposition to fracking was based around ‘hysteria’ and public ignorance of seismological science, and that some protestors had been funded by Vladimir Putin. In reality the Secretary of State’s decision was fuelled by the Russian Federation’s reducing gas supplies to Europe following its invasion of Ukraine, the soaring world price of natural gas and an attendant financial crisis. There was also a political need to be seen to be ‘doing something’, for which he has a meagre track record in the House of Commons. Rees Mogg claimed that lifting the moratorium would bolster British energy security. That view ignored the probable lead time of around 10 years before shale gas can become an established physical resource in England. Furthermore, an August 2018 assessment of the potential of UK shale-gas, by a team of geoscientists, including one from the British Geological Survey, suggested that shale-gas potential would amount to less than 10 years supply of UK needs: contrary to Rees-Mogg’s claim that England has ‘huge reserves of shale’. Indeed it does, but the vast bulk of these shales have no commercial gas potential.

Ironically, the former founder of Cuadrilla Resources, exploration geologist Chris Cornelius, and its former public affairs director, Mark Linder, questioned the move to unleash fracking in England, despite supporting shale-gas operations where geologically and economically appropriate. Their view is largely based on Britain’s highly complex geology that poses major technical and economic challenges to hydraulic fracturing. Globally, fracking has mainly been in vast areas of simple, ‘layer-cake’ geology. A glance at large-scale geological maps of British areas claimed to host shale-gas reserves reveals the dominance of hundreds of faults, large and small, formed since the hydrocarbon-rich shales were laid down. Despite being ancient, such faults are capable of being reactivated, especially when lubricated by introduction of fluids. Exactly where they go beneath the surface is unpredictable on the scales needed for precision drilling.  Many of the problems encountered by Cuadrilla’s Fylde programme stemmed from such complexity. Over their 7 years of operation, hundreds of millions of pounds were expended without any commercial gas production. Each prospective site in Britain is similarly compartmentalised by faulting so that much the same problems would be encountered during attempts to develop them. By contrast the shales fracked profitably in the USA occur as horizontal sheets deep beneath entire states: entirely predictable for the drillers. In Britain, tens of thousands of wells would need to be drilled on a ‘compartment-by-compartment’ basis at a rate of hundreds each year to yield useful gas supplies. Fracking in England would therefore present unacceptable economic risks to potential investors. Cornelius and Linder have moved on to more achievable ventures in renewables such as geothermal heating in areas of simple British geology.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s second-class degree in history from Oxford and his long connection with hedge-fund management seem not to be appropriate qualifications for making complex geoscientific decisions. Such a view is apparently held by several fellow Conservative MPs, one of whom suggested that Rees-Mogg should lead by example and make his North East Somerset constituency the ‘first to be fracked’, because it is underlain by potentially gas-yielding shales. The adjoining constituency, Wells, has several sites with shale-gas licences but none have been sought within North East Somerset. Interestingly, successive Conservative governments since 2015, mindful of a ‘not-in-my-backyard’ attitude in the party’s many rural constituencies, have placed a de-facto ban on development of onshore wind power.

A Lower Jurassic environmental crisis

Curiously, one of the largest environmental disruptions during the Phanerozoic Eon (i.e. since 541 Ma ago) does not stand out in the way that the ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions do. Each of them killed off between 70 and 95% of all marine species. The Jurassic was a period of biological recovery from the End-Triassic extinction 201 Ma ago. Throughout its ~50 Ma duration extinction rates were below the average for the Phanerozoic, and they remained relatively low until the K-Pg mass extinction that drew the Mesozoic Era to a close at 66 Ma. Nevertheless, there were significant extinctions, such as the demise of several lineages of herbivorous dinosaurs towards the end of the Early Jurassic followed by the rise of the familiar, long-necked variety of eusauropods. Marine organisms that secreted hard parts made of calcium carbonate also experienced a collapse then. From time to time during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods the oceans lost a great deal of dissolved oxygen, increasing the chances of organic carbon being buried in marine sediments. Such oceanic anoxia resulted in the widespread deposition of hydrocarbon source rocks in the form of black bituminous muds. Overall, both the Jurassic and Cretaceous experienced  greenhouse climatic conditions, with  atmospheric CO2 levels rising to almost 3000 ppm and oxygen levels significantly lower than the modern 21%. Sea levels rose by up to 200 metres, thought to be due to fast sea-floor spreading and large areas of warm, buoyant oceanic lithosphere.

A notable ocean-anoxia event took place during the Lower Jurassic, around 183 Ma ago at the start of the Toarcian Age. This stratigraphic level was penetrated by a 1.5 km borehole sunk in 2015-2016 at Mochras in North Wales, UK, on the shore of Cardigan Bay. The core provided the thickest and most complete record ever recovered for this event, and has been analysed in exquisite detail using many techniques. The most revealing data have been published by a multinational team led by scientists from Trinity College, Dublin (Ruhl, M. et al. 2022. Reduced plate motion controlled timing of Early Jurassic Karoo-Ferrar large igneous province volcanism. Science Advances, v. 8, article eabo0866; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abo0866).

Plate boundaries around Gondwanaland and the Karoo-Ferrar large igneous province in the Early Jurassic (small yellow dots show dated localities) . Large pink dots: positions of Tristan de Cunha and Bouvet hotspots at the time (Credit: Ruhl et al. Fig 1A)

At the start of the Toarcian (183.7 Ma) the 187Os/186Os ratio of the samples begins to rise from 0.3 to almost 0.8 to fall back to 0.3 by 180.8 Ma. Osmium isotopes are a measure of continental weathering, and this ‘excursion’ surely signifies significant global warming and increases in atmospheric humidity and acidity that broke down rocks at the continental surface. Over the same period δ13C rises, decreases to by far the lowest value in the Lower Jurassic, rises again to gradually fall back. The start of the Toarcian seems to have experienced a major release of carbon then a profound sequestration of organic carbon, presumably through burial of dead organisms in the black mudstones that signify anoxic conditions. Remarkably, the 95 m thick Toarcian black-mudstone sequence also reveals a tenfold increase in its content of the element mercury, from 20 to 200 parts per billion (ppb), peaking at the same time (~182.8 Ma) as the most negative δ13C value was reached: the acme of carbon sequestration. A coincidence of massive organic carbon burial and increased mercury in marine sediments also happened at the time of the end-Permian mass extinction, although that does not necessarily imply exactly the same mechanism.

The early Toarcian geochemical trends, however, coincide with the initiation and duration of the Karoo-Ferrar large igneous province, which formed flood basalts, igneous dyke swarms and large volcanic centres in South Africa and Antarctica. That LIP may have emitted mercury, but so too may have increased chemical weathering of the land surface. Whichever, mercury forms an organic compound (methyl mercury) in water bodies. Readily incorporated into living organisms, that could explain the close parallel between the δ13C and Hg records in the Jurassic sediment core from Wales. The Karoo-Ferrar igneous activity itself presents a bit of a conundrum, as suggested by Ruhl et al. It happened at the very time that there was a 120° change in the direction of motion of the tectonic plate carrying along Africa and, indeed, the Gondwanaland supercontinent during the Jurassic. The directional change also involved local plate movement stopping for a while. According to the authors, it wasn’t a fortuitous coincidence of two mantle plumes from the core-mantle boundary hitting the bottom of the continental lithosphere below Africa and Antarctica at this tectonic ‘U-turn’. It is more likely that the pause gave existing plumes the opportunity and time to ‘erode’ the base of the continental lithosphere and rise. Decompression melting would then have produced the voluminous magmas. The two plumes were in place for a very long time and created seamount chains as plates moved over them. Both are still volcanically active: Tristan de Cunha on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, and Bouvet Island at a triple junction between South Africa and Antarctica.

So, a venture to unravel a period of profound environmental change during the Early Jurassic, which didn’t result in mass extinction, may well have spawned a new model for massive igneous events that did. Ruhl et al. suggest that the short-lived Siberian, North Atlantic and East African Rift LIPs each seem to have coincided with short episodes of tectonic slowing-down: LIPs may result in dramatic environmental change, but at the whim of plate tectonics.

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The Earth System in action: land plants affected composition of continental crust

The essence of the Earth System is that all processes upon, above and beneath the surface interact in a bewildering set of connections. Matter and energy in all their forms are continually being exchanged, deployed and moved through complex cycles: involving rocks and sediments; water in its various forms; gases in the atmosphere; magmas; moving tectonic plates and much else besides. The central and massively dominant role of plate tectonics connects surface processes with those of our planet’s interior: the lithosphere, mantle and, arguably, the core. Interactions between the Earth System’s components impose changes in the dynamics and chemical processes through which it operates. Living processes have been a part of this for at least 3.5 billion years ago, in part through their role in the carbon cycle and thus the Earth’s climatic evolution. During the Silurian Period life became a pervasive component of the continental surface, first in the form of plants, to be followed by animals during the Devonian Period. Those novel changes have remained in place since about 430 Ma ago, plants being the dominant base of continental ecosystems and food chains.

Schematic diagram showing changes in river systems and their alluvium before and after the development of land plants. (Credit: Based on Spencer et al. 2022, Fig 4)

Land plants exude a variety of chemicals from their roots that break down rock to yield nutrient elements. So they play a dominant role in the formation of soil and are an important means of rock weathering and the production of clay minerals from igneous and metamorphic minerals. Plant root systems bind near-surface sediments thus increasing their resistance to erosion by wind and water, and to mass movement under gravity. This binding and plant canopies efficiently reduce dust transport, slow water flow on slopes and decrease the sediment load of flowing water. Plants and their roots also stabilise channels systems. There is much evidence that before the Devonian most rivers comprised continually migrating braided channels in which mainly coarse sands and gravels were rapidly deposited while silts and muds in suspension were shifted to the sea. Thereafter flow became dominated by larger and fewer channels meandering across wide tracts on which fine sediment could accumulate as alluvium on flood plains when channels broke their banks. Land plants more efficiently extract CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and the new regime of floodplains could store dead plant debris in the muds and also in thick peat deposits. As a result, greenhouse warming had dwindled by the Carboniferous, encouraging global cooling and glaciation. 

Judging the wider influence of the ‘greening of the land’ on other parts of the Earth system, particularly those that depend on internal  magmatic processes, relies on detecting geochemical changes in minerals formed as direct outcomes of plate tectonics. Christopher Spencer of Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada and co-workers at the Universities of Southampton, Cambridge and Aberdeen in the UK, and the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan set out to find and assess such a geochemical signal (Spencer, C., Davies, N., Gernon, T. et al. 2022. Composition of continental crust altered by the emergence of land plants. Nature Geoscience, v. 15 online publication; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-022-00995-2). Achieving that required analyses of a common mineral formed when magmas crystallise: one that can be precisely dated, contains diverse trace elements and whose chemistry remains little changed by later geological events. Readers of Earth-logs might have guessed that would be zircon (ZrSiO). Being chemically unreactive and hard, small zircon grains resist weathering and the abrasion of transport to become common minor minerals in sediments. Thousands of detrital zircon grains teased out from sediments have been dated and analysed in the last few decades. They span almost the entirety of geological history. Spencer et al. compiled a database of over 5,000 zircon analyses from igneous rocks formed at subduction zones over the last 720 Ma, from 183 publications by a variety of laboratories.

The approach considered two measures: the varying percentages of mudrocks in continental sedimentary sequences since 600 Ma ago; aspects of the hafnium- (Hf) and oxygen-isotope proportions measured in the zircons using mass spectrometry and their changes over the same time. Before ~430 Ma the proportion of mudrocks in continental sedimentary sequences is consistently much lower than it is in post post-Silurian, suggesting a link with the rise of continental plant cover (see second paragraph). The deviation of the 176Hf/177Hf ratio in an igneous mineral from that of chondritic meteorites (the mineral’s εHf value) is a guide to the source of the magma, negative values indicating a crustal source, whereas positive values suggest a mantle origin. The relative proportions of two oxygen isotopes 18O and 16O  in zircons, expressed as δ18O, indicates the proportion of products of weathering, such as clay minerals, involved in magma production – 18O selectively moves from groundwater to clay minerals when they form, increasing their δ18O.

While the two geochemical parameters express very different geological processes, the authors noticed that before ~430 Ma the two showed low correlation between their values in zircons. Yet, surprisingly, the parameters showed a considerable and consistent increase in their correlation in younger zircons, directly paralleling the ‘step change’ in the proportions of mudstones after the Silurian. Complex as their arguments are, based on several statistical tests, Spencer et al. conclude that the geologically sudden change in zircon geochemistry ultimately stems from land plants’ stabilisation of river systems. As a result more clay minerals formed by protracted weathering, increasing the δ18O in soils when they were eroded and transported. When the resulting marine mudrocks were subducted they transferred their oxygen-isotope proportions to magmas when they were partially melted.

That bolsters the case for dramatic geological consequences of the ‘greening of the land’. But did its effect on arc magmatism fundamentally change the bulk composition of post-Silurian additions to the continental crust? To be convinced of that I would like to see if other geochemical parameters in subduction-related magmas changed after 430 Ma. Many other elements and isotopes in broadly granitic rocks have been monitored since the emergence of high-precision rock-analysing technologies around 50 years ago. There has been no mention, to my knowledge, that the late-Silurian involved a magmatic game-changer to match that which occurred in the Archaean, also revealed by hafnium and oxygen isotopes in much more ancient zircons.   

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