Archive for March 10th, 2013

Death Valley Days

March 10th, 2013

BadwaterGroup031013DEATH VALLEY, CALIFORNIA–All geologists love Death Valley. No other place on Earth has such extraordinarily diverse geology combined with a modern infrastructure and a century of scientific study. The Wooster Geologists had a spectacular time in and around the valley today. Here we are above with the traditional group shot at Badwater. The weather could not have been better.

Zabriskie031013We left the Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx just after breakfast and drove through Baker and Shoshone to the southern end of Death Valley, seeing many wonderful sites. After lunch at the new National Park Service Furnace Creek Visitor Center, we then drove east and up out of the valley to Zabriskie Point. The above view has been published countless times by geologists and nature enthusiasts, but it has not lost its graphic power. We are looking here to the west at deeply eroded lake sediments of the Furnace Creek Formation. Towards the back of the light-colored material you can just make out the black streak of a basaltic intrusion.

ZabriskieOtherSide031013I think the other side of Zabriskie Point — the side looking out over Death Valley — is even more impressive. We see again the Furnace Creek Formation lake sediments, this time with alluvial deposits on top (visible on the right). These materials accumulated in an ancient lake and were lifted up and tilted by the tremendous faulting that formed Death Valley. The pinnacle is called Manly Beacon.

ZabriskieStudents031013

We took advantage of the sunlight and high spirits to take a picture of our Desert Geology 2013 students.

DanteView031013

We continued east and then south to Dante’s View, where we looked down into Death Valley from the dizzy heights. In this image we see Telescope Peak towering at 11,049 feet of elevation, while much of the valley floor below is lower than sealevel.

DanteViewFan031013Looking straight down from Dante’s View to Badwater (on the far right), we can see a complete alluvial fan from the narrow channel in the mountain slope to the spreading apron of debris over the salt pan on the valley floor. Badwater Road skirts the periphery of the fan.

After Dante’s View, we continued east and returned to Zzyzx via Death Valley Junction, Shoshone and Baker. Again, I can think of nowhere else one can see so much geological diversity in a single day, from the steamy floor of Death Valley to the heights above where we could walk through patches of snow.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: A brittle star from the Upper Jurassic of Germany

March 10th, 2013

Ophiopetra lithographica aboral larger 010813_585Wooster geologists have again greatly benefited from the donation of a collection by an alumnus. George Chambers (’79), a successful professional photographer, sent us several boxes of minerals, rocks and fossils he had acquired in his lifelong passion for geology. (George was a geology major at Wooster in the class just after mine.) Among the many world-class specimens he gave us are two fossil ophiuroids (brittle stars). They are Ophiopetra lithographica Enay and Hess, 1962, from the Lower Hienheim Beds (Lower Tithonian, Upper Jurassic) near Regensburg, Germany. They are part of the “Fossillagerstätte Hienheim“, a preserved brittle star ecosystem in a lagoon at the edge of a Late Jurassic sea. This is the same set of lithographic limestones in which the famous bird fossil Archaeopteryx was found.
Ophiopetra lithographica 010813_585In both these images you see the spiny arms of the brittle stars twisted about. It is their flexibility and snake-like movements in life that provoked the scientific name ophiuroids (serpent-forms) for the brittle stars. The “brittle” term comes from their ability to autotomize (spontaneously detach) their arms when threatened, leaving a squirming distraction for a predator as they escape.
Ophiopetra lithographica aboral 010813_585Ophiopetra lithographica is probably the most common fossil brittle star known. It was preserved by the countless millions in these Jurassic lagoons in Germany. Most geologists believe they were buried by fine-grained carbonate sediment suspended by sudden storms. As you can see in the above close-up, the preservation of the plates and spines is remarkable.

Most brittle stars are suspension feeders (sorting out food particles from the water), deposit feeders (eating organic material in the sediment) or scavengers. Ophiopetra lithographica may have been a carnivore with its heavily-spined arms and strong jaws. It likely ate small arthropods on the seafloor.

The evolution of brittle stars is interesting and controversial. They were relatively common in the Paleozoic and then just barely survived the Permian extinctions. Their rapid evolution into a variety of taxa in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic has led to many debates about their phylogeny. Even the placement of Ophiopetra into a family is a problem. Does it belong to the Family Aplocomidae where it was originally placed or to the older Family Ophiolepididae as has been recently suggested?

Our students will enjoy these fine fossils in the invertebrate paleontology course. They have doubled our collection of brittle stars! Thank you again to George Chambers for his thoughtfulness and generosity.

References:

Enay, R. and Hess, H. 1962. Sur la découvertes d’Ophiures (Ophiopetra lithographica n.g. n.sp.) dans le Jurassique supérieur du Haut-Valromey (Jura méridional). Eclogae geologicae Helvetiae 55: 657-678.

Hess, H. and Meyer, C.A. 2008. A new ophiuroid (Geocoma schoentalensis sp. nov.) from the Middle Jurassic of northeastern Switzerland and remarks on the Family Aplocomidae Hess 1965. Swiss Journal of Geosciences 101: 29-40.

Röper, M. and Rothgänger, M. 1998. Die Plattenkalke von Hienheim (Landkreis Kelheim) – Echinodermen-Biotope im Südfränkischen Jura. Eichendorf (Eichendorf Verlag), 110 S.

Stöhr, S. 2012. Ophiuroid (Echinodermata) systematics—where do we come from, where do we stand and where should we go? In: Kroh, A. and Reich, M. (Eds.) Echinoderm Research 2010: Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference on Echinoderms, Göttingen, Germany, 2–9 October 2010. Zoosymposia, 7: 147-161.

Thuy, B., Klompmaker, A.A. and Jagt, J.W.M. 2012. Late Triassic (Rhaetian) ophiuroids from Winterswijk, the Netherlands; with comments on the systematic position of Aplocoma (Echinodermata, Ophiolepididae). In: Kroh, A. and Reich, M. (Eds.) Echinoderm Research 2010: Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference on Echinoderms, Göttingen, Germany, 2–9 October 2010. Zoosymposia, 7: 163-172.