Wooster Geologists begin fieldwork in southwestern France

June 1st, 2017

LA BARDE, FRANCE–Macy Conrad and I began our paleontological fieldwork in what may be the most beautiful part of Europe: southwestern France. Our superb guide and colleague is Natural History Museum scientist Dr. Paul Taylor, a long-time friend who has a home in this region with his wife Patricia. Above is a view of our first location: Aubeterre-sur-Drone. Extraordinary. And note the weather!

French food is indeed all it is said to be. This was my lunch: Gallette au Thon. Simple, I know, but very good.

This is our first outcrop. Macy is standing at an exposure of the Biron Formation, a Cretaceous (Campanian) limestone full of fossils, especially Pycnodonte oysters. Many of these oysters are encrusted by bryozoans. This is the “Garage Esso” location, also known as Route D17, in Aubeterre. We are in the exploratory phase of the project — essentially sorting out projects.

The overlying Barbezieux Formation (also Campanian — all the units are Campanian today) has well-exposed Pycnodonte oyster banks. These are of particular interest to us, especially if they are bored or encrusted. This is the “Chemin” section in Aubeterre.

More Barbezieux Formation further up the lane.

Our third unit is the Aubeterre Formation, which dominates the top of the city. This is the “car park outcrop”. All of these rocks are cliff-forming white limestones with abundant fossils.

Paul knew a field near Le Maine Roy where fossils from the Maurens Formation are exposed. This did not sound like a productive site, but it was the best of the day. Above you see a pile of rocks marked by a stake. These are larger stones removed from the fields by farmers. (I was reminded of what many French farmers in the north continually extract from their soil: World War I artillery shells!)

The many fossils include numerous large rudistid clams. It is  hard to imagine these large cones as bivalves, but they are. Rudists go extinct at the end of the Cretaceous.

This is a view of the top of a rudist with its right (capping) valve intact. It has a beautiful mesh structure.

Our last stop of the day was a roadcut near Chalais exposing the Biron Formation. It had a great diversity of fossils, including echinoids, sponges, oysters, and ammonites. It did not have an abundance of sclerobionts, so it probably won’t be a site for us in the future.

In Aubeterre we visited two fantastic churches. The first was St. Jacques. Most of it had been destroyed in the 17th century religious wars, but the Romanesque facade remains. This is the main entrance.

The primary attraction of the remnants of St. Jacques is a set of Medieval carvings. They are extraordinarily detailed, depicted all sorts of mysterious fantastical animals and people.

The second church in Aubeterre is very geological. St. Johns is underground, being carved as a cavern from the Barbezieux Formation. Here is a view of the entrance to what remains.

Inside is a huge space in which the sanctuary is carved. This is one of the largest such underground structures known.

The centerpiece is this reliquary, designed to look like the structure over the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Again, all this is carved out of the limestone.

We are staying in the gorgeous French home of Paul and Patricia Taylor in La Barde. It is an 1820 converted farmhouse, both beautiful and comfortable. The River Dronne is just a few steps away. We’ll have more photos of this wonderful and peaceful place in later posts.

I’ll end this day’s post with a view of some peaceful French woods near a field site.

Location GPS Unit Position
Garage Esso, Route D17, Aubeterre 153 Biron N45° 16.212′ E0° 10.274′
Route D17, Aubeterre 154 Barbezieux N45° 16.127′ E0° 10.268′
Chemin, Aubeterre 155 Barbezieux N45° 16.088′ E0° 10.257′
50 m up lane, Aubeterre 156 Barbezieux N45° 16.115′ E0° 10.229′
Back Chateau entrance, Aubeterre 157 Aubeterre N45° 16.362′ E0° 10.262′
Car Park, Aubeterre 158 Aubeterre N45° 16.344′ E0° 10.176′
Le Maine Roy 159 Maurens N45° 19.383′ E0° 07.885′
Chalais roadcut 160 Biron N45° 16.642′ E0° 02.395′

 

A Wooster Geologist on the Somme Battlefield

May 30th, 2017

Amiens, France — I had two days between the bryozoan meeting in Vienna and the fieldwork in southwestern France, so I decided to visit the World War I battlefields in the Somme Valley of northern France. It was a somber experience of natural beauty, stark and effective memorial architecture, and one of the deepest historical tragedies. I had a similar journey in 2010 to my Grandfather Snuffer’s World War I battlefield in the Meuse-Argonne. Above is a view of the cemetery at the Australian National Memorial near Villers-Bretonneux.

There were two major battles between the Allies and the Germans in the Somme Valley. The first, between July 1 and November 18, 1916, was the largest in terms of soldiers involved and lost. There were more than a million casualties, about even on each side, during those four and a half months of battle. A large proportion of those losses occurred on the first day; indeed, the first few minutes. The results were a draw. The second Battle of the Somme took place August 21 through September 2, 1918, and was an overwhelming Allied victory. This brief blog post is about my impressions of the battlefields a century later, so please follow the links for the historical background.

Gravestones at the Australian National Memorial. These are primarily for Australian soldiers, but there were also stones for New Zealanders, South Africans, Britons, and Canadians.

Flanders poppies grow naturally in this region, and they are also used decoratively in cemeteries. See the famous poem by John McCrae: In Flanders Fields.

An emblem of the soldier’s unit is engraved at the top of each stone.

The memorial building has walls of Portland Limestone (Jurassic of southern England) listing the thousands of missing Australian soldiers in the first battle.

In a compounding irony, the Australian National Memorial buildings and gravestones were shot up in turn during a skirmish here between Allied soldiers and invading Germans in 1940.

This is the small Proyart German Cemetery from the 1918 battle. There are over 450 cemeteries from all the involved nationalities throughout the valley. This one is seldom visited but immaculately maintained. The town of Proyart saw much fighting from the beginning of the war to its end.

An unknown German soldier. There are tens of thousands of unknown graves on the battlefields, matched by long, long lists of the missing.

Lochnagar Crater is a massive hole produced by the explosion of a British mine under the German lines on July 1, 1916 — the first day of the first battle. The bedrock is Cretaceous chalk, which was easy to tunnel with simple tools except that it had to be done in silence. No pickaxes were allowed. The last part of the explosives tunnel was dug under the German trenches with bayonettes alone. It is said that one soldier would pry a flint from the wall as another caught it before it struck the floor. The mine explosion was at that time the largest man-made sound in history.

You’ve heard that French farmers still find live artillery shells in their fields? Here’s one of them. About 60 tons a year of WWI explosives are removed from the Somme battlefields. The one above was marked for disposal with a red plastic cup. Demolition teams drive through the countryside in armored ammunition disposal vehicles removing munitions.

The local farmers repurpose many WWI items. Here a modern barbed wire fence is constructed with German barbed wire stakes from the war.

The Battle of Thiepval Ridge was a complicated and bloody operation in September, 1916. The ridge which cost so many Allied lives was selected as the site of the Anglo-French Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Over 72,000 names are engraved on the limestone panels. The architectural design itself is moving. Its high arches reflect the missing space in lives after so many personal tragedies without even grave for compensation.

A departure from the grim narrative with a brief paleontological note: The Jurassic crinoid Apiocrinites can be identified in the steps of the memorial. I know it well from other contexts.

There is a very well maintained part of the 1916 battlefield at Beaumont-Hamel. Here the Newfoundland Regiment attacked the German lines on the first day of the first Battle of the Somme. The regiment was destroyed in less than twenty minutes after they emerged from their trenches. Six-hundred and seventy men were casualties.

These are remnants of the first line of British trenches.

The killing field of the Newfoundlanders. It is estimated 300-400 of their bodies still remain in the churned soil.

There was an original blasted trunk here called the Danger Tree. It is midway between the British and German lines, about as far as the Newfoundlanders got on July 1, 1916.

A caribou memorial faces the old German positions from the trenches of the Newfoundlanders. All the stones below it are from Newfoundland. The site is maintained by the government of Canada.

The end of my journey was to Hawthorn Ridge, site of a German position blown up by another British mine on the first day of the 1916 battle. The explosion was filmed.

This is the same perspective as the famous photographs and films of the 1916 Hawthorn Ridge explosion. The trees are growing on the crater rim.

This is a famous photo of British soldiers awaiting the Hawthorn mine explosion on July 1, 1916. They had tunneled out of a trench into a sunken lane in no-man’s-land to get as close to the German lines as possible for their attack.

That sunken lane is still present 101 years later.

I wanted to add more about the geology of the battlefield, but the human tragedy is so overwhelming I decided to leave it for later. For now, see the geological cross-section below. Also consider the remarkable observation that the intensity of the artillery bombardments actually changed the geology of the region. “Bombturbation” is a term that has been proposed in our clinical scientific way.

Wooster Geologist in Vienna

May 28th, 2017

VIENNA, AUSTRIA — As is the tradition of Larwood meetings of the International Bryozoology Association, time is set aside for a guided tour of the most interesting parts of the host city. Given the incredible diversity of Vienna, we had just a taste today of its attractions and monuments in the city center. Above is the elaborate city hall (Wiener Rathaus).

Vienna’s Imperial Palace, the Hofburg, was for centuries the home of the Habsburgs, rulers of Austria and its empire until their epic collapse at the end of World War I. Apparently almost every emperor since 1275 added or otherwise changed the place, making it an astonishing mix of architectural styles (Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Classicism to start). Much of it is unfinished since the ambitions of the last emperor were dashed with the fall of the monarchy in 1918.

Elaborate Roman ruins about 2000 years old were recently found near the palace. The local rumor is that these are the remains of a brothel!

This is the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum), Vienna, where we had a limited guided tour.

We had an extended tour of the myriapod collections (essentially millipedes and centipedes), concentrating on various aspects of curation and preservation.

As with most European museums, there is a significant human skull collection. This is a small part of Vienna’s. I never did hear exactly how these skulls were acquired.

During my afternoon tea with friends, this was our view to the left towards the center of the museum.

This was our view through the window to the right. In the square is the elaborate Maria Theresa monument (the empress surrounded by her generals and statesmen). The building on the other side is the Kunsthistorisches Museum, an art and history museum. It was the last place I visited this day.

This was the most impressive art object I saw in the Kunsthistorisches Museum: the first-century Gemma Augustea. It was cut from a double-layered Arabian onyx stone, making an elaborate cameo. The link tells the long story of this figured stone, along with an interpretation of the grim scene.

Earlier in my Vienna visit I toured the Heeresgeschichtliche Museum (Museum of Military History). I practically had the place to myself on this weekday.

The most evocative object in this museum is the car that carried Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie to their assassinations by the anarchist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. This was one of the triggering events of World War I.

The assassination scene in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

Wooster Geologist in Austria

May 27th, 2017

VIENNA, AUSTRIA–I had the privilege this week to attend the 14th Larwood Symposium of the International Bryozoology Association (IBA) in this beautiful city. It was my first visit, and I was of course very impressed. Above is a view of the Austrian Parliament building (Parlamentsgebäude), and the beautiful blue sky we had for most of our meeting.

About 50 bryozoan experts from 15 countries attended the conference. I love these meetings because of their small size, diversity of disciplines (paleontologists and biologists freely mingle, being nearly indistinguishable until they give their presentations), and friendly fellowship. English was the common language, for which I am grateful to my international colleagues. Above Lee Hsiang Liow of the University of Oslo is giving her talk.

We had an afternoon excursion starting with the small but treasure-filled Krahuletz Museum in Eggenburg, Austria. This is one of those local museums with a national reputation for particular collections. In this case it is fossils, minerals and rocks from the very complex region.

Outside the museum is an excellent rock garden with local varieties well labeled. The above, of course, is a conglomerate with mostly carbonate clasts.

This gneiss shows the useful form of the rock pillars. Four sides are polished and the top is left rough, just the way a geologist likes it.

Patrick Wyse Jackson, President of the IBA, professor at Trinity College Dublin, and a recent visitor in Wooster, manages here to find bryozoans in the museum’s building stone.

After the museum we visited a quarry of fossiliferous Miocene limestone. A nice place, but protected from collecting.

At the end of the day we visited “Fossilienwelt Weinviertel” outside Vienna. It is home to the world’s largest fossil pearl (which somehow I missed seeing) and an excavated Miocene oyster reef. The reef has at least 20,000 large oysters, which are the subject of this “geotainment park”. More than 200 volunteers excavated this reef for public display under a permanent canopy. The oysters seem to have been tossed together by a flood, so they are pushing the definition of “reef”. The lighting of the oysters was so dim that my photographs of them were worthless.

The Fossil World tower is shaped like a Turritella shell.

Here is one of the oysters and some Turritella shells on display at Fossil World. There are many more fossils here than snails and oysters. It is a fun exhibit, but the science has been so diluted for the public that some of the offered explanations are nonsense. (“Stromatolites are made of the poop of algae”.) I recommend a visit, but with a paleontologist as a guide!

Thank you to Thomas Schwaha for organizing this fun trip!

Our IBA group photo, courtesy of Thomas Schwaha.

Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: A trilobite hypostome with an encrusting cyclostome bryozoan (Upper Ordovician of Kentucky)

May 26th, 2017

A quick post this week. Above is a bit of a large isotelid trilobite my students and I found this past spring break on an expedition to the Upper Ordovician (Katian) of northern Kentucky. It was collected at a roadside outcrop of the Corryville Formation (Location C/W-740). It doesn’t look like the usual trilobite bit because it is a less common fragment from the underside of the cephalon known as the hypostome (meaning “under mouth”). Note on the left side of the image some branching white encrustations, shown closer below.

These are encrusting cyclostome bryozoans known as Cuffeyella arachnoidea. The genus Cuffeyella was named in 1996 by two characters you know from this blog: Taylor & Wilson. As you can see, these particular specimens are in terrible shape. We have far better images of well-preserved Cuffeyella elsewhere on this blog. One of the lessons of a paleontological education, though, is to learn how to recognize fossils when they are not at their best.

Wooster’s Fossil of the Week is now going to take a hiatus as the summer research and travel season begins. It will return later!

Reference:

Taylor, P.D. and Wilson, M.A. 1996. Cuffeyella, a new bryozoan genus from the Late Ordovician of North America, and its bearing on the origin of the post-Paleozoic cyclostomates, p. 351-360. In: Gordon, D.P., A.M. Smith and J.A. Grant-Mackie (eds.), Bryozoans in Space and Time. Proceedings of the 10th International Bryozoology Conference, Wellington, New Zealand, 1995. National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research Ltd, Wellington, 442 pages.

Lab Character(s)

May 25th, 2017

Chapel Hill, NC – Every scientist who works in a lab knows that labs have unique characters. The Isotope Geochemistry lab at UNC Chapel Hill was bustling with Ph.D. researchers, graduate students, undergraduate students, and researchers from other institutions, including Appalachian State University and The College of Wooster. We could tell it was a happy lab community by all of the happy faces. The faces weren’t just on the researchers; they were drawn on windows, hoods, and sticky notes.  Here are few to brighten your day.

There was a single angry face in the bunch. We called this Samarium Face (Sm-face) because Sm is apparently a finicky element to analyze by mass spectrometry. Maybe someone should make a Sm-face emoji.

Barbecue, Baseball, and Bluegrass

May 24th, 2017

Chapel Hill, NC – Whenever we visit a field site or external lab for research, we see it as an opportunity to explore the local culture, in true liberal arts fashion. Our recent visit to UNC Chapel Hill’s Isotope Lab was no exception. We dined on local cuisine at a Chapel Hill barbecue restaurant.

Ben Kumpf (’18) looks like he’s enjoying his first taste of North Carolina barbecue. Barbecue is pretty serious business here in North Carolina. (In my view, it’s not barbecue unless it’s vinegar-based).

The infamous Duke-UNC rivalry was on display in the last home game for the UNC baseball team. We arrived just as Duke was rallying to come from behind, but in the end, the Tarheels scored a 9-7 victory over Duke.

Friday night, we finished our work just in time to catch a bluegrass band at Carolina Inn’s Fridays on the Front Porch. Although a storm was threatening, it held off so that adults, kids, and dogs could enjoy the outdoor entertainment.

On most days, our walk took us past a UNC Chapel Hill icon: The Old Well. Legend has it that a drink from the Old Well on the first day of classes will bring good luck for the rest of the year.

The highlight of the week was meeting Rameses, the UNC Chapel Hill mascot. Rameses thinks that geologists are #1. He didn’t exactly say so (mascots don’t talk much), but, that’s my interpretation of this photo).

Overall, it was an excellent trip. We learned a new technique, analyzed lots of samples, and acquired data for Ben’s I.S.

Isotope analysis by TIMS is FUN

May 23rd, 2017

Chapel Hill, NC – Wooster Geologists have been hard at work preparing samples for isotope analysis. Now that sample preparation is complete, the next step is to analyze them on the thermal ionization mass spectrometer (TIMS). In the TIMS, a sample heats up until it ionizes, created a beam of charged particles.

The charged particles are sent through a mass spectrometer, which accelerates the ions through a curved path in a magnetic field. The ions separate based on their mass to charge ratio. The separated beams of ions are sent to collectors that convert the ions into an electrical signal that can be used to determine the sample’s isotopic composition. Figure from Revesz et al. (2001).

For a complete overview of how the TIMS works, check out this website at SERC.

 

Our tiny samples get loaded onto tiny filaments that heat up in the instrument. The filaments are stored in neat, orderly rows in a cabinet in the TIMS lab. If you look closely, you’ll see the flat ribbon onto which we’ll mount our samples.

You can imagine that the filament loading process is as meticulous as the sample preparation work. Here, Ben Kumpf (’18) pipettes a sample onto the filament.

This is what our sample looks like before we heat up the filament. It’s a single drop.

The filaments will get loaded into the TIMS instrument. This is one of the TIMS instruments here at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill that we’ll use to analyze for strontium (Sr).

This is the exciting part, when we hope that all of our hard work as paid off. It’s a lot of effort for a single data point, but we know it’s well worth it.

References

Revesz, K.M., Landwehr, J.M., and Keybl, J. 2001. Measurement of bigsymbol13C and bigsymbol18O Isotopic Ratios Of CaCO3 using a Thermoquest Finnigan GasBench II Delta Plus XL Continuous Flow Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer with Application to Devils Hole Core DH-11 Calcite: USGS Open-File Report 01-257. US Government Printing Office.

An evening with Hutton, Lyell, and Darwin at the Davison Rare Book Room

May 22nd, 2017

Middletown, CT – The Wooster Geologists at the Keck Consortium were treated to a visit to the Davison Rare Book Room. The Special Collections Librarian set out an impressive array of historical texts with geological significance. We were even permitted to touch the books and turn the pages! Thank you to the Wesleyan Special Collections and Archives for sharing these treasures and allowing us to look through them and take photos.

The 1690 book “Geologia: or, a Discourse Concerning the Earth Before the Deluge” by Erasmus Warren represents an early use of the word ‘geology’ to describe the study of Earth. Photo credit: Courtesy of Wesleyan University, Special Collections & Archives.

Scottish Geologist James Hutton is considered the father of modern geology. In his 1795 two-volume work, “Theory of the Earth,” he argues that Earth is very old and Earth’s features are shaped by natural processes that have occurred over long time scales. Photo credit: Courtesy of Wesleyan University, Special Collections & Archives.

In the 1800s, Charles Lyell expanded on and popularized Hutton’s ideas. Lyell argued that Earth evolves through small changes that operate continuously over geologic time, a concept known as “uniformitarianism.” Uniformitarianism opposed the prevailing view of catastrophism, in which Earth evolved through a series of catastrophic events. Today, we understand that natural processes have changed the Earth gradually over long time scales, that natural processes can change the rate at which they operate, and that Earth’s history includes occasional catastrophic events. Lyell’s 1839 “Elements of Geology” is a textbook for early geology students. Photo credit: Courtesy of Wesleyan University, Special Collections & Archives.

This diagram at the front of Lyell’s “Elements of Geology” (1839) shows the relationship between the “four great classes of rocks: aqueous, volcanic, metamorphic, and plutonic.” Today, we combine volcanic and plutonic into the singular igneous category and aqueous rocks are classified as sedimentary. Photo credit: Courtesy of Wesleyan University, Special Collections & Archives.

Of course, my favorite illustration in the Lyell 1839 text is columnar jointed basalt. Photo credit: Courtesy of Wesleyan University, Special Collections & Archives.

Lyell’s concept of “uniformitarianism” strongly influenced Darwin, who read Lyell’s work aboard the Beagle. This is a first-edition of Charles Darwin’s famous 1859 work “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” Photo credit: Courtesy of Wesleyan University, Special Collections & Archives.

Darwin’s book contains personal inscription from the author to his German tutor. Photo credit: Courtesy of Wesleyan University, Special Collections & Archives.

This “tree of life” figure in Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (1859) is the only illustration in the entire text! Photo credit: Courtesy of Wesleyan University, Special Collections & Archives.

Although Darwin used figures sparingly, paleontologists have long been using images in their publications. This 1854 “Remarks on some Fossil Impressions in the Sandstone Rocks of Connecticut River” by John C. Warren is credited as the first book to use photographs as scientific illustrations. Photo credit: Courtesy of Wesleyan University, Special Collections & Archives.

The front cover of Warren’s 1854 book contains a salt print of dinosaur tracks. Salt prints were made by soaking the paper in a salt solution then coating one side with silver nitrate. This created light-sensitive paper that darkened in places exposed to light, producing images. Photo credit: Courtesy of Wesleyan University, Special Collections & Archives.

Extracting a single element from a rock

May 20th, 2017

Chapel Hill, NC – As you know, Ben Kumpf (’18) and I are working in the Isotope Geochemistry lab at UNC Chapel Hill. We are measuring isotopes of strontium (Sr), lead (Pb) and neodymium (Nd) in basaltic pillow lavas from northern British Columbia. In order to measure the elements, we need to isolate them from the rest of the elements that make up our rocks. We purify individual elements using the method of column chemistry. A column is like a filter for elements; we pass our sample through the column and the column captures the element of interest, then we release and collect the element off the column to be analyzed later.

The first step to preparing our samples is to dissolve our rock powders in an acid solution. Ben Kumpf (’18) weighs small amounts of rock powder into Teflon vials. We add a series of acids to the vials and let them sit on a hotplate for a day or two until the powders are completely dissolved.

Once the samples are dissolved, we measure out a small amount of the solution into a new vial to run it through the column chemistry process. The first step to make a column “load” solution is to dry the sample solution down to a powder on a hotplate.

To the dried-down powder, we add an acid that is appropriate for the column that we’re using. For Sr, we’re adding nitric acid to the vials.

Now we’re ready to set up the columns. Dr. Ryan Mills (psychedelic lab coat) is showing Ben Kumpf (’18) how to add the resin.

This is what a column looks like up close. It’s suspended above a waste beaker. The white material that is filling the tube and neck is the resin. You can see it still settling out of solution. The resin that we use to isolate Sr was developed in response to the Chernobyl accident when it became necessary to remove radioactive Sr from milk (Vajda and Kim, 2010).

The chemical column process involves adding a series of solutions to the columns in a sequence that cleans the resin, conditions the resin for the sample load solution, introduces the sample, and rinses the sample through the resin. There’s a lot of pipetting and waiting for the solutions to move through the column during this stage.

Samples are centrifuged prior to loading. The centrifuge separates any undissolved solids from the liquid so that we only add the liquid portion to the column.

These columns are loaded with our Pb solutions.

Now that our sample has passed through the column, we release all of the Sr or Pb off of the column and collect it in our sample vial.

The last step in the process is to dry down the sample one final time. This makes a tiny bead at the bottom our vial. We will load this bead into a mass spectrometer to measure the isotope composition.

Now you can see why we need do our sample preparation in a clean lab.

References

Vajda, N. and Kim, C.-K. 2010. Determination of radiostrontium isotopes: A review of analytical methodology. Applied Radiation and Isotopes 68: 2306-2326.

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