Mark Wilson June 17th, 2013
CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–The IBA meeting has now ended and, as this is posted, I should be winging my way home across the Atlantic. It was a fantastic experience. This is a unique organization, of which I’m now proud to be a member of council. It is a combination of paleontologists and biologists who share a passion for the Phylum Bryozoa in all its manifestations. We had 77 oral presentations and dozens of posters spread among 80 participants, including students, academics, museum scientists, and very keen citizen scientists. The “international” component is taken very seriously: of the 80 people present, 27 countries were represented.
All the sessions were held in the Palazzo delle Scienze building shown at the top of the page. We shared it with the regular student body, so it was a lively place. Directly above is the back wall of our meeting room with images of famous scientists who lived in Italy, from the Greeks to the 20th Century.
Italians leave no ceiling unpainted. I’m not sure who the people are depicted above us, except that Amerigo Vespucci must be the one holding a map of the Americas. This room certainly makes you feel part of the international scientific enterprise.
Here is one of our participants, Kevin Tilbrook, giving a presentation. All our communications were in English. Imagine the challenge of talking in your second or third language with someone else doing the same thing. I am continually amazed by the language skills here.
My talk was on Friday morning, June 14. My first slide is shown above. My friend Paul Taylor and I examined two purported bryozoans common in the Paleozoic and showed that they were certainly not members of that phylum, despite some superficial resemblances.
This is our conclusion slide. As you can see, it is relatively easy to say what something is not, but quite another to say what it is!
The IBA conference dinner is always a big event. This one was among the most spectacular. We had dinner in the historical Palazzo Biscari. This is a view from the terrace towards the central Duomo complex.
The ballroom is a Baroque fantasy. To complete the image, dinner was preceded by a choral performance from a Sicilian choir tucked back in the alcove. They sang many, many pieces, including some national favorites from countries represented among us.
Our meeting was a spectacular success in terms of the science shared and learned, and the Sicilian cultural experiences. Thank you very much to organizers Antonietta Rosso and Rossana Sanfilippo from the University of Catania!
Mark Wilson June 12th, 2013
CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–One of the treats of many small scientific meetings, like the International Bryozoology Association conference I am attending now, is that we can have a variety of short field trips for all participants. Today we packed into two buses and spent the afternoon and evening in the city of Syracuse south of Catania.
Syracuse was founded by Greek colonists (primarily Corinthians) over 2700 years ago. It was the home of Archimedes. He was famously killed there by a Roman soldier when the city was captured in 212 BCE. Cicero called Syracuse “the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all”. The Syracusan tyrant Hiero I (who ruled from 478 to 466 BCE) built the outdoor theater shown at the top of this page. (Don’t call it an “amphitheater”!) Just above is a view of the ancient entrance to the theater above the seats. Greek engineers diverted a stream here to fill fountains and pools and eventually flow down to the front of the theater for refreshment and sometimes to be part of the performances. The theater is still used, so wooden seats have been fixed over much of the ancient stone.
Behind the theater is this large ancient limestone quarry. You can make out a couple of pillars left in place on the quarry floor, along with characteristic vertical walls and square corners. The sturdy rock here was used to build the city and its walls.
On one side of the quarry is this unusual cave called The Ear of Dionysius. It is 23 meters high and goes back about 65 meters. It has an uncanny resemblance to a human ear, hence at least one possible reason for the name. Inside it has smooth walls and a serpentine curve much like a meandering stream. The acoustics are unusual. Apparently even whispers inside can be heard at certain points above the cave’s entrance. The tyrant Dionysius is said to have placed his prisoners in there so that he could listen to their secrets (or to their tortured screams). There is considerable debate (which was repeated in our group) about whether this was all carved by quarriers or is a natural water-eroded slot canyon then modified for human use.
Carl Simpson and Paul Taylor showing stylish Italian straw hats on our trip.
At dinner this evening we had this wonderful view of the ancient harbor of Syracuse as the sun set and moon appeared above. Across the water on the end of the promontory is the Castello Maniace, which was originally completed as a fortification in 1240. King Ferdinand III gave this structure to none other than Admiral Horatio Nelson in 1799 for services rendered to the Kingdom of Naples. It stayed in private English hands until 1982 when it was given to the province of Catania.
I would describe the dinner, but you probably wouldn’t believe how many various Sicilian treats we had, including the inevitable octopus. It was a memorable evening in the middle of our intense conference.
Mark Wilson June 9th, 2013
CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–This was the last day of our International Bryozoology Association pre-conference field trip through Sicily. We had an excellent time and covered an extraordinary amount of territory on this large Mediterranean island. We started our final day on the Capo Milazzo Peninsula in the northeastern portion of Sicily. The view above is looking north from the base of the with the main lighthouse on the right and bay on the left. Just peeking around the headland in the distance is one of the Aeolian Islands. We climbed down to study the rocks in the middle distance.
One of the most striking units we saw was this Pliocene conglomerate at the base of a small paleobasin cut into a Paleozoic metamorphic complex. The clasts are a variety of metamorphic rocks, from high-grade schists and gneisses to low-grade greenstones. Eckart Hakansson for scale.
This is a closer view of the conglomerates. The matrix is a foraminiferan-rich marl almost identical to the marl which lies above it (see the next image).
This Pliocene marl above the conglomerates is almost 95% planktonic foraminiferans, or at least it looks that way with a handlens. There are some other fossils (see below) and a few sand-sized lithic fragments, but otherwise this is a foraminiferan ooze deposit.
Besides the foraminiferans, the most common fossils in the Pliocene marls on the Capo Milazzo Peninsula are these stick-like objects. They are gorgonian octocoral internodes, probably from the species Keratoisis melitensis. I grabbed a handful and thereby tripled Wooster’s collection of fossil octocorals.
Included in the marls are these cobbles and boulders of Miocene limestones slumped in from the slopes above. They often have large borings from lithophagid bivalves (producing Gastrochaenolites) and a smaller background boring by clionaid sponges (making Entobia).
There are spectacular views from Capo Milazzo. This is looking north at the volcanic island of Stromboli. We spent a long time staring at it because every half-hour or so it spouts steam and smoke for a few seconds. I didn’t get to see an event, but there was a continual very light plume blowing from the right to the left.
This is the only time I handed my camera to a colleague and asked for my picture taken. I couldn’t resist a view with Stromboli in the background. I also wanted to show off my new Italian hat. (I lost my regular and well-worn field hat somewhere along the way.)
As we were leaving the peninsula, Mount Etna to the south let out a large puff of steam and gases into the murky air.
Finally, a few shots from today to show a bit how our field trip worked. Above is our hotel in Milazzo, typical of the places we stayed around Sicily. Note all the little Fiat cars. In every city and town these cars were constantly buzzing by.
This is a view from my seat in our bus. Our intrepid leader Antonietta Rosso from the University of Catania is speaking in the microphone. We are very grateful to her for her planning, energy and good humor. My legs here, by the way, are extending well into the aisle because they just did not fit in these tiny Italian seats.
Antonietta Rosso is here giving us a field lecture before we descend down to the Capo Milazzo outcrops. The man taking photographs in the background is a keen Italian amateur who was very helpful. I wish I caught his name. He said one lifetime isn’t enough to enjoy all the wonders of this planet — and then there’s space!
Just before lunch we had the requisite castle visit, this one in Milazzo. The Milazzo Castle suffered some bombing damage in World War II. The Germans and Italians used Milazzo and its port as a supply center for the Afrika Korps, and then later as a communications center for their resistance to the Allied invasion in 1943. The walls we are looking at here were built by the Spanish (Aragonese) in the 15th Century.
Finally we passed by the Strait of Messina, with mainland Italy visible through the haze. This narrow body of water is extraordinarily deep and its sides continue to be uplifted by tectonic activity. These waters have wicked currents and have been known as a navigational hazard since antiquity. When we saw this strait we knew we had rounded the corner of Sicily and nearly completed our journey around the entire island.
Thank you again to our University of Catania leaders, especially Antonietta Rosso and Rossana Sanfilippo. Now we have a few hours to rest before the official International Bryozoology Association Conference begins tomorrow morning.
Mark Wilson June 8th, 2013
MILAZZO, SICILY, ITALY–The pre-conference field trip of the International Bryozoology Association has now almost completely circled Sicily. We are in the far northeastern corner of the island on a rocky cape jutting into the sea towards mainland Italy. The drive here along the very steep and rocky north coast of Sicily was fantastic, especially the seaward views of the volcanic Aeolian Islands (including the famous Stromboli).
Our day started on the furthest western part of Sicily. We took a short boat trip into the Stagnone di Marsala lagoon to the ruins of the ancient Phoenician walled city Mozia. The top photo is a view of the silted-up south harbor of the island with remnants of its guard towers on either side of the narrow entrance. Mozia was settled in the 8th Century BCE as a commerce center. It was well-suited to the Phoenician way of life with its small but safe ports and a defensible interior. The island is in the middle of an extensive lagoon which protects it from the ravages of the open sea (and invaders — for awhile). The site is still being actively excavated and studied.
There is a small museum on the island full of artifacts. It appears that the lagoon itself has abundant deposits of detritus from this active community, so items are continually dredged up.
Mozia has a considerable necropolis, as you would imagine. Many of the best sarcophagi and other memorial stones are in the museum.
There is a collection of terra cotta masks in the museum of apparently ceremonial use. This one seems delightful until you learn tat one of those ceremonies was human sacrifice, primarily of children. Now this character looks far more sinister.
Greeks under the tyrant Dionysius captured the island and is city after a siege in 397 BCE. The fall of Mozia is recorded subtly by remnants of literally last ditch earthworks and fires. The stones of this guardhouse along the wall on the southern coast were reddened when the associated wooden structures were burned either during or just after the siege.
The island museum has a diorama depicting the final breaching of Mozia’s walls by the Greeks in 397 BCE.
The Stagnone di Marsala lagoon was formed during the Pleistocene as an abraded marine platform cut into fossiliferous marls and soft limestones. In this view from the island to the mainland you can see six whitish piles of salt on the distant shore. These are harvested from low ponds with walled enclosures (see below). The windmills, iconic for this area, pump water from one pond to another to control the mineral phases of the precipitates. This salt production goes back to antiquity.
Mark Wilson June 6th, 2013
SCIACCA, SICILY, ITALY–Most major conference geological field trips have a portion devoted to the culture and history of the region being explored. You can imagine the delights of this nature possible on a Mediterranean island. Today we started with the main square in the city of Noto in southern Sicily. This city had been destroyed by a 1693 earthquake and was completely rebuilt. The Noto Cathedral (above) was finished in 1776. It is such a classic of Baroque architecture that it was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. It is striking, especially since it is hemmed in by other buildings and so provides a sudden surprise when turning a corner. Hard to believe parts of it collapsed from disrepair in 1996.
A Noto street leading to a church. The many balconies are characteristic of the city. Since the city center was rebuilt in one go, it has a consistent architectural theme.
Our second visit of the day was to an archaeological site revealing the astonishing remains of a 4th Century Roman building called Villa Romana del Casale on Mounte Mangone near the Gela River. This huge complex is most famous for its exquisite mosaic floors, the details of one shown above (“The Little Hunt”). This features a theme throughout the structures: hunting. This is another UNESCO World Heritage site. Such culture vultures we geologists are.
Certainly the most photographed of the mosaics is this scene popularly known as “Girls With Bikinis”. It is more properly described as “women participating in the female pentathalon” because of the distinctive athletic activities shown.
My favorite mosaic is probably the most violent: a series of giants killed by Hercules with poisoned arrows. Note that the dying giants have snakes for feet. It is astonishing what these craftsmen could do with millions of tiny colored stones — and that their art has survived so vividly.
Mark Wilson March 20th, 2013
BRYN MAWR, PENNSYLVANIA–While visiting my friends and colleagues Katherine and Pedro Marenco at Bryn Mawr College, I visited the nearby Valley Forge National Historical Park. Everyone will remember, of course that this is the place outside Philadelphia that the Continental Army made its rough winter quarters in 1777-1778. The huts above are reconstructions of the soldiers’ quarters on the windy and cold fields. Commander-in-Chief George Washington chose this place because it was easily defensible, had plenty of timber for construction and fuel, and was close enough to British-occupied Philadelphia to keep an eye on the enemy — yet not so close to be likely attacked.
As a geologist, of course, I also looked for the rocky bones beneath the landscape. They were easily found in the above cliff near the main parking area. This is the Ledger Dolomite, a Cambrian unit found throughout this part of eastern Pennsylvania.
The Ledger Dolomite here is distinguished by these fine laminations visible on its weathered cross-sections. These are apparently stromatolites: laminar structures built by bacterial mats. We’ve met Cambrian stromatolites before in this blog.
I was surprised to learn that there is also a significant middle Pleistocene fossil deposit in Valley Forge called the Port Kennedy Bone Cave. This is a sinkhole deposit within the Ledger Dolomite. A particularly large sinkhole apparently trapped a variety of animals, including the gracile sabre-tooth Smilodon gracilis, the skull of which is on display in the Valley Forge Historical Park visitor center. S. gracilis was the smallest and earliest member of its genus. The Port Kennedy Bone Cave was one of the first fossil assemblages that the famous paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope studied. The location was lost to science until its rediscovery in 2005.
This is the requisite cannon image, even though no battle was fought here. It is nevertheless a dramatic place for the privations the soldiers suffered during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War. It is hard to imagine the conditions in 1777-1778 now since highways and casinos surround the old encampment.
Mark Wilson December 20th, 2012
DONEGAL, IRELAND — In the northeastern part of the county, about 7 km west of Derry in Northern Ireland, is Greenan Mountain. On its very top is a spectacular ringfort called The Grianán of Aileach (“the Solarium of Aileach”, shown above). From it are spectacular views of the countryside 360° around. It is a majestic and yet rather lonely place, maybe because my new friend Andy Quinn and I were the only ones there. It was probably built in some form around the beginning of the common era and no doubt occupied by many successive groups. There is a burial mound on the site (a tumulus) that may date back to 3000 BCE. The local story is that it was originally a place to honor the sun (which I would not have minded seeing today).
The fort’s most prominent days were when it was the royal citadel of the northern Ui Neill sept of Aileach from the 5th to the 12th century. The stone portion of the fort was destroyed in 1101 by Murtogh O’Brien, King of Munster. His soldiers were ordered to take the fort apart and scatter its stones widely. In 1870 it was substantially restored to its present state.
The Grianán of Aileach was an excellent location to visit and have a look at the countryside of eastern County Donegal. The rocks exposed here are among the oldest in Ireland (Late Proterozoic to Early Cambrian).
The inside of the circular Grianán of Aileach. There are three interior platforms connected by narrow stairs. There is some dispute over whether this was the original architecture of the ringfort before its destruction in 1101.
The stones are mostly without mortar. They appear to be some kind of quartz mica schist.
I tried a panorama of Lough Swilly to the west of the ringfort. It doesn’t convey the real sweeping vista in 585 pixels wide, but you get the idea of a cool view!
This is a “holy well” to the southeast of the ringfort. It is said to have been visited by St. Patrick himself. Then again, everyone wants a connection to The Man!
An Irish myth says that The Grianán of Aileach was built by King Daghda of Tuatha de Danann, and that the grave of his son lies beneath the fortress forever guarding it. In any case, we were suitably respectful of this ancient site.
Mark Wilson December 19th, 2012
DONEGAL, IRELAND — Above is an image of Donegal Bay at sunset. It is striking with its still water, wheeling gulls and glacially-rounded rocky islands. I am in County Donegal for a couple of days simply to see the place and get some hints of what is said to be the most complex geology in Ireland. There is also some evidence that the Wilson part of my family comes from the northwest of Ireland, so I might be seeing a bit of ancestral homeland. I am staying in the town of Donegal in the south of the county and will be visiting sites in the north and west tomorrow. Today, after a very bumpy flight and landing (Donegal airport is known for its high winds), I am exploring the town and its surroundings.
This is the little County Donegal airport in the north. It is in one of the most isolated spots in the county — no bus line goes to it and taxis have to be ordered in advance from nearby towns. There were seven people on the plane, including the crew.
The Abbey Hotel in downtown Donegal. My home for a couple of days.
The ruins of the Franciscan Abbey in Donegal along the southern shore of the bay. It was built in 1474. As with many such structures in Ireland, it has a long history of sieges and intrigue. This portion has been used as a graveyard for centuries.
The geology just along the shores of Donegal Bay seems complicated enough. There are some rocky outcrops I could not reach, along with exposures of boulder-studded glacial drift such as here.
The stones used in the local walls and in the remaining Abbey structures are diverse. Most are dark gray metabasalts or amphibolites, as seen in this graveyard wall lit by the setting sun.
One prominent stone in the Abbey walls appears to be a quartzite metaconglomerate. Both these rock types are derived from local pre-Paleozoic outcrops.
Finally, here is a dramatically-lit statue of Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill (1427-1505) at the head of Donegal Bay and mouth of the River Eske. He was the subject of one of my favorite book-movie combinations as a kid: The Fighting Prince of Donegal. I also think he looks a lot like me, wouldn’t you say?
Mark Wilson December 18th, 2012
DUBLIN, IRELAND — I have paleontological legends on either side of me, and the best of friends. Paul Taylor is on the left. He and I met in 1985 when I visited The Natural History Museum in London while on my first research leave. My Oxford host, Stuart McKerrow, said I just had to meet a young paleontologist at the museum because we had so many common interests. Indeed. Paul and I have had many adventures since through our long friendship. Also while at Oxford, Jim Kennedy told me that if I was interested in hard-substrate fossils I should take the train to Aberystwyth, Wales, and see Tim Palmer (above on the right). I did and have enjoyed a long and deep friendship and collaboration with him ever since. I think the world of these gentlemen and am grateful for all that they’ve taught me and the many research opportunities I’ve had with them. We had a very special dinner of traditional Irish stews this evening in Ireland’s oldest pub, The Brazen Head (established in 1198 — and I didn’t reverse any digits).
The Annual Meeting of the Palaeontological Association has now ended. Tomorrow morning I leave Dublin for a brief visit to County Donegal in the far northwest of Ireland. I hope to make a blog post or two from there, but I’m not sure I’ll have an internet connection. If not, the next posts will come from home in about a week. Slán agaibh!