The ancient Greek city of Selinunte

June 7th, 2013

8. Temple Selinunte Mid 7th BCE 060713MARSALA, SICILY, ITALY–During the afternoon the field party of the International Bryozoology Association drove south out of the Sicilian mountains back to the southern coast to visit the ruins of an entire Greek city founded in the 7th Century BCE and captured by the Carthaginians after a siege in 409 BCE. It is rare to have so much of an ancient city still in place. It was like being in Greece itself. Above is a partially reconstructed temple on the acropolis (a high worship center) opposite the city center across a valley.
9. Selinunte ruined temple 060713Next to the reconstructed temple are two other temples still in ruins. They are a wondrous tangle of columns and blocks.
10. Selinunte column runins Steve 060713Steve Hageman is standing by one of the largest toppled columns. We thought it looked a lot like a very, very large disarticulated crinoid column. (You may have to be a paleontologist to appreciate that viewpoint!)
11. Selinunte Agora destroyed 409 BCE 060713I hiked over to the remains of the agora, or administrative center. It is surrounded by a wall augmented by later inhabitants but still mostly original. It has a spectacular (and strategic) view of the sea.
12. Acropolis viewed from Agora 060713From the agora you can look back to the northeast and have the view of the acropolis temples that the inhabitants must have cherished. I very much like the style of some reconstruction amidst the dramatic and evocative ruins.

A surprising bit of Permian in central Sicily

June 7th, 2013

1. Sicilian Mountains 060713MARSALA, SICILY, ITALY–This morning the pre-conference field trip of the International Bryozoology Association headed into the mountains of central Sicily. The roads were steep and windy, as one would imagine, and the views of mountainsides, villages and fields spectacular. We were high enough to be in some small woods and scrub forests. Our goal was to see some mysterious blocks of Permian limestone seemingly out of place on an island dominated by Cenozoic sediments.
2. Palermo Geologists 060713We met a team of friendly geologists from the University of Palermo in the Sosio Valley near Palazzo Adriano. They were well prepared to tell a complicated story of tectonics in the classic geological manner: maps and charts held by students as a professor lectures. It was very effective, aided by the superb weather and amazing views.
3. Geological cross-section 060713In this geological cross-section, the Permian rocks are shown as blue. Already you see something odd with the same color of rock above and below the blue, showing that it is tectonically bounded. It is part of a melange (in the geological sense) of blocks of rock broken and thrust about during the tectonism of the Miocene. The Permian rock was recognized as such by its fossil content, which includes distinctive conodonts, fusulinids, brachiopods, bryozoans and corals. It sits surrounded by much younger Miocene sediments, demonstrating the complex tectonics leading to this unusual setting.
4. Permian melange fragment MioceneAbove is the Permian outcrop in the Sosio Valley. It stands out as very different from its surroundings by its lithology alone. I admire the geologists, though, who found diagnostic fossils within it — I saw just a very few highly recrystallized fusulinids and corals.
5. Museum Palazzo Adriano 060713For lunch we went to the city museum in Palazzo Adriano and had delicious sandwiches and cakes. There we saw some of the best fossils from the Permian outcrops on display.
6. Palazzo Adriano Church 060713This is one of the churches in Palazzo Adriano on the city square. It looks to be neglected on the exterior, but inside …
7. Palazzo Adriano Church Interior 060713… it is elaborate and well-maintained.

Pliocene marls white as snow in southern Sicily

June 6th, 2013

6. Pliocene Cliff 060613SCIACCA, SICILY, ITALY–Our last stop of the day on this International Bryozoology Association pre-conference field trip was to a massive outcrop of foraminiferan-rich marls known as the Trubi. A view of the cliffs with the sun setting behind them is above.

7. Hans Arne Pliocene 060613My colleague (and roommate on this trip) Hans Arne Nakrem is serving as a scale to show the regular cyclicity of these marls. Appropriately, he is from snowy northern Norway. These sediments were deposited immediately after the Messinian Salinity Crisis when the entire Mediterranean was reduced to a shallow series of evaporitive ponds. These marls mark the opening of the Strait of Gibraltar which flooded the Mediterranean Basin with normal seawater (the Zanclean Flood) 5.33 million years ago.

8. Pliocene Cliff 060613I wish I had better lighting to show just how brightly white these rocks are. They are now used as the base type section of the Zanclean Stage.

SicilyBeachSandHere is a late addition to this post (June 23, 2013). I collected some sand from the beach in front of these chalky rocks. A close-up image is shown above. Note that the chalk itself is eroded so quickly that it leaves no trace in the sand. We see here mostly rounded quartz grains and shell fragments.

A cultural day in southern Sicily

June 6th, 2013

1. Noto Duomo 060613SCIACCA, 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.

2. Noto Street 060613A 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.

3. Casale Mosaics 060613Our 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.

4. Female Pentathalon 060613Certainly 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.

5. Giant Mosaic 060613My 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.



A familiar hydrozoan with a beautiful name

June 6th, 2013

Velella_velella_060613_Sicily_585SCIACCA, SICILY, ITALY–Far too late today for more than a short post. For the first time I met in real life an animal I speak about in my Invertebrate Paleontology course: the colonial hydrozoan Velella velella. We found thousands of them on Marjate Beach on the south coast of Sicily (see below). These organisms are commonly known as By-The-Wind Sailors, and they are found throughout the world’s oceans. They are characterized by a thin vertical sail over a shelf of downward-directed polyps. The sail scoots them along very effectively across the sea surface, but once they reach a lee coast they are helplessly stranded on the beach. They are striking in their tragedy as the thin purple tissues wilt in the sunlight as if they were flowers.

Velella_vella_strew_060613More posts from this very interesting day after I get some sleep!

A Sicilian rocky coast

June 5th, 2013

9. Calcari di Siracusa Miocene 060513NOTO, SICILY, ITALY–Our last stop of the day on this International Bryozoology Association field trip was on the southeastern coast of Sicily just north of Syracuse at Scala Greca. There are several very small bays here which have been used for fishing boats since very ancient times. The whote rock is the Calcari di Siracusa (Miocene).

10. Rhodoliths060513The rock is made predominantly made of little algal and bryozoan spheres called rhodoliths. They rolled around on a shallow, warm seafloor and are quite common in some parts of the tropics today (although with fewer bryozoans).

11. Pillbox Scala Greca 060513This part of Sicily was an invasion area by the Allies in World War II. This grim German pillbox overlooking the coast is a reminder of those times. More on this later.

OctopusDinner585Finally, I wish to record part of my dinner this evening! I ate every piece of octopus in my large shell bowl. I saw it as a duty.

A shelly bonanza from the Pleistocene of Sicily

June 5th, 2013

5. MegaraDitch060513NOTO, SICILY, ITALY–Our second stop of the day on this International Bryozoology Association field trip was in an unimpressive ditch (above) near Megara. But, of course, there is paleontological gold here: an assemblage of extremely well-preserved marine fossils.

6. AndrejMegara060513Colleague Andrej Ernst is examining a layer of shells extending the length of the drainage ditch.

7. SerpulidsMegara060513Her are some beautiful pectinid bivalves (scallops) with the treat for me: abundant serpulid worm tubes. There is an extensive sclerobiont (hard substrate dwelling) community on these shells.

7a. TurritellidsMegara060513Turritellid gastropods (snails) are extremely common in this assemblage. Note that several of these specimens have small holes drilled in them by predatory gastropods. We found naticid gastropods here too, which were probably the culprits.

8. HornedQuadrupedsMegara060513This mother lode of fossils was guarded by a herd of horned beasts. This one had a bell on it, so I assumed it was the most dangerous and stayed far away. (Love this new zoom lens!)


Spectacular shrimp burrows from the Miocene of Sicily

June 5th, 2013

Siciliancountryside060513NOTO, SICILY, ITALY–The first stop on our International Bryozoology Association field trip today was a newly-opened quarry near Cugni di Rio in the dry southeastern countryside of Sicily, a view of which is above. New quarries are always interesting to geologists — a new view of the Earth’s bones.

OphiomorphaAshcontact060513This is a portion of the quarry wall with the inevitable volcaniclastic unit of ash and marine sediments shown as the greenish layered unit above and below limestones dated as Tortonian (Upper Miocene). On top of the ash you can see what look like tubes sticking out of the brownish layer of sediment.

OphiomorphaSlab1_060513When that brownish layer is exposed as the underside of the bedding plane, it looks like this. These branching features are infilled tunnels made by marine shrimp. The walls of the tubes are ornamented by pellets placed there by the shrimp in their frenetic activity. Combining these pellets with the branching style we can place this trace fossil in the venerable ichnogenus Ophiomorpha.

OphiomorphaSlab2_060513This is a closer view showing the branched galleries and maybe a bit of the pitted surface showing where the pellets were attached. These tunnels are completely filled, so we refer to this preservation as full relief.

I know, I know, I should be recording the bryozoans from this stop, but they were far from photogenic!

Sicilian fossils at last!

June 4th, 2013

FieldStopOne060413CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–After lunch our International Bryozoology Association field trip actually collected fossil bryozoans. We visited a quarry exposure of Lower Pleistocene cemented marls rich in the bryozoan Celleporaria palmata (Michelin), along with many other species. These were apparently from a thicket of bryozoan colonies broken up in a storm and deposited as a debris flow down slope. The location is south of Catania at Pianometa.

Celleraria060413Lower Pleistocene Celleporaria palmata fragments at Pianometa. This was a very rapid-growing, branching bryozoan colony easily fragmented by storm currents.

Volcaniclastic060413Below those bryozoan-loaded beds is this unusual sequence. The darker layered units are volcaniclastic sediments derived from early eruptions from the Mount Etna complex. Occasionally boulders would roll downslope and be deposited as xenoliths (“foreign rocks”) Later the cemented sediments cracked repeatedly due to the intense earthquake activity associated with this tectonic boundary between the European and African plates. Those cracks filled with marly sediment from above.

SheepCheeseFarm060413The last visit of the day was to a sheep cheese farm. One sheep produces about a liter of sheep’s milk. The cheese we sampled (some more than others) is very soft — like cottage cheese without the lumps, or a soft ricotta. Interesting (and unpasteurized). We watched four rams beat each other bloody in an ongoing context monitored by large black dogs. I suppose it is part of the herding process, grim as it is.

Products of an angry giant

June 4th, 2013

SicilyCyclopeanIslands060413CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–They may look like impressive sea stacks to you, but it turns out these are three huge stones thrown by the aggrieved and wounded cyclops Polyphemus at Odysseus as he escaped that infernal cave. Who knew?

This morning we traveled north of Catania to the Ciclopi Marine Protected Area near Aci Castello and Aci Trezza to look at the evidence of the ancient volcanic activity that led to Mount Etna, and to snorkel and dive on the life-encrusted rocks in the blue, blue waters.

Island060413We took a boat ride all of about 300 meters across the bay to the tiny island of Lachea, shown above. Notice that there is a crack running through the rocks seen just above the boat. This is an active fault that runs through the middle of the island. Also note that there is a mix of light and dark rocks visible.

IslandBasalticIntrusion060413Lachea is a combination of whitish marls and claystones above with black basalt injected from below. This is the very beginning of volcanic activity in this region as hot magma began to work its way into the overlying sediments of a shallow sea. When the lava erupted onto the seafloor, masses of pillow basalts formed (see previous post). The cyclopean rocks in the top image are eroded roots of the massive basalt flows. They show beautiful columnar jointing.

Etnafromisland060413From Lachea we can see the glowering outline of Mount Etna, the true giant in our story.

StationSign060413The island of Lachea and its surrounding rocks has been the site of a research station for over a century. The fauna and flora of both the island and the seafloor down to 110 meters are protected by law.

IslandLizard585This pretty green lizard is common on Lachea and apparently endemic (found only there). It is Podarcis sicula ciclopica. Its mating season of three months is about to begin, so there was much lizardly activity.

Grotto060413One of the first places we visited on the island was this tiny historical grotto. Only five of us could crawl into this completely dark chamber at a time. Once inside you can carefully stand up and (at least some of us) touch your head on the ceiling. That turned out to be a mistake because the guiding biologists then show you the unique cave spiders hanging on their webs about your ears!

Lunch060413Finally I must show you at least one of our large Sicilians lunches, this one back in Catania after our morning marine excursion. We are eating well, if a bit later than usual — and with much more time in the process!


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