Mark Wilson September 20th, 2015
BRYN MAWR, PENNSYLVANIA–When we last saw Mae Kemsley (’16) and Meredith Mann (’16) in this blog, they were celebrating the end of their Senior Independent Study summer fieldwork on the coast of North Yorkshire, England. This weekend the three of us traveled to Bryn Mawr College and the geochemistry lab of Professor Pedro Marenco to start the geochemical analysis phase of our research. We learned a lot under Pedro’s kind and generous direction.
Both Mae and Meredith have belemnite fossils in their field collections. Meredith has just a few from the Passage Beds Member of the Coralline Oolite Formation (Upper Jurassic, Oxfordian); Mae has dozens from the Speeton Clay (Lower Cretaceous). A belemnite was a marine squid-like cephalopod that had a hard, bullet-shaped internal structure called a guard (shown above). These guards are made of almost pure calcite which took in trace elements from the seawater as they grew. The carbon and oxygen isotopes in their calcite crystals also reflect the isotopic composition of the seawater. These fossils are thus geochemical repositories from ancient seas. We are interested in what our belemnites tell us about the ambient chemical conditions in their environments, which in turn are proxies we can use to interpret paleotemperatures and other factors.
Mae is here in the Bryn Mawr petrography lab using a small drill to excavate fine calcite powder from the belemnite disks. This powder, measured in fractions of a gram, was then collected into sheets of weighing paper, folded like origami and taped to keep it in place.
Mae and Meredith are here weighing the powder samples with Pedro’s fancy balances. Each plastic sample vial had to be paced through an ion generator to reduce static charge and improve measurements to the microgram. A lot of chemwipes, weighing sheets, and gloves are used in the process to reduce contamination.
After dissolving the powder samples in acid, and then diluting the liquids in carefully-measured ways, we finally ended up with these precious tubes filled with essence de belemnite. We learned how much work goes into preparation of geochemistry samples — a lot!
The liquid samples are now ready for analysis in a device called an ICP-MS, which stands for Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer. This is the process and equipment Wooster geologists Mary Reinthal (’16) and Chloe Wallace (’17) described in their recent geochemistry blogpost. We’re doing the same thing: assessing the trace elements in our samples. Pedro will later run our samples through this magic machine and give us the results. We have a duplicate set of drilled belemnite powders to send to another lab for carbon and oxygen isotope analysis.
Thank you very much to our Bryn Mawr hosts Dr. Katherine Nicholson Marenco (’03) and Dr. Pedro Marenco. We are very much looking forward to our continuing collaboration. Thanks as well to Dr. Paul Taylor of the Natural History Museum in London who was our Essential Companion in the field.