The Diatom Lake Adventure: Ice ages, hotel titrations, and the Midwest

Editor’s note: Rising Wooster senior Richard Torres (’23) had a spectacular opportunity this summer (May 31 – June 12, 2022) to participate in a National Science Foundation-funded research trip with Dr. Tom Lowell (on the right) and his team from the University of Cincinnati. Below is Richard’s account. Unless otherwise noted, all the images are from his phone. (Above photo by Aaron Diefendorf.)

Why am I here? Out in the choppy waves of a lake in the middle of Minnesota hunting diatoms. It is all part of an expedition going to 20 different lakes in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin to see how different conditions effect diatoms. It was quite the adventure not getting to explore much of the Midwest, barely getting out of Wooster. But with funding from the National Science Foundation, me, Tom Lowell (Professor at the University of Cincinnati), Aaron Diefendorf (Professor at the University of Cincinnati), Meg Corcoran (PhD student at the University of Cincinnati), and Watts Dietrich (Masters student at the University of Cincinnati) went off to core, probe, sample, and take many more tests and observations of the lakes of the Midwest.

Diatoms are single-celled aquatic plants that make their cell walls out of glass, once they die, they fall to the bottom of the lake and because of their siliceous shell (called a frustule) they preserve well and can be found going back in time through the lake core sediments. At each lake we took a core, some went deep, and some only went down a few centimeters. The diatoms and their traces will then be examined in the lab once we get back.

And this is Rover the ROV (remotely operated vehicle), he would help us look at the lake bottom and collect samples of plants with that claw, or at least that was the plan, we seemed to have more luck pulling samples out of the propeller. We sent Rover down to get a stick from a sunken tree and after giving up trying to wrestle one out and coming back to the surface we found a stick lodged in a propeller, which we lovingly named Mr. Stick.

Because we were going to run out of alkalinity bottles (bottles of lake water to be tested for its alkalinity) before we ran out of lakes, we had to run a series of titrations to reveal the alkalinity of the samples to free up some more bottles for later. We brought all the chemistry equipment into Watts and I’s room making sure to close the curtains (who knows what people would think we are doing) and got to work.

Traveling around the Dakotas we were stunned by the amount water levels have risen. Seeing flooded fields and roads, grain silos and farmhouses crumbling into lakes. Homes once built on hills atop a field struggling to get water during the dustbowl are now cut off on their own islands. Where google maps shows multiple lakes, we came to find one big lake encompassing areas. Above you can see how one of our sites, Devil’s lake, and its area changed from 120 square miles to 820 in just 20 years.

Then there was Lake Kylen. We plunged our truck and SUV deeper and deeper into the Wisconsin woods, off on dirt roads. We saw them, an uncountable, ungodly number of mosquitos swarming us and our vehicles. We took a rubber dingy and our equipment down a trail off the road, into the mud, then took turns going out into the lake. This was a short reprieve since there was not many mosquitoes or biting flies, it was almost peaceful out there with the swans, otters, and scenery except for the terror we knew awaited us on returning to shore. We trudged back to the car and awaited the truck, swatting all those monsters that wanted to hitch a ride with us. Finally safe at last. WRONG! The truck was stuck in mud and had to be pulled out, back to the blood donation center. We could still see them that night at the hotel, even when we closed our eyes.

After the traumatizing experience of the day before, we were prepared for the worst on our last day of lake scienceing. But when we got to the lakes, dragonflies were patrolling the skies, keeping us safe and eating anything that would want to take a bite of us. Dragonflies are my new best friends. They are so sweet letting me get close to take pictures and literally saving our skins. That night we then treated ourselves to a lakeside restaurant and I got to complete my goal of trying Wisconsin cheese curds, yes, they are as good as you would think.

So why did we have to travel all around the Midwest to collect diatoms? Well, we want to uncover past conditions through diatoms but first we need to find out how different changes in their environment affects them. The Cincinnati group is looking at a biomarker called HBI to reconstruct past hydrologies, and I am looking at how the different diatom species can be used to look for evidence of different climate events in history. This trip, with the data, experiences, and motivations, is essential to achieving the goals we have set out for looking at diatoms through time.

But above and beyond the best experience of the trip was being able to meet Tom Cruz at all the Applebee’s we went to.

Group photo (from left): Me, Aaron Diefendorf (Professor at the University of Cincinnati), Meg Corcoran (PhD student at the University of Cincinnati), Tom Lowell (Professor at the University of Cincinnati), and Watts Dietrich (Masters student at the University of Cincinnati).

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Old dogs, old tricks: A very pleasant day of paleontology in the Lower Carboniferous of northeastern Ohio

The weather was perfect today in verdant northeastern Ohio. Bill Ausich (retired paleontologist from The Ohio State University), Nigel Brush (retired geologist/archaeologist from Ashland University), and I (not retired!) have started a project examining the crinoids and associated fossils of the Wooster Shale (Lower Carboniferous) in northeastern Ohio. Nigel guided us to this magnificent outcrop along Quaker Springs Run near Hayesville (N 40.770573°, W 082.221390°; private land — permission required). This blog has been here before.

We put on our wellies and sloshed across the creek to the outcrop. I was reminded how very different this countryside is from where I was working just last month. Bill (on the left) and Nigel wasted no time coming to grips with the slippery rocks.

The shale outcrop near the base has many siderite (iron carbonate) concretionary layers, which show up as red-orange ledges standing free from the eroding shale. These were the rocks in which I expected we would find most of our fossils.

And indeed, they are full of fossil bits, from crinoid stems (shown above) to brachiopods, bivalves and other goodies. They show evidence of storm deposition, being mostly fragmentary. One of our questions: Did the crinoids live on the clayey substrate (the dark shale today) or were they transported in as debris?

Above is the moment Nigel discovered a crinoid stem in the shale that was over a half meter long. At one end was …

the calyx! It doesn’t look like much in the image above, but trust me on this. We’re looking at the biserial arms of a camerate crinoid, indicating the filter-feeding head (or calyx) of the crinoid. Thus a complete crinoid in the shale itself, showing us it lived there and was not transported in after death. Question asnwered.

There are also layers of crinoid-rich limestones in the middle and top part of the section. The bases of these limestones have numerous gray chips of shale (called intraclasts). This is an indication that the limestones were formed by storms that swept across the clay seaflooor, ripping up pieces that were incorporated in the base of the succeeding unit.

Yes, we did note the dramatic tree fall, which happened just a few days before we arrived. This is a good example of a stream eroding away its aptly-named cutbank.

It was a fun day of exploring, chatting, and making scientific plans.

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Wooster’s Team Utah 2022 Fieldwork

This is the index page for Wooster’s Team Utah 2022 expedition (May 20-29, 2022). The primary goal of this fieldwork was to provide data and samples for the Independent Study theses of Lucie Fiala (left) and Shipei (Vicky) Wang (right). We are also always looking for future IS project ideas, and continuing some long-term research projects. The accompanying staff were Nick Wiesenberg (geological technician), Dr. Shelley Judge (structural geologist and tectonicist), and me, Wooster’s sedimentologist and paleontologist. We hope you enjoy following our travel and scientific log on these pages.

This stratigraphic column from the National Park Service details the stratigraphy of southwestern Utah. Our expedition was to continue long-term Wooster explorations of the Carmel Formation (Middle Jurassic) near the top (marked with the red dot). We also visited a section in the Moenkopi Formation (Early Triassic) on our last day. We are preceded by several Wooster teams in the 1990s and most recently by Team Utah 2018, Team Utah 2019, and Team Utah 2020.

Here are the links to our daily field posts —

May 21: Wooster Geologists return to southwestern Utah

May 22: Second field day in SW Utah Jurassic: Wooster geologists begin their projects

May 23: Back to the Eagle Mountain Ranch and its magnificent exposures

May 24: Wooster geologists serve their time in Buggy Gulch

May 25: Up the steep slopes for a trace fossil reward in Dammeron Valley

May 26: Jackson Peak section: Another gnatty adventure

May 27: A culture and nature day for Team Jurassic Utah 2022

May 28: Wooster Geologists Team Jurassic Utah dips down into the Triassic for its last field day


For our records, the following table records all our C/W localities for the Utah 2018-2022 expeditions. The variance in precision is because different GPS devices were used through the years.

N Latitude Longitude Wooster # Location name
37.308755° -113.736500° C/W-142 Eagle Mountain Ranch cliff
37.27056798° -113.776038° C/W-156 Nursery
37.278500° -113.788161° C/W-157 Oyster Ball Valley
37.25407499° -113.60516° C/W-751 Water tank
37.27341698° -113.77961° C/W-752 Double layer DL
37.27298004° -113.778876° C/W-753 Hardground East
37.27855903° -113.787448° C/W-754 Hardground West HW
37.28063799° -113.80023° C/W-755 HFW Hardground
37.25500° -113.60436° C/W-756 Water Tank Road
37.27629° -113.63712° C/W-757 Dammeron Valley
37.27747° -113.64420° C/W-758 Dammeron Valley N
37.30882° -113.73883° C/W-759 EMR 39 LLH3 Strom-Mat
37.21548° -112.68215° C/W-760 Carmel Cove
37.22521° -112.68095° C/W-761 Encrinite at MCJ
37.27629° -113.63712° C/W-762 DVN unit below DV
37.307668° -113.739721° C/W-763 EMR 39 LLH3 Alternate
37.307183° -113.738567° C/W-764 EMR 25 LLH2
37.307006° -113.738407° C/W-765 EMR 19 LLH1
37.307364° -113.738700° C/W-766 EMR 29 SC1
37.271537° -113.783190° C/W-767 RES B LLH2
37.271744° -113.784460° C/W-768 RES A LLH1
37.282454° -113.803273° C/W-769 Sandstone, Manganese Wash
37.281936° -113.803458° C/W-770 Manganese Wash section start
37.283125° -113.803696° C/W-771 Manganese Wash section end
37.307688° -113.739697° C/W-772 EMR Lucie section start
37.276667° -113.640350° C/W-773 Dammeron Valley trace fossils
37.327356° -113.858144° C/W-774 Jackson Peak section start
37.041054° -113.273450° C/W-775 Virgin Limestone (Triassic)

Non-GPS localities from 1993 –

C/W-143. — South-facing slope in Carmel strike valley approximately 4.0 km west of Gunlock (= Nielson, 1990, Section 4a: Manganese Wash); SW 1/4, NE 1/4, NE 1/4 section 25, T. 40 S, R. 18 W; Member D found above weathered gypsiferous beds.

C/W-144. — North slope of valley approximately 3.0 km west-southwest of Gunlock; NE 1/4, NW 1/4, SE 1/4 section 30, T. 40 S, R. 17 W; Member D exposed from base of gully to Cretaceous ?Dakota Conglomerate; mine claim stake located directly above section.

C/W-145. — Member D exposed on south- and southeast-facing slopes 3.0 km south-southwest of Gunlock, 1.5 km south of road about 1.0 km from its junction with the Gunlock – Santa Clara Highway (= Nielson, 1990, Section 7: Reservoir); NE 1/4 section 32, T. 40 S, R. 17 W; Member D sampled from Gunlock Reservoir shore to contact with Member E and the Cretaceous ?Dakota Conglomerate.

C/W-146. — South-facing slope approximately 8.0 km west – northwest of Gunlock; (= Nielson, 1990, Section 1a: Jackson Peak); NW 1/4, NE 1/4 section 15, T. 40 S, R. 18 W; sampled section 1.0 km north of road.

June 30 addendum: Thanks to Nick’s careful packing, and Shelley’s careful driving, all our specimens have safely arrived in the Wooster lab. I hereby declare the Utah 2022 expedition a success!

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Wooster Geologists Team Jurassic Utah dips down into the Triassic for its last field day

Today the Wooster Geologists of Team Jurassic Utah visited Early Triassic rocks near Hurricane, Utah (N 37.041054°, W 113.273450°). These are rocks of the Virgin Limestone Member of the Moenkopi Formation. I wanted to show the students the abundant brachiopod fauna in these sediments deposited relatively soon after the massive Permian extinctions.

The brachiopods are tiny and gray. I completely missed them in the talus slopes until Nick began to pick them up. He trained us to recognize them quickly. Above the mysterious Vicky Wang scours the slopes.

Lucie Fiala found a comfortable place below the cliff to look for the fossil critters.

Thin beds of limestone are packed with brachiopods, most rhynchonellids with a few appearing to be terebratulids.

These are loose specimens of the brachiopods. Many are exquisitely preserved. Last mission accomplished! This collection will be the basis of an exercise in our paleoecology course.

Our last field lunch. Shelley Judge has already left for her field camp teaching in central Utah. The rest of us leave Utah tomorrow. What an excellent experience it has been!

(A reference that inspired this visit to the Virgin Limestone Member: McGowan, A.J., Smith, A.B. and Taylor, P.D., 2009. Faunal diversity, heterogeneity and body size in the Early Triassic: testing post-extinction paradigms in the Virgin Limestone of Utah, USA. Australian Journal of Earth Sciences, 56(6), p.859-872.)

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A culture and nature day for Team Jurassic Utah 2022

Our field work is now done, so we had a day of cultural and natural sites. Our morning started with a visit to the Visitor’s Center at the LDS Temple in St. George. There the students learned at least one perspective on the Mormon faith and Mormon history of the area. It was so intense at times I forgot to take photographs!

Afterwards we went to a different kind of temple — a temple of science built over an extraordinary series of Jurassic trackways and sedimentary features. We’ve been coming to the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site every year since it was established (except for one wretched covid summer). We met our friend Andrew Milner, who is the curator and a spectacular guide to the fossils.

Vicky is here demonstrating how the famous swimming dinosaur tracks were made. (Yes, we were the only people there with masks.)

Andrew took us into the fossil preparatory lab. One of the highlights was watching a live scorpion (wrangled here by arachnidologist Zach Valois) make tracks in sand which could later be compared to fossil equivalents. With Zach holding the stinger, we were each able to pat the scorpion (a unique experience for me, at least).

After lunch we visited our friends Judy and Jay Leavitt in Gunlock, had more pie in Veyo, and then had a brief hike in Snow Canyon State Park. (Image by Nick.)

Nick also took this picture of what appears to be a hike with maintenance of strict social distancing!

Finally the Wooster flag moment with Vicky and Lucie. A kind of graduation event to mark the successful completion of their first geological field work. They were wonderful field colleagues with sharp observations, strong work ethics, and tolerance for gnats and rattlesnakes!

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Jackson Peak section: Another gnatty adventure

This morning the Wooster Geologists visited the westernmost exposure of the lower Carmel Formation at Nielson’s (1990) Jackson Peak section. Nick and Vicky are shown above on the road towards the conical Jackson Peak in the background. The site was as buggy as any other on this trip, with not a breath of wind to relieve us.

Nick took this image of our team hiking up a wadi in search of a good place to make a stratigraphic column. Jackson Peak looms in the background.

We established the base of the section in a wadi at N 37.327356°, W 113.858144°. Because of the rough terrain, the gnats, and the mostly-covered nature of the stratigraphy here, we decided to use Nielson’s (1990) original measurements and then sample along his column. Note that burned trees give very little shade.

Another image by Nick of Wooster Geologists at work. In the background is Square Top Mountain, which is most notable as the site of a B-52G crash in 1983.

This is the highest in-place outcropping of the typical lower Carmel Formation stromatolitic micrite beds. You can see the fine microbial layering on the weathered surfaces of the rock. Sampled as JP-1.

Like an old friend, the distinctive sandstone we saw in the Manganese Wash section showed up here at Jackson Peak. It has the same weathering appearance and, at the handlens level, the same lithological composition. Sampled as JP-2.

Unlike at the Manganese Wash section, the sandstone at Jackson Peak has an ooid shoal biosparite/grainstone directly above it, our sample JP-3.

This ooid shoal deposit as the same low-angle cross-bedding and current ripple marks as we’ve seen in all our Carmel Formation sections.

At the top of the ridge we were studying, Lucie and Vicky came across our second rattlesnake of the trip. It buzzed immediately, so Lucie and Vicky moved away quickly. Nick got this great image.

On our way back from the Jackson Peak section we met two Bureau of Land Management officers on horseback. Now there’s a cool job. (Photo by Nick.)

As is our tradition on these southwestern Utah expeditions, after we finished our work at Jackson Peak, we visited the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre site a few miles to the north.

This is the cairn marking the mass grave of 34 of the victims buried on the massacre site. It is a sad and enraging story we encourage you to read at the link above.

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Up the steep slopes for a trace fossil reward in Dammeron Valley

Today Team Utah 2022 climbed the outcrops in Dammeron Valley, north of St. George, to collect trace fossils from the Co-op Creek Limestone Member of the Carmel Formation (Middle Jurassic). It was a bit of a slog up the rubbly talus cones that provided passage over the cliffs, but the trace fossils up there were worth it. Beautiful day, but our friends the gnats lurked in the shadows. Thanks to Nick for the image.

The very base of the section is the gypsum-bearing red claystone and siltstone Temple Cap Formation, shown here with Lucie for scale.

About midway up the slope, just above the highest stromatolitic unit, abundant trace fossils appear. Vicky is ready to collect!

The trace-bearing outcrop is not very photogenic, but those brown slabs on the surface have numerous ichnofossils. Location: N 37.276667°, W 113.640350°.

The red marker shows our study site in Dammeron Valley. Note it is just above the boundary between the whitish lower part and brown upper part of the member.

I was particularly interested in these funnel-shaped traces (the circular pits), which were abundant, along with the familiar Gyrochorte. We haven’t seen these elsewhere in the Carmel Formation in SW Utah.

This slab shows a thick mass of Planolites trace fossils. Each stripe on the Jacob’s Staff is 10 cm.

And that was it for the day. Later we’ll report here on what we found after our lab analyses back in Wooster.

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Wooster geologists serve their time in Buggy Gulch

Many veterans of the Wooster Geology expeditions to southwestern Utah will remember the insatiable, abundant, nearly overwhelming biting gnats that occasionally proliferated during our fieldwork. We’ve suffered them each day, but this was the worst experience thus far, mainly because we were collecting data in a nearly windless wadi at their mercy. (Image by Nick.)

But first, our day began with another section for Lucie’s Independent Study project, this one on the Eagle Mountain Ranch at N 37.307688°, W 113.739697°. Above is a ghostly, pensive Lucie in the shadows waiting to scramble up from the base of her section. It is again a stromatolitic sequence, this time with desiccation cracks and a top layer of calcitized gypsum nodules. Above this we eventually reached the lower oolitic shoal deposits of the upper unit. It all went as planned, with critical stratigraphic measurements (and structural observations) from Nick and Shlley.

After lunch was our descent into Buggy Gulch, otherwise known as the Manganese Wash section we measured, sampled and described on Sunday (N 37.283125°; W 113.803696). Beautiful day for us and, unfortunately, the clouds of gnats. We were stuck in place measuring current ripples and cross-bedding in the main oolitic shoal deposits. Shelley showed us how to do the work with her mad structural geology skills. We collected a boatload of data at the expense of our sanity. I’m scratching bites as I write this.

Bug complaints aside, the sedimentary structures here are well developed. Here is a set of current ripples with easily-measured crests and clear directional indicators.

The cross-sections through the shoals display complex cross-bedding, the product of multiple changes in current directions and velocities. This is important data for our paleoenvironmental reconstructions.

Finally, we’ll end the day with a gorgeous prickly pear cactus flower, suitably crawling with insects.

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Back to the Eagle Mountain Ranch and its magnificent exposures

One of my favorite Jurassic outcrops in all the world is found on the Eagle Mountain Ranch north of Gunlock, Utah (locality C/W-142; EMR). It has an exposure of the Carmel Formation with the perfect orientation to produce fossils weathered out of the matrix, yet not dissolved. We met the new owners of the ranch, Layne and Betsy Bangerter, who could not have been more friendly and accommodating. It was also a beautiful, cool day. Nick took the above image during lunch.

The main task we had today was collect trace fossil data and specimens for Vicky’s Senior Independent Study project. The star was the common Gyrochorte, of course.

This large trace fossil, with its two lobes of curved spreiten (essentially internal laminae) confuses me. I’ll have to spend some time thinking about it before hazarding an identification.

We found a couple of these odd gouges along bedding planes. I like to think they represent ichthyosaurs running their snouts through the sediment. (I have zero evidence for this interpretation.)

We found many other fossils as well, including a rare coral (good work, Lucie) and nicely-bored bivalves.

Tomorrow we return and dig (literally) into the lower part of the member for Lucie’s project. Here we see it nicely exposed along a cutbank of the Santa Clara River. (The water level is so low we can’t see it from here.)

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Second field day in SW Utah Jurassic: Wooster geologists begin their projects

During another beautiful day in southwestern Utah, Team Utah 2022 began to collect field data and specimens. We started in Manganese Wash with Lucie’s project, which involves the stratigraphy and paleoenvironments associated with the transition from the lower Co-Op Creek Limestone Member of the Carmel Formation (Middle Jurassic) into the upper. Lucie is pictured here at the start of her column: a thick unit of micritic limestone (N 37.281936°, W 113.803458°). Nick and Shelley provided the stratigraphic measurements using a Brunton compass and Jacob’s Staff while Lucie and I did the lithological descriptions and sampling.

A Google Maps image of our field area today.

The lower part of the Carmel has beautiful stromatolites and other microbial mat units.

This is the enigmatic sandstone near the base of the upper part of our member we mentioned in the last post. Note the marly unit below the sandstone. Vicky mined out many trace fossils from this unit as we did our measuring, sampling and describing.

Here is one of Vicky’s trace fossils — a good specimen of Chondrites. (The specimen is held upside-down to show the ichnofossils.) She also found Gyrochorte, Planolites, and several unknown traces.

The top of our Manganese Wash section consists of thick biooosparite/grainstone beds with current ripples, low-angle cross-stratification, and lots of crinoid debris (N 37.283125°, W 113.803696). These are the classic ooid shoal deposits we’ve seen in this part of the Carmel many times. Lucie’s section thus goes from restricted lagoonal and intertidal carbonate sediments at the base to normal marine subtidal carbonates at the top.

In the afternoon we went to the nearby “Oyster Ball Valley” (C/W-157) to find specimens of the trace fossil Gyrochorte (shown above) in the upper part of the Co-Op Creek Limestone Member of the Carmel Formation. Vicky is testing the hypothesis that these trace fossils and others are smaller in size than elsewhere because of the restricted nature of their environments. We didn’t collect specimens today but instead measured the dimensions of over a hundred examples.Shelley is here measuring Gyrochorte traces with calipers.

Vicky is doing the same. Note Vicky had the best sun protection of us all!

Finally, this is the Santa Clara River as it passes under the earthen bridge at the junction of Gunlock Road and Manganese Wash Road. This river has caused us many inconveniences over the years of our work here. Sometimes it washed out the bridge and was uncrossable. This year it, alas, shows the effect of the great western drought. We could jump across it now.

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