A cultural day in southern Sicily

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.



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A familiar hydrozoan with a beautiful name

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!

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A Sicilian rocky coast

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.

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A shelly bonanza from the Pleistocene of Sicily

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!)


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Spectacular shrimp burrows from the Miocene of Sicily

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!

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20 Bags, Two Geologists, Plenty of Mountains

EPHRAIM, UTAH — After no sleep, Tricia Hall (’14) and I had to get up at 3 am to catch our early flight to Utah.  It is a good thing that we arrived at the airport in plenty of time (thanks, Patrice, for the schedule!!), because one of our many equipment bags was searched several times.  Apparently the Schmidt Hammer (“Schmidty”) caused some concern.  But, it is not always that you have concrete strength testing equipment in your carry-on.

After a good night’s sleep, we were bright-eyed and ready for “reconn day” up Sixmile Canyon, just east of Sterling, UT.  Tricia will be working on her I.S. within the Cretaceous Sixmile Canyon Formation, which is exposed in all its glory near the mouth of the canyon.  Her focus is to investigate the wonderful deformation bands within the formation and their relationship to local structures.  To get a good overall perspective of some of the deformation in the area, we investigated two major faults that are exposed near the base of the formation.


Here’s Tricia, admiring the fault plane and noticing the upturned Flagstaff Limestone on the downthrown block.


After examining the faults, we decided to have some lunch.  Our view of the Sanpete Valley was gorgeous.  The sun was warm, with few clouds…and there was just enough breeze to make lunch very relaxing.  Take a look at the photo above, which shows a view toward Ninemile Reservoir and the infamous Arapien Shale that forms the core of the Sanpete-Sevier Valley Anticline.


The photo above is of the Sixmile Canyon Formation, which contains deformation bands of various types and sizes, along with traditional joints.  The formation at this locality is a medium- to even coarse-grained sandstone that shows the obvious impacts of fluid flow and iron-stained surfaces.


We had a great reconn day.  However, in the photo above, Tricia is looking out for mountain lions, which apparently are a little problem in the canyon!!  Lucky for us, we were able to get access to a southern exposure of the formation and had a great conversation with the landowner about all of the bears and mountain lions and recent “kill sites” that he has seen in the area.  We are psyched.

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Sicilian fossils at last!

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.

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Products of an angry giant

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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Pillow basalts for Dr. Pollock

PillowsCastle060413CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–These are Dr. Meagen Pollock’s favorite kind of rocks: pillow basalts. Above we have a spectacular example of pillow basalts exposed in cross section below a castle ruin in Aci Castello a few kilometers north of Catania. The pillows (more are shown below) are in the middle of this natural outcrop carved by the sea.

Pillow basalts are formed when basaltic lava is erupted underwater. The surface of the flow quickly cools and begins to solidify as the interior fills with lava. The result is a flattened spheroid of basalt with chilled margins. The castle, by the way, was built in 1076 by conquering Normans.

Megapillow060413The light was not great for this shot, but you should be able to make out in the lower right a large body of basalt with columnar joints radiating from the center. This is, I was told, a “megapillow’ of basalt from a large flow.

PillowWall060413Here we have a closer view of the pillows in the wall shown above. On several of these pillows you can just make out a fine-grained chilled margin.

PillowBed060413This is a view of the wave-eroded platform below the castle showing the pillows form the top. I left the roasting Europeans in the frame for scale. Note that while these pillows appear with almost circular outlines in cross-section, they are actually serpentine in shape.

These pillow lavas were formed with the beginning of volcanic activity roughly 600,000 years ago that led to the present Mount Etna complex. They show the submarine phase of eruption before the eruptive center was uplifted above sea level. They are the most spectacular pillows I’ve ever seen.

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Exploring Mount Etna

MountEtna060313_585CATANIA, SICILY, ITALY–The International Bryozoology Association conference field trip began with a day on the magnificent compound basaltic stratovolcano that virtually defines the eastern half of Sicily: Mount Etna. We did not get to climb all the way to the top — that would have been a bit of an expedition — but we hiked around its diverse southern flank. The view above is looking toward the summit in the back left, a parasitic cone from an 18th Century eruption in the middleground, and in the bottom right is a trekkers cabin built (of course) almost entirely of vesicular basalt.

SmokingEtna060313Here is a closer view of the summit. The white smoke on the right is from active fumaroles near the top. Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Last month, in fact, it was erupting so much that a visit like ours today would not have been allowed. I ticked off a geological bucket list item: standing on an active volcano’s slopes. It is not close to the activity Dr. Pollock and her students have witnessed in Iceland over the years, but exciting for this paleontologist!

Sicily lies at the boundary between the African and European tectonic plates, producing an extremely complex geological situation that is still debated. We know, at least, that Mount Etna’s ancestors began erupting underwater about 600,000 years ago, and the axis of eruptive activity has slowly moved to the northwest. We are essentially looking at a series of successive volcanoes intersecting and overlapping previous versions.

Parco dell' Etna 060313This is the entrance we used into the national Parco dell’etna on the south side of the volcano. Note the perfect weather and the delightful contrast between the jet-black rock and greenery. There was less and less vegetation as we moved upslope.

ParasiticConeOutside060313This is the outside of a parasitic cone on the flank of the volcano. Through it emerged a lateral flow of lava.

ParasiticConeInside060313This is the inside of the same cone as above. The rest of it collapsed after the lava completely exited.

LavaTube060313The entrance to a lava tube. The lava flowed through its own hardened crust, leaving behind this rocky tunnel that looks very much like the ancient lava tube we visit on our Mojave Desert field trip. This particular one dates back to the 18th Century. Technically we’re looking through a window to the floor of the lava tube itself.

TreeLavaFossils060313Who says you can’t see fossils on an active volcano? These are basalt external molds of tree trunks formed when a flow of lava engulfed a forest. These are in the Parco dell’etna headquarters.

ParkOfficers060313When we visited the Parco dell’etna headquarters, we heard a brief presentation in the chapel of the abandoned monastery they occupy. The president of the park then addressed us. Can you tell which of the five people above is the president? (Hint: She’s wearing a scarf.) They are excited to announce that Mount Etna is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

mineralpickingEtna060313Our last geological activity on Mount Etna for this week was a visit to the top rim of an eroded parasitic cone to find tiny little euhedral crystals of the mineral pyroxene (or, rather, a mineral from the pyroxene group). Here you see paleontologists in a very familiar pose but doing something distinctly unpaleontological.

NicosiaWines060313We ended the day at the very modern Nicosia winery where they grow the grapes in the rich volcanic soil on the slopes of Mount Etna. It was very interesting to see the industrial production of various types of wines, but I’m afraid the wine tasting was wasted on me.

We will visit Mount Etna once again when the full conference starts next week. I’ll have more images from a different part of the volcano. Tomorrow’s field trip is going to be along the seashore, so there will be some very different images.

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