Literally dig deeper into the earth surface and discover what is lying right under your feet.
Courtesy Photo by Heather Rousseau ©Denver Museum of Nature and ScienceThe last talk I attended at the Geological Society of America (GSA) convention this past week was one of my favorites. It was an update of the Snowmastodon Project given by Kirk Johnson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS). Just one year ago, a construction worker bulldozing for a dam-building project at the Zeigler Reservoir near Snowmass Village in Colorado unearthed a mammoth tusk. Paleontologists and archaeologists from the Denver museum were called in, and excavation of a small portion of the drained reservoir bottom soon got underway. The museum crew worked for just one month, until November 14, 2010, when snowfall halted the project. Then last spring scientists returned to the site and were allowed just 51 days to excavate the fossil deposits before the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District resumed their expansion work on the reservoir.
This time more research experts from the US, Canada, and England joined the dig along with a slew of interns and volunteers, totaling some 233 people working on the project. Over the next seven weeks excavation at the Zeigler Reservoir site progressed at a frantic pace. According to Johnson, anywhere from 15 to 90 diggers were on site each day digging out fossils from the ancient peat and mud deposits, from what once were the shores of a small glacial lake. Despite the short window of opportunity, the sheer number and diversity of fossils from the dig site has been truly remarkable.
Courtesy Dantheman9758 at en.wikipediaOf the nearly 5000 bones and skulls exhumed from the Snowmass fossil site, more than 60 percent were of mastodons (Mammut americanum) representing at least 30 individuals in various stages of life. The other 40 percent of the fauna included mammoths (Mammuthus columbi), camels, horses, giant bison (Bison latifrons) and ground sloths (Megalonyx jeffersonii), otters, muskrats, minks, bats voles, chipmunks, beavers, bats, rabbits, mice, salamanders, frogs, lizards, snakes, fish, and birds, and iridescent beetles. No large carnivore remains were found in the deposits, and human remains were absent as well, although archaeological techniques were used during the dig just in case any were uncovered.
Flora from the prehistoric tundra environment included pollen, green leaves and cones, and tree logs, some with their bark still intact.
So far, age estimates for the deposits range between 43, 000 to 130,000 years old although further dating tests should narrow that down.
The talk included several photos of what Johnson termed “Flintstone moments”, i.e. shots of field workers posing with massive mammoth or mastodon femurs or tibia. And Johnson marveled at the incredible state of preservation of many of the fossils displayed. Some of the bones, he said, still emitted a very strong funk.
In terms of sheer number of bones and ecological data, Snowmastodon ranks up there as probably one of the best high altitude Ice Age ecology sites in the world, and certainly the best mastodon fossil site. A team of researchers at the DMNS lab will spend the next year and a half cleaning, cataloging, and analyzing all the fossils found at the Snowmass dig site, water was to be reintroduced into the reservoir on Oct. 13. Despite the loss of the site, the field crew did a tremendous job in the time they were given to excavate the fossil-rich site. And Kirk Johnson didn’t hide his excitement. In closing his talk, he said “It was one hell of a year!”
Courtesy Mark RyanNext week the Geological Society of America is convening in Minneapolis, Minnesota for the GSA's 2011 Annual Meeting and Exposition. That means something like 6000 geologist, paleontologist, hydrologists, and other ologists from around the world will be in our area to share new ideas and hobnob with their fellow earth scientists. The four-day event, which is hosted by the Minnesota Geological Survey, runs from Sunday, October 9 through Wednesday, October 12 at the Minneapolis Convention Center, and will include special lectures, award ceremonies, poster sessions, an exhibit hall, and several hundred technical talks covering a full range of geology-related subjects. There will also be a silent auction, a photo exhibition, short courses (available to non-registrants), and a screening of the locally produced documentary, “Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story”. Field trips happening before, during, and after the official meeting dates will give visiting geologists an opportunity to take in some of the spectacular and diverse geology that Minnesota and the Upper Midwest has to offer, not to mention the fall colors. This year’s meeting is titled “Archean to Anthropocene: The Past is the Key to the Future”, and even if you can’t make it to Minneapolis, you can download a cool poster of the event here.
Courtesy Mark RyanSummer seems to have finally arrived in Minnesota and that can mean only one thing: another season of fossil collecting is here. This year, due to near-record snowfall and spring floods, the St. Paul Parks department delayed issuing collecting permits for Lilydale Regional Park, one of the best fossil collecting sites in the Twin Cities. The park is located on the bluffs across the river from downtown St. Paul and is the former quarry and manufacturing site of the now defunct Twin Cities Brick Company. You can enter the park from above near Cherokee Park, or below from Harriet Island. Either way entails hiking a bit of a distance. There's a parking lot just off Water Street, and street and lot parking near Cherokee Park. Download map
Courtesy Mark Ryan (photo)The first permits for the "Brickyards" were issued last week, so a few of us from the Science Museum headed over to the park to spend some time searching for the fossilized remains of the marine life that once populated Minnesota during the Late Ordovician Period some 460 million years ago. Back then, much of the state was covered by a shallow, tropical sea, situated below the equator. Times certainly have changed.
The abundant fauna living in that prehistoric sea included reef-building bryozoans (the most commonly found fossil), brachiopods, lily-like crinoids, gastropods, horn coral, predatory cephalopods and everyone’s favorite, trilobites.
Courtesy Mark RyanIn general, there are three areas to collect fossils at Lilydale: the East, Middle, and West clay pits. Signs posted in several spots help direct you to collecting locations, but once you’re in the park you can find fossils just about anywhere.
The fossil quarries at Lilydale expose the Platteville and Decorah Formations that overlie the St. Peter Sandstone that forms the base of the bluffs found along the Mississippi. The Decorah shale here is about 90 feet thick and easily reconstitutes back into very sticky clay whenever rain or seeping ground water mix with it. But that usually won’t deter most hardened fossil hunters.
Courtesy Mark Ryan
Courtesy Mark RyanWe had a pretty good day at Lilydale finding the usual crop of fossils, such as crinoid rings, brachiopod shells, and bryozoa branches. Chris pointed out some trilobite heads (cephalon) Ashley and I had overlooked in a couple small slabs of shale. John picked up a nice receptaculites specimen just setting on the ground. Later, while scanning the bluff, a piece of gray shale caught my eye. It was about six-inches in diameter and contained several brachiopods. But upon closer examination, I counted the remains of at least a dozen trilobites, mostly the heads of Eomonorachus intermedius.
Courtesy Mark RyanBut what my fossil possessed in quantity, John’s big find of the day overshadowed in quality. Picking through the clay piles that had slumped down from the top of the quarry since last fall, John plucked out a very well-preserved, rolled specimen of Isotelus gigas?, measuring about 1-1/2 to 2 inches across! It’s the largest trilobite I’ve witnessed come out of the Decorah. All the ones I’ve ever found were incomplete and maybe the size of a kernal of corn at best. But John’s fossil was a doozy. Unrolled it would measure a good 3 inches in length, if not more. I don’t like being outdone so I told John there’s no reason for him to hunt for fossils anymore - he’ll never find another specimen like that. But we both know he won’t be able to stop. That’s just the way fossil hunting is; there’s always the possibility of discovering a bigger and better find next time you go out.
Courtesy Mark RyanMany of the Decorah fossils can be found weathering out on the surface, so you don’t need much in the way of tools. Some people like to bring a large bucket to serve as a stool while they’re in the quarries, and then for carrying out their fossils when leaving. I usually bring some plastic sandwich or freezer bags to hold smaller fossils. Some people use tissue paper or aluminum foil to wrap and protect their more precious finds. I do that sometimes. The clay pits also contain lenses of fossiliferous rock forming what’s known as "shell hash" – a chaotic jumble of fauna preserved in a matrix of limestone or shale. A rock hammer sometimes come in handy for breaking up large slabs into smaller, more portable ones, or for climbing the quarry banks.
Courtesy Mark RyanIf you go to hunting in the Lilydale quarries, you’ll want to bring along some water, and bug dope - mosquitoes weren’t yet a problem, but a couple wood ticks showed up. The driest parts of the quarry are of course in the sun, so if you're like me and burn easily, and don't want to spend most of your time searching in the muddier shade, it’s best to apply some sun-block lotion to your exposed skin. John also spotted several patches of poison ivy while we were scouring the West Clay Pit so you should keep that in mind, too. It’s an isolated area so be aware of your surroundings and it’s probably best to go with someone else. The quarry walls and hillsides can be unstable and treacherous. I've seen people take serious tumbles down the quarry face. Be aware, too, that there are no bathroom facilities at the quarries. There are lots of woods and bushes, though.
If you’re going to be there for a while you might consider bringing something to eat, too. Ashley brought a delicious seven-course gourmet meal for all of us to enjoy. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration (it was only three courses), but after a few hours of intensive fossil hunting it sure tasted like one. Ashley has secured for herself a guaranteed slot in all future fossil hunting expeditions.
For information on acquiring a fossil-collecting permit for Lilydale, check out the Lilydale Regional Park permit page. Individuals and small groups of less than ten people pay $10 for a day permit. Larger groups pay more.
The Minnesota Geological Survey offers a nice information brochure about local geology, collecting, and identifying fossils at Lilydale and elsewhere around the Twin Cities. Download it here
Courtesy Mark RyanI've listed a few more websites below to help get you started and make your fossil-collecting excursion to Lilydale more fun and informative. In general, hunting for fossils is kind of like fishing; you get to enjoy the outdoors, you get to occasionally make some nice catches (finds), and you get to bring them home and clean them. But best of all (besides not having to eat them), you get to boast to your friends about "netting" some sea creatures that are over 450 million years old. That, for me, is a fish story that's way more impressive than any fish tale concerning some old lunker that got away. So get out there and dig up the next great cephalopod fossil. You'll know exactly what I'm talking about.
List of fossil sites and equipment
More trilobite info
More about horn coral
Collecting Fossils in Minnesota (previous Buzz post)
Minnesota DNR info page on fossils
Fossil Collecting in the Twin Cities
Lilydale trail map
Lilydale Regional Park
More about Lilydale Regional Park
Courtesy Public domain (via Wikipedia)James Hutton, born this day in 1726, was a Scottish farmer and doctor (although he never practiced medicine), and is often regarded as the "Father of Modern Geology". Through direct observations and studies of geological features in and around Great Britain, Hutton conceived the scientific ideas of uniformitarianism and deep time that directly challenged the popular biblical-based notion of the Earth being only 6000 years old. Hutton was a founding member of the Royal Society of Edinburough and his book Theory of the Earth set the basis for modern geological theory.
"In 1968, the New Jersey Senate decreed the town of Franklin a geological wonder: "The Fluorescent Mineral Capital of the World." Over 350 different minerals have been found in the area, ninety of which glow brilliantly under ultraviolet light. There are two mineral museums devoted to fluorescing rocks, the region's unusual geology and its zinc mining history."
This astounding video came to my attention via an email yesterday. It's yet another view of the awesome destructive power of the tsunami that arose from the Japan earthquake of March 11, 2011. The video was taken from a hillside in the resort town of Minami-Sanriku. It's amazing the kinds of events our modern technology allows us to witness.
Courtesy Public domain (via Wikipedia)Today is the 314th anniversary of the death of Scottish physician, naturalist, and geologist James Hutton. Born in 1726, Hutton is considered the founder of modern geology and best remembered for his theory of the rock cycle, and of uniformitarianism. His concept of deep time was groundbreaking in its day and shattered the popular Bible-based notion that the Earth was a mere 6000 years old. Hutton died on this date in 1797.
Follow this link to an amazing overlay of before and after Japan tsunami aerial photos. A slide bar allows you to "swipe" the tsunami over the before photo to see after effects.
UPDATE: Here's an updated video showing the terrifying force of the tsunami that swept across the Japanese city of Sendai. It's not just an unstoppable wave; it's a juggernaut of debris.
Courtesy USGSA monster earthquake hit northern Japan today at 2:46pm local time (11:46pm CST) causing tremendous damage including the triggering of a deadly and devastating tsunami. The images of destruction coming out of the country are both stunning and heartbreaking. Early reports say a 30-foot wave slammed into the city of Sendai washing away houses, cars and other debris – some of it in flames. The city is located about 80 miles from the quake’s epicenter and has a population of over 1 million people. According to the USGS Earthquake site the tremblor occurred at a depth of about 15 miles. The initial shaking is reported to have lasted two minutes, and has been followed by several strong aftershocks. It’s the most powerful quake to hit Japan in 140 years, and there are already reports of 200-300 deaths. But unfortunately that will more than likely rise as time goes on and reports are updated. Tsunami warnings have been issued across much of the Pacific Rim and also Russia. Seven foot waves have already hit Hawaii.