Trapped Wind

The Fascinatingly Fortuitous Fossilization of Farts

There are people out there who don’t think palaeontology is astonishing, and they are quite wrong. To prove this, here is a 20 million-year-old cockroach fart, fossilized in amber:

Image from Poinar in Boucot & Poinar (2011) – (C) Routledge / CRC Press / Taylor & Francis.

The late lamented Dr WHO once told me “serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the famer’s daughter.” I think my version is now “looking for an expert on fungal nodules and finding the world’s oldest fossilized fart.”

It began on Twitter, where Stuart Petch sent myself and Paolo Viscardi an Instagram image of his friend Harry’s lump of amber, wondering if the white blobs in it might be fungus nodules. It meant nothing to me, but my dear friend Dr Leyla Seyfullah at the University of Vienna is an expert on fossil plants, fungi, and amber, so I Facebooked her for her thoughts.

Meanwhile, Paolo asked his friend Lee Davies, a mycologist at Kew, if he had any advice. After a bit of searching, Lee said that the oldest example of a fungal farm he could find was about 25 million years old, which was quite exciting, as this piece of Baltic amber was up to* 20 million years older!

A beetle in Baltic amber (image by Anders L. Damgaard, from Wikimedia Commons)

Over on Facebook, though, Leyla was swift to reply, and this cranked my excitement levels up to 11. “Termites eat dead plants,” she said. “To be able to digest dead plants, you need masses of gut microbiota. As the dead plants are digested by the gut microbiota, gases are produced. What you are seeing are lots of termites with clear fossilized farts…”

Sorry, hold your fossilized termites one moment, Dr Seyfullah. Did you just say FOSSILIZED FARTS?

“…as their gut microbiota kept breaking down food after the termites got stuck in the resin. Sometimes the termites ripped themselves a bit as they struggled in the sticky resin, so the gases escaped through any exit out of the termite.”

She added that, despite termites being ‘notoriously gassy’ not *all* the bubbles were of digestive origin (plenty could just be trapped air bubbles), but by that point I was miles away, in paroxysms of resinated guffery, searching for ‘fossilized farts‘ on Google.

Reader, I found some, in a chapter by George Poinar in the Fossil Behavior Compendium he wrote with Art Boucot in 2011. They are from the amber deposits of the Dominican Republic, which Poinar has studied in great detail and which Seyfullah et al. (2018) describe as being 16 to 18 million years old.

An ant (or maybe a termite?) in Dominican amber (image from Wikimedia Commons, taken by Brocken Inaglory)

Melissa Stewart’s Blasts of Gas then mentioned that Lynn Margulis had analysed the chemistry of fossil termite farts in 2002, so I had to dig out that scientific paper. ‘Spirochete and protist symbionts of a termite (Mastotermes electrodominicus) in Miocene amber’ by Wier et al. (2002) focusses primarily on the micro-organisms preserved in the termite’s gut. The Dominican amber fossilization is exceptional, extraordinary.

The authors do, however, mention that the amber termites are ‘invariably preserved with bubbles that emanate from thoracic or abdominal spiracles’ and that the bubbles contain ethylene, methane, and carbon dioxide.

“We propose that these gases were generated in large quantity by the unique hindgut microbial community, and exuded as the insect was immersed in the viscous resin” (Wier et al., 2002). I never doubted Leyla for a moment, of course, but it’s always handy to have a precedent: fossil farts from a 16-18 million year-old termite!

But yes, it’s only 16 to 18 million years old. The Baltic amber termites are at least 7 million years older, and more likely at least 16 million years older. The oldest fossil fungal farm? The oldest termite ? The oldest fossil fart? The possibilities are effervescent.

In conclusion, a Facebook reply to a Twitter post about an Instagram photo confirms that palaeontologists should definitely use social media, because the most amazing things can bubble up as a consequence. I just wish I’d know about fossil farts when I wrote this article for the Conversation.

Startlingly, this isn’t the Lego version of me.


*according to Kettunen et al. (2018), Baltic amber can be between 25 and 43 million years old, whilst Seyfullah et al. (2018) state that it is 34-48 million years old, so there’s quite a lot of potential variation in this figure. Such are the joys of biostratigraphy.

How to map volcanoes!

This Thursday, March 5th, Professor Kathy Cashman FRS of the University of Bristol will give the 4th annual John & Anne Phillips Lecture at the University of Hull. Professor Cashman’s talk will focus on “Mapping lava flows from the ground, air and space” and introduce the audience to her ground-breaking research into how volcanoes work.

Mauna Loa from the air (image from WIkimedia Commons).

Maps of lava flow age, extent and morphology have long been an important source of information for anticipating future flow hazards. Recent advances in technology, however, are providing new ways to image and map lava flows in real time. Professor Cashman will review some of these techniques and demonstrate ways in which these new data aid interpretation of past events, management of ongoing eruptions and forecasts of future lava flow hazards.
 
Professor Cashman is Professor Volcanology in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/earthsciences/people/katharine-v-cashman/index.html. Her talk is a free public lecture, and will be held in Lecture Theatre A of the Robert Blackburn Building, University of Hull, from 3pm.

 

About the John and Anne Phillips Lecture
 
Kindly supported by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, the John & Anne Phillips Prize is awarded each summer to the final-year Geology Hull student producing the best geological mapping dissertation. Alongside this, the annual John & Anne Phillips Lecture sees an invited speaker come to Hull to talk about their research on a geological mapping topic. Previous speakers have included Professor Sanjeev Gupta (Imperial) on mapping the geology of Mars, and Dr Kathryn Goodenough (British Geological Survey) on mapping mineral resources in Africa.
 
John and Anne Phillips were the nephew and niece of William ‘Strata’ Smith, pioneer of geological mapping. Both John and Anne built on their uncle’s legacy, with significant contributions to geology of their own. John is quite well-known, as the first Keeper of Geology at the Yorkshire Museum, later Professor of Geology at the University of Oxford, and as the person who formalized the concept of the Palaeozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras. Anne is much less-celebrated, but was integral to her brother’s successes, and carried out fieldwork of her own in the Malvern Hills, proving that the then Director of the British Geological Survey’s interpretation of the geology was wrong. Her work has been celebrated as part of the Trowelblazers project: https://trowelblazers.com/anne-phillips/

An Introduction to Shales and Fracking

KimmBay_cliffs2_SML

Upper Jurassic clay- and carbonate-rich black shales, Kimmeridge, Dorset.

The slides from my York Lifelong Learning presentation on Dec. 12th can be downloaded here as a PowerPoint file: 2015_Intro_ShalesFracking_SML.

Useful links

UK & Europe

ReFINE: Researching Fracking. ReFINE is the leading international fracking research consortium, led jointly by Newcastle University and Durham University. The website includes all the group’s scientific papers, research briefs, and newsletters.

Shale Gas – British Geological Survey website with lots of information about their fracking research activities. The BGS is also building up baseline data on UK groundwater methane.

From national to fracktional: will fracking come to Britain’s national parks? A policy briefing I wrote for the Durham Energy Institute.

Whatever Happened to the Great European Fracking Boom? An article I wrote for The Conversation.

North America

US Environmental Protection Agency report on fracking and its potential impacts on drinking water resources. Scientific papers published by the EPA for this report can be viewed here.

US Energy Information Administration (EIA) – World Shale Resource Assessments.

FracFocus – US fracking chemical disclosure registry.

US Geological Survey oil shale research.

Mud & Shales

Indiana University Shale Research Lab, led by Dr Jurgen Schieber, who conducts a lot of very interesting research into how shales form.

More Gaps Than Shale, a paper by João Trabucho-Alexandre on how mudstones form, and how complete mudstone successions are. With perhaps the best abstract in a geological paper: “Ths wht th fn-grnd mrine sdmtry rcrd rlly lks like.”

The 2015 global census of sea floor sediments, by Adriana Dutkiewicz and colleagues, shows just how fine-grained the oceans are. You can explore the globe in their amazing, interactive 3-D model!

The Scale of the Universe – if you’ve ever wondered just how small a clay particle (or pretty much anything else, for that matter) Scale of the Universe is an amazing website to explore.

Theogeology

Theogeology is an exciting new academic discipline, focussed on trying to understand what building stones old churches were made from, particularly in the Ryedale and Wolds regions of North and East Yorkshire.

Weaverthorpe and the Wolds, Ryedale, North Yorkshire.

It began a few months ago, when buildings archaeologist Dav Smith, a dilettante geologist (myself), and a couple of our friends, went out onto The Street in the November rain.

There are some smashing old churches along that Roman road, but most of them were rebuilt in the 19th Century. For his doctoral thesis, Dav worked on ascertaining what the original churches would have looked like, and he asked me to help with the identification of their building stones.

All Saints, Appleton-le-Street, North Yorkshire.

As is my wont, I made some wild and ill-informed speculations about the Upper Jurassic geology of the area, and tried to identify the religious rocks in question. I wasn’t of great use, but we all agreed that theogeology a very pleasant pursuit.

So, when I received a vaguely similar enquiry from Carolyn Twomey, who is researching the Norman fonts of Britain and wanted to visit the north-east Yorkshire ‘group‘ of Norman fonts to see what they were made of, Dav and I happily agreed to put our theogeological hats back on.

I will reveal what we found in the next blog post…

An Introduction to Geology: 2014

Week 9. Fossils.

How to tell bone from stone: Smithsonian magazine article by Brian Switek.

The Fossil Record of Cricket (an article I wrote for ESPN Cricinfo). I later wrote another on the evolution of fast throwing.

 

Weeks 6. & 7. TECTONICS

The day the Earth moved – very interesting article in Cosmos magazine describing the revolutionary times of 1963, when tectonic theory came to the fore.

The Moho (or, more properly, the Mohorovičić Discontinuity) is the boundary between the crust and the mantle. It is not the same as the boundary between the lithosphere and aesthenosphere, because the lithosphere includes the solid upper mantle.

Much of the lower mantle is thought to be composed of a (newly named) mineral called bridgmanite.

There is also new evidence, including a recently discovered terrestrial sample of a mineral called ringwoodite, that the lower mantle (410 to 660 km below the surface) has considerable volumes of water trapped in it.

Both bridgmanite and ringwoodite are varieties of olivine, as explained in this helpful article.

 

Week 5. A BIT MORE TIME

Faunal correlation (from Wikimedia Commons)

Here are a few 2014 additions to all the existing ‘IntroGeol’ files already on the site, as follows:

Lecture notes for Class 5 “A Bit More Time”

2014_IntroGeol_Lect5 (PowerPoint)

The Rock Cycle

An excellent, rather more detailed version of the rock cycle, illustrating the subdivisions of the different sections, can be seen on the Geology Cafe website here.

Stratigraphy

The 2014 edition of the geological time scale, produced by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) can be downloaded here.

If you want details of where in the world any of the Global Boundary Stratotype Sections and Points (GSSPs) are, Wikipedia provides a pretty comprehensive list here. It is based on the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s list, which can be found here.

For more information on clay minerals, also known as sheet silicates, also known as phyllosilicates (literally ‘leaf silicates’, deriving from the same Greek origin as ‘filo’ pastry), these course notes by Prof. Stephen Nelson of Tulane University are very helpful.

An excellent Conversation article on why the discovery of clay minerals on Mars is rather important.

Powered By Rock – Week 8

REVIEWING THE OPTIONS

Flower power (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Lecture notes – 2014_PoweredbyRock_lect8_summary_SML (PowerPoint)

An Excel spreadsheet showing the full list of UK power stations (location, type, capacity) from the DUKES website.

Energy predictability

Every year, the International Energy Agency gives an overview of the World Energy Outlook. The 2013 edition can be found here.

However, according to Energy Post, the IEA World Energy Outlook consistently underestimates wind/solar growth.

Energy challenges

How do we make gas supply networks more resilient? This study argues that we need a fair distribution strategy.

Should we build more large dams? This study by Oxford University investigates the real costs of mega-hydropower.

Back to coal? German efforts to go green prove complex (New York Times article).

Environmental impacts

A paper by Evans et al. (2009), comparing the sustainability of different forms of renewable energy: Evans_etal2009_sustainability_renewable_energy.

A paper by Pacca & Horvath (2002) looking at the whole-life greenhouse gas emissions of different types of power station: Pacca_Horvath2002_GHG_Colorado_power_plants

A paper by Pihl et al. (2012) comparing the raw materials required to construct different types of Concentrated Solar Power station: Pihl_etal2012_ConcSolarPower_materials

The new Ivanpah CSP scheme is a “$2.2bn solar-powered bird-scorching project” (according to the Wall Street Journal).

Apparently, mammals such as reindeer avoid power lines because they see them in UV.

The Future

What do you think Britain’s power usage and sources should be in 2050? Try the DECC 2050 Pathways calculator to test your ideas!

 

Powered By Rock – Week 6

THE POWER OF WATER

Cruachan Dam, nr Oban, Scotland (from Wikimedia Commons)

Lecture notes – 2014_PoweredbyRock_lect6_hydro_SML (PowerPoint).

Harnessing hydroelectric power (DECC website information).

Micro-scale run-of-river projects “take off in the UK” (news article from 2011).

Cruachan

Scotland’s power mountain (article on The Register).

The Hollow Mountain (information film from 1966).

Visit Cruachan (official website).

Cruachan site (Scottish Power summary).

Dinorwig, North Wales

The Electric Mountain (official website)

Glendoe, Scotland

Began operating late 2008, closed in August 2009 due to rock fall, reopened in 2012 (article on Hydroworld).

Glendoe has the biggest head in the UK, a 600m drop from reservoir to turbine (SSE project website).

Deep beneath the Highlands (British Geological Survey poster about Glendoe).

Seismic monitoring of reservoir inundation at Glendoe (BGS research)

Induced seismicity

Earthquakes triggered by dams (article on International Rivers).

80,000 people killed by reservoir-induced earthquake in Sichuan, China.

Tidal & Wave Power:

“The UK is currently the undisputed global leader in marine energy, with more wave and tidal stream devices installed than the rest of the world combined,” according to Renewable UK.

The Pentland Firth could provide 1.9 GW of tidal energy, or 43% of Scotland’s electricity consumption (BBC article).

4.2 GW of power could be extracted, but challenges of efficiency are likely to reduce this figure, according to Draper et al. (2014).

The Severn Barrage (from the Severn Estuary Partnership).

Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay (project website).

The UK Wave & Tidal Knowledge Network (run by The Crown Estate)

 

Powered by Rock – Week 1

Earth’s Energy Systems – Introduction

(updated Thurs. Jan 23rd)

Nuclear power station, France (from Wikimedia Commons)

Lecture slides from Week 1:

2014_PoweredbyRock_lect1_intro (PowerPoint file)

2014_PoweredbyRock_lect1_intro (PDF)

Generally useful online energy resources:

Prof. David MacKay’s book ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air’ can be downloaded free from his website here.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) website can be found here.

The UK Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) website is here. Its DUKES (Digest of UK Energy Statistics) is particularly useful, and can be found here.

Gridwatch (live data of UK National Grid power sources) can be found here.

The British Geological Survey (BGS) website has lots of energy information here. Various free publications are provided courtesy of the NERC Open Research Archive (NORA) which can be found here.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) Energy Resources Program also provides lots of data. It can be found here.

The World Health Organization (WHO) provides significant information on the health impacts of different fuel sources, in its Fuel For Life publication. It can be found here.

Durham University also provides some information via the CeREES Geoenergy website here, and the Durham Energy Institute website here.

 

Of Fossils And Fracking – further reading

KimmClay_ammo

Further to the talk I gave on UK shale gas at the University of York, here are some links that might be of interest.

TNO, the Dutch geological survey, has issued a “European Shale Gas Argument Map” addressing the pros and cons. You can find it here.

Shale Gas, the Basics, by the British Geological Survey can be found here.

An excellent history of UK shale gas, written by Professor Dick Selley, can be found as a pdf here.

The head of shale gas at the British Geological Survey, Prof. Mike Stephenson, gave a talk called Fact, Fiction and Fracking, which has been turned into a very entertaining animated video. It can be found here.

SHIP: the Shale Gas Information Platform, run through Potsdam University in Germany, can be found here. They also run the more research-intensive GASH (Gas Shales in Europe) website.

The Marcellus Shale is one of the biggest shale gas plays in the US. An excellent public service website called Explore Shale has been produced about the Marcellus and the process of shale gas production. It can be found here.

Shale Gas Europe, a European resource centre for shale news and information, can be found here.

The website of the Durham University initiative ReFINE (Researching Fracking In Europe) can be found here.

The current status of the UK National Grid can be found at Gridwatch.

Further links will be added over time, so please do check back for updates.

A Geological History of Britain – additional resources

Below is a list of general geological resources that might be of use or interest.

Geo-nealogy, or Where Do You Think You Were?

For those wanting online geological maps of the UK, the Geology of Britain viewer (BGS Open Geoscience) can be found here.

The Geological Society’s Brief Summary of British Stratigraphy can be found here.

A good overview of the geology of Plymouth (which helps make sense of the confusing geological map) can be downloaded here.

Online geological map resources for the USA (courtesy of the US Geological Survey) can be found here.

More specifically, geological maps of the San Francisco Bay region can be found here, and of Oakland here.

An online, interactive geological atlas of New Zealand can be found here.

Other useful links:

If you’re having trouble with all the different names for different intervals of geological time, the GeoWhen database is very useful. It aims to clear up the confusion over regional, national and archaic terms, and can be found here.

GeoScenic, the National Archive for Geological Photographs, can be found here. You can search for, view and download thousands of images from the vaults of the British Geological Survey.

The GCR (Geological Conservation Review) database can be found here. You can search for national geological sites of importance, some of which (e.g. Flamborough Head) have site accounts providing details on the geology of that locality.

The GCR also has an Image Bank, where the photos and figures from many of its geological volumes are available.  These vary from British Silurian Stratigraphy to the Quaternary of the Thames, via the Fossil Reptiles of Great Britain.  The full list of available volumes can be found here.