European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2021, vegu21

Agathe here – The European Geoscience Union, EGU, a leading learned society in the fields of Earth, Planetary and space sciences, organize each year the largest European conference in geosciences. Due to COVID-19, this year’s conference was entirely virtual. Naturally, attending an online conference is very different from going to one in person: meeting people is less easy and you don’t feel the excitement of being surrounded by your colleagues and friends, not to mention that it is difficult when you are in front of your computer to put your work in progress aside and devote yourself to the conference. I attended the EGU meeting to present results of my PhD work in paleoclimatology, on the evolution of continental climate from the mid-Eocene to the early Oligocene. As it was my first big 100% virtual conference, I would like to give my impressions on the format, a little bit particular, but which will certainly become more and more common in the future.

EGU (virtual) General Assembly 2021, vEGU21

Part I – Joining a fully virtual conference, what does it look like? 

The number of participants at EGU General Assemblies increases from year to year, and this conference format will not have limited participation with 18,155 scientists from 136 countries this year against 16,273 participants from 113 countries in the last edition, in 2019 [1]. In recent years, various movements have developed that promote a lowering of greenhouse gas emissions associated with research activities: first aware of climate change, researchers must adapt their practices to be consistent and follow an energy-saving approach [2]. One of the positive points of this year’s meeting is that without all the flights to Vienna, its carbon imprint was much lower. Last April, the EGU estimated that by organizing a fully virtual conference with 18,000 participants, greenhouse gas emissions of the assembly would be equivalent to less than 0.1% of the same conference in person (despite the video stream) [3]

Virtual vEGU21 hall (credit: EGU blogs, https://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/g/)

Normally, the conference hosts a large number of presentations including posters, 10-minute talks, and “PICOs” (Presenting Interactive COntent®), a format for short digital presentations, specific to the EGU. To give an idea, in 2019, the assembly counted 5531 orals, 9432 posters and 1287 PICOs [1]. In order to give everyone the opportunity to present results to a broad audience, the majority of this year’s presentations were in the form of PICOs, i.e. small 2-min-talks with a single slide! This was the case for my presentation. Fortunately, the EGU website also allowed presenters to add more content, so I also made a 20-minute video to present my work to the most interested speakers. What an exercise! Let’s face it, even if we like challenges, summarizing several months of work in 120 seconds is still a bit frustrating. But with hindsight, I think it was very interesting, reminding me of the 3 minutes thesis competitions, 3MT (these are really nice to see, if you never tried check here [4]).  

First of all, presenting your work in 2 minutes requires a lot of work to be done beforehand. How can I share the problematic and the interest of my work with my audience without presenting the different notions in detail? What are my main results? What is the take-home message? I think being used to talking about your research with your non-academic friends and family may really help. The conference offered the possibility to make this presentation live or to pre-record it. I choose the second option to make mine more accessible, by adding subtitles and to be able to archive it online after the conference. As a non-native speaker, I know that it can sometimes be difficult to follow a whole session of presentations, especially if they are not totally in our research topic, and depending on speakers’ accent. So, it was also an opportunity to make sure that this 2-minute message would get through to as many people as possible who came to listen. Finally, this format was also very interesting for the diffusion of the work. I now have a fairly simple 2-minute video associated with my in-progress publication. It’s still additional work to do, but I think I’ll practice this exercise again next time before I start writing an article, and then why not for its dissemination afterward! In spite of this particular format, moments of exchange were allowed in each session, through dedicated video conference rooms for each presenter. I had the pleasure to meet new researchers, saw friends and colleagues. Like in big music festivals, many sessions are held in parallel at EGU General Assemblies. With shorter, though dense, sessions, I think I was able to see more and a greater diversity of studies.

Part II – Thinking more 

In parallel to sessions on my research theme (paleoclimates), which always teach a lot, the EGU offers the possibility to attend special (and longer), oral presentation, the Medal lectures, which allowed me to attend presentations by the eminent (paleo)climatologists Valérie Masson-Delmotte and Kim Cobb, and small courses (useful to nice to refresh one’s geology basics for example). What I really like about the EGU is that the conference also has great sessions (presentations, lectures or debates) about research in general and how to do it, for example: about the role of geosciences in the evolution of the world / about education and communication of science / or about diversity, equity and inclusion in science. This year, I was particularly impressed by two of them: 

First, “A Climate and Ecological Emergency: Can a pandemic help save us…?”, with the passionating and super-positive intervention of the climatologist Katharine Hayhoe (see her website which gives a lot of tools to understand and raise awareness about climate change [5,6]), who compared the rapidity of action on a global scale in response to COVID to the persistent lack of action of governments in the face of the ongoing climate crisis, trying to understand the origin of this crisis (ex. The phenomena of psychological distancing: COVID showed us that we could react quickly and limit our emissions, how can we do the same in the face of climate change? I was also particularly interested in the session, “Promoting diversity in geosciences“, which took stock of the lack of diversity and neo-colonial practices within geosciences, and exposed concrete means to set up an anti-racism laboratory [7,8]. Budiman Minasny’s presentation introduced me to the concept of parachute science (aka helicopter research) which is “when researchers from wealthier countries go to a developing country, collect information, travel back to their country, analyze the data and samples, and publish the results with no or little involvement of local researchers[9]. One can imagine that perhaps some unscrupulous researchers take advantage of local researchers to do unrecognized research assistance work in the field, somewhere far away… There are people with a poor morality in all fields. However, I had never realized (in fact I had never asked myself), that there was a whole grey area with indirect and less obvious ways of misconducting. A striking example was for instance that by working on research questions centered on other countries, without involving local universities, we may grab potential research to local research communities… In my future research, I would like to address questions of macro-evolution on a global scale, although brief, this presentation would clearly have helped me thinking about my future collaborations. As a non-minoritized (although) woman, I am not the best person to talk about this topic, and I certainly still have tons of things to learn to be up to speed, but it is thanks to conferences like these that one learns little by little how to conduct fair science at the scale of one’s lab and internationally, so these should be promoted.

Prof. Katharine Hayhoe presenting the different psychological mechanisms associated to climate change inaction.

Short conclusion – 

As already explained on this blog [9], attending conferences is very important, especially for young researchers. Thanks to this meeting, I was able to see many presentations, meet researchers in my field, but also question the way I present my work and create materials to share it with more people. The development of this digital format also makes it possible to hold more conferences, especially since some of the smaller ones can be free. Yet, like most researchers, I think, I am looking forward to the experience of real conferences. This experience calls for questioning our practices: since we can do 100% virtual and low carbon conference, how far do we find it acceptable to travel to a conference? 

To go further – small list of references 

  1. EGU General Assembly 2019 – Country statistics. (2019). European Geosciences Union. https://www.egu2019.eu/#CountryStatistics
  2. Langin, K. (2019). Why some climate scientists are saying no to flying. Science Careers. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.caredit.aay0230
    As an example, and for more information on why we should fly less, see the website of No Fly Climate Sci and their “Resources” section. https://noflyclimatesci.org/.  
  3. vEGU21 Carbon tracker (2021). European Geosciences Union. https://egu21.eu/about/green_egu.html
  4. Three-minute Thesis website: https://threeminutethesis.uq.edu.au/
  5. Katharine Hayhoe website FAQ (a mine of gold to better understand and talk about climate change): http://www.katharinehayhoe.com/wp2016/faqs/
    See also her youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/kathhayhoe/playlists
  6. Hayhoe, K. (2018). The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: Talk about it. TEDWomen 2018 conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/katharine_hayhoe_the_most_important_thing_you_can_do_to_fight_climate_change_talk_about_it
  7. Chaudhary, V. B., & Berhe, A. A. (2020). Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab. PLOS Computational Biology, 16(10), e1008210. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1008210
    See the also the associated press article of the Chicago tribune (2020): https://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-life-how-to-build-an-anti-racist-stem-lab-tt-1022-20201023-wxv35r73mnhstb6ed7hw72iqp4-story.html
  8. Neo-colonial science. (2021). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-colonial_science
  9. Impact of Attending Conferences. (2020). Time Scavengers. https://timescavengers.blog/tilly-edinger-travel-grant/impact-of-attending-conferences/

The Change in Tanystropheus Species Due to Resource Availability

Aquatic Habits and Niche Partitioning in the Extraordinarily Long-Necked Triassic Reptile Tanystropheus

By: Stephan N.F. Spiekman, James M. Neenan, Nicholas C. Fraser, Vincent Fernandez, Olivier Rieppel, Stefania Nosotti, Torsten M. Scheyer

Summarized by: Sarah Kreisle, a geology major at the University of South Florida minoring in GIS. She is a senior planning to graduate December 2020. Afterwards, she plans on staying local to further her knowledge in Florida geology and seek a job or internship offering experience in the field. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and kayaking.  

What data were used? Researchers used fossilized remains of Triassic reptiles Tanystropheus hydroides and Tanystropheus longobardicus, most of which were found at the Besano Formation of Monte San Giorgio, Switzerland. 

Methods: Using digital modeling, both T. hydroides and T. longobardicus were re-created virtually, using dislodged and deformed parts from the original skull. After virtual re-construction, these specimens were analyzed for similarities and differences. Additionally, records of stomach contents and skeletal were used to compare and reconstruct diet and environments.

Results: After examination, the two species were found to have similarities between the shapes of their skulls, but diverged in their dietary patterns, evidenced by slight morphological differences in the skull, and skeletal size. In T. hydroides and T.longobardicus they found that its jawbone curved and allowed for the nasal area to sit on the top side of the body. The snout was very flat and plate-like, which is a similar feature to the present-day crocodile. In T. longobardicus, the snout still sits on top of the skull, but is less prominent than T. hydroides. When looking at the shape of skulls in both T. hydroides and T.longobardicus, the snout was curved and flat with their breathing capability on top, in order to swim more efficiently. It was very likely that these creatures were shallow water dwellers since their nasal cavities were not built to endure pressure at great depths. Due to their lengthy necks, they were likely to pounce on food rather than chase after it. A long neck made it much harder to move around with ease. The long necks of the T. hydroides were able to give them an advantage when stalking prey and causing less obvious movements that might alarm the prey. Using the re-creation of the skull, it is observed that the teeth of T. hydroides were more likely to snap at food, rather than suck food from a shell. Scientists can tell from the fang-like teeth, that it was grabbing and holding its prey. In past specimens, there has been evidence of squid-like creatures and fish scales collected from the stomach contents. Conversely, T.longobardicus was more likely to use its shorter teeth for eating soft shelled invertebrates or plants. Their teeth are tricuspid teeth (i.e., teeth with three cusps), which are also present among animals that eat both plant and animal matter. Though T. hydroides is very similar to T. longobardicus, the biggest difference between them is their size. T. longobardicus was less than half the size of T. hydroides. Likely, these creatures were eating different resources available over time, changing the amount of energy they required to survive. It is possible that these two species lived together in the same aquatic environment and deviated from each other in order to survive on available food sources. 

Figure 1 Both species in this picture are depicted to be different structurally, which could mean different food source and possible early competition for food. The skull of T. hydroides shows long curved teeth that would have gripped prey, whereas the skull of T. longobardicus had the short, tricuspid teeth. The tricuspid teeth are much easier to grind food, in both plants and meat. The skeleton of T. hydroides shows a significant size difference from T. longobardicus. The picture in the bottom right corner depicts that the small skeleton of the T. lonobardicus was mature due to the growth lines seen.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it displays niche partitioning, or natural selection driven by resource use. In examining these two species’ tooth alteration, stomach contents, and size difference, we see how very closely related organisms have evolved in different paths due to resource needs. This shift in consumption patterns may also indicate a time period in which competition for food sources was high. We can therefore hypothesize that while these species could have been descended from a recent common ancestor, they have since changed physically and behaviorally due to their environments. 

The big picture: Many other species have been defined by the process of niche partitioning and will most likely continue in the future as our environment readily changes. These changes further cause increased competition in the food web. Change in size of the Tanystropheus could have been due to the amount of energy available to them in food. Teeth and other characteristics of the genus Tanystropheus can explain features of animals in existence today. Learning about Tanystropheus will help us learn more about creatures during the Triassic and surrounding periods. 

Citation: Spiekman, S. N. F., Neenan, J. M., Fraser, N. C., Fernandez, V., Rieppel, O., Nosotti, S., & Scheyer, T. M. (2020). Aquatic Habits and Niche Partitioning in the Extraordinarily Long-Necked Triassic Reptile Tanystropheus. Current Biology30(19), 3889. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/10.1016/j.cub.2020.07.025

The increasing rate of extinction today and how it affects our future

Vertebrates on the brink as indicators of biological annihilation and the sixth mass extinction

By: Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Peter H. Raven

Summarized by: Melody Farley, an undergraduate geology student at the University of South Florida in her final semester. Her goal is to use her degree at the Southwest Florida Water Management District to help with the management of water resources in Florida’s systems. She plans on attending graduate school in a few years, after gaining some work experience to determine what she wants to specialize in. When she is not studying geology, she loves to kayak, hike, and enjoy nature with her fiancé.

What data were used? Data was collected from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN); specifically, the number of individuals in each vertebrate species, as well as the number of species whose endangerment status has been studied was used here.

Methods: This study used the database material from the IUCN to help classify the species studied based on geographical range and number of individuals. From this, they determined the number of vertebrate species with fewer than 1,000 individuals, excluding extinct species. 

Results: 515 vertebrate species were discovered to have fewer than 1,000 individuals, indicating that they are “on the brink” and very susceptible to extinction. This comprises 1.7% of the total terrestrial vertebrate species. Of the 515 vertebrate species on the brink, more than 50% of these species have fewer than 250 individuals, meaning that there are much closer to extinction. Species on the brink are found to be concentrated in regions with higher human interaction. 543 species have gone extinct since 1900. If the 515 species were to join the 543 species that have already gone extinct, the total extinct species in a 150-year span would be 1,058 vertebrate species. Given the last 2 million years’ background rate of extinction, 9 species would be expected to go extinct in this 150-year period. So, the extinction rate would be 117 times faster than previous background rates.

Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 1: This figure shows the population sizes of 5 groups – Mammalia, Aves, Reptilia, Amphibia, and Vertebrates from left to right, with Vertebrates being an aggregation of the first 4. They are categorized by the number of individuals left in the species. Here, you can see that in all 5 groups, at least 50% of the on the brink species have fewer than 250 individuals.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it illustrates the effects that humans are having on different populations around the world. Extinction rates are much higher now than in geologic history, mostly since the development of agriculture approximately 11,000 years ago. Many of the extinction rates have increased even more since the 1800s as human civilizations have become more advanced, showing that an increased competition for resources have expedited the extinction rates in recent history. 

The big picture: Earth’s systems are all part of an important balance. When a species goes extinct and disappears from an ecosystem, simple maintaining services of this ecosystem can be disturbed. If this happens enough times, we could have the collapse of ecosystems that we rely on for survival. Humans require several things to survive: a stable climate, fresh water, crop pollination, and more. Many of these are made possible by healthy and sustained ecosystems. With the continued risk of climate change, species extinction is a bigger problem now than ever, and it is important for humans to consider the effects of their development, and what this means for the future of civilizations.

Citation: Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P.R., Raven, P.H., “Vertebrates on the Brink as Indicators of Biological Annihilation and the Sixth Mass Extinction.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 117, no. 24, 2020, pp. 13596–13602., https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1922686117

Examination of abnormal trilobites across the Paleozoic in China

Abnormalities in early Paleozoic trilobites from central and eastern China

By: Rui-Wen Zong

Summarized by: Matthew Ray, a geology major at The University of South Florida. Currently, he is a senior. He plans to attend graduate school following one to two years of internships in order to further his understanding of Florida geology and desire to make connections. When he is not actively studying geology, he is a fan of sketching and tennis.

What data were used? Researchers used ten trilobite samples with abnormal features and deformations that were located in the eastern and central locations of China dating back to the Cambrian, Silurian, and Ordovician periods. This is notably the first recorded evidence of trilobite deformations belonging to the Ordovician Period that has been documented in China.

Methods: Each of these samples were examined for abnormalities within the pygidia and thoraxes region, otherwise known as the back end and middle portions, respectively. After documenting variables such as rib overlap, breakage shape, and rib retention of these specimens, researchers hypothesized that these features were the results of: genetic malformations,  predatory attacks, or damage self-inflicted through the molting process.

Results: Trilobites are among the world’s most ancient arthropods and are a staple of the Paleozoic Era (542-241 million years ago), during which they flourished. These organisms have three main components: their head, in which most of the essential organs were kept, a mid-torso, and tail piece, named the cephalon, thorax, and pygidium, respectively. Abnormalities are common for trilobites, as seen in many fossilized specimens. Out of the samples discussed in this article, the three most notable abnormalities were: an absence of organs on the exoskeleton, morphological alterations in which ribs either overlapped, fused together, or were stretched, and the presence of breakage patterns in a ‘U’ or ‘V’ shape, suggestive of a predation event. Out of the ten trilobites, six displayed breakages on the outside of the thorax and/or pygidia which are reminiscent of markings inflicted by additional arthropod and cephalopod predation. These attacks are noted to have been non-lethal due to signs of regeneration and shell (see Figure 1). Two of the trilobites are hypothesized to have had genetic deformations, as evident by a stunted rib formation and the unusual arrangement of the surrounding ribs due to overlapping and/or fusion. The remaining two trilobites display issues with these ribs as well; however, these exhibit a large amount of rib retention on their back end (i.e., pygidium) which is considered to be a sign of breakage by tearing during the molting process. That is, their tail pieces were severed from the rest of the body in an attempt to rid itself of the old shell. These results allow a glimpse into the frequency of predation survival in addition to evidence pertaining to preexisting genetic developments and molting “errors” that result in a trilobite’s altered appearance.

Figure 1: 3 Well-preserved Cambrian trilobites (A, D, and G) that have show predation events. Boxes B, E, and G display close-up predation marks made by other organisms leaving a ‘U’, ‘V’, and ‘V’-shaped abnormality respectively. Box C displays a computer-generated model of the ‘U’- bite dimensions and layout. These marks can be used to establish exact predators if bite patterns are recorded and hypothesize community interactions. The black arrow on H depicts evidence of healing.

Why is this study important? This study succeeds in not only showcasing how trilobites can be born with abnormalities, but how some alterations can be formed due to a failure to properly molt or surviving predation events from other organisms. This in turn gives vital information concerning the trilobite’s lifestyle and overall survival rate, as these organisms were able to survive despite these morphological variations within specific regions of the body. The importance of maintaining more crucial body parts is here reinforced as trilobites with abnormalities on the pygidia and thorax were more likely to heal and prosper longer than trilobites that sustained injuries or had genetic deformations to their head, in which their more vital organs are held. Community relationships can be established, too, as the breakage patterns that were able to heal can be compared to those of organisms within the region at that geologic time, thus forming an understanding of feeding habits for others.

The big picture: Overall, this study adds to the information that researchers have about how organisms were able to survive predation attacks and how common genetic mutations occurred in organisms in the past (and how many of these were survivable). While trilobite knowledge across all of the documented times is enhanced, global data referring to the Cambrian Period was a crucial find as these samples were so well preserved, a trend which is unfortunately difficult to see around the world at this time.

Citation: Rui-Wen Zong , Abnormalities in early Paleozoic trilobites from central and eastern China, Palaeoworld (2020), doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palwor.2020.07.003

What do a volcano, a lake and shiny beetles have to do with each other? Nothing? Think again!

Linda and Michaela here – when we were undergraduate students, we had to do a four week internship as part of our degree. Learning a new skill beyond the university’s coursework is more fun when you get to get your hands dirty and spend time outdoors, preferably lots of it.  A perfect way to do so is to do an internship at a paleontological excavation. Luckily, we both got accepted at the same place and thus, spent a month excavating fossils at the eocene Eckfelder Maar in the western German Eifel mountain range (Fig 1). 

Fig 1: Location of the Eckfelder Maar in the Western German EIfel mountain range. Illustration by Michaela Falkenroth.

The Eocene is a geological epoch ranging from 56 to about 33 million years ago. Back then, a greenhouse effect had heated up central Europe and the world. Tapir relatives and tiny horses roamed (sub-)tropical forests, crocodiles stalked marsupials at lakeshores, small primates climbed palm trees. These are not the organisms and ecosystems associated with cold and rainy Germany today! But this is what it looked like, when the Eckfelder Maar came to life with a bang. An event that should change the rainforest and the lives of German paleontologists alike.

A maar is a volcano, although at first glance, it doesn’t look like one – there is no lava, no ash, not even a mountain. It resembles a volcano so little that early descriptions deemed maars the result of ‘cold eruptions’, which is wrong but relatable.

Maars usually present themselves as perfectly circular. The water-filled craters are the result of the sudden and violent evaporation of cold groundwater that came in contact with hot magma. The explosion tears a pointy, steep-sided hole into the landscape and is usually a singular event, at least in that exact location. At first, the crater is belted by a ring of debris that was thrown out by the force of the explosion. This wall, however, becomes eroded by wind and rain and, as the crater slowly fills up with rain and groundwater, no direct sign of the volcanic activity is left (Fig 2). An eruption like this is called a phreatomagmatic eruption.

Fig 2: The formation of a maar lake in 6 simple steps, all you need is groundwater and piping hot, rising magma. Illustration by Michaela Falkenroth.

The Eifel area, where the Eckfelder Maar is located, is the international type locality that coined the term ‘maar’. Over 75 of these round craters are speckled throughout the landscape and often referred to as the “eyes of the Eifel” because of the round shape and blue colour of the lakes. Over time a maar lake is destined to fill completely with sediment and eventually dry up. The Eckfelder Maar is 44.3 Million years old and hence much older than the others in this area, which formed between 500.000 and 11.000 years ago. Even of the younger maars only 9 still host a lake today, the Eckfelder Maar lake has long dried up. Initially, the eruption blasted a 1000 m wide and up to 210 m deep crater into the surrounding rocks. The bottom of the crater was quickly filled with a layer of debris. After the dust had settled and the lake had formed, it became quiet. For 250,000 years layer upon layer of clay, each less than a millimetre thick, accumulated at the lake floor and slowly but surely filled it up.

Fig 3: The excavation location is covered with a plastic tent to protect the interns (but more importantly the fossils!) from the summer heat.

For the majority of its existence the lake was strictly divided into two layers: a lower, mineral-rich and oxygen-depleted part and an oxygen-rich upper part. The density difference between the two water bodies inhibited mixing and thus kept the lake floor a life-hostile environment. What is bad for sediment-dwelling organisms is good for paleontologists – the oxygen poor lake bottom served as a preservation chamber for all kinds of organisms.

Due to the steep crater being located in a (sub-)tropical, species rich forest, many organisms ended up on the bottom of the lake. In addition to (semi-)aquatic creatures such as crocodiles, turtles and fish that spent at least part of their lives in the lake, large amounts of plant fragments fell into the lake and sank to the lake floor. Leaves and leaf fragments are among the most common finds in this lagerstätte, but pollen, pieces of bark, twigs, fruits and the occasional flower have also been discovered. Especially flowers are very valuable finds, since – in cases of exceptional preservation – they can allow the extraction of pollen. In this case the scientists have proof that a certain species of plant produces a certain type of pollen and can thus confidently identify pollen found elsewhere. Plant fragments are found so commonly, that only rare and exceptionally well preserved or otherwise special finds are being collected, such as fruits, flowers, and leaves with damages suspected to be caused by insect herbivory. Other less valuable finds are given to visitors who come by to learn about the excavation. 

Fig 4: During the excavation we usually sat on wooden blocks while splitting slabs of the sediment hoping to find a shiny jewel beetle or a winged ant inside.

In addition to plant material, insect fossils are recovered in large numbers. Honey bees, ants, termites, flies, wasps, grasshoppers, lice, dragonflies and others are found at the Eckfelder Maar. Among these, beetles are the most common find, as their comparatively high weight and drop-shaped bodies sink quickly. Lighter built creatures, like a dragonfly, tend to float on the surface of the lake and decompose or end up as someone’s dinner. Sometimes the attentive student spots a tiny, metallic blue or green shimmer among the sediment. This is the moment when you know you have encountered one of the most spectacular insect finds. The gemstone-like jewel beetles (family Buprestidae) are – even as fossils – colourful and shiny. The jewel beetles’ colouration is not caused by pigments, but by the microstructure of their wings, which can be preserved much easier than pigments, so they still look as fabulous as they did 44 million years ago.

Plant and invertebrate finds are usually very small, so a hand lens is a crucial tool, just as the dull knife we used to split the soft, wet sediment (Fig 4). If a slab of sediment contained a small fossil, we removed as much of the surrounding material as possible without damaging the find, then placed it in a plastic container and submerged the fossil in glycerin to keep it moist (Fig 5). Since the water content of the sediment is very high, a sudden change of conditions such as drying out of the fossil would lead to irreversible damages.

Fig 5: Tray with small finds of a single day. These include beetles, a snail, unidentified unarticulated bones, leaves and a coprolite.

Vertebrate fossils tend to be larger, but are much rarer. Just as today there are fewer vertebrates than ants, flies or beetles around in most ecosystems. Often, you only find a single bone or a fish scale. Every once in a while, the steep crater walls caused sediment to slide into the lake in one big gush, called a turbiditic current, destroying everything in its path on the bottom of the lake. These turbidites often contain fragmented skeletons and single bones, but are also useful features as they can function as marker horizons and thus help with the stratigraphical indexing of fossils. Finds are labelled for example ‘15’ meaning this fossil was collected from a layer 15 cm below marker horizon number 4. This is important because it later on allows to understand the fossil assemblages in the correct sequence. The exact location of all vertebrate finds is also documented using a theodolite, a device that measures the angles between points. If you place the theodolite on a fixed position, then measure the angles from there to reference points and then to a special marker held on top of the fossil (Fig 6), the exact location can be calculated and represented 3-dimensionally later. If you do find a complete skeleton unaffected by turbiditic currents, they are often in pristine condition, as due to the anoxic, inhospitable environment at the bottom of the paleo-lake no bioturbation or scavenging has affected them.

Fig 6: Measuring the location of a vertebrate fossil in 3D. A theodolite measures the angle to the reflector placed on top of the fossil, as seen in the image. Linda adjusts the angle of the reflector so it points directly at the theodolite (not within the frame) while Michaela ensures the reflector remains in the correct position.

The Eckfelder Maar is known for its well preserved horses and horse relatives (family Equidae). Several complete skeletons of different early equid species have been discovered there. The most spectacular specimen discovered there so far was a pregnant mare and both the fetus and parts of the placenta have been preserved and studied extensively. These early horse relatives had more toes than modern horses and were only the size of a dog. 

The largest complete vertebrate fossil found during our internship was a large basal ray-finned fish (family Amiidae). Since it was too large to be handled in the field, it was first coated in glue, covered in plastic foil and plaster, then lifted together with a large chunk of the surrounding rock to be carefully excavated later on in the lab (Fig 7). 

Fig 7: Larger finds such as this complete fish require more elaborate excavation techniques and are thus covered in plaster and lifted with the entire block of sediment to be slowly excavated in the lab by a geological preparator.

One of the smaller, but more exciting finds was a complete skeleton of a young bird (Fig 8). Fossil birds are rare in these kinds of deposits, since birds don’t tend to slip and fall into a lake, like it could happen to a clumsy horse on a slippery lakeshore. The specimen appeared to be a nestling, since the preserved feathers looked very fluffy. We hypothesized that it must have fallen out of its nest directly into the lake. 

Fig 8: Unidentified bird (beak pointing downwards) found during the internship. Even without any additional treatment, details such as the shape of the body, feathers, the eyes and other soft tissues can be identified easily just seconds after being exposed, due to the excellent preservation at this lagerstätte.

It’s fossils like these, preserved under exceptional circumstances, that allow us to reconstruct and understand ecosystems that are long gone. The Eckfelder Maar is a little slice of Eocene, frozen in time, waiting to be uncovered.

Argyrolagus – An Extinct Marsupial May Be Different Than We Thought

Paleobiology of Argyrolagus (Marsupialia, Argyrolagidae): An astonishing case of bipedalism among South American mammals

By: María Alejandra Abello & Adriana Magdalena Candela

Summarized by: Mason Woods

Mason Woods studies geology and landscape photography; currently, he is a senior. He is a budding naturalist, finding purpose through a wide range of interests, including paleontology, biology, hydrology and philosophy. When he isn’t studying, he’s sharpening his skills in diving, climbing and hiking, leaving no stone left unturned on his path to understanding and experiencing the natural world.

What data were used?: Two scientists examined multiple specimens of Argyrolagus, a mouse-like marsupial who lived in deserts of Argentina, in order to determine the way that early marsupials might have interacted with the world and evolved. They are potentially one of the first marsupials to have assumed an upright stance and move on two legs instead of four.

Methods: These scientists studied the shape and positioning of the bones to compare this species to other marsupials still alive today in order to determine the true function of the body parts of the animal, through a process called morphofunctional analysis. If the animal moved on four limbs, its body structure would compare to other animals alive today who also move on four limbs. There are clear differences in the length, density, and structure of an animal’s body, depending on how they adapted to interact with their surroundings.

Results: The upper half of Argyrolagus appears to be that of a digger, an animal who burrowed for food, or perhaps to create shelter. Its humerus is short, with muscles that seem to have been allocated towards arm retraction, which indicates it had a strong digging ability. The elbow joint is compact and stable, indicating an adaptive response to the pressures placed on the body when jumping. The forearm bones have muscle attachments which are like that of other digging mammals, and scarring from muscles related to digging, providing further evidence of a burrowing lifestyle . The digits – what we would call fingers – on the animal’s body are like that of other mammals which also were known diggers. The evidence points to the animal moving around by jumping, and probably using its robust upper body for digging as well.

The lower half seems to be that of a jumper. The pelvis is not exactly screaming “jumper” but it does have some adaptations that would help in digging with powerful hip flexion. The hip joint is the clearest evidence, with restricted motion in certain directions, creating a stabilized joint. The femur is adapted well for digging. The knee joint is stable and is shaped for pulling action, like other leaping animals. The ankle joints are strong and with restricted motion, to assist with stability in leaping. Restricted motion prevents injury and the need for muscles to stabilize certain positions and allows the animal to put more energy towards increasing the strength of necessary muscles. 

The leg bones of Argyrolagus. Note the size of its tiny bones . These bones are adapted to a bipedal, digging lifestyle.

Why is this study important?: If we can demonstrate that these animals were likely bipedal, it’s possible that we can determine the evolutionary origin of bipedalism in marsupials, which helps us to complete the picture of how descendants of this animal came to be. We can also use this information to better inform evolutionary analyses and draw conclusions about the close relatives of Argyrolagus. 

The big picture: Argyrolagus was likely a bipedal jumper, which is an atypical gait for most mammals. Jumping has been shown to be efficient for animals of this size, which would have adapted the animal well for life in an arid environment, allowing them greater ranges of motion to escape predators in areas with less vegetation in which to conceal themselves. Each piece of the puzzle gets us closer to seeing the big picture of how evolution really affects life on Earth, answering questions such as: how gradual is evolution? How much can we learn from our ancestor and what does that tell us about the future?

Citation: Abello, M. A., & Candela, A. M. (2019). Paleobiology of Argyrolagus (Marsupialia, Argyrolagidae): an astonishing case of bipedalism among South American mammals. Journal of Mammalian Evolution, 1-26.

David M. Kroeck, Micropalaeontologist/Palynologist

What is your favourite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in  science in general? When I was young, I was, as many kids, particularly interested in dinosaurs and other  fossils. I liked nothing more than visiting a natural history museum marvelling at the  wonders of nature‘s past. And of course, I had a proper collection of dino toys. My primary  school teachers gifted me a small book about Earth history before I left, knowing very well  about this passion of mine. I suppose I just didn‘t grow out of this passion (Certain movies  by Spielberg might have played a part in it as well …). Thus, still aspiring to become a  palaeontologist, I registered in Bonn University for the geosciences Bachelors program in  2010, which I finished in 2013. I really enjoyed my studies there, so naturally I followed  up with the master‘s program that I finished in 2016. 

What interests me the most in sciences is the pursue of knowledge. To enhance our  knowledge by finding the natural coherence of things. Finding traces of what is yet hidden  in the dark, making hypotheses, searching for more clues, trying to see and understand  more and more. A great aspect in geosciences is field work. It is such a thrilling experience  to visit an outcrop and reconstruct the past, which is, for me, quite a lot like detective work.  Looking at all the little puzzle pieces of past ecosystems, such as fossils and  sedimentological features, then trying to put it all together into a bigger picture. Since I  was young I would read with excitement about the explorers of old times – Humboldt,  Darwin, Shackleton, Fawcett, and the like – dreaming of going on such expeditions myself  one day. Indeed, my studies brought me to many places, not seldom quite off of touristic  trails, and sometimes even a slight bit dangerous. It‘s as close to the travels of these past  explorers as I could have wished for. 

In laymen‘s terms, what do you do? My current research is focused on ancient marine organic-walled phytoplankton. Plankton  describes the organisms that float in the water column. Within the plankton we have  zooplankton and phytoplankton. The former are heterotroph, which means they need to  consume other organisms to gain energy, while the latter are autotroph, meaning they  obtain energy through photosynthesis, just like plants on land. In today‘s oceans we find  a variety of groups in the phytoplankton, such as diatoms, coccolithophores, green algae,  dinoflagellates and cyanobacteria. I am working on phytoplankton from the Palaeozoic, a  time interval dated roughly between 541 Million and 250 Million years ago. During this  time the phytoplankton was represented mostly by what we call acritarchs. So what are  acritarchs? I‘m not sure, actually. And that‘s why they are called acritarchs, as the name  means „uncertain origin“. We don‘t know the biological affinity of acritarchs, and they  surely belonged to a variety of groups, but most of them are interpreted to represent the  remains of phytoplanktic organisms, some of which might be related to today‘s dinoflagellates. 

So how can we study microscopic remains of organic-walled plankton that lived hundreds  of millions of years ago? Actually, these little things are quite resistant. In order to process  a rock sample for palynological analysis, we dissolve the rock in different acids. What  remains are organic-walled microfossils, so called palynomorphs, such as the acritarchs,  that we can study under a microscope. But what is so interesting in microscopic  organisms that were floating in the ancient seas? First, they help us to define the age of  sediment rocks. Many palynomorphs represent important index fossils, and thus, have a  stratigraphic value. Then, since phytoplankton is often bound to certain environmental  conditions, palynomorph assemblage analyses can help us reconstruct parameters, such  as water temperature, depth, or distance to land, during the time of the deposition of the  sediment: That is how the distribution of different taxa of phytoplankton can give us  valuable information about the palaeoenvironment. Another and major aspect of  phytoplankton is their photosynthetic activity. While often the continental forests are called  the „lungs of the Earth“, phytoplankton are responsible for 50–80 % of the production of  the oxygen in the atmosphere. Through their photosynthetic activity phytoplankton take  up great amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Large quantities of this carbon is then  stored in deeper parts of the ocean when phytoplankton die and sink to the seabed.  During the early Palaeozoic the importance of phytoplankton within the carbon cycle was  much bigger, since plants were yet to conquer the land. Another important aspect is the  fact that phytoplankton is at the base of marine food webs. For these reasons we assume  that changes in phytoplankton through time must have had an impact on both Earth‘s  climate and marine ecosystems. My studies aim to find correlations between biodiversity  changes of the phytoplankton and changes in different palaeo-environmental parameters,  such as temperature, atmospheric O2 and CO2 concentrations, sea level, and  palaeogeography.

Different acritarchs from the Ordovician of Columbia (from Kroeck, D. M., Pardo-Trujillo, A., Torres, A. P., Romero-Baéz, M., Servais, T., 2020. Peri-Gondwanan acritarchs from the Ordovician of the Llanos Orientales Basin, Colombia. Palynology 44, 419–432).

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate  change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? While palaeontology is the study of past processes, it can be of great value for the present.  Awareness of climate change as a major global crisis has significantly increased in the  last decades. Its effects are already perceptible in many of the Earth’s ecosystems. It has  become an important task to estimate future consequences of the rapidly changing  climate. Palaeontological investigations provide an important tool for predicting processes  in changing environments by reconstructing past intercorrelations. Inversing the famous  quote of the Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell, “The present is the key to the past”, our  knowledge of processes in Earth history may help us to estimate future developments.  Several important extinction events are known, some of which are related to increases in  greenhouse gases. Thus, investigating biotic changes during these crucial time intervals  and comparing the results with recent developments is very important. I want to contribute  with my work to our understanding of today‘s profound changes in the biosphere caused  by human activities. 

If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do you obtain your  data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.? During my Ph.D. project I mostly worked on a database of the Palaeozoic phytoplankton  comprising occurrence data from published literature including stratigraphic and  geographic information. We used this database to create diversity curves for the  Palaeozoic phytoplankton. But I also went on sampling trips myself, which is basically  taking rock samples from different stratigraphic layers. In the laboratory these samples  are being processed, generally by dissolving the rock in acids and sieving the residues.  Then palynological slides are being produced by distributing the sieved residues on glass  slides and embedding them in a clear medium. After, the samples are analysed under the  microscope. For some of my work I did morphometrics, which is measuring certain  parameters of microfossil specimens in larger population in order to statistically analyse  them. This can help assessing morphological variability and to review taxonomic  classifications. 

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Working in science can be frustrating at times. That‘s part of it, I suppose. Don‘t let it  discourage you. Follow your passion. Other than that, „Explore. Dream. Discover.“ – H.  Jackson Brown Jr.

Follow David’s updates on ResearchGate!

Meet the Museum: The Paleontological Research Institution and Museum of the Earth

Whitney here – 

Here I am posing with Cecil, the Coelophysis, and the Museum of the Earth’s Mascot! The silhouette of a Coelophysis can be seen in the PRI and Museum of the Earth’s logo.

During the summer of 2017, I was an intern at the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca, NY. The PRI works in conjunction with the Museum of the Earth and neighboring Cayuga Nature Center. You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram where they share updates on exhibits and virtual events like Science in the Virtual Pub. The Museum of the Earth’s social media also features takeovers from guest scientists and live updates from the prep lab. The museum is currently on a modified schedule during the Covid-19 Pandemic, but you can check their updated hours here. Additionally, the Museum of the Earth has recently started a new initiative in an effort to increase the accessibility of their museum to the community. During Pay-What-You-Wish Weekends, which take place during the first weekend of each month, guests may choose from a range for their admissions cost in place of traditional ticket costs. 

The PRI and Museum of the Earth typically host one or two Saturday day trips each summer to local outcrops where the public can participate in the fossil hunting experience.

As an intern at the PRI, my time in the museum was limited, however, I was sure to take a self guided tour through their exhibits before I was to start next door in the research labs at the PRI. Since that summer, the Museum of the Earth has expanded its collection of in person and online exhibits which you can see the availability of here. These online exhibits and videos are great educational tools while remaining remote. There are many exhibits currently on display at the Museum of the Earth, so I will do my best to highlight a few of my favorites!

During the field trips, you are almost guaranteed to see some great fossils and maybe even find a few of your own!

The museum as a whole is set up so that the guest experiences a Journey Through Time – an exhibit which comprises the majority of the museum displays. The Museum of the Earth displays fossils ranging from microfossils to the Hyde Park mastodon and those from early life on Earth to present day organisms. These exhibits include the 1.5 meter heteromorph ammonite, Diplomoceras maximum, which was discovered on Seymour Island, Antarctica, and the North Atlantic Right Whale skeleton. Upon entering the museum, guests are greeted by a 44 ft long whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling between the two floors of the museum. North Atlantic Right Whale #2030 passed away in Cape May, New Jersey in 1999 and PRI employees assisted in recovering and cleaning the skeleton, where it was added to the museum in 2002. The skeleton was so big that during construction of the museum, part of the building was left open so that the whale could be brought in via a crane. Guests wrap up their journey through time with the coral reef exhibit, where they can learn about reef ecosystems and discover the importance of the diversity of fish and invertebrates that live within them, and the glaciers exhibit, where they can explore the history of glaciers in the Finger Lakes region.

Daring to Dig: Women in American Paleontology is the most recent exhibit at the Museum of the Earth and is permanently available online!

The Museum of the Earth has a new exhibit that opened in late March – Daring to Dig: Women in American Paleontology. Not only is this an in-person exhibit on display at the museum until Fall 2021, but it has become permanently available online for those unable to visit Ithaca. This exhibit works to both highlight the achievements and discoveries made by women in paleontology as well as introduce the public to trailblazers and modern voices. This exhibit works in tandem with the recently published children’s book, Daring to Dig: Adventures of Women in American Paleontology, to demonstrate to children and students that science is for everyone. You can learn more about the Daring to Dig Project here

During non-pandemic times, the museum and PRI host the occasional field trip to local outcrops in upstate New York. As an intern at the PRI, I was able to tag along on these great opportunities. These field trips are open to the public for a fee which provides access to basic supplies that you may need while out at the site as well as the educational experience provided by local experts at the PRI. Be sure to keep an eye on their events page where you can be kept up to date on both virtual and in-person events and activities going on!

 

Paleobiological analysis of the first record of redfieldiiform fish found in Korea from the Late Triassic

The first record of redfieldiiform fish (Actinopterygii) from the Upper Triassic of Korea: Implications for paleobiology and paleobiogeography of Redfieldiiformes

By: Su-Hwan Kim, Yuong-Nam Lee, Jin-Young Park, Sungjin Lee, Hang-Jae Lee

Summarized by: Jonathan Weimar

Jonathan Weimar is a geology major at the University of South Florida. Currently he is a senior and is very interested in space and natural hazards. After he obtains his degree, he plans to research the possible careers that coexist with his interests. Aside from geology, he loves making music and has a dream of becoming a professional music artist. 

What data were used? A new well-preserved fossil of redfieldiiform , a type of ray-finned fish, has been discovered from the Triassic Amisan Formation in South Korea. The fossil slightly differs from the regular morphology of redfieldiiform taxa and therefore, represent a new taxon called Hiascoactinus boryeongensis. 

Methods: The Amisan Formation reaches depths of up to 1000m thick and is broken up into three different sections: the lower member, the middle member, and the upper member. By looking at the floral assemblage of the Amisan Formation, scientists were able to date the depositional age of these fossils to be of the Late Triassic (about 237 million years ago). 

Results: The redfieldiiform fish belongs to the larger group called the ray-finned fishes, which make up the majority of fish in today’s oceans. While there have been many discoveries of the redfieldiiform fish in various continents such as North America and Australia, this is the first valid record of the ray-finned fish in Asia. Even though there have been previous records of the redfieldiiform fish in China, Siberia, and Russia, they have been inaccurate, and therefore the specimen in this article found in Korea is notably the first valid record of redfieldiiform fish in Asia. The redfieldiiform fish has many distinguishable characteristics that include: anal and dorsal fins with membranes between the rays,positioning of the anal and dorsal fins, a single-plated ray, and a spindle shaped body covered with scales. The official name given to the discovered fossil is Hiascoactinus boryeongensis. The genus name“Hiascoactinus” is Greek and Latin- based and refers to the unique dorsal and anal fins, while the species name “boryeongensis” refers to the city of Korea, Boryeong. The fossil has a length of 138mm and a width of 38mm. Almost all of the fossil is intact, except some parts of the caudal fin, furthest from the head, as well as parts of the skull and stomach region. Morphologically, there are differences between the new taxon Hiascoactinus boryeongensis and the redfieldiiform fish that have been scientifically researched. For example, there is a difference that focuses on the dorsal and anal fins of the fish. These fins are what help the fish directionally and are very important. A lot of ray-finned fish erect their fins to quickly get away from predators and go after prey as it helps with turning maneuvers. The dorsal and anal fins of the Hiascoactinus boryeongensis, however, are not fully connected between rays, unlike other closely related fish. This would have made it harder for them to complete turning maneuvers. Because of this, it is suggested that the species was slow swimming predators and went after prey that was inactive.

This figure shows us the specimen of the Hiascoactinus boryeongensis and a recreation of the fossil providing more detail of the structures. Parts of the caudal fin furthest from the head, parts of the skull, and parts of the abdomen are missing. That is an artistic representation of what the specimen could of looked like.

Why is this study important? This study is important for many reasons. Firstly, this fossil is well-preserved, which means that it has the greatest potential of revealing information about its physiology, morphology, and taxonomy. It allows for the study of the redfieldiiform group and provides information about how this species may have lived million years ago (e.g., the structures of the fins could indicate its swimming capabilities). Lastly, it shows that global sampling of fossils can reveal new evolutionary adaptations and biogeographic patterns of different species.   

The big picture: This study provides insight on the redfieldiiform fish and shows us how we can use morphological differences to define a new species. This article also shows us the importance of reevaluation of scientific evidence. The previous records of the ray-finned fish found in Russia and China were inaccurate and provided inaccurate biogeographic information on the redfieldiiform fish record. It was with this study and the well-preserved fossil founded in Korea that shows us the first true record of one of these fish in Asia.  

Citation: Kim, S., Park, J., Lee, S., & Lee, H. (2019). The first record of redfieldiiform fish (Actinopterygii) from the Upper Triassic of Korea: Implications for paleobiology and paleobiogeography of Redfieldiiformes. In 1011400475 778507242 Y. Lee (Ed.), Gondwana Research (Vol. 80, pp. 275-284). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier. doi:https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1342937X19303211

Malique Bowen, Graduate Researcher

scientist hiking a horseshoe crab at seaWhat is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? My favorite part about being a scientist is that it is always changing. I always get to build on what we already know, and the possibilities are endless. As a kid, my mom would buy me science kits that grew crystals, allowed me to build microscopes, and insect collection kits that all made me fall in love with the how and why behind environmental science. Since my childhood I simply remember asking why/how that works and now I have the capabilities to ask questions and do the science to figure it out.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? I consider myself a microbial ecologist, so I essentially work to identify how microbes control the surrounding environment. I’ve worked with microbes that eat oil, microbes that live on monkeys, microbes in the water, and microbes in the ground. I try to understand how the little things make the world go ‘round.

For my master’s I am using microbes to better assess water pollution in Delaware waterways.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? A lot of research I have done is applicable to water quality management. We can use oil degrading microbes to mitigate oil pollution or tracking microbial pollution through waterways can help better assess management policies.

If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do you obtain your data? With the help of the Department of Natural Resources, we have actually been collecting all of our data ourselves. We have collected a lot of animal, water, and sediment samples to analyze for microbes.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? My advice to aspiring scientists would be to never be afraid to ask for help and learn. There are many other scientists that were in the same position you may be in, and many are willing to help and see you through it. The best science is collaborative science but you must ask for help first.

Follow Malique’s updates on Twitter!