Geoconclave

Maggie here-

The Geoconclave team from the University of Tennessee this year. We had a great mix of student experiences-several upperclassmen as well as several students who are new to the major. This was a great way for us all to get to know each other and get everyone excited about geology and our department!

A couple of weekends ago I was able to tag along to a very special geology event-Geoconclave. Geoconclave is a competition in Tennessee for undergraduate geology majors from schools in Tennessee and nearby in the surrounding states. Each school participating brings a team of students to compete in various events and camp out with other geology nerds. As a graduate student there, I was able to help out our team (cooking, cleaning up, making sure people got to their competition sites, etc.) as well as help out the faculty members in charge of the weekend as a whole and helped with specific competitions. Our first night there was very reminiscent of being at camp for the first night-we got to meet students from the other schools, eat dinner, and play card games all night. Most of us got to bed pretty early because we needed to be up early the next day to start the conclave fun!

One of our fearless students participating in the geode roll-you can see the geode in the bottom left corner of the picture.

The next morning all of the competitions started. The first half of the day was spent doing written competitions in hydrogeology, pace and compass, maps, rock identification, mineral identification, and fossil identification. These written competitions were set up as 30 minute tests, some were more hands-on than others, that one student from each school participated in. Every team was awarded points towards the overall competition based on how they placed in each individual event.

During the afternoon we had our fun field events-the rock hammer throw and the geode roll! These were separated by hammer throw for distance and accuracy, and geode roll for distance and accuracy. It was interesting to see the different techniques that everyone had for throwing hammers and rolling the geode. You wouldn’t think that there would be a strategy or technique for these things, but there certainly is! It was fun to sit with the team from University of Tennessee and hear them discuss and strategize how to throw each object for each event. These events were definitely some of the most fun and it was great to be able to cheer on other teams and laugh along with them as we threw hammers and geodes.

The waterfall at Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee. The waterfall had much less water running than normal (so I hear) but it was still a stunning site! For a sense of scale, down at the pool that the water collects in, there is a person and their dog standing next to the pool of water.

After dinner, all of the teams competed in the rock bowl–a geology-based quiz game! We played bracket elimination style and the questions alternated between questions that would be fair game in any intro geology class all the way up to questions that are typical to ask senior geology students. This was the hardest event (in my opinion!) for students to sit through because the audience had to be silent, no matter how badly we wanted to answer questions! At the end of rock bowl, the winners of Geoconclave and rock bowl were announced, but, the best part was after cleaning up many students went and hung out around a campfire-the competition was fun but at the end of the day, we had more fun hanging out with other young geologists than competing with them.

By the time that we got up and started making breakfast on Sunday morning, most of the other teams had left already (they had much longer drives that we did!) and it was nice to have our quiet breakfast before the deep cleaning of the camp kitchen started. After camp was cleaned up, several of us went to go look at the waterfall in the state park in which we were camping. It was such a nice way to end the weekend!

Being able to experience Geoconclave as a grad student made me really appreciate the work that goes into hosting an event like this, but also made me really jealous that we didn’t have something like this where I did my undergrad. It is such a fun way for students who love geology to practice their skills, but also to meet other geologists around the state. I know I speak for many people on UT’s team when I say that I can’t wait for next year!

Urban Fossil Hunting

Mike and Jen here –

Figure 1

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was on a tour of campus for my paleontology course, and Dr. Sandy took us to a low retaining wall in front of the Science Center. There it was: a large Pentamerus brachiopod (Fig 1). I’d walked by this wall for years and never noticed it before! During the rest of the tour, I saw fossils all over campus, and I had never even thought to look for them in the building materials.

Ever since then, I’ve taken closer looks at the stones used in buildings to see if there are fossils. You should, too! But ignore the igneous rocks and marble, just go for the limestone, dolostone, and sandstone pieces. The fossils I’ve seen include trace fossils and body fossils. Trace fossils are fossilized behavior of an organism, whereas body fossils are the actual skeletal or imprint of remains.

Figure 2

Primarily, I’ve encountered trace fossils. The Dayton Limestone, a formation found near Dayton, Ohio, is Silurian-aged (443.8-419.2 million years ago) limestone that was used for building foundations all over the state. It is full of burrows that are highlighted by a lining of hematite (Fig 2). The hematite likely came into the burrows after the organisms were done occupying them. This mineral helps the burrows stand out in the rock. The foundation on the left is a building on the campus of the University of Dayton. The founding on the right is a building in downtown Springfield.

Figure 3
Figure 4

Further exploration for urban fossils led me to find trails on the base of a lamppost outside of one of the courthouses in Springfield (Fig 3). I forgot a scale for this picture, but these trails were about 10 cm in length. I found this next burrow (Fig 4) in one of the retaining walls outside of the library at UD. See what I mean about fossils in places you wouldn’t expect them?

Marine animal body fossils are quite easy to find in building materials. I found these Silurian fossils in a retaining wall near some of the older buildings on UD’s campus. Large brachiopods and gastropods may be found in these stones (Fig 5), as well as colonial corals and horn corals (Fig 6). Sometimes it is difficult to recognize the fossils because the animal is within the rock and you are only getting a two-dimensional view of what it looks like.

Figure 5
Figure 6
Figure 7

Sometimes, the fossils can be very small and hard to pick out from the rock they are in. I walked by this wall for nearly 15 years and never noticed all of the gastropods, bryozoans, and crinoids until just a few weeks ago (Fig 7)! Another example of small fossils was found by Jen when she went to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. She was chatting with her family when she looked down and recognized the rock, it was filled with small gastropods and bryozoans that she knew to be Mississippian (360-325 million years ago) in age (Fig 8).

Figure 8

Be sure to be on the lookout inside of buildings, too! Many building stones are made of fossiliferous rocks and they are quite visually appealing so they end up as table tops, counters, and even bathroom stalls! Jen saw this table, made of polished fossiliferous limestone, inside of the Biltmore house (Fig 9). I found these ammonites in the flooring at the Ohio Statehouse (Fig 10). Each side of the tile was about 2 ft in diameter.

Figure 9
Figure 10

Where Jen lived in Eastern Tennessee, the common limestone is called the Holston Limestone. This is the ‘marble’ that gave Knoxville the name of Marble City. Marble is a metamorphic rock whereas limestone is a sedimentary rock. Sometimes limestone can have really small grains that makes it look like marble. As a local rock it is used all over the city in a variety of places. It decorates the exterior of buildings downtown (Fig 11) and is even sculpted into monuments of past events (Fig 12).

Figure 11
Figure 12

Maggie and Jen went on a recent research trip to Oklahoma and noticed something interesting about their window sill in the kitchen (Fig 13). It was a nice pink color with lots of white specks. It happened to be the Holston Limestone from where they both were living in Eastern Tennessee! This rock has very specific features that allow you to identify it wherever you may be. Jen even discovered this rock in an old hotel (now a university) in St. Augustine, Florida.

These just a few examples of the fossils that we have seen used in construction and design. As you walk around city buildings, be on the lookout for limestone blocks, especially on older buildings. There may be a few fossils hiding in plain sight!

Figure 13

Bathroom Geology

Do you ever see pictures of beautiful geology all over the world and think “WOW, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see that in person”? Well, think again. This post is dedicated to helping you find amazing geological finds in a place I can guarantee you will visit just about every day: the bathroom (and no, I’m not just talking about coprolites)!

The goal of this post is to teach you a little about the types of rocks you might see the next time you’re in a restaurant bathroom, a bathroom at the beach, the library bathroom, or even the bathroom in your own house! You might be thinking “oh, but what can I learn from a bathroom?!” Well, you just might be surprised. So, let’s get to learning!

Figure 1. A granite countertop from a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. This granite is unique because of the concentric zoning of the crystals- this means that the crystals were cooling at slightly different temperatures, giving it the unusual appearance of the larger crystals (where my finger is pointing). Different elements are crystallizing out of the magma at different temperatures, which gives it this look of almost like tree rings.

Our first stop is a small restaurant in Richmond, Virginia. The food was good, but the real treat was finding the granite countertops inside the bathroom (Figure 1)! Take a look! Granite is an intrusive igneous rock: meaning, the magma from which the rock was made cooled slowly underground. We know this because of the very large crystals that we can see! Crystals grow from the liquid magma; the longer they take to cool, the larger they grow. Now, let’s look more closely at these big crystals. If you look at the large, light pink colored crystals where my finger is pointing you might see that they are what we call “zoned”- meaning, there are alternating circles of slightly different colors inside the crystals- their rounded shape means we’d assign the term “concentric zoning” to them. This actually tells us something really cool about their cooling temperature!

Figure 2. Bowen’s Reaction Series explains the pattern of what minerals and elements cool at what temperatures. As magma cools, certain materials are always crystallized first and pulled out of the pool of magma. Photo credit: National Parks Service

Magma cools at different rates- depending on where it is on Earth or the types of materials from which the magma is made. This rate of cooling determines how and when certain minerals form, or crystallize. In other words, geologists know quite well at what temperature a mineral will form within a magma chamber as it cools down. This predictable pattern of mineral formation with cooling temperatures is called Bowen’s Reaction Series (Figure 2). When this happens, it means the chemistry of the still-liquid magma changes quite a bit!
To put this into a more delicious and more relatable example, think about a giant jar of Starburst-with red, pink, yellow, and orange evenly mixed in. Let’s say you give this jar to me (I really love Starburst). I will preferentially eat all of the orange ones out of it; then the pink; then the red; and finally, we’ll only be left with yellow (gross, who eats the yellow ones?!). We’ve changed the overall composition of the magma (i.e., the jar of Starburst) by preferentially pulling out one type of material in a specific pattern. Now, take a look at the giant crystal my finger is pointing to- the zoning is going back and forth between a sodium and a calcium rich solution in the feldspar (the name of the mineral)-this indicates that the temperature of the magma where this was cooling was changing slightly, alternating between a little hotter and a little cooler.

Figure 3. This granite has almandine garnet as an accessory mineral, which means that the magma from which it formed had a lot of aluminum in it!

Now granite is really cool and it’s a very common bathroom countertop, so let’s look at another example (Figure 3)! This granite was part of a larger piece of rock that was installed in a private home bathroom in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This little piece was leftover, so the countertop store let me have it! This granite is similar to the granite from above, but it doesn’t have any zoning, meaning it all cooled without any weird changes in temperature. However, it does have one pretty cool feature-the garnets! These garnets (the little red crystals) are of the almandine variety. Almandine is a type of garnet that has a lot of iron and aluminum in it. Garnet forms in granite as an accessory mineral (meaning, not a major component) and different garnets can mean different things. In this particular sample, this almandine garnet means the magma was aluminous; meaning, there was a lot of aluminum in this magma!

Figure 4. This migmatite formed from the combination of an igneous and a metamorphic rock; this rock also has ptygmatic folding, which is seen in the lighter layers as the squiggles running across the rock. These form from high temperature and pressure and from one of the rocks being much more viscous than the other (in this case, the lighter rock is much more viscous than the darker rock- much like honey is more viscous than water).

I found this gem at a women’s bathroom in the San Francisco airport (SFX) last year (Figure 4)! This rock is called a migmatite. A migmatite is unique in that it is a cross between an igneous (formed directly from cooled magma or lava) and a metamorphic rock (a rock that was exposed to heat and pressure after its original formation). The dark and the light material you see here are from two totally different processes. The light material here is mostly quartz (the same mineral that we call amethyst or rose quartz–quartz occurs in a variety of colors). The lighter material is much more viscous-meaning, it resists flowing (like honey or molasses), while the darker stuff (primarily from minerals called pyroxene or hornblende) has a lower viscosity and flows more easily. Now, do you see how the light colored material exhibits small and irregular folds? These folds are what geologists call “ptygmatic”. These ptygmatic folds generally occur at pretty high temperatures and pressure; these variables cause the layers to fold and buckle the way that they do because of the differences in viscosity. The high temperature and pressure, along with the high viscosity of the light material, will cause these types of folds to form (these are also known as “passive folds”).

Figure 5. Internal and external molds of fossils at the St. Petersburg beach bathroom! These form when the actual shell of a creature is worn away and all that is left is the mud that either filled the inside of the shell or the mud that formed around the shell.

I recently saw this one (Figure 5) at the St. Petersburg beach in Florida, pretty close to where I live. These blocks are part of the public bathroom walls and as you can see, these bathroom walls are chock full of fossils! Wow! These fossils are from Florida and they’re pretty recent–no more than 10-20 million years old. They’re also primarily mollusks, the large group that contains octopuses, clams, snails, and oysters. Imaged here are snail fossils-you can identify these snails by their long, delicate shells- and clam fossils-you can identify those by the much larger shells that have ridges along the edges. These types of fossils are called “molds”-this means that the shell itself has been worn away and all that’s left is the sediment that either filled in the shell or the sediment that formed around the shell. The internal molds are where you can see an actual 3D shape of the inside of the shell, whereas the external molds are where you only see an impression of the shell.

Figure 6. Labrodorite is a type of feldspar that has an easy to recognize iridescent sheen. Labrodorite is most commonly found in mafic igneous rocks, like basalt!

Last but not least, my mom snapped this picture of her bathroom just for this post (thanks, Mom!)! Labradorite is a beautiful mineral-it’s a type of feldspar, which is in the same group as the lovely pink minerals seen in the granite in Figure 1. What makes labradorite so different, though, is that this feldspar doesn’t form in granite-it forms in a very different type of rock, like basalt! Basalt is an extrusive igneous rocks, so it forms from lava that cools at the Earth’s surface. Basalt is found in places like Hawaii, where it comes out of volcanoes, or at mid-ocean ridges, where new seafloor is being made. Basalt is mafic, meaning that it is full of heavy minerals like iron and magnesium. Labradorite is famous for its iridescent sheen-you can see it here in Figure 6!

I hope that this post has shown you that you don’t need to travel to fancy and far away locations to see real and beautiful geology up close. Sometimes, interesting geology can be as close as the nearest bathroom! Next time you see one of these counters, stop and take a look! What do you see? Do you see fossils? Garnets? Zoning? Do you see something entirely different? Before I go, I’d like to thank geologists Cameron Hughes, Zachary Atlas, Elisabeth Gallant, and Jeffery Ryan for help with identifying some of the details in these rock samples!

Sandy Kawano, Comparative Physiologist and Biomechanist

Who am I?

I am a nerd who turned a lifetime fascination in nature documentaries and monster movies into a career as an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, where I get to study the amazing ways that animals move through different environments and then share these discoveries to students through my role as a teacher-scholar.

How did I become a scientist?

To explain how vertebrate animals became terrestrial, I have to study the evolutionary changes that spanned the transition from fishes to tetrapods which is recorded through the anatomical changes that are left behind in fossils, such as these specimens from the Field Museum.

My career started off a bit rocky when I was rejected from the four-year university programs I applied to in high school. I wanted to become a wildlife biologist to maintain biodiversity and this roadblock made me question whether I was good enough to pursue what I loved. The thought of being a university professor hadn’t crossed my mind yet but I knew that I needed a college degree, so I attended community college where my chemistry professor explained how research helps solve mysteries. I loved puzzles, so I thought “why not?”. I transferred to the University of California, Davis, and was lucky to work with excellent professors who helped me conduct research and inspired me to study how the environment affects animal movements. I did temporarily work as a wildlife biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service during this time, but research made me realize that I could study the maintenance of biodiversity through the lens of evolution and ecology. With my mentors’ support, I completed a Ph.D. at Clemson University and earned post-doctoral fellowships at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the Royal Veterinary College. In 2017, I started a tenure-track position at California State University, Long Beach.

What do I study?

One of the aims of my research is to compare how fins and limbs allow animals to move on land and two key players in this story are the African mudskipper (Periophthalmus barbarus; left) and tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), respectively.

My research combines biology, engineering, and mathematics to reconstruct animal movement by piecing together how muscles and bones produce motion. I deconstruct how living animals move so I can build computer models that reverse-engineer the ancient movements of extinct animals. One of my goals is to figure out how vertebrates (animals with backbones) went from living in water for hundreds of millions of years as fishes to moving onto land as tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates). I enjoy studying animals that challenge the norm, such as ‘walking’ fishes, because they open our eyes to the amazing diversity on Earth and help us learn from those who are different from us. Here’s to nature’s misfits!

What would I have told younger me?

I would encourage anyone interested in science to explore diverse experiences and treat every challenge as an opportunity to learn something, whether it be about yourself or the world around you. We often treat obstacles in our lives as affirmation that we are not good enough, but it is not the obstacles that define us but the way in which we respond to those obstacles. These struggles can push us to grow stronger or approach questions with new and creative perspectives. There are many equally important ways to be a scientist and there is no single pathway to becoming a scientist, so enjoy your adventure!

Follow Sandy’s lab updates on her website and Twitter account!

Fun with Foraminifera

Audrey here-

This summer, I will graduate from with a bachelor’s degree in Geology, and then begin a Master’s program in Elementary Education. My favorite thing about being a Geology student was the fact that we had so many opportunities to learn in hands-on settings, from taking field trips to just getting to hold different rocks and fossils in the lab. As a future educator, this experience showed me exactly how important it is for science instruction to involve meaningful and tangible experiences for students, not just lectures. For the last few months, I have been working on an independent study project with two graduate students, Jen and Maggie. To combine my passion for education with my love of geology, we decided to assemble a set of resources that educators can use to effectively integrate fossils into the K-12 classroom as an educational tool.

Why foraminifera?

Paleontology education is a great way for students of all ages to learn about Geology. The use of fossils makes learning fun and hands-on. For many students, the thought of fossils brings to mind images of giant dinosaur skeletons. However, most of the fossils discovered by paleontologists are very small!

For frame of reference, we took photos of real foraminifera on a penny! Notice Abe’s nose!

Microfossils like foraminifera, or forams, have so many exciting uses for the scientific community. These planktonic marine organisms are usually the size of a grain of sand. They’re small, but mighty! Due to their small size, it can be difficult and expensive to effectively teach about forams in most classrooms. Typically, a microscope would be required to view them, but the cost of this technology is prohibitive for most school settings. Even if microscopes are present in the classroom, it can be difficult to be sure that all students are able to see and identify the specimen through the lens. In our lab, we have a set of enlarged plaster models of forams that are used to teach about the various foram morphologies (shell shapes). I think these models make great tools for teaching about microfossils, but first we needed to make them accessible for science classrooms.

Implementation

Here I, Audrey, am scanning some of the foraminifera models.

By using a 3D laser scanner, we were able to make digital 3D copies of our models. With access to 3D printing technology, anyone who has these digital files can print out their own set of foram models! All of the scans that we made are able to be accessed on an amazing website called myFOSSIL. This website is a platform for social paleontology, which means that anyone can share their 2D and 3D images of fossils. These images can also be accompanied by educational resources like lesson plans. The website is completely free to use, and you are not required to set up an account in order to view any of the fossil samples. Find our 3D fossils by clicking here!

Foraminifera in the classroom

To go along with our foram models, we created several lesson plans to guide educators through these resources. All of the lesson plans are written in order to be used with a variety of age groups. The subjects include introductory information about forams, an ecology lesson, and a high-school focused lesson on paleoclimatology. We even wrote one lesson that focuses more on English Language Arts (ELA) skills for younger students, by discussing science content, and diversity in science, through an ELA lens. The goal with these lessons is for each to be accessible to a wide range of ages and ability levels. For middle and high school students, there are a wide range of expectations for students to understand science concepts. These are outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards, and cover topics from earth science, to biology, and even engineering. These were a little easier to touch on in our lessons because 6-12 grade students have distinct and exciting milestones that they are expected to reach in their scientific development. However, for K-5 grade students, science classes are more about setting a foundation to build upon later. For this reason, elementary lessons about forams focus more on teaching students to think, research and communicate like a scientist would, using Common Core Standards as a framework. The amount of detail that each teacher decides to go into on science concepts can vary by age, ability, and other factors that we could talk about all day. However, having the opportunity to do hands-on activities with data and fossil models is a great opportunity, and a lasting experience. While high school classes might focus on more formal research projects, elementary classes could dress up like scientists to tell their classmates and parents about what they learned. There are so many possibilities!

Big Picture

As a science teacher in training, this project was tremendously helpful for me in thinking about the expectations that I might have for my future students and planning for the ways that I could differentiate these resources to be exciting and educational for students across all ages and abilities. I also think that using these lessons in any classroom would help other teachers to delve into the ways that we teach students to think of themselves. Some of our students are encouraged to pursue science from a very early age, others are not. With these resources, there are fewer barriers to accessing science education. On a large scale, this could be an amazing stepping stone for a future generation of scientists. On a small scale, I feel like I was able to better myself by working on this project, and I hope you enjoyed hearing about it.

Field Work on the Greenland Ice Sheet, Part 2

Part 2: An Attempt at Science

Megan here-

If you haven’t read Part 1 of my Greenland field work experience, check it out here! If you have read it, you’re probably wondering what research we actually worked on for those three chilly weeks. What were our research goals? What type of data did we collect? And how did we collect that data? To answer those questions, I give you Part 2: An Attempt at Science.

The University of Wyoming and University of Montana’s glaciology group has become highly involved in Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) research over the past decade. Because the ice sheet has become of critical importance in our warming climate, many scientists are trying to better understand the dynamics of the GrIS. Our collaborative group asks questions such as, how does meltwater move through the ice sheet? What mechanisms are involved in ice sheet movement? Or, what conditions lay beneath the ice? Answers to these questions help us to better understand GrIS dynamics in a changing climate.

Figure 1. Glaciers are divided into different regions based on the processes and conditions of those areas. The ELA is the equilibrium line altitude where there is no net accumulation or melting. The ablation zone is at lower altitudes and defines the margins of the ice sheet where melting occurs. In contrast, the accumulation zone defines the area where there is net accumulation of snow. Within this zone is the percolation zone, where there is some melting and we see extensive layers of firn.

For this field season, we were mostly concerned with the first of those questions. More specifically, we ask: what is the fate of meltwater in the percolation zone? To better understand what the percolation zone is, let’s take a look at the different regions or zones of a glacier (Figure 1). Any glacier (or ice sheet) is divided into two main parts: the ablation zone and the accumulation zone. The ablation zone defines the lower elevations where there is net melting. In other words, over a year-long period this region has lost mass. The opposite is the accumulation zone. Here, there is net gain in mass due to snowfall. These two zones are divided by the equilibrium line altitude (ELA) where the amounts of accumulation and melting are equal. This may seem straightforward at first glance, but a rather unusual region exists within the accumulation zone. Just higher in elevation than the ELA, there is a section of the glacier where snow melts and percolates into the firn. Firn is just altered and compacted snow. We’re curious about the fate of meltwater in the percolation zone’s firn. When snow melts to water, does it flow into the firn and refreeze? Does it percolate all the way down to the glacial ice layers? Or does it runoff toward the terminus (“the snout”) of the glacier and reach the ocean?

Figure 2. We used a hot water drill to penetrate the upper 100 meters of the firn at our study site. The drillstem is attached to a long hose, which carries hundreds of gallons of hot water from a tub to the borehole. As the hot water is blasted at the cold firn, it melts the firn and creates a borehole.

To answer these questions, we used a variety of research techniques that look at the structure and temperature of the firn throughout the full depth of the percolation zone, which is thought to be less than 100 meters thick in this area. The five principle tools we used were coring, hot water drilling, videography, temperature sensors, and radar. Coring involves extracting long cylinders of snow, firn, and ice from the ground below us, and then logging the densities and structures of the core. To reach greater depths than with coring, we used a hot water drill to inject hot water into the ground and create a borehole (Figure 2). Once we had a completed 100-meter borehole, we extended a video camera down the hole to visual identify interesting structures (e.g. ice layers) in the firn. In both the hot water-drilled boreholes and the boreholes remaining from coring, we installed long strings of temperature sensors that measure and record the firn temperatures at increasing depths. These temperature data will be recorded for the next year or two, so we will return next summer to collect the data. The final technique we use, ground-penetrating radar, provides insight into the firn layers below our feet. By transmitting radio waves into the ground and then receiving the waves, we can observe variations in firn density and estimate water content. Together, these five techniques provide a means to better understand the behavior of meltwater in the percolation zone.

Before arriving in Greenland, I was highly intimidated by all of the research techniques we had planned to use. I had never been involved in a full field season, never cored or drilled firn, and never even stepped on a glacier for that matter. However, I found that the best way to learn something is to actually just try doing it. With the guidance of a patient and knowledgeable advisor, I learned more than I thought was possible in three short weeks. Being in the field provides such an excellent opportunity to take an immersive approach to science: living, working, and learning in the presence of what you study.

Joy Buongiorno Altom, Geomicrobiologist

Figure 1: My very first expedition to Svalbard for collecting mud! The Arctic is especially vulnerable to ecosystem changes with continued climate warming. To understand these changes, we head up to 79 degrees North and look at carbon-cycling microbes to gain insight into their ecological structure and function.

My love for science was born freshman year of college when I was encouraged to ask questions about nature and began reading books about the evolutionary origin of life and the cosmos. Through reading, I found that science is the best tool that we have to understand the world around us and that we should never stop asking questions of our origins. However, big questions related to evolutionary histories, for example, require the collaboration and contribution of multiple different fields of science and so, I set out on an educational journey that would allow me to grow my scientific toolbox to encompass skills across multiple disciplines. My background in zoology taught me perspective on communities and how ecological linkages between different species can play crucial roles in how an ecosystem functions. I then delved into geoscience to gain an understanding of how organisms interact with their physical and chemical environment. Now, I evaluate sediment microbial communities and their contribution to biogeochemical cycling of nutrients with genomic sequencing analyses.

Figure 2: Example of a microbial network analysis from sediment in Svalbard. Each little symbol is a different type of microorganism, and lines connecting each symbol indicates that they share either a positive (solid) or negative (dashed) relationship. Colors indicate relatedness (same colors = same family history) and different shapes indicate how they eat. These networks can help us identify novel relationships between microorganisms and generate hypotheses about what is causing a positive or negative relationship.

I am currently using my cross-discipline training to paint a complete picture of microbial communities in Arctic sediments. My goal is to make useful contributions to models aimed at describing how continued climate warming will affect carbon cycling in the Arctic Circle. It is currently unknown if the biological feedbacks associated with glacial retreat and warming surface ocean temperatures will lead to a net carbon sink (removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) or net source (contributing to atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions). To answer these questions, I collect environmental DNA and RNA from sediments in different fjords all over Svalbard alongside geochemistry measurements. I employ microbial network analyses to find links between community members and geochemistry to unravel the hidden drivers behind microbial abundance and community composition. With genomic sequencing data and cutting-edge bioinformatics tools, I evaluate the carbon cycling potential within nearly complete microbial genomes collected from these sediments and then computationally map their genes to RNA activity in the environment. We are finding that spatial gradients in the amount and quality of organic matter control metabolic potential of sediment microbial communities.

Figure 3: Beautiful mud core. The mud in Kongsfjorden, Svalbard is a rusty red color because of the surrounding iron-rich bedrock geology. Bands of black are where iron oxide minerals form when chemical conditions are just right. The combination of sediment accumulation and biogeochemical reactions causes this lovely tiger-striped appearance.

Pursuing a career in science has allowed me to travel the world, meet new and interesting people, experience cultures different from mine, and cultivate relationships that will prove invaluable for future collaborations. I love what I do, and encourage anyone who wants to pursue a career in science to do it! My advice to aspiring young scientists is to identify a mentor you trust early on that will guide you through tough times of self-doubt that may arise, or provide strong letters of recommendation.

Follow Joy’s research and work on Twitter by clicking here!

2017 Hurricane Season Changes Lizard Population in Turks and Caicos

Hurricane-induced selection on the morphology of an island lizard
Colin M. Donihue, Anthony Herrel, Anne-Claire Fabre, Ambika Kamath, Anthony J. Geneva, Thomas W. Schoener, Jason J. Kolbe & Jonathan B. Losos

What data were used? Individuals of Anolis scriptus were captured and specific measurements (such as total length, length specific bones, longest toe on fore- and hindlimb, area of toepad) were taken of each lizard along with pictures. In the initial survey study, 71 lizards were captured and measured and in the post-hurricane study, 93 lizards were examined.

Five lizard individuals undergoing the wind behavior experiment. In the first frame for each lizard you can see that they all have the same perch tactic on the dowel as the leaf blower is turned on. By the second or third frame, it is observed that their hindlimbs are starting to have air flow under them and by the third or fourth frame their back legs have completely detached from the perch. These are the lizards that were captured after the hurricanes occurred and have larger toepads and decreased femur lengths.

Methods: After taking measurements of all lizards, a multivariate analysis of covariance was completed. This type of analysis is used when a question has many variables (in this case all of the different measurements) and you want to know if there is a significant difference between the measurements. So the researchers in this case wanted to know how different the measurements taken before Hurricanes Irma and Maria were from the measurements taken after. In addition to this statistical analysis, a behavioral study was completed to see how the observed changes in predominant body type were beneficial in withstanding hurricane force winds. This elegant study was comprised of placing a lizard on a wooden dowel surrounded by a net and padding to catch the lizard as it was blown off the dowel. A leaf blower was then turned on and “wind speed” gradually increased until the lizard could no longer hold on to the dowel.

Results: After completing the statistical analyses, it was found that the morphologies (shape) of A. scriptus on these two islands were significantly different from the morphologies of the individuals measured prior to the hurricanes. Two of the most notable changes was the increase in size of toepads on both the fore- and hindlimbs, and the decrease in femur (thigh bone) length. These changes in morphology are what led the researchers to predict that these surviving lizards had a better clinging ability. The results of the wind behavior test show that all lizards clung to the dowel in the same way with their femurs jutting out. As wind speeds increased the hindlimbs lost their grip on the dowel first, suggesting that their hindlimbs catch wind and ultimately pull them off of their perch.

Why is this study important? This study is important because Anolis lizards are known to be good examples of adaptive radiation (evolving to be better suited for many different ecological roles) and this is the first study where researchers were able to study two populations immediately preceding and shortly after two hurricanes devastated the islands they initially studied.

The big picture: Big picture, this study is important to understanding how small island populations react to severe weather events. The researchers were able to determine that this was a natural selection event because even though there was variation in morphologies, the trends all show this shift to being better suited to hold onto a perch in high winds. The next question that is addressed in this paper is whether or not this will be a permanent adaptation or if the previous level of morphological variation will be able to return. The answer to this question lies with the lizards just as much as it lies with climate change. As the Earth’s climate continues to warm and weather events continue to become more extreme and more frequent, researchers and inhabitants of these islands may see permanent shifts in the morphologies of the organisms on these islands as they adapt to be able to survive these weather extremes.

*All lizards were returned to their habitats unharmed after their capture and the following experiments*

Citation: Donihue, C. M., A. Herrel, A. Fabre, A. Kamath, A. J. Geneva, T. W. Schoener, J. J. Kolbe, J. B. Losos, 2018. Hurricane-induced selection on the morphology of an island lizard. Nature, 1-8. Data from study.

Prof. Richard Damian Nance, Structural Geologist

Type locality of the 460-440 million-year-old megacrystic Esperanza granitoids, Acatlán Complex, southern Mexico.

I am a field-based structural geologist and I have been in love with geology for as long as I can remember. If you like a good “whodunit” then geology is an endless delight. All science is about inquiry and analysis, but geology is more than this – it involves the imagination. Like a good detective novel, geology provides incomplete evidence that must be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing to come up with a story or, in my case, a picture of the past.

My interests lie in plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle, and the influence of these global processes on crustal evolution, mantle circulation, climate, sea level and the biosphere. To tackle such a wide field requires a broad geological background. I am interested in any evidence in the rock record pertaining to the Earth’s changing geography with time. So I collect data on structural kinematics, magmatic environments, depositional settings and provenance, and metamorphic history. I also date rocks and analyze their chemistry and isotopic signatures. I even collect fossils! In this way I try to interpret the geologic history of broad regions so that I can reconstruct past continental configurations and thereby evaluate the causes and effects of Earth’s moving continents and the long-term geologic, climatic and biological consequences of their episodic assembly into supercontinents.

Paleogeographic map of the Rheic Ocean, which separated the southern continents (Gondwana) from the northern continents (Laurentia and Baltica) for much of the Paleozoic Era. The map attempts to reposition the continents in Early Silurian time, about 440 million years ago.

This “big picture” approach to geology suits me well because there is really no aspect of the science that doesn’t fascinate me. For me, geology has not just provided a fantastic career, it has been a lifelong passion. When I joined the Humphrey Davy grammar school in the UK at the age of 12, I came under the spell of a truly exceptional teacher by the name of Bob Quixley. Mr. Quixley taught geography, but his real delight was geology and his enthusiasm for the subject, and the blackboard artwork he crafted to convey it, were addictive. For a period of five years, he had us captivated and, in testament to his influence, no fewer than five of my classmates and I went on to university and careers in geology.

It was a decision I have never questioned. Geology embraces everything that makes a career rewarding. It is important, it matters to both science and society, it is varied and interesting, it takes place in the field and the classroom as well as the office, it pays well and, most of all, it is a lot of fun!

A dangerous game. Checking my undergraduate field mapping 35 years later on a UN-sponsored international field trip to Cornwall and the Lizard ophiolite (a piece of ocean floor linked to the Rheic Ocean) in SW England.

What, you might ask, have supercontinents to do with anything that society cares about? Well, what we don’t grow, we mine, and plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle play a vital role in the search for mineral deposits and energy resources. They also help us understand the natural environment, the distribution of our water resources and the origin of geologic hazards. They additionally influence Earth’s climate and so help us to determine what happens when climate changes, and whether the climate change we are witnessing today is of human origin or a natural phenomena. And this just touches the surface.

So if you are studying geology or think about doing so, I strongly encourage you to continue. I have never met a geologist who didn’t love what they were doing, and to be paid to do what you love is worth a fortune!

The Bay of Fundy, Part 2

High tide at the Sea Caves in St. Martin, New Brunswick. Far out in the distance are quite large caves, but you can’t see them due to the high tide!

This is the final post in the series of the geology of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. To recap for those of you who might not have read my first post, I documented all the geology I saw recently on a vacation my husband and I took to Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. This is the second post all about the geology of the Bay of Fundy! This one, though, will talk about the famous rocks of the bay and how they got the unusual shapes that made them famous. Remember, the Bay of Fundy is famous because it has the highest tides on Earth.

Scenic photo of an overlook at the Fundy National Parkway

So what do these tides do to the rocks? To answer this, let’s first go to St. Martin, to the famous Sea Caves. You might be looking at this first image and think “what caves!”? Well, this first image is taken at high tide, so the caves are almost entirely underwater. High and low tide were separated by about six hours, so we saw high tide, admired the lovely scenery, and drove to see the Fundy Trail Parkway, a park that you can drive or hike the entire way through for some GORGEOUS scenery. There are spots to pull over and get out, hike short distances, or just look out from a cliff to see some beautiful sites. Here’s a picture overlooking the Bay of Fundy – remember, these lovely coastlines were largely created by the formation, movement, and melting of glaciers.

Low tide at the Sea Caves in St. Martin. This is taken at the same distance from the caves as the image from high tide.

We returned to the Sea Caves to see it at low tide-take a look! This picture is from the SAME spot, give or take a few feet. This photo should show you the height and amount of water moved by tides every day in the Bay of Fundy. The presence of these caves is due to mechanical weathering-literally, the waves associated with the tides coming in and out are quite strong and they break down the rocks. Thousands of years of these waves have created immense caves and crevasses. Once you are able to walk across the seafloor at low tide, you can truly appreciate just how incredibly large these caves are and just how strong the tides are! Here’s an image of me inside one of the caves!

I’m standing at the very back of one of these sea caves!
As we walk across the seafloor, you can see how large these cave systems really are-they’ve been created by thousands of years of strong wave action, something we call mechanical weathering.

There’s one last thing I want to point out about these tides-the effect that they have on living creatures! Snails and barnacles live in high abundance all over the area affected by low tide and these creatures find incredible ways to survive when the low tide means that they aren’t covered by water! Snails will gather in small cracks in rocks where water will pool; barnacles will form more in shadier areas, so the rocks will remain more damp than those exposed to the sun. Sometimes, snails will hang on to a piece of algae just to survive until the water comes back! Check out this image of a snail holding on for dear life!

Snails have methods to survive low tide-this snail is clinging to a piece of algae to survive until the water comes back into the area. This picture makes me think of Jurassic Park and the famous line “Life, uh, finds a way”

Now, let’s travel north to Hopewell Park, where the most famous rocks from the Bay of Fundy are. First, let’s look at the difference between low and high tide. These images are taken just about 4 hours apart. So the rock you see here was broken off from the cliffs due to chemical weathering-water percolating through cracks and breaking them apart. But, the odd shape that you see now, where the rock is much narrower on the bottom-that’s due to mechanical weathering. Wave action over thousands of years has caused these shapes to form. These rocks CAN fall without warning (and have, even recently), so park rangers are always making sure to look for signs of instability.

Low tide at Hopewell Rocks. These rocks are HUGE!

To really experience high tide, my husband and I signed up to kayak through these rocks. To say that the waves here were strong is an understatement! The waves were cresting at just under 4ft-so imagine sitting down on the beach front-you’d be completely covered (if you were curious, kayaking in 4ft waves and high winds was a blast, but also a little terrifying!)! Here’s an up close picture of that same rock you saw in the previous two pictures, from the kayak! Now you can really see where the rock is narrowed at the base-the line between the narrow and wider part of the rock marks the highest the tides can go.

High tide at Hopewell Rocks. Park rangers have to close this off quickly when the tide starts coming back in, to prevent people from being swept in the strong waves.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! I think one of the most important things I can say here is that this trip made me rediscover my love of geology. Sometimes, when you work long hours every day as a geologist, it can become a little hard to remember just why you love it. If you’re feeling that way, I encourage you to get out and go explore for a little while- a few hours, or even a few months, if you can!

An image of the rocks from the kayak at high tide. Take a look at how wave action has shaped this rock, from how it narrows at the base and has a large crack in the center.