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for September, 2009.
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Water. When you live on an island, you’re surrounded by it and you tend to take it for granted. But there have been years when more people drowned than died in car wrecks here on Guam and I have always maintained that all beaches should have signs posted on them that say, “Mama Ocean does not forgive.”
We all must have water, we’re walking bags of the stuff and water has long been THE limiting factor of space exploration. It has for years cost about $10,000 a pound to put anything in low Earth orbit (LEO). You can quickly figure how much it would cost to put you in orbit.
But the figures quoted by the Russians to put tourists into LEO are in the multiple millions. Why? Because you have to eat in space, and most importantly you must drink and water weighs eight pounds a gallon. Every human on Earth consumes roughly five gallons of water every day. No, you don’t drink that much, but you water your lawn, eat meat from animals that drank water, eat fruits and vegetables that had to have water to grow and you go to the bathroom.
Although the bathrooms in space are different, space exploration and most importantly colonization, requires those five gallons of water every single day for every single person on the trip. Let’s see, that’s $80,000 for every gallon of water boosted into space and $400,000 for one day’s water ration for everybody involved. No wonder the Russians want all that money!!
That’s why the new water reclamation system on the International Space Station is so important and why scientists have been SO interested in trying to locate water on the Moon. If you can find water where you’re going, you don’t have to take so much with you.
As I’ve mentioned before, the Moon has a very harsh environment. It gets up to +250 degrees in the daytime and to –250 degrees at night. If you make your colonies underground, the average temperature is zero, which helps things out as far as easily making an Earth-normal environment, but doesn’t help you at all with the water requirements.
Now most people think that the Earth is the only place in the solar system with water, but that’s not true. Water is made from two elements, oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen is fairly common in the solar system although its state as a free gas is found only on Earth because oxygen combines with almost everything and free oxygen has to be continually generated.
Hydrogen is THE most common element in the universe, not just the solar system. Probably somewhere between 98 and 99 percent of ALL the atoms in the universe are hydrogen which should give you some idea of how rare the rest of the elements truly are.
Water, it turns out is very common in our solar system, but virtually all water exists in the form of ice. And not just ice-as-we-know-it. Water is a very malleable molecule and there are at least 15 forms of solid water; some of them are not ice at all, but what we would call rocks. Earth is one of the few places in the solar system (but not the only one) that has the right temperatures to support lots of liquid water.
The Moon has no atmosphere and that 500-degree temperature range mentioned earlier virtually guarantees that when the Sun shines on the lunar surface, the +250 degree heat boils all the water off into space. The Moon is as dry as . . . well, anywhere where there is NO water. And despite the old ‘dark side of the Moon’ legend, the Sun does shine everywhere on the Moon. Well, almost everywhere.
The Moon rotates virtually straight up and that means that the area around both poles would be strange worlds indeed. The Earth rotates tilted and that means that the north pole gets sunlight half the year and darkness half the year. Ditto the south pole.
If you’re a billiard ball and you spin straight up and down, you’d see the Sun endlessly circle your horizon at each pole; but the Moon is not a billiard ball. It’s a big hunk of rock that’s been battered by other rocks for 4 or 5 billion years. One of the largest craters in the solar system is located at the Moon’s south pole.
Hmmmm . . . . big deep hole . . . that would be a place where literally, the Sun don’t shine. And if the Sun never shines there and that big deep hole happened to be made by a comet (read ‘great big iceberg’) then at the bottom of that hole, there could be . . . . water ice.
And it’s apparently true. Three different spacecraft have independently confirmed the presence of water on the Moon. Not only is there water at the poles, there are hydroxyl ions over the entire surface. Scientist still don’t know how those survive the heat of the Sun, but ice on the Moon means that you don’t have to take all your water with you at $400,000 per human per day. Even recycling can’t keep the cost down that much. Water on the Moon makes lunar colonization possible.
But what about beyond? You have to take your water with you when you go to the Moon, but the trip would last, at most two days. If you want to explore further; say travel to Mars, you’re looking at a six-month journey minimum. Go ahead; figure out how much that costs at $400,000 per human per day. Of course, recycling would be the norm, and we know how to do it, but what happens once you get to Mars and want to settle there?
I’ve always been amused by the frequent stories about how we’ve recently discovered that there’s WATER on Mars. We’ve known there’s water on Mars since at least the mid-1800’s. Mars has ice caps, and the one at the north pole is made mostly of water ice. The one at the south pole is made mostly of frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice which should make you readers with experience with dry ice realize just how cold it is on Mars.
But as near as we could tell, water on Mars was basically confined to the polar regions which severely limits the location of your colony. Mars does spin tilted and has definite seasons. Living near the north pole so you could harvest the water introduces a whole new world of risks.
But we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the surface of the Earth because we’ve put several increasingly sophisticated satellites in orbit around the Red Planet. (And why do we know more about Mars than Earth? Most of the land on Earth is covered by that liquid water stuff and orbiting satellites can’t see it!)
These satellites have been orbiting Mars for years and comparing current data with the old pictures has revealed some interesting things. In a report in the journal Science, NASA says that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has spotted ice in the bottom of five new Martian craters that were made by meteor impacts. And these craters aren’t at the poles; they’re in the middle latitudes. And they’re small and shallow, which means the water isn’t very deep below the surface.
Above: A fresh crater on Mars photographed on Oct. 18, 2008, and again on Jan. 14, 2009, by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera. The crater is about 15 feet wide and 4 feet deep.
So far, the MRO camera team has found bright ice exposed at five Martian sites with new craters that one and half to eight feet deep. None of the craters existed in earlier images of the same sites. The bright patches of exposed ice darkened within weeks as the ice vaporized into the thin Martian atmosphere.
Right: The patch of ice exposed at this late-2008 crater was large enough for the orbiter’s spectrometers to take readings and confirm that it is water.
An image taken by the MRO on 10 August 2008, showed a new crater that appeared after an image of the same ground was taken 67 days earlier. The opportunity to study such a fresh impact site prompted a look by the orbiter’s higher resolution camera on 12 September 2009, confirming a cluster of small craters.
The bright material at that site didn’t cover enough area for the MRO’s spectrometer to determine what it was made from. But the team quickly discovered another crater with a much larger area of bright material.
Above: This map shows five locations where fresh impact craters have excavated water ice from just beneath the surface of Mars (sites 1 through 5) and the Viking Lander 2 landing site (VL2), in the context of color coding to indicate estimated depth to ice.
The ice exposed by these fresh impacts suggests that NASA’s Viking Lander 2, digging into mid-latitude Mars in 1976, might have struck ice if it had dug only 4 inches deeper. The Viking 2 mission, which consisted of an orbiter and a lander, was launched in September 1975 and became one of the first two space probes to land successfully on the Martian surface. The Viking 1 and 2 landers also conducted on-the-spot biological tests for life on another planet. The results of some of those tests have never been adequately explained.
What if the Viking 2 arm had dug that extra four inches and revealed unmistakable evidence that there is life on Mars? Would we be there already? Probably. But we’ll get there eventually, and water, water everywhere will certainly help us make the trip!
Everybody loves the cute animals. Just mention the word ‘panda’ or ‘meerkeet’ or ‘kitten/puppy’ and watch everybody go all warm and runny. But say ‘roach’ or ‘rat’ or ‘squid or ‘parasite’ and watch the upper lip curl. But who’s to say which of these animals are more important in the overall scheme of things? Every animal on Earth fills a niche and fulfills a purpose or it wouldn’t be here. So today we’re going to talk about some of those animals that do NOT evoke the “Aw-w-w, how cute!” expression. And you just might learn something!
If I were making a list of the animals on my personal top 10 ‘love to hate’ list, I suspect the cockroach would be right up there at #1. But don’t sell the cockroach short. Recent research has revealed some very interesting (in the Chinese sense of the word) things about this astounding insect.
QUICK! STEP ON IT!
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia recently examined cockroaches to see whether they change their breathing patterns in response to changes in carbon dioxide or oxygen concentration, or humidity.
They discovered that changes in carbon dioxide and oxygen concentrations didn’t have a whole lot of effect on a roaches breathing habits but they did find that the widely loathed insects can hold their breath to save water.
They concluded that cockroaches close the spiracles through which they breathe primarily to save water. In dry environments the insects took shorter breaths than in moist conditions. They also discovered that when cockroaches are resting, they periodically stop breathing for as long as 40 minutes, though why they do so has been unclear.
The study deals a blow to the theory that cockroaches hold their breath to survive underground, where CO2 levels can be poisonous. Nor did the study support the idea that cockroaches hold their breath to avoid damage to their body tissue from chemical reactions with oxygen.
The nifty breath-holding adaptation has allowed cockroaches to colonize drier habitats. Cockroaches also have a waxy coating that helps hold in the water. One of the easiest ways to kill cockroaches in drier climates is to spread kitty litter made from diatomaceous Earth in your cabinets. Diatomaceous Earth is made of diatom shells and diatoms make their shells of glass. When a cockroach runs over these tiny pieces of broken glass, it scores the waxy coating on their shell and they dehydrate and die. That doesn’t work here, unfortunately, it’s too wet.
Cockroaches evolved in the humid conditions of a rainforest, but they are definitely adaptable and can cope in a wide range of environmental conditions. Will the sun ever set on the empire of the cockroach? Not any time soon. Cockroaches have been around for 250 MILLION years. They survived the dinosaurs and they will, no doubt, survive us!
So, we’ve established that, although nobody likes them, cockroaches will probably outlive humans as a species. This leads us to the next icky topic of discussion: parasites. If I’m making that list with the cockroach at the top, parasites certainly rank up there in the top ten. Parasites (specifically fleas) are the subject of the world’s shortest poem. And the poem is: “Adam had ‘em!” Parasites have certainly been around for a long time, but what happens when their hosts go extinct?
THE HIDDEN COST OF EXTINCTION
We wring our hands and gnash our teeth over the loss of endangered species like the panda or the polar bear. But what happens to the parasites hosted by endangered species when they go extinct? And although most people would side with the panda over the parasite, which group should we worry about more?
Researchers from North Carolina State University recently published a paper that examines the concept of co-extinction, or the domino effect of extinctions caused by species loss. For example, each fig species tends to be pollinated by a single fig wasp. The loss of the tree should cause the extinction of the wasp and vice versa. Mathematical models suggest that co-extinctions due to the actions of humans are very common, the paper asserts. Yet, surprisingly enough, there have been few reported cases of co-extinction in the scientific literature.
The models suggest thousands of co-extinctions have already occurred and that hundreds of thousands may be on the horizon. But few such events have been observed. The scientists aren’t sure if the co-extinctions are happening and not being tracked, or if parasites are better at switching partners than we give them credit for, or something in between. Maybe some of the ‘specialized relationships’ – like between the figs and fig wasps – aren’t so specialized.
In addition, the researchers say that the models predict that the number of parasite extinctions should be much larger than the number of host extinctions since the diversity of parasitic or affiliated species – which may include things like viruses, bacteria ticks, lice mites and a whole host of internal parasites — is several orders of magnitude greater than that of their hosts.
This numbers game alone presents strong evidence that suggests co-extinctions are more important than the original host extinctions themselves. But the paper also examines other costs of co-extinction – including the losses of biological diversity, unique species traits and what we can learn about evolutionary history.
But that’s not the really scary part. According to the researchers, there’s a distinct possibility that declines in host species could drive parasite species to switch onto alternative hosts, which in turn could escalate the rate of emerging pathogens and parasites both for humans and our domesticated animals and plants. Simply put, when a host becomes rare, its parasites have two choices: jump ship to another host or go extinct. Either situation is a problem.
The researchers noted that the regions where new human diseases like bird flu, are emerging coincide with the regions where the most mammal and bird species are endangered. We’ve talked for a long time about the negative consequences of the endangerment of the species we love but getting stuck with their parasites is a consequence nobody bargained for!
And now we turn our attention to a much more loveable animal than cockroaches and parasites, but you’ll have to admit, that octopi probably still fall in the ‘ugly’ category. And this tale relates the story of how one hapless octopus turned up in the most unlikely of places. As a fossil.
DEM BONES, DEM BONES, DEM DRY BONES
When the story broke several years ago about the ‘hobbits’ found on Flores Island in Indonesia; I was taken by this tale of miniature hominids. But what really fascinated me is that the news feeds kept referring to the ‘hobbit fossils’. I kept wondering what the real story was because fossils simply don’t form in tropical conditions. The constant rainfall keeps the bones from ever acquiring the minerals that turn them into rocks.
And when I finally read the scientific reports I discovered I was right. The Flores skeletons may have been over 80,000 years old, but they were NOT fossils. They were 80,000 year old bones. If you think about it though, fossils are almost always bones. So, what are the odds that you can find a fossil of something that has no bones? Read on.
Even if you’ve never met an octopus in the flesh, the eight arms, suckers, and sack-like body are almost as familiar a body-plan as the four legs, tail and head of cats and dogs. Unlike vertebrates, however, octopi don’t have skeletons. While this allows them to squeeze into impossibly small spaces, it does create problems for scientists interested in evolutionary history. When did octopi acquire their characteristic body-plan, for example? Nobody really knows, because fossil octopi are rarer than, well, pretty much any rare thing you care to mention.
The chances of an oct
opus corpse surviving long enough to be fossilized are so small that prior to this discovery only a single fossil species was known, and from fewer specimens than the eight legs of an octopus.
The body of an octopus is composed almost entirely of muscle and skin, and when an octopus dies, it quickly decays and liquefies into a slimy blob. After just a few days the carcass disappears entirely. The result is that preservation of an octopus as a fossil is about as unlikely as finding a fossil sneeze, and none of the 200-300 species of living octopus has ever been found in fossilized form. Until now, that is.
Paleontologists have just identified three new species of fossil octopus discovered in Cretaceous rocks in Lebanon. The five specimens are 95 million years old but, astonishingly, preserve the octopuses’ eight arms with traces of muscles and those characteristic rows of suckers. Even traces of the ink and internal gills are present in some specimens.
"These are sensational fossils, extraordinarily well preserved," says Dirk Fuchs of the Freie University Berlin, lead author of the report. But what surprised the scientists most was how similar the specimens are to modern octopus: "these things are 95 million years old, yet one of the fossils is almost indistinguishable from living species." This provides important evolutionary information.
The more primitive relatives of octopi had fleshy fins along their bodies. The new fossils are so well preserved that it’s possible to tell they didn’t have these fleshy fins. This pushes back the origins of the modern octopus by tens of millions of years, and while this is scientifically significant, perhaps the most remarkable thing about these fossils is that they exist at all.
Keuppia levante — one of the new species of fossil octopus discovered in Cretaceous rocks in Lebanon. (Credit: Dr. Dirk Fuchs)
Animals. They don’t all have to be loveable to tell us some pretty interesting things about themselves, the Earth and us! Cruise on over to the Deep Website at www.thedeepradioshow.com to learn more about ugly animals and many other topics. Enjoy!
Well, after reviewing the subjects in my files, I’ve discovered the one that’s dear to my heart is bulging. That’s the ‘space’ file of course, and most of you know that I run the University of Guam Planetarium and I’m also known as “The Star Lady”.
So without further ado, let’s don our spacesuits and make some excursions into the unknown. As I tell my astronomy students, everything you learn in college has to do with the happenings on a very small planet. The course I teach is about everything else! We’ll travel some distance away from our tiny planet for our first stories and then return a little closer to home.
STAR LIGHT, STAR BRIGHT
Most little kids will tell you that stars are star-shaped and very small. They are, of course, wrong. Stars are gigantic balls (our Sun is almost a million miles across) and they’re gigantic atomic bombs. They generate their heat and light from a process called nuclear fusion and when they die, some strange and wonderful things can happen.
Our first story concerns what is probably my favorite star (after the Sun, of course) and it’s also probably the favorite star of every schoolchild everywhere. The star is Betelgeuse and it’s really hard not to like a star whose name is pronounced “Beetlejuice”!
But in addition to the cool name, Betelgeuse is a truly awesome star; one of the largest we know about. It’s a red supergiant and it’s almost 1000 times larger than our Sun. If Betelgeuse took our Sun’s place in our solar system, the star’s edge would be past the orbit of Jupiter and we’d be inside it!
Betelgeuse is nearing the end of its lifespan and it will soon become a supernova. The star is close enough that when that happens, Betelgeuse will become so bright it will be visible in the daytime.
One of the questions that remain about stars like Betelgeuse is just how they shed the tremendous quantities of material they produce. Astronomers have used the European Space Agency’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to take a closer look at the gigantic star.
The team used a technique called adaptive optics to obtain very good images of Betelgeuse, even with Earth’s turbulent, image-distorting atmosphere in the way. In addition to the adaptive optics technique, only the very sharpest exposures were used. They were combined to form an image much sharper than a single, longer exposure would be. The resolution of this image would allow you to see a tennis ball in orbit around the Earth!
Using these techniques, the astronomers discovered a large plume of gas that extends from the surface of Betelgeuse to at least three billion miles out into space. (That’s about how far away Neptune is.) This plume tells astronomers that Betelgeuse isn’t shedding its matter evenly.
The scientists decided that they were looking at the gas streaming out of one of the poles, or that the plume was simply the top of a very large convection current in the star but there was no way to tell at that resolution.
So another team of researchers used the Very Large Telescope Interferometer which combines the light from three auxiliary telescopes; each with large mirrors. The resolution of this combined instrument was the equivalent of seeing a marble in orbit around the Earth. By using this instrument, astronomers were able to see gas moving on different areas of Betelgeuse’s surface ― the first time this has been done for a star other than the Sun.
The observations revealed that the gas in Betelgeuse’s atmosphere is moving vigorously up and down, and that these bubbles are as big as the star itself. The astronomers now propose that these large-scale gas motions roiling under Betelgeuse’s red surface are behind the ejection of the massive plume into space.
This artist’s impression shows the Betelgeuse as it was revealed ESO’s Very Large Telescope. You can see the plume and the bubble boiling on its surface. These discoveries help explain how these mammoths shed material at such a tremendous rate. (Credit: ESO/L. Calçada)
TWINKLE, TWINKLE LITTLE STAR
After a star like Betelgeuse becomes a supernova, what remains can become what’s called a white dwarf (it can also become a neutron star or a black hole, but we’re not going there this week!). Astronomers have used the data from a satellite that’s sadly no longer with us to discover some really interesting things about one of these stellar remnants.
Although there’s a marketing rip-off scam that purports to name stars for your loved ones, stars are never named for people. There’s been an international prohibition against the practice for centuries. So, most stars have letter and number designations. The white dwarf we’re interested in today is named KPD 0005+5106. Since I loathe typing meaningless strings of letters and numbers, I think we’ll temporarily name it for something small and white and valuable. We’ll call it Diamond.
The kids in the Planetarium ask me how hot the Sun is and I tell them that the inhaled end of a cigarette is around 1,200 degrees and that the surface temperature of the Sun is 12,000 degrees. White dwarf suns are considerably hotter than our star, however and the surface temperatures of many of them have been measured in excess of 100,000 degrees.
Diamond was discovered in 1985 and appears in visible light telescopes as a faint blue star. Blue stars are much hotter than our yellow Sun or white stars which means that Diamond is hotter than most ‘white’ dwarf stars. Theories of stellar evolution predicted stars as hot as Diamond, but astronomers never thought they’d see one because the stage that produces them doesn’t last very long.
The astronomers studying Diamond used the data gathered by NASA’s space-based Far-Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) (1999-2007 RIP) and realized something interesting. Diamond is so hot, that amounts of its energy are being radiated in the far-ultraviolet; the first time this has been observed for any star. The analysis of data from FUSE proves that Diamond’s surface temperature has to be over 200,000 degrees and Diamond is the hottest star we know about!
BRIGHT LIGHTS AND BOOMY NOISES
A few weeks ago, I talked about the new prevalence of thunderstorms on Guam and the fact that air pollution from China is undoubtedly what’s causing them. Lightning is a gigantic electric spark and it’s quite common on the gas giants. There’s been speculation for a long time that lightning also occurs on Venus and in fact, one of our orbiting spaceships confirmed that a few years ago.
Mars has long been considered a ‘dead’ world but the presence of methane detected in Mars’ atmosphere last year says that either Mars has active volcanoes, or there’s primitive life on the Red Planet. Now new data has shown that there’s also lightning on Mars.
University of Michigan researchers have found signs of electrical discharges during dust storms on the Red Planet. The bolts were ‘dry lightning’, the only kind you can have on Mars since there’s no water vapor in the thin atmosphere of Mars.
What the planetologists saw was a series of huge and sudden electrical discharges caused by a large dust storm. There was no rain associated with them, but the implied possibilities are exciting because electrical activity in Martian dust storms has important implications for Mars science.
It affects atmospheric chemistry, habitability and the preparations for human exploration. And it might even have implications for the origin of life, reports Nilton Re
nno, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences.
The researchers used a microwave detector that can detect between heat radiation and other types of radiation. The instrument took measurements of microwave emissions from Mars for approximately five hours a day for 12 days between May 22 and June 16, 2006. On June 8, 2006, an unusual pattern of non-thermal radiation and an intense Martian dust storm occurred at the same time. This was also the only time non-thermal radiation was detected and non-thermal radiation suggests the presence of lightning.
The researchers reviewed the data to determine the strength, duration and frequency of the non-thermal activity, as well as the possibility of other sources. But each test led to the conclusion that the dust storm likely caused dry lightning.
This work confirms soil measurements from the Viking landers 30 years ago. Data from the Viking landers raised the possibility that Martian dust storms might be electrically active like Earth’s thunderstorms and thus, might be a source of reactive chemistry.
"Mars continues to amaze us. Every new look at the planet gives us new insights," said Michael Sanders, manager of the exploration systems and technology office at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a researcher involved in this study.
An illustration of a dust storm on Mars. (Credit: Brian Grimm and Nilton Renno)
Space in general continues to amaze me. That’s what I love about my field. It changes every day!!
Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
Greetings everyone! Well, the animal file is beginning to bulge and we’ve got several stories of animals both living and dead in strange and unexpected places.
WHAT’S UNDER YOUR PARKING LOT?
When most of us think about animal research, we think about it happening in far-distant and inhospitable places like jungles. When most of us think about animal fossils, we get the same mental pictures, but this time, it’s wind-blown deserts that spring to mind. We don’t associate either endeavor with big cities.
But that certainly doesn’t include one of the world’s richest fossil fields; smack in the middle of one of the world’s biggest cities; Los Angeles California. In addition to being famous for movies stars and huge brush fires and earthquakes, the city of angels is also home to the La Brea Tar Pits.
The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, has recently made a discovery so huge it could potentially rewrite the scientific account of the La Brea Tar Pits and their surrounding area—one of the richest sources of information about life in the last Ice Age.
The La Brea Tar Pits are located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. (If Los Angeles can be said to have a ‘downtown’. Dorothy Parker once said that Los Angeles was 72 suburbs in search of a city.) I’ve been there and it’s an astounding place; a park surrounded by tall buildings.
The new project has uncovered over 700 specimens including a large pre-historic American Lion skull, lion bones, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, juvenile horse and bison, teratorns (a huge fossil bird), coyotes, lynx, and ground sloths. The most exciting find is a well-preserved male Columbian mammoth fossil, about 80% complete, with 10-feet long intact tusks. This is the first complete individual mammoth to be found in Rancho La Brea. The paleontologists at the Page Museum have nicknamed the mammoth “Zed.”
The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits is famous for one of the world’s largest and most diverse collections of Late Pleistocene fossils—objects so important that the last 300,000 years of the Pleistocene is known to scientists as the Rancholabrean Land Mammal Age. Paleontologists at the Page Museum now estimate that the new research project (called Project 23) could increase the collection by three to four million specimens.
So, where did this astounding raft of discoveries come from? Well, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art began construction of some new buildings they discovered some interesting things. They were so interesting that under the guidance of Page Museum scientists, 23 enormous intact blocks were lifted out of the ground. They were encased in wooden boxes that ranged in size from 5×5x5 feet (weighing 3 tons) to 12×15x10 feet (weighing 56 tons). Project 23: gets its name from the reference to the number of extracted crates—with each box bearing its own number (1-23).
Rather than beginning at ground level and digging into the asphalt ooze or “tar pits” to expose trapped specimens as they’ve done for the last century, Page Museum paleontologists will begin their Project 23 excavations at the top of each block. In addition to the many mammal fossils, the researchers have also discovered turtles, snails, mollusks, lots of tree trunks and complete insect and leaf mats, all of which are expected to provide important environmental data.
Exposed left acetabulum of Zed’s pelvis. The fossil is from the first complete individual mammoth to have been found in Rancho La Brea. (Credit: Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County)
Just goes to show you that there could be anything lurking beneath your feet. Although we don’t have traditional fossils here on Guam (no dinosaurs: Guam didn’t come out of the water until millions of years after they were gone (maybe, more on that later!) you can certainly make the argument that all of northern Guam is, in fact, one gigantic fossil because northern Guam is all the remnants of massive coral reefs.
You expect coral reefs here, we are in the tropics and that’s where all the corals live? Right? Well, apparently not. Read on!
WE TOOK A WRONG TURN AT THE CANARY ISLANDS!
In a stunning new discovery, researchers from the University of Galway have recently confirmed the existence of a major new coral reef on the southern end of the Porcupine Bank off the west coast of . . . (wait for it!) . . Ireland. The surveyed area is about 80 square miles and contains at least 40 carbonate mounds covered with coral. These underwater hills rise as high as 300 feet above the seafloor.
Now in case your geography is a little rusty, Ireland lies at 53 degrees north, which is a serious distance beyond the 20 degrees north to 20 degrees south span that’s called the ‘tropics’.
The deep-water expedition took place aboard the research vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer. The scientists used the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Holland I to survey the seafloor and capture unique video footage.
One of the researchers, Dr Anthony Grehan said: “These are by far the most pristine, thriving and hence spectacular examples of cold-water coral reefs that I’ve encountered in almost ten years of study in Irish waters.
The expedition began in French waters with a series of ROV dives in previously unexplored canyons in the Bay of Biscay which confirmed the presence of coral reefs in that location in the Atlantic. When the ship moved into Irish waters the researchers used high resolution bathymetry charts, provided by the Irish National Seabed Survey to identify new areas likely to support coral reefs. The Holland I was then used to dive on one of these areas, the Archipelagos Mounds (or Arc Mounds), where it revealed a seascape of spectacular coral reefs.
Dr Grehan also noted that vulnerable marine ecosystems such as coral reefs represent one of the last untapped reservoirs of potentially useful bio-compounds that might support the development of new anti-viral or anti-bacterial pharmaceuticals.
A large Phycis sp. feeding on a smaller fish with ROV arm visible in bottom right of shot. (Credit: Dr Anthony Grehan, Earth and Ocean Sciences, NUI Galway)
And whoda thunk they’d have found one of these untapped reservoirs off the coast of Ireland??
So, I said earlier, Guam came up out of the water millions of years after the dinosaurs were all gone. That’s probably still true but there’s increasing evidence that perhaps the dinosaurs weren’t all gone exactly when we thought they were!
The Lost World, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s account of an isolated community of dinosaurs that survived the catastrophic extinction event 65 million years ago, is still as appealing now as it was when it was written a century ago. Various Hollywood versions have tried to recreate the lost world of dinosaurs, but today the fiction seems just a little closer to reality.
New scientific evidence suggests that dinosaur bones found in the Ojo Alamo Sandstone in the San Juan Basin date from after the extinction, and that din
osaurs may have survived in a remote area of what is now New Mexico and Colorado for up to half a million years after their counterparts disappeared. This controversial new research is based on detailed chemical investigations of the dinosaur bones, and evidence for the age of the rocks in which they are found.
"The great difficulty with this hypothesis — that these are the remains of dinosaurs that survived — is ruling out the possibility that the bones date from before the extinction," says Jim Fassett, author of the research.
It is possible for fossilized bones to be excavated by rivers and then incorporated into younger rocks. That’s not the usual way fossil deposits form, but it’s been shown to explain some other ‘post-extinction’ dinosaur bones. However, Fassett has amassed evidence that indicates these fossils from the Ojo Alamo Sandstone were not excavated and redeposited and that these dinosaurs really did live after the Cretaceous extinction event.
To amass this evidence you must first demonstrate the rocks containing the bones are younger than the extinction event. Fassett has analyzed the magnetic polarity of the rocks, and the pollen grains they contain, different approaches to dating rocks from which he concludes that both indicate the rocks are younger than the extinction.
Fassett also found that the dinosaur bones from the Ojo Alamo Sandstone have distinctly different concentrations of rare earth metal elements than bones found in the underlying Cretaceous rocks. He argues that these concentration differences make it unlikely that the post-extinction bones were exhumed from the underlying sediments. This is also supported by a find of 34 hadrosaur bones. Although they weren’t an articulated skeleton, they are doubtless from a single animal. Fassett maintains that if the bones had been exhumed by a river, they would have been scattered.
So does this provide proof that dinosaurs survived the Cretaceous extinctions? Finding conclusive evidence is a difficult matter when the crime scene is 65 million years old. One thing is certain, if dinosaurs did survive, they weren’t as widespread as they were before the end of the Cretaceous and they didn’t persist for long. The ‘Lost World scenario’ of humans and dinosaurs existing at the same time (or dinosaurs on Guam) still belongs firmly in the realms of pure fantasy.
View eastward from divide between Ojo Alamo and Barrel Spring arroyos, Kirtland shale in foreground. (Credit: Plate 71-A in U.S. Geological Survey / Bauer, C.M. 251)
Jim is, above all, a passionate eco-humanitarian who has developed his own science talk-radio show to inform The DEEP’s listeners about such newsy topics as global warming, shark-finning and reef protection as well as to explore earth’s many underwater and space mysteries.
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Lady Pam Eastlick is an expert in both the stars
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