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The Raft of the Medusa

October 28, 2014

There is really no way of knowing what the media, scientific or otherwise, will grab onto.

A week ago, at the Geological Society of America meeting in Vancouver, I presented a descriptive talk that may well have been the simplest I had ever given to a scientific audience. We had just listened to a series of presentations, many of them by students and postdocs, which incorporated considerable amounts of “big science”: sophisticated imaging techniques, chemical analyses of fossil preservation, or multivariate statistical studies of large numbers of specimens.

When I got up in front of the same audience, I was a bit worried because I realized that my talk could have been just as easily presented in 1914 as 2014: I was describing a single specimen, illustrated with photographs. Nineteenth century Natural History, really. But it was such a strange specimen that it seemed worth presenting, and as it turned out, the reporter from Science News thought so too (here is his short article, freshly out).

Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) fossil jellyfish from the Mecca Shale (Field Museum of Natural History, PE23963)

Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) fossil jellyfish from the Mecca Shale (Field Museum of Natural History, PE23963)

Those of you who visit this page occasionally will know that I am, perhaps, obsessed with the topic of jellyfish fossilization. In addition to ongoing detailed work on Ordovician-age jellies from the William Lake site in Manitoba, I have been collaborating with my colleague James Hagadorn of the Denver Museum to figure out the global fossil record of medusae.

Jellyfish are rarely fossilized; many things have been published as fossil jellies, but few of those actually are preserved medusae. So we have been working through the world literature of all papers published describing “fossil jellyfish.” As we have studied the literature, James and I have determined which museums hold collections that need to be examined, and when the opportunity arises we will go and spend a day or two on a collections visit. When necessary, we will borrow material for further study: some of the fossils are easily interpreted, but others are problematic.

The presentation in Vancouver was about one of the specimens we had found in the huge collections of the Field Museum in Chicago. Preserved in a slab of the Carboniferous Mecca Shale from Indiana, it looked like a blob of pure white quartz sand surrounded by thinly bedded black shale. Except this was a sand blob with tentacles.

Paleontological collections storage at the Field Museum

Paleontological collections storage at the Field Museum

Spending many days with the specimen, photographing it in every possible way (double polarized photography is our friend!), we were able to recognize many features that allowed us to identify it as a chirodropid cubozoan (a group of box jellyfish still abundant in modern oceans). It is the same age as the box jellies in the well-known Mazon Creek Lagerstätte of Illinois, and it is very similar to the Mazon Creek box jelly Anthracomedusa turnbulli, but preserved in a very different way. We explained its unusual preservation in this manner: A body of pure quartz sand is very unusual in the middle of a black shale bed; this resulted from sediment rafting by the jellyfish, a process analogous to ice rafting. The medusa apparently stranded on a beach, ingested sand as it attempted to free itself, and then was washed or rafted into a lagoon where it was buried in anoxic mud.

The scientific manuscript describing this remarkable fossil is almost complete. Maybe this publicity will motivate me to get it out the door and move on to the next batch of “fossil jellyfish”!

© Graham Young, 2014

Vancouver Rain. Again.

October 24, 2014

October 17, 2014

maple leaf 1

maple leaf 2

Why does it seem to rain every time I go for a walk in Vancouver?  There has been precipitation on every day I have spent there on recent visits, even if it is sometimes just what the Irish would term a “grand, soft day.”

For those of us who live elsewhere, this could be looked at as fair recompense when the place is so unfairly blessed with topographic splendour. But maybe it is also a gift from the weather gods, an appeasement that permits us to remain contented with our own climates and locations. Maybe Vancouver rain is specially arranged for the visitor’s benefit, with the warm coastal sun scheduled to re-appear minutes after the departure of our flights eastward. If you, like me, are “looking forward” to a prairie winter, then it would be simply unbearable to think that Vancouver could ever get a string of autumn days of perfect crystal clarity, as well as those mild winter temperatures. Far better for us to always see this place in the rain, and to think that the residents must be miserable on account of the constant drizzle and mist, which are surely interrupted only by the occasional downpour.

Anyway, the rain does give vibrancy to the colours of plants and stones, even under such a flat grey sky. And I didn’t really mind getting a bit wet, since I was headed to the Vancouver Aquarium to commune with the jellyfish and comb jellies . . .

 

wood shore 1

wood&leaves1

shell hash

archway

banksynotbanksy

This appears Banksian (is Banksian an acceptable adjective?).

It would seem that it contains sewage at all times, then.

It would seem that it contains sewage at all times, then.

bark

I actually went for a walk to go to the aquarium

Japanese sea nettle Chrysaora pacifica at the Vancouver Aquarium

The comb jelly Pleurobrachia

The comb jelly Pleurobrachia

strew

© Graham Young, 2014

Travels on the Churchill River

October 7, 2014
Below Portage Chute, the Churchill River is lined with steep cliffs for many kilometres.

Below Portage Chute, the Churchill River is lined with steep limestone cliffs for many kilometres.

In late August, I had what could be called the trip of a lifetime: I was invited by colleagues at the Manitoba Geological Survey to travel with them to examine sites up the Churchill River, far from the more accessible Hudson Bay coast.  With several days of helicopter time, we were able to visit many sites along the river and its tributary creeks. It was a tremendous experience to spend time in such a remote, stunning, and almost unspoiled landscape.

I returned with a wealth of fossil specimens for the collections of the Manitoba Museum, and also with a wealth of photographs. I have every intention of sharing a sampling of these, but circumstances have conspired against me as I have been fully occupied with other matters. Now that I have a bit of time, I am beginning the posting process.

If you are interested, the first batch of photos, providing a general overview of the Churchill River, can be found on my Museum page here.

More to come!

The riverbank near Red Head Rapids

The riverbank near Red Head Rapids

Four Bears

August 25, 2014

Churchill, Manitoba: August, 2014

bear_field

After three days of helicopter-based collecting up the Churchill River, we were planning to start today on a few days of fieldwork close to Churchill. The helicopter work was strenuous at times, with slogging up creekbeds and carrying fossil samples up steep slopes, so I was looking forward to driving to some of our study sites. The first of these would be the numerous outcrops and quarry pits spread through the large cove that we call Airport Cove (for the obvious reason that it is immediately north of Churchill Airport).

The bear as we first saw him

The bear as we first saw him

Yesterday evening we took a drive to town, and on our way back we were going past the cove when a fellow headed the other way motioned to us to stop and exchange information (they do this often here). He told us that there were four polar bears in the cove. Bears are seen frequently around here at this time of year, but nevertheless, four at once is not all that common. We were excited about seeing the bears, of course, but I also greeted this news with some trepidation, thinking what it would be like to be on foot in the cove under such conditions.

bear_shore

We were able to watch all four bears, but the photos here are of the one that we viewed closely over quite a period of time. He was a huge animal, and very lively in the cooler weather at this time of year. We were entranced to watch him stalk a goose, and then chase and catch it before it could take flight! His tremendous speed and agility were wonderful to see in a creature that weighs as much as a holstein cow, but frightening to think about in the context of fieldwork at any distance from the vehicle.

The bear seems proud of his goose, like a dog with a bone.

The bear seems proud of his goose, like a dog with a bone.

Fortunately today worked out well. We saw three bears (again), but one was from the safety of the vehicle, and the others, a mother and large cub, were a safe distance away. Still, we will remain vigilant for the remaining work days up here – we may spend evenings looking for bears to watch, but in the day we will be watching for bears!

Airport Cove may be a big place, but even one bear seems to fill it quite effectively.

Airport Cove may be a big place, but even a single bear seems to fill it quite effectively.

bear_cove

Airport Cove sunset

 

© Graham Young, 2014

 

The Rocks Remain

August 8, 2014

Victoria Beach, Lake Winnipeg, 2014

cobble shore

This section of shore has been armoured with cobbles and boulders in an attempt to reduce erosion. But where is the beach?

Along Lake Winnipeg in July it felt like business as usual. At Victoria Beach we rode our bikes down narrow gravel lanes through swarms of dragonflies and clouds of midges, basking in the perfect warm air and golden sunlight. The shop, bakery, tennis courts, and playground were busy. But what about the beach? If you listened to the residents, beyond the usual small talk, this question remained: what about the beach? And what about the scarps behind it?

Manitoba’s lakes have been having issues of one sort or another for decades. Most summers Lake Winnipeg has trouble with algal blooms as a result of increased nutrient flow from farms and cities, though the extent of this problem varies from year to year. In 2011 the shores of Lake Manitoba were devastated by high lake levels, after Assiniboine River flooding resulted in heavy use of the Portage Diversion channel. This year water has again been very high on Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg, after heavy precipitation in the late spring and early summer.

The freshly cut scarp reveals stratified sand

The freshly cut scarp reveals stratified sand, soil, and roots.

On Lake Winnipeg, cottagers always reckon that their shorelines suffer from increased erosion because Manitoba Hydro keeps water levels high, the better to power dams on the Nelson River system. This could certainly be a cause, particularly when this high lake level is augmented  by unusual rainfalls. But there is another factor, a geological one, which most people ignore because of its subtlety and complexity.

The land of Manitoba has been slowly rising for the past 10,000 years or so, as the crust rebounds from being pressed down by glacial ice that was hundreds or thousands of metres thick at the height of the last ice age. The ice melted away from south to north, so the southern part of the province is now closer to equilibrium and is rising slowly. In the north, the rebound is still more rapid (even farther north, near Churchill, the rate of rise is close to a metre per century!).

I suspect that the wood at the base of this slope is the remnant of someone's stairs to the beach.

I suspect that the wood at the base of this slope is the remnant of someone’s stairs to the beach.

Postglacial rebound may seem like an interesting if remote phenomenon, but its effect “on the ground” is this: Lake Winnipeg’s outflow is at the northern end of the lake, and since this is the part that is rising more rapidly, the basin is gently tilting southward (imagine what happens as you tip a dish full of water). The lake is gradually moving across the flat lands at its southern end, reclaiming the marshes of the Red River Delta and the beachfronts of Ponemah and Matlock. Given enough time (before this land is again subject to large-scale glaciation), the lake will surely arrive where downtown Winnipeg stands today.

But this will take centuries or millennia. Meanwhile, whenever there is high water the lake will take advantage of it, moving just a bit farther southward and chewing away at the wonderful shorelines of Grand Beach and Victoria Beach. These shores are soft, being composed largely of sediment left behind by that glacial ice. The waves readily remove sand and gravel from the beaches and scarps, leaving behind only the larger boulders, and the shoreline continues to retreat. From a human standpoint this seems unfair and a great shame, but we can only hope to slow down nature. It will always win in the end.

4 wood1

The scarp may be moving back, but the gneiss and granite boulders aren't going anywhere.

The scarp may be moving back, but the gneiss and granite boulders aren’t going anywhere.

6 dock road

7 dock

sunset1

A lot of detail on the geology of the Lake Winnipeg basin was published in: Lake Winnipeg Project: cruise report and scientific results; Todd, B J (ed.); Lewis, C F M (ed.); Thorleifson, L H (ed.); Nielsen, E (ed.). Geological Survey of Canada, Open File 3113, 1996, ; 656 pages, doi:10.4095/207501 

 

© Graham Young, 2014

Surveying Mount Sylvan

July 11, 2014

the mountain

Ah, Mount Sylvan. Such a magnificent sight. And nearby, those huge rocky cliffs reach up to the sky!

the cliff

I admit this is not really such a grand landscape as it might first appear. In Manitoba’s Interlake you have to take your topography where you can find it, and heaps of quarried limestone may well be the tallest features from one horizon to the other. The quarry at Sylvan is not a particularly good fossil locality, but in contains a fascinating succession of shallow-water carbonates that represent deposition under fluctuating environmental conditions.

Jim and quarry face

Jim Bamburak of the Manitoba Geological Survey examines a dolostone face at Sylvan Quarry. 

Bryozoan-containing cherts at the base of the quarry are succeeded by a variety of other units including thin-bedded dolostones, microbialites, beds showing internal brecciation, and some intriguing clay-like horizons. One stromatolitic interval has yielded odd phosphatic bits, and we periodically revisit the site with the hope that more diagnostic phosphate components will show up (ideally parts of early fishes, but other things would be fine too). So much depends on how active the quarrying has been in the intervening months, and how much of the faces we can see. Last Monday, when I took these photos, the faces were muddy and we could not get to them very easily, but we will be back. We just have to be patient . . .

Jim and blue clay

The thin grey horizon is in the Ordovician Fort Garry Member of the Red River Formation; the transition to the Stony Mountain Formation is located near the top of the quarry.

Please excuse the relatively poor image quality in these photos. It was my first day in the field this summer and I had somehow managed to forget to pack a camera, so the iPhone had to suffice!

 

© Graham Young, 2014

 

Save the Polar Bear!

June 30, 2014

For every problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.
– H.L. Mencken

 

Polar bear at Akimiski Island, James Bay (photo Dave Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

Polar bear at Akimiski Island, James Bay (photo © Dave Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

Is the polar bear doomed on a warming Earth? In the past few years, there has been much public concern about the future of this magnificent creature, which is often seen as the symbol of the effects of climate change on the natural world.

The polar bear is considered a vulnerable species by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and the US Government granted it protection as a “threatened” species in 2008. While it is unknown whether polar bear numbers are actually in decline, there are serious concerns that a reduction in Arctic sea ice would have a profound impact on their populations.

It has been projected that we could see a total absence of Arctic summer sea ice within our lifetimes.1 This would clearly have a devastating impact on entire ecosystems, and on Arctic marine mammals such as seals, narwhals, and bowhead whales. For many people, however,2 any concerns about the effects of global warming on Arctic environments are completely overshadowed by concerns about … polar bears. Just polar bears.

In real life polar bears may well be fearsome, devious, cold-hearted killing machines, but in photographs they often look like large white puppies or happy people in fluffy bear suits. What could be more compelling than photos of cute, cuddly, huggable bears standing on ice floes, wrestling playfully, or batting around old tires?

Mother bear and cubs at Akimiski. (photo Dave Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

Mother bear and cubs at Akimiski (photo © Dave Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

For those who see the polar bear, like the panda, as a teddy-like animal that must be saved at all costs (regardless of what happens to all the other life forms around it), I have been considering steps that might be undertaken to ensure that many wild polar bears will remain in the world far into the future. The white bear could thus continue indefinitely as a symbol of all that is clean and fluffy and easily anthropomorphized.

There have already been many ideas put forward for the salvation of the polar bear, some practical, some less so. Some writers have suggested, for instance, that bears be relocated to liberal cities on the North American mainland, where they can feed upon well-upholstered climate activists. Other wits have proposed that polar bears could be readily rounded up and moved to Antarctica, where there are suitable sea ice conditions and an abundance of fat-rich marine vertebrates upon which they could dine.

Either of these suggestions would, however, be scientifically indefensible. Sound scientific practice for the relocation of mammal populations requires that we should only move them to areas where they lived previously, from which they have been extirpated. Such areas are typically places that could benefit from the presence of the reintroduced species, at the same time as that species is benefiting from the features of the new area. The reintroduction of species is sometimes considered as a component of rewilding, the return of habitats to their natural state.

Natural habitat: melting ice on the Hudson Bay shore

Natural habitat: melting ice on the Hudson Bay shore near Churchill

Considering this issue as a scientist, I propose that we relocate a sustainably-sized polar bear population (say, at least a thousand of the animals) to a place where they lived in the distant past, a place where the existing natural ecosystem has been severely disrupted by human activities, a place in drastic need of rewilding. It is also a place where there is a virtually endless source of fat-rich mammals of a species so abundant that they will never be “threatened”, no matter how many are consumed by voracious bears.

For this scientific assessment, let’s first consider where polar bears might reasonably be relocated. Their current range includes the Arctic Ocean and some of the nearby seas and land areas. Their prehistoric range is, unfortunately, poorly understood, but a few details are known.

It is thought that polar bears (Ursus maritimus) may have diverged from brown bears (aka grizzly bears; Ursus arctos) just a few hundred thousand years ago. Polar bears have a poor fossil record, so fossils shed little light on their evolution. The oldest fossil is a jaw from Spitsbergen that is about 110,000-130,000 years old.3 Among the few other known specimens is the ulna of a large animal that lived about 70,000 years ago, dug up at Kew Bridge, London, England. The paleontologist Björn Kurtén4 assigned this to a polar bear subspecies, U. maritimus tyrannus.5

Based on this admittedly limited data, it seems scientifically reasonable to suggest that polar bears be reintroduced to this part of their former range. This could be considered as a further step in the environmental rejuvenation of southern England, an extension of the clean air laws of the 1950s and the well-known cleanup of the Thames River in the 1960s. Certainly there are other major projects that should be undertaken to encourage native plants and to maintain species such as the curlew, but surely the return of a true apex predator would be the crowning achievement of Britain’s environmental renaissance.

The release of polar bears to the Home Counties would, of course, provide wonderful wildlife-viewing opportunities for a very large population. People love to see live polar bears, but it is clear that the animals do not do well in zoos. Zoo bears exhibit abnormal behaviours and it is cruel to keep them there. Well-heeled people pay large money to see wild bears, travelling to remote places like Churchill, Manitoba.

St. Paul's Cathedral, London

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

This sort of travel is, sadly, out of reach of the great majority of the population. By taking the wild polar bears to the people, then, we would be greatly democratizing the entire ecotourism process. The opportunity for an exciting close encounter with a huge, sharp-toothed polar bear would be available to all, regardless of age or social standing; it would no longer be the preserve of the leisured rich. Further, we could be certain that the bears they encounter would be plump and well-fed. There are few sights as disturbing as a hungry, skeletal bear.

The greatest and most positive impact of the reintroduction of polar bears to regions such as the Cotswolds would be in the area of traditional English sports. Large bears were just one component of the diverse indigenous macrofauna of the British Isles. Like other creatures such as wolves and wild cattle, they have been extirpated due to the presence of humans, by the development of towns and agriculture, but also notably through hunting. As people have hunted out the larger and fiercer species, the need for “sport” hunting has caused a transition to the pursuit of smaller and less frightening creatures such as mink and hares. The end result of this movement “down the food chain” 6 was that particularly sorry spectacle of 19th and 20th Century Britain: the fox hunt, also referred to as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.” 7

Now, in the 21st Century, fox hunters have had even this meagre pursuit taken away from them by legislation, and those who do it legally are reduced to pallid facsimiles such as drag hunting8, though there have been some rumblings that the hunt is really not quite dead yet.

Regardless of whether it is really deceased or just resting, one of the major issues with the fox hunt is that, when you get down to it, it is not the least bit sporting. There is a dreadful imbalance between the mass of dozens of hunters, horses, foxhounds, terriers, and various servants of the hunton one side, and an elegant but smallish fifteen-pound mammal on the other. The ending is generally predetermined, with the fox being ripped apart by hounds; where is the sport in that?

Spinning in a woodland in Gloucestershire, England

Spinning in a woodland in Gloucestershire, England

My suggestion of the re-introduction of a key component of the extirpated macrofauna could make for a far more entertaining sporting event, an unpredictable contest in which disaster and death are always just the slash of a gigantic paw away. In this era of Ultimate Fighting Championships and base jumping, the return of polar bears to Britain could permit the English hunt to take its place in the pantheon of internationally-televised sporting events.

Can you imagine the wonderful interactions between red-coated, horse-riding hunters and their new, dynamic “prey” species? Can you picture the scene, as a pack of baying foxhounds meets a devious, fearless 1000-pound mass of muscle, sinew, claws, and teeth? It is a fox hunt tradition that new hunters are “blooded” 9 from the first fox kill they are involved in; now all members of the hunt would have the opportunity to be blooded every time they go out.

Now that would be a sport. And the television shows could even include the disclaimer that “no polar bears were harmed in the production of this program”.

Of course, all that this “modest proposal” illustrates is that a species can never be looked at in isolation from its ecosystem and environment. Even if we were able to save the polar bear by moving it to a new location, few of us would really want to live in a world without an Arctic, that great cold attic of strange creatures and places somewhere over the top of our “civilized” world. And the cuddly polar bears would not be truly happy in the English shires, even if their presence might have certain beneficial effects. Unless, of course, we could consider relocating walrus there as well …

 

1       International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in their Fifth Assessment Report (AR5)

2       Possibly the same people who spend a lot of time online searching for cute cat pictures.

3      Ingólfsson, Ólafur and Wiig, Øystein. 2009. Late Pleistocene fossil find in Svalbard: the oldest remains of a polar bear (Ursus maritimus Phipps, 1744) ever discovered. Polar Research 28(3): 455-462.

4      Kurtén, Björn. 1964. The evolution of the polar bear, Ursus maritimus (Phipps). Acta Zoologica Fennica 108: 1–26.

5       More recently this bone has been re-assigned by some scientists to U. arctos, but we will ignore that finding for the purpose of the present discussion.

6       The concept of hunting of foxes in Britain could be compared to current ideas that we should be fishing and eating more jellyfish. In both cases, this is not because they are the best animals for the particular function; rather, they are all that is left as a result of humanity’s rapacious harvesting of creatures that are much larger and fiercer in one case, and much tastier in the other. The ritual aspect of fox hunting, however, has few parallels even among the many bizarre forms of human “harvesting” behaviour.

7      Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance.

8       The mind boggles at the diverse potential meanings of this term.

9         Blood (tr.v.).– to smear the cheeks or forehead of (a person) with the blood of the kill as an initiation in hunting. (The Free Dictionary)

 

© Graham Young, 2014

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