Tag Archives: marine

Fossil Friday: surprise teen Plesiosaurus found in ammonite mine in Alberta, Canada

Sometimes, even professional fossil-seekers can be surprised to find a fossil. That’s exactly what happened recently at the Enchanted Designs Ammonite Mine, south of Lethbridge, Canada, when workers (who mine for ammonite fossils) ran into a Plesiosaur fossil estimated to be around 75 million years old.

Image capture from a CTV coverage of the discovery.

This particular specimen was likely an adolescent at the time of its death judging from its size, local news outlets report.

Suddenly, Plesiosaurus

“The guys started scraping and noticed there were some vertebrae that appeared below the concretion line, and right away we knew we had a new fossil,” said Michael Shideler, manager of the Enchanted Designs Ammonite Mine.

Plesiosaurs were highly specialized marine dinosaurs. They had a small head on a very long neck, long tear-shaped bodies, a stumpy tail, and four wide flippers. They were pretty similar in shape to what you’d imagine the Loch Ness monster to be.

And just like with the Loch Ness monster, none of the workers at the mine expected to run into this fossil. The Enchanted Designs Ammonite Mine has been shut down during winter, so activity at the site is still picking up as the mining season is still fresh. One of the crews digging for ammonites there ran into a large and compact mass of material (a ‘concretion’) that stood out from the mine’s rock walls.

Based on the fossilized fragments recovered so far, the specimen was likely 7 meters (~23 ft) long when it died; almost half of that length is just neck. This would mean that the animal was still pretty young, likely an adolescent, when it met its end. Other plesiosaur specimens that we’ve recovered reach up to 14 m (46 ft) in length, with a similar neck-to-not-neck ratio.

What made the discovery particularly surprising is that marine reptile fossils are very rare in the Bearpaw Formation, which stretches through Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana, and into which the mine delves. Around 75 million years ago, when this formation was still on the surface, the area was the bottom of a shallow tropical sea. A large number of ammonites, fish and marine reptiles lived here, which is why the formation is such a rich source of fossils. However, this is the first time a specimen of this kind has been recovered from the mine.

The plesiosaur and other undetermined fossils have been collected and taken to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, where they will be removed from their rocky prisons for research.

Bali eruption.

Ancient volcanism shows our emissions can trigger a mass marine extinction

Ancient volcanism offers a glimpse into the future effects of climate change.

Bali eruption.

Volcanic eruption in Bali, Indonesia.
Image credits Alit Suarnegara.

Right now, global climate patterns are swinging wildly (in geological terms), powered by all the greenhouse gases we’re pumping in the atmosphere. We have some broad idea of what these changes will entail, but we don’t know the details — and not knowing what to expect in such circumstances is quite scary. One thing we do know for sure right now is that the high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are draining oceans of oxygen. It’s happening faster than anything similar we’ve ever seen and has researchers worried and scrambling to find solutions.

For that, however, we’ll need to know what to expect. One team of researchers from Florida State University (FSU) dredged the geological record for similar events to use as a guideline. The magnitude and sheer destructiveness of what they found suggests that we were right to worry.


The team used ancient volcanism as a proxy for today’s anthropic emissions. Millions of years ago, during the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event (T-OAE, during the Early Jurassic), powerful eruptions belched large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Oxygen levels in ocean waters soon plummeted. Most marine life followed suit, leading to a devastating mass extinction.

“We want to understand how volcanism, which can be related to modern anthropogenic carbon dioxide release, manifests itself in ocean chemistry and extinction events,” said study co-author Jeremy Owens.

“Could this be a precursor to what we’re seeing today with oxygen loss in our oceans? Will we experience something as catastrophic as this mass extinction event?”

The team set out to reconstruct ocean oxygen levels during the Early Jurassic in order to better understand the mass extinction event during the T-OAE. Their research reinforces previous findings regarding the (bad) effects of increased ocean temperature and acidification on marine life. However, it also revealed the importance of a third factor, oxygen level change, in leading to such an event.

Toarcian paleogeo.

Image credits Scotese CR (2001), Atlas of Earth History via R. Them et al., 2018, PNAS.

For the study, the team retrieved samples of ancient rock formations from North America and Europe. Thallium isotope analysis performed at the FSU-based National High Magnetic Field Laboratory revealed that oxygen levels in the oceans started to drop several hundred thousands of years before the interval we ascribe to the T-OAE. This initial drop was caused by massive bouts of volcanic activity, they explain, adding that it’s not that different a process from modern anthropic emissions of CO2.

“Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen that a significant amount of oxygen has been lost from our modern oceans,” says Theodore Them, a postdoctoral researcher at FSU who led the study. “While the timescales are different, past volcanism and carbon dioxide increases could very well be an analog for present events.”

“As a community, we’ve suggested that sediments deposited during the T-OAE were indicative of widespread oxygen loss in the oceans, but we’ve never had the data until now.”

High atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide increase average temperatures on the planet. This sets into motion multiple chains of events (chemical, biological, as well as hydrological) that compound to remove oxygen from ocean water. Ultimately, this process resulted in severe oceanic deoxygenation and mass extinction of marine life, which we see in the geological record as the T-OAE.

Extinction event

Sequence of events culminating in the Early Jurassic T-OAE. The massive die-off worked to sequester large amounts of carbon (δ13C line) from the atmosphere, allowing conditions to eventually stabilize. Top bars represent biodiversity.
Image credits R. Them et al., 2018, PNAS.

The findings help flesh out our understanding of how Earth’s systems function. But they also point to a worrying precedent. We’re already seeing signs of ocean acidification, increased average temperatures, and of falling levels of oxygen in ocean water. It’s safe to assume that the interplay between these events will have the same results as in the Early Jurassic. Should we continue pumping greenhouse gases such as CO2 in the atmosphere, we might just usher in an ocean mass extinction upon ourselves — one that will likely take society as we know it down, too.

“It’s extremely important to study these past events,” Them said. “It seems that no matter what event we observe in Earth’s history, when we see carbon dioxide concentrations increasing rapidly, the result tends to be very similar: a major or mass extinction event. This is another situation where we can unequivocally link widespread oceanic deoxygenation to a mass extinction.”

Not all is lost, however. All out tech and know-how put us in this position, that’s true, but it also offers the way out. There are steps we can take to stop or at least slow down the rate of oxygen loss in our oceans, the team notes. For example, maintaining environments that absorb and store carbon dioxide (such as wetlands or estuaries) could help reduce the effect of our emissions. The single biggest change we can make, however, is to de-couple our industries and economies from fossil fuels — efforts are already underway, but it never hurts to double down.

Personal efforts also help. Many of the things you can do to reduce your impact on the planet are also quite healthy and beneficial choices on an individual level: drive less, to reduce the level of emissions you put in the air and get some exercise, too. Eat more veggies, cut out as much meat and dairy as you’re comfortable too, or just be more selective about what type of animal protein you eat — good for your health, your wallet, and the planet! Finally, waste not — it helps to reduce emissions from industry, reduces trash, and will give you a mood boost.

The paper “Thallium isotopes reveal protracted anoxia during the Toarcian (Early Jurassic) associated with volcanism, carbon burial, and mass extinction” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Hawaii moves to ban common sunscreen mixes in a bid to safeguard its corals

Sunbathers beware — Hawaii plans to become the first US state to ban sunscreen mixes that are toxic to marine life.


Satellite view of the Hawaii archipelago. Image credits Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC / Wikimedia.

Two chemicals that are often used in sunscreen mixes (oxybenzone and octinoxate) are also sadly quite very deadly — if you happen to be a coral, a fish, or some other kind of marine resident. While that may not often concern us, landlubbers, especially as we’re basking in the sun on those oh-so-sweet vacation days, it’s a real problem for beach-totting tourist hotspots such as Hawaii.

That’s why the state is moving to ban the sale of sunscreen mixes containing these two compounds, becoming the first US state to do so. The bill was passed by the Hawaii state legislature on Tuesday and is now awaiting the governor’s signature. If this comes to pass, the ban would enter into force in 2021.

More coral protection factor, please

One past study (published in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 2015) has shown that both oxybenzone and octinoxate break down coral reefs by leeching its vital nutrients. The same compounds also disrupt the normal development of simple marine organisms (like algae or sea urchins) as well as more complex creatures (like fish). According to the same paper, these compounds can be found in especially high-concentrations in beaches frequented by tourists.

NOAA has also warned about the dangers such sunscreen compositions pose.

They affect corrals in three different ways: by leeching them of nutrients, by altering their DNA, making coral more susceptible to bleachings, and finally, by inhibiting their endocrine system (i.e. glands), deforming and ultimately killing baby coral. These effects started at extremely low concentrations — only 62 parts per trillion (ppt). Oxybenzone can also turn adult male fish into female fish, cause sexually immature fish to adopt characteristics common to mature, pregnant female fish, is toxic to shrimp, sea urchins, bivalves (e.g., scallops, mussels), and is especially toxic to marine algae (according to the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Hawaii).

The reefs of Hawaii and the U.S Virgin Islands showed some of the highest concentrations of oxybenzone out of all coral reefs that attract tourists, the 2015 paper reported. Sunscreen enters the ocean both from direct contact with people wearing such compounds and from wastewater streams that drain into the sea. Both oxybenzone and octinoxate are widely employed in sunscreens, as well as some other types of lotions.

“More and more people realize, as you go home and shower the water is getting treated and put out into the ocean,” Hawaii state Sen. Laura Thielen told KHON2.

“So really it’s damaging our corals no matter whether you’re wearing it on land or at the beach.”

So the only realistic option that Hawaii had at its disposal was a carpet ban on all products containing these compounds. If the governor puts his signature on the bill, vacationers will have to use alternative sunscreen options. Luckily, these options are readily available, with mixes most often substituting ingredients such as titanium oxide or zinc oxide in lieu of the dangerous chemicals.

Edible “Six-Pack Ring” is a great concept for marine wildlife

What if I told you that you could help wildlife by drinking beer? Saltwater Brewery, a Delray Beach (Florida) company, has developed a six-pack for beers that actually helps sea creatures instead of risking their lives.

We use a lot of plastic – a whole lot. If there’s anything about humanity that leaves a mark on the planet, it’s plastic. But there are solutions for this massive problem. This one won’t save the world, but it just might help threatened sea creatures: the beer sixpack is not only 100% biodegradable, but it’s also edible – so it might give marine creatures a healthy snack instead of risking their health.

“It has been an extremely exciting process,” said We Believers chief strategy officer Marco Vega. “It’s 100 percent natural and biodegradable and we are also using materials that are ultimately edible and safe for wildlife to ingest and digest.”

This is the video they created to promote their product:

They eliminated plastic completely, instead using leftover barley and wheat from the brewing process, which makes it much easier. Many sea creatures confuse plastic for snacks and eat it, blocking their digestive system and putting themselves at a huge risk. Of course, the more people are on board, the better it will work, and that’s exactly what the company plans – to get others to join this initiative.

President Chris Gove said, “We want to influence the big guys and kind of inspire them to also get on board.”

Again, this won’t save the world from plastic pollution – but the kind of thing which can make a big different locally, and after all, that’s what it’s all about: think global, act local.

Giant squids take to California

Yes ladies and gents, giant squids are all over the California beaches. Each of the squids weighs about 40 pounds, but some of them reach 60 and even more than that. I haven’t been able to find out what’s up with them, or why they gathered in such numbers, but according to scientists, this happens almost periodically, though they cannot have a totally satisfying explanation. The most plausible guess is that they’ve been brought there by a warm water current.


Anyway, there’s no reason to panic or anything, though you might want to avoid taking a swim this week. However, local anglers are absolutely delighted, catching them by the hundreds, and since things probably won’t change, we’re going to be talking thousands pretty soon; they also sometimes get rolled over on land, there they remain stranded and eventually end up rotting.

The searches for “giant squids” have gone through the roof, so I’m guessing a lot of people are interested or quite nervous about this. The squid in case is the Humboldt squid, also name Jumbo Squid, Jumbo Flying Squid, or Diablo Rojo (which is just Spanish for “red devil”). They rarely weight over 100 pounds, and their average lifespan is at about 1 year. Oh, they’re giant by comparison with most squids, but there others that make it pale in comparison. The biggest squid out there is (arguably) the colossal squid.

Blue whales singing lower every year, baffled scientists say

Blue whales are not only the biggest living creatures in the world right now, but the biggest ever to have ‘walked’ the face of the earth; they’re also the loudest for that matter. After recovering from near extinction in the beginning of the 20th century, blue whales are finally getting a part of the respect they deserve.

However, researchers cannot understand what is causing these majestic creatures to ‘sing’ at lower frequencies year after year. No one is fully sure of all the uses of the blue whale songs, but it’s known they are used to communicate and as a mating ritual. However, ever since the 1960s, the frequencies which these giants use are getting lower and lower, without anybody being able to give an explanation.


Of course, some theories have emerged, the two most likely being that it’s a direct result of the water pollution or a sign that an almost extinct population is recovering. Mark McDonald, president of Whale Acoustics, a company that specializes in recording the songs of blue whales (yeah, really) originally thought the cause could be noise pollution caused by intensified traffic; however, if this would be the case and they would want to make themselves heard louder, they would use higher, and not lower frequencies. This may be a bit weird because generally lower frequency transmissions are used for long distances, but mister McDonald explains:

Across the frequencies of blue whale song, the underwater transmission losses are nearly the same regardless of frequency. It is absorption which is the primary cause of frequency dependent transmission losses, rather than dispersion in this case, and the absorption loss only begins to become significant when ranges reach thousands of kilometers. Theory tells us the whales can produce higher amplitude songs at higher frequencies, based on given lung volume.


Another possible reason could be a change in the mating rituals. Scientists have long known that only male blue whales sing, and larger (which are usually more mature) specimens sing at lower frequencies. The hypothesis is that the younger guys are trying to emulate the older ones in order to attract females (that seems familiar). Either way, there are many we have yet to understand about the way these marine mammals act. The only good thing is that the blue whale populations is nearing a normal limit; let’s set this as an example for other species too, instead of treating them with less care now that they’re not on the brink of extinction anymore.

17650 Species that have never seen sunlight


The researchers from the Census of Marine Wildlife have accomplished a truly amazing task; they have inventoried a fantastic abundance of marine species, more specifically deep sea species that live below the point where sunlight can penetrate the water, creatures that live more than 5 km below sea level, in a cold and dark environment.


In order to do this, they used the best science has to offer (deep-towed cameras, sonars and other such technologies), and they found a really surprising variety of species that thrive there, adapting to the extreme environment. A significant part of them has adapted to a meager diet based on droppings from the sun penetrated layers above, some eat bacteria, while others feast on sunken whale bones and other such things you wouldn’t believe are eatable. Just in case you’re wondering how many species they counted, here’s the figure: 17650 (that live below 200m, where light virtually stops existing).

“Abundance is mostly a function of available food and decreases rapidly with depth,” says Robert S. Carney of Louisiana State University, co-leader (with Myriam Sibuet of France) of the Census project COMARGE, studying life along the world’s continental margins. The continental margins are where we find the transition from abundant food made by photosynthesis to darkened poverty. The transitions display the intriguing adaptations and survival strategies of amazing species,” says Dr. Carney.

According to the census, in order for live to thrive at these depths, it requires at least one of the following:
* Swift current, which increases an animal’s chance of encountering food;
* Long-lived animals, populations of which grow numerous even on a meager diet;
* Abundant food in higher layers that either settles to the depths or to which deep animals can migrate;
* An alternative to photosynthesis of food, such as chemosynthetic production.

“In the bathy- and mesopelagic zones – the largest 3D deep-sea living space – animals either have to cope somehow with food scarcity or migrate long distances up to find food,” says MAR-ECO project leader Odd Aksel Bergstad of University of Bergen. “Because it provides an oasis of topographical relief in the center of the ocean, we found a high concentration of animals on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Distribution is pretty straightforward for animals in the deep sea,” says Dr. Carney. “The composition of faunal populations changes with depth, likely a consequence of physiology, ecology and the suitability of seafloor habitat condition for certain animals. Diversity is harder to understand. Although the mud on the deep sea floor appears monotonous and poor in food, that monotonous mud has a maximum of species diversity on the lower continental margin. To survive in the deep, animals must find and exploit meager or novel resources, and their great diversity in the deep reflects how many ways there are to adapt.”

I’ll come back with some more details and a post on the most amazing species that live deep in the oceans, so if you have any questions or tips about that, don’t hesitate to contact.

Life had a big rebound following marine mass extinction event

In 1980, Luis Alvarez and his team shocked the whole world when they announced their theory that an asteroid impact that took place 65 millions years ago was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs and much of that time’s living organisms. Despite the fact that they delivered substantial evidence, there are still some minor gaps in the theory, and the subject is open for debate. However, something did happen, and the devastated life on the planet had to make a comeback.


Artistic representation of the asteroid impact that took place 65 million years ago and killed (almost) every large species of vertebrate

Researchers have been debating how long that comeback actually took; previous research pointed somewhere at about 1 million years, but researchers from the MIT and their coworkers found that at least some microscopic marine life forms such as algae or cyanobacteria (the so-called “primary producers”) recovered within a century of the mass extinction. This was extremely hard to prove because while previous studies analyzed fossils in the layers of sediment from that period, this one looked at soft bodied organisms that do not leave fossils behind them. Instead, they focused on what is called “chemical fossils” — traces of organic molecules (compounds composed of mostly carbon and hydrogen) that reveal the organism they once formed despite the organism itself being long gone.

In order to achieve this, they went in Denmark, to look at a section of a well known cliff face at Stevns Klint; the cliff face is known for having an extremely thick layer of sediment from that period of about 40 cm (that may not seem much, but compared to the few cm of the layer Luis Alvarez studied 30 years ago, it is). Also, they had an advantage the American scientists couldn’t have: one of the most powerful Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometers (GC-MS) in the world (it’s a device that can measure minute quantities of the molecules located in the rock).

The point is that many people have analyzed that particular face cliff, but when they lack the sensitive of the MIT equipment (or something equivalent, they “miss a big part of the picture,” leader of the study Julio Sepúlveda says.

“Many of these microorganisms are at the base of the food chain, but if you don’t look with biochemical techniques you miss them.”

They claim this analysis clarified the sequence of events that took place after the big impact . Just after the impact, some areas of the ocean were ‘robbed’ of all their oxygen and thus became hostile to algae. However, in areas close to the continental microbial life took less then a hundred years to bounce back and algae showed the first signs of recovery; however, as you move towards the middle of the ocean, it took more and more time to recover.

“Very soon after the impact, the food supply was not likely a limitation” [for other organisms, and yet] “the whole ecology of the system remained disrupted”, Sepulveda says.

“Primary productivity came back quickly, at least in the environment we were studying,” says Roger Summons, another researcher involved in this study, referring to the near-shore environment represented by the Danish sediments. “The atmosphere must have cleared up rapidly.
People will have to rethink the recovery of the ecosystems. It can’t be just the lack of food supply.”.

Volcano eruption could have caused global extinction

A previously unknown volcanic eruption was uncovered by scientists at the University of Leeds. It’s believed that this massive eruption took place 260 million years ago in South West China and released half a million cubic kilometers of lava covering a land mass the size of Great Britain and destroying marine life everywhere throughout the world.

Unlike most eruptions, this one was very easy to describe and researchers were able to pinpoint the time it took place with a high degree of precision. They were able to do this because it took place in a very shallow sea which made lava appear today as a “distinctive layer of igneous rock sandwiched between layers of sedimentary rock”; this made it easy easy to date because the sedimentary rock contains fossils of marine creatures that are very highly datable.

The layer of fossilized rock after the explosion shows the extinction of a very significant number of species, clearly pointing towards a major environmental disaster.

“When fast flowing, low viscosity magma meets shallow sea it’s like throwing water into a chip pan – there’s spectacular explosion producing gigantic clouds of steam,” explains Professor Paul Wignall, a palaeontologist at the University of Leeds, and the lead author of the paper.

“The abrupt extinction of marine life we can clearly see in the fossil record firmly links giant volcanic eruptions with global environmental catastrophe, a correlation that has often been controversial,” adds Professor Wignall.

The huge amount of sulphur dioxide that was thrown into the atmosphere lead to a massive cloud that surrounded all the planet and made it cooler and finally resulted in a torrential acid rain.

Marine researchers back with news from underwater volcanic eruption

The researchers who have just returned from the underwater volcano eruption report that the volcano is still active and it has grown considerably in size in these past three years. It supports a unique ecosystem thrives despite the constant eruptions.

“This research allows us, for the first time, to study undersea volcanoes in detail and close up,” said Barbara Ransom, program director in NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research. “NW Rota-1 remains the only place on Earth where a deep submarine volcano has ever been directly observed while erupting.”

“That’s as tall as a 12-story building and as wide as a full city block,” Bill Chadwick, Oregon State University (OSU) volcanologist and chief investigator says. “As the cone has grown, we’ve seen a significant increase in the population of animals that lives atop the volcano. We’re trying to determine if there is a direct connection between the increase in the volcanic activity and that population increase.”

The ecosystem includes some crabs, shrimps and barnacles, including some new species that have adapted to the physical and chemical conditions that would be toxic to normal species. One of these species is the Loihi shrimp.

“The ‘Loihi’ shrimp has adapted to grazing the bacterial filaments with tiny claws like garden shears,” said Verena Tunnicliffe, a biologist from the University of Victoria. “The second shrimp is a new species–they also graze as juveniles, but as they grow to adult stage, their front claws enlarge and they become predators.”

We’ll return with even more news on this.

Deep Sea Discoveries

dumbo octopusLife emerged and evolved initially in the water – every creature we see today stems from creatures who initially evolved underwater. But even after so much time, there there are many things don’t understand about marine ecosystems, and to be quite honest, the ecosystems we probably know least about are underwater.

Researchers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Memorial University of Newfoundland joined their forces and they made a survey of unexplored depths of the Atlantic Ocean for three weeks; they surveyed deep water animal life off the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland using an underwater robot known as ROPOS (Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science) and their focus represented by the corals. The results were weird in a good way. The life in these waters is more diverse than they believed.

They made over 3,000 high quality photographs that displayed this diversity, including an octopus with large fins near its eyes, known as “Dumbo,” a potentially new species of scallop and an organism which was believed not to be found there. This organism is made out of a single cell.

The results were so good that they are going to make another survey next year at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth. The focus of that is going to be how the newly discovered species fit in the food chain and how they affect it. Findings are very important for biology and medicine, possibly providing valuable medicines.