A Really Bad Day 240 Million Years Ago

I love fossils. They are moments frozen in time. They often tell a story about what the world was like long before humans came along and mucked it up. We can learn a lot from those stories.

A truly fascinating scenario is the one posited by a fossil that was found in a quarry in southwestern China. It’s of a dolphin-like creature called an Ichthyosaur swallowing a lizard-like creature called a Thalattosaur. You might think that’s your typical day in the Triassic Period, but not exactly. Consider this: the predator was 15 feet long, and the prey was 12 feet long.

Burp. Needless to say, poor Ichthy bit off a bit more than he could chew. That would be like me swallowing something 4 feet long in one gulp. Hate when that happens. Neither survived the encounter.

But what are the odds that we would find such a fascinating fossil? I mean, a freak accident happened 240 million Years Ago, and we get to witness it. It’s like time travel and winning the lottery simultaneously. Woo hoo!

We have learned a lot from this fossil. Specifically, what Ichthyosaur liked to eat, or at least what he tried to eat. Just from this one stone snapshot, I can surmise that even though he looked like a cute dolphin of sorts, he was one aggressive, kick-butt dude. I wouldn’t have wanted to cross paths with him. I also suspect that if I were around during the Triassic, I wouldn’t have been swimming. And I probably wouldn’t have been around for long.

Check out some really cool pictures and drawings of this fossil in this article.

Ichthyosaur

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A Muddy Subject

I love it when I read something that completely alters my worldview. “The origin of mud” by Laura Poppick in Knowable Magazine is just such an article. The title alone intrigued me. I can’t say I’ve ever put much thought into mud unless I’m muttering about it covering my shoes.

It turns out that mud has done much to shape our planet. According to the article, 460 million years ago there were no plants on earth. Because of that, most sediment on land would quickly enter rivers and wash out to sea during storms. We know this because there are lots of fossilized fish from that timeframe, all around the world, that seem to have been choked by catastrophic mudslides. Also, this rapid movement of mud to the sea floor indicates that land consisted of barren rock.

Once plants appeared, things changed. Upon their arrival, there is evidence of 10 times as much mud on land, because roots and stems hold mud in place. That mud, in turn, shaped continents. Plants also reduce flooding and increase the production of mud, because their roots break down rocks into the sediment that is the primary ingredient thereof.

Before plants, most rivers were braided like the one depicted in the artistic textile below. (That photo was taken by my husband on our trip to Denali National Park a year ago.) As you can see, with no plants to hold the riverbanks in place, they’re constantly collapsing and reforming based on the depth and strength of the water flow.

After plants, and the mud that could then cling to the riverbanks, most rivers formed single channels. Yes, they might curve and meander and form oxbows, or they could also be rather straight, but they tended to remain stable and predictable. And bendy vs. straight rivers alter the water’s chemistry and speed, and therefor create a variety of ecosystems.

Animals also had to evolve to be able to travel through the increased mud on land, developing new body parts. Some animals ate the mud particles and produced muddy feces. And loosening up that mud helped to disburse it into floodplains.

I’ll summarize with a quote from the article:

“Life has always congregated around rivers, from the very first emergence of plants and animals onto land. That’s why the early accumulations of mud alongside rivers — and how mud influenced their flow — is nothing to throw dirt on.”

Isn’t Mother Nature awesome?

Braded River Textile Denali National Park

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Staying Power

I have held things in my hands that are about 400 million years old. You can, too, if you’re into fossils. It’s always a profoundly special feeling, touching something like that. It’s humbling. It makes me realize that my life is but a tiny blip in the overall scheme of things. It makes all my problems seem inconsequential. I find that extremely comforting.

I’ve given several beloved family members ammonites as gifts. You can often buy them cut in half, so the beautiful petrified spiral chambers are revealed. They get one half, I keep the other. Then I can say that we now are connected over millions of years. The gift of staying power. The closest thing you can have to immortality.

Here’s the one I gave my husband for our first Christmas, and of course, the other half I gave to myself. I don’t know which is the “better” half, but it makes for a beautiful whole, indeed.

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Nature Calls

I love to observe nature as it unfolds around me, and I’ve moved from a subtropical climate to a temperate one, so a lot has changed. I don’t even recognize many of the bird calls here, and I’m sure encountering plant life that I’ve never seen before. It some ways Washington reminds me a lot of the Connecticut of my childhood, but in other ways it’s kind of like being on another planet. How exciting!

One of the first things I did upon moving to Seattle was to log on to Amazon.com and purchase a copy of the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest. If they publish a guide to your region, I highly recommend that you get one. This book is like nature’s bible, and it’s really helping me get used to this area.

Audubon Guides are very comprehensive. They describe the area’s topography and geology, fossils, habitats, weather, and even what you can expect to see in the night sky in any given season. (I was distressed to discover that I’ll only be able to see Orion well in the winter. That was the favorite constellation of my late boyfriend, and it always makes me feel connected to him.)

These guides also give you detailed images and descriptions of the local flora and fauna. They even give you a picture of the various animal tracks. It’s amazing the variety of squirrels, rabbits, birds, and beetles that live here that I didn’t even know existed. (I look forward to meeting a hoary marmot so I can commiserate with him about his name.) There’s also a detailed section about the parks and preserves in the region, and I hope to explore every single one of them.

It’s a bit of a culture shock being a bridgetender in a different part of the country. In Florida I used to sit at work and gaze at alligators, nutria, dolphins, manatee and ospreys. Now I see peregrine falcons, harbor seals, and salmon. It’s a different world. But if it means I never have to see another scorpion, water moccasin or two inch cockroach (they actually have a display of them here at the local zoo! Shudder…) I’ll be happy as a pacific littleneck clam, as described on page 177 of my guidebook.

LittleNeck_clams_USDA96c1862

[Image credit: wikipedia.org]