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Showing newest posts with label Stratigraphy.

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Showing newest posts with label Stratigraphy. Show older posts
Sunday, April 3, 2011
On the tracks of ancient mammals

The hill of Osoppo, after the small town of Osoppo in

the Italian province of Udine, is a 120m high local "mountain" dominating
the large fluvial plain of the river Tagliamento.
During the Pleistocene the entire area was covered by the Tagliamento
glacier, eroding older rocks and depositing glacial sediments. So it is no
wonder that the Osoppo hill is composed mainly of sandstone and
conglomerate of the Quaternary epoch, however by the particular
topography in the shadow of larger mountains the glacier in this spot was
not able to erode all of the older rocks - on the steep flanks and the hilltop
of Osoppo rocks dating back to the Pliocene and Miocene can be found.
The stratigraphic succession is clearly visible along a street leading to the
fortress of the First World War on top of the hill. The base of the hill is
composed of siltstone interpreted by the presence of limnic ostracods as
sediments of a brackish lake deposited during or immediately after the
Messinian Salinity Crisis five million years ago. The fine grained sediments
are covered by a 110 m thick coarse grained sandstone and conglomerate
succession of the Osoppo conglomerate dated to the Miocene to Pliocene. In
the apparently homogenous succession of alternating layers of sandstone
and conglomerates there is a change in the inclination of the layers. These
clastic sediments were deposited in a large fluvial delta entering the sea or
a large lake, however the observed changes in the inclination of the foreset
beds demonstrate that the river changed over time flow direction and
deposited various intersecting overlying sediment units. To the hilltop the
foreset beds are truncated by the topset beds of a large river plain.
Fig.2. Osoppo
conglomerates of the delta complex, the bending of the single layers (the
foreset beds of the delta) is observable.

Fig.3. Oversimplified
sketch of composed delta geometry, by change of the river flow also the
progradation (red arrows) of the delta changes.

The hill of Osoppo is not only peculiar by the preservation of such an old
delta, more remarkably the coarse grain sediments contain fossils - more
precise trace fossils. During work to preserve the crumbling walls of the
fortress a surface of the fossil river plain was uncovered, showing various
impressions - trackways attributed to various large mammals.
Fig.4. and 5. Photography of the Pliocene trackways site in Osoppo in 1994
and map of the exposed surface with reconstructed trackways and geology:
signatures 1) conglomerate of former river island 2) sandstone of former
channels 3) mud cracks 4) ripple marks. Trackways signatures - Blue:
rhinoceros; Red: equid; Green: bovid, after DALLA VECCHIA &
RUSTIONI 1996 and Geositi del Friuli-Venezia-Giulia.

During the Miocene the modern peninsula of Italy was an archipelago of

larger and smaller islands, fossils of land vertebrates are therefore rare
findings and the exact identification of the makers of the five trackways is

- The first track-morphotype is stubby and very large (15 to 30 cm long)

with three toes, these characteristics suggest a large perissodactyl like a
tapir or more likely a small rhinoceros.

- The second track-morphotype also shows three toes, a central 8 cm large

and two smaller lateral toes, preserved only when the central digit pushed
deep in the moist sediment - the medial hoof of a three digit horse similar in
appearance to the genus Hipparion.

- The third and last recognized track-morphotype is 15 to 20 cm long with

two elongated parallel hoof-imprints, attributed to an artiodactyl it is
probably produced by a large bovid, cervids appeared only later in the
European geological record.
Fig.6. to 8. Overview and
detail of the weathered ichnofossil of equid (Hipparion ?), length of pen ca.

The five trackways are preserved on an ancient island of coarse grained

conglomerate surrounded by sandy layers of the river channels. All the
animals walked mostly parallel to the direction of the ancient channels, the
horses were the first to venture on the river plain, as demonstrated by the
deep tracks left in the yet wet sediments, followed by the bovid and
rhinoceros, the last trampling on the tracks of the bovid.

Mammal trackways are not too frequent, but trackways of Hipparion are
even rarer, other known examples for example include the site of Laetoli in
Africa. It is this rarity that makes the site of Osoppo special.
However the actual situation and conservation at the fossil site is not
optimal. The local authorities provided only a small board (with incorrect
footprints similar to a felid species) to advertise the importance of the
discovery and after a first excavation campaigns years ago the surface with
the tracks was exposed without protection, many of the already poorly
preserved tracks were heavily eroded and damaged. Finally the site was
covered by a plastic sheet, which however provides only a small shelter and
hides the fossil to interested visitors.


DALLA VECCHIA F.M. & RUSTONI M. (1996): Mammalian trackways

in the Conglomerato di Osoppo (Udine, NE Italy) and their contribution to
its age determination. Mem. Sc. Geol. 48: 221-232
DALLA VECCHIA, F.M. (2008): Vertebrati fossili del Friuli - 450 milioni
di anni di evoluzione. Pubblicazion N.50 Museo Friuliano di Storia
Naturale, Udine: 303
Posted by David Bressan at 7:32 AM 0 comments
Labels: Alps, Italy, Paleomammology, Paleontology, Stratigraphy
Friday, March 25, 2011
Tsunamis in the geological record
Tsunami deposits are well documented in the Holocene and the Pleistocene,
in part by the good accessibility in outcrops to rocks of these epochs or
when historic records help to identify areas subjected to tsunamis.
Modern databases list more than 2.000 tsunami events for the lat 4.000
years, most of them recorded in documents and chronologies and others
inferred by their geological evidence.
It seems also possible that tsunamis in historic times (after 1700) have
found place in myths and oral tradition of the local Indian tribes of the
Cascade Range. Based on these stories geologists tried to establish a
chronology of events, backed by geological evidence.

Fig.1. Temporal
distribution of 2341 tsunami events listed in the database of the National
Geophysical Data Center, USA. The database contains the events of the
past 4000 years until 2001 AD, from SCHEFFERS & KELLETAT 2003.

However such a database has to be very incomplete, tsunami without

greater damage or loss of life are likely to be underrepresented in historic
documents, tsunamis with disastrous effects can in contrary became
overemphasized and tsunamis occurring in uninhabited regions will not
even be noted by humans. With the age of colonization and exploration the
known and inhabited zones grow rapidly, and so also the record of large,
destructive tsunamis apparently experienced a mayor increase.
However it can be assumed that the actual number, frequency and power
of tsunami in such a compilation are still inaccurate and probably
underestimated in the past and emphasized in the present the occurrence of
strong tsunamis.
In the geologic record examples of ancient tsunamis are however quite
rare. The coastal environment, like flood plains or the estuary of a river,
are subject to continues reworking, erosion and deposition, a single event
like a tsunami can got destroyed even before it's deposits or traces can
became fossilized.
Also in such a complex environment single events tend to became
homogenized and amalgamated with the "background" sedimentation, like
deposits of the tides or storm events.

In theory a tsunami can produce various geologic evidences in four phases:

it can both deposit sediments and erode them during generation,
propagation, run up on land and backwash current. The sedimentologic
record of the run up by a tsunami on land is well described by this post at
"Trough The Sandglass", especially sand layers, and it´s environmental
effects at "paleoseismicity" - however tsunamis can transport and deposits
giant boulders (like reef debris thrown on land), these boulders are unlikely
to be reworked by normal processes of a coastal environment and have a
great potential to become fossilized.
Liquefaction phenomena like sand dikes and intrusion during the
earthquake are preserved in the sediments underlying the soil and tsunami

published distribution of coastal boulders thrown on land as evidence for
tsunamis. Historical tsunami and storm wave boulders were defined here
as those purporting to show clear depositional evidence based on historical
descriptions, direct observations, and analyses of aerial photographs
during the historical age (from GOTO et al.2010).

There is also indirect biological evidence to infer the occurrence of a


A strong earthquake can cause a displacement of great parts of a coastal

area and the land can become inundated by the sea. The salt water soon
will kill trees and plants growing on this land. Because dead trees will
survive for quite a while as "Ghost forests" the tree stumps can became
buried in the sediments of the tidal flat. After the displacement the land can
rise upward by the continuing tectonic movements and again became dry.
These changes can be observed in the stratigraphic succession: layers of
peat or soil with tree stumps will change suddenly to sand and silt layers
deposited by the tsunami and the tides. The plant remains can be dated by
the radiocarbon method and are used to produce a chronology of the

Fig.3. Summer in the ghost forest in

Alaska and the remains of the town of Portage after the earthquake of 1964
and in the year 1998. In the background of the old photo spruce trees are
dying and the high tide covers recently subsided land. In the modern photo
still few trunks are standing and shrubs cover the land rebuilt by tidal silt
(after BOLT 1995 and ATWATER et al. 2005).
The 1964 Alaska earthquake was a megathrust earthquake that began at
5:36 P.M. on Good Friday, March 27,.1964. Across south-central Alaska,
ground fissures, collapsing buildings, and tsunamis resulting from the
earthquake caused about 131 deaths.

The remains of the trees provide even a more accurate chronology: The
sudden occurrence of the event is proved by the tree rings, a gradual
subsidence of the land would produce a different pattern in the rings that
the sudden interruption often observed in cedar trees along the North
American coast.

KAZUE, U. YAMAGUCHI, D.K. (2005): The Orphan Tsunami of 1700
Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America. U.S.G.S. -
University of Washington Press: 144
BOLT, B.A. (1995): Erdbeben - Schlüssel zur Geodynamik. Spektrum
Akademischer Verlag, Berlin: 219
DAWSON, A.G. & STEWART, I. (2007): Tsunami deposits in the
geological record. Sedimentary Geology 200: 166-183
GOTO, K.; KAWANA, T. & INAMURA, F. (2010): Historical and
geological evidence of boulders deposited by tsunamis, southern Ryukyu
Islands, Japan. Earth-Science Reviews 102: 77-99
SCHEFFERS, A. & KELLETAT, D. (2003): Sedimentologic and
geomorphologic tsunami imprints worldwide-a review. Earth-Science
Reviews 63: 83-92
Posted by David Bressan at 10:43 AM 2 comments
Labels: 21th century, Ancient times, Asia, Europe, Geological
Catastrophes, Geology and Society, North America, Oceania, Seismology,
South America, Stratigraphy
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Mediterranean desiccation and giant evaporates
Outcrops of salt-bearing and gypsum-bearing sediments in the
Mediterranean region were already noted by geologists in the late 19th
century. In 1849 the Italian chemist J. Usiglio conducted evaporation
experiments with seawater along the French Riviera and established the
order in which evaporate minerals precipitate. It seemed clear that the salt
deposits cold be explained by changes in the distribution of sea and land,
but the extent and thickness was impressive.
Karl Mayer-Eymar (1826-1907) a Swiss geologist and palaeontologist,
dated the sediments by fossils in the Miocene Epoch and in 1867 named the
period the Messinian, for the Italian region of Messina. The formation of
these deposits however remained a riddle.

In 1961, seismic surveying of the Mediterranean basin revealed a geological

feature some 100-200 metres below the seafloor. This feature, dubbed the
M-reflector by its strong property to reflect the seismic signals, closely
followed the contours of the present seafloor, suggesting that this
presumably compact layer was laid down evenly and consistently at some
point in the past. New and high quality seismic data on the M-reflector
were acquired in the Mediterranean Basin in 1970, at the same time the M-
layer was cored during the Leg 13 (Site 124) of the Deep Sea Drilling
Program conducted from the Glomar Challenger under the supervision of
co-chief scientists William B.F. Ryan (specialized in geophysics) and
Kenneth J. Hsü (specialized in sedimentology). One of the goals of the two
young scientists (criticised by some older colleagues as "student and
amateur") was to reach the mysterious M-layer.
Only the second attempt in the Balearic Basin off the Spanish coast was
(sort of) successful, the drill string begun to vibrate and finally got jammed.
Recuperated the drill bit only some loose debris could be collected from the
deep underground. Ryan and Hsü along with palaeontologist Maria Bianca
Cita begun to study the apparently disappointing sample, but soon they
discovered some strange properties.
The debris consisted of basaltic rocks, white limestone, transparent crystals
of gypsum and microfossils. Especially the microfossils were interesting;
shoal-water foraminifers, but also tiny mollusc shells. According to Cita the
organisms were small and underdeveloped, maybe as response to an
extreme environmental stress.
Ryan and Hsü soon recognized that the basalt clasts were cobbles and
pebbles formed by fluviatile transport, the limestone and gypsum the
remains of a sabkha and the micofossils inhabitants of a hypersaline lake.

To form such a succession of lithological facies in situ only one explanation

was possible: the entire Mediterranean Sea disappeared some 7 million
years ago. This desiccation hypothesis caused mixed reactions by the
scientific community, and is still under scrutiny today, especially because
this relatively recent event could maybe represent a model to explain large
evaporate deposits in the geological past.

Even today the Mediterranean Sea is characterized by a semiarid climate

with low precipitation and high evaporation. The amount of fresh water
flowing into the sea by rivers is not sufficient to compensate the loss;
however the inflow of 2.000 square kilometres per year from the Atlantic
Ocean trough the strait of Gibraltar holds the Mediterranean Sea level
constant. If this connection would be sealed, in only some thousand of years
the Mediterranean Sea would almost evaporate completely.
During the late Miocene - the Messinian Stage (7,2-5,3Ma) - tectonic forces
between the European and African plate pushed up the Spanish Sierra
Nevada and closed the strait of Gibraltar. By the evaporation of the
seawater various evaporitic minerals became deposited like halite,
anhydrite, gypsum and others, forming finally a succession of sediments
incredible 2.500 meters thick.
Most of these evaporates still lie hidden underground or under the bottom
of the sea, however in Italy these sediments became uplifted by tectonic
forces during the orogenesis of the Apennines. On the southern coast of
Sicily, near the village of Eraclea Minoa, in the Messinian sediments at
least six cycles can be observed, from beds of gypsum crystals to fine
laminated marls and claystones to crystalline layers of selenite, capped
again by sandstone.


Fig.1-3. Outcrop of Messinian evaporitic sediments at the Eraclea Minoa
site in Sicily. The resistant gypsum beds are less eroded by weathering
processes than under- and overlying marls. The upper crystalline selenite
domes (in Italian called Gessoso-Solfifera, fig.2.) of cycle 4 were formed in
shallow lagoon conditions and are cropped by fine laminated marls and
gypsum beds (Balatino, fig.3.) at the base of cycle 5. In the background of
the photo cycle 6, characterized by much thicker marls and claystone
deposits than the previous cycles, is recognizable, covered by the Pliocene.
The base of the Pliocene (GSSP Messinian-Zanclean 5,332Ma) is formed by
the sandstone of the Arenazzolo-Formation, followed by grey marls of the

The base of the succession is formed by reworked debris of basaltic rocks,

followed by conglomerates, sandstone, laminated marls and evapoitic
layers. In the sediments various cycles of marls and gypsum beds are
recognizable, it is not completely clear if this succession is the result of
repeated flooding and desiccation of the entire Mediterranean Sea (if so, at
least 24 such cycles are recognized) or local events in tectonic active basins.

Fig.4. Example of the

Messinian succession of facies from the section North-West of Alba
(Tertiary Piedmontese Basin) as drawn by the Italian geologist Sturani in a
Seminar in October 1975 (LOZAR et al. 2008). The section starts with silty
clays and marls of a normal marine environment, truncated by sand, silts
and clays followed by silty clays with stromatolithic limestones. Here we
observe a decrease of depth from a intermediate depth facies to a shallow
lagoon with first evaporitic phases. In a restricted lagoon clays with lenses
of early diagenetic selenite form, changes in water circulation occur as
indicated by the fossils and a succession of silts, silty marls and sand beds.
Then in an alluvial plain or marsh evenly bedded, massive clays were
deposited. The entire section is cropped again by normal marine, Pliocene
clays and marls.

More than 5 million years ago the sea finally returned to stay. The entire
evaporate succession is cropped by marine sediments, first the Arenazzolo-
Sandstone of the brackish Lago-Mare-Unit and then deep sea turbiditic
marls of the Trubi-Formation.

FISCHER, A.G. & GARRISON, R.E. (2009): The role of the

Mediterranean region in the development of sedimentary geology: a
historical overview. Sedimentology 56: 3-41
& VIOLANTI, D. (ed.) (2008): Messinian Palaeontology - Papers in honour
of Carlo Sturani´s outstanding contributions in geology and palaeontology.
Bollettino della Societá Paleontologica Italiana Vol. 47(2): 202
MORRISON, P. & MORRISON, P. (1988): Das Geheimnis unserer
Wahrnehmung - Warum wir wissen, was wir wissen. Droemer Knaur
Verlag, München: 320
USIGLIO, J. (1849): Analyse de l´eau de la Mediterranée sur le Cotes de
France. Ann. Des Chem.Phys., Third Ser. 27 :92-107
Posted by David Bressan at 9:27 AM 0 comments
Labels: 20th century, Africa, Earth Science VS Pop Culture, Europe,
Expeditions, Geo-Files, Geological Catastrophes, Geology and Society,
Heretic geologists, Italy, Paleontology, Stratigraphy
Friday, March 4, 2011
The Anthropocene and the sixth Extinction
"I see the destructive side of humankind, the blind spider; she fiddles in the
poisonous gloominess, dreaming dreams full of mushroom clouds. All is
explained by death, she whispers."
"The Martian chronicles", Ray Bradbury (1950)

In 2002 the chemist Paul Crutzen suggested that the effects of human
population and culture on the environments of earth are so pronounced,
that they will leave a permanent geological marker in the stratigraphic
record of the planet. Most geological epochs were defined in historic times
by observed geological changes in lithology, petrology and especially
paleontological content -the extinction and replacement of species in the
fossil record.
Fig.1. The "Appearance
of Man", by L. FIGUIER 1872.

Humans artefacts where recorded in the stratigraphic column since our

first ancestors developed lithic industry, but only in the Holocene human
activity and influence on environment is observable in the deposited
The use of fire to clear land and hunt animals maybe has forced the
extinction of the Pleistocene Megafauna. With the development of
agriculture and pasture the pollen spectrum of plants recorded in bog
sediments shifts significantly, tree species diminish, grass and cultivated
plants increase.
With the first civilisations, geochemical changes as results of environmental
pollution by mining and handling of metals are observed in lake sediments
and in the ice records of Greenland.
The impacts of humans increase during the second half of the Holocene as
a result of increasing population and development of large civilisations,
with many humans working together to realize projects that single
individuals couldn't possible achieve by itself.

In the last 200 years humankind has surpassed all efforts of previous
generations. Humans use the majority of natural resources, like soil and
water. Water is stored of redirected, and soil and sediments are cultivated,
excavated, transported and deposited, influencing sedimentation patterns
and causing a lithological change in the geological record.
The burning of fossil fuels has altered the chemistry of the atmosphere,
that on its own will influence temperature and precipitation, again
influencing erosion (for example improved chemical weathering) and
The arguments were considered by some geologists and a term coined for a
possible new geological period - the Anthropocene, used informally in
literature to refer to the actual period since the Industrial Revolution, when
our technology enabled us to previous unthinkable efforts to shape earth
and nature.

The mentioned Pleistocene extinction proceeds with increasing speed on

land and in the seas, active hunt, destruction of habitats, relocation of
animals and plant species, spread of pathogens, climate change have all
catastrophic effects of the native fauna and flora.
The results are permanent in the fossil record, extinct species are no longer
available to evolve, and future evolution will take place on surviving (and
frequently anthropogenic relocated) stocks.
Is the modern loss of species already comparable to the geological past?

99% of all species ever lived on this planet in the last three and a half
billion years went extinct - extinction is the rule, not the exception, however
the constant rate of extinction and speciation was interrupted by phases of
increased velocity in the loss of species.
In all cases the exact mechanism is still poorly understand, possible factors
contributing to the disappearance of species are geological catastrophes
like volcanism, impacts or climate change, but also biological factors like
competition, diseases or depletion of resources. Mass extinctions are
characterized by the increase in both extinction rate (loss of species per
time) and extinction magnitude (amount of lost species) compared to the
normal geological background. It is notable that during mass extinction all
kind of organisms group, if worldwide distributed or local, if generalists or
specialized, if numerous or rare, if large or small can be affected.
In the record of earth five large, natural occurring mass extinctions (the
big five), characterized by the loss of at least three-quarters of species in a
geologically short interval (typically less than 2 million years), are
recognized: near the end of the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic
and of the Cretaceous Periods.

To compare these past mass extinctions to the assumed modern one is

complicated by the incomplete record of both fossil as living species.
Fossilization is a rare event, many organisms without hard parts like bones
or shells are presumably lost forever and many fossils maybe still slumber
undetected in remote parts of the globe. If a species is described based on
the recovered remains this concept of species can be in conflict with the
modern definition of species, many species described on fragments were
subsequently discovered to belong to a single species.
Also our knowledge of the modern biodiversity is far to be complete,
especially small critters, like bugs or other invertebrates, are much
underrepresented when compared to mammals or other vertebrates in the
studied and described species. In addition from most of the described
species the conservation status is unknown.

Considering these problems, a published study by BARNOSKY et al. 2011

tried to compare the mass extinctions with the actual loss of species. Today
from 48.000 species in the Red List compiled by the International Union for
Conservation of Nature (IUCN) 3.325 are at risk of extinction and 17.300
By considering the extinct species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and
mammals in the last 500 year period, it was possible to determinate the
actual extinction rate and to extrapolate it to match the past mass
According to the calculation the extinction rate today is already
significantly higher then the background rate and depending on the
scenario (assuming that the today threatened species will be extinct in the
next 100 years) an extinction rate comparable to the past mass extinction
can be reached in the next centuries to millennia.

Despite these gloomy predictions there is still a glimpse of hope, in historic

times we have actually lost only a few per cent of described species, still
from a paleontological view the modern extinction rate is lower than the
past big five, but there remains little time and much to do to avoid the
human induced sixth mass extinction.



Has the Earth's sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature Vol. 471: 51-
FIGUIER, L. (1872): The World before the deluge. Cassel, Petter, Galpin
& Co.: 518
ZALASIEWICZ, J. & WILLIAMS, M. (2008): Are we now living in the
Anthropocene? GSA Today Vol.18 (2): 4-8
Posted by David Bressan at 6:00 AM 0 comments
Labels: 21th century, Botany, Earth Science VS Pop Culture, Geological
Catastrophes, Geology and Society, Paleontology, Stratigraphy, Zoology
Thursday, March 3, 2011
The Iceman story
"I remembered the effect that the view of the tremendous and ever-moving
glacier had produced upon my mind when I first saw it. It had then filled me
with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul, and allowed it to soar from
the obscure world to light and joy. The sight of the awful and majestic in
nature had indeed always the effect of solemnising my mind, and causing me
to forget the passing cares of life. I determined to go without a guide, for I
was well acquainted with the path, and the presence of another would destroy
the solitary grandeur of the scene."
Mary W. Shelley "Frankenstein" (1813)
It was a fast and lonesome death, wounded by an arrow in the back, the
man bleed to death within minutes. The body was left on the site of the
murder, maybe the aggressors assumed that scavengers and time would
erase all of the evidences, but in the cold and dry climate the body begun to
desiccate and large scavengers didn't venture in this desolate realm, only
some flies were able to deposits their eggs on the body but they weren't able
to destroy it.
During the next winter snow accumulated in the gully where the body laid
and in the next decades and centuries the snow transformed slowly into ice,
protecting and preserving the mortal remains.

Fig.1. The small

snowfield on the middle of this photography is covering again the gully in
which the body of "Ötzi" was discovered.

Time passed, then in the late summer of 1991 - exact 20 years ago- two
German tourists, Helmut and Erika Simon, accidentally discovered the
body emerging from the ice, the marked ablation during the summer
(helped by sunny weather and the deposition of Saharan dust on the glacier
ice, that absorbed much solar radiation) of the small glacier near the
Similaun Hut, in the Ötztaler Tyrolean Alps, brought the corpse back to
the surface.
The prehistoric mummified corpse - soon known worldwide as "Ötzi" the
Iceman - together with its unique set of artefacts, provided a unique
opportunity for the research of the cultural development of a bronze-age
culture, this corpse is the highest prehistoric find (ca. 3.280m a.s.l.) in the

But the body and artefacts provided also insights on the glacier dimensions
during the little known phases of the warmest parts of the Holocene in
Europe. This phase is practically undocumented by glacial sediments,
eroded by later glacial advances, and is only recognizable by proxy data
like changes in pollen diagrams or dating organic materials, over- or
underlying glacial or proglacial deposits.

During the last glacial maximum some 18.000 years ago the entire area was
completely ice-covered, only narrow and steep arêtes and horns protruded
from the ice. In the area of the Similaun Hut sharp trim lines in a height
varying from 3.060m to 3.400m divide the uppermost frost-shattered crests
from the lower slopes, smoothed by glacial erosion. The trim line can also
recognized locally as marked weathering line that separates different
oxidized surfaces (the bed rock consists of Fe-rich gneiss and schist).
A second trim line is marked by an abrupt change in lichen diameter (from
100mm above to 40mm below) and density. The dating by lichenometry
attributes this glaciers to the Little Ice Age (LIA, ca. 1.600-1.850), which
generally corresponds to the maximum Holocene glacier expansion.
The mummy itself was dated by radiocarbon dating to 4.500+-30 and
4.580+-30 yr B.P., which corresponds to a calibrated age of 5.300-5.050 yr
B.P. The relatively sudden burial of the corpse in a more or less permanent
snow and ice cover indicates a significant climatic change that induced
glacier expansion at the beginning of the Neoglaciation in the second half of
the Holocene.
This supposed change of the glaciers was supported also by some soil
horizons found in depression between 3.000 and 3.215m a.s.l. and dated to
5.615+-55 yr B.P. (6.450-6.300 cal yr B.P.) and 3.885+-60 yr B.P. (4.416-
4.158 cal yr B.P.). Similar recent soils needed at least 5 to 12 centuries for
its development, suggesting that the climatic conditions on the site were for
a long time relative favourable for biological and chemical activity.

The Iceman and his site so reveal that between 9.000 and 5.000 yr B.P. the
mountain glaciers were smaller than in the second half of the Holocene.
About 6.400 cal yr B.P. and for several centuries after, an ice-free
peripheral belt allowed the accumulation of organic matter and
developments of relatively thick soils. Between 5.300 to 5.050 cal yr B.P.
ago a rapid climatic change took place, producing a persistent snow cover
and the expansion of glaciers, which conserved the body until again the
glaciers begun to retreat.
And the recent retreat of the glaciers still continues, in 1970 the glacier that
revealed the mummy was part of the much greater Niederjoch Glacier, a
composite alpine glacier that descends northward in the Nieder-Valley, but
only in the last 5 years the Niederjoch-glacier lost 60-100m length.

Fig.2. The "Similaun" as

highest peak (3.597m a.s.l.) with his two main glaciers, the "Similaun" in
foreground, and the "Niederjoch" in background. Until ca. 1970 the
glaciers flowed together, but the glacier retreat in the last years was

Fig.3. Location (black

circle) of the site of the bronze-age mummy in the Ötztaler Alps. Blue areas
represents the glacier extends in 2003, the red line the glacier extends
during the Little Ice Age (ca. 1600-1850), blue, green and yellow the main
glacier-stages during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition.
The environment in which the Iceman lived was characterised by a rich
biodiversity, he could use and in fact used an astonishing variety of plants
found in his living space.
Both the axe shaft and the long bow were found in the vicinity of the corpse
and were made of yew (Taxus baccata), a resistant and elastic wood typ.
The quiver for the arrows was made of caprine skin and was stiffened with
the elastic wood of the hazel tree (Corylus avellana). The 14 arrows were
made of the hard wood of the wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana). One is
repaired, the front end being restored with dogwood (Cornus). The dagger
handle is also made by hard wood from a piece of ash (Fraxinus excelsior).
Its sheath was knotted from the bark of basswood (Tilia). He carried also
two containers made of birch (Betula) bark, in one were found charcoal
pieces wrapped in Norway maple (Acer platanoides) leaves.
Several wood species could be identified from the charcoal remains,
probably spruce (Picea/Larix-type), pine (Pinus mugo-type), green alder
(Alnus viridis), some Pomoideae which were probably Juneberry (cf.
Amelanchier ovalis), dwarf willow (Salix reticulata-type) and elm (Ulmus).
A sort of backpack was constructed from a thick branch of hazel (Corylus
avellana) bent into a U-shape, together with two coarsely-worked laths of
larch (Larix decidua).

The majority of wood species found with the Iceman grow in the montane
regions (valley bottoms to 1.800 m), although some subalpine (1.800-2.500
m) and alpine (above 2.500 m) conifer species are also represented. Their
ecological requirements point to the transition zone between thermophilic
mixed-oak forest communities (Quercetalia pubescenti-petreae) and the
montane spruce forest (Piceetum montanum). Norwegian maple (A.
platanoides), European yew (T. baccata), ash (Fraxinus sp.), lime (Tilia sp.)
and elm (Ulmus sp.) allow to infer a humid habitat with a mineral rich,
free-draining soil and a mild winter climate.
All that is similar to the present-day conditions in the woodlands found on
the slopes and in gorges in the lower Schnalstal and Vinschgau in South
Tyrol, where it is assumed he lived.

So the botanical evidence seems to confirm a climate comparable to

modern conditions, and implies a glacial extent similar, if not slightly
minor to the present. This has very important influence on the
reconstruction of past, and modern climatic and glacial development, and
at last the actual discussion about climatic change.

BARONI, C. & OROMBELLI, G. (1996): Short paper - the alpine
"Iceman" and Holocene Climatic Change. Quaternary Research 46: 78-83
MAGNY, M. & HAAS, J.N. (2004): Rapid Communication - A major
widespread climatic change around 5300 cal. yr BP at the time of the
Alpine Iceman. Journal of Quaternary Science 19(5): 423-430
OEGGL, K. (2009): The significance of the Tyrolean Iceman for the
archaeobotany of Central Europe. Veget. Hist. Archaeobot. 18:1-11
Posted by David Bressan at 6:52 AM 0 comments
Labels: 20th century, 21th century, Alps, Ancient times, Botany, Cryology,
Earth Science VS Pop Culture, Geomorphology, Ice Age, Paleoclimatology,
South Tyrol, Stratigraphy
Saturday, February 19, 2011
AW#31 - Talus Thoughts
Jim Lehane on The Geology P.A.G.E. is asking the question "What
geological concept or idea did you hear about that you had no notion of
before (and likely surprised you in some way)."

Well I will admit that there is a problem that I come across only in
geologically recent times and still puzzles me.

"Beautiful is what we see,

More beautiful is what we understand,
Most beautiful is what we do not comprehend."
Nicolaus Steno, 1673

Can a pile of rubble have e name and be studied? Apparently yes - a Talus
(term used in North America, borrowed from the architecture of
fortresses)) or Scree (English) can be defined as landform composed of
rock debris accumulated by mass-wasting processes - or as pile of rubble.
But despite this simple explanation, their humble origin, being often
neglected during lectures or considered only disturbing in mapping the
bedrock lithology, talus slopes are complex geomorphologic features still
holding many secrets (not only to me).
These landforms occur in a wide range of environments, but most
predominantly where the climate enforces on steep rock walls or cliffs
physical weathering and mass-wasting. If the supplied rubble is enough, the
subsequent weathering and removal rate low, a characteristic, thick cone
or slope of rock debris can form. Rockfall is one important factor to form a
talus; however depending on the catchment are other mass-wasting
processes can act on the morphology of the talus, large rock avalanches can
occur, debris flows, avalanches and dry grain flows also transport material
on the developing slope.
These various processes can alter the form, the composition and the grain
size found on the talus - so it is not easy (if possible) to foresee the inner
matrix by only observing the surface. In most cases the coarse openwork
surface texture is merely a veneer. Talus deposits consist of debris with a
wide range of sizes, like a sieve, fine material accumulates in the voids in
the deeper parts of the talus. Interestingly for me such a similar
phenomenon has been observed also in rock glaciers and landslide deposits
- I therefore experienced that is it tricky to map such features as simple

Fig.1 and 2. More

regular Talus slope / Talus aprons in the upper photo and cataclinal
(bedding and slope coincide) slope with various Talus cones and
modification by debris flows in the Dolomites.
Fig.3. Example of talus deposits
reworked by debris flows (with the typical levees on the sides of the
channel) in the Central Alps, area characterized by schists and
metasediments. Physical and chemical erosion in such rocks is generally
stronger, talus deposits tend therefore to be fine grained and covered by
soil and vegetation.
Talus deposits are mainly results of mass-wasting processes, if fluvial
("wet") processes play also or a dominant role the term Talus fans is used.

The overall morphology of a talus slope depends also on the form of the
cliffs supplying the debris. Straight plain cliffs will produce a straight sheet
talus (Talus slope / Talus aprons), cliffs with channels or gorges will
canalize the debris and Talus cones will form. It is mostly that both forms
will occur in narrow spatial and temporal succession, a regular cliff will
develop channels with ongoing erosion and faults can disrupt the regular
conformation of a cliff.
Many talus slope profiles show at least segments with an inclination of 33-
35°, a common value for rubble, however considering the entire slope there
are significant variations. Mapped talus slopes show that the upper part
has an angle of 32-37°, up to 40°, the medial part approaches the value of
33°, the lower part displays low angles and a basal concavity. The
segmentation of the profile is in accordance to a change in the facies.
This shape is explained in part by various processes acting along the
profile, in the upper part transport and deposition of debris, in the lower
part mainly deposition. There is also a change in the grain size caused by
"fall sorting": large boulders with their large momentum and energy
proceed until the toe of the slope, also the roughness increases downhill,
where older large boulders can stop the run of the new arriving boulder.
The degree of sorting depends on the slope length, cliff height and the size
and shape of dominant particles. This is an important effect of talus slope
to be considered when defying a zone of danger or planning mitigation

Talus slopes in periglacial environments are again peculiar in some

characteristics. A snow patch on the base of the slope and subsequent
sliding of debris above this surface can produce a distinct ridge, termed
protalus rampart or nivation ridge. Covering of snow by such debris is
thought to produce an ice-rock mixture that can begin to creep following
gravitational pull, a protalus lobe (often unfortunately also referred as
protalus rampart), considered by me as one possible variation of rock
When the ice melts out, unlike glaciers these lobes can not recede and
became fossilised.

Fig.4. Complex talus

deposits in the Antersac-Valley, Dolomites. The basal vegetation covered
protalus rampart is a relict of a colder climate in a periglacial environment,
probably during the aftermath of the last glacial period (18.000-12.000
years ago). Rockfall from the steep cliffs and canalized by a gully provide
further debris, forming a talus cone, however the vegetation cover shows
that the activity on it today is low. Most recent modifications are erosion of
the upper part and secondary mobilization of material by various debris

The coarse debris forming the talus can become preserved, and there is
ongoing research to use these deposits to interfere the climate of the past.
The presence of a Talus as such is not specific related to climate or
environment, however the processes (avalanches, debris flows, grain flows)
forming or modifying the Talus are depending on the climate.
Another possibility, despite recognizing the characteristic forms of ice-rock
bearing talus slopes, is to try to calculate the accumulation of debris, and so
the rate of weathering of the cliff. Assuming that a cold and wet climate
increases debris production the ages of talus deposits can provide ages of
such climatic phases. In talus slopes composed of carbonate rocks it is also
possible to date directly the cement or the matrix formed between large
boulders. Measuring the oxygen or carbon isotopes it is possible to recover
direct climatic values.

These are only some considerations of many. Talus slopes are wonderful
complex landforms, and being common in the region I work, they still
continue to fascinate and intrigue me.


LUCKMAN, B.H. (2006): Talus Slopes. In (ed): ELIAS, SA: Encyclopedia

of quaternary science. Elsevier: 2242-2248
Posted by David Bressan at 7:37 AM 0 comments
Labels: 21th century, Alps, Cryology, Earth Science VS Pop Culture,
Geological Maps, Geology and Society, Geomorphology, Ice Age, Life as
geologist, Paleoclimatology, South Tyrol, Stratigraphy
Friday, February 18, 2011
Climate research in the geologic past
Fig.1. Global map as
published by Lyell in his "Principles of Geology" (8th edition 1850) to
illustrate the past climatic changes.
The climate of a region, as experienced by daily observations of a cool
morning and hot midday, was for very long time considered simply the
result of the height of the sun above the horizon. This idea forced a very
simple view of the distribution of climates on Earth, to the poles
temperature dropped, to the equator it raised, forming so large parallel
climatic belts. Such a static view of the Earth also didn’t need or even allow
climate changes in the past or in the future time.
With the establishment of the deep geological time by the first geologists
and naturalists it became clear that not only the distribution of sea and
land changed over time, but so did climate.
Read on how Lyell explained climate change by shifting "pseudo"-
continents over the globe in the post at the American Scientific Guest Blog.
Posted by David Bressan at 8:58 AM 1 comments
Labels: 19th century, Cartography, Cryology, Earth Science VS Pop
Culture, Geology and Society, Heretic geologists, Ice Age, Life as geologist,
Paleoclimatology, Paleontology, Stratigraphy
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
An introduction to Quaternary Entomology
"One may not doubt that somehow, good
Shall come of water and of mud"
"Heaven" by R.C. Brooke (1913)
Beetles are the most diverse group of organisms on earth today. Despite
this success they are geologically young, first fossils appear in the
Cretaceous and only in the following Cainozoic the group experiences a
rapid diversification and radiation. During the last 2 million years of the
Quaternary beetles remained relatively stable and didn't experience
significant changes or extinction events.
The study of fossil remains of beetles in Quaternary sediments provided
both for geology as for biology interesting results.
The fossils provided insights into modern faunas, development as species
longevity and population dynamics. In geology beetles are well suited to
study the palaeoenvironment of quaternary sediments - their body is highly
sclerotized and parts of the exoskeleton can be preserved in organic

Fig.1. The most

sclerotized parts of beetles, like head, thorax and the cover wings (elytra)
have the greatest prospect to become preserved in sediments (from

Early research on fossil insects of the ice ages was carried out mostly not by
professional entomologists, but by geologists, archaeologists or naturalists.
This caused a proliferation of new described species with evocative names
as Helophorus pleistocenicus (LOMNICKI 1894), Olophrum interglacialie
(MJÖBERG 1904) or Lathrobium antiquatum (SCUDDER 1900).
Modern work by entomologists revealed in most cases that the supposedly
extinct species are identifiable as modern ones, for example from five
Helophorus species described in the early 19th century in the Pleistocene
sediments of the Borislav site (Ukraine) as new, today no one remains, and
all the specimens were collocated in four extant species.
In 1877 Samuel H. Scudder, entomologist and palaeontologist at the U.S.
Geological Survey, published a first paper about fossil insects from the
Late Quaternary deposits at Scarborough (Ontario) - he will subsequently
dedicate the next 20 years of his life to the research of such remains all over
North America.
Scudder following the tradition of the time was a very prolific species
seeker, he described more than 1.144 insect species, however already in his
lifetime he was criticised for many of these nominations, especially the use
of very fragmentary or bad preserved specimen as immortalized in the
name he gave to some of them, like Bembidion fragmentum.

Fig.2. Fossil beetles identified by

Scudder from the Scarborough Formation, illustrated by Henry Blake in
Scudder (1900). (A) Bembidion expletum, (B) Badister antecursor, (C)
Pterostichus depletus, (D) Patrobus decessus, (E) Bembidion damnosum,
and (F) Patrobus frigidus (from ELIAS 2010).

It was the Swedish entomologist Carl H. Lindroth (1905-1979) who

reformed the field of paleoentomology.
By studying taphonomic processes affecting the preservation of insects and
by establishing the most useful taxonomic characters, as for example the
cuticular microsculpture (microscopic lines and meshes covering the
surface of the exoskeleton), he introduced a serious taxonomic comparison
between fossil and extant species, clarifying that most beetle species
survived unaltered the last 2 million years.

The first work to use insect species to reconstruct a paleoenvironment was

carried out by STROBEL & PIGORNI in 1864 on an archaeological site in
northern Italy, many other paleontological studies followed in the next
decades in Europe.

Fig.3. A tiny fragment of

chitin emerging in situ from turf, found in the sediments of a former pond
in the central Alps.

In 1955 the English geologist Russell Coope began to study the Upton
Warren site near Birmingham (U.K.), searching for fossil mammal bones.
The sediments were extraordinary rich of shiny, small fragments of chitin
and insect bodies, so Coope tried to delve into this to him completely
unknown subject. Patiently he compared the recovered remains with the
collection of bugs hosted in the Natural history collections of Birmingham.
Coope was one of the first to compare fossils to recent species, without
assuming from the beginning that all Pleistocene insects are extinct species.
He published his results of the site of Upton Warren and others in 1959 and
Today his output counts more than 200 papers, even after retirement he
continues his research and his contributions in paleoentomology provided
the establishment, diffusion and acceptance of Quaternary entomology in
the scientific community and geologists from the 1970 onwards.


BUCKLAND, P. (2000): An introduction to Palaeoentomology in

Archaeology and The BUGS Database Management System. Institutionen
för arkeologi och samiska studier, Umea universitet: 62
ELIAS, S.A. (ed.) (2010): Advances in Quaternary Entomology.
Developments in Quaternary Science 12: 288
SCUDDER, S.H. (1900): Canadian fossil insects. Geological Survey of
Canada, Publication No. 710, Contributions to Canadian Palaeontology 2
STROBEL, P. & PIGORNI, L. (1864): Le terremare e le palafitte del
Parmense, seconda relazione. Atti della Societa italiana di Scienze Naturali,
Milano 7: 36-37
Posted by David Bressan at 9:46 AM 0 comments
Labels: 19th century, 20th century, England, Europe, Heretic geologists,
Ice Age, Italy, North America, Paleoclimatology, Paleontology,
Stratigraphy, Zoology
Monday, February 7, 2011
The Layers of Earth

"This was the man to whom all things were known;

this was the king who knew the countries of the world.
He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things,
he brought us a tale of the days before the flood.
He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labor,
returning he rested,
he engraved on a stone the whole story."
"The Epic of Gilgamesh" (ca 2.000 B.C.)

Single philosophers and scholars already in antiquity noted and

philosophized about layers found in some outcrops of rocks. Recognizing
fossils as remains of once living sea creatures, some of the Greek
philosophers hypothesised that the conformation of land and sea changes
over time, and Muslim scholars described the layering of rocks and
explained them by accumulation and deposition of rock fragments.
But these great ideas were proposed by single individuals or small groups,
and no consistent school of thought or even culture dedicated to the study
of rocks developed, most knowledge arise, and soon got lost, and had to be
rediscovered again and again during the following centuries.

For example the Italian Renaissance artist and naturalist Leonardo da

Vinci studied sediments, their fossils and their stratification on the hills of
Tuscany, Romagna and the Po River plain, during his service as an
engineer and artist at the court of the Duke of Milan, from 1482 to 1499.
From the private notes that Leonardo wrote, it appears that he understand
the mechanisms of sedimentary erosion and deposition, that superimposed
layers were formed at different times and that distinct layers of rocks could
be traced over long distances. This empirical knowledge was "applicated"
by da Vinci in some of his paintings, when the landscapes in the
background of a scene displays outcrops of rocks represented correctly
with sedimentary layers. However da Vinci never published his ideas and it
is even questionable if he shared his observations with other persons.

It was the work of the physician Georgius Agricola, latinized version of the
German name Georg Bauer (1494-1555) which for the first time
contributed to a broad diffusion of applied strata geology. His book "De Re
Metallica" ("On the Nature of Metals"), posthumously published in 1556, is
a systematic study of ore deposits, the order and extant of strata and
especially mining technology, and was to remain the standard text on
mining geology for the next two centuries. Agricolas work, as remarkable
as it is, was however following the tradition of his times and so mostly
specific and descriptive in its content, it offered little or only metaphysic
explanations how layers form and how to study them.

It was the Danish Niels Stensen (1638-1686), latinized in Nicholaus Steno,

who trained by his anatomical skills, not only recognized the order of
layers, but actually tried to explain them and formulate rules for a general
interpretation of sediments. Studying the rocks of the Italian region of
Tuscany, in 1667 he formulated the main general principles, on which
modern stratigraphy is still based:

Fossils are the remains of once living creatures, comparable to modern

ones, typically found in sedimentary rocks.

Layers of rock are arranged in a time sequence, with the oldest on the
bottom and the youngest on the top, unless later processes disturb this
arrangement (principle of superposition).

Layers of rocks are deposited in a horizontal position; any deviations from

this position are due to the rocks being disturbed later (principle of original

A stratum is deposited continuously unless some other solid body stood in

the way (principles of strata continuity).
If a body or discontinuity cuts across a stratum, it must have formed after
that stratum (principle of cross-cutting relationships).

Fig.1. Stepwise facies

restoration of Tuscan geology based on Earth strata sedimentation and
deformation (Niels Steno´s 1669 Prodromus).
Steno explained inclined strata (contradicting his principle of original
horizontality) as results of cave collapses or other disturbances. Note also
that Steno positioned the single figures to form a sort of cycle of deposition,
erosion and collapse.

These simple and general applicable rules could enable naturalists to

develop a sort of protocol to be followed when studying sediments, and
more important introduced "time" in a stratigraphic succession.
However Steno's work, like many other before him remained for almost a
century forgotten. But then John Woodward, considered an amateur
physician and naturalist by some, by others a quack, used/stole the
principles formulated by Steno in his 1695 book "An Essay toward a
Natural History of the earth". The best part of work thought to support the
idea of the biblical sin flood as origin of fossils, was regarded the passages
copied from Steno.
The shameless book of Woodward however initiated a new interest in the
formation of sedimentary rocks and a dispute begun on the origin of fossils.
The ideas of Steno were introduced in the academic establishment and
adopted in applied mining geology.
Fig.2. In a booklet with the title
"Ragguaglio di una grotta ove vi sono molte ossa di belve diluviane nei Monti
Veronesi (Description of a cave in the mountains of Verona where many
bones of beasts from the deluge can be observed)" the engineer and
cartographer Gregorio Piccoli del Faggiol (1680-1755) in 1739 published a
topographic map of the Italian Dolomites correlated with a sort of
stratigraphic column.
In this column layers of lithologies only some meters thick were depicted as
seen in sequence in the field. This work, nearly forgotten at its time and
today, is maybe the oldest figure of this kind.

With the formulation of general applicable rules first representations of

stratigraphic column appeared at the end of the 18th century; in 1760 the
Italian geologist Giovanni Arduino proposed to classify the rocks of the
Alps in four distinct layers - primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary
sediments. However the term stratigraphy, as the study dealing with the
processes that form sedimentary layers, was coined only in 1849 by the
French Palaeontologist d'Orbigny.

Despite the recognition of the principles controlling a succession of layered

rocks, the formation of the single strata remained still a mystery. During
the 18th and 19th century two models prevailed, the Neptunistic approach
proposed that rock strata were crystallized deposits precipitated in a
distinct order from sea water, later erosion and modern deposition played a
minor role in forming sediments. The Plutonistic approach in contrast
stated to erosion and deposition the major role in stratified sediments
formation, all rocks are in principle of volcanic origin, and became later
eroded and the resulting sediments deposited, there was not so a strict
order to observed in the succession of rocks.
The controversy continued for years, no follower of one or the other idea
could prove the stratigraphic order necessary for his model. Both models
had to deal with the major problem of geology at these times: Geological
maps depicted simply the prevailing rock type of an area, connecting single
outcrops consisting of the same lithology and implying a spatial
homogeneity with surprisingly little diversity and stratigraphic order.

It was the self-educated engineer William Smith (1769-1839) to become the

decipher of the code hidden in the rocks itself. He recognized that
superficial identical strata differ in their content of fossils - fossils,
regarded until them only as curiosities, beautiful, but worthless, became
like the numbers on the page of a book an indispensable tool to bring order
in the chaos of rocks.

Chronostratigraphy and collection of typical rocks and fossils of the ages of
earth - The Layers of Earth as book by Y. Fric, dealer of natural products,
Prague 1861 (Collection of the Ferdinandeum in Innsbruck).

Outcrops cold now be correlated not only by their lithology but even more
precise by their faunal assemblage.

Smith applied this principle to publish some minor maps in 1799 and then
the first large-scale geological map with profiles in 1814-1815, depicting
southern England and Wales. His example was soon followed (some say
more appropriately copied) by English geologists and by the French
naturalists Cuvier and Brogniart, who in 1808 published "Essai
minéraligique sur les environs de Paris", a work dealing with the geology of
the basins surrounding Paris and completed with a map and geological
However a detail of the French publication reveals that yet the
revolutionary insight of Smith's work wasn't fully grasped by the scientific
community, the legend of the geological map doesn't show the lithologies in
their stratigraphic (temporal) order like modern maps do, but are
arranged by convenience.


GOULD, S.J. (1988): Time´s arrow Time´s cycle Myth and Metaphor in the
Discovery of geological Time. Harvard University Press: 240
KOUTSOUKOS, E.A.M. (2005): Applied Stratigraphy. Topics in
Geobiology Vol.23.: 488
LAZZARI, C. (2000): Le Scienze della Terra nel Veneto dale origini ai
giorni nostril - 8 secoli di studi, scoperte, progressi e leggende. Societa
Veneziana di Scienze Naturali: 171
VAI, G.B. (2007): A history of chronostratigraphy. Stratigraphy, Vol.4.
(2/3): 83-97
Posted by David Bressan at 8:52 AM 0 comments
Labels: 18th century, 19th century, Ancient times, Cartography, Geological
Maps, Geology and Society, Heretic geologists, Stratigraphy
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Ichnofacies associations of the Bletterbach section
I already introduced the fossil site of the Bletterbach gorge, recognized by
geologists for the first time in 1951. However after some preliminary
studies and some recuperated fossil imprints a systematic research began
only in 1973, resulting in the discovery of a large number of tracks and
These discoveries were followed by a systematic stratigraphic and
paleoenvironmental reconstruction of the site, and led to the revision of its
chronological attribution (from the Middle to the Late Permian, 260-251
Ma) and its ichnological content. Recognized the significance of the
Bletterbach gorge, research continued and the site became some years ago
a geology park with marked itineraries for visits and local documentation
centres. In June 2009 it was inserted as "Geotop" along the Dolomites in
the list of World Heritage sites of the UNESCO.

The Bletterbach gorge is one of only five major outcrops of tracksites

worldwide dated to the Late Permian and from these possesses the most
diverse assemblage of ichnofossils.
The facies association occurs in sandstones deposited in the alluvial plain
and channels of a river system that regularly flooded the former semi-
desertic landscape. The ichnofauna assemblage is extraordinary rich with 9
ichnospecies belonging to 8 ichnogenera.
The presumed terrestrial track makers range from gigantic pareiasaurs,
medium-sized to large herbivorous anapsid reptiles, small and relatively
primitive diapsids and to large synapsids. In some cases, the foot-prints are
exceptionally well preserved, showing details of the skin and imprints of the
single claws.
Pelycosaurs, one of the dominant reptilian groups during the Permian, are
present by the imprints of large caseids, reaching an estimated length of 2
meters. An important peculiarity of the site is the discovery of tracks
attributed to gorgonopsians, the only known example of imprints of this
group recorded in central Europe. Other therapsida imprints, only 5cm
small and with the classic 4 to 5 forward facing digits, were left probably
by cynodonts.

Fig.1. Pachypes dolomiticus (LEONARDI

et al. 1975), amongst the largest Paleozoic tetrapod footprints found in the
Bletterbach, has been referred to pareiasaurs by means of comparison with
the skeletal features of several Palaeozoic reptilian groups (digits show
Fig.2. Morphofamily Chiroteriidae
(ABEL, 1935) - imprint of a large archosaur and the oldest known
examples of this kind of tracks (digits show to the right).

Fig.3. Rhynchosauroides
in the foreground - three distinct ichnospecies are recognized in the
Bletterbach of this track, all of them attributed to small, lizard-like
creatures (lepidosauromorpha).
Fig.4. Imprint of a large
synapsid (gorgonopsia?) with five digits, even the marks of the claws are

Fig.5. The mid-

nineteenth century fanciful view of the trackmakers: a labyrinthodont
amphibian (centre) leaves a Chirotherium trackway watched by
dicynodonts (left) and rhynchosaurs (right).
(B.W. Hawkins archive,The NaturalHistory Museum, London), found in
BOWDEN et al. 2010
Fig.6. A more realistic reconstruction -
Tetrapod Footprints from Bletterbach and causer: a) Pachypes dolomiticus;
b) Rhynchosauroides pallini; c) Ichniotherium accordii; d) Dycinodotipus
isp.; e) Chirotheriidae (From PIERO et al. 2010).


AVANZINI, M. & TOMASINI, R. (2004): Giornate di Paleontologia 2004

Bolzano 21-23 Maggio 2004 Guida all´escursione: la gola del Bletternach.
Studi Trentini di Scienze Naturali - Acta Geologica Supplemento al v.79
BOWDEN, A.J.; TRESISE, G.R. & SIMKISS, W. (2010): Chirotherium,
the Liverpool footprint hunters and their interpretation of the Middle
Trias environment. In: MOODY, R. T. J., BUFFETAUT, E., NAISH, D. &
MARTILL, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A
Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications,
343, 209 - 228
LEONARDI, G. (2008): Vertebrate ichnology in Italy. Studi Trent. Sci.
Nat., Acta Geol., 83 (2008): 213-221
(2010): Dolomites 7th international Triassic Field Workshop Pan-
European correlation of the Triassic. Field trip to the world heritage site of
the Tethyan Triassic September 5-10, 2010 Dolomites, Southern Alps, Italy:
VALENTINI, M.; CONTI, M.A. & NICOSIA, U. (2008): Linking tetrapod
tracks to the biodynamics, paleobiogeography, and paleobiology of their
trackmakers: Pachypes dolomiticus Leonardi et al., 1975, a case study.
Studi Trent. Sci. Nat., Acta Geol., 83: 237-246
Posted by David Bressan at 10:16 AM 0 comments
Labels: Alps, Earth Science VS Pop Culture, Geology, Paleomammology,
Paleontology, South Tyrol, Stratigraphy