Saturday, July 14, 2018

Papers: Global Tectonics, Cryogenian Period, Himalaya Miocene Lakes

I've come across quite a few interesting papers on diverse topics in the past couple of weeks. Most of them are 'big question' themes, dealing with processes taking place on global scales. Here are the links.

Global Tectonics:

1) Subduction Initiation of the Wilson Cycle - In plate tectonics, the Wilson Cycle refers to cyclical ( frequency of 100's of millions of  years) breakup of continents and the opening and closing of ocean basins. But how is subduction initiated and new convergent plate boundaries formed? Some good examples from the Western Pacific margin and eastern Indonesia.

2) How Subduction Broke Up Pangaea - Was it top down forces.. i.e. the pull exerted by subducting slabs or was it the horizontal traction exerted by a convecting mantle (bottom up) that broke up the supercontinent?

3) Why is Africa Rifting? - Insights into the formation of the famous East Africa rift system.

4) Gondwana Large Igneous Provinces: distribution, diversity and significance - Synopsis of several papers that explore the link between prolonged magmatic episodes, tectonics, climate shifts and sedimentation patterns in Gondwana continents.


1) Snowball Earth climate dynamics and Cryogenian geology-geobiology - In the Cryogenian Period, between around 715 to 635 million years ago, the earth was blanketed in two prolonged glaciations. Before these glaciations, the earth was a microbial planet. The end of these glaciations is associated with the evolution of multicellular complex life. What were the conditions during the Cryogenian Period that influenced the evolution of life?


1) Oligocene‐Miocene Great Lakes in the India‐Asia Collision Zone - Mount Kailash is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus. The sediments that make up this mountain were deposited in narrow basins in the India-Asia collision zone. They preserve a record of surface environments and geodynamic mechanisms operating within the suture zone during the convergence of India with Asia.

All Open Access.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Sutlej Paleochannels- More Details

A while back I had written a post in response to a paper (Ajit Singh et. al. 2017) on the paleo-Sutlej river. The study used geochemical analysis to identify ancient channels of the river. Today, the Sutlej flows out of the Himalaya and joins the Indus River. But this study showed that until about 8000 years ago, the Sutlej (or at least a strand of the river) flowed along a different course. Its paleo-channels coincide with  the course of the river Ghaggar in Haryana and Rajasthan in northwest India. This topic is of relevance in studying how rivers may have impacted agricultural practices and settlement patterns of the Harappan Civilization. The geography of the river Ghaggar also matches that of the river Saraswati, described in the Rig Ved. There is therefore considerable interest in working out the detailed history of these rivers.

I had pointed out that an earlier paper by Liviu Giosan and colleagues has used topographic criteria to come to a similar conclusion as Ajit Singh and colleagues. Giosan's study stressed that today the Sutlej and Yamuna flow along deeply incised valleys that were cut in the early Holocene (~10,000 to 8700 years ago). The absence of such valleys in the region between the present day Sutlej and Yamuna indicates that the Ghaggar channel was not being fed by glacially sourced rivers since 10,000 -8700 years ago.

The relief rendition below is from Ajit Singh's paper. It shows clearly the incised valleys of the Sutlej and Yamuna. I had overlain the blue line and suggested that if the Sutlej had flowed into the Ghaggar in early Holocene, there should have been an incised valley along the blue line.

As it happens, Sanjeev Gupta, who was the lead scientist of the study by Ajit Singh and colleagues, is a reader of my blog. He emailed me and has provided more insights regarding these paleo-channels.

I am posting his comments below with his permission.

My comment from the earlier post- The modified relief rendition below also shows the course of the abandoned Sutlej incised valley. Note that this valley is much narrower than the Sutlej and Yamuna incised valleys. Also, trace these narrower incised valleys upstream and you can see that they originate in the Siwaliks. There are no deep extensive incised valleys along the route I have marked in blue. The Sutlej would have carved a prominent incised valley roughly along the blue route had it been flowing into the Ghaggar during most of the early and mid Holocene. Its absence suggests to me that the valley annotated as the abandoned Sutlej incised valley was really carved out in the earlier part of the Holocene by the smaller Ghaggar river originating in the Siwaliks.

Sanjeev Gupta's reply - Just to respond... we only see the incised channel in the SRTM where the valley is not completely infilled. Indeed where we see the valley in SRTM it is not the base of the incised valley. but a partially infilled valley. So along the blue line you have drawn there is likely to have been a valley but it is entirely infilled.

My comment (with regards to the 'abandoned Sutlej incised valley' in the above relief rendition) - (it)....was really carved out in the earlier part of the Holocene by the smaller Ghaggar river originating in the Siwaliks.

Sanjeev Gupta's reply- This is not possible because all the geochemistry signature is of the Sutlej - the base of the valley actually occurs in the stratigraphy.

We have some newer data that better constrain the timing of incision but I stress the topographic surface is not the base of the incised valley - that lies in the subsurface.


So, Sanjeev Gupta's view is that present day topography is not necessarily a more reliable guide to the course of these ancient rivers. Geochemical fingerprinting is the way to go.

Friday, June 22, 2018

How Did Homo Sapiens Evolve?

Here is a very good summary of our evolving understanding of this question.

How did Homo Sapiens Evolve? - Julia Galway-Witham and Chris Stringer


Over the past 30 years, understanding of Homo sapiens evolution has advanced greatly. Most research has supported the theory that modern humans had originated in Africa by about 200,000 years ago, but the latest findings reveal more complexity than anticipated. They confirm interbreeding between H. sapiens and other hominin species, provide evidence for H. sapiens in Morocco as early as 300,000 years ago, and reveal a seemingly incremental evolution of H. sapiens cranial shape. Although the cumulative evidence still suggests that all modern humans are descended from African H. sapiens populations that replaced local populations of archaic humans, models of modern human origins must now include substantial interactions with those populations before they went extinct. These recent findings illustrate why researchers must remain open to challenging the prevailing theories of modern human origins.

..and on the status of Recent African Origin (RAO) versus Multiregionalism, the two competing theories of modern human origins

The apparently more deeply rooted origin of H. sapiens adds to the problem of how scientists can delineate H. sapiens from other species in an evolutionarily meaningful way and suggests that the species did not evolve as recently as previously envisaged. However, evidence of evolutionary novelty in the fossil record of putative H. sapiens still appears relatively recently in Africa, compared to a multiregional view of human evolution (in which H. sapiens began to evolve at least 1.8 million years ago). Within Africa, it is currently unclear whether the origin of H. sapiens was localized, as in some early RAO formulations, or involved a process similar to multiregional evolution, but operating purely within the continent (5, 13).

With only a few dissenters, the strictest versions of both RAO (which denies interbreeding with other lineages or species) and multiregionalism (which argues for an interbreeding network of one species over the past ~1.8 million years) are now generally regarded as falsified. Instead, two intermediate theories best accommodate the complex interactions between hominin taxa ~40,000 to 100,000 years ago (8, 14): RAO with hybridization (RAOWH) and the assimilation model (AM) (see the figure).

Source: How did Homo Sapiens Evolve? - Julia Galway-Witham and Chris Stringer 2018

Open Access.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Mars Geology

Came across a couple of cracking papers on Mars geology

1) Ancient Martian aeolian processes and palaeomorphology reconstructed from the Stimson formation on the lower slope of Aeolis Mons, Gale crater, Mars - Steven G. Banham et. al. 2017

During its travels, the Mars Curiosity Rover has been taking some exquisite pictures of landscapes and rock outcrops. This study uses field photos of a sandstone body and analyses its ancient depositional setting.  The sandstone is a dune field, created and shaped by aeolian processes. The overall aim is to better understand the sedimentary environments on Mars, how they changed over time, and whether they could have been habitable environments.

Just take a look at the spectacular cross bedding and bed sets of the dune.

Source: Steven G. Banham et. al. 2017

And here is a depiction of the regional setting of the dune field

Source: Steven G. Banham et. al. 2017

2) A Field Guide To Finding Life On Mars- S. McMohan et. al. 2018

Excerpt: This paper reviews the rocks and minerals on Mars that could potentially host fossils or other signs of ancient life preserved since Mars was warmer and wetter billions of years ago. We apply recent results from the study of Earth’s fossil record and fossilization processes, and from the geological exploration of Mars by rovers and orbiters, in order to select the most favoured targets for astrobiological missions to Mars. We conclude that mudstones rich in silica and iron-bearing clays currently offer the best hope of finding fossils on Mars and should be prioritized, but that several other options warrant further research. We also recommend further experimental work on how fossilization processes operate under conditions analogous to early Mars.

I got to relearn a good bit about how depositional settings, mineralogy and geochemistry influence organic matter preservation.

Both Open Access.

Monday, June 11, 2018

550 Million Year Old Animal Tracks Preserved In Sediments

Late Ediacaran trackways produced by bilaterian animals with paired appendages - Zhe Chen, Xiang Chen, Chuanming Zhou2, Xunlai Yuan and Shuhai Xiao

Pretty exciting find this. One of the earliest evidence of the presence of bilateral animals on earth has been found in 550 - 540 million  year old sedimentary rocks from China. These are not body fossils. Rather a pair of pits impressed upon the sediment surface mark the movement of an animal with paired appendages.


Ediacaran trace fossils provide key paleontological evidence for the evolution of early animals and their behaviors. Thus far, however, this fossil record has been limited to simple surface trails and relatively shallow burrows. We report possible trackways, preserved in association with burrows, from the terminal Ediacaran Shibantan Member (ca. 551 to ca. 541 million years ago) in the Yangtze Gorges area of South China. These trace fossils represent the earliest known trackways. They consist of two rows of imprints arranged in poorly organized series or repeated groups. These trackways may have been produced by bilaterian animals with paired appendages, although the phylum-level phylogenetic affinity of the trace makers remains unknown. It is possible that the trackways and associated burrows were produced by the same trace maker, indicating a complex behavior involving both walking and burrowing. Together, these trackways and burrows mark the arrival of a new era characterized by an increasing geobiological footprint of bilaterian animals.

 Source: Zhe Chen 2018

To put this find in context to the broader trajectory of animal evolution. These sediments are 30-40 million years older than the Chengjiang Biota of China and the famous Burgess Shale of Canada. These two are known for their exceptional preservation of animal soft tissue, giving scientists a peek into the morphological diversity present at that time. However, animals did not suddenly originate during the time the Chengjiang Shale and the Burgess Shale were being deposited, as is sometimes misunderstood by some, or is deliberately and disingenuously argued by creationists.

Molecular clocks which can estimate the time of origin and divergence of organisms suggests that animals diverged from a common ancestor between 1000 million and 700 million years ago. Trace and body fossils start appearing by 600 million years ago.

I like to put up this figure which summarizes the fossil record of early animal evolution through the Late Neoproterozoic to Early-Mid Cambrian

Source: On The Origin of Phyla

You will notice an incremental increase in richness of the trace and body fossil record. The Cambrian "Explosion" was a geologically rapid diversification of the animal biosphere, fueled by a confluence of ecologic triggers. But in absolute years it took place over a 15-20 million year period.