Saturday, September 30, 2023

Iron Pisolites From Western Ghats

A reader sent me this photograph of a pebble he had collected from a stream bed near Belgaum, Karnataka.

 Photo credit: Gopisundar

These look to me like iron rich pisolites. These spheroidal grains form by the accretion of iron, manganese, and aluminum hydroxides around a nucleus. The core may be an aggregate of soil particles, a rock fragment, or even wood debris. 

You will notice that the core is quite massive and structureless but in a few grains a crude concentric layering is seen at the margins. The pisolites are bound together into a firm mass by mixture of clay and iron aluminum hydroxide. Pisolites form during prolonged episodes of chemical weathering of  rocks like basalt or shale or iron aluminum rich metamorphic rocks. They are present in thick laterite and bauxite profiles. 

The picture below is a representative example of pisolite from a location in Brazil. It shows the occurrence of pisolite layers in a weathered soil profile, along with a hand sample and a cross section under high magnification.


Source: K Marques 2022: Geochronology (preprint).

Here is a map of the landscape just south of Belgaum that I am describing in this post. 


 Source: Amanda Jean 2020: Journal of Geological Society

It shows the distribution of three distinct horizons of chemically weathered soil, named as the S1, S2 and S3 surfaces. Each of these horizons consist of tens of meters of laterite or bauxite and manganese rich ore. There has been some recent success in dating these weathered layers using the mineral crytomelane, a potassium rich manganese oxide. Three distinct weathering periods are documented. As India broke away from Gondwanaland it eventually drifted northwards into tropical climatic belts. Throughout the Eocene to Miocene, long phases of hot humid climate resulted in intense chemical alteration of the Western Ghat landscape. 

The oldest soil, surface S1 in the map, formed between 53-44 million years ago. Surface S2 formed later in the Oligocene-Miocene between 39-22 million years ago. And surface S3 developed in the mid Miocene, between 14-10 million years ago. 

The graphic below tells a story of landscape evolution recorded in the formation of these three weathering profiles. 


 Source: Amanda Jean 2020: Journal of Geological Society

Episodic dissection of a plateau through the Cenozoic kept stripping away rock layers, and younger bauxite and manganese rich soils formed at lower altitudes on freshly exposed rock and debris flows. The youngest surface S3 has developed on a pediment. These are layers of debris eroded from surrounding hills that accumulate in low lying areas. Surface S3 indicates a very active phase of weathering and erosion of the surrounding mountains ranges that took place between 22 and 14 million years ago. As a once contiguous plateau was fragmented, older surfaces S1 and S2 remain preserved on isolated mesas and table lands.

The pisolite my friend sent me could have broken off from one of these surfaces. Its hard to say which one. The overall light color suggests that it is aluminum rich, and may have been sourced from the bauxitic S1 or S2. But this is just a guess. 

Pebbles from a stream can hold many secrets. Don't just chuck them away :)

Monday, September 11, 2023

Agglutinated Foraminifera From The Deep Sea

No matter how many David Attenborough specials you may watch, nature always throws more surprises at you.

Foraminifera are protists that build a skeleton or a test made up of calcium carbonate. The calcium carbonate is precipitated out of sea water. There is a sub-group of foraminifera which construct a shell not by capturing the calcium carbonate via chemical precipitation, but by assembling sedimentary grains and then cementing them together like a brick and mortar structure. This group of forams are known as agglutinated foraminifers. 

All this is well known. Many different species of forams use a variety of grains as bricks. They are mostly different shell fragments, but even mineral grains like ilmenite (iron titanium oxide) , rutile (titanium dioxide), or garnet are used. 

Now there is a new report of a deep sea living agglutinated foraminifera which constructs a tube made up of  planktonic foraminifera shell fragments of a single species

Read that again. A benthic (bottom living) foram shell made up of bits of another foram which lived floating in the upper water column!  

These shells are selected to the exclusion of all other types of available sedimentary grains. The specimens were recovered in a core drilled off shore northwest Australia by the International Ocean Discovery Program. The paper by Paul N. Pearson and IODP 363 Shipboard Scientific Party is published in the Journal of Micropalaeontology.

Here is the entire abstract. It is mind boggling. 

Agglutinated foraminifera are marine protists that show apparently complex behaviour in constructing their shells, involving selecting suitable sedimentary grains from their environment, manipulating them in three dimensions, and cementing them precisely into position. Here we illustrate a striking and previously undescribed example of complex organisation in fragments of a tube-like foraminifer (questionably assigned to Rhabdammina) from 1466 m water depth on the northwest Australian margin. The tube is constructed from well-cemented siliciclastic grains which form a matrix into which hundreds of planktonic foraminifer shells are regularly spaced in apparently helical bands. These shells are of a single species, Turborotalita clarkei, which has been selected to the exclusion of all other bioclasts. The majority of shells are set horizontally in the matrix with the umbilical side upward. This mode of construction, as is the case with other agglutinated tests, seems to require either an extraordinarily selective trial-and-error process at the site of cementation or an active sensory and decision-making system within the cell.


The photographs from the paper shows the tube of the agglutinated foraminifera made up of planktonic foraminifera shells of a single species.

Charles Darwin knew of agglutinated foraminifera from reports he had read and was astonished....“almost the most wonderful fact I ever heard of. One cannot believe that they have mental power enough to do so, and how any structure or kind of viscidity can lead to this result passes all understanding”.  This was a letter he wrote to W.B Carpenter who had described them in 1873.

I'll leave you to ponder upon this most exquisite of natural wonders. The paper is open access: A deep-sea agglutinated foraminifer tube constructed with planktonic foraminifer shells of a single species.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Darwin's Earthworms, Ocean Currents, Geology Heritage Lost

My latest set of readings.

1) Why Darwin Admired the Humble Earthworm. A delightful essay by Philip Ball on Darwin's work on earthworms. Published towards the end of his career, this book apparently sold more copies than the Origin of Species! As Philip Ball wittily observes, that tells us something about the English passion for gardening. Darwin's research on earthworms consisted of detailed observations and cleverly designed experiments, often carried out with the help of family members. 

His powers of observation and analysis remained undimmed - "Darwin reported that 80 percent of leaves he removed from worm burrows had been inserted tip first—a far from random distribution".

2) No, the Gulf Stream isn't going to shut down. The premise of the movie The Day After Tomorrow is that of a catastrophic cold snap engulfing north America and Europe, triggered by the shutting down of the Gulf Stream. This massive ocean current forms in the subtropics in the western side of the Atlantic and transports heat from the lower latitudes to northern Europe, moderating the temperatures in these northern regions. Media reports claim that recent work might be pointing to a collapse of the Gulf Stream, but as Frank Jacobs explains, people are conflating two very different current systems. 

Some studies are suggesting that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a much smaller and restricted circulation system, might be slowing down and might even collapse by 2050. This will result in some cooling in the Greenland and Norwegian seas, but will not affect the larger Gulf Stream. The article has a nice animation of global ocean currents which I found informative.

3) They Have Put Geology in Coffins. For long, geologists have been complaining about the utter indifference shown by successive Indian governments to our natural heritage. Here is one more example from Himachal Pradesh. Along the Kalka-Shimla highway, on the stretch between Parwanoo and Solan lay a treasure. This was a section of sedimentary rocks recording the retreat of the Tethys Sea which began after the collision between India and Asia started creating high topography. Along this stratigraphic section, marine sediments give way to freshwater deposits. The outcrop was a natural outdoor laboratory for students and researchers. Now it is gone. The National Highway Authorities of India has covered it with concrete and stone walls. Science is the big loser again. 

Arundeep Ahluwalia expresses the anguish of geologists who knew and loved this part of the Himalaya- "It forever denies coming generations any chance to study the long stretches of such highways and to the nature lovers in society the excitement of the history and grandeur of the earth".  

Read and weep. 

Monday, August 14, 2023

Field Photos: Boudinage In Sandstone

Boudinage is a structure that is developed when rock layers are being pulled and stretched. The term is derived from the French word for sausage. A rock layer is deformed by necking and is segmented into a string of sausages. The structure is best developed when there is contrast in competence or strength in a rock pile. The stronger layer is broken up in boudins, while the weaker layer 'flows' around and fills the gaps created in the neighboring boudin layer.

I wanted to showcase examples of boudins from igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. 

The first example has been recently documented in a paper on silica rich magmatism from Sausrashtra by Anmol Naik and colleagues. The photograph shows a rhyolite with boudinage (black arrow) developed in a lava flow band. This deformation is due to layer parallel stretching during flow of a viscous lava.

 Source: Anmol Naik Geological Magazine 2023

The second instance is from Darma Valley, Kumaon,  near the village of Philum, not so far from the Panchachuli Glacier. It is a remarkable instance of boudins developing in a sandstone. Black arrows highlight elliptical and oval knobs, fragments of a once continuous sand rich layer. Notice how the surrounding thinly layered material has flown into the gaps between these boudins. The more competent sand layer broke up, while the softer clay rich material got wrinkled and warped but did not break. 

And lastly, here is an example of the more common variety of boudinage encountered in the field. This has developed in a high grade metamorphic rock. The lighter more competent layer made up of quartz and feldspar has been deformed into a series of boudins, while the mica rich grey layers are ductile. This outcrop is also from Darma Valley, Kumaon, near the village of Baaling. 

The three examples showcase deformation which produced similar structures in very different settings. Internal forces generated during flow of a viscous lava can result in folding and boudins. In sedimentary basins, similar forces may  affect a sand rich slurry moving down slope as a gravity flow or on semi consolidated sediment shaken during an earthquake. And forces acting on high grade metamorphic rocks  produce some spectacular boudins at high temperatures during episodes of mountain building.

Documenting rock deformation in the field is fun! 

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Septarian Concretion from Khambhat

My friend Bhushan Panse, who is a geology enthusiast and an avid rock and mineral collector, handed this specimen to me over a coffee meeting. He had bought it from a mineral supplier from Khambhat, Gujarat.

I commented that it is a septarian concretion. These hard ellipsoidal or oval shaped lumps form in mud and silt layers by the precipitation of calcite  around a nucleus. Khambhat and many other parts of Gujarat are underlain by Mesozoic and Cenozoic age sedimentary rocks. The process of concretion formation would have taken place at shallow burial depths when these sediments were still porous and water saturated. Mineral deposition in pore spaces often takes place in concentric layers. The calcium carbonate comes from saturated marine pore water or is derived from shells as they start dissolving during shallow burial. Notice the rust to brown color of the concretion. It is likely due to the presence of iron oxide and hydroxides which formed in the pore spaces from the iron contained in clay minerals.

The term Septarian Concretion refers to the radiating cracks or Septaria (derived from Septum). Cracks come in a variety of shapes. There are radiating cracks as seen in this specimen. These cracks are wider near the center and taper outwards. Other concretions may show concentrically oriented cracks, or overlapping sigmoidal shapes. Cracks may intersect, pointing to multiple cracking events. They are filled with either calcite or silica. The crystals filling these cracks are sometimes broken and displaced, and cracks may contain mud and silt. These features indicate a variety of stresses at play in concretions interiors. 

There are many ideas on how these cracks form. They have been interpreted as shrinkage cracks due to desiccation and hardening of mud. Dehydration during chemical transformation of clay minerals is another explanation.  A third hypothesis links the formation of cracks to gas expansion released during putrefaction of organic material. 

Sedimentologist Brian Pratt has offered another novel explanation. He proposed that these cracks result due to shaking of sediment during synsedimentary earthquakes. Shaking during ground motion results in variable stress fields in the interior of the concretion forming a large variety of crack geometries. These concretions may be preserving signals of  seismicity affecting that sedimentary basin!

Here is his compilation of the large variation in septarian concretion cracks from various sedimentary basins across Canada.

 Source: B. Pratt: Septarian concretions: internal cracking caused by synsedimentary earthquakes

A geologist friend who worked with the Geological Survey of India suggested another intriguing explanation. Parts of the region near Khambhat experienced explosive volcanic activity towards the waning phases of Deccan Volcanism. Ash expelled from volcanoes can coat small broken lava fragments forming lumps known as  '√°ccretionary lapilli'. Aggregations of ash and pyroclastic material if larger than 64 mm are known as volcanic bombs. This concretion fits the size range of a bomb. The dark fragments in the center of the concretion do resemble a fine grained igneous rock. A closer examination under a microscope is needed for a confirmation of its origin.

It is fun to examine hand specimens that friends collect from various part of the world and try to identify the rocks and minerals. But often a clear cut answer is not possible due to the need for additional information from a higher resolution or the chemical makeup. But a guessing game over coffee is always welcome. 

Geodes, nodules, and concretions found in volcanic and sedimentary rocks are mystery objects. You never know what you will see inside when you break open one of these lumps. There may be an array of perfectly faceted purple amethyst crystals and multicolored calcite. Or a trapped fossil. Or a crack network filled with bright and shiny calcite and quartz. These crystal rich interiors give us important information on the composition of fluids which react with rock at many different times during their geologic history. This water rock interaction is of interest to mineralogists and  economic geologists who want to understand the history of fluid flow through sedimentary basins and the conditions that lead to the concentration and deposition of metals. 

Geological investigation at all scales inform us about how the earth works. One can stand and gape at great mountain ranges and wonder about the movement of tectonic plates. But you can also crack open a rather dull colored lump from a shale and marvel at its insides, all telling a story of groundwater flow and chemical reactions, and who knows, past earthquakes as well.