Wednesday, August 25, 2021

In Praise Of The Estuary

Be sure to take some time out and watch his lovely documentary on the Mulki Estuary by Dakshina Kannada Wildlife team.

Email subscribers who can't see the embedded video can watch it here - The Mulki Estuary.

This estuary has formed at the confluence of the Sambhavi and Nandini rivers (the documentary wrongly calls it the Gurpur river) on the Karnataka coast. Estuaries are particularly rich ecosystems. The confluence of fresh and saline waters, changes in water temperature and turbidity, nutrient supply by the river and coastal upwellings, the rise and fall of tides, and a meeting and interference of shore parallel and river currents create conditions suitable for a thriving biosphere. The documentary brings these aspects out beautifully in its capture of coastal landforms and varied wildlife.

Estuaries are of great interest to geologists too. The present configuration of our coastline has developed relatively recently in the geologic past. Before 15,000 years ago, during the Ice Age, sea levels were  about 100 meters lower than present. The coastline would have been tens of kilometers to the west of today's shore, and rivers like the Sambhavi and Nandini would have carved a valley across this stretch of the continental shelf and would have met the sea at a far westward location. As the Ice Age ended and the earth warmed, the rising seas progressively inundated the continental shelf. The estuaries along the Indian coast as with other coastlines are really drowned river valleys.

Coastal environments like beaches, mud flats, sand bars, mangroves, lagoons, and marshes, are in a state of constant adjustment to the movement of tides and currents, sediment supply from rivers and their distribution and deposition, and the impact of vegetation in stabilizing these features. Shore currents and sediment supply have an outsize effect on the evolution of the coast. One interesting example is found at Mangaluru, just south of Mulki, where another estuary has formed at the confluence of the Gurpur and Netravati rivers. The map shows this coastal setting. 

A geological investigation by B. R. Manjunatha and K. Balakrishna has shown that the Gurpur river once flowed a shorter route to the sea (paleo-course outlined in blue). Starting a few thousand years ago, excessive sediment deposition blocked this channel and strong southerly currents began building a barrier spit, forcing the Gurpur river to turn south and flow parallel to the coast for a good 8 kilometers before eventually joining the Netravati river in a joint exit to the sea. The Netravati river too has shifted slightly northwards over time. A quick survey along the Karnataka and Maharashtra coast show many similar situations where the river makes an abrupt turn and flows parallel to long sand spits before entering the sea. Do these rivers too have a similar history of course change? Its an intriguing observation.

Besides such adjustments to the coast due to currents and sediment deposition,  fluctuations in sea level too will change the prevailing geography. A sea level rise will push beaches and lagoons landwards, while a fall will cause rivers and deltas to extend seawards and bury past shorelines.

The estuary being a low lying region and a sediment trap preserves this history of sea level change. Geologists love to drill and take out sediment samples from the estuary bed and associated marshes and mangroves, because they contain, in its changing sediment and biological composition, clues to earlier environmental shifts. Understanding how past sea level change affected the coastal system is of great value in tuning our expectations and our preparedness of how the ongoing sea level rise will impact our present day coastlines.

I must confess that this post was inspired not just by this documentary but by my own memories of an estuary. During my student days, I had visited the coastal town of Malvan at the end of a small trek along the west coast of Maharashtra. A friend suggested we spend the day boating and exploring an estuary south of town. It turned out to be a most relaxing and enjoyable experience.

Taking inspiration from these children, we too rowed vigorously and covered quite a bit of distance. 

Malvan then was a small sleepy place and this meeting of river with the sea even more so. Not a soul was in sight, as hour after hour the waters of the estuary gently lapped against our boat. A salty sea breeze kept us refreshed. As the sun beat down upon us we finally decided to take a break. In search of something to eat and drink we scoured the shore for a small settlement. Up ahead in the middle of the estuary was our savior. 

 A luscious looking coconut island beckoned.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Readings: Mars Geology, Human Diversity, India Rock Art

 A few interesting readings:

1) NASA's Mars Perseverence Rover is hard at work. It has an amazing collection of geochemical instruments which are probing the surface with the aim of categorizing the mineralogy and chemistry of surface materials. The hope is to pinpoint regions which could have hosted microbial life.

Signs of Life on Mars: NASA's Perseverance Rover Begins the Hunt 

2) How are Andaman Islanders closer to Swedes than to Africans?

Razib Khan explain in this informative essay on patterns of human diversity and what it tells us about human migrations and population admixture over the past 100,000 years.

Out of Africa's midlife crisis-on bottlenecks, crashes and what diversity really looks like: How are Andaman Islanders closer to Swedes than to Africans?

3) On the Aravalli ranges quartzite rock faces in the state of Haryana is art created as long as 20,000 years ago. The locals always knew about it, but the Archeological Survey has just begun studying it in detail. 28 ancient sites have been found. I hope all of them get protection immediately. Smithsonian Magazine has a summary describing these finds. The final photo of rock art in the article depicts mounted warriors. Are they mounted on donkeys/mules or horses? Curious to know what readers think. I am leaning towards them being donkeys or mules.

These Millennia-Old Cave Paintings May Be Among India’s Oldest. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Palaeontology Musings

It struck me a couple of days back that the field of paleontology and evolution has come up with some very evocative terms to describe phenomenon and name theories.

Take for instance the Red Queen Hypothesis. The term was coined by University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen in 1973. It is an explanation for his observations on patterns of extinction which came to be known as Van Valen's Law of Constant Extinction (itself a cool name). Van Valen did a broad survey of genus and family level extinction patterns of several different marine invertebrate groups and found out that the probability that a group could go extinct was independent of their age. The expectation might be that longer lived groups may have evolved more efficient adaptations and thus the likelihood that they could go extinct might decrease for older groups. 

Van Valen's finding was counterintuitive. A small clarification. The finding here is not that the rate of extinction is constant over time. It is not, obviously we just have to look at times of mass extinctions when rates of extinction increase enormously. What Van Valen found was that longer lived taxa were no better at avoiding extinction than newly appeared groups.

Why?...Enter the Red Queen. The inspiration for the name comes from Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass. In it the Red Queen says to Alice; "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place".

Van Valen reasoned that organisms are in a perpetual competition over resources. If one evolves a more efficient way of extracting resources, a cohabiting species will do so too. A sort of a metaphorical "arms race" results leaving both species at the same level of efficiency relative to each other. Besides, since evolution is changes in response to immediate challenges, already acquired adaptations cannot guarantee a fit to future environmental change. Longer existing taxa thus are likely to perish just as easily as newly emerged ones.

The Red Queen invited a lot of interest from evolutionary biologists and ecologists and has spawned rich directions of research since.

The other name I stumbled upon recently is Dead Clade Walking. This too concerns patterns of extinction and recovery. Paleontologist David Jablonski, also from the Chicago school of thought, in 2002, invented the term to describe his finding that many marine groups experience sudden drops in diversity spanning mass extinctions. Many don't go extinct but never quite recover fully either. It is not well understood why certain groups survive such global extinction events but then cannot rediversify. Some further work has shown that such drops in diversity without recovery need not be associated with mass extinctions but occur even during the background extinction that is going on. Understanding these patterns is another active area of research in paleontology. 

The type of research I've described readily invites a comment on how the field of paleontology has itself evolved. Besides the two scientists I mentioned, I will add David Raup, Jack Sepkoski, Elisabeth Vrba, Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould to name a few more. Beginning in the early 1970's these paleontologists collated large data sets of fossil groups, combing through literature and museum archives. They devised more expansive sampling strategies and subjected morphological measurements and life history attributes to rigorous statistical analysis. They used the emerging patterns to reconstruct broad histories of diversification and extinction and to test various evolutionary principles.  Their work reinvigorated paleontology from what was thought of as a descriptive field to one that began making significant contributions to evolutionary theory. This big picture approach inspired biologist John Maynard Smith to acknowledge that paleontology is ready to join the "high table of evolutionary theory". 

Do you know of a cool name for an earth science phenomenon or theory? Drop in a comment.