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Geology is all around us, scarcely thought of as we go about our lives. Yet, it affects everything we do as a civilization, as a society and as individuals. While barely appearing to change from day to day, it works to alter the course of evolution. Preserving a record of creatures and landscapes both ancient and forgotten, the story of our past is written in stone and waiting to be read. I offer a view of how I see our world and its inhabitants, both past and present, as seen through my lens.
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    Vox Clamantis In Deserto
    "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness"

    From the Dartmouth College motto adapted from the Gospel of Mark and
    subtitle of Merle Graffam's treatise entitled Fossils from the Tropic Shale

    Although some dinosaurs may have spent time feeding in open water and possibly a few may have become strongly amphibious as implied by some trackways, it’s a common misconception that dinosaurs colonized the seas. If so, what were the bones of a terrestrial dinosaur – a new species of therizinosaur - doing amongst the marine fauna of the Late Cretaceous Tropic Shale, at least 60 miles from the nearest dry land at the time?


    
    Artist Victor Leshyk’s portrayal of the proto-feathered, Late Cretaceous dinosaur Nothronychus graffami dining upon mangroves growing marginal to the Western Interior Seaway. The therizinosaur is thought capable of balancing tripodally on its massive pelvis while raking in tree branches with its long slender claws, which it passed to its toothless beak.
    From the Museum of Northern Arizona. Visit Victor here. Visit MNA here.

    


    WELCOME TO THE MOON
    If you’ve ever visited the badlands outside of the tiny southern Utah town of Big Water, you know the meaning of the word “barren”. The landscape consists of a coarse, brownish sandstone bedrock covered by a monotonous repetition of eroding, low-slung, blue-gray mounds of fine mud turned-to-shale against a backdrop of buff-colored, sandstone cliffs littered at the base with dislodged blocks of stone. Little grows and nothing moves, other than the wind and the imperceptible forces of gravity and erosion that are incessantly at work.  




    The region is so drab and desolate that locals call it ‘The Moon.’ To geologists and paleontologists – who are of the same ilk - it’s all hauntingly beautiful and exciting beyond anything imaginable, not just for its appearance but for the story of its formation and the bounty of lifeforms that are preserved. Personally, I couldn’t wait to get out there with geologist and acclaimed author Wayne Ranney, and Merle Graffam - namesake of the dinosaur Nothronychus graffami.

    INTRODUCING MERLE GRAFFAM
    Indeed, there’s nary a sole in sight on The Moon unless you stumble upon Merle - retired commercial artist, Big Water resident, Bureau of Land Management Park Ranger at the Big Water Visitor Center, and amateur paleontologist par excellence. Merle takes regular walks on the Moon, combing the ancient seabed for marine fossils with the intuition, trained eye, laser focus and insatiable curiosity of a seasoned field expert. 

     



    CREATURES OF, ABOVE AND ALONGSIDE THE SEA
    Merle knows The Moon and the fossils preserved within in it, all creatures of a long gone sea - megafaunal marine and brackish-water invertebrates such as oysters, gastropods, solitary corals, inoceramid bivalves and ammonites, and marine vertebrates such as fish, rays and sharks, turtles, crocodilians and an occasional short-necked plesiosaur. Above the sea soared pterosaurs and early avians with toothed-beaks. As bleak and depauperate as the landscape looks now, at one time, The Moon was the site of a thriving marine ecosystem. 


    Creatures above and within the Late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway
    Adapted from nd.gov


    Terrestrial deposits marginal to the sea preserve extensive skeletal remains and trackways that attest to a diverse dinosaur fauna that plied the shoreline's habitats, while diminutive, insectivorous mammals hid in the shadows amongst the gymnosperms and newly-evolved angiosperm plants. It takes considerable imagination to view this ancient land and seascape while standing on the landscape of The Moon.


    The lowland-sea interface of The Moon in the Late Cretaceous consisted of many paleoenvironments - habitats that supported a rich array of lifeforms. Seaward, deeper muds led to sandy shores and various sea grasses. Mixed salinity-plants such as mangroves thrived nearshore and onshore, possibly the haunt of therizinosaurs. Further inland, larger trees such as cypress and hardwoods thrived.
    Modified from Plateau Magazine, 2007. 



    AS LUCK WOULD HAVE IT
    On one of Merle's lunar constitutionals in 2000, he made an unsuspecting discovery that would change his life. What's more, it would rewrite a portion of dinosaur phylogeny, offer a new perception of dietary plasticity amongst theropods and expand our knowledge of biodiversity within the Cretaceous ecosystem.

    Merle discovered a small toe-bone - a phalange - in the Tropic Shale that eventually would lead to the remains of a spectacular dinosaur skeleton at the crest of a small hillock of eroding marine sediments of the Tropic Shale. It proved to be the most complete therizinosaurid yet discovered in North America.


    Very excited at the excavation site, Merle exclaimed, "Here's the spot!"

    

    LET'S GET OUR BEARINGS
    With a population barely of 475, the settlement of Big Water is a tiny speck on the map (green laser dot) located in Kane County on Highway 89 in southernmost Utah near the Arizona border. On maps from the late 50’s and early 60’s, it's called Glen Canyon City and housed workers who built the nearby Glen Canyon Dam.


    The name Big Water seems a misnomer, since the high desert and badlands are as dry as a bone with an average rainfall of barely six inches a year. The nearest “big water” is a slender arm of Lake Powell called Wahweap Bay about 10 miles down the highway to the southeast, where a trip downstream leads to the dam that impounds the Colorado River. So where’s all the water at Big Water?


    Wayne Ranney aims his laser-pointer at Big Water on a topographical relief map at the Big Water Visitor Center. The highway takes you down and across the Glen Canyon Dam that impounds Lake Powell. 

    Big Water is actually named for the Navajo Aquifer, an underground formation with an estimated 400 million acre-feet of potable water that spans most of southwestern Utah and some of northern Arizona. Yet geologically, the name is highly appropriate, since a much earlier actual “big water” submerged the entire region and a wide swath of North America during the Late Cretaceous. That sea was responsible for the layered deposits at the Moon of Big Water – and as we shall see - much more. 
     
    Panorama from Scenic Byway 89 looking northeast from Big Water.
    The eroded, gray badlands at the cliff-base are composed of Tropic Shale, while the cliffs are of composed of resistant Straight Cliffs Sandstone. Beneath the Tropic is the Dakota Sandstone. The high desert's sand is a Quaternary mix of unconsolidated surficial deposits. Click on the photo for a larger view.
     
     
    THE KAIPAROWITS PLATEAU SECTION
    Big Water is just outside the Kaiparowits Plateau section of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in south-central Utah, which in turn is on the western margin of the Colorado Plateau - an arid region of high relief centered over the four corners region of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. President Bill Clinton controversially designated the region a national monument in 1966 - an area rich in geology, paleontology and human history.

    The three sections of the Monument record sedimentation throughout the Mesozoic. The centrally-located Kaiparowits Plateau section is exemplified by plateaus, buttes and mesas carved in rocks acquired in the Cretaceous when the region was situated along the western shore of an extensive inland body of shallow water called the Western Interior Seaway.

     
    
    Three sections of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah with Big Water on Highway 89 near the Arizona border.
    Modified from Utah Geological Association, Second Edition DVD.

    

    A HISTORY OF TWO SEAS
    Today, the Monument is elevated two kilometers along with that of the Colorado Plateau, but throughout the Paleozoic much of western Laurentia (the cratonic core of the supercontinent of Pangaea) was situated at sea level. Beginning in the latest Proterozoic and throughout most of the ensuing Paleozoic, an ocean called the Panthalassic (Paleo-Pacific) lapped onto the continent's western margin, leaving limestone deposits now deeply buried below the Monument. In the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic, marine waters returned as the Western Interior Seaway - only this time inland and following Pangaea's disassembly in the Mesozoic. Like the Panthalassic (that became the Pacific Ocean), the Seaway left its mark in the form of sedimentary deposits preserved on the Great Plains and the Colorado Plateau. In the Tertiary, the Colorado Plateau and the Rocky Mountains were uplifted, casting the sea from the continent's craton and stripping off much of the sea's depositional legacy from the Plateau. 
     
    By what geological process did the Kaiparowits section and The Moon of Big Water come to be flooded in the Cretaceous by an inland sea?
     
    A TECTONIC TALE OF SUBDUCTION
    In the Late Triassic, Pangaea began to break apart in the north-central Atlantic Ocean. As rifting progressed at the mid-ocean ridge, newly-formed North America began to drift westward, while nascent Europe, Africa and South America headed east and south, respectively. Beginning in the latest Jurassic at the west margin, a tectonic plate collision initiated between the overriding continental plate of North America and the east-directed, subducting Farallon plate of the Pacific Ocean.
     
    Plate convergence resulted in a mountain-building deformational event called the Sevier orogeny that extended over 1000 km eastward into the craton. The event had far reaching consequences for deposition across the continent's mid-section, particularly during the Cretaceous - with the most stratigraphically complex sequence of sedimentary rocks on the Colorado Plateau.
     
     
    North American tectonics during the Early Cretaceous (125 Ma)
    Two large arms of the rising sea are about to converge, held up temporarily by tectonic barriers such as the Trans-Continental Arch and the Ouachita Uplift. Ocean basins, inherently deeper, are designated as dark blue: whereas, shallow epicontinental (epeiric) basins and continental shelves are light blue.
    Adapted from Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc.


    LOAD-INDUCED SUBSIDENCE AND SEDIMENTATION
    The Sevier front consisted of a fault zone, an active volcanic arc, low-angle thrust slices and a broad foreland basin. The retroarc basin - so called because it was 140-200 km cratonward of the thrust front - was an asymmetric depression created in response to the load superimposed by the east-advancing wedge of thrust sheets that downwarped the lithosphere. I
    n response to ongoing Sevier thrusting, the foreland migrated eastward and continued to rapidly subside. The basin received massive amounts of detritus delivered by rivers across alluvial plains from the encroaching front from the west and southwest.


    
    
    East-directed subduction of the Farallon plate beneath the North American plate initiated loading that drove lithospheric flexure and subsidence. The resulting accommodation space that formed preserved up to 20,000 feet of sediment and received an influx of marine waters from the north and south.
    Modified from Plate Tectonics by Frisch et al
    

    BIRTH OF AN INLAND SEA
    In the Early Cretaceous (Aptian to Albian), the basin began to flood with marine waters from the north and south, connecting the Boreal and Tethyan seas. By the Late Cretaceous, long arms of the sea converged forming an inland epicontinental sea (epi is Greek for above). Nearest the front, deep-water sediments pass upward into shallow-water sediments recorded with conglomerates that pass into sandstones and shales, which in turn pass into carbonate marine sediments well to the east.


    Late Cretaceous oblique, north view of the asymmetric Western Interior Seaway illustrating the subducting Farallon slab, the Sevier orogen and Western Interior Seaway.
    Modified from Wikipedia


    "WHENCE THE FLOOD COMETH" - GEOLOGICAL NOT BIBLICAL
    The development of the inland sea occurred by active subsidence of the foreland but was assisted at a time of eustasy (global high seas). Sea level changes are affected by the volume of water contained in the ocean basins and the volume of water displaced from the basins. For example, melting polar ice adds to the basins causing glacioeustasy, and shifting plates and shallowing basins removes water called tectonoeustasy. It's a rather simplistic scenario but not far from reality.


    Pangaea's aridity during the Triassic and Jurassic - demonstrated by widespread eolian sandstones and evaporites in the west - was replaced by a humid, subtropical climate in the Cretaceous, as North America drifted out of lower, equatorial latitudes. Concurrently, as Atlantic seafloor spreading increased, the ocean basin shallowed, displacing vast quantities of water, while extrusive continental volcanics associated with rifting elevated temperatures 18°F (10°C) higher than average.

    Submitting to the global greenhouse, melting polar ice further drove seas higher. Low-lying regions - coasts, interior lowlands and cratonic platforms - drowned worldwide including the subsiding basin of the Sevier foreland. And in its wake, the seas left vast sequences of sedimentary rocks. The great flood is known as the Zuni transgression - the greatest of six major high water events of the Phanerozoic. As an aside, our modern world with rising seas is in a state of Holocene (post-Pleistocene) glacioeustasy. Now back to the Cretaceous Seaway!


    The six major transgressions of the Phanerozoic Eon with the Cretaceous Zuni highlighted.
    Modified from Earth System History, Second Edition, 2005 and msubillings.edu.



    THE WESTERN INTERIOR SEAWAY
    At its zenith in the Late Cretaceous, the Western Interior Seaway in places was almost 300 meters deep. Inland seas are built on buoyant continental platforms and are relatively shallow compared to deeper-denser ocean basins. The sea connected the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay with the Gulf of Mexico, and stretched from Utah in the west to the western Appalachians in the east. It split North America into two massive landmasses - eastern Appalachia and western Laramidia - and divided the terrestrial ecosystem forcing it to pursue independent courses of evolution, as did the resident faunal populations riding on Pangaea's drifting continental siblings.


    North America in the Late Cretaceous (92 Ma)
    The Western Interior Seaway (light blue and white) has flooded the foreland across the continent's mid-section, uniting the waters of the Arctic and Hudson Bay with the Gulf of Mexico, while creating two massive continental islands. Laramidia, in the far north, formed a land bridge through Beringia connecting North America and Asia. Submerged Big Water is located at the red dot. Notice coastal flooding on the subsiding shelf of all newly-formed Atlantic passive margins. Dark blue represents deep ocean basins.
    Adapted from Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc.

    
    

    THE BERINGIA LAND BRIDGE
    Also in the Late Cretaceous, Laramidia formed an arctic land-based connection with northeast Asia called Beringia. The loosely defined region in the vicinity of the Bering Strait has intermittently persisted through Recent times. During the Pleistocene, an Ice House climatic condition created regressive global seas exposing the land bridge; whereas during the Greenhouse conditions of the Cretaceous, the land was devoid of polar ice, having formed tectonically from a series of accretionary events. Like the Pleistocene connection that allowed the passage of Paleo-Indians and mammalian megafauna (the Asian saber-toothed cat comes to mind), the Cretaceous bridge (up to a 1,000 miles wide) likely allowed faunal and floral exchange in a similar manner in both directions.


    Approximate extent of the Beringia Land Bridge
    Adapted from ic.arizona.edu


    In the Late Cretaceous, Laramidia experienced a major evolutionary radiation of dinosaurs possibly related to new biomes generated by the Sevier front and foreland, and may have been infused by immigrant fauna that migrated across the bridge from Asia (or vice-versa). The relevance of Cretaceous paleography will become relevant in our forthcoming discussion of therizinosaurs from Laurasia (the combined landmasses of North America and Eurasia that formed Pangaea with Gondwana of the Southern Hemisphere). 

    TRANGRESSIONS, REGRESSIONS AND DEPOSITIONAL SEQUENCES OF THE VACILLATING SEA
    During the Late Cretaceous for nearly 25 million years, the Western Interior Seaway dominated paleography and sedimentation over a vast area of the Southwest. At least two major and numerous minor transgression-regression sequences - called cyclothems - are recorded in the rock record.

    Marine waters advanced onto the continent's downwarping interior, rising and falling with starts and stops while the shoreline shifted to and fro from east to west. As the sea advanced onto land, the sandy shore was buried by new, higher shores, while previously deeper muds migrated as well. Terrestrial deposits met marine that vied for space in an overlapping, alternating geometry, all related to the whim of the vacillating sea. When the sea eventually reversed its direction, the opposite layered architecture was deposited as newer shorelines formed on previously deeper muds called a transgressive-regressive sequence - visible stratigraphically.

    The west part of the GSENM was elevated by Sevier tectonics before sediments were deposited in coastal areas ahead of the encroaching inland sea from the east. All Upper Jurassic and a good part of Middle Jurassic rocks were removed by erosion before Cretaceous sediments were deposited.


    Generalized geologic map of the southernmost Kaiparowits section of the Monument (dotted line). The region represents a structural basin but is topographically high, having achieved its relief along with that of the Colorado Plateau. Big Water is just outside the boundary. Note the Cretaceous deposits of the Dakota, Tropic and Straight Cliffs in the region.
    Modified from of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah by Doelling et al, 2000.


    THE FIRST TRANSGRESSIVE SEQUENCE
    Initial alluvial plain and coastal plain deposits were met by the sea's rapidly-rising westward advance called the Greenhorn Cyclothem (late Cenomanian to middle Turonian). Deposited in the sea's first transgression in the early Late Cretaceous about 95 million years ago came coarse, yellow-brown beach sands of the shallow marine Dakota Formation, deposited on either the Morrison Formation (east) or the Entrada Sandstone (west). The Dakota contains a record of shallow brackish and marine water environments, lush coastal swamps and sandy expanses incised by rivers and streams emptying into the sea. 

    In deeper waters, the Dakota grades into dark, organic-rich Mancos Shale - called the Tropic Shale regionally - and consists of exceptionally fossiliferous blue-gray silts and muds formed about 93 million years ago. The type section crops out around the town of Tropic, Utah, about 50 miles to the northwest. Elsewhere in Utah, Tropic stratigraphic equivalents have been referred to the Tununk Member of the Mancos Shale, the Tropic equivalent in most of the Southwest.

    On top of the sequence with the sea retreated to the east lies the four-membered Straight Cliffs Formation, an overall regressive sequence rich in coal that followed the previous marine incursion about 85 million years ago. The sea returned again bringing with it another sequence of deposits, seen elsewhere on the Kaiparowits Plateau and in the Grays Cliffs of the Grand Staircase.




    The aforementioned lithologies are conformable and form a classic transgressive-regressive sequence that documents the greatest widespread rise in sea level of the Cretaceous recognized worldwide. In summary, the foreland basin's sedimentary infill represents a record Sevier orogen tectonics, flexural subsidence, weathering and sedimentation and eustatic sea level change.


    The dissected landscape rocks of The Moon of Big Water preserve Upper Cretaceous transgressive Dakota sandstone, shale and some coal buried beneath eroding gray Mancos muds and regressive cliff-forming Straight Cliffs sands and coals.  


    "HEY DAVE! WHAT'S THIS?"
    In 2000, at the conclusion of a large plesiosaur excavation in the Tropic, Merle turned to Dr. Dave Gillette - Utah's former state paleontologist and current Colbert Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Pulling a bone from his pocket, Merle uttered the now famous phrase "Hey Dave! What's this?" 

    Dave recognized the toe bone, but it was clearly not from a plesiosaur, the large marine reptile found with increasing frequency on the Tropic seabed thanks to Merle's keen eye of discovery. The bone was too small to be from a hadrosaur, a terrestrial, duck-bill dinosaur found in large numbers along the shoreline far to the west. 

    Stumped by the implication of a dinosaur bone so far from land, they later returned to the site, found more bones and initiated an excavation. The dinosaur's identity was a mystery well into the dig. According to Dave, “We weren’t thinking ‘therizinosaur’ at first, because at that time they were known only from Asia. From that first toe bone, we thought maybe we had a big ‘raptor’ (an agile, hunting dinosaur). But when we found peculiar bones of the massive hips, we knew we had a sickle-claw dinosaur. They were like nothing we’d ever seen.”


    The active therizinosaur excavation site in the Tropic Shale. A project can require the removal of up to 20 tons of overburden and take a thousand hours of field and laboratory time. 
    Photo by Dave Gillette

    For Merle's discovery and contribution, Graffam became the species namesake. Following the dinosaur's reconstruction, the therizinosaur was featured in an exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona from 2007-2009 and at the Carl Hayden Visitor Center at the Glen Canyon Dam in 2012.

    THERIZINOSAURS
    For half a century, therizinosaurs have remained a poorly known and understood group of theropod dinosaurs with an extremely unusual combination of anatomical features. That's changed largely in the last decade with new discoveries in Cretaceous deposits in Mongolia, China and western North America.


    Artist Victor Leshyk’s portrayal of the feathered dinosaur Nothronychus graffami beneath Pterandon-filled Late Cretaceous skies. Its sickle-claws are the hallmark of the family Therizinosauridae. The volcano, a ubiquitous cliché in dinosaur art, is a reminder of tectonic activity located further to the west that intermittently showered vast regions of the Southwest with datable volcanic ash.


    Unlike earlier theropod dinosaurs that exhibit predatory morphological adaptations and carnivorous inclinations, therizinosaurs exhibit the characteristics inherent of herbivores. These are thought to include: tightly-packed, leaf-shaped cheek teeth (as opposed to elongate, typically Theropod meat-cutting teeth), an inset tooth row (suggesting fleshy cheeks necessary for plant mastication) in tandem with a rostral rhampotheca (keratinous, toothless bird-like beak to facilitate an herbivorous diet), a massive, highly derived pelvis (to accommodate a large gut synonymous with plant digestion), the development of large load-bearing hind limbs (to support a large abdomen), the loss of cursorial hind-limb adaptions (typical of predatory, swift carnivorous theropods) and an increased vertebral count (long neck speculated to increase browsing range similar to sauropods).

    Therizinosaurs, especially more derived forms such as Nothronychus graffami, are thought to have been slow, large waddling, pot-bellied creatures rather than the quick, graceful gaited members of related Theropod predators. In spite of their likely herbivory, the group is thought to possess defensive capabilities with its powerful claws.


    The specimen of Nothronychus graffami (holotype UMNH VP 16420) was missing the skull, a majority of the cervical vertebral series and a few elements of the distal extremities (grayed-out bones). Missing elements of the skeleton were borrowed from Erlikosaurus andrewsi from Mongolia. The therizinosaur in the middle is a hypothetical feathered reconstruction and below, drawn with traditional scales.
    Modified from Zanno, 2009, Gillette, 2009 and Victor Leshyk and Plateau Magazine 2007.
     

    The tail was short and unnecessary for its mode of non-predatory diminished speed and thought to have provided upright, tripodal support for plant consumption. Unlike most theropods, the pes was curiously tetradactyl (four toes, which is a throwback to the ancestral dinosaur condition) with blunt unguals (claws), while its manus was tridactyl (three fingers) with elongated, recurved claws - the distinctive anatomical feature that gives the clade its name. Therizinosaur means "sickle-claw reptile". These Therizinosauroid features became increasing expressed from basal forms through more derived forms.



    
    Evolutionary osteological progression from basal Falcarius to Nothronychus.
    Take note of the increase in size, postural change, tail shortening, longer neck, size of the gut, massivity of the hindlimbs and acquisition of forelimb claws.
    Used with permission by Scott Hartman of skeletaldrawings.com

    What's more, being members of Theropoda, the entire clade was thought to possess rudimentary proto-feathers - integumentary-derived structures such as hair, scales and nails. Please visit my daughter's post on feathers here for the evolution of this dinosaurian structure.


    An imaginative interpretation of a proto-feathered adult therizinosaur accompanied by juveniles
    Used with permission by artist Damir G. Martin. Visit him here.


    EVOLUTIONARY MISFITS
    Taking their singular, albeit bizarre morphology and fragmentary fossil record into account, it comes as no surprise that therizinosaurs have endured a convoluted taxonomic history within Dinosauria and have been variously assigned to nearly all of its major subclades.


    At one time, the family Therizinosauridae was referred to as the now-outmoded, group Segnosauria (segnis means slow in Latin) based on their heavy bodies, short legs, and sloth-like claws with a comparable lifestyle. They have been variously regarded as gigantic turtles, aberrant theropods and sauropodomorphs. Based on their retroverted (opisthopubic) pelvis (posteroventrally-directed pubis bone which was aimed backwards as in ornithischian, bird-hipped dinosaurs), they were considered to be phylogenetic intermediates between herbivorous prosauropods and early ornithischians.


    Pelvic girdle of a cast of Nothronychus graffami on display at the Carl Hayden Visitor Center at the Glen Canyon Dam. Although the therizinosaur is a Theropod, whose pubis is typically pointed forward, their pelvis is opisthopubic with the pubis bone retroverted, pointed backwards.

    UNEQUIVOCAL PHYLOGENETIC RESOLUTION
    With increasing numbers of discoveries in Asia and North America from the Cretaceous, the diversity of therizinosaurs has begun to exhibit remarkable growth. Yet, a significant impediment to ascertaining phylogenetic relationships has been the paucity of both ancestral and transitional forms. Speculation is gradually being replaced with resolution.

    Therizinosaurs are now considered to be unequivocal descendants not only of theropods but of the coelurosaurian clade and maniraptoran subclade with a sister relationship with Oviraptorosauria (see below). Thus, therizinosaurs are Saurischian, Theropodal, Tetanurian, Coelurosaurian, Maniraptoran dinosaurs and members of the family Therizinosauridea. 

    Therizinosaurs also share the tree with more highly derived Avialae (birds) and possess avian-associated characters such as a pneumatic-skeleton (hollow light-weight bones that facilitate a high rate of respiration, and later, powered flight), a pygostyle (shortened tail with fused vertebrae), feathers (for thermo-regulation, sexual dimorphism and brooding) and an avian-trending brain (for enhanced sight, sound and mechano-reception).

    
    One of many proposed Theropod phylogenies, the origin of facultative herbivory, that is omnivory, and the point of dietary diversification is posited at the base of Maniraptoriformes within the ellipse.
    Adapted from Zanno, 2009 and from Araujo et al, 2013.


    UNCLEAR FAMILY INTERRELATIONSHIPS
    Interrelationships between specific therizinosaur taxa remains less clear. Until recently, the fossil record was restricted to Asia. With discoveries in North America such as Nothronychus mckinleyi (the first undisputed North American therizinosaurid from the Upper Cretaceous of New Mexico) and Falcarius utahensis (the third therizinosaur discovered in America, the most morphologically primitive therizinosaur yet discovered and a sister taxon to the clade of Therizinosauroidea from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation of east-central Utah), we can begin to ask questions about origination, geographic and stratigraphic range, and even potential faunal mixing between immigrant and endemic clades. 


    One of many parsimonious phylogenies proposed for therizinosaurs
    50% Majority-rule consensus tree
    Modified from Pu et al, 2013.



    QUESTIONS WITHOUT ANSWERS
    Did basalmost Falcarius utahensis originate in North America and certain populations expand into Asia? With recent finds in China such as Eshanosaurusdeguchiianus from the Early Jurassic, the presence of derived coelurosaurian lineages including therizinosaurians is being pushed back earlier. Did therizinosaurs differentiate from coelurosaurian ancestors before the breakup of Pangaea into Eurasia and North America and/or did they migrate across the tectonic Beringia Land Bridge that was established in the Early Cretaceous between northeast Asia and northwest North America? Was there more than one dispersal event? At various times, Asian endemic therizinosaurids show faunal similarities with North American forms. Did endemic forms mix with immigrant forms? Do North American therizinosaur taxa exhibit an Asian affinity or vice versa?   


    This imaginative diorama depicts a mix of Cretaceous fauna on the Beringia Land Bridge. A therizinosaur (in the box) has been tentatively identified on trackways in the Yukon.
    Illustration by Karen Carr and the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. Used with permission.


    VEGETARIANS WITHIN A FAMILY OF CARNIVORES
    Based on therizinosaur's osteological anatomy and soft tissue reconstructions, taking into account the habitats in which they likely thrived, and using animal analogues such as the sloth, certain dietary assumptions have been made about therizinosaurs and the Coelurosaurian clade in which they belong - once thought to have been obligate carnivores. In a little over a decade, doubt has been shed on that notion, raising the possibility or even likelihood that "dietary diversification was more commonplace among 'predatory' dinosaurs than previously appreciated" (Zanno, 2009).

    In fact, therizinosaurs are the most widely regarded candidate for herbivory among theropods. Dietary plasticity and facultative (capable of rather than restricted to) herbivory (omnivory) is thought to have afforded the group the potential to invade and exploit ecospaces early in evolution for survival.


    With a similar body shape and large claws on their front feet, Nothronychus graffami is shown as a bipedal browser analogous to the Giant Ground Sloth of the Ice Age.
    Artist Victor Leshyk


    FOSSILS CALLING
    Wayne Ranney and I met Merle bright and early at the Visitor Center in Big Water for a tour of the Moon. Crossing the dry streambed of Wahweap Creek, we travelled on a planar surface of Tropic mudstone, occasionally bouncing around on the hummocky, eroded terrain. The easiest places to build roads on the Colorado Plateau, although the most difficult places to maintain them, are on the Mancos-Tropic Shale. The soft rock weathers readily, forming broad, flat expanses and easy routes to get from here to there.

    Our first destination was the very spot of Merle's once-in-a-lifetime discovery. After a surprisingly short drive from the Visitor Center, we left our vehicle and began to ascend a large, loose mound of gray mudstone and claystone to a noticeably beveled off area. 




    Standing at the site of the former dig, let's let Merle tell the story. Although he's recounted the details many times in well over a decade since the find, it's clear that his enthusiasm hasn't diminished one iota. I'm filming, while Wayne is interjecting commentary. 




    The excavation consumed the better part of two years and included the removal of tons of overburden. Some of the skeletal elements were compressed by compaction, while the skeleton was slightly disarticulated due to settling after coming to rest in the soft marine sediments of the Tropic. The hillocks and empty washes in the Tropic Shale were created in more recent times as the flat-lying muddy sea bottom succumbed to the forces of erosion.


    Merle and Wayne debate the mysterious circumstances of the terrestrial therizinosaur's burial at sea.


    BURIAL AT SEA - BUT BY WHAT MEANS?
    One important question that has plagued paleontologists is how the dinosaur came to be buried in marine mud 60 miles out to sea with the nearest shore confirmed geologically near present-day Cedar City? To date, no definitive answer exists, although theories include "bloat and float" - having died on or near land and washed out to sea buoyed by decomposing body-gases followed by burial- and "lost at sea" - a less plausible scenario of having been caught by a flood or storm, floated out to sea alive, perhaps attacked by predators, and eventually buried nearly fully articulated. The skeleton of N. graffami was located in a supine position, belly-up, implying that it settled to its final resting place in the Tropic mud while buoyed by gases in a typical death pose.




    I've seen the same "bloat and float" taphonymous (mode of fossilization) entity in New Jersey where terrestrial duck-billed dinosaur remains (the state fossil) have been found buried in glauconitic sands of the flooded Late Cretaceous continental shelf on Jersey farmland.





    As the Tropic continues to erode, a few small osseous remnants of N. graffami have weathered to the surface since its excavation over a decade ago. It's that fact, among many others, that keeps Merle coming back to The Moon. There's always something new to be found on the ever-changing landscape. Come back the next day, and a new discovery will be awaiting you. What appears to be a static landscape is entirely the opposite!


    



    
    HEADING DOWN DRY WAHWEAP CREEK
    Leaving the therizinosaur excavation site, we headed southeast on the flats of Wahweap Wash to further explore the Tropic's marine bounty.
     
     
     
     
    Is their any doubt that the Tropic is a marine deposit? This horizon is literally covered with disarticulated bivalves, typically inoceramids (clams), pycnodontids (oysters) and  a few ammonites. I've seen similar marine exposures in lag deposits of the Late Cretaceous marl of the New Jersey coastal plain but not as richly concentrated.
     
    Because of the fast rate of evolution in inoceramids and ammonites, they have become an important biostratigraphic tool for dating and identifying depositional boundaries in the Late Cretaceous of the Seaway - along with datable bentonite ash beds intermittently generated by volcanics to the west and southwest of the subsiding foreland. As a result, the Tropic Shale has been well constrained in the Kaiparowits Basin as upper Cenomanian-lower Turonian with Vasconceras diartianum-Prionocyclus hyatti ammonite biozones. 
     
     
     
      
    TURRITELLA WHITEI
    Turritella is an extremely common Cretaceous gastropod (snail) fossil in North America, whose descendants are still extant today. The shells are tightly-coiled and spiraled in the shape of elongated cones. In this region, the Tropic's mudstone-siltstone is highly-calcareous and extremely well-lithified. In the Kaiparowits Basin, the lower two-thirds is bluish-gray due to its high carbonate content; whereas, the upper third is darker and noncalcareous. Wayne suggested that it may have been diagenetically-altered.
     
     
     
     
    Notice that fine mudstone has entered and lithified within the Turritella's conical shell. When the shell eventually erodes away, it will leave a perfectly shaped internal cast called a steinkern (German meaning "stone" and "grain or kernal"). I found the identical gastropod in the Mancos Shale of the Seaway - the Tropic equivalent throughout the Southwest - near Ship Rock in northwestern New Mexico about 150 miles to the east.
     
     
     
     
    THE DAKOTA-TROPIC CONTACT
    As sea level rose during the Seaways first transgression onto land, the Dakota Formation was deposited. With the sea's westward advance, deeper Tropic muds covered the Dakota, onlapping and interfingering with it. Walking the contact, we were able to view the bedding planes within the Tropic and the magnitude of layered invertebrate remains.
     
     
    The region is situated along the northern terminus of the Echo Cliff monocline, seen in the inclination of the landscape. Compressionally-generated monoclines formed across the Colorado Plateau with the ongoing subduction of the Farallon plate at a shallower angle during the Laramide orogeny.  
     
     
    We're walking on a Late Cretaceous marine and brackish-water oyster bed, where shells accumulated and became disarticulated, smashed by the high energy wave system nearshore. Some areas are depauperate, while others are so rich in bivalves that they formed a shell-pavement. 
     
     
      
     
     
    PTYCHODUS
    For every shark tooth I found, Merle's trained eye found ten - and in half the time. It was obvious that Merle possesses an uncanny ability of finding fossils. I asked him how he goes about looking it. He answered, "You need to have a second sense when you walk. I simply go where it feels right. That will lead you to bones and teeth."  There's a well-camouflaged Ptychodus tooth below concealed amongst mudstone rubble. 
     
     
     
    
     
     
    Of the many shark species that plied the Seaway, Ptychodus in the "Greenhorn Sea" was widespread. Ptychodus was a hybodontiform ("hump-backed" tooth) shark that lived from the Cretaceous to the Paleogene. It grew to 32 feet and was a benthic (bottom-loving) molluscivore (bivalve-loving) predator. The teeth are square or quadrilateral in shape, with broad, low crowns that overhang a blocky, short root. 
     
     
     
     
    Ptychodus teeth were arranged in straight, closely-spaced, parallel teeth rows that formed a bivalve-crushing pavement type of dentition.
     
     
     
     
    In addition to invertebrates, the Tropic Shale also contains an abundant and diverse marine vertebrate fauna including at least five different short-necked plesiosaur genera, two genera of turtles, a normal chondrichthyan-osteichthyan assemblage - and of course a therizinosaur dinosaur, albeit terrestrial. Owing to the poor preservation of the cartilaginous skeletal structures, chondrichthyans are represented largely by teeth and dermal ossicles. Here are some of the interesting remnants that we came across.
     
     
     
     
    This region of The Moon is on Bureau of Land Management land. The official website states  that visitors to BLM lands "are welcome to collect reasonable amounts of common invertebrate, such as ammonites and trilobites, and common plant fossils, such as leaf impressions and cones, without a BLM permit." Casual, hobby collecting is allowed "for non-commercial personal use, either by surface collection or the use of non-powered hand tools resulting in only negligible disturbance to the Earth's surface and other resources.”
     
    By noon, Merle, Wayne and I had spent considerable time baking in the sun with our heads trained downward, walking the Tropic and scouring the seabed for fossils. Notice the vehicle for scale. 
     
      
     
     
    GENUS OPUNTIA
    A visit to the Tropic wouldn't be complete within mention of the indigenous vegetation. The Moon is sparsely vegetated, but Opuntia cacti add incredible color to the landscape, especially in Spring. Referred to as Prickly Pear, the brilliant crimson of this cactus is almost painful to the eyes in the bright sun. In the Southwest, there are many varieties all of which are native to the Americas. Many possess alkaloids with biological and pharmacological activities (for diabetes and hypertension). Most are edible, and some are used to make an alcoholic drink, while others have psychoactive properties.
     
     
     
     
     
    STANLEYA PINNATA
    This hardy shrub of Prince's Plume, in the mustard family, is highly recognizable by the bright yellow flowers clustered along the stem. It's native to the western United States and prefers alkaline and gypsum-rich soils, typically found in deserts. The plant is toxic since they concentrate selenium from the soil, necessary for cellular function. Coincidentally, selene means "moon" in Greek.
     
     

     
     
     
    PHAERALCEA AMBIGUA
    Desert Globemallow is also native to the American Southwest and grows well in alkaline, sandy soil and clay. The plant was used by Native Americans as a food source and for medicinal purposes. 
     
     
     
     
    Back at the Visitor Center in Big Water, Wayne and I got the grand tour of the facility. Merle is an extremely personable and friendly guy, who is very affable and chock full of stories. In all, it was a fantastic and memorable day walking The Moon of Big Water with Merle's paleontological prowess and Wayne's geological knowledge.   
     
     
     
     
     
    USEFUL SOURCES OF PALEOTOLOGICAL AND GEOLOGICAL INFORMATION
    • A New North American Therizonosaurid and the Role of Herbivory in Predatory Dinosaur Evolutionby Lindsay E. Zanno  et al, Proceedings of the Royal Society, 2009.
    • Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau by Ron Blakey and Wayne Ranney, 2008.
    An Unusual Basal Therizinosaur Dinosaur with an Ornithischian Dental Arrangement from Northeastern China by Pu et al, 2013. 
    • A Taxonomic and Phylogenetic Re-evaluation of Therizinosauria (Dinosauria:
    Maniraptora) by Lindsay Zanno, Journal of Systematic Paleontology, 2010.
    • At the top of the Grand Staircaseby Alan L. Titus and Mark A. Leowen, 2013.
    Correlation of Basinal Carbonate Cycles to Nearshore Parasequences in the Late Cretaceous Greenhorn Seaway by William P. Elder et al, 1994.
    Discovery and Excavation of a Therizinosaurid Dinosaur from the Upper Cretaceous Tropic Shale (Early Turonian), Kane County, Utah by David D. Gillette et al, 2002.
    • First Definitive Therizinosaurid From North America by James I. Kirkland and Douglas G. Wolfe, 2001.
    • Fossils from the Tropic Shale by Merle H. Grafam, 2000. Personal copy from the author.
    • Geological Evolution of the Colorado Plateau of Eastern Utah and Western Colorado by Robert Fillmore, 2011.
    • Geology of the American Southwest by W. Scott Baldridge, 2004.
    • Geology of Utah's Parks and Monuments, Utah Geological Association by Douglas A. Sprinkel et al, 2003.
    Herbivorous Ecomorphology and Specialization Patterns in Theropod Dinosaur Evolution by Lindsay E. Zanno and Peter J. Makovicky, 2011.
    On the Earliest Record of Cretaceous Tyrannosaurids in Western North America: Implications for an Early Cretaceous Laurasian Interchange Event by Lindsay E. Zanno and Peter J. Makovicky, 2010.
    • The Geology of the Grand Staircase in Southern Utah by the Geological Society of America, 2002.
    • The Pectoral Girdle and Forelimb of the Primitive Therizinosaiuriod Falcarius Utahensis by Lindsay A. Zanno, 2006.
    • Therizinosaur -  Mystery of the Sickle-Claw Dinosaur by David D. Gillette, Arizona Geology, Published by the Arizona Geological Survey, 2007.
    • Therizinosaur – Mystery of the Sickle-Claw Dinosaur by David D. Gillette, Ph.D., Plateau, Museum of Northern Arizona, 2007.
    • Vertebrate Paleontology by Michael J. Benton, 2005.

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    In “101 American Geo-Sites You’ve Gotta See,” author Albert B. Dickas listed Maryland's Calvert Cliffs as number 32. With curiosity piqued and the Cliffs renowned for their diverse and well-preserved fossiliferous assemblages - having attracted tourists and scientists as early as 1770 - I decided to visit the site in July. Only a 90 minute drive southeast of Washington, the Calvert Cliffs is a spectacular and scenic, almost continuous 50 km wavecut bluff along the western side of the Chesapeake Bay.

    A geological contradiction to the Eastern Seaboard's otherwise flat Coastal Plain, the Cliffs rise in places to as much as 40 meters. They are cut into actively eroding, unconsolidated sandy, silty and clayey sediments of the lowermost portion of the Chesapeake Group. Throughout much of the Miocene, the region was the site of a shallow, inland arm of the temperate Atlantic Ocean during climatic cooling, uplift of the Atlantic Coastal Plain and eustatic changes in sea level. The stratal package preserves the best available record of middle Miocene marine and, less frequently, terrestrial life along the East Coast of North America.

    

    Looking obliquely at Calvert Cliffs from the cuspate foreland at Flag Ponds, the undeformed beds of the Chesapeake Group can be seen to have a regional dip of less than one degree to the southeast (about 2m/km). That allows the exploration of progressively younger strata in a southward direction and vice versa. The strata is primarily Miocene with a coarse-channel, fluvial and tidal deposited overburden variably from the Pliocene and Pleistocene. Typical of bluffs adjacent to the bay, the beach and cliff-vegetation is small or non-existent. Notice the slump and collapse material at the base. Its presence at the toe is generally short-lived. The beach at Flag Ponds is very popular for sunning, swimming and strolling, but fossil collecting at the cliff-toes, which is a very productive locale, is prohibited and prevented by the presence of a large fence.


    WHO WAS CALVERT AND WHERE ARE WE?
    The recorded history of the Chesapeake region is as varied as the geology, which began with the Spanish. The cartographer Diego Gutierrez recorded the Chesapeake on a map, calling it “Bahia de Santa Maria.” The English arrived with John White in 1585 and again in 1608 with John Smith’s entry onto the Calvert Peninsula. His mission was to explore the Chesapeake region, find riches, and locate a navigable route to the Pacific, all the while making maps and claiming land for England. On John Smith’s 1606 map (below), the Calvert Cliffs were originally called “Rickard’s Cliffes”, after his mother’s family name. 

    The first English settlement in Southern Maryland dates to somewhere between 1637 and 1642, although the county was actually organized in 1654. Established by Cecelius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, English gentry were the first settlers, followed by Puritans, Huguenots, Quakers, and Scots. In 1695, Calvert County was partitioned into St. Mary's, Charles, and Prince George's, and its boundaries became substantially what they are today. Statehood wasn’t granted to Maryland until 1788. The Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War waged in the region. In fact, the peninsula was the training site for Navy and Marine detachments, and the invasion of Normandy was simulated on the lower Cliffs of Calvert.



    John Smith's 1606 map of the Chesapeack (correct spelling) Bay. Note the location of Rickards Cliffes (English spelling) emptying into the Virginia Sea (aka Atlantic Ocean). North is to the right. Maryland was granted statehood in 1788 with the region referred to as Virginia.


    The Cliffs of Calvert reside on the broad, flat, seaward-sloping landform of the Coastal Plain of Maryland on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Calvert and southernmost Anne Arundel Counties. Located on finger-like Calvert Peninsula, the Cliffs are on the higher western section of the Plain, while the lower section, known as the Eastern Shore (always capitalized), is a flat-lying tidal stream-dissected plain, generally less than 60 feet above sea level. 


    Red arrow indicates the region of Calvert Cliffs on the Atlantic Coastal Plain of the eastern shore of the Calvert Peninsula within the Chesapeake Bay.
    Modified from USGS map


    Chesapeake Bay is an estuary - the largest of 130 in the United States - with a mix of freshwater from the Appalachians and brackish water from its tidal connection to the Atlantic Ocean. The Bay's central axis formed by the drowning of the ancestral Susquehanna River by the sea that flowed to the Atlantic from the north during the last glacial maximum of the Pleistocene Ice Age some 20,000 years ago - when the planet's water was bound up in ice and global seas were lower.

    Multiple advances of the Laurentide Ice Sheet blanketed Canada and a large portion of northern United States during Quaternary glacial epochs. Its advance never reached the region of Chesapeake Bay, having extended to about 38 degrees latitude. Being in a contemporary interglacial period - the Holocene - global seas are higher, but not at the level during the deposition of the Chesapeake Group at Calvert Cliffs during the Miocene.  
    

    PASSIVE DOESN'T MEAN INACTIVE
    During the time of deposition of the Calvert Cliffs, fluctuating seas drowned portions of southern Maryland. A shallow, protected basin of the Atlantic Ocean called the Salisbury Embayment was located in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and southern New Jersey. It was one of many depocenters along the Eastern Seaboard, separated by adjoining highs or arches. The Salisbury Embayment structurally represents a westward extension of the Baltimore Canyon Trough that extends into the central Atlantic on the continent's shelf and slope.


    Major Structural Features of the Atlantic Coastal Plain from New York to Florida
    The embayments are depocenters - major sites of sediment accumulation. The Fall Line is the inner limit of deposits on the Coastal Plain at the Appalachian Piedmont Province. The Salisbury Embayment extends westward to the Fall Line.
    Modified from Ward and Strickland, 1985.


    The depositional history and relief of the Cliffs of Calvert are testimony to the elevated level of the seas in the Miocene. In addition, the Embayment resides on the “passive” margin of North America’s east coast, which is typified by subsidence and sedimentation rather than seismic faulting and volcanic activity found on the continent’s “active” west margin. The Embayment was and is in a constant dynamic state - passive but far from inactive. 






    How did the passive margin and the Coastal Plain of Maryland form geologically? What is the sediment source of the depocenters? What fauna occupied the ecosystem of Calvert Cliffs? These questions can't be adequately addressed without gaining an appreciation for the geological evolution of North America's East Coast. Here's a brief synopsis.

    THE GEOLOGIC PROCESSES THAT SHAPED THE EASTERN COAST OF NORTH AMERICA
    The supercontinent of Rodinia fully assembled with the termination of the Grenville orogeny in the Late Proterozoic and brought the world's landmasses into unification. Rodinia's tectonic disassembly in the latest Proterozoic gave birth to the Panthalassic, Iapetus and Rheic Oceans, amongst others. Rodinia's fragmentation was followed by the supercontinent of Pangaea's reassembly from previously drifted continental fragments throughout the Paleozoic. 

    A succession of orogenic events...
    Using modern co-ordinates, the east coast of Laurentia (the ancestral, cratonic core of North America) experienced a succession of three major tectonic collisions during Pangaea's assembly – the Taconic (Ordovician-Silurian), Acadian (Devonian-Mississippian) and Alleghanian (Mississippian-Permian) orogenies. Each orogen built a chain of mountains that overprinted those of the previous event - closed intervening seas and added crust to the growing mass of the continent of North America. 


    The Paleozoic Assembly of Pangaea
    In the Early Devonian (400 Ma), following the Taconic orgeny, the Acadian collisional event has initiated mountain building on Laurentia's east coast with the closure of the Iapetus Ocean. The megacontinent of Gondwana, lying across the Rheic Ocean, is converging upon Laurentia towards its eventual subduction zone.
    Modified from Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems. Inc.

     
    A final orogeny assembles Pangaea...
    The penultimate Alleghanian orogeny between Laurussia (Laurentia, Baltica and Eurasia) and the northwest Africa portion of Gondwana - the two largest megacontinental siblings of Rodinia's break-up - culminated with the late Paleozoic formation of Pangaea. That unification event constructed the Central Pangaean Mountains - a Himalayan-scale, elongate orogenic belt some 6,000 km in length within Pangaea at the site of continental convergence. Calvert Cliffs (red dot) had not yet evolved, but its deep Grenville basement was in place along with the orogen that would eventually blanket its coastal seascape with sediments from the highlands.

     
    The Supercontinent of Pangaea
    By the Late Pennsylvanian (300 Ma), the closure of the Rheic Ocean brought various microcontinents, magmatic arcs, and the northwest African and Amazonian aspect of Gondwana into an oblique transpressive collision with Laurussia (summarily Laurentia, Scandinavia and Eurasia). Convergence built the elongate Central Pangaean range composed of segments from South America and Mexico through North America and into Europe and Asia. The Chesapeake Bay, yet to form, is landlocked at the red dot.
    Modified from Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems. Inc.

     
    Supercontinental fragmentation...
    Beginning in the Late Triassic, Pangaea’s break-up created a new ocean – the Atlantic – and fragmented the Pangaean range. As a result, the Appalachian chain remained along the passive eastern seaboard of the newly formed continent of North America from Newfoundland to Alabama, while severed portions of the range were sent adrift on rifted continental siblings. A supercontinental tectonic cycle is apparent between Grenville formation of Rodinia and its fragmentation and Alleghanian formation of Pangaea and its dissassembly.

    The orogen's remnants form the Anti-Atlas Mountains in western Africa, the Caledonides in Greenland and northern Europe, the Variscan-Hercynian system in central Europe and central Asia, the Ouachita-Marathons in south-central North America, the Cordillera Oriental in Mexico, and the Venezuelan Andes in northwestern South America. As a result of Pangaea's fragmentation, the region of the future Calvert Cliffs (red dot) was finally positioned in proximity to the sea, awaiting the orogen to erode and Cenozoic eustasy to flood the landscape and deposit the Chesapeake Group during the Miocene.

     
    The Continent of North America
    The Atlantic Ocean began to form with the disassembly of Pangaea in the Late Triassic. In the Late Jurassic (150 Ma), the modern continents are drifting apart. The Appalachian Mountain range has begun to erode and shed its deposits on the developing Atlantic Coastal Plain (light blue). The Chesapeake Bay, yet to form, is located at the red dot.
    Modified from Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems, Inc.

     
    North America's new passive margin...
    By the Cretaceous, the Appalachian highlands had eroded to a nearly flat peneplain, sending voluminous fluvial sediments to the continental margin and shelf in a seaward-thickening wedge. Under the weight and the effect of lithospheric cooling, the passive marginal shelf began to subside and angle seaward as global warming and rising seas drowned both the coast and cratonic core of North America. The Salisbury Embayment, along with others up and down the coast in a scalloped array, was created by the tilting and reactivation of normal faults that extended westward to the Appalachian foothills. Initially, the regional dip was to the northeast, but Neogene uplift left the Coastal Plain's beds dipping to the southeast.


    North America in the Late Cretaceous (89 Ma)
    The entire shallow, subsiding passive margin of North America's east coast (light blue), along with the depocenters of the Salisbury Embayment (ellipse), were drowned by global high seas beginning in the Late Cretaceous. Notice that the cratonic core of Laurentia has been submerged by two converging arms of the sea from the north and south that formed the Western Interior Seaway. Also, notice the narrow active margin at North America's west coast, the site of convergent tectonics. This eustatic condition will not prevail with sea level progressively dropping as it fluctuated throughout the Pliocene, the Pleistocene and Holocene.
    Modified from Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems. Inc.


    Subsidence and sedimentation...
    Although classified as a passive continental margin, the "active" shelf received nonmarine 
    deposition through most of the Cretaceous. With the exception of the Oligocene, the Tertiary saw wave after wave of marine deposition on Maryland's subsiding shore spurned by rising global seas. During the Late Oligocene, Miocene and early Pliocene, the Chesapeake Group was deposited. The Group's lower three stratal components are exposed as wave-eroded bluffs at Calvert Cliffs. Their ~70 m of strata preserve nearly 10 million years of elapsed time. It forms the most available sequence of exposed Miocene marine sediments along the East Coast of North America.


    The depocenter of the Salisbury Embayment is drowned by high seas during the Middle Miocene (15 Ma). This eustatic condition will not prevail with sea level progressively dropping as it fluctuated throughout the Pliocene, into the Pleistocene and present.
    Modified from Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems. Inc.


    The Chesapeake Group's Cliffs of Calvert...
    Vacillating seas consequent to Pleistocene glaciation-deglaciation periodically flooded and exposed the land, backflooding rivers and bays such as the Chesapeake. Our present interglacial epoch - the Holocene - has re-exposed the Chesapeake Group and the Cliffs of Calvert to erosion. In spite of not having experienced a significant phase of tectonic convergence for over 200 million years, the modern Appalachian Mountains have been rejuvenated during the late Cenozoic, possibly isostatically in response to ongoing erosion or by mantle forcing. That contributed to river incision and deposition across the Coastal Plain with sedimentation such as the Chesapeake Group.


    A glowing Maryland sunrise illuminates the strata of the Calvert Cliffs looking south.
    Photo Courtesy of Stephen J. Godfrey, Ph.D., Curator of Paleontology, Calvert Marine Museum



    THE MID-EAST COAST'S PHYSIOGRAPHIC PROVINCES
    North America's most easterly geomorphologic region is the siliciclastic sedimentary wedge of the Atlantic Coastal Plain that began to form with the breakup of Pangaea. It’s a low relief, gentle sloped, seaward-dipping mass of unconsolidated sediment over 15,000 feet thick, deposited on the margin of North America Appalachian-derived rivers and streams, and spread back and forth by the migrating shorelines of vacillating seas throughout the Cenozoic. In Maryland, progressing to the northwest from the Coastal Plain, one encounters the Piedmont Plateau at the Fall Line, the Blue Ridge, the Valley and Ridge and the Appalachian Plateau Provinces.


    From east to west through the Appalachian orogen with an underlying Grenville basement, the physiographic provinces of Maryland are synonymous with those up and down the East Coast of North America. Notice the Fall Line, separating the Piedmont from the Coastal Plain, and the Chesapeake Bay, dividing the Plain into higher western and lower eastern subdivisions.


    The five physiographic provinces are a series of belts with a characteristic topography, geomorphology and specific subsurface structural element. The overall trend is from  southwest to northeast along the eastern margin of North America. Their strike and geologic character have everything to do with the tectonic collisions that built mountains, recorded periods of quiescence, formed and fragmented at least two supercontinents, and opened and closed the oceans caught in between.


    Location of Calvert Cliffs on the Chesapeake Bay's western shore of the Atlantic Coastal Plain (light colored)
    Modified from USGS map


    Calvert Cliffs is on the Chesapeake Bay's western shore of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, as are the major cities on the mid-east coast - Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Washington, etc. If you connect them on a map, you'll locate the approximate western boundary of the Coastal Plain called the Fall Line or Zone. It's the geomorphic break (and geographic obstacle) where a 900-mile long escarpment of falls and rapids separates the Coastal Plain from hard, metamorphosed crystalline rock of the Piedmont foothills to the west.

    The Piedmont and Blue Ridge share similar types of crystalline igneous and metamorphic rocks of the core of the Appalachians. The majority of Blue Ridge rocks are related to events of the Precambrian and Cambrian from Grenville mountain building to the Cambrian rift basins, while most of the Piedmont rocks were transported and accreted to North America. A discussion of the details of tectonic derivation and geologic structure of the remaining westerly provinces is beyond the scope of this post. 






    MIOCENE STRATIGRAPHY OF CALVERT CLIFFS
    The Calvert Cliffs consist largely of relatively undeformed and unlithified strata of silts, sands and clays of the Calvert, Choptank and St. Mary's formations (Shattuck, 1904) in ascending order of the Chesapeake Group. The formations are interrupted by a series of erosional unconformities and other hiatal intervals and preserve nearly 10 million years of elapsed time.



    Flag Ponds Nature Park
    The cliffs in the distance are the same as the top of the post. Bluffs directly adjacent to the bay generally have very narrow or no beach material (0-3 m) and little to no vegetation on the face. The erosion rate there is historically uniform (0.3-0.6 meters per year), where they are susceptible to slumping and collapse facilitated by a slope angle of nearly 70 degrees. In this area of Calvert Cliffs and Cove Point to the south, "fossil" bluffs are stabilized and preserved inland of the shoreline as the beach acts as a barrier and protects toe slope erosion from wave action as it migrates to the south along longshore currents. At Cove Point the migrating-landform is a prograding cuspate foreland. Southward bluffs become protected from wave action as new beaches are deposited at the bluff-toes. As the foreland migrates to the south, the beach will recede and active bluff erosion will recommence. The changes induced by the foreland occur on a "decadal rather than centennial scale, which places the rate of slope failure on a human scale." This passive Atlantic margin is anything but!
     (Martha Herzog, USGS).


    The Miocene succession was deposited as a complex package representing a first-order transgressive-regressive cycle with numerous superimposed smaller-scale perturbations of sea level. Overall, the record is one of gradual shallowing within the Salisbury Embayment and is reflected in the character of the strata that progresses from inner to middle shelf to tidally-influenced, lower-salinity coastal embayments. Deposition occurred under subtropical and warm temperate conditions in a shallow marine shelf environment at a maximum water depth of more than ~40-50 meters.

    The exposures include not only the Calvert Cliffs but the Westmoreland and Nomini Cliffs along the Virginia Shore of the Potomac River. Debated for more than a century, estimates for the basal Calvert range from early Early Miocene to mid-Middle Miocene. 


    Miocene Stratigraphy of Calvert Cliffs
    The lower Chesapeake Group's Miocene section has been subdivided using a multitude of stratigraphic systems including three formations of 24 stratigraphic beds and molluscan zones, many of which have been renamed as members based on locality. In addition, various depositional sequences and events have been described.  Dates are in millions of years (Ma).
    Modified from Ward and Andrews, 2008, and Carnevale et al, 2011.



    RECESSION OF THE COASTAL BLUFFS
    A general absence of beaches below the cliffs is a characteristic of the region. Direct wave undercutting at the cliff-toe, freeze-thaw erosion, underground seepage at sand-clay interfaces and mass-wasting (the average inclination is 70 degrees) are accompanied by rapid wave removal of colluvium (slope debris). Long-term rates can exceed 1 m/yr. Slumps, rotational slides and fallen trees are constantly being generated and removed. For these reasons, beachcombing for fossils and excavating the cliff-toes is a dangerous and prohibited venture. Collected is allowed in designated parks along the shoreline such as Calvert Cliffs State Park, Flag Ponds Nature Park and Brownies Beach, and private beaches given the owner's permission. 


    Two vying factions in regards to the Cliffs are scientists that reap the benefit of ongoing erosion and the homeowners, who seek real estate in close proximity to the cliff edge for the sake of a bay view. For the former, the best way to preserve the Cliffs is to let them erode naturally, while the latter would like to riprap (with stone or concrete), bulkhead, sandbag and groin-field the Cliffs to preserve them and their property. In dealing with Mother Nature, in this regard, shoreline protection reduces the risk of cliff failure, although it doesn't eliminate it. It's only a matter of geologic time. 


    Rocky Point just downbay (south) of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant
    Exposed are the Choptank and the St. Mary's Formations, the latter often oxidized to an orange color. The boundaries between the members and subdivisions are readily discernible. Zonation of thinly laminated beds of cobbles, mollusk shells, molds and casts can be made out even at this distance. Uppermost strata (upland deposits) consists of undulating Pleistocene alluvium, possibly where Pliocene beds were beveled off during a Pleistocene embayment. Again, notice the slump and collapse material, and destabilized trees sliding down the slope from above. Many homes perched on the cliff-edge have met a similar fate.
    Photo Courtesy of Stephen J. Godfrey, Ph.D., Curator of Paleontology, Calvert Marine Museum


    To reach otherwise inaccessible sections of the Cliffs and lessen the inherent dangers of collapse and burial, this mode of exploration employs descent from above. Excavation into the unlithified substrate is facilitated by an air-powered drill using a scuba tank's compressed air.



    From Google Science Fair 2014. See the video here.



    THE CLIFF'S FOSSILIFEROUS BOUNTY
    The formations preserve more than 600 largely marine species that include diatoms, dinoflagellates, foraminiferans, sponges, corals, polychaete worms, mollusks, ostracods, decapods, crustaceans, barnacles, brachiopods and echinoderms. The macrobenthic fauna (large organisms living on or in the sea bottom) act as good indicators of salinity. The Calvert and Choptank are dominated by diverse assemblages of stenohaline organisms (tolerating a narrow range of salinity); whereas, the younger St. Mary's Formation exhibits an increasing prevalence of euryhaline molluscan assemblages (tolerating a wide range of salinity). The changes within the assemblages reflect the fluctuating freshwater conditions within the Salisbury Embayment.  

    Vertebrate taxa include sharks and rays, actinopterygian fish, turtles, crocodiles, pelagic (open sea) birds, seals, sea cows, odontocetes and mysticetes (whales, porpoises and dolphins).






    In addition, the Cliffs preserve isolated and fragmentary remains of large terrestrial mammals (peccaries, rhinos, antelope, camels, horses and an extinct group of elephants called gomphotheres), palynomorphs (pollens and spores), and even land plants (from cypress and pine to oak) that bordered the Miocene Atlantic Coast and were carried to the sea by floodplains, rivers and streams sourced by the Appalachians.

    
    In the Miocene, mammalian diversity was reaching unprecedented levels, increasing in size and filling every conceivable niche on every continent. Grass-grazing, multi-stomached herbivorous artiodactyls (such as giraffes, antelopes, cattle, camel, pigs and hippopotami) were slowly replacing dominant perissodactyls (such as horses, rhinos and tapers) that developed after the end-Cretaceous extinction.  
    Modified from Jay Matternes

    
    Miocene River Environment by Karen Carr with permission



    SIFTING THE SURF FOR FOSSILS
    Armed with a plastic garden rake in hand from the local hardware store, I collected this fossil potpourri (below) on a brief 60 minute stroll along the beach at Flag Ponds. Their abundance and availability is a testimony to the richness and diversity of the Miocene marine fauna. The fossils are continually being generated from the eroding cliffs and their underwater extensions. 

    I am uncertain as to the specific origin of the mammalian bony fragments, but I suspect they are largely from marine fauna (i.e. dolphin, whale, seal, etc.) rather than terrestrial, since the former vastly outnumber the latter. Cetaceans such as the whale have repurposed an air-adapted mammalian ear for the differentiation of underwater sounds. The shell-like otic tympanic bulla is a thickened portion of the temporal bone located below the middle ear complex of bones. The large dense bone is well preserved and can easily be mistaken for an eroded fragment of rock.

    The crocodile tooth is an indication that rivers and swampy habitats existed in the marginal marine environment of Calvert Cliffs. Shark teeth are the most common vertebrate fossils preserved at the Cliffs. Their numbers are commentary on the favorable paleoenvironmental conditions that existed in the Salisbury Embayment. Of course, sharks continually produce and shed teeth throughout their lives, facilitated by the absence of a long, retentive root structure, and are composed of durable and insoluble biogenic apatite, which favors their preservation. Calvert Museum collections contain as many as 15 genera. The main constituents are Carcharhinus, Hemipristis, Galeocerdo, Isurus and Carchrius. Carcharhiniformes shed about 35,000 teeth in a lifetime!




    
    Appearing in the fossil record about 395 million years ago (middle Devonian), the Class Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous skeletal fish) is divided into two subclasses: Elasmobranchii, which includes sharks, rays and skates, and Holocephali (chimaeras). Elasmobranchii are distinguished by their 5-7 pairs of gill clefts, rigid dorsal fin, presence or absence of an anal fin, placoid dermal scales, teeth arranged in series within the jaws and the upper jaw being not fused to the cranium. Along with a dolphin tooth and a few gastropods, here are a few specimens collected from the surf at Calvert Cliffs State Park, about five miles southeast of Flag Ponds. 


    Top Row: Hemipristis (Snaggletooth shark), Isurus (?), Carcharhinus (?)
    Middle Row: Carcharhinus (?), Hemipristis (?), Porpoise tooth, Hemispristis (?)
    Bottom Row: Ray plate, Turritella shell, ray plate, Scaphopoda mollusc shell.
    Any corrections or additional insight regarding these fossils is welcomed.
      

    From these small samples, one can glean the ancient habitat at Calvert Cliffs during the Miocene. The combined study of both fossils and rock layers are essential in reconstructing the paleo-geography of the Cliffs. 

    C. MEGALODON
    By far, the largest but rarest shark teeth at Calvert Cliffs (but widely distributed within the world's oceans) are those of a "Megalodon," an extinct species of shark that lived from the late Oligocene to early Pleistocene (~28 to 1.5 million years ago). Its distinctive triangular, strongly serrated teeth are morphologically similar to those of a Great White shark (Carcharodon carcharias), a fact that fuels the debate over convergent dental evolution versus an ancestral relationship.


    An allometric relationship exists between tooth width and body length in modern sharks. A tooth that is 5.5 inches wide correlates with a body length of 60 feet, making Megalodon the largest shark to have lived, weighing as much as 100 tons. I calculated this Megalodon tooth in my collection to come from a 49 footer. That's ten feet longer than a school bus!


    The controversy has resulted in a taxonomic name of either Carcharodon megalodon or Carcharocles megalodon - commonly abbreviated as C. megalodon. The “Meg” is regarded as one of the most powerful apex predators in vertebrate history. On rare occasion, extinct cetacean fossilized vertebrae have been uncovered with bite-marks suggestive of mega-tooth shark predation or scavenging. Megalodon is represented in the fossil record by teeth and vertebral centra, since the majority of its cartilaginous skeleton is poorly preserved.


    C. megalodon dining on cetaceans
    With permission from artist Karen Carr with permission


    SKULLS AND BURROWS OF A NEW SPECIES
    Dr. Stephen Godfrey of the Calvert Marine Museum has been conducting paleontological studies in the Calvert Cliffs for some 15 years. After rafting along the shoreline to the excavation site, this paleontologist is taking measurements of a trace fossil interpreted as an infilled tilefish burrow from the Plum Point Member of the Calvert Formation deposited some 16 million years ago. In a 2014 paper in the JVP (see reference below), well preserved,  partially complete, largely cranial remains of tilefish are described. They have been collected over the past three decades from Miocene deposits outcropping in Maryland and Virginia. 


    Ruler in hand, paleontologist W. Johns investigates the exposed tilefish burrow.
    Photo Courtesy of Stephen J. Godfrey, Ph.D., Curator of Paleontology, Calvert Marine Museum


    Lopholatilus ereborensis, a new species of family Malacanthidae and teleost (infraclass of advanced ray-finned fish), inhabited long funnel-shaped vertical burrows that it excavated for refuge within the cohesive bottoms of the outer continental shelf of the Salisbury Embayment that likely inhabited other parts of the warm, oxygenated waters of the western North Atlantic outer shelf and slope. The species name was derived from 'Erebor,' the fictional name for the Lonely Mountain in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Like the mountain-clan of dwarves, the tilefish mined the substrate.



    This is a close-up view of an infilled, cylindrical-shaped, tilefish-excavated burrow in erosional cross-section. Investigations of extant tilefish show they were shelter-seeking within horizontal clay substrates. The tilefish used as a head-first entrance and tail-last exit for protection from predators. The burrows were subject to infill and collapse, taphonomously preserving the tilefish if within.
    Photo Courtesy of Stephen J. Godfrey, Ph.D., Curator of Paleontology, Calvert Marine Museum

    Schematic drawing showing three Miocene tilefish burrows. The fish on the left is actively excavating a new burrow. In the center, the burrow has been infilled, preserving the fish that habitated the burrow. On the right, the fish has taken refuge within its burrow.
    Photo Courtesy of Stephen J. Godfrey, Ph.D., Curator of Paleontology, Calvert Marine Museum

    Lopholatilus ereboronsis moderately deep skull and short snout in left lateral view with interpretive illustration. For orientation, the large circular structure is the orbit with anterior to the left. Post-cranial structures (vertebral skeleton) are missing. The fossil preserves anatomical detail as if a live dissection. One can clearly differentiate the entire suspensorium (jaw connections) of the maxilla (upper jaw) and a few teeth, the dentary (lower jaw) and the quadrate (ancestral jaw-joint), etc. Five extant genera of tilefish inhabit the waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.
    Photo Courtesy of Stephen J. Godfrey, Ph.D., Curator of Paleontology, Calvert Marine Museum


    COLONIAL SMOKING PIPE
    In an attempt to see what fossilized remains might have filtered down from overlying Miocene and more recent strata, I walked the beach until finding a break where a wash had carved a trough through the bluffs. I immediately spotted a white object glistening in the sun in a stream bed filled with gravel and tiny sharks teeth that turned out to be the worn remnants of a Colonial-era smoking pipe.




    Pipes of clay were first smoked in England after the introduction of tobacco from Virginia in the late 16th century. Sir Walter Raleigh, an English sea captain, was one of the first to promote this novel habit acquired from Native Americans that practiced its ritual use for many centuries. By the mid-17th century clay pipe manufacture was well established with millions produced in England, mainland Europe, and the colonies of Maryland and Virginia. For various reasons, clay pipe demand declined by the 1930’s.




    Clay pipes were very fragile and broke easily, and along with their popularity, they are commonly found at Maryland and Virginia colonial home sites. In Colonial-era taverns, clay pipes that were passed around were supposedly broken off at the stem for the next user in the interest of hygiene. Some clay pipes can be dated by the manufacturer's stamp located on the bowl, which was unfortunately missing in this lucky (but well calculated) find.

    HIGHLY RECOMMENDED REFERENCES
    • Evolution of Equilibrium Slopes at Calvert Cliffs, Maryland by Inga Clark et at, Shore and Beach, 2014.
     •Frequency of Effective Wave Activity and the Recession of Coastal Bluffs: Calvert Cliffs, Maryland by Peter R. Wilcock et al, Journal of Coastal Research, 1998.
    • Geologic Evolution of the Eastern United States by Art Schultz and Ellen Compton-Gooding, Virginia Museum of Natural History, 1991.
    • Maryland's Cliffs of Calvert: A Fossiliferous Record of Mid-Miocene Inner Shelf and Coastal Environments by Peter R. Vogt and Ralph Eshelman, G.S.A. Field Guide, Northeastern Section, 1987.
    • Miocene Cetaceans of the Chesapeake Group by Michael D. Gottfried, Proceedings of the San Diego Society of Natural History, 1994.
    • Miocene Rejuvenation of Topographic Relief in the Southern Appalachians by Sean F. Gallen et al, GSA Today, February 2013.
    • Molluscan Biostratigraphy of the Miocene, Middle Atlantic Coastal Plain of North America by Lauck W. Ward, Virginia Museum of Natural History, 1992.
    • Slope Evolution at Calvert Cliffs, Maryland by Martha Herzog, USGS.
    • Stargazer (Teleostei, Uranoscopidae) Cranial Remains from the Miocene Calvert Cliffs, Maryland, U.S.A. by Giorgio Carnevale, Stephen J. Godfrey and Theodore W. Pietsch, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, November 2011.
    • Stratigraphy of the Calvert, Choptank, and St. Mary's Formations (Miocene) in the Chesapeake Bay Area, Maryland and Virginia by Lauck W. Ward and George W. Andrews, Virginia Museum of Natural History, Memoir Number 9, 2008.
    • The Ecphora Newsletter, September 2009.
    • Tilefish (Teleostei, Malacanthidae) Remains from the Miocene Calvert Formation, Maryland and Virginia: Taxonomical and Paleoecological Remarks by Giorgio Carnevale and Stephen J. Godfrey, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, September 2014.
    Variation in Composition and Abundance of Miocene Shark Teeth from Calvert Cliffs, Maryland by Christy C. Visaggi and Stephen J. Godfrey, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, January 2010. 


    WITH GREAT APPRECIATION
    I wish to express my gratitude and thanks to Stephen J. Godfrey, PhD., Curator of Paleontology of the Calvert Marine Museum, for providing valuable support (personal communications, October 2014), documentation and photographs of Calvert Cliffs and his recent excavation and publication.

    GO VISIT!
    Calvert Cliffs Marine Museum was founded in 1970 at the mouth of the Patuxent River in Solomons, Maryland. Visit them here, but do go there! You can join the museum here.

    OR SUBSCRIBE!
    The Ecphora is the quarterly newsletter of the Calvert Marine Museum Fossil Club. Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae is an extinct, Oligocene to Pliocene, predatory gastropod and the Maryland State Fossil, whose first description appeared in paleontological writings as early as 1770. Sadly, riprapping (rock used to protect shorelines from erosion) has covered one of only two localities in the State of Maryland where the fossil can be found. The other is on private land and off limits without permission. Ironically, Marylanders can find their state fossil in Miocene strata of Virginia. Download copies of current and past newsletters here or simply subscribe.

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    “There are trees, and then there are trees.”
    Dick Byrd, 2014


    My neighbor, Dick Byrd of Newton, Massachusetts, has a lot to be thankful for. One of his biggest joys is growing or should I say towering in his front yard. It’s a tree, but not just any tree. It’s an Eastern Hophornbeam, and it’s the National Champion – the largest of its species growing in the United States!





    WHAT'S A CHAMPION TREE?
    We all know that a champion is a person who has defeated or surpassed all of his/her rivals in a competition. It includes someone who fights or argues in support of another person, cause or belief. But what's a champion tree?

    It will come as no surprise, that to qualify, a tree must be big. It must be the largest species according to a standard measuring formula, and it must be re-measured every 10 years in order to maintain its champion status. To be eligible, a tree must be native to or naturalized in the continental United States, including Alaska but not Hawaii.




    THE NATIONAL REGISTER OF CHAMPION TREES
    American Forests is the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the United States. Their mission is to restore threatened forest ecosystems and inspire people to value and protect urban and wildland forests. Since 1940, their National Big Tree Program has been a testament to American Forests’ legacy of leadership in recognizing the beauty and critical ecosystem services provided by the country's biggest and oldest trees. More than 750 champions are crowned and documented in their biannual American Forests Champion Trees national register, located here.

    For more than 70 years, the goal of the program has remained to preserve and promote the iconic stature of these living monarchs and educate people about the key role that these remarkable trees and forests play in sustaining a healthy environment.

    DOES YOUR TREE MEASURE UP?
    Trees are ranked by total points based on the following formula: Circumference (in inches) + Height (in feet) + ¼ Crown Spread (in feet). The tree with the most total points is crowned national champion. The nomination deadlines are March and September 15th for the spring and fall registers, respectively. Dick's champion Hophornbeam has 210 points! I'll tell you how to measure your tree later in the post.






    WHAT'S A HOPHORNBEAM?
    The Eastern or American Hophornbeam - Ostrya virginiania if you're trying to impress Dick - is a member of the birch family of trees. Also known as ironwood, hardhack (in New England) and leverwood, it's generally a small short-lived tree scattered in the understory of hardwood forests. The tree is generally a subordinate species or minor member of most forest communities, when present. That's another unique aspect of Dick's champion - its unusually large size. Perhaps thriving in "the open" and Dick's nurturing nature has facilitated its large growth. 

    The Eastern Hophornbeam is a rugged, shade-tolerant tree with an oval or round canopy that grows to 50 feet in height. Dick's champion tops out at 66! It's found throughout the eastern United States and within the mountains of Mexico, south to El Salvador and Honduras. Over this large native range, it thrives in a diversity of climatic conditions and soils. Its small nutlets, which ripen in summer and fall, are used by birds and mammals during the winter. 

    It's often grown as an ornamental plant and sometimes used as a street tree. Because of its hardness, it has been used to make tool handles for mallets and posts. It should not be confused with the hornbeam, which is also a member of the birch family. The bark of a hophornbeam has loose strips of reddish brown to gray, creating a rough "clawed" bark.



    The hophornbeam's leaf is doubly-serrated with fine teeth at the margin and 2-4 inches long.



    TREE TALK
    I asked Dick what he knew of the age of his champion, it being slow-growing and having achieved such a large size. His best guess was about 135 years based on the age of his house. Dick speaks with the knowledge and ecological pride that comes from his BS in Forestry that he received from the University of Maine, although he doesn't pursue that profession, other than avocationally.

    Gazing up at the hophornbeam and shaking his head, Dick says that it has lost a good two-thirds of its crown, and that it wasn't registered until it lost the first third. "After losing the first third, no one would ever know that you have a champion. That's why I registered it. I looked up the previous champion - a tree in Michigan. The Commonwealth came to measure it near the end of 2008."

    Dick continued, "These types of trees are often culled early for pulpwood." Given its age and the deteriorated condition of its trunk, he fears that its days are numbered. "One good nor'easter, and that's it!" He's thought of cutting it down but is obviously highly reluctant.





    Even before I met Dick, I couldn't help but notice the tree as I jogged through the neighborhood. Maybe it was the signage that he proudly placed on the tree that caught my eye - one high and the other low. "Why the low signage?" I asked. "It's for the kids, and it's fun for everyone to read about it." Unfortunately, the bark that held the signs has rotted off, and they're now displayed on the logs.





    I was grateful for Dick telling me the story of his Eastern Hophornbeam and seeing his arboreal pride. He walked me back to my car, and quite sincerely added, "It's nice to find somebody that appreciates a championship tree!" And that I did! I must admit that I sneaked back the next morning to catch the morning sun illuminating its still majestic crown.





    HOW TO MEASURE TRUNK CIRCUMFERENCE
    1. Measure the distance around the trunk of the tree, in inches, at 4 ½ feet above ground level. This point is called the diameter breast height or dbh.
    2. If the tree forks at or below 4 ½ feet, record the smallest trunk circumference below the lowest fork. Record the height at which the measurement was taken. Trees should be considered separate if the circumference measurement below the lowest fork places the measurement on the ground.
    3. If the tree is on a slope, measure 4 ½ feet up the trunk on the high and low sides of the slope. The dbh is the average between both points. If the tree is on a steep slope, take the measurement at 4 ½ feet above the midpoint of the trunk.
    4. If the tree is leaning, measure the circumference at 4 ½ feet along the axis of the trunk. Make sure the measurement is taken at a right (90 degree) angle to the trunk.




    HOW TO MEASURE TREE HEIGHT
    Measure the vertical distance, in feet, between the base of the trunk and the topmost twig. Height is accurately measured using a clinometer, laser, hypsometer, or other specialized tools.  If these tools are not available, height can be estimated using the following “stick method.”

    1. Find a straight stick or ruler.
    2. Hold the stick vertically at arm’s length, making sure that the length of the stick above your hand equals the distance from your hand to your eye.
    3. Walk backward away from the tree. Stop when the stick above your hand is the same length as the tree.
    4. Measure the distance from the tree to where you are standing. Record that measurement to the closest foot.




    HOW TO MEASURE THE CROWN SPREAD
    Two measurements of the crown spread are taken and recorded, in feet, at right angles to one another.
    1. Measure the widest crown spread, which is the greatest distance between any two points along the tree’s drip line. The drip line is the area defined by the outermost circumference of the tree’s canopy where water drips to the ground.
    2. Turn the axis of measurement 90 degrees and find the narrow crown spread.
    3. Calculate the average of the two crown spread measurements using this formula: (wide spread + narrow spread)/2 = average crown spread.





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    Every blogger knows the challenge. What shall I blog about next? What photos should I use? By the time the end of the year rolls around, there are always a few posts that never quite made it. And so, with this final post of the year, here they are from here and there. Please visit the same for 2013 here and 2012 here.


    January
    A Lustrous Pearl for an Illustrious New Year



    My wife and I ushered in the New Year with our traditional early dinner at a wonderful local restaurant. To our surprise, one of the saltwater oysters in her appetizer contained an opaque white, natural pearl - a one-in-a-million chance. 

    Pearls begin as foreign bodies within the mantle of a mollusk. The bivalve’s response is to secrete layer after layer of nacre (NAY-ker), a hard crystalline substance around the irritant for protection. The result is a pearl, which is similar in finish to the shiny inside of oysters and mussels, known as mother of pearl and can take 5 to 20 years to form (1 to 6 years for freshwater pearls). Light passing through the nacreous substance is reflected and refracted, which gives the pearl its luster and iridescence. This is because the thickness of the platelets of aragonite - a form of calcium carbonate (the other being calcite) - is close to the wavelength of visible light. Unlike gemstones that are cut and polished to bring out their beauty, pearls require no such treatment. 

    Finding a pearl is considered to be good luck, and looking back on this year, I would affirm that superstition. 

    February
    William Smith’s Map That Changed the World


    "Sing, cockle-shells and oyster-banks,
    Sing, thunder-bolts and screw-stones,
    To Father Smith we owe our thanks
    For the history of a few stones."
    Anniversary Dinner by A.C. Ramsey, 1854.


    This eight by six-foot Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with Part of Scotland is easily mistaken for a modern geologic map. Yet, it was created by William Smith in 1815 and was the first national-scale geologic map of any country covering 65,000 square miles. By far, it was the most accurate at its time and the basis for all others. Concealed behind stately green velvet curtains, it is on display in the foyer of the Geological Society of London’s Burlington House in Piccadilly alongside a bust of William.

    William Smith was born in 1769 in the hamlet of Churchill in Oxfordshire, the orphaned son of the village blacksmith. Raised by his uncle and with only a rudimentary education, he quickly learned the surveyor trade as an assistant. Fortuitously, he applied his skills with the Somersetshire Coal Canal Company, at which time he observed that rock layers within the canals were arranged in a predictable pattern and could always be found in the same relative positions. He also noted that each stratum was identifiable by the fossils that it contained and that the same succession of fossil groups from older to younger rocks could be found across the countryside, even as the layers dipped, rose and fell. In time, his astute observations led him to the hypothesis of the Principle of Faunal Succession – a major geological concept in determining the relative ages of rocks and strata. 

    Travelling throughout Britain, he observed exposures of the strata and meticulously sampled and catalogued their characteristics. First mapping vertically and then horizontally in color, his first sketch in 1801 led to the publication of the geological map of Britain. The timing was right. This was the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in England. Coal was king, and maps were needed. Yet, Smith's maps were plagiarized by the Geological Society of London, forcing him into bankruptcy and debtor’s prison. Destitute but not deterred after years of homelessness, Smith's bad fortune began to turn. 

    Over a decade later, he was eventually accepted into and honored by the Geological Society of London for his contributions as “the Father of English Geology.” In 1831, he was conferred the first Wollaston Medal by the Society in recognition of his achievements to the new science - all without a formal education in geology! It’s their greatest honor, bestowed by the very institution that denied him membership because of his low social status. Later, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Trinity College in Ireland. This uneducated surveyor rubbed elbows with famous astronomers, naturalists, biologists and geologists. 

    Simon Winchester in his book The Map That Changed the World summed up Smith's map as the work of a lonely genius. He states, "The task required patience, stoicism, the hide of an elephant, the strength of a thousand, and the stamina of an ox. It required a certain kind of vision, an uncanny ability to imagine a world possessed of an additional fourth dimension, a dimension that lurked beneath the purely visible surface phenomena of the length, breadth and height of the countryside, and, because it had never been seen, was ignored by all customary cartography. To see such a hidden dimension, to imagine and extrapolate it from the little evidence that could be found, required almost a magician's mind - as geologists who are good at this sort of thing know only too well today."

    The brilliance of William Smith’s achievement is demonstrated by comparing the accuracy and detail of his maps with the ones used by the Geological Society today and the rest of the world. His creation heralded the beginning of a new science and anointed him as its founding father. As for Dr. William Smith, nothing but goodness, recognition and respect attended the final years of his life.

    February
    The Longitude Problem

    This is a High Dynamic Range photograph

    "The College will the whole world measure;
    Which most impossible conclude,
    And navigation make a pleasure
    By finding out the longitude.
    Every Tarpaulin shall then with ease
    Sayle any ship to the Antipodes."
    Anonymous (circa 1660) from the Ballad of Gresham College 

    On a foggy night in 1707, British Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s celebrated naval career was brought to a tragic end along with the lives of nearly 2,000 sailors, when his warship and three others in the fleet were wrecked on the rocks of the Isles of Scilly, off Great Britain's southwest coast. It was one of the greatest disasters at sea in British history and one of countless shipwrecks befallen to seafaring nations throughout history. The main cause of the British tragedy was the navigators’ inability to accurately determine their position at sea - longitude in particular. In response, Parliament established the Longitude Prize in 1714. The reward was for a "practical and useful" method for the precise determination of a ship’s longitude. The winner would collect £20,000 or roughly 4 million dollars in today’s currency, if accurate within half a degree (30 nautical miles at the equator). It was a large sum to pay for a desperate nation.

    Back in school, we learned that our planet is divided into an imaginary grid. Hula hoop lines of latitude or parallels encircle it horizontally, the largest at the equator, while vertical, equi-length, pole-to-pole lines of longitude or meridians mark locations east or west of the Prime Meridian or 0º longitude. Unlike the equator, the Prime's location is arbitrary and is a universally-accepted reference line whose location has varied historically (Until 1911, the French used a Paris meridian). As of 1851, it runs through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, which is located on a majestic hill overlooking the Thames River, where the above photo was taken looking north. The line is actually slightly to the right, but 500 happy kids were busy straddling the line with one foot in each hemisphere. Used together, latitude and longitude provide every location on our earthly sphere with a global address, and when calculated, indicate one’s whereabouts on a map – an important feat at sea when land is out of sight. If you know where you are, then you know where you're going. Admiral Shovell would surely have agreed.

    One’s latitude is relatively easy to determine. Since ancient times, it was known that a star will consistently reach the same highest point in the sky, which changes with the observer’s latitude. By “sighting” the angle (declination) of the sun at it highest point from the horizon during the day or say the North Star at night, one’s position can be calculated from a table simply by knowing the time of measurement. On the other hand, finding longitude hasn't been so easy. Without it, ships at sea would follow a line of known latitude east or west, turn toward their assumed destination, and then continue on another line of known latitude. This process extended the voyage by days or weeks with increased risk of scurvy, bad weather, lack of potable water, starvation and worse - shipwreck. Another option was dead reckoning by using a predetermined “fix” and advancing that position based upon one’s known speed over time. Navigators threw a long, knotted rope overboard and counted the number of knots let out in a given interval to allow a distance and speed calculation. The process was subject to cumulative errors induced by wind, current and change of course.  

    The longitude problem was viewed by astronomers as requiring a celestial calculation such as by viewing eclipses of Jupiter's moons or our own, which required extensive heavenly observations and complex charts - hence the observatory in Greenwich. Clockmakers, on the other hand, envisioned the problem as requiring a temporal calculation. As expected from such a large reward, there was a myriad of hair-brained solutions such as a fleet of globally-distributed anchored ships that fired position-signalling cannons as longitude locators.

    Ultimately, it was John Harrison, a self-educated English carpenter and clockmaker, who, after over four decades of toil and experimentation, successfully invented a masterpiece of engineering. His H4 (earlier versions were H1 through H3) was a pendulum-less “sea clock” that was unaffected by movement and changes in temperature. At sea, a ship’s captain could, using Harrison’s marine chronometer, calculate longitude by comparing the time on his pocket watch to a constant clock at a predetermined location.  

    Here's how the the concept worked. The Earth makes a complete rotation on its axis every day. If there are 24 hours in a day, one hour of rotation is equivalent to 15º of rotation (360º ÷ 24). Thus, there exists a relationship between time and longitude. If you set your watch to 12:00 noon (not temporal noon but astronomical noon when the sun is highest in the sky at its zenith) at say Greenwich time, and you observe the sun at 4:00 PM at another location, then you’re at longitude 60º W (4 hours x 15º/hour = 60º). Finding local time was relatively easy. The problem was how to determine the time at a distant reference point while onboard a rocking, swaying, storm-tossed deck - an impossible task back in Cloudesley’s day with pendulum-swinging clocks that required a stable surface for accuracy.

    Harrison's H4, which basically looks like an over-sized pocket watch, achieved all that and more - pendulum-less, compact, portable, shipworthy and accurate. Harrison's many timepieces are on display at the Royal Observatory, and as for their inventor, he spent his final years tinkering and experimenting with many timekeeping innovations - a very wealthy man. 

    February
    Plaster of Paris Meets the Father of Comparative Anatomy

    This is a High Dynamic Range photograph


    Built of gleaming white travertine (a redepositional form of limestone), the Basilica of the Sacred Heart radically changed the profile of the once pastoral, hilltop village of Montmartre - located on the northern outskirts of Paris and now an integral part of the city. Beginning in 1875, its 39-year construction was no easy task, since its foundation was literally riddled with subterranean gypsum quarries. 

    Gypsum- an evaporite mineral formed by dehydration in an arid environment - is used in the manufacture of Plaster of Paris by heating it and then reapplying water to get it to harden. It has been excavated from beneath Montmartre from antiquity through the 19th century. Amongst its many decorative and artistic uses, it serves as an effective natural fire retardant on wooden structures, akin to our modern plaster board. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, its use was decreed by French King Louis XIV and literally saved Paris from the destructive fires that ravaged all major European capitals. 

    The gypsum of Montmartre and the limestone of northern France formed within the Paris Basin. It began as an epeiric (shallow inland) sea on the northeastern fringe of Laurentia (the cratonic core of ancestral North America) some 200 million years ago. When the supercontinent of Pangaea fragmented apart beginning in the Late Triassic, the basin (and the new continent of western Europe) was tectonically transported to the Eastern Hemisphere on the Eurasian plate across an ever widening Atlantic Ocean. Once part of northern France, the basin’s sedimentary rocks of limestone and gypsum were deposited some 45 million years ago during the Lutetian Period of the Eocene. 

    Outspoken critics of the Sacre Cour project - not only because of its exotic architecture but its exotic ideology - feared a seismic outcome related to its enormous weight. The architect, who had been commissioned to build his design, thought an immense platform of concrete four meters thick would stabilize the structure over the quarries. Instead, 80 stone pilings were laid down through the lime and clay and deeper through the voids of the quarries until bedrock was struck over 30 meters down. In effect, the foundation of Sacre Cour rests upon stilts like a dock on pilings over water. If an earthquake was to strike Montmartre, after the dust settled some Parisians thought the edifice would remain intact as if floating in air. 

    When you visit Paris or on Google Earth, you can catch a glimpse of the entrance to one the quarries beneath the basilica fenced off on the northern end of rue Ronsard. It was in these very gypsum quarries that the famous French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier excavated Eocene mammalian fossils from the strata in the 1790’s. His investigations led him to the inescapable conclusion that fossils were the remains of animals long-extinct. A lifelong Protestant, he believed that periodic catastrophies had befallen the planet and its lifeforms. That implied God had allowed some of his creations to vanish, a rather blasphemous conclusion against the tenets of the English church and one of the foundations of modern paleontology. Cuvier's contributions and uncanny ability to reconstruct lifeforms from their fragmentary remains led to his appellation as the “Founder of Comparative Anatomy.”

    March
    The Seine's Epic Journey to the Sea



    Four large rivers water France – the Loire, the Seine, the Rhine and the Rhone – linked by a system of interconnecting canals. The second longest is the Seine (pronounced SEN), which begins a 776 kilometer (482 mile) journey to the sea from a modest cluster of springs called the Source de Seine northwest of Dijon. This is the Cote d’Or, literally “golden slope” that arguably produces the best wines (and mustards) in the world. It’s the right combination of climate, soil, and of course, clean water. 

    The Seine flows through a thousand tiny hamlets, fields and woodlands, and halfway to the sea, right through the middle of Paris. It divides the city into its two famous banks - the conservative Left Bank or Rive Gauche and the radical Right Bank or Rive Droite. The Seine is the heart and soul of Paris, where the Parissi tribe first settled and where Romans took residence in their conquest of Gaul in 52 BC. 

    The Seine flows through an enormous geological depression flanked by huge escarpments that began to flood when it was part of an intricate network of inland seas when the Atlantic Ocean was just beginning to open. The supercontinent of Pangaea’s fragmentation sent the Paris Basin adrift on the Eurasian Plate across the Atlantic Ocean, along with a network of interconnecting basins in western Europe. Good thing for France. The River Seine is actually a recent waterform within the ancient trough, having originated when the Pleistocene ice sheet and enumerable alpine glaciers sent their waters to the sea from the highlands that encompass the basin. 

    Twenty-six tributaries later, the estuarine Seine discharges into the ocean, more precisely the English Channel, between the twinports of Honfleur and Havre, seen above through the clouds.

    May
    Blue Skies, Green Water and Red Rocks on the Stove Pipe Trail


    “The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is rock – cliffs of rock; tables of rock; 
    plateaus of rock; terraces of rock; crags of rock – ten thousand strangely carved forms."
    John Wesley Powell, 1875

    Originating in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and skirting the northwest corner of Colorado, the Green River flourishes in Utah in all its glory. It's a 730-mile long, chief tributary of the Colorado River before reaching their confluence at the southern terminus of the Island in the Sky. In northeast Utah, the Green carves its channel over and through fluvial and marine rocks of Cretaceous age - grayish remnants of a vast inland sea that connected then-warm Arctic waters with those of the Gulf of Mexico, yet to form. In southeast Utah, things change dramatically, as the river downcuts through rocks of Jurassic, Triassic, Permian and Pennsylvanian origins.

    This is Canyonlands, where John Wesley Powell in 1869 surveyed, mapped, described and named the landforms on the first of two expeditions to the region. First, through curvy Labyrinth Canyon and then more linear Stillwater Canyon, both appropriately named, the Green River slices its way back in time through confining cliffs of the Jurassic Glen Canyon Group and underlying erodible slopes and ledges of Triassic Chinle and Moenkopi Formations. The strata of these two geologic periods of the Mesozoic tell a tale of widespread Jurassic aridity in western Pangaea and distant Triassic mountain ranges draining across vast floodplains and river systems to the sea.

    Our journey down the Green River - under the leadership of famous geologist Wayne Ranney and the supreme navigational skills of Walker Mackay and his family-run Colorado River and Trail Expeditions or CRATE - rafted us into camp at the foot of the Stove Pipe Trail in Stillwater Canyon, about seven miles upriver from the confluence. 

    To work up an appetite for dinner, we ascended over 1,000 feet through a series of switchbacks and a palette of colors derived from cherty, chalky limestones and dolomites, pale-red sandstones, blue-gray siltstones and thin beds of evaporites of the Elephant Canyon Formation. At the top, where the photo was taken, the white to pale-reddish brown and salmon-colored Cedar Mesa Sandstone comes into view, forming the cliffs and ledges that hold it all up. These Permian strata are derived from the Ancestral Rocky Mountains or, more appropriately, the southwest range of the Uncompahgre Highlands that began their ascent in Pennsylvanian time. As they rose, the inexorable forces of erosion tore them down. Here too was an inland sea represented by the Uncompahgre's flexural trough that persisted with intermittent communications with the ocean and whose dimensions vacillated with the whim of South Polar glaciation an astounding 33 times. To see the strata within the trough, we had to wait for the following day in order to travel further down the Green. 

    Both long gone, the highlands and basin left their signature deposits from Colorado to Utah. Uplift and erosion of the Colorado Plateau have put the finishing touches on the landscape. What's left is a rainbow feast for the eyes!

    June
    Born to Reproduce



    On a glorious Spring afternoon outside of Boston, I exited the train station and began the short walk home. A bright colored object on the ground caught my eye, and, glancing down, I spotted this splendid Cecropia Silkmoth (si-KROH-pee-uh) on the pavement. A little worse for wear, I photographed it with my cellphone. I recognized the creature, having remembered a pinned specimen from sixth grade biology class so long ago. 

    The cecropia is North America’s largest moth and are abundant east of the Rockies, although this specimen is the first I’ve seen outside of class. Females achieve a wingspan of seven inches! The larvae are mostly found largely on maple trees, which squirrels fastidiously dine on. I suspect this is a male, based on the more resplendent morphology of its antennae, having evolved as such for one specific purpose. 

    Born to reproduce, nocturnally-active males lack functional mouthparts and a digestive system, and therefore survive only a few weeks. Unable to resist, males fly miles following the scent plume of wind-born female pheromones, guided by their antennae. Using an adaptive process called chemical mimicry, bolas spiders copy the pheromones produced by cecropia females, in order to lure males into their next meal. Predators and their prey exist up and down the food chain at virtually every level.

    July
    Architectural Geology of Boston – the Oldest Cut Granite Building in America



    "In the love of truth, and the spirit of Jesus Christ,
    We unite for the worship of god and the service of man."
    King's Chapel Covenant

    King’s Chapel in Boston was designed by Peter Harrision of Rhode Island and built in 1754 on the site of a smaller wooden Anglican church, itself built in 1688. It was situated on the public burying ground, because no resident would sell land for a non-Calvinist church. The stone church was constructed around the wooden church, so that the parishioners could continue to practice their faith, and was later disassembled and removed through the windows of the new church. 

    The edifice is a classic example of American Georgian architecture – eponymous for the first three British monarchs of the House of Hanover, all named George in the early 18th and early 19th centuries. Its salient architectural features include a tall, boxy portico surrounded by 12 painted Ionic columns made of wood. The cornice has decorative mouldings and is topped off with a spindled-balustrade that terminates in a flat-roofed tower with four louvered, arched windows. The planned steeple was never built, which gives the church its distinctive "unfinished" look. Directly behind, the chapel has a characteristically four-sided, hipped roof. The Georgian style was big in eastern America, that is until King George III and the American Revolution turned the aesthetic sentiment elsewhere.

    King’s Chapel was originally planned to be of English sandstone but was built with native Quincy Granite. It's the oldest, still-standing granite building in Boston but not the first to utilize granite, having been incorporated into many early foundations and associated structural elements. The blocks of granite demonstrate a patchwork color mix with pockmarked surfaces on the exposed “seam-faces.” 

    The granite's appearance is reflective of the mode of quarrying from boulders scattered about rather than from excavated bedrock. The process involved heating and splitting the granite with heavy iron balls, followed by hammering, chiseling and shaping into stackable units. The "quarry" locale was Quincy (pronounced KWIN-zee), about 10 miles south of Boston. The town is officially called the “City of Presidents” after John Adams and John Quincy Adams, but its nickname is the Granite City. A hundred years later, the use of famous Quincy Granite in construction would become commonplace in Boston, and quarrying the bedrock would become a major commercial enterprise there.

    By the way, in the bowels of King's Chapel is a 200-year old crypt and in the tower is the largest and last bell made by Paul Revere. It's located on the famous Freedom Trail, the red brick line on the pavement in front of the chapel.

    October
    The Granite Railway



    In the face of great opposition to his idea, architect and engineer Solomon Willard traipsed all across New England looking for the perfect stone. His plan, after several architectural modifications, was the construction of a 221-foot tall obelisk out of Quincy Granite - the Bunker Hill Monument - situated in Charleston across the harbor from Boston. By comparison, the Washington Monument - built to commemorate George Washington - was completed in 1884 on the National Mall in Washington, DC, and is the world's tallest stone obelisk at 555 feet. Willard's edifice was built to commemorate the Battle of Bunker Hill, the first major conflict between the British Regulars and the Patriot forces of colonial militiamen in the Revolutionary War fought in 1775. Technically, the monument is not on Bunker Hill but on Breed’s Hill, where most of the fighting in the misnamed Battle of Bunker Hill actually took place.

    In 1825, Willard recognized there was something special about the granite in the hills west of Quincy. It wasn’t its convenience, since the granite still had to be excavated - no easy or safe task back then. It wasn’t its proximity (although that helped), since a lot of varied terrain stood in the way of the granite’s final destination. And it wasn’t the granite’s massivity - not meaning lots of it (which there was) but referring to its consistent homogeneity for aesthetic purposes. 

    It was from Quincy Granite’s unique mineral composition. The high percentage of alkali feldspar, as opposed to the plagioclase variety, affords the rock its dusty gray, greenish tint, aided by its variety of black quartz. Formed from the slow crystallization of magma some 450 million years ago when the micro-terrane of Avalon was in transit to Laurentia, the granite’s characteristic mineral of riebeckite, a brittle prismatic amphibole, allows the rock to achieve a high polish, in addition to its lack of micas. Quincy Granite was the rock that Willard sought - attractive, distinctive, stately, transports well, available, highly polishable and weather-resistant. 

    However, a major obstacle in 1826 was getting multi-ton blocks out of the ground, down from the heights above Quincy and across 12 miles of swamp, forest and farms for construction. After considering an overland route, the solution of how to transport the blocks from the quarry to a dock on the Neponsett River was modeled after English railroads. The idea for the Granite Railway was conceived and became not the first public transportation railroad in the United States but the first purpose-built, commercial railroad. 

    It ran only three miles with wagons pulled by horses, although steam locomotives had been in operation in England for two decades. Wooden and later granite rails on stone crossties were plated with iron. In 1830, a new section of railway called the Incline, seen above, was added to haul granite from the quarry, one of many above town. Wagons and horses moved up and down the 315 foot incline in an endless conveyor belt. From the docks, blocks were loaded on barges that traveled across Boston Harbor. Off-loaded onto ox-drawn carts, the cargo went up a hill at Charleston for construction of the obelisk. The capstone was laid in 1842 at a project cost of $101,680. Interestingly, the monument underwent a 3.7 million dollar renovation in 2007 - the cost of 36 monuments!

    The Incline remained in operation until the 1940’s with metal channels laid over the old granite rails and motor trucks pulled by a cable. In 1871, steam trains carried the granite directly to Boston from the quarries.

    These days, the quarries have been filled in for safety purposes with 12 million tons of dirt from the Big Dig highway project in Boston. In years past, many young persons were injured or killed while swimming and cliff diving into the abandoned quarries that had filled with water. Ironically, the steep quarry walls are used today by organized groups of rock climbers to hone their skills. As for the Granite Railway, it's listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, while the Bunker Hill Monument towers over Charleston across the harbor from Boston proper. You could see it from the quarry, if it wasn’t for the city's tall buildings. The Bunker Hill Monument is managed by the National Park Service and is on Boston’s Freedom Trail. 

    November
    The Bridge that Spans Two Geologic Eras



    Viewed from Upper Manhattan, the George Washington Bridge spans the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. Its footings are secured in two geologic eras. Cross the bridge heading west, and you time-travel from the Late Proterozoic to the Paleozoic. During the Late Triassic, the supercontinent of Pangaea began its fragmentation and newly-evolving dinosaurs were trudging through the mudflats of the Jersey Meadowlands. That epic schism created the continents of our New World and the Atlantic Ocean within the void, while the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates continue to drift apart. 

    During supercontinental breakup, aborted rift basins from the Canadian Maritimes to Georgia developed up and down the margin of North America. In northeastern New Jersey and southeastern New York, the Newark rift basin subsided and listrically tilted as molten mafic rocks injected through the depocenter’s sedimentary strata into black argillites of the Lockatung Formation. The prominent cliff seen above on the western bank of the Hudson represents the eroded edge of that angulated, tabular intrusive sheet – the famed Hudson River Palisades. Its obvious vertical jointing formed when the magma solidified, so spectacularly exposed by the carving of the Hudson Canyon during the last Ice Age. 

    The Palisades was threatened by quarrying in the early 20th century, when J.P. Morgan, American financier, banker, philanthropist and art collector, purchased twelve miles of New Jersey shoreline. On the east side of the river in Washington Heights, John D. Rockefeller, American business magnate and philanthropist, acquired the land of Fort Tyron and the Cloisters, where this photo was taken. 

    Thankfully, the natural beauty of the Palisades cliffs rising above the west bank of the Hudson has long been appreciated by generations of residents and visitors to the metropolitan area. But now, LG Electronics, a South Korean multinational electronics corporation, is planning to build an office tower that will rise high above the trees, and for the first time, violate the unspoiled ridgeline. Interested in preserving the Hudson River Palisades? Visit “Protect the Palisades” here.

    That's all folks. Thanks for following my blog! Happy New Year!

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    "At first it may seem to be a piddly little dribble through the farmlands and forests of rural New Jersey, 
    but careful observation shows Monmouth County's Big Brook 
    to be glass-bottomed boat sailing through a Late Cretaceous sea busy with life.” 
    From the New York Paleontological Society Field Guide, 2002


    Big Brook at a slightly high water level as seen from the Hillsdale Road bridge facing east



    A WINDOW INTO A LATE CRETACEOUS CONTINENTAL SHELF
    Step into the waters of this very ordinary-looking brook, and you’ll go back in time to North America’s continental shelf only a few million years before the Great Extinction that ended the Age of the Dinosaurs. In its lazy and short course to the Atlantic, Big Brook has carved a shallow, curvy trough through New Jersey's Inner Coastal Plain through the upper sediments of a Late Cretaceous paleoshelf. In so doing, weathering of the streambank provides a steady supply of fossils that are washed into the streambed.

    Big Brook is one of the East Coast’s classic fossil-collecting localities with both amateurs and professionals alike. As early as 1863, the Smithsonian Institute in New York sent an expedition to explore and gather fossils from the brook and others within Monmouth County. Less widely appreciated amongst amateurs is that the strata through which Big Brook transects preserves an outstanding sedimentological record of the transition from an inner to an outer shelf environment during the Late Cretaceous as sea level rose.  

    APALEONTOLOGICAL GRAB BAG
    Although rare, be on the lookout for fragmented, water-worn dinosaur bones and teeth - hadrosaurs, theropods, ankylosaurs and ornithomimids - from the Late Cretaceous terrestrial shoreline to the west. Add to the mix, Pleistocene mammalian remains of mastodon, sloth, beaver and horse. From the Holocene, there's even an occasional Native American Lenni-Lenape arrowhead from the surrounding countryside and a coral from Paleozoic tropical seas entrapped within the Appalachian orogen that was transported to the area fluvially or via glacial outwash.
      


    A Late Cretaceous terrestrial fauna similar in some respects to eastern North America
    From National Geographic


    But by far, the big attraction is teeth from Late Cretaceous chondrichthyans (shark, rays and skates) and, less often, osteichthyans (bony fish) and large marine reptiles (mosasaurs, turtles and plesiosaurs). 


    The Late Cretaceous marine ecosystem teemed with life. 
    From NHNaturalHistory.org 

    In addition, abundant macro-invertebrate remains include brachiopods, bryozoans and molluscs (bivalves such as oysters, snails, belemnites and ammonites) and disarticulated arthropod carapaces and claws (lobster, crab and shrimp), all from the Late Cretaceous shelf ecosystem. 


    The shelf's benthic and demersal zone was rich and diverse with brachiopods, bryozoans, molluscs and arthropods.
    From Matthew McCullough on Flickr and license here.


    WHERE ARE WE?
    Big Brook is barely 50 miles south of New York City via the Garden State Parkway off exit 109 west. The brook winds its way through the rural New Jersey hamlets of Colts Neck and Marlboro to the Navesink River near the borough of Red Bank, and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean. Besides Big Brook, other nearby fossil-bearing tributaries include Poricy Brook in Middletown Township, Ramanessin Brook in Holmdel and Shark River (Eocene and Miocene) in Neptune and Wall Townships. They're all located in gentrified and well-healed Monmouth County, which is in the top 1.2% of counties by wealth in the United States. The County's website advertises itself as the "Gateway to the Jersey Shore", while locals know it as Springsteen country (“…sprung from cages on highway nine…”). 



    The arrow points to the location of Big Brook within Monmouth County.
    Modified from Roadside Geology of New Jersey



    BIG PICTURE TECTONIC STUFF
    Some sixty-seven million years ago, this lazy, oak-shaded stream and the surrounding countryside were a tiny submerged section of the newly-formed, Atlantic continental shelf. During the Late Cretaceous, global high seas drowned the shelf that now represents the broad, low relief of the Atlantic Coastal Plain through which Big Brook flows. But the geological story of the plain begins well before the Cretaceous. 

    Paleozoic tectonic convergence...
    Beginning in the early Paleozoic, Laurentia - the rifted megacontinental sibling of the Late Proterozoic supercontinent of Rodinia - was converged upon by a procession of magmatic arcs, micro-continents and megacontinents and their intervening ocean basins. 

    Birth of Pangaea...
    In a parade of orogenic events, they accreted to Laurentia's growing ancestral core - building mountains and adding crust with each collision. By the Pennsylvanian Period of the Paleozoic (below), their cumulative convergence had constructed the supercontinent of Pangaea and built a massive, centrally-located mountainous spine. By the Late Permian at the close of the Paleozoic, the mountains had been ravaged by erosion.



    Subsequent to the collision of Gondwana (the other megacontinental sibling of Rodinia) with equatorially-positioned Laurentia in the Middle Pennsylvanian, Monmouth County is nestled somewhere within the lofty peaks of the Appalachians. The supercontinent of Pangaea is fully formed and awaits its imminent fragmentation.
    Modified from Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems. Inc.


    Demise of Pangaea...
    In the Late Triassic, Pangaea’s fragmentation began. As the Atlantic Ocean began to open within the schism, the remnants of Pangaea's central mountainous spine began to fragment as well. A portion remained astride the Atlantic Coast in newly-formed eastern North America - today's Appalachians - while other remnants were carried across the globe on the backs of Pangaea's rifted siblings. Pangaea's breakup also endowed North America (and of course New Jersey) with a new passive shoreline characterized by seismic and volcanic inactivity, and most importantly, subsidence and sedimentation. 

    Subsidence and sedimentation of the Atlantic margin...
    Beginning probably during Jurassic time, lithospheric cooling of North America's newly-formed passive margin, in concert with the weight of voluminous sedimentation, promoted rapid subsidence and provided a vast accommodation space for the accumulation of clastic erosive products. With subsidence, the Atlantic margin was broken into a series of faulted-blocks, which experienced differential movements. 

    Downward movement created embayments - deep indentations of the ancient shoreline in which sediments accumulated in greater thicknesses in greater water depths. Upward movement created structural highs, arches or uplifts - with thinner sequences and even the absence of deposition. One such coastal geo-indentation that would become a portion of the Coastal Plain - the Raritan embayment - influenced sedimentation in New Jersey between Staten Island at the western end of Long Island and Jersey's northern Coastal Plain.  


    Map showing the outline of the Atlantic Coastal Plain and major structural elements that persist on North America's modern coast line. In particular, the Raritan Embayment between is encircled.
    Modified from Summary of Lithostratigraphy and Biostratigraphy of the Atlantic Coast by Ollson


    Formation of the Atlantic Coastal Plain...
    Concomitant with crustal cooling and subsidence, deposition in the coastal plain began in earnest in the Early Cretaceous with fluvial sedimentation from the highlands of the Appalachians. However, in the Late Cretaceous (below), marine incursions representative of global high seas flooded low-lying regions of the world that included the newly-formed, low-lying Atlantic coast.

    Progressing from the shoreline seaward, gravel and sand on the inner continental shelf gave way to silt and clay, and, in progressively deeper water, glauconitic sand and silt. The deposits record a progressive but discontinuous and fluctuating rise in sea level - perhaps four in Late Cretaceous time and three in the Cenozoic. Thus, the landform of the Atlantic Coastal Plain gradually developed, representative of some 150 million years of sedimentation.

    Of course, the flood waters of the Cretaceous have receded exposing the broad Coastal Plain on the eastern seaboard. Although global seas continued to vacillate, erosion became the dominant geological process through the Tertiary. Ice Age glaciers made it to northern New Jersey but not to the south, while the Coastal Plain continued to receive a thin and varied veneer of colluvial and alluvial Quaternary and Holocene debris. Today, the modern shoreline is 10 miles to the east of Big Brook as it lethargically dissects its way to the sea through Late Cretaceous sediments. 


    With Pangaea fragmented apart, the Late Cretaceous witnessed the initiation of the development of the ecosystem of Monmouth County (red dot) on the submerged Atlantic Coastal Plain (light blue). The Atlantic Ocean has opened between the north and south, and is actively spreading. Note the Mid-Atlantic spreading center (light blue) along the line of tectonic divergence. The Western Interior Seaway in central North America is about to become confluent between the waters of the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico.
    Modified from Ron Blakey and Colorado Plateau Geosystems. Inc.



    A COLORFUL TAPESTRY OF TERRAIN AND TIME
    The Paleozoic collisions that assembled North America formed geomorphic provinces that are seen in the colorful mosaic of the Tapestry of Terrain and Time map by the USGS here. The yellow and tan Cretaceous and Cenozoic deposits of New Jersey (within the ellipse) illustrates the extent of the Coastal Plain within the state, which is continuous with that of the entire Atlantic and Gulf Coasts from Cape Cod and Long Island, through northern Jersey at Sandy Hook to southern New Jersey at Cape May, and down to Florida and around to the Gulf of Mexico. Let's take a closer look at the provinces of New Jersey.



    The geomorphic provinces of Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic North America with New Jersey encircled. 
    Modified from the USGS Tapestry of Time bedrock map located here.



    NEW JERSEY’S GEOMORPHIC PROVINCES
    For an area its size, New Jersey has a diverse geological history. From west to east, from the mountains to the sea, and across the multitude of orogens that formed eastern North America, New Jersey’s main geological subdivisions or provinces are the Valley and Ridge, the Highlands (equivalent to the familiar Blue Ridge down south), the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain

    By definition, the four geomorphic or physiographic regions are each unique as to relief, landforms and geology. Being inherited subsequent to the tectonic collisions that occurred throughout the Paleozoic, they're on strike from northeast to southwest in accordance with the direction of tectonic convergence. A fifth smaller province - in accordance with tectonic divergence - is the Newark Basin (green and red), which lies interposed within the Piedmont. It's a sediment-filled rift-basin, one of many along the east coast that formed during the initial stages of Atlantic opening in the Late Triassic and Jurassic.



    Geologic Bedrock Map and Physiographic Provinces of New Jersey
    The region of Big Brook within the Atlantic's Inner Coastal Plain is located at the red dot.
    Modified from the Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Science, Geological Survey, 1999



    THE COASTAL PLAIN
    The Coastal Plain Province is relatively featureless, save a few gently undulating hills, and overlaps the rocks of the Piedmont Province to the west. It covers the entire lower half of New Jersey (see above map), dipping seaward from 10 to 60 feet per mile to the the southeast and extending beneath the Atlantic Ocean to the edge of the Continental Shelf at the Baltimore Canyon Trough. Its unconsolidated and compacted (but not cemented) sediments range in age from the Cretaceous to the Miocene. The composition of its bedrock and fossils confirms that it was submerged by Late Cretaceous high seas. 



    This west to east cross-section through the modern Coastal Plain and continental shelf illustrates the increasingly deep seaward-facing wedge of sediments that extends from a feather edge at the Fall Line of the Piedmont to the sea, where it's over a mile thick.
    From the USGS and the Roadside Geology of New Jersey


    THE INNER AND OUTER REGIONS OF THE COASTAL PLAIN 
    The Coastal Plain is further subdivided into two regions. Because it was uplifted, weathered and dissected, the Inner Coastal Plain is higher in altitude than the Outer Plain but not by much. Its composition is largely a mix of quartz sand, glauconitic sand, silt and clay. This fertile agricultural zone gave rise to New Jersey’s nickname as the Garden State. It's also the location of Big Brook within Monmouth County. The Outer Plain is a region of lower altitude where low-relief terraces are bounded by subtle erosional scarps. It consists of Tertiary and Quaternary sand, and being acidic and less fertile, is the location of Jersey’s heavily forested cedar swamps and pine-scrub oak of the Pine Barrens. 

    THE MONMOUTH GROUP 
    As mentioned, in the Early Cretaceous the Coastal Plain region of New Jersey received deltaic and floodplain-derived (non-marine) sediments from the Appalachian highlands to the west. In the Late Cretaceous and into the early Paleocene, sea levels rose and flooded the coastal region in a series of transgressions over land and regressions back again. Layer after layer, sequence after sequence (packages of strata deposited during a single cycle of sea level rise and fall), sediments of the sea were laid down beginning with the earliest Late Cretaceous Raritan Bass River Formation upon the latest Early Cretaceous fluvial Potomac Formation (chart below). 

    In the late Late Cretaceous - from the Campanian into the Maastrichtian - the Monmouth Group, the state's youngest Cretaceous package, was laid down - a unit that is compacted but unlithified. New Jersey's Monmouth Group includes the basal Mount Laurel sand (5-60 feet thick), the transgressive marl of the Navesink (25-60 feet thick), the regressive silt and sand of the Redbank Formation (thin film to 100 feet thick) and the Tinton Formation's coarse quartzose and glaucontic sand (20-40 feet thick). 



    As the sea transgressed and regressed, shorelines moved accordingly. Existing sediments were eroded, reworked and redeposited, leaving behind unconformities. Breaks between sequences were punctuated by lag deposits or "shell beds." The great majority of fossils at Big Brook such as within the Navesink Formation, which we will visit, were eroded from lag deposits and released into the streambed. They were deposited within the neritic zone - the relatively shallow waters of the ocean from the littoral zone (closest to the shore) to the drop-off at the edge of the continental shelf. 






    STRATIGRAPHY OF BIG BROOK
    Big Brook's journey to the sea, has excavated a channel into the Inner Coastal Plain. It cut through the Red Bank Formation's Sandy Hook Member (Krsh), through the Navesink Formation (Kns) and underlying Mount Laurel Formation (Kml), and in some areas, into the Wenonah Formation (Kw) - all deposits of the vacillating Late Cretaceous sea. You can find the complete map of the Freehold and Marlboro Quadrangles here. For orientation, the red arrow marks the location of the car park on the north side of the Hillsdale Road bridge. 


    This map depicts the channel of Big Brook. The red arrow points to the car park on the north side of the Hillsdale Road bridge.
    Modified from the Bedrock Geologic Map of the Freehold and Marlboro Quadrangles, New Jersey, 1996.


    TWO PORTALS TO BIG BROOK
    Two unmarked bridges are your portals to Big Brook- one on Boundary Road and the other on neighboring Hillsdale Road just east. On the north side of the Hillsdale Road bridge is a designated car park, while parking is on the street just south of the Boundary Road bridge (as of this writing). The photographs taken and fossils displayed in this post were from four visits to Big Brook on the east side of the Hillsdale Road Bridge. 

    The countryside through which Big Brook flows is peppered with residential settlements, horse farms and wineries that are either private or post no trespassing. Big Brook's banks are private as well and off limits to excavation. They're dangerous too, since they are unconsolidated and slump and collapse with little provocation, especially by overzealous excavators. But the streambed is fair game. The only caveat is that on a nice summer day you may have to share it with a paleontologist, a geologist, a scout troop and a fossil club - all after the same piece of time.


    The bucolic Hillsdale Road bridge over Big Brook facing south



    YOUR FOSSIL-FORAGING ARMAMENTARIUM
    To extract the fossil bounty at Big Brook Preserve, no geological hammers and chisels are necessary owing to the unconsolidated nature of the bedrock. In fact, they're prohibited by a posted Colts Neck Township ordinance in order to preserve the resource and minimize over-collecting. All you'll need are a pair of Wellies or suitable waders (there's some broken glass so don't go barefoot), and equip yourself with a garden trowel (with a maximum blade length of 6") and a small, homemade sifting-screen (no greater than 18” x 18”). I borrowed a kitchen colander from home. 




    OFFICIAL RULES AND POLICIES
    The Department of Recreation and Parks of the Township of Colts Neck has determined that "there is an increasing need for the preservation of the many natural resources located within Big Brook Preserve. It has been observed that natural resources such as fossils have been taken from the park in large quantities. It has also been observed that certain other dangerous conditions continue to threaten the natural beauty, assets and environmental resources within Big Brook Park." 

    Therefore, "Fossil extraction is prohibited from the walls of the streambed above the stream waterline", and "No person may harvest more than five fossils per day." With all that in mind, you’re ready to “beachcomb” at Big Brook, panning and sifting for treasures buried within the streambed.





    INTO THE WOODS
    After parking your car in the designated area, assemble your regalia, and follow the short footpath through the woods on Late Cretaceous Navesink soil. You can make out the brook's shallow, shady trough running from right to left. I've been to Big Brook many times over the years and haven't seen one mosquito or tick. Having said that, come prepared! 


    The short path through the woods to Big Brook


    STEP INTO THE BROOK AND GO BACK IN TIME
    Slide down the vegetated slope to the brook, and step back in time into the continental shelf. The deposition rate of the Navesink has been estimated to be about a meter in a million years, so from the footpath to the streamline, you're back about 2 million years. You can wade through the brook upstream (west) to the Boundary Road bridge about a half-mile or go downstream for a quarter-mile or so.


    The Hillsdale Road bridge seen from Big Brook. 
    The water level is somewhat high here, so the mudflats would be the best option for fossil-foraging.


    TIME TO GET WET AND MUDDY
    Within the brook's oak-shaded world, things become quiet and peaceful with gurgling waters, chirping birds, occasional hawks cruising overhead and gentle breezes wafting down from above. Only the occasional car flying across the bridge will remind you of the civilization that surrounds you. 

    Many collectors choose to visit Big Brook in the Spring or after a heavy rain, thinking that new runoff refreshes the fossils that weather in from the banks. Others say it makes no difference. Cobbles and fossils tend to aggregate in horizons, so many collectors focus on sieving there. 

    If the brook is at high water and the bed is totally flooded, it's safest not to enter, besides, hunting for fossils will be extremely difficult and unproductive. Trees and large limbs that have fallen across the brook add a measure of challenge to negotiating the stream, especially if the current is swift and you're forced to the center of the channel.


    Seen here at high water, the brook's bed, gravel bars and mudflats are less accessible for foraging. 

    Wade and trudge around until you've found a "good" spot, be it a mudflat or gravel bar, or simply excavate directly into the streambed. Just don't disturb off-limit streambanks. Although highly fossiliferous and tempting, once again, they are unstable. Groundwater near the base of exposures is under artesian pressure and continually discharging from small seeps and springs that undermine the cliff-face provoked by the slightest excavation - historically a potentially fatal mistake.

    STREAMCUTS IN THE NAVESINK
    The stretch of brook east of the Hillsdale Road bridge is largely within the Navesink Formation, while portions of the bed are in the Mount Laurel and deeper Wenonah. The age of the Navesink has been estimated to range from about 70 million years at the base of the formation to about 66 million years at the top, almost at the end of the Mesozoic. 

    By the way, above the Tinton Formation of the Monmouth Group, the K-T boundary between the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Cenozoic ("T" stands for Tertiary) has been identified in test borings beneath the Outer Coastal Plain and at Inversand Mine in the town of Sewell within the Inner Coastal Plain on the western part of the state across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.





    The Navesink is a transgressive interval in the last of six depositional cycles of changing sea levels coupled with subsidence that includes the overlying Red Bank formation. An idealized cycle includes a basal glauconitic unit (of massive flooding and maxiumum faunal diversity), a superjacent clay or silt surface (representing the highstand tract deposited in shallower water than the previous tract), and a sandy unit (that may contain a lowstand tract at the top). The sequence of lower glauconite sand, middle clay-silt and an upper quartz sand was repeated some four or five times on the plain's inner to mid-shelf in the Late Cretaceous.

    Glauconite sands of New Jersey...
    The Navesink is a massively bedded, olive-gray, olive-black and dark greenish-black clayey, glauconite sand unit - also called greensand or marl - that is compacted but unlithified. Glauconite is an iron-rich mica (iron potassium phyllosilicate) that forms diagenetically at the sediment-water interface on the continental shelf from clay minerals during prolonged intervals of sediment starvation. Glauconite is not confined solely to the Navesink but is found in most of the Late Cretaceous formations within the Inner Coastal Plain. 

    Geologic bedrock map of Late Cretaceous and Paleogene Formations of New Jersey's Inner Coastal Plain
    Modified from Zehdra Allen-Lafayette


    The coastal plain's glauconite beds are not only highly fossiliferous but, being nutrient-rich and holding water, were widely mined as fertilizer in the 19th century. In fact, the duck-billed dinosaur Hadrosaurus foulkii was discovered in an old marl fertilizer pit in Haddonfield, New Jersey, in 1858. It was the first almost complete dinosaur skeleton discovered in the United States and is now the New Jersey state fossil. The hadrosaur, being terrestrial as all dinosaurs, was thought to have been carried to the plain's former marine environment via a "bloat and bloat" or "fluvial-flood carried" scenario. The time-frame and curious marine burial are reminiscent of the therizinosaur Nothronychus graffami in Big Water, Utah. You can read about it in my post here.  

    Highly fossiliferous and bioturbinated...
    Big Brook's banks provide an excellent opportunity to inspect a portion of the Navesink in cross-section down to the streamline. Above the Navesink are fossil-depauperate sands of the Red Bank Formation, stained red by iron oxide. Within the Navesink are quartz-rich sand layers and sand-filled burrows containing granules, black phosphate pebbles and small lignite fragments. Unseen are planktonic microfossils (such as Globotrucana gansseri and Lithraphidites quadratus), and, to the unaided eye, disarticulated macrofossil horizons of bivalves

    The latter form lag deposits exposed within the streamcut that are traceable for some distance. Lag deposits are common in the Late Cretaceous of North America and represent complex taphonomic histories that include multiple episodes of exhumation and reburial associated with sea level cyclicity. Although a work in progress, four or more distinct facies within the Navesink have been identified using these litho- and biofacies horizons that correlate to sequence boundaries and unconformities.  


    Standing directly in Big Brook's stream, this cut bank is within the Navesink Formation with a portion of the overlying Red Bank Formation. The voids are where large clusters of bivalves have avulsed (or were excavated) from the glauconitic matrix. 


    Iron-rich mineral seeps help to identify bedding interfaces. Note the myriad of overlapping vertical and horizontal burrows exposed within the bank. The extensive infaunal bioturbination is very evident. Not one visitor to Big Brook that I've seen has taken the time to study the streamcuts through the Navesink. There's a great story to be told in the banks, not just by what's washed into the bed!


    Close-up of a heavily bioturbinated and water-saturated Navesink bank with an iron-rich mineral seep.


    FROM STREAMBANK TO STREAMBED - THE FOSSILS OF BIG BROOK
    The fossil fauna of Big Brook is in keeping with a thriving shelf environment. The following is a small sample of its bounty discovered on four visits to the brook east of the Hillsdale Bridge. 

    It's easy to overlook small fossils from the brook's mud and gravel bed, especially tiny shark and fish teeth, some of which are a barely 2 mm in diameter. The screen affords an opportunity to patiently inspect your excavated sample. Note the camouflaged remnants of a Gyrphaed scallop shell, a Cephalopal belemnite rostrum and a Squalicorax shark tooth below.


    A gravel bar alongside the streambed of Big Brook


    SCAPANORHYNCHUS
    Unquestionably, the major attraction at Big Brook is shark teeth, and there are many varieties to be found. To the geologically-uninitiated, they appear incongruous to the modern landscape. Their abundance is a testimony to the richness of the Late Cretaceous ecosystem. 

    Shark teeth are well preserved, whereas their skeletal remains being cartilaginous are not, with the exception of an occasional vertebral centrum. All the dental specimens, particularly the radicular structures, being less calcified and more porous, are stained by iron derived from the host sediment. Some permineralization of the teeth has occurred during burial, fossilization and diagenesis (alteration induced by chemical and physical processes mediated by water and stopping short of metamorphism). 

    Scapanorhynchus ("spade-snout") is an extinct genus of shark from the Cretaceous. Often referred to as the anatomically similar goblin shark, which is distinct enough to have been placed within its own genus, Scapanorhychus had an elongated and flattened snout with awl-shaped teeth suited for tearing flesh and seizing fish. 

    S. texanus is the species that frequented the Atlantic shelf in the Late Cretaceous. The 35 mm long anterior tooth (below) is sigmoidal in shape viewed from a lateral aspect with prominent striations running from the root to the apex of the crown. It has a bulbous lingual cingulum (facing the viewer) between the furcation of the two roots, which have a prominent length. Two small, opposing cusplets are variably found on anteriors at the cemento-enamel junction (where the crown meets the root), while posterior teeth exhibit heterodontic variability, although shark teeth are generally homodontic - of the same or similar morphology.


    A 35 mm long Scapanorhynchus anterior tooth



    ARCHAEOLAMNA - CRETOLAMNA (?) AND SQUALICORAX
    Some degree of difficulty can exist in identifying shark teeth from Archaeolamna kopingensis from Cretlamna appendiculata (lower left below). Likely the latter, both genera have teeth that are robust with heavy, triangular side cusps and a thick, bi-lobate root with a deep U-shaped furcation.

    Squalicorax (lower right) is a genus of an extinct Cretaceous lamniform shark related to the Great White and Goblin sharks. Its blade-like teeth possess a distinctively curved and serrated crown with a prominent notch on the mesial aspect. Its bi-lobate roots are separated by a shallow furca. Squalicorax ("crow-shark") was both a coastal predator and scavanger, as evidenced by teeth having been found embedded within the metatarsal of a hadrosaur, obviously non-marine indigenous. The species is likely S. kaupi.


    Shark teeth from Archaeolamna-Cretolamna (?) and Squalicorax


    Here are a few more examples of the many shark and fish teeth found at Big Brook. The abbreviated radicular length assists in the exfoliation of teeth under stress, which are replaced within a week by a seemingly endless supply of unerupted teeth. With the assumedly large number of sharks feeding on the shelf in the Late Cretaceous, this accounts for the large number and diversity of teeth recovered from Big Brook. Many of the bones recovered from the seafloor show fossil evidence of shark predation and scavenging and bear the distinctive teeth marks of Squalicorax's serrations. Likewise, many serrations and cusp tips of shark teeth exhibit signs of wear and chipping related to lifestyle and behavior.


    Top Row: Squalicorax, Odontaspis, Archaeolamna and Scapanorhynchus.
    Bottom Row: Two Squalicorax, Four unidentified and Enchodus.  

    On the left is one-third of a vertebral centrum of a shark with its characteristic concentric rings and saucer-like depressed center. On the right is possibly a vertebral centrum of a ray, also a chondrichthyan. 

    Vertebral centra from a shark and a ray


    Enchodus (upper right tooth above) is an extinct genus of small to medium-size bony fish in the Late Cretaceous. Thought to be a highly predatory species, it possessed fang-like teeth in the anterior, more conventional posterior teeth and a compliment of palatine teeth as well.



    BELEMNITIDA
    First appearing in the Jurassic, belemnites are Mesozoic molluscs and members of an extinct order of the class Cephalopoda ("head-foot") that superficially appear squid-like. They possessed 10 equi-length arms studded with small inward-curving hooks used for grasping prey but lacked the pair of specialized tentacles present in modern squid. Uniquely, they possessed hard internal skeletons (below) - not hydroxylapatite of phosphatic bone - composed of calcium carbonate (calcite) in the form of a bullet-shaped rostrum or "guard." 

    Located on the posterior aspect and often mistakenly assumed to be anterior for propulsion through water, the rostrum (diagram) was attached to a chambered, conical shell called a phragmocone, and that to the tentacular head of the cephalopod. Based on the behavior of extant lifeforms, it is assumed that belemnites were powerful swimmers and active predators. 

    The rostra found at Big Brook are plentiful and easy to spot but generally fragmented. Close inspection of a rostrum in cross-section shows its internal structure to be of non-uniform, radiating concentric crystallites that are interpreted as growth rings. Early colonists suspected they formed when lighting bolts struck the ground, hence they are referred to as "thunderbolts." Locals refer to them as "bullets."


    Calcitic rostra from belemnites

    Diagram of a belemnite from ukfossils.co.uk


    EXOGYRA
    Exogyra is an extinct genus of saltwater oyster, a common marine bivalve mollusc, that lived in great abundance within the benthic zone (just above, at and below the sediment surface) of the warm Cretaceous sea. Five species have been reported from New Jersey (C. cancellata, C. costata, C. erraticostata, C. spinifera and C. ponderosa), some of which are found at Big Brook. Exogyra and pycnodonte oysters are preserved in great numbers within the Navesink Formation's muddy glauconitic sands of Big Brook, typical of an outer shelf environment. Assemblages of the bivalves Exogyra, Pycnodonte and Agerostrea form biofacies horizons within the Navesink.  





    PYCNODONTE MUTABILIS WITH CLIONA CRETACICA BORINGS AND EXOGYRA

    Another extinct Cretaceous saltwater oyster in the same family as exogyra, Pycnodonte is also a bivalve that is well represented at Big Brook. Many of the upper valves (referred to as "left") preserve the original shell coloration in the form of reddish brown radial bands, which are often discontinuous or offset indicating growth lines. The upper valve is strongly convex with concentric growth rings. Pycnodonte can reach up to 10 cm across.

    Many modern oysters fall victim to predation from crustaceans such as lobsters and crabs, and gastropods. The oyster might survive the invasive attempts by continually accreting new shell layers. Back in the Cretaceous, the predatory sponge Cliona cretacica created trace holes by boring into Pycnodonte's shell (lower left). The shell on the right is the lower (or "right") valve of Exogyra.




    AGEROSTREA MESENTERICA
    Also an extinct genus of Late Cretaceous fossil oyster, this bivalve was prominent within the Navesink beds. It's semilunar shape and highly recognizable scalloped edge are characteristic. Along with Pycnodonte, it served as a biofacies assemblage horizon. 




    INOCERAMUS
    Inoceramus ("strong-pot") is also an extinct species of bivalve, a saltwater clam that resembles an extant oyster. It had a worldwide distribution during the Cretaceous that included the Western Interior Sea way as well as coastal regions, the Atlantic included. Its prisms of calcite confirmed it with its typical pearly luster. Inoceramus, along with the bivalves previously mentioned, are found in lag deposits that weather into the brook and provide biostratigraphic facies recognition.




    CARAPACES, PINCERS AND CLAWS
    Common to the Late Cretaceous shelf's ecosystem were various arthropodal crustaceans - lobsters, crabs and shrimp - that left fragmented remains of their dorsal exoskeletal carapaces, pincers and claws. Many of the specimens may be molts rather than the remains of the parent lifeform.

    The claws of the callianassid crustacean Callianassa are often preserved within infaunal burrows and, to the astute observer, can occasionally be spotted in situ within the stream banks. Many coprolites (fecal pellets) bear a striking resemblance to exoskeletal remains in terms of glossiness, black color and similarity in shape. Exoskeletons often possess a marked symmetry, have sutures between fused segments and have surface rugosities distinctive of arthropods (bottom row, far right). 


    Top row are artifacts; bottom row are remnants of crustacean carapaces and claws.


    ICHNOFOSSILS
    Typical of a coastal shelf ecosystem, many invertebrates such as worms, digging bivalves and shrimp plied the seafloor and burrowed into the shelf's sand and mud seeking food and protection from predators. Callianassa is a genus of "mud" or "ghost" shrimp common to the shelf fauna that reinforced their burrows with fecal pellets to prevent collapse. In time, the burrows filled in with sand and became iron-cemented, which is what I believe are demonstrated below. The pointed specimen at the right is a belemnite guard. 

    Trace fossils such as this - also called ichnofossils - are geological records of biological activity. They are impressions created on the surface and tunneled into the substrate of the seafloor. Ophiomorpha is a trace fossil classification or ichnotaxon of a burrowing organism in a near-shore environment. Callianassa is considered to be the best-known modern analog for this burrow. Trace fossils also include the organic digestive fecal remains or coprolites left behind by lifeforms, which are also found at Big Brook. 




    I suspect that the following specimen, displayed from three perspectives, is a cross-section of a small sand-lined burrow - a remnant of a marine organism that lived on and within the seafloor. On the left, a small circular entry on the seafloor leads to the burrow; the middle photo shows the lobate burrow from below; and on the right, the sandy substrate and burrow are visible from a lateral perspective. Other interpretations of this specimen are welcomed.




    Artifact or ichnofossil? The following specimens were extracted from Big Brook's streambed. The specimen on the left appears to contain an anastomosing network of iron-cemented burrows enveloping an oyster shell. On the right, a small section of cemented quart sand is enveloped by a similar burrow with extensive, irregular branching. Other interpretations?




    Note the morphological similarities of Ophiomorpha from the Upper Cretaceous Blackhawk Formation of Utah to the burrows found at Big Brook.
    From envs.emory.edu/faculty/MARTIN/ichnology/Ophiomorpha.htm


    IRON-INFUSED CONCRETIONS
    There are many specimens or artifacts at Big Brook that defy any attempt at identification. Iron within the Navesink can cement the clayey and sandy substrate together into strangely shaped concretions. Often the result is a "fossil" that is totally inexplicable, many with curious symmetrical holes running entirely through them. Some resemble vertebral centra with small foramina, and others appear as if man made. Again, any other interpretations?




    Here's the belemnite rostrum (pictured above) that has begun to acquire a surface coating of gravelly iron-cemented material. One can envision, that once totally encrusted, it might defy identification unless visualized in cross-section.




    CONTEMPORARY SUBSTRATE BURROWING
    Unnoticed by a passing deer (and most of the visitors that come to the area), the mudflats of Big Brook are typically criss-crossed by a maze of horizontal burrows. The latter is reminiscent of the coastal shelf some 70 million years ago. 

    Note that burrowing of marine substrates was not unique to the Cretaceous. Horizontal and vertical burrowing has been going on throughout the Phanerozoic beginning in the Cambrian with the Burgess Shale type-biota. In the latest Precambrian, largely horizontal mining of benthic surfaces has been identified amongst the Ediacaran biota. It is believed that vertical subsurface excavation (whether for protection or to feed) in the Cambrian reworked the seafloor to the extent that it disrupted the cyanobacterial mat to which the Ediacara biota attached and thrived. With the coming of the "substrate" or "agronomic revolution", it is thought that might have led to their demise.  


    A heavily bioturbinated and deer-trampled mudflat alongside Big Brook


    Most assuredly, there's a lot to experience and comprehend in the "piddly little dribble" of Big Brook.

    OUTSTANDING SOURCES OF GEOLOGICAL AND PALEONTOLOGICAL INFORMATION
    Bedrock Geologic Map of Central and Southern New Jersey by James P. Owens et al, 1998.
    Bedrock Geologic Map of of the Freehold and Marlboro Quadrangles, Middlesex and Monmouth Counties, New Jersey by Peter J. Sugarman and James P. Owens, 1996.
    • Big and Ramanessin Brooks by the New York Paleontological Society, Field Trip 2002. 
    Callainassid, Burrowing Bivalve, and Gryphaeid Oyster Biofacies in the Upper Cretaceous Navesink Formation, Central New Jersey: Paleoecological Implications and Sedimentological Implications by J.B. Bennington et al, Department of Biology, Hofstra University.
    • Cretaceous Fossils of New Jersey - Part I by Horace G. Richards et al, 1958.
    Cretaceous Stratigraphy of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, Atlantic Highlands of New Jersey by Richard L. Ollson, Department of Geological Sciences, Rutgers University, GSA Centenial Field Guide-Northeastern Section, 1987.
    Geology Map of New Jersey, Department of Environmental Protection, Geological Survey, 1999.
    • Greensand and Greensand Soils of New Jersey: A Review by J.C.F. Tedrow, 2002.
    • New York Paleontological Society. Established in 1970, individual and family memberships are open to all, regardless of education or previous experience, It's a fantastic way to visit Big Brook and many other fossil-collecting localities in the Northeast with an enthusiastic and well-informed group of amateurs and professionals. Meetings are held in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and includes an outstanding newsletter. Visit them here to join. Yes, I am a member.
    • Paleocommunities and Depositional Environments of the Upper Cretaceous Navesink Formation by J. Bret Bennington et al, Department of Geology, Hofstra University, 1999.
    • Paleontology and Sequence Stratigraphy of the Upper Cretaceous Navesink Formation, New Jersey by J. Bret Bennington, Hofstra University, Long Island Geologists Field Trip, 2003.
    Pictorial Guide to Fossils by Gerard R. Case, 1992.
    Roadside Geology of New Jersey by David P. Garper, Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2013.
    Shell Color and Predation in the Cretaceous Oyster Pycnodonte Convexa from New Jersey by J. Bret Bennington. Hofstra University.
    Summary of Lithostratigraphy and Biostratigraphy of the Atlantic Coastal Plain by Richard K. Ollson, Rutgers University.
    Uppermost Campanian-Maestrichian Strontium Isotopic, Biostratigraphic and Sequence Stratigraphic Framework of the New Jersey Coastal Plain by Peter J. Sugarman et al, GSA Bulletin, 1995.

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    “There are no other everglades in the world.
    Nothing anywhere else is like them.”
    Marjory Stoneham Douglas (1890-1998)

     

    Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, pink Roseate Spoonbills, Glossy Ibises, White Ibises,
    a Wood Stork and an American White Pelican


    Please visit my previous post here for Part I: - The Geology of Florida and the Everglades.
     
    ALLIGATOR ALLEY
    In April, I visited the Everglades for the first time. It was only a forty-five minute drive on Everglades Parkway (I-75) from Florida’s densely-populated, southeast Gold Coast. My destination was an airboat landing just off Alligator Alley, a section of the highway named derogatorily by the AAA in 1969 and regarded by them as a highway “with a flagrant disregard for safety” because of its formerly impassable location. 
     
    Today, the “Swamp Pike” is an essential east-west connection between the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts between Fort Lauderdale and Naples, a distance of about a hundred miles. Twenty miles to the south, the Tamiami Trail (US 41) was completed in 1928 and parallels Alligator Alley as it zigzags across the state from Miami to Naples.

    In the past, both highways were touted as triumphs of modern engineering, since they pass through the heart of the formerly impenetrable wilderness of the Everglades. Today, both highways are recognized as ecological barriers that have had a devastating effect on the Everglades ecosystem by interfering with the natural flow of its waters.
     
     
    Florida’s densely settled Gold Coast encroaches on land reclaimed from the Everglades. Below leveed and diked Lake Okeechobee (top left) is the patchwork Everglades Agricultural Area, and below it, the Everglades is subdivided into Water Conservation Areas (WCA's) by roads, highways, levees and canals.
    Google Earth


     
     
    AN EVERGLADES DIVIDED
    The region of the Everglades I entered is designated Water Conservation Area No. 2A (WCA-2A for short) by the Central and South Florida Project. At 210 square miles, WCA-2 is the smallest of three compartmentalizations created as wildlife refuges but primarily for flood control and water management. The A's and B's designate subdivisions.


    At times of impending flood or drought, water can be selectively stored, released and shunted from one WCA to another by a system of levees, canals, floodgates and pumps. The WCA’s are only a part of the water management system called the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades watershed, also referred to as the Greater Everglades. It doubles as one of the largest and most complex natural ecosystems in the world, which has been engineered to be regulated by man instead of nature.
     
    ECOLOGICAL DETERIORATION
    Facing east toward Florida’s Gold Coast, the WCA’s (see Google Earth above) are south of Lake Okeechobee between the patchwork crops of the Everglades Agricultural Area (left) and Everglades National Park (not seen). Below the lake, the watershed is crisscrossed by roads, highways, levees and canals that have so fragmented the Everglades that it has resulted in its ecological deterioration while benefiting man’s existence and making his land habitable. Note the location of Alligator Alley and the Tamiami Trail coursing through the heart of the Everglades. Not seen to the south are Big Cypress Swamp, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. 




    A Great Blue Heron majestically soars over the river of grass.



    THE K-O-E WATERSHED
    The Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades watershed is both a highly-engineered, water-management system and a complex ecosystem. Central and South Florida are grappling with the challenges of preserving both.

    The K-O-E’s waters begin their 225-mile journey to the sea from the Chain of Lakes below Orlando in central Florida. Directed into the once-meandering and now canal-straightened Kissimmee River (along with four other tributary sources), water is funneled south to the diked and leveed shallow bowl of 730 square-mile Lake Okeechobee. Today, Lake Okeechobee is intensely managed with 5 gated outlets and inlets, 33 primary and secondary culverts, 9 navigation locks and 9 pump stations.


    
    US Army Corps of Engineers


    Below the lake, flow is channeled through sugar cane farmlands of the extensively-irrigated Everglades Agricultural Area before reaching the aforementioned floodgate-controlled, pump-regulated Water Conservation Areas. Along the way, numerous canals divert water to population centers along Florida’s southeast coast. Eventually, the greatly reduced flow converges south and southwest upon Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park before entering the sea at Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.



    The National Academies Reports on Everglades Restoration
     
     
    GO WITH THE FLOW!
    The historic, natural flow of a broad sheet of slowly-moving water that built and sustained the ecosystem some 6,000 years ago no longer exists. Today, the sheet flow that characterized the natural condition is highly interrupted and no longer free-flowing, and the volume of flow to the Everglades is diminished by as much as 70%.

    The satellite photo on the left depicts the historic and natural, pre-1882, pre-drainage pattern of flow. The yellow line depicts the hydrologic boundary and denotes where vegetation has changed from marsh to higher ground along the border of the Everglades. The photo on the right (2004) shows the historic Everglades boundaries, the EAA, the WCA's, the man-made features of subdivision and the sprawling Gold Coast population centers that have advanced into the Everglades at its expense.



    Historic, natural versus current pattern of flow superimposed on satellite photo.
    Modified from Landscapes and Hydrology of the Pre-drainage Everglades, 2009.


    In less than a hundred years of (mis)management, the Everglades has become over-regulated and over-drained. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) hopes to restore the natural pattern of flow in such a way as to protect the interests of man and insure the viability of the ecosystem. In essence, the CERP Plan mimics the historic pattern of flow but preserves flow to the EAA and population centers, while somewhat reducing flow to the Everglades in the south peninsula.



    Historic, natural flow versus current and planned flow
    Evergladesplan.org


    UNINTENDED ENVIRONMENTAL CONSEQUENCES
    Man has won the battle of regulation but is losing the battle of preservation. Undoubtedly on paper, the heavily-engineered solution looked great, but it ecologically fragmented the Everglades resulting in the overall deterioration of the wetlands and ecosystem. The adverse effects can be seen throughout the entire length of the watershed.




    The arrival of this nonindigenous, Southeast Asian Burmese python in the Everglades, which became established around 2000, coincides with a rapid decline of native mammals such as opossums, raccoons and rabbits. This 162-pound, 15-foot fellow was captured shortly after having eaten a six-foot alligator.
    AP Photo/University of Florida


    A RIVER OF CHANGE
    Following the canalization and dredging of the Kissimmee River, at the top of the watershed, its steep banks were no longer inviting to wading birds and fish, and nesting alligators and turtles. Deleterious phosphorus-rich fertilizers filtering downstream from the Agricultural Area into the Everglades are facilitating the invasion of nonindigenous plants. Beneficial fires that rejuvenated the Everglades are reduced by the unintended fire-breaks created by canals and roads.

    Man-made canals facilitate the establishment of non-native fishes by offering permanent thermal and drought refuges. Canals also serve as pathways of invasion for non-indigenous species into interior wetlands, increasing the impacts that may adversely alter the ecosystem's structure and function. Pest-plants become invasive as well, lured into deeper, nutrient-rich canal habitats.

    The canals are also inviting to alligators but are undesirably dominated by adults. Nesting in the canals is negligible at the expense of the construction and maintenance of alligator holes. Gator holes found throughout the Everglades provide a critical dry-season habitat for wetland fishes, amphibians and wading birds. The alligator is a "keystone species" that other species rely on, hence a reduction in alligator holes impacts the entire ecosystem.



    The deep-water, nutrient-rich, man-made canal and levee that forms the boundary
    between WCA-2A and Coral Springs on the other side.

    This is what lies immediately on the other side of the above canal and levee. What a juxta-position!
    Google Earth


    Salt water is entering the aquifers in place of withdrawn freshwater during dry periods. Cypress and palms intolerant of salt are beginning to die. Coastal mangroves are moving inland. One million acres of the ecosystem are under health advisories for mercury contamination.

    Periphyton, a mixture of algae, cyanobacteria, fungi, microbes and detritus, serves as a crucial part of the food web and egg-laying medium for invertebrates and fish. It absorbs contaminants from the watercolumn and is an excellent biotic indicator of Everglades health. It requires nutrient-free water for growth and is in jeopardy due to rising levels of phosphates and nitrates from the Agricultural Area. In its absence, the entire ecosystem would be adversely impacted and would allow invasive cattails to thrive. 

    Wading bird populations are experiencing a 90-95% reduction. 68 plant and animal species are on the threatened or endangered list. Commercially and recreationally important fish and invertebrate species in the estuaries are on the decline. Nonindigenous Southeast Asian Burmese pythons, released by pet owners and hurricane-escapees, are thriving and killing native species. The Florida panther is on the IUCN’s Red List for “extinction in the wild.” Only 100-120 are thought to live within the state. The American crocodile and West Indian manatee are on the list as well. 


     
    An acrobatic flock of Black-necked Stilts


    The Everglades has among the highest mercury levels in fish in Florida. The average male Florida panther has higher estrogen levels than females, due to the estrogenic properties of mercury in the fish they eat. The mercury comes from coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities like cement plants.

    Water from Everglades National Park and other areas drains into the Biscayne Aquifer, which is the source of drinking water for Dade, Broward and some Palm Beach County residents. Meaning more than 7.7 million people depend on the Everglades for drinking water. Without the Everglades to “recharge” this underground water supply, the aquifer would be in danger of running dry or being contaminated by salt water.

    These are but a few signs of Florida's shrinking and imperiled ecosystem. The Everglades are clearly in decline.

    HOW DID THIS HAPPEN IN ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE YEARS?
    The history of draining and development of the Everglades dates back to the 19th century and the Seminole Wars. The United States military’s mission was to seek out indigenous Seminole people in the Everglades to capture, enslave or kill them. That gave the military the opportunity to map the Everglades, opening the door for wetland draining for agricultural use. A lack of understanding of the geography and the ecology have plagued the Everglades ever since.

     
     
    
    Early painting of U.S. Marines searching for Seminoles amongst the mangroves during the Second Seminole War
    From Wikipedia


    The first major change began back in 1882, a seminal year for the watershed referenced on the maps above. That's when Hamilton Disston, a wealthy Philadelphian, began to drain overflowed lands in return for reclaimed lands. Although his reclamation venture was a failure, he succeeded in creating a new Gulf outlet for Lake Okeechobee to the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico that considerably dropped the level of the lake. Notably, it was the first large scale project to alter the wetlands of South Florida, a major part of which is functioning (or dysfunctioning) to this day. In 1903, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward ran successfully for governor with the intent to drain “the fabulous muck.”



    “Drain the Everglades” gubernatorial political cartoon of Napoleon Bonaparte Broward
    “A Big Job” Times Union (Jacksonville), January 14, 1905.


    After the devastating hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, when Lake Okeechobee floods killed upward of 2,500 people with vast destruction of property, flood-control became the priority. In 1931 the Herbert Hoover Dike was built around the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee, and later, channels, control gates and levees were added. A tireless advocate of preservation, in 1947 Marjory Stoneham Douglas published The Everglades: River of Grass about the fragile ecosystem of the Everglades. The environmental awareness was greatly enhanced, but the economic drive for development proved too strong. Ultimately, her book could do nothing to stop drainage and flood control for urbanization, agriculture and development. 






    It wasn’t until 1948 that Congress established the Central and South Florida Project to control flow within the Everglades. Flood control was accomplished with an elaborate and effective management system of 1,000 miles of levees, 720 miles of canals, and almost 200 water control structures. In 1992, the plan was modified by the "Restudy" (short for Review Study) by the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a joint effort of the federal government and the State of Florida.

    RIVER OF HOPE
    In what is the world’s largest ecosystem restoration effort with more than 60 components, the plan is simple in its intent but massive in its proportions: restore the ecosystem, preserve and protect water resources, and provide flood protection. The plan is estimated to take more than 30 years to complete, and the current estimate in October 2007 dollars is $13.5 billion.

    The goal of the CERP (found here) is to capture fresh water that now flows unused to Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, and redirect it to areas that need it most, the Everglades. The majority of the water will be devoted to environmental restoration, reviving a dying ecosystem. The remaining water will benefit cities and farmers by enhancing water supplies for the south Florida economy.

    The Plan includes such elements as: the backfilling of the 56 mile-long, C-38 Canal and replacing it with the restoration of the 103 mile-long, naturally-meandering Kissimmee River and its surrounding marsh floodplain; reducing flows to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers from Lake Okeechobee; the construction of over 300 wells to store excess water from Lake Okeechobee (saline-safe underground with 30% less loss from surface storage-evaporation); the decompartmentalization ("decomp") of WCA-3 so that unrestricted, passive flow can occur; filling-in of the Miami Canal and others; the removal of many levees; the rehydration of coastal marshes and mangroves with increased sheet flow; partially restoring flows to Biscayne and Florida Bays; and, the conversion of flow-choking, road-barriers such as the Tamiami Trail to an elevated Everglades Skyway.



    An artist's vision of the elevated Tamiami Trail and a rejuvenated Everglades
    flowing under the eco-friendly Everglades Skyway.
    Artist Unknown/Everglades Skyway Coalition


    CLIMATE CHANGE
    On a note of closure, great extremes in water quantity are anticipated to occur in the coming years. Even now, sea level appears to be rising at the rate of one foot per century. What appears certain is the uncertainty associated with annual temperatures and annual rainfall. As stated by Lodge in the The Everglades Handbook, "The implications of rising water relative to street or building elevations is easy to comprehend, but ecological consequences are far more involved."

    The following maps graphically illustrate Florida's very low topographic relief. The implications are obvious for storm surges but also for climate-related rising sea level. A rise of 33 feet would submerge the majority of southern Florida and drown the entire ecosystem.


    Southern Florida's very low topography is evident in these color-shaded relief maps,
    especially along the coastline but notwithstanding the entirety of the Greater Everglades ecosystem.
    On the left, green colors indicate low elevations rising through tan and yellow to white
    at 60 meters (197 feet) above sea level. On the right, elevations below 5 meters (16 feet)
    have been colored blue with lighter blue indicating elevations below 10 meters (33 feet).
    Modified from NASA Earth Observatory


    How will the Everglades fair when confronted with forecasted periods of severe drought and floods? The region was recently challenged in this regard. In 2011, 60% or more of the land in the Everglades water conservation areas went dry (South Florida Water Management District). The answer can be found underfoot, or in the case of the Everglades, underwater. Past climate change resulted in the deposition of seafloor stacked upon seafloor in a rhythmic and cyclical sequence in the Everglades. If geological history repeats itself, that much we can anticipate. 

    





    Please join me on an airboat tour of the Everglades: Part III – Excursion into a “River of Grass”

    SPECIAL THANKS
    With great appreciation, I thank amateur ornithologist Ian Starr for his expertise in identifying many of the Everglades birds.

    VERY INFORMATIVE SOURCES
    Geologic History of Florida by Albert C. Hine, 2013.
    Geology of Florida by Albert C. Hine, College of Marine Science, University of South Florida (PDF available online).
    Geologic Map and Text of Florida, Florida Geological Survey, Open-File Report 80 by Thomas M. Scott, 2001 (available online).
    The Everglades Handbook: Understanding the Ecosystem, Third Edition, by Thomas E. Lodge, 2010.
    The Geology of the Everglades and Adjacent Areas by Edward J. Petuch and Charles E. Roberts, 2007.
    Roadside Geology of Florida by Jonathon R. Bryan et al, 2008.
    

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    Perhaps your best chance at time travel awaits you in the Florida Everglades. Mine was last April. It was an unforgettable experience. All senses on high alert. In the morning haze with the smell of salt and sawgrass in the air, a thousand birds in flight, vultures soaring overhead, and armies of alligators patiently awaiting their next meal, the marshy wilderness stood frozen in time.


    Alligator mississippiensis, apex predator and most important species of the Everglades

    But initial perceptions can be deceiving. These Everglades have been changed. What appears to be wild and untamed is in reality a highly engineered ecosystem, seized by man from Mother Nature and harnessed for his own needs: flood control, clean water, land for agriculture and habitation. Man’s success can be measured in the ecosystem’s loss, and ultimately, his own.

    FACT
    The Everglades contains one of the highest concentrations of species vulnerable to extinction in the U.S. The 5,000-square-kilometer wetland is home to at least 60 endangered species and retains less than 10% of its original habitat.

    DECLINE OF THE INHERENT STRUCTURE OF THE EVERGLADES
    My plane was seconds from touch down at Miami International Airport when I snapped this photo of the Everglades looking south into the haze along Krome Avenue and Canal, which joins the larger Miami Canal behind us to the north. Notice anything amiss about the marshy terrain?


    The landscape to the east (left) of the canal consists of a green structureless, patchy sawgrass wetland, and to the west (right) it is more defined and linear as water flows south to Florida Bay fifty miles away. Self-serving, man-made structures such as roads, canals and levees haven’t exactly been eco-friendly. So evident is the ecosystem’s degradation that it can be seen from the air.
     



    RIDGE AND SLOUGH
    Two of the main systems that formed in the Everglades marsh are the sawgrass plains in the north and the “ridge and slough” landscape in the south. Ridge and slough consists of parallel arrangements of peat-based ridges and open sloughs (pronounced “slews”) oriented to the direction of sheet flow to the south and southwest. They are the deepest (over 3 feet in the rainy season) water communities that serve as the main avenues of flow through the Everglades. Flow, the steady and continuous movement of water, is THE most important aspect of ecosystem health in the Everglades. 


    Many of the sloughs possess tree islands at their upwater heads. Before channeling into Everglades National Park, the waters of the greater Everglades converge into two large sloughs called Taylor and Shark River that are basically low-lying, wide rivers with northeast-southwest axes.  
    
    


    Notice that the limestone bedrock below the surface has no relationship to the ridge-and-slough landscape
    but may have a prominence below the head of tree islands.
    From Chris McVoy, 2003

    These structures evolved with the natural sheetflow of water, which likely began within the last 6,000 years (see my post Part I for Everglades geology here). The very identity of the Everglades is related to its slow movement across the vast, low gradient, wetland landscape. Drainage and compartmentalization for flood control and water supply have so interrupted the natural hydrology that this crucial habitat has suffered detrimental ecological damage.

    LOSS OF HABITAT
    As the ridge and slough landscape became topographically and vegetationally more uniform, amorphous sawgrass stands became associated with fewer numbers of animals and a lower diversity. Foraging and nesting of wading birds is closely tied to vegetation patterns which have been altered. The negative impact on the landscape extends throughout the ENTIRE food web of the Everglades. It's all about the water: quantity, quality, timing and distribution.

    THE NEW RIVER CANAL AND LEVEE
    The quick drive to the Everglades on Alligator Alley from South Florida's densely-settled east coast, where I was staying, parallels a large canal and levee called the New River, one of many that transect the wetlands. Native American canoe trails have crossed the Everglades since pre-Columbian times, but its modern successors are wider, deeper and hundreds of miles longer. Four major drainage canals were dredged through the Everglades in the early 20th century totaling 236 miles.


    Constructed for water management and as a navigable connection between the two coasts, the New River canal and others impede the natural flow of water by slicing the Everglades into flood-manageable but ecologically-segregated parts. Canals draw water from the surrounding wetlands. During the dry season, this causes a complete dry-down of the habitat, a diminished aquatic habitat during the wet season, soil loss and degradation of the peat surface.


    The excavation of canals through the less permeable peat into the highly permeable aquifer allows the mixing of ground and surface water, and discharging of salty water that is highly damaging to the biological communities. Florida, Congress and ultimately the taxpayers are learning the difficult and expensive lesson of what happens when you “re-engineer” a region’s natural hydrology.


    The New River Canal runs along the Alligator Alley and slices through the wilderness
    between Everglades Water Conservation Areas 2 and 3. WCA-2A, the locale of my airboat excursion,

     is beyond the levee (left). Follow the canal east 20 miles, and you’ll end up on the Atlantic Coast.

    The canals that drain the glades have reduced groundwater levels, which stopped the flow from natural springs. Saltwater from the sea has backfilled the freshwater “void” both to the detriment of the ecosystem and man’s water supply. Along estuaries at the sea, freshwater releases from canals abruptly changes the salinity, which few species can tolerate, including vegetation. Indigenous fish and oysters in coastal estuaries at the outlets of canals are on the decline, while nonindigenous predators are on the rise. Additional details of change can be found on my earlier post Part II here

    ROAD ECOLOGY
    Alligator Alley’s four-lane highway has many bridges designed with the concept of “road ecology.” The intent is to allow water and wildlife to pass underneath, thereby reducing the environmental impact to the ecosystem. Unfortunately, the road acts as a dam and a formidable wildlife barrier by restricting flow, while the culverts are equivalent to mere leaks. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project plans to elevate long sections of roadways to allow water to proceed unimpeded into the major sloughs and Everglades National Park to the south.


     
    Section of Alligator Alley with "eco-designed" structure between the compartments of WCA-2B and WCA-3A
    Google Earth

    EXCURSION INTO THE EVERGLADES
    Our Everglades excursion was led by Captain Randy of "Ride-The-Wind", a private charter touring company. Captain Randy was quick to assure us of our safety under his command. In addition to over thirty years of experience in the Everglades, he served for many years as a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard, as a certified 100-ton Master, and afterward as a gator handler and Certified Dive Master. Captain Randy comforted us by proudly stating, “We’ve never had an occupant eaten by an alligator or strangled by a python!”


     
    Our Everglades-worthy vessel was an airboat, but fanboat is more descriptive. It’s a flat-bottomed craft propelled forward by a massive fan enclosed in a protective cage driven by an equally large (and loud) aircraft engine and steered by two rudders at the boat’s stern. A conventional motorboat with a keel would be useless in the shallow, propeller-clogging sawgrass of the Everglades. Speaking of sawgrass, the indigenous vegetation of this marshy habitat, those are nonindigenous cattails lining the canal, another symbol of ecosystem change.



    INITIAL OBSERVATIONS
    At the launch site, a large, imposing flood control gate dominated the head of the canal, a reminder of the regulatory capabilities of WCA-2A, one of many compartmentalized water conservation area of these Everglades that I had entered. Remember, this is an engineered wilderness!


    I was also surprised by the appearance of the water. I expected it to be cloudy, foul-smelling and swamp-like. Instead, it flowed clear and clean, albeit slowly, but far from stagnant. The waters of the Greater Everglades are funneled to the south and southwest of the Florida peninsula on a tilted-gradient of the Florida Platform that’s virtually imperceptible (see Post I for details here).




    FROM A SINK TO A SOURCE
    As mentioned, I expected to see sawgrass, the ubiquitous flora of the Everglades. Instead, the canal was bordered by dense, tall invasive Southern cattails. Once seen in localized small populations, they thrive on the high phosphorus content of the water filtering downstream from the north. Most ecosystems are nutrient-limited in composition, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, the principal components of fertilizers. Not here. 

    The original, un-engineered Everglades system held 4-10 ppb of phosphorus. With the establishment of the Everglades Agricultural Area upstream and below Lake Okeechobee (that contains high levels of natural phosphorus), the northern Everglades has become a nutrient "source" rather than its historic role as a nutrient “sink.”


    Pre-engineered, pre-1900 Everglades natural flow patterns (left) and current,
    restricted flow patterns (right). In discussion is the relationship between the Everglades downstream
    from Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades Agricultural Area.
    Modified from Unknown Source


    Thus, cattails began to thrive downstream on high levels of nutrients (in excess of 500 ppb). The impact of this change may seem unimportant, but cattails could prove to be devastating for plant and animal life in the area by completely changing the ecology. Not only did the theme of anthropogenic change resonate throughout my excursion, but that the changes are not well understood, yet are a reality and a priority.  

    SAWGRASS
    The dominant plant in the Everglades marsh and prairie is Jamaica swamp sawgrass. Preferring the wet soils of the Everglades, sawgrass is not “true grass” but a sedge, in a different plant family with sharp teeth along the edges of each blade. Grass stems are round and hollow, while sawgrass has a triangular stem. Rush stems are flat or round.


    Fires in the Everglades play a vital role by limiting the colonization of woody vegetation that would eventually invade Everglades marshes and replace the sawgrass, changing the the marsh into the next successional habitat. Fire beneficially sets succession back and has the positive effect of releasing and redistributing locked-up nutrients in plant tissues during their growth. Thus, "natural" fires regenerate the marshes. The wet soil of the Everglades protects the roots of the sawgrass, which enables it to survive fires and then regenerate.
    
    
    Modified from finegardening.com
    Illustration by Allison Starcher

    Sawgrass thrives on shallow water depths, whereas cattails flourish in deeper areas. Another hypothesis to the cattail’s radiation is that the fragmentation of the Everglades has altered the watershed’s natural hydrology, and in many areas, increased the water level beyond the sawgrass’s ecological preference. With over $11 billion in federal and state funds devoted to restoriation, all-out war is being waged against the cattails with controlled burns and “safe” chemical poisons. 

    VULTURES GALORE IN SEARCH OF GORE
    As Captain Randy was readying his airboat, an inquisitive American Black Vulture dropped by to investigate the activity. Black Vultures have black plumage, a small, featherless grayish head and neck, and a short hooked-beak. The word "vulture" is derived from the Latin word vulturus meaning “tearer” of flesh. Being scavengers (and raptors), they dine on carrion (including roadkill), attracted to it by their keen vision. The vultures will circle gracefully overhead of a carcass riding thermals of rising air but often hunt from a perch in a tall tree. 
      




    Less than a minute after the Black Vulture's arrival, it was physically displaced by this characteristically more aggressive American Turkey Vulture. Unlike the Black Vulture, this scavenger has both a keen sense of sight and smell, which helps attract the Black Vulture to carcasses. These "buzzards" are easily distinguished by a bald, red head and silvery wings on the undersides best seen in flight. They resemble a turkey when seen from a distance and hiss when threatened. 


    



    LET’S "RIDE-THE-WIND"
    Donning ear muffs for protection against the noise and latching up our seatbelts for safety, we effortlessly launched into a subdivision of the New River Canal and immediately veered off into a smaller ditch. Many of the ditches that crisscross the Everglades are remnants of Native American trails, which have persisted by the airboats frequent usage. As early as 300 A.D., many were built by the native Ortona and, later, Calusa and Tequesta people to connect villages to coastal trade routes.




    I commented to Captain Randy that I was surprised to see so few insects. He responded that it depends on the time of the year. He also mentioned that if you catch one in your mouth while on the airboat, it’s considered Everglades “fast food.” Randy had a rather unique sense of humor.




    FLORIDA’S OFFICIAL STATE REPTILE (ALONG WITH LOUISIANA AND MISSISSIPPI)
    No other species defines the Everglades as does Alligator mississippiensis. It's the most important species in the Everglades. The American alligator is not only the "apex" predator at the top of the Everglades food chain, but it’s the "indicator" species for gauging the health and restoration of the imperiled ecosystem. It’s also a "keystone" species that affects nearly all aquatic life in the Everglades. 

    In the 1900's and 1960's, alligators were literally disappearing from the wetlands by poachers that sold their hides. Finally, the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 made it illegal to deal in any alligator parts including skulls, teeth, claws, meat and hides. They have since rebounded tremendously, yet the main threat today facing the American alligator is the destruction and degradation of its wetland habitat.




    Crocodiles and alligators belong to a group of reptiles called crocodilians, and uniquely, both reside within the Everglades, but alligators are far more common. Once occupying all wetland habitats in south Florida, development and water-management practices have reduced both the quantity and quality of these habitats. Today, the alligator inhabits freshwater wetlands of the southeastern United States but has declined throughout the Greater Everglades; whereas, the croc, being a tropical species, maintains its northern-most range in brackish, coastal mangrove areas of south Florida including Florida Bay.

    Amongst other notable features, the alligator is distinguished by its broader snout, darker or blackish coloration and overlapping, upper jaws. Crocs have a tapered, triangular snout, are grayish-green and have a signature tooth jutting out from its lower jaw.


    Being a patient and opportunistic feeder (on whatever comes along but especially apple snails and crayfish),
    evolution has provided the alligator with nostrils and eyes that stealthily project just above the surface
    with the rest of its body submerged. Its vertically flattened tail allows it to silently glide through the water.


    ALLIGATOR HOLES
    Alligators are pond-builders and worthy of their role as "ecological engineers." They alter the landscape by using their mouths, bodies and tails to remove vegetation from small depressions within the bedrock and push soil sediments onto the banks, thereby creating and maintaining "alligator holes." Their construction may not be intentional but a consequence of herding fish and foraging for food.

    The holes contribute to an increase in habitat diversity and species richness both in and around the holes. Therefore, an increase in holes, nests and occupancy rates translates into a healthy ecosystem and a sign of successful restoration efforts. 


    The small open area ringed by trees is an alligator hole
    National Park Service


    In the dry season, the holes serve as an aquatic refugia for alligators and other aquatic organisms such as fish, amphibians and invertebrates, and as foraging sites for wading birds that prey upon the resident species.

    Gators also construct many channels or trails (seen above) that lead to the holes. Many holes are surrounded by a low ring of trees or are near a tree island as this one. Typically, they are ringed by a sawgrass marsh. Many gator holes are centuries old and are maintained by successive generations of alligators.

    Knowing the wetlands like the back of his hand, Captain Randy knew precisely where gator holes were located. He shut off the fan and glided us into a hole where a female was thermoregulating in the morning sun.


    Captain Randy has spotted a large female at the periphery of a gator hole.
    A low ring of trees, shrubs and even cattails often helps locate the holes.

    Notice how the sawgrass has been trampled by mama's movements around the hole.

    Alligators are ectothermic (externally regulating their body temperature) and are generally active when temperatures are 82-92º F. They stop feeding when the temp drops to 70º F, and they become dormant and inactive at 55º F. On this cool 65º morning, that explains the female's indifference to our presence. Of course, we did remain at an unthreatening distance.




    I spotted six juveniles basking on the periphery of the hole with likely more present within the tall sawgrass. The average clutch size is 32-46 eggs, which are laid in late June and early July, and hatch in late August or early September. That makes these youngsters about 8 months old. Many of the eggs succumb to predation from raccoons and otters, while juveniles face danger from wading birds and larger cannibalistic alligators. Interestingly, the temperature of the female's nest of vegetation and mud determines the sex of the hatchlings with more males produced at higher temperatures.


    I counted four more youngsters here.

    Many adult alligators, males in particular, have taken residence in larger, man-made canals throughout the Everglades. They are attracted by the large numbers of native and non-native fish and invertebrates, by the dry-season refugia and escape from saltwater incursion into their habitat.

    Everglades pre- versus post-drainage in regards to wet and dry seasons
    Source: Christopher McVoy, SFWMD


    Canals are not suitable habitats to sustain a healthy alligator population. Smaller alligators are vulnerable to predation and cannibalism. Hatchlings are unlikely to survive, and nests are frequently flooded out. And most important to the ecosystem, alligators that rely on canals for sustenance no longer build and maintain alligator holes. Again, man's efforts to control flooding have adversely impacted the ecosystem.

    FLORIDA GREEN WATERSNAKE
    Just beyond the hole, I spotted what I thought was a Burmese Python by its size. It's an invasive snake that has been wreaking havoc with the small, indigenous mammals of the Everglades since 2,000 when it was released by pet owners. The snake turned out to be a Green Watersnake, the largest and most dominant watersnake in North America found throughout most of Florida.


    They prefer heavy, wetland vegetation and quiescent waters of marshes and swamps. Overall, it is dark olive-green or brownish and has no distinctive markings such as stripes, spots or crossbands but is speckled with muted colors on each scale. Its size is intimidating, but it's totally harmless and non-venomous, although it may bite when cornered. Apparently, it's commonly mistaken for the venomous Florida Cottonmouth (aka water moccasin), which has a white lining around its mouth and vertically-slit eyes; whereas, the eyes of the watersnake are rounded. It dines on frogs and fish.




    GREAT BLUE HERON
    Over 400 species of birds have been identified in South Florida of which 60% are winters residents having migrated from the north. Many of those are in transit to more southerly tropical locations. Spotting this Great Blue was a majestic event. This stately bird with its subtle blue-gray plumage and wide, black stripe over the eye, in typical fashion, was alternately wading and motionless as it watched for prey. It’s the largest of the North American herons and yet weighs only 5-6 pounds. It can strike with lightning speed to grab or even impale a fish, frog or small mammal with its dagger-like bill.




    Concealed by sawgrass as we airboated down a canal, I caught this Great Blue in flight


    THE GREAT EGRET
    Also called a Great White Heron, the Great Egret is slightly smaller than a Great Blue. They too hunt in classic fashion by standing immobile or wading through both fresh and saltwater, capturing fish with a lightning fast jab of their yellow bill. They were nearly hunted to extinction for their plumage for the hats of Victorian-era fashionable ladies. By 1900, more than 5 million birds were killed every year, including 95% of Florida's shore birds. Most were shot in the spring when their plumage was the most colorful.


    Great Egrets nest in the trees of islands within the glades. In flight, they retract their S-curved neck and trail their black legs behind. Looking similar but larger and with yellow-gray legs, there is also a “white morph” of the Great Blue in South Florida. 




    THE ROSEATE SPOONBILL
    The Spoonbill is a wading bird of the ibis family that feeds on crustaceans, aquatic insects, frogs and small fish. Like the American Flamingo, which it is closely-related and often mistaken, the color of its brilliant pink wings is diet-derived from pigments found in shrimp and algae. It is highly recognizable by its odd, flat bill, which it uses to strain small culinary delicacies from the water. Like so many other colorful birds of the Everglades (especially snowy-white egrets), they were hunted to the verge of extinction for their plumes.






    SNOWY EGRET
    Herons are long-legged freshwater and coastal birds. Some are called egrets and are mainly white with decorative plumes. They resemble birds in other families but fly with their necks retracted, not outstretched. This small white heron is also protected under federal law by the Migratory Bird Act Treaty of 1918. The area of the upper bill in front of the eyes is yellow to red, and its feet are yellow. 




    HAMMOCKS ANDTREE ISLANDS
    The Everglades is not all sawgrass marsh. It is blessed with a great variety of habitats and biological communities. We spotted one such habitat in the distance, a "tree island", which is actually a blanket term for a region with noticeably taller trees within the marsh and on higher ground of typically woody peat, a limestone outcrop or marl closer to the coast.

    The standard jargon for them are "heads," which are characterized by the kinds of trees that dominate each of them. Thus, you have bayheads, willow heads, cypress heads, and so on. In addition to their clusters of trees, each of the various tree islands possesses distinctive shrubs and ferns. They are singular ecological entities as much as they are insular land features. In the 1940's there were 1,251 tree islands in the central Everglades; today there are 581. Scientists are racing against time to these "forgotten" islands to discover their formative dynamics and ecological secrets.




    The early Everglades, beginning perhaps 6,000 years ago, didn't possess tree islands, which began to form about 3,500 years ago. Three main geological processes form tree islands: formation on a "fixed" high point of bedrock which acts as a nucleus for tree development; on a peat "pop-up" (the most common) of interwoven roots where bottom peat acquires buoyancy from the release of mostly methane gas from water lily roots and rhizomes; and elongated strand islands similar to the sawgrass ridges previously discussed.

    Many tree islands have a teardrop shape with a bulbous, upland head and a downstream tail aligned with the direction of sheetflow. The head of the tree island is generally a tropical hardwood hammock, a localized mature forest of broad-leafed trees (as opposed to pines) that is rarely inundated by flooding. The tail can take 1,000 to 2,000 years to develop as peat accumulates above the marsh.




    Fire and flooding are of key importance in the integrity of tree islands. Prolonged high water has a devastating effect in particular related to water management practices, but prolonged low water puts them at risk to peat-consuming soil fires. Natural fire actually has an important ecological role in sawgrass habitats by limiting the invasion of woody vegetation that would eventually change the marsh into the next successional habitat. Submerged sawgrass roots are able to rebound following a damaging fire. The ecosystem is now at the mercy of human intervention, and Everglades restoration is contingent on man's efforts at revitalization, including tree islands.

    Diagram of tree islands by origin
    U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2004-3095
     
    Many of the tree islands have been found to have a prehistoric history of human use and habitation dating as far back as 12,000 years. Today, many are privately owned and surprisingly have air-conditioned houses, connecting sheds, decks and docks for airboats. Many of the islands and hammocks have colorful names such as as Jimmie Tiger, Gumbo Limbo and Charley Jumper.




    Tree islands greatly enhance the ecological value of the Everglades. They are important centers of biodiversity with two to three times the plant and animal diversity of the surrounding wetlands.

    A flock of Black-necked Stilts exercising precise aerial maneuvers

    This island sported a half-dozen Turkey Vultures roosting in trees, waiting for warm morning air to develop into rising thermals. Notice the large nest down below.

     

    Near the end of our airboat Everglades tour, Captain Randy readied us for this "money shot." A sky filled with egrets, herons, spoonbills, storks, ibises, cranes and pelicans. 




    Nourished by rain and defined by annual rhythms of drought and flood, fire and sunshine, the Everglades is totally unique. No other place possesses such a stunning diversity of plants and animals. "There are no other Everglades."


    RIDE-THE-WIND
    For private airboat charters in the Everglades, I highly recommend Captain Randy here.


    SPECIAL THANKS
    With great appreciation, I thank amateur ornithologist Ian Starr for his expertise in identifying many of the Everglades birds.


    VERY INFORMATIVE SOURCES
    Geologic History of Florida by Albert C. Hine, 2013.
    Geology of Florida by Albert C. Hine, College of Marine Science, University of South Florida (PDF available online).
    Geologic Map and Text of Florida, Florida Geological Survey, Open-File Report 80 by Thomas M. Scott, 2001 (available online).
    The Everglades Handbook: Understanding the Ecosystem, Third Edition, by Thomas E. Lodge, 2010.
    The Geology of the Everglades and Adjacent Areas by Edward J. Petuch and Charles E. Roberts, 2007.
    Roadside Geology of Florida by Jonathon R. Bryan et al, 2008.

    

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    “One side will make you grow taller...”
    “One side of what?”
    “…and the other side will make you grow shorter.”
    “The other side of what?”
     “The mushroom, of course!”
     
    Dialogue between the Caterpillar and Alice
    Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

    Modified original image from shockya.com

    The Italians have an expression for it, “spuntare come funghi” meaning “to spring up like mushrooms.” The day before, there’s an expanse of green grass. Add a little overnight rain and some summer heat. Presto! Up pops a patch of exquisite mushrooms, as if by magic.
     
    MUSHROOMS GALORE
    In that manner, with a slender stem and elegantly radiating gills, this graceful beauty seemed to suddenly appear. Xerulae are members of phylum Basidiomycota whose constituents produce fruitbodies that include mushrooms, toadstools, puffballs, bracket fungi and the like. The phylum’s name is derived from the “basidium”, a region of microscopic, specialized club-shaped cells that both manufacture and release spores. 


    A mirror allows the gills to be photographed while illuminating the cap’s shadowed undersurface.
    The gills are the spore-bearing structure of the mushroom.

    Imperceptible to the naked eye, the lawn beneath the cap was being showered by spores.
     
    The Xerula was fruiting on my lawn without a clear connection to its buried host, but its long rhizosphere (root system) reached below ground to the decaying roots of an unhealthy tree. That made the buried, parent fungus saprotrophic since it releases enzymes to break down solid materials into manageable, absorbable molecules. Some fungi are mutualistic that benefit the host, while others are parasitic, harmful to it. The Xerula is edible as demonstrated by the squirrel that devoured it when I went to get another lens.
     
    FUNGUS. MUSHROOMS. TOADSTOOLS. MOLD. MILDEW. JELLIES. PUFFBALLS. RUSTS. SMUTS. STINKHORNS. BLOODFOOT. SLIME.
    Sprouting on dewy lawns, rotting stumps, compost piles, animal dung, and leaf litter, their names conjure up images of odoriferous decay, oozing decomposition, putrid rot and even death. We’re plagued by their fungal diseases, devastated by their crop destruction, and rendered mycophobic by their cryptic appearance and fear of poisoning.
     
    On the other hand, they’re celebrated in the culinary arts, sought after for their medicinal benefits, and worshiped for their hallucinogenic properties. Fungi are the planet’s great recyclers, nature’s morticians along with bacteria, and they play a major role along with bacteria in breaking down organic matter and sending carbon back into the ecosystem. The success of our biosphere depends on their presence, and make no mistake, we are in irrefutable partnership with them.

     
    A deadly poisonous Omphalotus illudens fruiting just down the street

    MY MYSTICAL MYCO-MISSION
    Every summer and early fall, my New England home hosts an enormous variety of these otherworldly “plants”. Their grotesque beauty, staggering diversity and fascinating biology inspired me to initiate this mycological journey. With an estimated 77,000 named species and a possible 1.2 million in existence according to mycologists who study them, what better place to start than in my own backyard and down the street.



     

    WHAT’S A MUSHROOM?
    It’s the spongy, above ground “fruiting body” or reproductive structure of a below ground parent fungus. To a tree, the mushroom is equivalent to the apple, its fruit. However, a mushroom contains spores rather than seeds. A mushroom's sole purpose in life is to produce seeds and release spores. But, from plant-seed to fruit and from fungal-spore to mushroom, the two lifeforms differ greatly. 

    IS A SPORE THE SAME AS A SEED?
    The seeds of plants and the spores of fungi serve analogous functions, but differ in how they go about it. Seeds contain a small, multicellular, embryonic form of a plant, whereas most spores are single, unicellular reproductive cells. There’s no little fungus within the spore.

    And unlike seeds, spores are capable of developing into a new individual without fusion with another reproductive cell. Spores are haploid (half the chromosomal number with a single set of chromosomes) and germinate into a haploid fungus; whereas, seeds are diploid (a full set of chromosomes, one from each parent) and form a diploid plant. We'll clarify that later.

    

    Mushrooms are a pizza topping and a kind of fungal reproductive structure

    FUNGI ARE MICROSCOPICALLY UNIQUE
    Fungi lack xylem and phloem tubules, the vascular transport system of plants, yet the cytoplasm contained within its cells flows freely to provide nutrition. For rigidity, fungi have cell walls made of chitin (like a crab's exoskeleton), whereas plants have a cellulose cell wall. In contrast, animal cells possess a non-rigid, permeable cell membrane that facilitates motility of which fungi and plants are incapable. In common, the nuclei of all three are enclosed within nuclear membranes, and as we shall see, that has assisted in their classification.


    
    Modified from mrskingsbioweb.com

    IS FUNGUS A PLANT?
    It seems like a simple question, but it’s tortured taxonomists for ages (biologists with a classification fetish). In 450 BC, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus viewed mushrooms as plants missing certain organs. Indeed, fungi resemble plants in that they lack mobility and grow from below ground, but beyond that the two have little in common. Most obvious, mushrooms are leafless and certainly not green. They differ from plants, which are capable of manufacturing nutrients by photosynthesis.


    Instead, fungi obtain nutrients by enzymatically breaking down and absorbing materials from a decaying or dying host. Think of it as “external” digestion. Unlike animals that ingest and then digest, fungi digest and then ingest.

    As we all know, plants thrive in sunlight, while mushrooms prefer darker, shaded environments that tend to be moist and less dehydrating, where spores are happiest to generate, disperse and germinate. Fungi are clearly different from plants at all levels of inspection.


    Fungi are the principal decomposers of wood. Without fungal decay our forests
    would become huge stockpiles of wood. They also supply fresh nutrients to the soil
     and vacate the landscape for more resistant, younger trees to grow.

    Notice the white, fungal mycelium in the heartwood of the stump
    and the bracket fungus on the bark of the rotting pine.
     

    IF FUNGI AREN’T PLANTS, WHAT ARE THEY?
    In the scheme of things, the placement of fungi has been extremely problematic. In 1735, Carl von Linne (aka Carolus Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and of binomial nomenclature fame) lumped all living things big and small into two large kingdoms: Regnum Vegetabile and Regnum Animale. In his own words, “God created, Linnaeus organized,” but he erroneously placed fungi in the plant kingdom.


     
    Incidentally, Linnaeus had a third kingdom for minerals called Regnum Lapideum, which is the source of the phrase “animal, vegetable or mineral.” In time, the inadequacies of a two kingdom system became obvious. In 1836, Mycology developed as a branch of Botany in spite of taxonomic uncertainty and misconceptions.

    TWO BEGETS THREE
    With the advent of light microscopy that allowed observations of cellular detail, it became apparent that not all lifeforms fit neatly into one of two categories. In 1866, Ernst Haeckel abandoned the two kingdom system for a three kingdom one based on unicellularity (Kingdom Protista) and multicellularity (Kingdoms Plantae and Animale). Recognizing many differences between fungi and plants, he moved Fungi out of Plantae into Protista but later changed his mind.




    THREE BEGETS FOUR
    This time high-resolution electron microscopy led to a four kingdom classification by Herbert Copeland in 1938. His Monera (named after a Romanian village) included two groups of single-celled organisms that lacked a nucleus: bacteria and cyanobacteria. Prokaryotes (“before the kernel”) were also single-celled that had a nucleus (the kernel), but the nucleus lacked an enclosing membrane. 


    
    The DNA of prokaryotic cells is located within a nucleoid region (left) and lacks a 
    surrounding membrane. Eukaryotic cells have a nucleus that is membrane-bound (right).
    From nslc.wustl.edu

    The understanding of fungi was advancing, but they were still considered plants.



    FOUR BEGETS FIVE AND FUNGI ACQUIRE THE RECOGNITION THEY DESERVE
    In 1969, the five kingdom system of Robert Whittaker differentiated between prokaryotic cells (with a nucleus but without a nuclear membrane) and eukaryotic cells (with both nucleus and membrane). Finally, fungi was finally designated kingdom status, but, as we know, taxonomists are never content with the status quo.




    FROM FIVE KINGDOMS TO THREE DOMAINS
    In an attempt at simplification (and further confuse us all), Carl Woese in 1977, armed with tools of molecular genetic analysis based on ribosomal RNA, revised the classification from five kingdoms down to three domains: Archaea (a new superkingdom of ancient prokaryotes capable of survival in extreme environments); “true” Bacteria; and Eukaryota.


    The previous Kingdoms Fungi, Plantae and Animalia became members of Eukaryota, since their nuclei are membrane-bound. Monera and Protista became obsolete, because their lifeforms were paraphyletic, not derived from the same ancestors and hence unrelated.

    Phylogenetic tree based on rRNA analysis
    Wikipedia

    IS THERE A COMMON ANCESTOR?
    Recent molecular evidence strongly suggests that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants in that they share a common, unicellular eukaryotic ancestor (a choanoflagellate). What a complete surprise this would have been to Linnaeus who placed fungi within the plant kingdom!


    In addition, the thought that photosynthetic organisms were the first to evolve, since they were utilized by heterotrophs as food (an organism unable to obtain its carbon from carbon dioxide and instead feeding on organic material), is in question. That makes the evolutionary origin of fungi important in determining the phylogenetic relationships of the other members of Eukaryota.



    WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
    As we look increasingly deeper into the structure of the cell, the diversity of life has become far more complex than envisioned. Understanding the classification of fungi helps us to better appreciate their unique biological attributes, and once recognized, Kingdom Fungi has remained an independent group of organisms.

    THE MANY PHYLA OF KINGDOM FUNGI
    Fungi are further subdivided into phyla (at least four) and even subphyla, all ending with the suffix “-mycota.” Even at this level, fungi classification has plagued mycologists, who debate such erudite topics as "true" fungus versus "funguslike." Here's one version with three phyla but four groups. 


    The three major phyla of fungi and the Imperfect fungi:
    Zygomycota (spores form from hyphal fusion as in black bread mold);
    funguslike Imperfect fungi (sexual structures not identified as in Penicillium);
    Ascomycota (form spores in sacs as in yeast and truffles);
    Basidiomycota (spores form in the basidium of mushrooms);
    Source Unknown

    Rising above the subtleties of fungal phylogenetics, the various phyla of fungi are distinguished and classified by their differing modes of reproduction and sexual reproductive structures. The majority of the fruiting bodies we see in nature such as mushrooms are produced by members of phylum Basidiomycota. That's what's sprouting all over my neighborhood! So let's investigate mushrooms further.

    INSIDE THE MYSTICAL LIFE CYCLE OF A MUSHROOM
    The fungi of Basidiomycota follow a reproductive cycle that involves the production of spores. Spores released by mature mushrooms begin forming a colony in moist soil when environmental conditions and a suitable substrate are favorable. 


    Spores are very picky as to where they germinate and the time of year. The development of fruitbodies (mushrooms) characteristically doesn't occur during intense cold or dry weather, but that doesn't mean that within the soil, the parent fungi are not reproducing. Also, of great importance is the soil's organic content, pH (which is modified by the presence of tree type), and the particular substate of the decaying host. Many fungus prefer certain trees under which and on which to thrive.  

    Spores germinate by sending fast-growing, slender, branching filaments underground called hyphae, its feeding structures.

    Colored SEM of the fungal hyphae of Penicillium sp.
    Used with permission from psmicrographs.co.uk

    Eventually, the hyphae form a web-like system called a mycelium (Greek for fungus) that permeates through the soil and into its food source. This matrix of intersecting membranes is virtually under every step we take on the ground. Sink a shovel into the soil, and it transects billions of unseen mycelia. More than 90% of plants have a fungus associated with their roots (a mycorrhizae symbiont). It’s the largest biological entity on the planet! Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti says “The world is a mycelial mass.” 

    In fact, the largest single organism on the planet consists of one massive mycelium confirmed by DNA fingerprinting. It's a 2,400 year old, 2,384 acre, conifer-killing, honey fungus called Armillaria that is growing beneath the surface in Oregon's Blue Mountains.

    
    Root-like, white mycelial strands called rhizomorphs are on this overturned rotting log.

    Mushroom emergence begins when the mycelium penetrates the surface as a knot of hyphae called a button. Some buttons germinate wrapped in tissue called a “universal veil” that remains as scales on the mushroom’s cap, while others possess a “partial veil” under the cap that later appears as a ring (annulus) on the stalk.

    The body of the mushroom is filamentous like the buried mycelium, being composed of hyphae that cytoplasmically-communicates with the mycelial “root” structure. Hyphal cells are compartmentalized into segments by ladder-like rungs called septa that are perforated for nutritional conveyance (see inset below).

    Modified from flora-balance.com

    Eventually, a stalk and cap develops as the mushroom prepares for reproduction. Spores are produced on the underside of the cap within the basidium, as mentioned, the spore-producing organ that lends its name to phylum Basidiomycota. Spores cover the basidia of gilled mushrooms, the interior surface of tiny tubes in polypore mushrooms, and the spines of tooth fungi. 

    A gilled mushroom of Phylum Basidiomycota. Other members have teeth and tiny tubes on the basidium.
    Wikipedia

    This one-inch Ganoderma lucidum, a bracket fungus, is just emerging through yard mulch. Notice the tiny holes on the basidium beneath the cap. Spores are produced within tubes that line the underside of the fruitbody and give it a perforated appearance. For this reason, this group of Basidiomycota are sometimes called "polypores."


    

    We’re looking upward (into a mirror) at the spectacular basidium of a mushroom of phylum Basidiomycota.
    Its radiating gills are the spore-producing structures.

    In mushrooms of Basidiomycota, minute spherical basidiospores are attached to the basidium by a hilar appendage. Each spore contains one haploid nucleus with a single set of chromosomes. I'll attempt to make sense of that in a minute.

    Wikipedia
      
    Differences in reproductive structures distinguish and categorize the phyla of fungi. The following are examples of reproductive structures of the Basidiomycota fungi.
     
    
      
    BALLISTOSPORY (SPORE DISCHARGE)
    Mushrooms release spores into the flow of air beneath their caps with the intent of dispersal away from the parent. The basidium literally shoots the spores into the air using a hydraulic, spring mechanism. A tiny water droplet called a Buller’s drop (A) forms at the base of the spore in response to its release of a hydrophilic (water-loving) sugar. The sugar solution draws moisture from the air causing the drop to grow. As the surface tension lowers, the drop suddenly snaps onto the spore, akin to adjacent water droplets that snap together. The force catapults the spore away from the basidial tip (B) to populate the wind.
     
    A Buller's drop catapults the spore from the hilar appendage
    Modified from Carlile & Watkinson, (1994)
     
    We can now fully appreciate the significance of a mushroom’s umbrella-like shape in protecting the spores from rain, keeping the air still in the micro-environment under the cap, and preventing premature evaporation from the basidium. 
     
    BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND
    Most spores take advantage of the wind for dispersal, although some rely on insects and small animals as vectors of dissemination. Tiny spores (some no more than 10 µm) translates into travelling great distances. Once ejected, gentle breezes carry fungal spores aloft, millions per cubic meter, along with plant pollen, bacteria and viruses. The air is “full of invisible biology.” We’re bathed in it and consume it with every breath. They shower the earth and fall upon everything, as hayfever sufferers well know.
     
     
    A spore print is helpful in identifying mushrooms based on spore color, brown in this case.
    Notice the basidium lining the gills on the cap’s underside, the reproductive structure of the mushroom. 
       
    Left overnight, the basidium showers the paper with billions of spores that mimic the structure
    of the mushroom's gills. This is an infinitesimally small fraction of what becomes airborne. 

    SURVIVAL MATHEMATICS
    Mother Nature discharges gargantuan numbers of spores (2.7 billion daily per fruiting body at 31,000 per second), but most of them fall on dry, nutritionless hostile substrates. It’s the mathematics of survival. The plan is that a large number of “inoculating” spores will eventually alight on preferential food sources and begin to germinate. In her wisdom, she not only created spore-producing factories and spore-launching catapults but designed aerodynamic spores for optimum dispersal.


    A myriad of shapes of spores facilitate their catapultation through the air.
    From Ernst Haeckel’s "Kunstformen der Natur" and WikiMedia Commons

    “MAKIN’ LOVE IN THE DIRT”
    Fungi’s mode of reproduction differs significantly from other lifeforms and is a complex process. Depending on the species and the environmental conditions, fungi may reproduce sexually or asexually (or even both, about one-third), but the majority of species require sex between consenting colonies.


    Asexual spores are produced by mitotic cell division. It occurs by budding or simply when a mycelium fragments apart. The mushroom produces genetically identical, DNA-copied, clonal spores. Asexual reproduction might seem to lack advantages since genetic exchange and diversity does not take place. But, it produces large number of spores quickly, a huge survival benefit. 

    Sexual reproduction, on the other hand, occurs by the process of meiosis. It requires two organisms and occurs with the fusion of hyphal nuclei within the basidium. Since DNA is exchanged, genetic diversity is ensured amongst the offspring. That provides “raw material” for natural selection to act upon and sets the stage for evolution to occur.

    THE SEXUAL LIFE CYCLE OF A MUSHROOM (HOPEFULLY MADE REALLY SIMPLE)
    The reproductive challenge for the parent fungus is to produce a spore on its mushroom for the next generation. The spore must be haploid (written as n), which contains a nucleus from each parent (that's why it's sexual reproduction) with a single set of unpaired chromosomes. In that regard, a spore is similar to a sperm and egg. But spores don't merge. There are no fungal males and females, and the spores actually form a new fungal organism BEFORE exchanging genetic information. 

    Here's what it looks like visually. It's easier to see the process.

    From the Diversity of Fungi by Mark Steinmetz and ca.bdol.glencoe.com

    STEP BY STEP GUIDE TO THE LIFE CYCLE OF A MUSHROOM
    A – Haploid (n) spores are released from the basidium.
    B - Once dispersed, spores germinate and form a haploid (n) mycelial network.
    C - Suitable hyphal mating types (+ or -) attract, followed by cytoplasmic fusion but without nuclei fusion (called plasmogamy). The new dikaryotic (two kernels) mycelium (n + n) has two unfused nuclei per cell (called the heterokaryon stage).
    D – The dikaryotic mycelium grows and forms a button below the surface.

    E - As a mushroom forms, two nuclei in each cell fuse on the basidium forming a diploid (2n) nucleus (called karyogamy).
    F– Each diploid nucleus undergoes meiosis (cell division halving the chromosomal number) and forms four haploid (n) nuclei, which develop into spores (zygotes). The spores are ready to be released to the environment, genetically “new” (sexually) rather than mitotically-cloned (asexually).


    AN INVITATION
    Please accompany me through my neighborhood on post Part II to see what sprouted overnight. Here’s a few samples. Can you identify them?

    This young mushroom, possibly a Pluteus, is just beginning to emerge.

    These delicate bracket fungi Trichaptum abietinum are fruiting on a downed conifer.

    This white, spherical puffball is precariously fruiting on a rotting branch.
    Its spores are produced within the fruitbody and are discharged when provoked.

    
    This common and highly recognizable red-capped mushroom of Genus Russula
    has skin that can be pulled off but is brittle when handled, a depressed cap and a striated margin.

    SPECIAL THANKS
    With great appreciation, I thank professional mycologist Taylor Lockwood and amateur “mushroom expert” Michael Kuo for their expertise in identifying many of the more obscure mushrooms in my neighborhood. Their respective links are below.


    VERY INFORMATIVE PUBLISHED RESOURCES
    Kingdom Fungi by Steven L. Stephenson
    Mushroom by Nicholas P. Money
    Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora
    Mushrooms of Northeast North America by George Barron
    Mushrooms, Simon and Schuster’s Guide by Gary H. Lincoff


    VERY INFORMATIVE LINKS
    Tom Volk here
    Michael Kuo here
    Michael Wood here
    Taylor Lockwood here
    North American Mycological Association here

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  • 10/20/13--17:56: John Wesley Powell
  • Geologist
    Scientist
    Explorer of the American West
    Expedition Leader
    Author
    Teacher
    Ethnologist
    Anthropologist
    Civil War Major in the Union Army
    Amputee
    Director of the United States Geological Survey
    Director of the Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution
     
    Born March 24, 1834 in Mount Morris, New York
    Died September 23, 1902 in Haven Colony, Brooklin, Maine
    Buried in the Arlington National Cemetery
    alongside his wife Emma Dean

     
     
     
    "We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. Our boats...are chafing each other, as they are tossed by the fretful river. We have but a month’s rations remaining. The flour has been resifted through the mosquito-net sieve; the spoiled bacon has been dried. . . the sugar has all melted and gone on its way down the river. We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance, as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs, that rise to the world above; they are but puny ripples, and we are but pygmies, running up and down the sands, or lost among the boulders. We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not."
     
     
     
     
    “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”

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    Mushrooms and toadstools. Mold and mildew. Puffballs and earthballs. Jellies and slime. Rusts and smuts. Stinkhorns and bloodfoots. The only thing more colorful than their names is their staggering diversity and bizarre biologies. This post is a continuation of the mycological mission I initiated in Part I (here), in which I discussed the lifecycle of the mushroom. In this final fungi post, I document some of the more remarkable specimens sprouting in my yard and down the street.
     
    Amanita muscaria var. guessowii
    “Esteemed by both maggots and mystics” (David Arora), this hemispherical-shaped, yellow-capped, conifer-loving beauty is known as the American Eastern Yellow Fly Agaric. The “fly” designation, according to one source, refers to its use in Eastern Europe as an insecticide, supposedly lethal to flies when mixed with milk.



    The warts on the cap’s surface are remnants of the “universal veil”
    that shrouded the juvenile mushroom as it germinated through the soil.

    Amanita is a study in contradictions. While some are wildly hallucinogenic and delicious beyond compare, a few are the most toxic of all mushrooms with names such Death Cap and Destroying Angel. After the ingestion of a toxic Amanita, it can take a few days for symptoms to appear, which is particularly dangerous since its toxins insidiously demolish one’s kidneys and liver.

    In his memoires, Voltaire recounted Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI’s death from eating sautéed amanita as, “The dish of mushrooms that changed the destiny of Europe.” Because amanita resembles several other edible species, fungiphile and author Arora warns, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

    Of the 16,000 species of mushrooms identified by mycologists, the red and white-spotted fly agaric
    is the iconic mushroom. It's often referred to as a toadstool due to its poisonous and psychoactive properties.
    From 1zoom.net

    Omphalotus illudens
    Like an annual time clock during the second week of August, dense clusters of bright orange mushrooms appear at the foot of an aging oak down the street. With the same regularity, my neighbor frustratingly digs up the crop in hopes of eradicating it, only to see it return the following year. Picking apples in an attempt to eradicate the tree is futile. As long as the "rooted" mycelium remains viable within the soil, the fungus will continue to spawn new mushrooms.


    Mushrooms are fruiting through a crack in the sidewalk where the tree’s roots have barely broken the surface.

    Omphalotus is also known as the Jack O’Lantern mushroom likely due to its pumpkin-color, although some sources attribute the name to its eerie property of neon-green bioluminescence. About 90 species of fungi glow in the dark along with certain bacteria, algae, marine creatures and insects such as the familiar firefly. Anyone can observe it in a forest on a dark summer’s night, although I’ve failed to photograph the phenomenon in my dark basement three years running.

    From champignons.moselle.free.fr.


    Some references state that bioluminosity occurs at all stages of the fungi’s lifecycle, while others indicate that it only occurs in fresh specimens in which spores are still forming, so timing is critical. Light-emission is the result of oxidation involving an enzyme called luciferase. One theory is that insects receptive to the emissions are attracted to the luminescence, which assists in spore dispersal.

    The mushroom caps start out flat but become centrally depressed, eventually becoming wavy and lobed.

    Omphalotus is frequently mistaken for its lookalike, the prized chanterelle mushroom Cantharellus, a $1.5 billion global market, hence its occasional reference as False Chanterelle. The similarity is potentially hazardous, since chanterelles are highly edible and our Jack O’Lantern is deadly poisonous. Muscarine, its neurotoxin, produces GI symptoms, visual disturbances, irregular pulse and respiratory failure.

    In Polish, there’s a phrase, "A sapper (field soldier) and a mushroom collector make a mistake only once." In spite of its toxicity, Irofulven, a chemically modified version of the mushroom’s toxin, is currently undergoing clinical trials as an anti-tumor agent.

    Coprinus plicata
    With a delicate, pleated cap, many of the Coprinus mushrooms are extremely ephemeral, often lasting only a few hours in the morning. The reason is that its gills autolyse (self-digest) and deliquesce (turn to liquid) at maturity into a black, inky fluid that drips to the ground, hence their common name of Inky Caps. Autodigestion is a unique method of spore dispersal. As the spores at the mushroom’s periphery ripen first, the release of enzymes causes the cap to curl back spreading the gills and discharging the spores into the air. What’s left is a ragged stalk.


    The autodigestive-spore releasing process is recalled in Shelley’s memorable lines of The Sensitive Plant:

    “Their mass rotted off them, flake by flake
    Till the thick stalk stuck like a murderer’s stake;
    Where rags of loose flesh yet tremble on high,
    Infecting the winds that wander by.”
     
    



    Ionotus tomentosus
    This leathery bracket fungus is primarily a pathogen of spruce forests but also infects other evergreens. It was fruiting in my back yard at the base of a tall, old spruce. It’s frequently associated with infections of tree roots and their mortality. Last year, I cut down two nearby spruces and wonder if this one will be next. The fungus is often associated with spruce beetles.
     

    
     
    It’s a member of phylum Basidiomycota (see post Part I here), but rather than gills, its spores are produced within tiny, circular tubes that line the undersurface of the fruitbody. That gives the surface a perforated appearance, hence the fungi’s alternate name of polypore.  
     
     
    


    Ganoderma applanatum 
    In New England, it’s very common to find massive, slow-growing, beeches on the grounds of stately old homes, churches and cemeteries, planted for their dense shade and botanical grandeur. For years, this thin-barked beech up the street began to host an array of huge bracket fungi on its south-facing side. Passersby couldn’t resist stopping for a look. I took the presence of the fungi as an indication of ill health. Sadly, this summer the majestic tree suddenly became leafless and was cut down. It left a huge void both on the ground and amongst the canopy of the surrounding trees.





    Appearing somewhat near the base of the tree, the polypore is gray to brown in color, and often green with algae. They are also called Artists’ Conks since lasting pictures can be carved onto their undersurface. When they fruit on live trees, they are often parasitic and allow insects and woodpeckers to invade the bark.

    Its layers are an indication of its age. A large specimen can liberate up to 30 billion spores a day for 6 months of the year. Multiply that by its age of about 10 years for the polypore seen below! High spore production illustrates the mathematics of survival, since most spores fall upon a nutritionless, hostile substrate.




    Fomitopsis pinicola
    Like Ganoderma, this Red-Banded polypore is a common, perennial bracket fungus that was boldly attached to another spruce in my back yard. Its concentrically grooved bands of yellow to orange and red, its thick pizza crust margin, and its resin-coated surface make it both hard to miss and misidentify. Its preference is dead wood (conifers in particular), rotting logs and stumps rather than live trees.





    Scleroderma citrinum
    This Earthball, along with related puffballs, earthstars, bird’s nest fungi and stinkhorns, produces its spores inside the fruitbody rather than on the undersurface of mushrooms. At maturity, the fruitbody ruptures, such as during a rain, exposing a purple-brown spore-mass, freeing the spores to inoculate the wind. Unlike puffballs that develop an aperture through which the spores escape, earthballs break up to release their bounty.


    This spherical yellow-brown Earthball with its ornately decorated, raised mosaic pattern was fruiting in the woods in my neighborhood. They’re all classified as Gasteromycetes or “stomach fungi.”




    Fusicolla merismoides (possibly)
    Also in the woods, this amoeba-like slime mold appeared after a soaking summer rain. The gelatinous oozing, vomitous blob looked like something out of a B-movie. Slime molds (mould is the British version) produce spores and thus were formerly classified as Fungi, but many taxonomists consider them as protists (see post Part I for a taxonomic explanation here). Since mycologists traditionally group and discuss them with fungi, so have I, especially since they appeared along with the mushrooms this summer.


    Typically found on soil, lawns, mulch and on the forest floor where shady and damp, they can travel several feet and climb any object to feed on microorganisms that live on dead plant material such as bacteria and fungi, and contribute to its decomposition. The slime searches for a host, surrounds it, and then secretes enzymes to digest it. Protoplasm at the cell’s periphery creates a type of movement called “shuttle streaming.”




    Slime molds, while brainless, are smarter than they look. Amazingly, some are capable of navigating and solving an agar maze in search of food. This display of “intelligence” occurs by anticipating thermal changes at predictable time intervals. When it’s time to fruit they even migrate to a more desirable site for spore dispersal, often quickly at night to minimize the risk of dehydration. Despite being a single cell, each part of the plasmodium reacts to environmental information independently. By combining the reactions, the mass responds without even a conscious thought. “Nothing can stop it!”

    Wikipedia


    Fuligo septica
    The yellowish, bile-colored Dog Vomit (or Scrambled Egg) slime mold was believed to be used by witches to spoil their neighbors’ milk. I found this specimen hiding under a rotting log in a nearby woods. Like the slime above, the amoeboid mass migrates in search of nutrients. Under adverse conditions such as dryness or cold temperatures, the slime can form a hardened, resistant structure called a sclerotium, which is capable of reforming and reinitiating its protoplasmic exploitations.




    Its yellow pigment, fuligorubin A, chelates metals and converts then into inactive forms, which accounts for the slimes high resistance to toxic levels of metals (up to 20,000 ppm). The pigment is also thought to be involved in photoreception for purposes of energy. Not that you’re tempted, but it’s inedible.

    Genus Ramaria (possibly)
    Another member of phylum Basidiomycota, coral fungi come in many colors, and many are tasty. The fruitbody is densely branched and fruits on the ground in woods. Although related to mushrooms and not the marine animal for which they resemble, corals bear no anatomical likeness to mushrooms. But like the undersurface of mushrooms’ caps, their many branches provide a high surface area for the basidia, the spore-producing structure of the fungus, similar to mushroom’s gills, pores, teeth and folds (see Part I).


    There are many forms of coral fungi, originally lumped into one unwieldy genus. Now there are over 30 genera, looking coral-like due to convergent evolution.



    Lichens
    My “Neighborhood Fungus Watch” wouldn’t be complete without mention of the ubiquitous gray-green rosettes on trees, tangled masses of hair suspended from branches, miniature goblets on the ground and yellow-orange crusts on rocks. Lichens are neither plants nor single organisms but are “miniature ecosystems” (Hinds). 


    They are a partnership of two, and sometimes three, lifeforms that coexist as one for their mutual benefit. It’s a symbiotic association between a species of fungus (the mycobiont) and a species of photosynthetic algae (a photobiont, usually Trebouxia).




    The algal component is either eukaryotic green algae or prokaryotic blue-green algae (explained in Part I). With over 14,000 species to date, lichens are classified within Kingdom Fungi based on the Latin name of the fungal partner (which is usually an Ascomycota or “cup” fungi), since the relationship is largely fungal (90%). Therefore, lichens are often referred to as “lichenized” fungi. Most of the vegetative body of the lichen, called the thallus, is formed by the fungus.

    The algal component lives not within the actual cells of the fungus but sandwiched within the body of the fungus (the medulla) between the upper and lower fungal cortex. Anastomosing hyphae form a loosely arranged network that are in communication with the algal cells. Strands of root-like hyphae (rhizines) attach the lichen to the substrate.


    Schematic cross section through the thallus (body) of a flat, leaf-like (foliose) lichen.
    From suboptimist.wordpress.com

    The algal member provides energy to the fungus in the form of manufactured simple carbs such as glucose or sorbitol. In return, the alga gets a happy home with a favorable microenvironment from desiccation, protection from excessive UV radiation and mineral nutrients from the attachment-substrate and the atmosphere. Most vascular plants would be incapable of populating the lichen’s exposed, inhospitable, nutrient-poor habitats.

    Therein lies the enigma of lichens! They are the hardiest of “plants” capable of surviving arctic cold, desert heat and extreme drought. In a 2005 test, lichens even survived 15 days of exposure to the vacuum of space on a Russian rocket. Yet, they are incredibly sensitive to pollution since they absorb water and nutrients from the air. Devoid of lichens, industrial regions of the world are referred to as “lichen deserts.” In my nearby Boston, you don’t start seeing lichen-covered rock walls until several miles from the city until reaching the “clean air” of the suburbs. Thus, lichens are bio-indicators of air quality. There's even a profound association between lichen presence and a reduced risk of lung cancer. Another reason to look down at the ground!

    Lichens are divided into groups or growth forms based on modes of substrate attachment. The three most common are: crustose (crust-like), foliose (leaf-like) and fruticose (long and hairy often with cups).

    Evernia prunastri is an antler-like fruticose (hairy), “oakmoss” lichen that favors growth on decaying oak.
    They are commercially harvested in Europe and sent to France for their fragrant compounds used in perfumes.
    Typically growing on bare, exposed rock especially at high elevations, this mosaic of Rhizocarpon geographicum is a crustose (crust-like) “map” lichen that is tightly adherent to the rock substrate and even within the substrate. Several species of crustose lichens often occur together on the same substrate. Lichenometry is used by climatologists to date rockslides and glacial deposits such as moraine systems based upon their slow growth rate. 
    Flavoparmelia caperata is a foliose (leaf-like), “common greenshield” lichen on a tree. Powdered forms have been used to treat burns in Mexico. Native Americans have used similar forms for dyes. The basic pattern of growth for lichens is to expand centripetally from the point of origination. This gives the thallus a rounded appearance and allows an estimation of the rate of its growth. Like rocks that exhibit appreciable differences in their physical and chemical properties, the barks of trees have varying textures, moisture-carrying capacities and chemistires such as pH. Thus, lichens show specificities as to their preferential substrates.

     Amazing lichen facts that your friends probably don’t know:
    1.) Lichen symbiosis may have been one of the first steps in the colonization of land. In the Precambrian, lichens may have lowered CO2 levels sufficiently to plunge the Earth into global glaciation typified by Snowball Earth between 750-580 Mya. Their eventual terrestrial colonization may have raised the atmospheric O2 levels enough to permit the Cambrian Explosion.
    2.) Lichens can physically weather a granite substrate by penetrating intergranular surface boundaries, voids and cleavage planes. The swelling and contraction of hyphae can then break up the rock. They can chemically weather granite by leaching out potassium and iron. On calcareous (limestone) rocks, lichens produce weak acids that dissolve the substrate.
    3.) Beatrix Potter, the celebrated author of Peter Rabbit fame, was a pioneering mycologist who studied and experimented with fungus germination under the microscope as early as 1887. She published Les Champignons on fungus and lichens with over 65 original, watercolor drawings. Her scientific fungal paper was read by a male colleague before the men-only Linnaean Society of London, but it was rejected from publication because of her gender. Fortunately for children everywhere, her artistic talents found creativity elsewhere.
    4.)  Fungi and algae, although capable of forming an intimate partnership, are totally unrelated phylogenetically. Fungi and humans share a common ancestor and are more closely related. One would expect that all lichens are more closely related than they would be to other fungi. Instead, the lichen partnership has evolved a myriad of times, because the DNA and genes of different lichen species are more closely related to non-lichen fungi than they are to other lichen. (Gargas et al, Multiple origins of lichen symbiosis in fungi suggested by SSU rDNA phylogeny. Science 268: 1492-1495, 1995).


    Nudgers and shovers
    In spite of ourselves.
    Our kind multiplies:
    We shall by morning
    Inherit the earth.
    Our foot’s in the door.
     
    Mushrooms in The Collected Poems by S. Plath, 1959


     
    SPECIAL THANKS
    With great appreciation, I thank professional mycologist Taylor Lockwood and amateur “mushroom expert” Michael Kuo for their expertise in identifying many of the more obscure mushrooms in my neighborhood. Their respective links are below.

    VERY INFORMATIVE PUBLISHED RESOURCES
    Kingdom Fungi by Steven L. Stephenson
    Macrolichens of New England by James W. and Patricia L. Hinds
    Mushroom by Nicholas P. Money
    Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora
    Mushrooms of Northeast North America by George Barron
    Mushrooms, Simon and Schuster’s Guide by Gary H. Lincoff

    VERY INFORMATIVE LINKS
    Tom Volk here

    Michael Kuo here
    Michael Wood here
    Taylor Lockwood here
    North American Mycological Association here

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    Virtually every geology-based road trip I've been on has had its share of unforgettable side trips, off beat detours and unplanned turn offs. The best part, second to the geology, was the adventure of the unexpected and the inexplicable waiting at every turn.

    That’s when you see the unusual signage, the eccentric pieces of art, the unique architecture, the kitschy sculptures, the cheesy tourist stops, the poignant juxtapositions, and all the wacky, tacky, bizarre and oddball attractions that are so characteristic of Roadside America. It’s also when you find remnants of vanishing America - the diners, drive-ins, juke-joints and storefronts that have been thoughtfully preserved or recklessly abandoned to the ravages of time. 

    Here's what I stumbled on this November while traveling with my friend and geologist  Wayne Ranney on the roads and backroads between Phoenix, Arizona and the Mexican border. This is my third post in this series in what has become a tradition following our geological excursions. The other two may be found in the "Index to Topics" in the column to the right under "Roadside America."
     

    Outside Clifton, Arizona (2012 population of 3,447), its drive-in theatre has become pastureland. Along with nearby Morenci, the region rose to prominence subsequent to the discovery of copper in 1872. Drive-ins were an innovation of the 1950’s. An icon of American civilization, they were a perfect marriage of Hollywood and the automobile. Once a mainstay of every American city and many rural towns, the country had over 4,000 during the 60’s. They provided the family with a night out together, and for teenagers, you know what else. In the 70's and 80's, the industry gradually succumbed to competition from cable, movie rentals, digital media and land development. As of this writing, Arizona still has two with 357 still clinging to life nationally, spurned by a “Save the Drive-In" movement.
     

    On the foothills of the Superstition Mountains (home of the Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine), for a small town such as Apache Junction in south-central Arizona on Route 88, signage was an essential component in getting a car to pull over in the 50’s and 60’s. Kovac's Corner was a beer and chicken joint that burned down years ago. They broasted chicken using a pressure fryer. The Broaster Company of Beloit, Wisconsin licensed their trademark to over 5,510 purchasers of their equipment that followed their cooking specifications, recipes and certification process. Sounds like the beginning of fast food to me!
     

    Literally across the street, beer and chicken headline a newer version of the menu today. Nothing gets my digestive juices flowing more than an enormous chicken alongside my table.
     

    This turn of the century, headboard-fence in Bisbee, Arizona caught my eye. In 1880, Bisbee was founded as a copper, gold and silver mining town, named after Judge DeWitt Bisbee who financially backed the adjacent Copper Queen Mine. Mining in the Mule Mountains was incredibly successful back in the early 1900's with Bisbee soaring in growth AND culture. In 1917, the open pit mine fulfilled the heavy copper demands of World War I, but in 1975 the Phelps Dodge Corporation halted its Bisbee mining operations. The resulting mass exodus of workers might have been the end of the town, but mine tours and tourism revived the local economy. Today, "Old" Bisbee, the town above the Lavender Pit Mine, has gone from "Copper to Culture." It's totally reborn as a haven for artists, hippies and everyone wanting fresh mountain air, gentrification in a renovated period bungalow, the local cuisine or a romantic night in an antique-filled hotel.
     

    I did a double-take at this New Age front on an old building-cum-home in Bisbee. One can only imagine the sheek decor inside. During its mining heyday, Bisbee produced nearly 25% of the world's copper and was the largest city in the Southwest between Saint Louis and San Francisco.
     

    This "masthead" decorates one corner of the building.
     

    
    This demising wall across the street was intensely muralled. Notice the graffiti proclaiming "Old Bisbee."
     

    And this creative gallery sign was next door. The "Five C's" of Arizona's economy are: Cattle, Copper, Citrus, Cotton and Climate. Bisbee deserves a sixth "C" for Creative.
     

    Here's a 60's mega food-sculpture in newer Bisbee, down in the flats below the Lavender Pit mine.
    Bisbee is the nation's southernmost mile-high city.
     
    Prior to 1906, Tortilla Flat in south-central Arizona was a stagecoach stopover on the Yavapai Trail between Tonto Basin and the Salt River Valley. Later, as the Apache Trail, it became a freight road for the construction of the 1911 Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River that flows through Phoenix. The flat became an important supply stop on the road. Today, the trail is officially Arizona Highway 88, while Tortilla Flat lures travelers for lunch and ice cream. Within its handful of stores, over 100,000 single dollar bills are plastered over the walls, rafters and ceilings of every room, including the rest rooms. The name "Tortilla Flat" supposedly originated from the cowboys who drove cattle from Globe to Phoenix, who camped at the flat having forgotten to pack flour to make their tortillas. An alternative explanation offers the rock strata stacked like tortillas.
     

    Believe me now?
     

    
    Arizonans are an independent and courageous lot. Apparently, this individual took the "No Smoking!" warning at the pumps as merely a suggestion rather than a really good idea. "It's never gone off yet!" Note "Safety Award" on the right sleeve. Needless to say, we departed rather quickly. Location shall remain unmentioned.
     
      
    Mobil was previously known as the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company back in the 1930's. Socony stood for Standard Oil Company of New York. It was an American oil company which merged with Exxon in 1999 to form ExxonMobil. Today, Mobil continues as a major brand name within the combined company, as well as still being a gas station. This weather beaten sign hangs above Arizona Highway 60 in the center of Miami, Arizona. Miami is a another classic Western copper boomtown, though its copper mines are largely dormant now. In an incipient revival akin to Bisbee's, the old downtown has been partly renovated, and low-cost housing is attracting new residents with an artsy and antique flare. It's only a matter of time.
     
      
    Also in Miami is a vestige of another vanishing tradition, the "Blue Plate Special." Originally served on a blue plate with partitions for a meat and three vegetables, a low priced meal was served by diners and cafes back in the 20's through the 50's. It was a good deal but "No Substitutions." A Blue Plate Special has become a colloquial expression for an inexpensive full meal but also connotes any good deal with "all the fixins." This sign on an abandoned diner has received a new coat of paint. Maybe Miami's revival will reopen the kitchen.
     
      
    In Miami, a preservationist-minded individual is holding on to the past. On Live Oak Street (U.S. 80), this Art Deco style gas station was literally a museum both inside and out - old cars, vending machines, tools, signs. Notice the building's white, tiled facade, period glass bricks and rounded corners.
     
      
    When was the last time you saw a gas pump that looked like this? That's glass not plastic!
     
      
    Unbeknownst to the casual observer driving through town and not even a half mile from the main street resides the massive Miami Copper Mine. Along with the mining town of Globe seven miles to the east, they lie in the foothills of the Pinal Mountains within the Arizona Silver Belt dating back to the 1870's. In the 1880's, the price of silver fell, while copper rose exponentially. The porphyry copper deposits were in bodies of ore that were disseminated through the rock mass rather than in concentrated veins and pockets, hence the development of the massive pit mine.
     
      
    In far southern Arizona, this sign was a first for me. Any guesses precisely where we are?
     
      
    Here's a hint.
     
     
    We're in Naco, Arizona, at the Border Fence or Wall between Mexico and the United States. 96.6% of apprehensions along the 1,951-mile border between the two countries occurs along the country's southwest boundary and traverses a variety of terrains including urban areas and deserts. The barrier strategically exists where illegal crossings and drug trafficking have existed in the past. In addition to the physical barrier, a "virtual fence" of motion sensors and video cameras watches everything and everyone that moves. Note three of them on tall poles down the road. We counted over two dozen white Border Patrol vehicles on maneuvers in one hour. Critics in Arizona and Texas assert that the fence adversely isolates endangered species in critical migration corridors and jeopardizes fragile ecosystems much the way roads and canals have compartmentalized the Florida Everglades (recent post here). In 2010, a Rasmussens Reports survey indicated that 68% of Americans are in favor of the U.S.-Mexico Border Fence.
     
      
    Where would Clark Kent have gone nowadays to make a quick change into Superman? Probably Starbucks. Statistics-websites state that there are currently only four outdoor telephone booths left in New York City. Thinking for a minute, I wouldn't know where to find one in my home town. The once-ubiquitous "street closet" is becoming increasingly difficult to find for obvious reasons, and towns nationally are requesting that they be removed as an unkempt, albeit stench-filled eyesore. Recently, Verizon announced that it would start providing wireless computer connectivity in the vicinity of its previous phone booths in Manhattan. Think about that for a moment. On an ironic note, no one heard your private conversations if you made them from a public phone booth, but virtually everyone within earshot hears everything you say on a wireless phone. This one in the rural hamlet of Portal, in southeastern Arizona, has been stripped of its essential item - the phone. At least the booth is still there for Clark! Geologically, Portal is at the mouth of a canyon referred to as the Yosemite of Arizona. The region is also a mecca for birders.
     
      
    This store or perhaps a gas station with its setback from the road still retains its old West facade. We're near the mini-hamlet (year 2000 population of 309) of Elgin. It's the first location in Arizona to engage in commercial winemaking, which we experienced first hand.
     
      
    Right next door was an antique railroad car gradually decomposing into the landscape.
    You never know what you're gonna find.
     
      
    Back in Tucson, after a 1,300-mile geological road trip and mystery tour, we got an early start to investigate the metamorphic core complexes that encompass the valley. I did a double take at this raptorian red light.
     
     
    Thanks again, Wayne.

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    In the Tucson Mountains west of Tucson, Arizona, lies the unsuspecting rocky outcrop of Signal Hill. Just a short hike from the scenic Bajada Loop Drive through the Sonoran Desert in Saguaro National Park West brings you to the hillock’s rubble-covered crest of sun-baked boulders where a millennium-old gallery of petroglyphs (Greek for "stone-carvings") is on display.

    Members of the pre-Columbian Hohokam (HO-HO-kam) created the rock renderings with a stone and hammerstone. By chipping, incising and abrading through a micro-thin, dark coating of desert varnish into the lighter, underlying rock, they fashioned images commonly called rock art. Leaving no written history, the images afford us an opportunity to look into the past and gain insight into the Hohokam's lives and thoughts. 


    This High Dynamic Range photograph centers on a one-foot diameter Hohokam spiral geometric.


    "THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE"
    The Hohokam people thrived in central and southern Arizona from about 400 to 1450 AD. They were farmers, hunters and gatherers, who built over 1,000 miles of elaborate canals in the Phoenix area and cultivated crops of corn, cotton, squash and beans. In the region of Signal Hill, they occupied the river valleys and deserts between the Tucson Mountains and the Rincons.



    From tucsonarizonahistory.tripod.com


    After thriving in the Sonoran Desert for over 1,000 years, Hohokam society began to decline and collapse over the course of several generations. During the Protohistoric Period, between the Hohokam occupation and Spanish contact, the area appears to have been occupied by Sobiapuri (Upper Pimam) and Tohono O'odham people. 


    When Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500's, they found Hohokam villages in ruins. Their fate is both controversial and mysterious, whether related to droughts, soil depletion, warfare, disease or internal strife. Archaeologists that search for clues also look for direct links to indigenous Native Americans like the O’odham Nation that practice Hohokam’s desert traditions such as the annual saguaro cactus fruit harvest. 

    COMMUNICATION, DECORATION OR CULTURAL REFLECTION?
    The Hohokam’s petroglyphs at Signal Hill are reminiscent of life forms such as snakes, lizards, bighorn sheep, dogs, plants and stick-figure humans, but the majority are abstract geometrics of circles, spirals and lines. Their meaning remains unknown, whether pre-historic graffiti, artistic, symbolic conveyance of a message to passersby or their descendants, astronomical, religious or ceremonial. Perhaps their significance lies in the very act of creating the images rather than the message they convey.


    Petroglyphs litter the crest of Signal Hill seen from the trail


    PETROGLYPHS AND PICTOGRAPHS
    Found throughout the Southwest, and in fact worldwide, desert varnish is the canvas on which many Native American cultures engraved their rock art. Pictographs are often confused with petroglyphs, which are literally drawn or painted on rock faces with naturally-occurring pigments made from clays and minerals. Pictographs are not as durable as petroglyphs unless located in protected settings such as rock shelters or caves. 




    DESERT VARNISH
    Desert varnish is typically found on resistant rock surfaces that are subjected to periodic wetting and drying in arid regions of the world. "Rock" varnish is a more appropriate term, since it also occurs in tropical, arctic and alpine environments. Its coating ends with an abrupt boundary on rocky substrates. The sharp demarcation is suggestive that it is derived from external sources. A long standing debate exists as to whether the varnish's formation is microbially-mediated, deposited by inorganic processes or more likely a combination of biological, physical and chemical processes.





    Micro-fungi have been cultured from the varnish, but it remains unclear whether fungi or bacteria precipitate the varnish or if microbial components complex with metals in the varnish-forming process. It has been theorized that the varnish’s thin patina protects underlying microbes from exposure to desiccation and UV radiation. The following schematics summarize three popular models for the formation of desert varnish.

    
    
    Three schematic models of varnish formation showing: evaporative leaching of the underlying rock substrate followed by re-precipitation (a process whereby varnish develops from the inside out); diagenesis of detrital dust particles after accretion to the substrate; and direct chemical precipitation of dissolved atmospheric trace-metal components in rain water, fog droplets and aerosols (a model which explains varnish's conspicuous association with moist surfaces which favor microbial colonization). HFSE's are high field strength elements: Zr, Nb, Hf and Ta. REE are rare-earth elements. See author's article for detailed explanation.
    Modified from Thiagarajan and Lee (2004)


    Numerous chemical elements are found in varnish but predominantly clays and oxides of manganese and iron, making it appear black and reddish-brown, and at far greater levels than the neighboring substrate and soils. Mixtures of oxides are responsible for intermediate shades of brown. The varnish is almost as hard as quartz and yet extremely thin, commonly a hundredth of a millimeter in thickness (<200 µm). 

    It takes thousands to tens of thousands of years to coat a rock with varnish in the arid conditions of the Southwest with growth rates from <1 to 40 µm per thousand years. That qualifies desert varnish as the slowest forming terrestrial sedimentary deposit! Varnish's structure appears micro-laminated in microscopic cross-section, reminiscent of a stromatolite's onion-layered macro-stratification. 

    Attempts to utilize varnish for paleo-dating have proven unreliable; however, its usage as a paleo-climate indicator does shows promise. Incidentally, varnish may have planetary analogues, Mars in particular, which has fueled speculation of its potential usefulness in the search for life on other planets. 

    THE ROCKS
    The bedrock rock type in the immediate region of Signal Hill is granodiorite, a coarse-grained, intrusive igneous rock intermediate in composition between granite and diorite. These rocks were generated within a volcanic caldera, a collapsed magma chamber, at the end of the Cretaceous from a subduction zone (Sevier-Laramide compression) at the continent’s western margin, a time when at least seven volcanoes were active in southeastern Arizona.

    Long after the cessation of volcanic activity and related to continued plate subduction with an altered geometry around 30-35 million years ago, extension (pulling-apart) and heat from within the Earth's crust separated the landscape into linear ranges with intervening basins. Portions of the extinct caldera were faulted upward into a range, the Tucson Mountains, while other portions dropped into the nearby basin and were covered by basin fill sediment.



    Bedrock map showing relationship of "upper plate" Tucson Mountains and "lower plate" Catalinas with the Tucson Valley basin intervening. Note the location of the Catalina detachment fault.
    Modified from Arizona Geological Survey's Open File Report OFR 06-01
     

    Brittle, faulted-blocks of the Tucson Mountains represent an unmetamorphosed “upper plate” (not to be confused with a tectonic plate) of an arched "metamorphic core complex." Complexes are enigmatic, controversial and only recently described geologic features of Arizona’s Basin and Range province.  The Tucson-upper plate slid off (detached) from the “lower plate” along an intervening, near-horizontal “detachment fault”, which bowed upward into a blister-like uplift.

    Uplift occurs in response to tectonic denudation (i.e. erosion) and the inflow of hot, middle crust. Portions of the lower plate are exposed by erosion and others lay buried within the Tucson basin (called a graben, German for grave). The metamorphic core of the “lower plate”, stretched and deformed plastically rather than brittlely, forms the Santa Catalina Mountains across the basin. These domal uplifts are not confined to the Basin and Range of Arizona but follow a sinuous belt from southern Canada to northwestern Mexico. 


    
    Schematic formation of the Tucson-Santa Catalina metamorphic core complex.
    Note that the west to east perspective in the diagram is opposite that of the bedrock map.
    A, Tucson Mountain volcanics and domal uplift; B, Volcanism and detachment of upper plate from lower plate; C, Basin and range faulting with downdropping of Tucson graben; D, Basin sediment fill.  
    From desertmuseum.org


    A CELEBRATION OF SONORAN LIGHT
    The ruggedness and colors, the distinctive look and feel, the topography and climate, and the rocks exposed in Saguaro National Park West are a compendium of the state’s billion year-plus geologic history. On our return hike from Signal Hill, the setting sun and rising moon, the billowy clouds and blue sky, the saguaro and prickly pear, and the spirits of the Hohokam were in exquisite balance.  Please enjoy the following photos as our day gloriously gave way to night.


      











    High Dynamic Range digital photograph





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    Every blogger knows the challenge. What shall I blog about next? What photos should I use? By the time the end of the year rolls around, there are always a few posts that never quite made it. And so, with this final post of the year, here they are from here and there. Please visit the same for 2012 here.


    January
    Flying High Above Boston’s West African Harbor Islands


    Looking frigid and uninviting in mid-winter, Boston’s Harbor Islands are best explored during the summer months. The harbor is sprinkled with 38 of them, most designated as National Recreation Areas. Many have fascinating histories such as Georges Island (apostrophes are not used) with Civil War-era Fort Warren used as a Confederate prison and its resident ghost, the Lady in Black. Little Brewster is home to Boston Light, the oldest continually used lighthouse in the U.S. from 1716. Worlds End has plantings and roads by legendary 19th century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in NYC and Boston's Emerald Necklace park system. There’s even an abandoned, off-limits Nike missile silo on Long Island.
    As for the region’s geology, Boston Harbor is a glaciated structural basin that has been inundated and modified by post-glacial sea level rise in the last 15,000 years. It contains dozens of exposed and submerged Pleistocene-age drumlins and other glacial features modified by coastal processes. The bedrock crops out at numerous locations and consists of the Late Proterozoic Boston Bay Group, rocks of the Avalonia terrane that accreted to Laurentia during the Middle Paleozoic.
    The group consists of fine-grained clastics of the Cambridge Formation (“Argillite”) and coarse-grained clastics of the Roxbury Conglomerate better known as “puddingstone”, the Commonwealth’s state rock. The terrane of Avalonia rifted from its peri-Gondwanan, Southern Hemisphere-berth off the northern edge of the West Africa craton (although some advocate a northern South America provinence). It then drifted some 6,000 miles during the Ordovician across the Iapetus sea to its present location in Boston Harbor, accreting (attaching) in the process to a large portion of the Appalachian orogen along Laurentia’s northeast coast. 


    February
    On an Appalachian-Derived Beach at Fort Lauderdale


    This Fort Lauderdale beach scene is far more welcoming meteorologically this time of year. It depicts a commonplace entity with the warming climate – beach erosion and restoration. Sediment (mostly sand) is typically lost through longshore drift (movement of material by waves that approach at an angle to the shore but recede directly away from it) and from changing ocean currents and storms. A wider beach reduces damage to coastal structures by dissipating energy across the surf zone. It also protects upland structures and infrastructure from storm surges, tsunamis (not on this passive marginal coast) and unusually high tides.
    Of course, Floridians will need to deal with the issue that everyone must confront, rising sea levels from melting glacial ice. It won’t be the first time it has risen. Fluctuating glacial periods of the Pleistocene triggered vacillating high seas that periodically flooded coastal plains. Before that, during the Cretaceous, North America’s central continental and coastal lowlands were completely submerged by global high seas of the Tejas transgression.
    By the way, Lauderdale’s beaches are composed of brownish, quartz sand not whitish, calcium carbonate, which is not what one would expect considering Florida’s carbonate-platform heritage. Silicon dioxide-rich sand was transported downbeach from the eroding Appalachians Georgia-way by longshore currents during the Cenozoic. Next time you stroll along the beach further south, check out a handful of sand. It gets whiter as its carbonate content increases with distance from its granitic source up north.


    April
    Living Cretaceous Fossils in Bloom in Boston’s Backbay

    The annual explosion of pink and white magnolias in bloom is one of Boston’s first rites of spring. The city's floriferous trees have more to offer than large flowers, showy colors and fragrant scents. There's a tale of evolution to be told here.
    You see, beetles pollinate magnolias, not bees as one might expect. Bees were not around in the mid-Cretaceous (about 100 million years ago), when magnolias were evolving. That pollinator relationship has changed little over the millennia since the co-evolution (mutual evolutionary influence) of insects and angiosperms (flowering plants). Magnolia flowers don't produce nectar, the sugary secretion that encourages insect visitation (and hence pollination). They do produce large quantities of pollen that's high in protein, which beetles use for food, and in the process, cross-fertilize (transfer) pollen from the male anther of one flower to the female stigma of another. The high proportion of beetle-pollinated systems within the Magnolia family has perpetuated the long-standing theory that modern flowers were derived largely from beetle-pollinated proto-angiosperms. Indeed, many paleobotanists have devoted their attention to plants such as magnolias in their attempts to unravel the events of angiosperm evolution. 
    Magnolia's ancestral floral characteristics include: its large blossom with its tepal structure (magnolia's petals and usually green sepals in higher plants all look alike); its central, cone-like receptacle of spirally-arranged, male stamens at the base and similarly-arranged spiral, female carpels; its radial symmetry; its actinomorphism (floral parts similar in size and shape); and its leathery beetle-durable petals. 
    One of many botanical classification systems, Cronquist's interpretation assigns magnolias to the most archaic positions of all living angiosperms, the subclass Magnoliids, along with water lilies and buttercups. The concept that magnolias are amongst the most basal angiosperms has been refuted by higher-level phylogenetic analyses, yet they remain one of the most important lineages in the early radiation of angiosperms. Appearing long before the radiation of flowering plants, Charles Darwin called their abrupt appearance in the fossil record “an abominable mystery.” What's more, the magnolia qualifies as a "living" fossil, having changed little since it first appeared.
    By the way, magnolias acquired their name from the 17th century French botanist and physician Pierre Magnol. Now back to enjoying spring in Boston!  
    June
    Luxuriating in the Grenville-Age High Peaks of the Adirondacks
    This High Dynamic Range photo of glacial Heart Lake was taken from the summit of lowly Mount Jo in the High Peaks region of the Adirondack Mountains in uppermost New York State. The tall peak to the right is Algonquin. Colden is the rock slide-scarred summit in the center, and to the left, Mount Marcy is the highest in the state, each separated by Precambrian faults re-activated during the Paleozoic.
    We see almost two billion years of geological scenery in the making, beginning with the meta-anorthosite bedrock that emplaced during the Grenville orogeny. The protracted, multi-phasic tectonic event culminated with the formation of the Late Proterozoic supercontinent of Rodinia and a transglobal Grenville Mountain spine. Rodinia’s subsequent fragmentation in the latest Proterozoic formed two megacontinental siblings: smaller equatorial-positioned Laurentia and larger australly-located Gondwana. The two incrementally re-assembled throughout the Paleozoic into the supercontinent of Pangaea along with its Appalachian Mountain spine.
    In the Late Cretaceous, the peneplaned Grenville’s, now internal to Laurentia, began to dome upward triggered by the region's proximity to the Great Meteor Hotspot that tracked southeastward from Canada beneath the drifting North American plate. The hotspot crossed the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, after tracking beneath the North American plate generating seamounts in its path, and is currently off the coast of Africa beneath the African plate.

    Having been glacially sculptured during the ice ages of the Pleistocene, the Adirondack’s ascent of “new mountains from old rocks” (namely Grenville basement crust domed into a mountain range) possibly continues to this day. What’s more, we geologically recognize that the Adirondack’s (located cratonward) are distinctly non-Appalachian in origin (paralleling the coast)!
    July
    A Summer’s Wade in the Late Cretaceous Marl of Big Brook


    This lazy stream, a “piddly little dribble” in the words of the New York Paleontological Society's field guide, courses through one of the oldest and prolific collecting sites for marine fossils on the East Coast. Collectors, both amateur and professional, have been extricating both vertebrate and invertebrate faunal remains out of the clear-flowing waters of Big Brook in Monmouth County of coastal Central New Jersey for well over a hundred years.
    The diverse, age-spanning list includes Cretaceous bullet-shaped belemnite guards (a squid-like mollusc), brachiopod, oyster and clam shells, steinkerns (shell casts), hadrosaur (washed down from the mainland), shark and mosasaur teeth, alligator scutes, Pleistocene sloth and mammoth remains, Holocene Lenape arrowheads and even Colonial nick-knacks such as smoking pipes and pottery.
    As the brook wends its way to the sea through farmlands, forests and the gentrified estates of rural New Jersey, it flows through a Late Cretaceous continental shelf setting and dissects its way down through Pleistocene and Holocene alluvial surface-overburden along the way. Although the banks are off limits for active fossil exploration, the brook does most of the work for fossil hunters as the bounty virtually collapses in from the upland Navesink Formation and glauconitic Mount Laurel Formation of the streambed. All that’s needed to sift through the streambed is a wire-mesh screen, a garden trowel, a pair of waders and a little patience.
    Simply park your car, stroll a short distance through the woods, step into the stream, and travel back in time 66 to 70 million years near the end of the Age of Dinosaurs! 

    August
    Monster Mushrooms in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

    
    This astounding three-foot beauty appears like clockwork every August near the base of a massive oak in my Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill. The rather drab, cream-colored mushroom is intricately branched with overlapping caps, yet surprisingly emanates from a single stalk. Its mycelial network remains dormant beneath the soil until summer rains and heat cause the fungal “roots” to germinate into a gargantuan “plant” above the soil. It gives the impression of growing from the ground, but it actually has colonized the buried roots of the tree, making it parasitic.
    Once considered to be plants, with which they share many traits, fungi actually belong to their own kingdom of classification. As for the mushroom (the fruitbody), it’s relationship to the parent fungus is as the apple (the fruit) to the tree. This Bondarzewia berkeleyi is a bracket fungus, so called because many within the family grow shelf-like from the sides of trees. Its reproductive spores are manufactured within tiny tubes on the underside of the fruitbody rather than within the more accustomed gills we're used to seeing. For this reason, species within this group are called polypores. If cut when fresh, the pores exude latex. It’s not considered edible because of its leathery and woody texture, not that you're tempted.

    September
    My Lofty Visit to an Alpine Bog in New Hampshire


    Artificially located above the treeline due to ravaging fires in the early 19th century and below the climatic treeline of higher mountains in the region, this exquisite alpine bog hides on a corner of the summit of Mount Monadnock at the foot of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
    The tops of mountains, where the climate is cold, windy and rainfall is scant, are amongst the harshest biomes on our planet. Only a select few plants and animals can exist in these severe conditions. Depressions in the bedrock collect rain and retain what little soil exists on the summit, keeping it permanently saturated. The lifeforms encountered here are similar to those found in the arctic tundra further north. Well-adapted to the bog’s poorly-drained, nutrient-poor and acidic peat soil are Sphagnum mosses, which form a carpet on which the bog’s dwarf shrubs and herbs grow. Look for Deerhair bog sedge, sheep laurel and tufted cotton-grass interspersed with patches of Labrador tea, leatherleaf, cranberry and round-leafed sundew to name a few. 
    Mount Monadnock’s rocky core at higher elevations is composed of highly metamorphosed schists and quartzites of the Devonian-age Littleton Formation, which extends well north into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The mountain represents an overturned syncline derived from compressional forces exerted during the Acadian orogeny, the second of three tectonic collisions that created the northern Appalachians and contributed to the crustal growth of Laurentia (proto-North America).
    As our planet experiences progressively warmer climatic conditions, alpine flora and fauna will be challenged as they attempt to progress to a higher elevation to survive. They can only climb so high before being eradicated from their biome. If changing climatic conditions regionally prevail globally, the lifeforms will become extinct. This occurrence, species extinction, has been going on naturally since life appeared on our planet, but we understandably become concerned when its thought to be anthropogenic (man’s fault).
    Henry David Thoreau spent some time on Monadnock in the mid-1800's, writing in his journal about the regional botany and geology. There's supposedly a bog up here named for him. This might be it!

    October
    High Atop Laccolithic Katahdin in the Remote North Woods of Maine
    
    Congratulations are in order! You’re approaching the flat Tableland of mile-high Mount Katahdin in the wilderness of northern Maine from its west flank. Notice the botanical succession you've witnessed with elevation: deciduous hardwoods in autumnal splendor that blanket the lowlands; evergreens foresting the mountain's slopes; and alpine tundral sedge in the foreground.
    The bedrock of Katahdin is a Devonian-age laccolith that has achieved its lofty status through intrusive buoyancy, surface erosion and post-glacial isostatic rebound. Katahdin (Mainers and climbers in the know drop the “Mount” from the name) formed during the Acadian orogeny, the second of three tectonic collisional phases that built the Appalachian Mountain chain and contributed to the crustal growth of Laurentia, the Paleozoic continent of North America.
    Once Pangaea fully assembled following the third orogeny, the Appalachians graced the supercontinent with a Himalayan-esque mountainous backbone. The pluton of Katahdin, along with the other regional peaks, emplaced within a sea of Late Silurian rock during the Acadian collision in what is thought to have been a retro-arc setting.
    Getting here was no easy task, especially if you just trekked 2,180 miles along the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to this point at the trail’s terminus. But you're not quite finished. To reach the Tableland you still have to complete the “A.T.’s” final assault via the Hunt Trail’s Spur on a near-vertical, 
    quad-burning, heart-pounding, lichen-encrusted, truck-sized boulder-strewn ascent of pink Katahdin granite. Once on the Tableland's plateau, you must strive for Katahdin’s penultimate summit of Baxter Peak, one of five that rim its three cavernous glacial cirques on its east flank.
    "Press on. You’re almost there. The view is spectacular!”


    November
    The Remnants of Historic Fort Bowie within the Apache Pass Fault Zone


    Apache Pass is a natural opening and low point at the juncture of the Dos Cabezas and Chiricahua Mountains in southern Arizona. Since prehistoric times, it’s been of importance to humans as a major travel route connecting the San Simon and Sulphur Springs Valleys.
    Part of the Basin and Range physiographic province of southeastern Arizona, the surrounding mountains rise abruptly like islands of rock in an arid desert from relatively flat, sediment-filled basins that formed during an extensional tectonic regime about 20 million years ago. Even older is the Apache Pass fault zone, initiated over a billion years ago as strike-slip and more recently reactivated as normal faults during Basin and Range extension. Precambrian rocks on the southwestern side of the fault (on this side of the fort) have been moved upward relative to the Paleozoic and Mesozoic strata on the northeastern side (the hills just beyond the fort). Thus, the fort rests on Permian Horquilla Limestone of the Naco Group, while, amongst other rocks, the hills are Late Jurassic to Cretaceous Glance Conglomerates of the Bisbee Group. Erosion of the fault zone's shattered rocks formed the saddle of Apache Pass.

    The Apache people, who arrived in America with their Navajo cousins sometime after 1000 AD, hunted and camped in the area, and drank from Apache Spring that emanates within the fractured and faulted rocks within the fault zone. With the arrival of the Anglos in the mid-1800’s, Puerto del Dado, the Spanish name for the “Pass of Chance”, became the site of Fort Bowie (actually the second) by 1868 to insure the safe movement of the Butterfield Overland Mail, a stagecoach and mail service that connected Memphis and St. Louis with San Francisco. Prior to this, the arduous route was by ship across the Gulf of Mexico to the Isthmus of Panama, and on to California via the Pacific Ocean. For years, the Apache Wars led by Cochise and later Geronimo of the Chiricahua Apache waged upon the U.S. military. It all ended in 1886 with Geronimo's surrender and expatriation to Florida, leaving the foundations of the fort to decompose into the landscape.

    The region’s complex geologic history contributed to the strategic importance of the pass and delivered dependable water into the fracture zone. It's another reminder of the importance of geology and geographic setting in shaping the course of civilization and human history.

    December
    A Six Hundred Million Year Old West African Riverbed in Newton, Massachusetts


    Oblivious to most passersby alongside Beacon Street, a major thoroughfare out of Boston, is a cross-section of an ancient streambed embedded within a cliff wall. The stream bed appears as a semi-circular channel outlined perfectly by fallen leaves. The transected bed and its banks consist of fine-grained, thinly-bedded, fissile (easily split along its planes) siltstone (mud rock) that displays a large infill of conglomerate rock over its entirety. The siltstone preserves the contours of an ancient landscape that was buried by subsequent deposition.
    Upon close inspection, laminations within the streambed display whorls of sediment indicative of stream turbidity currents and slump features indicative of settling. The manmade wall at the top is composed of stacked conglomerate boulders.
    The flat-lying rocks of the entire assemblage, being sedimentary, were deposited horizontally under the action of gravity. Subsequent to their deposition, compaction, cementation and lithification (conversion to solid rock), the assemblage and the rocks in the region were tilted by tectonic forces, which accounts for the angulation seen in the photo. These rocks belong to the Roxbury Conglomerate, a 2,000 foot thick formation of coarse arkosic sandstone with small to medium-size, rounded clasts (rounded fragments of stones). In 1830, the American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes likened the Roxbury to puddingstone, its common name, since it reminded him of raisins in English bread pudding.
    The puddingstone's sandy matrix and rocky inclusions indicate they were deposited in a high-energy depositional and/or transport system such as a cascading mountain stream or a massive submarine flow. The Roxbury is exposed almost everywhere in the neighboring towns to the west and southwest of Boston. The channel's siltstone is a facies change, a clastless sediment within the Roxbury Formation. Along with the Cambridge Argillite (or Slate), the Roxbury Conglomerate comprises the sedimentary strata of the Boston Bay Group. As mentioned in the first vignette at the top of this post, the group was deposited on the microcontinent of Avalonia in an extensional regime, such as a faulted rift basin in Late Proterozoic-time between 595 and 540 million years ago.
    Avalonia originated as an elongate volcanic island chain along the edge of the megacontinent of Gondwana, possibly of West Africa cratonic provenance in the southern hemisphere. Avalonia’s deeper basement is volcanic in origin, and, in the vicinity of the Boston Basin, they include the Brighton, Dedham, Mattapan, Lynn and Westwood granites, which underlie the rocks of the Boston Bay Group. During the Acadian orogeny, Avalonia welded to the continent of Laurentia about 370 million years ago. Can't get enough of the Roxbury Conglomerate? Check out my previous post here.

    The "unnoticed" streambed is an example of my masthead statement at the top of my blog. "Geology is all around us, scarcely thought of as we go about our lives." Perhaps I should add, "but not by all of us!"


    Happy New Year from Franklin the Border Collie (and Jack)!


    High Dynamic Range digital photograph


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    In my first post on the Great Unconformity, Part I (here), I discussed its contiguous stratigraphy within the Grand Canyon. In my second post, Part II (here), I offered a more global interpretation of the contact. In this post, I discuss the time gap at Baker's Bridge in southwest Colorado and the Great Unconformity's hypothesized significance to biological evolution.

    WELCOME TO BAKER'S BRIDGE
    If you follow the Animas River some 14 miles upstream from Durango, Colorado, you’ll arrive at Baker’s Bridge in the southern foothills of the San Juan Mountains. The short bridge traverses the amazingly green-hued waters of small but strikingly scenic Animas Gorge, formed by erosion-resistant, varnish-stained walls of pale brownish-red Bakers Bridge granite. The region's beauty is a compendium of almost two billion years of geological evolution.


    Animas Gorge from atop Baker's Bridge looking north

    On this hot summer’s day throngs of locals were sunning, swimming and jumping from the bridge in what has been described as a right of passage in these parts. Chances are you won't notice (I didn’t) that this locale was used in the filming of the escape scene in the 1969 movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." The two leaders of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang are cornered on a cliff by the approaching posse and make a dramatic, expletive-echoing leap to freedom from a ledge of Bakers Bridge granite into the Animas Gorge.

    Camera magic made the cliff appear higher than it really is, as Robert Redford and Paul Newman leaped into the Animas, purportedly photographed somewhere in California. Hollywood has never been concerned with geological correctness, as every geologist knows. Here’s the jump scene from the movie. Check out the Bakers Bridge granite.

    Robert Redford and Paul Newman making a leap from Bakers Bridge granite


    THE GREAT UNCONFORMITY AT BAKER'S BRIDGE
    We're not here for a photo op or to take the plunge. A stone's throw from the bridge, our draw is geological. Where Precambrian and Paleozoic rocks are in contact, there exists a temporal discontinuity or gap in time of enormous proportions. It's on the order of 1.2 to 1.3 billion years - 25% of the earth's history missing from the geological record. It's called the Great Unconformity, distinguished with capital letters by geologists in honor of its immensity. It's at Baker's Bridge, yet it exists globally, providing you know where to look.




    The Great Unconformity at Baker's Bridge just west of the gorge

    The Great Unconformity at Baker's Bridge spans the contact between underlying medium to coarse-grained igneous rock of late Early to early Middle Proterozoic (~1700 Ma) Bakers Bridge granite. Above the contact are marine sandstones of the Upper Cambrian(?) Ignacio Formation, the Tapeats sandstone equivalent found in the Grand Canyon and on the Colorado Plateau. The question mark denotes uncertainty on the part of geologists concerning the Ignacio's age at the time of deposition. More on that later.

    SO WHO WAS BAKER?
    Charles Baker arrived in the region with one thing on his mind - mineral wealth, but he wasn't the first to seek his fortune in the San Juans. El Dorado-seeking Spanish explored for gold deeply into the mountains during the eighteenth century, evidenced by their abandoned openings and discarded prospecting tools.
    In 1860 and 1861, Charles and his mining party established camp on the Animas River's east side. They called it Animas City (not to be confused with the later-named suburb of Durango) and built the first Baker's Bridge of logs across the narrow gorge.

    Charles Baker's bridge of logs across the Animas River (c. 1898 photograph)
    From The San Juan Highway by Frederic B. Wildfang

    Unfortunately, the prospectors found little placer gold. Deterred by hostile Utes, extreme winter hardship and the Civil War looming, the group disbanded. Charles went back east to join the Confederate forces and achieved the rank of captain. Charles returned after the war only to be killed by Utes while preparing to lead a party into the Grand Canyon. So the story goes.

    The 1870's witnessed a rush for gold in the San Juan Mountains upstream in Baker’s Park, where rich lodes were discovered. Through the 1890's, silver reigned as the predominant metal. Legend has it that Charles' cache of gold is buried somewhere in the hills around Baker's Bridge. The following memorial at the bridge recalls his trials and tribulations. The contemporary concrete bridge was built in the 1930's.
    



    Memorial to Captain Charles H. Baker framed in Bakers Bridge granite
    Erected by the State Historical Society of Colorado


    THE GRANDEST GREAT UNCONFORMITY
    Discussions of the Great Unconformity invariably begin or end with mention of the spectacular display within the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. The contact exists between 1.7 billion year-old Early Proterozoic Vishnu Schist and overlying 525 million year-old Cambrian Tapeats Sandstone - 1.2 billion years of missing time. In Annals of the Former World, Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee states, "More time is absent than is represented. If a gap of five hundred million years were the right five hundred million years, it could erase the Grand Canyon."

    The Great Unconformity within the Grand Canyon's Inner Gorge
    The time gap within the contact is 1.2 billion years, more time than it took to form all of the canyon's layers.

    John Wesley Powell, Civil War general, geologist, explorer and head of the U.S. Geological Survey, documented the Great Unconformity during his first trip through the Grand Canyon in 1869, but at the time couldn't have fully appreciated its enormity and age. We know a great deal more about the events associated with it, yet since its recognition the Great Unconformity has remained something of an enigma. Scientists enjoy torturing themselves with questions about how it formed and what happened during the long interval geologically and biologically.

    UNCONFORMITIES DEFINED
    The passage of time is recorded in the rock record with deposition that might seem to occur without interruption, layer upon layer in a continuous sequence. But our dynamic planet forms new layers of rock at its surface with fits and starts, while older ones are inexorably worn away, and later redeposited upon. As a result, a hiatus or interruption within the rock record is the norm and is measured by missing time. Time isn't really missing; the anticipated rock layers are.

    Gaps in the rock record are called "unconformities" and represent rock layers that either never formed or were eroded away. The "interruption" in the depositional sequence brings strata into contact of different ages. Many are long-term gaps - tens of millions to hundreds of millions of years. The vastness of the Great Unconformity qualifies it as a unique geological entity, but as we shall see, not just because of its size. 


    
    Artist’s sketch of an unconformity near Edinburgh discovered by James Hutton in 1787
    The landscape erodes into a seafloor limestone that buries an older “puddingstone” conglomerate that had eroded from a mountain long gone. Below the unconformity lies a buried erosion surface of a “once mountain proclaimed below” by its vertical, folded roots. Hutton spotted the exposure in a river cutbank in Scotland.
    From Geowords.com by Hugh Rance

    Knowing how the gap in the rock record formed may provide important clues about crustal activity or movement such as uplift, erosion and subsidence. Thus, the "time gap" can be of tremendous geological value...even biological value!

    THOSE THAT CAME BEFORE AND LOOKED INTO THE ABYSS OF TIME
    Horizontal strata resting atop the eroded edges of inclined strata was recognized in the early 1700’s as an indication that a significant period of erosion and non-deposition had occurred before the younger formation came to bury the older formation. In 1788, James Hutton of Scotland, the "Father of Modern Geology," looked into the abyss of time at the angular contact at Siccar Point along the northeast coast of Scotland, arguably one of the most important geological sites in the world. He described it as “a beautiful picture of a junction washed bare by the sea” and envisioned the process as an endless succession of deposition “with no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end,” a famous phrase in geology.

    The contact gave evidence to Hutton that deep burial of an erosion surface had occurred after prolonged erosion. His vision was limited to the realization that uplift had raised the land and was unable to see the mountains that had once existed. It wasn’t until 1805 that Prof. Robert Jameson of Edinburgh University called the surface separating two discordant formations an “unconformity.” Since then, American geologists expanded upon the entity, adding new definitions and interpretations.

    
    
    In the inset, “the uppermost sedimentary formation oversteps the erosionally truncated, upended, strata of the overlying schistus formation; itself older than apophyses of an inferred underlying body of granite.”
    The buried erosion surface is analogous to the unconformity examined by Hutton.
    Modified from Geowords.com by Hugh Rance


    THREE FLAVORS OF UNCONFORMITIES
    Geologists categorize an unconformity based on the strata that embrace the contact above and below. Disconformities are found between horizontal sedimentary layers. Angular unconformities are between underlying metamorphosed, tilted and uplifted strata and overlying horizontal strata. Nonconformities are between younger, overlying sedimentary rock and older, underlying igneous or metamorphic rocks. At Baker's Bridge, igneous and metamorphic rocks below the Great Unconformity and sedimentary rocks above identify the contact as "nonconformable."


    The three types of temporal stratigraphic gaps

    SO WHERE IN COLORADO IS BAKER'S BRIDGE?
    Baker's Bridge resides in southwest Colorado in the southern foothills of the San Juan Mountains, whose area embraces about 12,000 square miles, the combined size of Massachusetts and Connecticut. The San Juans are a high and rugged range of the Southern Rocky Mountain province that geologist and author Donald L. Baars refers to as the "American Alps."

    Replete with alpine crags, glacially carved valleys and deep canyons, many of the peaks in the central San Juan's exceed 13,000 feet, and a few exceed 14,000. Composed of erosion-resistant granitic and quartzitic rocks, the range falls within the Colorado Mineral Belt, an area with abundant ore deposits, notably gold, that played an integral role in the region's settlement history. The San Juan Mountains contain numerous sub-ranges such as the Needles, the Grenadiers and the La Platas.


    Lofty and angular Needle Mountains under threatening summer skies
    Along the southwestern edge of the San Juan Volcanic Field, the Needles preserve evidence of the oldest mountain-building event in the San Juans. The Irving Formation and Twilight Gneiss are remnants of Precambrian-accreted, oceanic plate-derived, magmatic-arc mountains between 1.8 and 1.75 Ga. The crustal block was annexed to Laurentia in a regional tectonic event called the Yavapai orogeny.

    The San Juan Mountains possess an extremely complex history, beyond the purview of this post to elucidate. Simply stated, they are the erosional remnant of a large composite volcanic field that covered much of the southern Rocky Mountains in middle Tertiary time, about 30-35 million years ago, in Colorado and adjacent parts of New Mexico. Notice Baker's Bridge (red dot) in the foothills.


    Geologic map showing the principal rock units of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern ColoradoLocate Durango and Baker's Bridge (red dot) for reference. The San Juan Volcanic Field's more recent Late Cretaceous to Tertiary volcanic and intrusive rocks rest on earlier Paleozoic and Mesozoic assemblages that in turn lie on a foundation of Early to Middle Proterozoic rocks.
    Modified from the Geologic Map of the Hermosa Quadrangle, Colorado Geological Survey, 2003


    THE SAN JUAN MOUNTAIN'S RELATIONSHIP TO THE COLORADO PLATEAU
    Beginning in the latest Jurassic, subduction of the oceanic Farallon plate beneath the North American plate was responsible for east-directed compression that added crust to western North America. With ongoing subduction, compression wrinkled the Rockies skyward and uplifted the Colorado Plateau en masse, a physiographic province with minimal deformation and a handful of small volcanic intrusions in the region of the Four Corners.


    Triggered by a change in the geometrics and speed of Farallon descent into the mantle during the Tertiary, extension followed compression. Still intact internally, the Colorado Plateau's surrounding regions were extensively faulted, intruded by pluton-forming magma and covered by volcanic deposits. The outcome on the landscape was the formation of the Basin and Range province and the generation of voluminous lava on three sides of the Colorado Plateau, one of which was within the San Juan Volcanic Field on the east.


    Overstated in its simplicity, this schematic of the changing geometry of Farallon plate subduction beneath the North American plate offers one interpretation of the development of the western landscape from compression to extension.
    Modified from unknown source

    Today, the eastern boundary of the Colorado Plateau (wide black line) makes a curious skirt to the west to exclude the uplifted igneous and metamorphic rocks of the San Juan Volcanic Field (red). In Plateau Magazine (Volume 6, 2007), geologist and author Wayne Ranney states, "It is interesting to note that these volcanic deposits were erupted upon and rest on a Plateau-like surface; prior to 30 million years ago, the area of the present-day San Juan Mountains could have been considered a part of the Colorado Plateau.


    Distribution of volcanic and igneous centers (shaded gray) around the margins of the Colorado Plateau
    The San Juan Volcanic Field is shaded in red, outside the Plateau's physiographic boundary.
    Modified from Geology of the Colorado Plateau from Foos and after Hunt, 1956

    If it wasn't for late Cretaceous plutonic and late Tertiary volcanic activity that typifies the region, the San Juans would likely be included within the Plateau's eastern boundary. If you know the Colorado Plateau's Precambrian basement and its Paleozoic through Mesozoic stratigraphy, the rock units at Baker's Bridge will be fairly familiar. Later in this post, we'll briefly tap into that knowledge base for our discussion of the Great Unconformity at Baker's Bridge, in particular the strata that formed above the unconformity. First, let's visit the river that flows through Baker's Bridge.

    "THE RIVER OF LOST SOULS"
    Perhaps prophetic, Spanish explorers in the mid-1700's named the river El Rio de las Animas Perdidas. Its 126-mile descent headwaters at an elevation of 11,120 feet in the mining ghost town of Animas Forks, over forty canyon-cut, river-miles upstream from Baker's Bridge in the heart of the San Juans. Fed by a host of tributaries, the Animas watershed drains much of the southwestern San Juans.



    The Silverton Caldera and the Animas River
    Twelve miles downstream from its source at Animas Forks in the heart of the San Juans, the Animas courses through the historic mining boomtown of Silverton at an elevation of 9,318 feet. Silverton resides within "Baker's Park", who entered the region in 1860 and 1861 in search of gold. Silverton is synonymous with the Sunnyside Mine, one of Colorado's largest. We're within the Silverton caldera, one of 20 or so in the region that formed when stratovolcanoes collapsed into their violently-evacuated magma chambers in the mid-Tertiary (35 to 30 million years ago). Radial and concentric faulting served as plumbing for upward migration of hot, acidic, mineral-laden waters. Hydrothermal solutions were charged with gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper that leached from surrounding rocks and percolated upward. Reduced temperature and pressure encountered as the ore-fluids neared the surface within the host rocks precipitated their bounty within the faults as veins.

    Suspended in time
    Obscure mine addits (entrances) that lead to underground veins are springled all over these hills, located by the tailings (waste rock) that emanate downslope from them. Today, the mines are silent with the exclusion of tourists that visit them. As the price of metals fluctuate in the market place, Silverton's dormant mines could reopen ending another cycle of "boom and bust." Stretching between the Mayflower Mill (built in 1929) and its mines (one of forty), an aerial tram's bucket still dangles against the backdrop of 13,000-foot Galena Mountain, one of several that rim the Silverton caldera. Of all the innovations introduced to the mining industry, it was one of the most important. With severe winters and the majority of the mines above timberline, trams allowed year-round work by delivering ore down to the mills, and transporting miners to and from the mines.
     

    Engineer Mountain
    From the San Juan Skyway (U.S. 550), Engineer Mountain is just a few feet short of being a "13er." It's roughly halfway between Baker's Bridge and Silverton, eight miles west of the Animas River. Recalling the San Juan's excluded relationship from the Colorado Plateau, Engineer displays a section of late Paleozoic, plateau-typical rocks. Cyclic marine sediments of the Pennsylvanian Hermosa Group form Engineer's forested lower slopes, while terrestrial Pennsylvanian and Permian Cutler redbeds form higher slopes, a reminder of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains (the Uncompahgre uplift specifically) that once towered over the region to the north. The light-colored, cliff-forming, columnar-jointed, intrusive sill of quartz trachyte that rimrocks the summit is likely of Late Cretaceous or early Tertiary origin. While intrusive igneous bodies were travelling through the earth's crust in the San Juan's high ranges, sills forced their way into sedimentary strata such as at Engineer. Between the Cutler and the sill is a region-wide contact known as the "Telluride erosion surface" formed during the Eocene. It bevelled the San Juan dome, a Laramide-age, basement-cored uplift, by eroding its flank. Talus on lower flanks is composed of sill material, especially the large, downslope-migrating rock glacier on the cirqued north slope out of view. Glacial thickness in this region during the Pleistocene is estimated between 2,500 and 3,000 feet but spared Engineer's summit making it a nunatak, an Inuit word. Glacier's that originated in the San Juans bulldozed through Baker's Bridge and down the Animas Valley to Durango.


    LAS ANIMAS CAÑON
    As the Animas courses south towards Baker's Bridge, its gradient varies from moderate to steep, slicing through narrow, forested canyons carved into the San Juan's erosion-resistant granites and quartzites. The Baker's Bridge granite is exposed for a few miles above the bridge within Animas Canyon.


    Sadly, the upper reaches of the Animas are contaminated by toxic heavy metals of lead, cadmium, copper, manganese, zinc and iron that discharge from the countless mines and tailings (waste) piles in Baker's Park, legacies of the gold and silver that lured the hordes of prospectors and miners beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The degradation in water quality has adversely impacted all forms of aquatic wildlife, although further downstream, particularly below Baker's Bridge, its quality is greatly improved through dilution from inflow of high quality tributaries.


    Animas Canyon
    Railroad transportation opened the San Juans by reaching its remote, land-locked mining towns and getting ore downriver. In this William Henry Jackson photo made into a 1906 postcard, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, founded by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in 1881, follows the Animas Canyon upriver to Silverton. In continuous operation for over 130 years, the train is a popular tourist attraction, National Historic Landmark and feat of nineteenth century engineering. It's also a great way to see the remote geology within the canyon. Notice that the Needle Mountains upstream were artfully hand-colored into the photo. 


    A CHANGE IN GEOMORPHOLOGY BELOW BAKER'S BRIDGE
    At an elevation of 6,761 feet, Baker's Bridge (red arrow below) lies at the juncture of a profound change in the topography owing to the presence (or absence) of the locale's Precambrian crystalline basement. Above the bridge into the mountains, the Animas Canyon confines a swift Animas River within its narrow, resistant walls.


    At Baker's Bridge, where our photo of the Great Unconformity is well displayed, the Precambrian basement is in contact with the overlying Paleozoic strata. Just below Baker's Bridge where the Animas Gorge ends, the eponymous granite dives into the subsurface buried under alluvium and Paleozoic rocks.



    Animas Gorge and the upper Animas Valley
    Looking down the upper Animas Valley toward Durango from atop Bakers Bridge granite, the Animas Gorge ends abruptly where granite enters the subsurface. Immediately beyond the gorge, the channel dramatically widens, its gradient lessens and its current diminishes forcing the river to drop its sediment load. 
    These features are evident on the elevated topo-map below. The hills that frame Animas Valley are Paleozoic and Mesozoic rock assemblages coincident with those on the Colorado Plateau.

    Looking north, Baker's Bridge (red arrow) lies at the head of wide Animas Valley and floodplain and at the bottom of narrow Animas Canyon. The Great Unconformity is exposed at Baker's Bridge and for a few miles upriver. The change in terrain is at Baker's Bridge is synonymous with its granite entering the subsurface.

    Within and around Animas Valley, yellow and tan colors designate Quaternary Pleistocene and Holocene glacial, alluvial and colluvial deposits, and turquoises and shades of purple designate Paleozoic bedrock. Immediately above Baker's Bridge, the bedrock (taupe) is Paleoproterozoic Baker's Bridge Granite and Irving Formation. See references below for the on-line location of this map.


    Shaded relief map of the Hermosa quadrangle with geology and topography overlay
    Modified from the Geologic Map of the Hermosa Quadrangle, La Plata County, Colorado, 2003

    THE ANIMAS RIVER VALLEY BETWEEN BAKER'S BRIDGE AND DURANGO
    During the Pleistocene, the San Juan Mountains experienced 15 or more glacial advances that blanketed the region with a 1,900 square mile ice-field. The high cirques became ice-free at least 15,000 years ago with the peaks of some remaining above ice. The forty mile-long Animas glacier, one of the longest in the Southern Rockies, scoured out Animas Valley, evidenced by lateral moraines over 1,000 feet above the valley floor.


    Today, the U-shaped valley floor is flat, having been filled with Pleistocene glacial outwash and moraines, and Holocene alluvium (stream deposits) and colluvium (slope deposits). The valley is continually being modified by mass wasting with landslides, mudflows, debris flows and creep, and periodic Animas flooding from voluminous winter snowmelt and summer monsoons.

    The valley's walls are formed from 16,000 feet of limestone, shale and sandstone sedimentary beds of Mesozoic and Paleozoic-age. At the mouth of the Animas Valley (map below) near Durango, we ascend the Mesozoic column beginning with the Late Triassic Chinle Formation at the base of Animas City Mountain (photo below) and progress through the Middle Jurassic San Rafael Group beginning with the Entrada Sandstone. The slope-forming Late Jurassic Morrison Formation follows with a resistant cap of the Late Cretaceous Dakota Sandstone.

    MOUTH OF THE LOWER ANIMAS VALLEY
    We’re standing on a glacial moraine facing the mouth of the lower Animas Valley looking north across the Animas River and floodplain. Baker’s Bridge is 12 miles upvalley in the foothills of the San Juans. The valley's U-shape was scoured by the forty mile-long, Pleistocene Animas glacier that originated within the San Juan Mountains. Withdrawing late during the Pinedale glaciation, its sediments accumulated in Glacial Lake Durango, a proglacial lake that formed in a deeply scoured basin cut into bedrock. The valley's flat floor is filled with lake sediments, glacial till, and Holocene alluvium and colluvium.

    Within this expanse of the lower Animas Valley, the Ariver has become a very low energy system of oxbows and vegetation-rich, abandoned cutoffs on its flood plain. Durango, to the south behind us, is built on late Cretaceous sedimentary rock, principally the Mancos Shale, with a veneer of Animas River gravels. Higher portions of Durango are built on glacial outwash, terraces and moraines generated from the recent 18,-25,000 year old Wisconsin glacial event and others earlier such as the Pinedale.

    Mouth of the Animas Valley, Animas City Mountain and the Animas' floodplain and oxbow lake
    Animas City Mountain, across the valley, is capped with Late Cretaceous Dakota Sandstone with white Entrada Sandstone mid-slope and Upper Triassic Chinle Formation (called Dolores locally) at its base. The formations dip southwest about 7º towards the San Juan structural basin, observable in the subtle tilt of Animas City Mountain's strata. As one travels upvalley and up the dip-slope, one encounters increasingly earlier assemblages that reveal Mesozoic and then Paleozoic strata. After the Chinle, earlier deposited Lower Permian Cutler Formation is revealed, and so on. By the time Baker's Bridge is reached we're stratigraphically into the Devonian Period with majestic cliffs in the Permian Hermosa Formation surrounding the valley.

    PALEOZOIC HERMOSA CLIFFS FRAME BAKER'S BRIDGE
    At Baker’s Bridge, down-section in the upper Animas Valley, an early to middle Paleozoic assemblage is revealed, Cambrian(?) through Pennsylvanian. This photo was taken from atop an elongate ridge of Leadville Limestone (a Redwall equivalent) and a patchy, paleosol-veneer of reddish Molas Formation. Underlying it is Devonian Ouray Limestone that forms the cliff above the Great Unconformity at Baker's Bridge nearby.

    Looking to the northwest, Middle Pennsylvanian Hermosa Group cliffs (the type-section) dramatically rise with forested, lower slopes in the Paradox Formation. Recall that although we are positioned outside the physiographic boundary of the Colorado Plateau, the stratigraphy is Paleozoic-Mesozoic syn-depositional and concordant. The entire display is beautifully exposed throughout the Animas Valley.


    Hermosa cliffs above Baker's Bridge


    HOW DID THE CONTIGUOUS STRATIGRAPHY OF THE GREAT UNCONFORMITY FORM AT BAKER'S BRIDGE?
    The Great Unconformity is the expression of geological events that occurred globally; that is, conditions existed worldwide to promote the development of this massive gap in time. At Baker's Bridge, the stratigraphy embracing the unconformity is an outcome of regional tectonic controls, in many respects, a microcosm of the global event.

    Acquisition of Proterozoic crust...
    The Southwest's oldest rocks, its crystalline basement, formed in a flotsam and jetsam of tectonic collisions of juvenile volcanic arcs and marine basins during the Early to Middle Proterozoic. In succession, first the Mojave, then the Yavapai (1.8-1.7 Ga), and finally the Mazatzal (1.7-1.65 Ga) provinces collided with pre-2.5 billion year old rocks of the Archean Wyoming Province of the Canadian Shield, a portion of the craton or ancient nucleus of the nascent North American continent to the north.

    Using Southeast Asia as a modern analogue, the Southwest may have appeared something like this during the Early to Middle Proterozoic. The region of Baker's Bridge (encircled) received crust largely from Yavapai tectonic derivatives.

    Rodinia's Archean core hosts tectonic convergence and crustal growth during the Middle Proterozoic
    This scenario illustrates an early stage of crustal growth at the southwest margin of the supercontinent of Rodinia. For reference, note the outline of the states. The Mojave province previously accreted to the Wyoming province (the continent's Archean cratonic) followed by Yavapai and Mazatzal oceanic magmatic arcs. Southwest Colorado at Baker's Bridge received largely Yavapai crust.
    Blakey, R. C., 2012, Paleogeography and paleotectonics of Southwestern North America:
    Colorado Plateau Geosystems, DVD Flagstaff, Arizona.

    Once accreted, the Yavapai basement in the region of Baker's Bridge and the future San Juan Mountains were twice metamorphosed during the Middle Proterozoic. The first epsiode was part of a mountain-building event called the Boulder Creek orogeny (1.72 to 1.667 Gma) in which Twilight Gneiss metamorphosed from andesite and the Irving Formation from basalt. By 1.5 Gma, the eroded Boulder Creek Mountains were covered by marine sediments of the Uncompahgre Formation.

    The emplacement of the Baker's Bridge granite...
    During the second, milder metamorphic episode of the Silver Plume orogeny (~1.5 Gma), magma intruded the Twilight and Irving metamorphic rocks with felsic plutons of both Baker' Bridge and Tenmile granites (part of the statewide Routt Plutonic Suite), and metamorphosed the Uncompahgre sediments into quartzites, slate, phyllites and schist. These Precambrian rocks can be found in the various sub-ranges of the San Juan's.





    Rifting to drifting to exposure and weathering...
    In the late Middle Proterozoic (1.4 to 1.0 Ga), the supercontinent of Rodinia finally assembled with the Grenville orogeny that united the majority of the world's landmasses and built a transglobal Grenville mountain chain. Following Rodinia's break-up in the latest Proterozoic, its crust distributed globally with the drifting apart of its continental siblings. Once exposed, the basement rock experienced extensive weathering over a prolonged period. The eroded Precambrian crust, both Archean and Proterozoic, is the foundation on which the Great Unconformity formed.

    The remnants of Rodinia's Archean and Proterozoic crustal core are distributed throughout the globe after the continents reassembled at the end of the Paleozoic into the supercontinent of Pangaea, and then redistributed upon its fragmentation.
    




    World map with terranes of Precambrian Archean and Proterozoic crust
    Dark areas are Archean crust: unshaded with numbers. Proterozoic crust: shaded lines in areas either under ice or preventing direct access. Phanerozoic orogenic belts: dot pattern. Proterozoic terranes are divided into three categories: 1 (confirmed), 2 (incomplete analysis) and 3 (exposed but unconfirmed).
    Modified from Proterozoic Crustal Evolution by K.C. Condie, 1992.

    Great floods of the Phanerozoic...
    On the short term, the level of the sea rises and falls, whether lunar orbitally-induced or regionally weather-related. Sea level also possesses a long-term oscillation that typically lasts hundreds of millions of years, related to celestial parameters (that trigger glaciation cycles) and planetary tectonic events (that change the holding capacity of ocean basins).

    Six times in the Phanerozoic, the level of the sea substantially rose and fell, flooding low-lying regions of the continents globally. With each landward advance (transgression) and withdrawal (regression), the seas deposited continental-scale, unconformity-bounded, sedimentary sequences. Centered on the Cambrian, the earliest was the Sauk sequence from the latest Proterozoic through the early Ordovician.


     

    The Sauk transgression-regression...
    At its peak, the Sauk flooded the low-lying, weathered Precambrian margins of the drifted paleo-continents and their cratonic interiors from the latest Proterozoic and into the beginning of the Paleozoic for 50 million years or so. In North America, the continent was blanketed largely with a sequence of well-sorted sandstones and clastic carbonates (excluding topographic highs such as the NE-SW-trending Transcontinental Arch that extended into Arizona and parts of the raised Canadian Shield well to the north).


    Middle to Late Cambrian paleomap of the North American Southwest
    Rising seas of the Sauk transgression bathed North America's west coast largely during the Cambrian. As water invaded the land, the shoreline eventually reached the region of Baker's Bridge. The Ignacio Formation was deposited on the Baker's Bridge granite forming the Great Unconformity at Baker's Bridge, while elsehwere in the southwest, the equivalent Tapeats Sandstone formed the Great Unconformity on uquivalent igneous and metamorphic rock.
    Blakey, R. C., 2012, Paleogeography and paleotectonics of Southwestern North America:
    Colorado Plateau Geosystems, DVD Flagstaff, Arizona.

    The birth of the Great Unconformity...
    The siliciclastic, near-shore Ignacio Formation (the Grand Canyon's Tapeats equivalent) was the first sedimentary rock deposited in the region of Baker's Bridge and the future San Juan Mountains. Voila! With covering of the Precambrian basement by the Cambrian transgressive-regressive sequence, the Great Unconformity had formed.


    The Great Unconformity, so well exposed in the Grand Canyon and on grand display at Baker's Bridge, can be traced across Laurentia (here) and found globally on Rodinia's tectonically dispersed landmasses - including Gondwana (largely the Southern Hemisheric continents), Baltica, Avalonia and Siberia. That makes the Great Unconformity "the most widely recognized and distinctive stratigraphic surface in the rock record" (Peters and Gaines, 2012). Geologists can't resist touching it and pausing for reflection!


    
    Sauk sequences in North America that overlie the Great Unconformity
    Distribution and age of the oldest Phanerozoic rocks in North America. Early Cambrian sediments (light gray) on the margins of the paleo-continents and later Cambrian sediments (medium and dark gray).
    Peters and Gaines, Nature, 2012.


    WHAT HAPPENED DURING THE GREAT UNCONFORMITY?
    The Late Proterozoic and the time of the Great Unconformity was a turning point in the development of "the modern earth system" (Shields-Zhou, 2011). Its half-billion or so years were enough time to allow for a total re-invention of earth's geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere.


    Geologically, it accommodated a complete reorganization of the Earth’s tectonic plates, the uplift and erosion of vast mountain ranges to sea level, a rifting apart of the supercontinent of Rodinia into smaller continental fragments and their drifting throughout the globe. Biologically, it was enough time to evolve completely new and diverse lifeforms, and accommodate their radiation.

    The two are thought to be related in that the geological processes that resulted in the formation of the Great Unconformity provided the impetus for the burst of biological diversity of the Cambrian Explosion of multi-cellular animal life. There are many competing theories that are highly controversial and lack a consensus of opinion. That said, let's attempt to assimilate them into one apologetically simplistic scenario. It's a rather unlikely tale of a fragmenting supercontinent, a dimly lit planet that became entombed in glacial ice, a hothouse heat wave, an oceanic geochemical infusion and an explosion of multi-cellular animal life within the sea.

    LATE PROTEROZOIC WEATHER REPORT
    During the Great Unconformity, the breakup of Rodinia (900-750 Ma) occurred largely during the Tonian Period (Greek meaning “to stretch”) early in the Late Proterozoic. In the Cryogenian (Greek for "cold" and "birth") Period (850-635 Ma) in the mid-Late Proterozoic, our planet experienced two intense and widespread glaciations that were notably equatorial in locale - as opposed to more familiar high latitude Phanerozoic glaciations such as those of the Pleistocene.

    These were the Sturtian (715-680 Ma) and Marinoan (680-635 Ma) glaciations. A third Cryogenian glaciation, the Gaskier or Varanger, was less extreme, likely short-lived and not global in extent.


    A COSMIC BALL OF ICE
    The ice ages prevailed with such intensity that the surface oceans in the tropics froze. The event has been anointed with the colorful and description of “Snowball Earth” 
    (Kirschvink coined the term in 1992, and Hoffman presented the hypothesis in 1998). It’s a bold and imaginative theory that remains speculative and controversial, yet very attractive since it successfully explains the geological findings regarding the glaciations (e.g. equatorial glacial tillites and diamictites, banded iron formations, post-glacial marine “cap” carbonates, carbon isotopic anomalies, etc.).

    These events – Rodinia's assembly, break-up and the ensuing glaciation - preceded the recognition of multicellular animal life during the Ediacaran Period (named for the type-section at the Ediacara Hills of Australia), the final time period of the Proterozoic.

    TRIGGERS OF THE DEEP FREEZE
    What are the causes of extreme climate deterioration, that is, the prolonged cooling that led to equatorial snowball glaciations? Proposed explanations include extraterrestrial triggers such as galactic cosmic rays driving cloudiness, the dimmer young sun (solar luminosity 83-94% of present-day values) and high planetary obliquity (> 54º of axial tilt) that resulted in a colder low-latitudinal climate than at the poles. Terrestrial triggers include methane degassing from anoxic oceans (boosting the hydrologic cycle) and tectonic influences.

    The latter trigger - tectonics - relates epochs of glaciation to a reduction in the partial pressure of atmospheric CO2 caused by supercontinental break-up. It’s an attractive model. Here’s how it works.

    FRAGMENTATION AND ATMOSPHERIC pCO2…
    Rodinia fragmented apart a good 70 million years before the first snowball event. Although Rodinia may have stretched from pole to pole, its paleo-orientation and that of its rifted constituents was likely, largely equatorial, at least initially. Its fragmentation generated intense magmatic activity within the Laurentian magmatic province. It also opened many seaways as the severed continental blocks drifted apart, which in turn increased precipitation and temperature along newly rifted margins, largely in a low-latitudinal locale.

    Equatorial cluster of Rodinia's fragmented landmasses during the global glaciations that occurred during the Cryogenian Period. Our planet witnessed the continents reassemble at the end of the Paleozoic and again redisperse. Geological relics of the debris left behind when the ice melted are exposed on the contemporary land surface. Namibia (red dot) is a notable example.
    From Snowball Earth by Paul F. Hoffman and Daniel P. Schrag, Scientific American, 1999


    The continental runoff increased weathering, particularly of silicates on freshly generated basaltic surfaces, and hence atmospheric consumption (q.v. long-term carbon cycle). The “drawdown” (reduction) of CO2, a greenhouse gas, resulted in long-term climate cooling, trending toward an icehouse. As ice accumulated equatorially, a “runaway ice-albedo” 
    (reflective ice reduced solar absorption leading to more cooling; Budyko, 1968) drove the earth into a snowball glaciation. Thus, supercontinental break-up is thought to have had a profoundly cooling effect at low latitudes during the Late Proterozoic and to have been the main trigger in reducing atmospheric CO2.

    WHAT AWAKENED THE EARTH FROM ITS CRYOGENIC SLUMBER?
    The Snowball Earth hypothesis also postulates that millions of years of glaciation ended when sufficient volumes of volcanically-derived CO2 emissions accumulated within the atmosphere. Degassing overcame the effect of the runaway albedo climate, which collapsed weathering and allowed the planet to transition from an icehouse to a greenhouse world that melted the ice and liberated the planet from its snowball state.




    A geochemical infusion of weathering products...
    During the Great Unconformity, continental exposure and chemical weathering of silicate materials effected seawater chemistry and global bio-geochemical cycling in the atmosphere and the oceans. The weathered-runoff was delivered to rivers and oceans in massive quantities conducive to the evolution of new forms of life, in particular, Ediacara-type fauna that flourished as a prelude to more diverse forms of the Phanerozoic world.

    The final stages of the Great Unconformity are thought to have acted as a “geological trigger” by infusing the oceans with continental weathering products including carbonates, calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium and iron (Peters and Gaines, 2012). That had profound implications for ocean chemistry at the time that complex life was proliferating and initiated a biochemical response seen in the Cambrian Explosion.

    EDIACARA-TYPE FAUNA
    Lifeforms that existed before and after the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary differed immensely. During the Ediacaran Period lifeforms were plant-like, suspension-feeding metazoans (multi-cellular) that lacked the morphological capacity (form and structure) for locomotion and were non-biomineralized (without hard calcified tissues like shells and bones).

    They are generally viewed as the oldest unequivocal animals and passive inhabitants of their ecosystem, tethered to a cyanobacterial microbial mat on the ocean floor. By and large, the Ediacara fauna became extinct by the end of the Ediacaran Period, although proponents of Burgess-type ancestral relationships believe some lifeforms persisted into the Cambrian.



    Ediacara-type fauna
    Although appearing plant-like morphologically, the Late Proterozoic Ediacara-type fauna were the first multicellular marine animals. Benthic (substrate-loving) and mostly afixed to a cyanobacterial microbial mat on the ocean floor, they lacked the capacity for locomotion, vertical bioturbination and predation.
    Wikipedia.org

    BURGESS SHALE-TYPE FAUNA
    Following the Ediacaran-Cambrian boundary, new lifeforms were distinguished by the emergence and rapid diversification of more complex multicellular animals, by their acquisition of biomineralized skeletons (phosphate and carbonate salts of calcium), and by their innovative body plans with movable, muscular body parts.

    With new bodies came new lifestyles - possessing the ability to bioturbinate the substrate (rework the sediments by burrowing), move vertically through the water column and exploit new habitats. Predation had begun across the threshold of the gap in time, and along with it, the ability of prey to protect themselves and escape from capture. Things have never been the same. This period is referred to as the Cambrian Explosion of life because of the seemingly abrupt timing of the biological event. Evolutionary biologists single the Cambrian Explosion as the event that generated all the phyla that have persisted to the present.

    Burgess Shale-type fauna
    The Cambrian Explosion typifies a fundamental change in marine ecosystems. Ediacaran two-dimensional mat scraping was replaced by three-dimensional infaunal burrowing (within the substrate). The Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale-type fauna was empowered by the development of muscular, biomineralized body parts and innovative body plans, which not only enabled surface grazing but movement throughout the water column.
    Artist John Sibbick of Time Magazine


    WE SEE THE GREAT UNCONFORMITY IN A NEW LIGHT
    Alas, we have come to perceive the Great Unconformity as more than just a gap in time but as “a unique physical, environmental boundary condition” (Peters and Gaines, Nature, 2012). Reflecting on the dramatic transition from Ediacaran to Burgess-style lifeforms across the Great Unconformity, Robert R. Gaines (personal communication, 2012) believes the "geological circumstances surrounding its formation led to the Cambrian Explosion."

    Analyses of seawater chemistries “provide support evidence for changes in tectonic activity and enhanced (and extensive Late Proterozoic) continental weathering during the formation of the Great Unconformity” (Peters and Gaines). The chemical infusion that was delivered to the sea – with minerals such as calcium that rose precipitously – has been proposed as a mechanism for the origin of biomineralization of animals during the Cambrian Explosion that evolved in Cryogenian to Ediacaran time.


    
    Summary of major tectonic, geochemical and sedimentary patterns over the past 900 Myr
    The wavy dark gray blob (global mean isotopic Sr) is a measure of the progressive exposure of weathering granitic continental crust required to form the Great Unconformity. The wavy light gray blob (global mean εNd) is a measure of young arcs versus old continental crust. The vertical green bars identify continent-scale sedimentary sequences particularly the Sauk transgression (the first of six global high seas during the Phanerozoic) that blanketed the Great Unconformity in the Cambrian. The vertical blue bars indicate major global glaciations during the fragmentation of Rodinia and preceding the radiation of the Ediacara-type fauna. The timing of Rodinia fragmentation in relation to the Great Unconformity is designated across the top. Following the fragmentation of Rodinia, the Great Unconformity is defined by a shift from widespread continental weathering (red bar) to widespread sedimentation (yellow bar).
    From Peters and Gaines, Nature, 2012.


    LET'S RETURN TO BAKER'S BRIDGE FOR A FINAL LOOK AT THE CONTACT
    Now that we have an enlightened geological and biological perspective of the events that occured during and surrounding the Great Unconformity, let's take one last look at the contact at Baker's Bridge. The Ignacio Formation, the stratum anticipated to cap the Great Unconformity, appears absent at Baker's Bridge.


    Close-up of the Great Unconformity at Baker's Bridge
    The regional paleotopography - its ancient landscape - is indicated above the Bakers Bridge granite, where the Ignacio Formation is absent and the Elbert Formation is overlies the Precambrian basement. Elsewhere regionally in the San Juans, the Ignacio can be found overlying the contact.


    Geologists have found it difficult to distinguish between the sandstones of the McCracken from the underlying Ignacio. Petrographic analyses at Baker's Bridge has found that the sandstone overlying the Great Unconformity is more similar to the Devonian McCracken Sandstone Member of the Elbert Formation rather than the Cambrian Ignacio Formation, which contacts the granite elsewhere regionally. The following paleo-map depicts the widespread Devonian through the Mississippi-age Kaskaskia transgression (on the sequence map above) that deposited Redwall limestones in northern Arizona, and Elbert and Leadville Formations in the region of Baker's Bridge in Colorado.


    Late Devonian paleomap of the North American Southwest
    The Kaskaskia transgression, the third eustatic event to reach the Southwest in the Phanerozoic, deposited the Elbert and Leadville Formations. Where the Ignacio was absent, the Elbert capped the Great Unconformity.
    Blakey, R. C., 2012, Paleogeography and paleotectonics of Southwestern North America:
    Colorado Plateau Geosystems, DVD Flagstaff, Arizona.

    The McCracken-Ignacio age-uncertainty has persisted in the literature for over a hundred years, much to the surprise and even disappointment of some Plateau geologists that expect the Tapeats or its regional equivalent overlying the Great Unconformity. The problem has been with the precise dating of the Ignacio, which has been difficult since it's regionally depauperate (greatly diminished or devoid of ecosystem fossils). In the strata above the Ignacio, trace burrows, and brachiopod and fish remains are plentiful in the Elbert and overyling Leadville, which does allow reliable dating.

    I asked the question "What stratum overlies Baker's Bridge granite at Baker's Bridge?" to Dr. David Gonzales, Professor and Chair in the Department of Geosciences at Fort Lewis College in Durango). He responded, "Unfortunately, there is not a definitive answer (personal communication, 2013). He continued, "The Ignacio Formation at Baker's Bridge is somewhat unique on a regional level. In a number of locations, Devonian limestone lies directly on Proterozoic rocks. So, clearly, depending on what area you are in, there is both Cambrian(?) and Devonian rock units on the Proterozoic. Unless more fossils are found, I am not sure the issue will be easily resolved."

    A thesis interpretation (Maurer, 2012) of the strata-conundrum attributes Ignacio's absence at Baker's Bridge to its deposition mostly as estuarine within an incised valley sequence. Thus, it was not deposited at Baker's Bridge but located elsewhere regionally. With the return of the sea, the landward advance of the Kaskaskia transgression left McCracken marine sediments upon Bakers Bridge granite at Baker's Bridge.

    The Ignacio question at Baker's Bridge is surprising to geologists that anticipate its presence. But technically - recalling our definition of the Great Unconformity - the overlying strata can very greatly both regionally and even globally contingent on the circumstances of deposition. 

    

    This exposed surface of the shallow-marine Mississippian Leadville Formation displays 350 million year old, crinoid stem-ossicles, bivalve shell fragments, rugose horn corals and much later Pleistocene glacial polish and striations. It is a unique occurrence to find the Leadville Limestone glaciated compared to its non-glaciated Redwall-equivalent in the Grand Canyon.


    PLEISTOCENE GLACIAL AND HOLOCENE POST-GLACIAL PROCESSES LEAVE THEIR MARKS
    Back at the bridge, glacial and fluvial erosion have stripped the sedimentary cover from the granite, and allowed the Animas River to carve a channel through the Animas Gorge. Notice the smooth glacial polish and multiple, parallel glacial striations produced by the Animas Glacier moving downvalley some 18,000 years ago. Once exposed, repetitive freeze-thaw cycles have also taken their toll on the granite as it began to exfoliate at the surface into gently curved slabs.





    VERY INFORMATIVE PRINTED RESOURCES
    Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau by Ron Blakey and Wayne Ranney,
    Plateau: The Land and People of the Colorado Plateau
    , Vol. 6, Nos. 1 and 2, 2009.
    Snowball Earth by Paul F. Hoffman and Daniel P. Schrag, Scientific American, 1999.
    The American Alps by Donald L. Baars, 1992.

    The Garden of Ediacara by Mark A.S. McMenamin, 1998.
    The Geology of the American Southwest by W. Scott Baldridge, 2004.
    The Roadside Geology of Colorado by Halka Chronic and Felicie Williams, 2002.
    The Western San Juan Mountains by Rob Blair, 1996.

    Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould, 1989.

    VERY INFORMATIVE ON-LINE RESOURCES
    Geologic Bedrock Map of the Hermosa Quadrangle, Colorado Geological Survey, 2003.
    Reinterpretation of the Ignacio and Elbert Formations by Joshua T. Maurer, 2012.
    Petrologic Evolution of the San Juan Volcanic Field by Peter W. Lipman et al, 1978.
    Formation of the Great Unconformity as a Trigger for the Cambrian Explosion by Shanon E. Peters and Robert R. Gaines, Nature, 2012.

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    “The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe,
    whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets,
    and try their effect on our humanity.
    Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there.
    Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains,
    their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them.
    Pamola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn.”
    The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau, 1864
    who employs a phonetic spelling of Katahdin.
     
     
    THE “GREATEST MOUNTAIN”
    We're facing east from Baxter Peak at 5,269 feet, the penultimate summit of Katahdin's five peaks and the highest point in the State of Maine. The afternoon sun is casting long October shadows into the semi-circular abyss of glacial ice-gouged South Basin. A vertiginous 2,000 foot headwall of erosion-resistant Katahdin granite rises to the top of Pamola Peak across the cirque. To the right of Pamola and running to the summit on which we're standing is a daring traverse called the Knife Edge. It's a two-foot wide boulder-scramble on the apex of a glacial arête that is both famous and revered throughout the northeast. 
    Textbook glacial tarns, hummocky moraines and serpentine eskers lie on a heavily forested, boulder-strewn outwash plain across the valley floor. Welcome to Katahdin!
     
    
    
    Classic Glacial Features From Atop Baxter Peak
    This two-photo panorama was taken from the summit of Baxter Peak, one of five satellite peaks that lie on Katahdin's horseshoe-shaped rim. In the middle distance bask North and South Turner Mountains, and beyond the horizon lies the Bay of Fundy of Nova Scotia. Please click for a larger view.
     

    MANY GEOLOGICAL QUESTIONS
    Pronounced "kuh-TAH-din", it's a Penobscot word of Maine Native Americans that means "the greatest mountain", so the need for "Mount" is redundant. Katahdin and its features harbor geological secrets of their past that have plagued geologists for over a century.


    What is the tectonic relationship of Katahdin to the Appalachian Mountain chain along North America’s eastern margin? By what tectonic design did Katahdin's granitic core emplace? How did did Katahdin come to be positioned within a middle Paleozoic “sea” of metasedimentary rock?
     
    Katahdin's calderic-appearing profile resembles that of Mount St. Helens. Do they share a common volcanic geo-genesis? Why does Katahdin’s granitic core become redder and more resistant to erosion with elevation?

    The granites of Katahdin and the rhyolites of nearby Traveler Mountain exhibit a remarkable chemical homogeneity and time of emplacement. In fact, a contact exists where one intrudes the other. Is there a geological association between Katahdin and Traveler Mountain? By what process did Katahdin’s subterranean magma chamber become "the greatest mountain" towering above the others in the region? 


    Great Basin by American landscape oil painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), 1852.
     
     
    Why is Katahdin’s western flank an upward slope to a high plateau, while its east side is a steep, glacier-sculpted collection of cirques? Did the Laurentide ice sheet of the Pleistocene carve all of Katahdin’s features or did alpine glaciers contribute to the job?

    Penobscot mythology exalts Pamola - part moose and part eagle - as the prisoner-taking spirit of thunder and supreme protector of “K’taadn.” Our fervent hope on this near-freezing Columbus Day weekend, the last of the hiking season in Baxter State Park of Maine, was that the mysterious winged deity would hold mountain storms, lightning strikes and high winds at bay, and repress his anger long enough for us to ascend his granite fortress, observe its geology - and return safely.  

     

    Baxter Peak and the Knife Edge from Atop Pamola Peak
    This view faces west from Pamola Peak toward Baxter Peak, the opposite perspective from the photo above. The hikers at the left are on a section of the mile-long Knife Edge Trail. Notice the rubble that litters the summit. This is a Wikipedia photo.

     
    WHERE IS KATAHDIN?
    About 90 miles upstream from Penobscot Bay in mid-coastal Maine, the Penobscot River divides into a West and East Branch. Between the two branches is the edifice of Katahdin in north-central Maine, near its geographical center at: 45º 54’ 16.07” N, 68º 55’ 18.75” W. If you plug the co-ordinates into Google Earth, it will take you there.

    Bangor is 75 miles to the southeast, and Boston is another 225. Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy are a good 200 miles to the east, and the Canadian border is 60 miles to the northwest towards Quebec.


    In 1836, C.T. Jackson began what would become the first field season of what was to become the first report on the geology of Maine. He ascended to the summit of Katahdin and noted that the mountain was comprised completely of granite, and that, based on the erratics on the mountain, believed it was evidence of the Biblical Deluge that had covered the mountain. Water certainly did but not in its aqueous form. Using barometric observations, he calculated the altitude above sea level to be 5,300 feet - only 31 feet off!
    From the Maine Geological Survey


    WHAT IS KATAHDIN?
    Using the simplest definition possible, Katahdin is a steep and tall mountain composed of a large mass of granite that has weathered to the surface over time. Its granite core formed within a cooled magma chamber or batholith below the earth's surface. It's also a pluton - an encompassing term that includes other intrusive (also called plutonic and means formed into older rock below ground) igneous bodies such as stocks, dikes and sills.

    When molten magma reaches the surface, it may extrude and flow as lava, or in the case of Katahdin, violently eject outward under tremendous pressure. Small particles of ash blasted aloft and settled on the landscape in the form of a rock called welded tuff when solidified. Rhyolite is the extrusive counterpart of its parent intrusive granite. Thus, rhyolite-tuff describes its chemical composition and genesis-rock, Katahdin granite.

    These volcanic events are the result of tectonic plate convergence on the earth's surface, a process that forms continents, closes intervening ocean basins and builds lofty mountain ranges. The tectonic collision that created the magma chamber of Katahdin also built the Appalachian Mountain chain. Of course, this is a basic interpretation. In order to better understand the topography, we must gain an appreciation for the geologic processes that have shaped the region and the east coast of North America for that matter.



     
    THE END OF THE TRAIL
    Katahdin is Maine’s highest mountain and lies at the northern terminus of the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail that starts on Springer Mountain in Georgia. A trek on the meandering AT parallels the strike of the Appalachian orogen through 14 states and includes many terrains familiar to historians and terranes to geologists alike - the Cumberlands, the Blue Ridge, Shenandoah, and the Green and White Mountains of New England.


    The footpath of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine
    follows the strike of the Appalachian orogen.
    Map from n2backpacking.com
     

    FOREVER WILD
    Katahdin is the undisputed centerpiece of Baxter State Park - an over 200,000-acre preserve of mountains and valleys generously established by donations of land beginning in 1931 from Percival P. Baxter, a two-time governor of Maine. To protect the area from logging, he personally purchased the land from logging companies and deeded it to the state.


    The stipulation was that it remains “forever…in the natural wild state…as a sanctuary for wild beasts and birds that no roads or ways…be constructed therein or thereon.” In Governor Baxter's own words: 
     
    "Man is born to die. His works are short-lived.
    Buildings crumble, monuments decay and wealth vanishes,
    but Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine."
     
    Baxter Park Rangers fastidiously preserve and protect the park and its hikers, watching the weather closely for safety and disallowing ascents in storms and high winds. The number of climbers are regulated by the number of cars allowed to enter Baxter, so arrive early with an online registration (here). During the recent federal government shutdown, my confirmation call to the park was proudly answered, “Of course we’re open! We’re a state park and independently funded at that!”
     
     
    Northern Appalachians Ablaze with Color
    Beneath overcast skies on our approach to Baxter State Park from the southeast the day before our climb,
    Katahdin's summit and those of its neighbors were shrouded in mist. Salmon Stream Lake is in the foreground. 
     

    SETTING THE LANDSCAPE FOR THE EMPLACEMENT OF KATAHDIN
    Recording a billion years of orogenesis, the once Himalayan-comparable Appalachian orogen
    extends 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine and as far as Newfoundland, Canada with buried components beneath the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains, and the Atlantic continental shelf. Named by the Spanish in the 1500’s for a Native American tribe – the Apalachis - it is an eroded, accretionary orogen and represents the site of long-vanished ocean basins consumed in a collision of a mosaic of terranes with Laurentia - the core of ancestral North America.

    Traditional descriptions of the evolution of New England and its Northern Appalachian section include a succession of Paleozoic tectonic events: the Penobscottian, Taconic, Salinic, Acadian and Alleghanian orogenies. The landscapes that these mountain-building events created are manifested by a geological zonation across the strike of the orogen in the direction of their tectonic migration onto and across Laurentia (below).


    Unravelling the tectonic history of Laurentia's eastern plate margin has been an arduous and complicated work in progress. That said, let's briefly summarize the orogenic events in order to put Katahdin's regional emplacement into perspective (red dot).


    Regional Geologic Map of the Northern Appalachian Orogen from New York to Newfoundland
    For orientation, identify the states of New England and New York outlined with a dashed line (also inset lower right). Locate New York State on the far left with its upstate Grenville-age Adirondack Massif and downstate Acadian-age Catskill Delta. The Taconic Queenston Delta lies beneath and imprinted by the Acadian. To the east lies the Appalachian front and the many terranes that were accreted and deformed during the Paleozoic. 
    The red dot is the location of Katahdin in north-central Maine within the Piscataquis magmatic belt, an assembly of mafic and igneous rocks of Early Devonian-age (407 Ma). The belt is closely associated with coeval sedimentary rocks of Emsian age.
    Modified from Rankin et al, 2007


    THE FRAGMENTATION OF RODINIA - A GOOD STARTING POINT
    In the earliest Paleozoic, the fragmented Late Proterozoic supercontinent of Rodinia is represented largely by the megacontinents of equatorial Laurentia, South Hemispheric Gondwana and the micro-continent of Baltica - all sharing the waters of the Iapetus Sea. This was a pivotal interval in the Earth’s history – a time of worldwide orogeny, proposed "snowball" glaciations, rapid continental growth, profound changes in ocean geochemistry, and an explosion of biological activity and early animal radiation (Visit here).

    Rodinia's rifted continental elements would re-assemble in succession throughout the Paleozoic and eventually form the supercontinent of Pangaea, create the Appalachian Mountain chain and emplace Katahdin in the process.

    
    Rodinia Shortly After its Fragmentation ~750 Ma
    The megacontinent of Laurentia is positioned equatorially. The recently rifted continents, by and large, have not yet reassembled at ~550 Ma australly as Gondwana. Orange represents 1300-1000 Ma mountain belts; green represents continents with paleomagnetic data.

    Torsvik, 2003

    
    Equatorial-positioned Laurentia and South Hemispheric-positioned Gondwana in the Middle Cambrian
    Laurentia, Baltica, Gondwana and sundry microplates are separated by the Iapetus Ocean. It is at this time that Avalon terranes are rifting from Gondwana.
    From scotese.com


    THE PENOBSCOTTIAN OROGENY
    The Pebobscottian orogeny is in part coeval (time equivalent) with the early phases of the Taconic orogeny (below). It was caused by a collision between the Penobscot arc and the terrane of Ganderia, a widely misunderstood microterrane situated in the periphery of Gondwana across the Iapetus Ocean. It involved back-arc ophiolites that were obducted onto the Gander margin. The composite terrane trends northeast from Northern New Hampshire, across west-central Maine and into New Brunswick, Canada. This subduction-obduction tectonic event occured in the Late Cambrian to Early Ordovician and preceded the Taconic orogeny, whose arc rocks locally overlie it.

    THE TACONIC OROGENY
    After some 150 million years following Rodinia's fragmentation, the world's continental plates began to converge in the early Paleozoic, driven by the incremental closure of their interposed ocean basins. The first was the Late Ordovician Taconic orogeny from Newfoundland to New York. It i
    nvolved Laurentia’s collision with an island arc complex upon closure of the intervening Western Iapetus Ocean.

    The Taconic allochthon that formed signifies the earliest recognition of the Northern Appalachian Mountains in western New England and southeastern New York State, while a massive clastic wedge was shed westward into a developing foreland in New York, Pennsylvania and beyond called the Queenston delta.

    This was the beginning of the replacement of the open seas of the Western Iapetus off the coast of Rodinia with "exotic" continental crust, a process that would end in the northeast with the formation of New England, Maine and the emplacement of Katahdin. 


    
    The Taconic Orogeny
    In the Late Cambrian (500 Ma), the elongate Taconic magmatic arc (red arrow) converges on the Laurentian plate's passive eastern shore at the expense of the Western Iapetus Ocean. To the east, the Eastern Iapetus awaits closure with the convergence of the Avalon micro-continent. Note the Panthalassic Ocean (proto-Pacific Ocean) enveloping the remainder of the globe. The State of Maine is somewhere out on Laurentia's continental slope, and Katahdin has not yet formed.
    Modified from Colorado Plateau Geosystems. Inc.
    From Time Slices of North American Geologic History DVD


    THE SALINIC OROGENY
    The tectonic history of New England during the Paleozoic has been dominated by discussions of island arcs, exotic terranes and compressional events. Recently, an event of crustal extension has been elucidated - the Salinic orogeny. Replete with sedimentation and a mafic intrusive complex, it developed within elements of the Taconic event in central New England to the west during the Silurian. It includes deep-water strata of four basins, two of which are relevant to our discussion of Katahdin: the Connecticut Valley-Gaspe synclinorium and the Central Maine trough in New England and eastern Quebec.

    A boundary within the basins implies a change in the depositional setting from an intercontinental backarc extensional setting to a foreland basin as the Acadian wedge approached from the east (black arrow). Other tectonic models have been proposed, but regardless of the process, the Salinic involved rifting or crustal divergence followed by Acadian deformation and metamorphism. 

    On the "Regional Geologic Map" above (red dot) and the map below (red circle), note Katahdin within the Piscataquis magmatic (volcanic) belt AND within the CVG and Central Maine basins. Outboard in the direction of the Acadian front to the southeast (diagram below is a rotated perspective) lies Avalon's coastal volcanic belt "proper" of the orogen.


    Principal Tectonic Features Map of Maine, Eastern Quebec and Parts Vermont and New Hampshire
    Katahdin's location is within the Piscataquis volcanic (magmatic) belt amongst the Lower Devonian flysch and molasse of the CVG and Central Maine basins. Note also the location of Avalonia's coastal volcanic belt.
    The direction of migration of the Acadian front is from southeast to northwest (black arrow).
    Modified from Bradley and Tucker, 2002.


    THE ACADIAN OROGENY
    The third event to shape northeastern Laurentia was the Middle Devonian Acadian orogeny with the closure of the Eastern Iapetus Ocean. It involved the collision of Avalonia – a peri-Gondwanan, rifted terrane - with Laurentia's east margin. It too built a large clastic wedge and foreland called the Catskill delta. In reality, the accretion of the Avalon arc involved several composite subduction zones. The details of its superterranes and geometries of the Acadian event are only partially understood and beyond the scope of this post.   


    Convergence of the Avalon Arc
    With the Taconic orogen fully developed during the Late Ordovician (450 Ma), the Avalonian and Baltican micro-plates converge upon Laurentia at the expense of the Eastern Iapetus Ocean. With each collision, mountains were built and crust was added to Laurentia - the expanding proto-North American continent. Also note the relative tectonic quiescence on Laurentia's west coast. Its marginal passivity will end when the east coast's tectonic activity ceases. Our planet is a sphere of fixed dimension. Two massive oceans (such as the Atlantic and the Pacific) can not form simultaneously. One forms at the other's expense.
    Modified from Colorado Plateau Geosystems. Inc.
    From Time Slices of North American Geologic History DVD

                                                                                                                           
    The Acadian orogeny finalized the northern Appalachians from the Canadian Maritimes into New England (and the central and southern Appalachians into the Carolinas), and penetrated into, deformed and imprinted the previous Taconic orogen and its foreland. In Maine, it formed the state's highest mountains in a belt that runs from the New Hampshire border on the west through Katahdin and beyond to the northeast, a distance of 150 miles. In New Hampshire, the range continues through the White Mountains to Mount Monadnock in the southwest part of the state. Thus, the Maine Appalachians are mostly Devonian in age - initially Taconic but deformed and elevated in the Acadian orogeny.

    Katahdin emplaced during the Acadian orogeny as deformation migrated from the southeast to the northwest. What's more, its curious locus of emplacement relevant to the Acadian subduction zone was within the flysch and molasse of the Acadian foreland, which will be investigated on our climb of Katahdin.   

      
    The Acadian Orogeny
    Fully developed by the Late Devonian (375 Ma), the Acadian orogen accreted to Laurentia and deformed the eastern flank of the Taconic orogen. Likewise, Baltica has merged with Avalonia to its south. By this time, the Northern Appalachians have formed and Katahdin has emplaced within northern Maine. Notice Gondwana  (lower right) draws near signalling the formation of the supercontinent of Pangaea.
    Modified from Colorado Plateau Geosystems. Inc.
    From Time Slices of North American Geologic History DVD



    THE ALLEGHANIAN OROGENY
    Lastly, the Pennsylvanian-Permian Alleghanian orogeny (Ouachita orogen in southern and eastern Mexico, and Hercynian-Variscan in southern Europe) finalized the Central and Southern Appalachians and overprinted the Acadian orogen by deforming and metamorphosing parts of New England.

    The Acadian involved a largely translational, highly oblique, continent-continent collision that closed the Rheic Ocean, sutured western Gondwana to Laurussia (Laurentia and Baltica), completed a Wilson cycle (here), produced the Appalachian Mountain chain and finalized the formation of Pangaea. The multi-phasic, Taconic through Alleghanian, Paleozoic-spanning event is summarily called the Appalachian orogeny.

    
    The Alleghanian Orogeny
    By the Early Jurassic (180 Ma), the Rheic Ocean between Laurentia and Gondwana had closed, and Pangaea, having fully formed, had initiated its fragmentation apart. Within the developing rift between North America, and Africa and South America, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean filled the growing void. Roughly concomitant with the initiation of a passive continental margin on Laurentia's east coast, active tectonics initiated on Laurentia's west coast. Rifting apart of Pangaea gave birth to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the modern continents of the Cenozoic including North America, and the Appalachian Mountain chain along the east coast. The red arrow identifies Katahdin within the Northern Appalachians.
    Modified from Colorado Plateau Geosystems. Inc.
    From Time Slices of North American Geologic History DVD

    
    
     
    Following Pangaea's breaking apart, the familiar continents of our modern world took their places across the globe. The Panthalassic Ocean would become the Pacific. Laurentia's east coast became a passive margin, while its west coast became active - the site of convergence. Pangaea's fragmentation left the Katahdin pluton within the region of the Northern Appalachians of Maine, a hundred or so miles from the sea. Voila!
     
    BEST LAID PLANS 
    Our plan was to climb Katahdin from the east, where the bedrock is well exposed for observation. It's also one of the best places to view glacial features both on Katahdin's slopes and the valley floor, so we didn’t want to miss the opportunity after having driven over 300 miles from Boston on the previous day. The entire month of October experienced heavy rain in New England, but the forecast for our climb was blue sky. We were elated.
     
     
    Katahdin from the east
    Katahdin looms large from all directions, here from the east outside of nearby Millinocket.
    High Dynamic Range photo contributed by resident Mainer FL Doyle III (fldoyle.com)
     
     
    Visitors to Baxter State Park are regulated by the number of cars that are allowed to enter. Unfortunately, having arrived only minutes late, the gate attendant gave away our reserved parking space, the last one on Katahdin’s east side. He offered parking on the west side, not our preference, which we readily accepted. Our passing thought (which eventually became our plan) was to ascend from the west and descend to the east. The problem was that it would put us over 20 miles from the car after dark.
     
    Before driving away from the gate, the attendant asked us a curious question, "Got a flashlight?" "Yes", we answered. More on that later. A word to the wise – don’t be late at the gate, or better, camp at the base of Katahdin the night before your climb. And don't forget that flashlight!
     
     
    Topographic Map of Katahdin
    Our route (red arrows) on Katahdin was an 11-mile, west-to-east traverse. Beginning at the trailhead at Katahdin Stream Campground, the progression was up Hunt Trail, across the summit and down by the Saddle Trail to Roaring Brook Campground via the Chimney Pond trail. Click on the photo for a larger view.
     
     
    CLIMBING THE GEOLOGY OF KATAHDIN
    At 5,267 feet, Katahdin is the highest mountain peak in Maine, yet it has a local relief of 4,700 feet making it one of the largest massifs (a massive mountain formed of basement or plutonic rocks) in the Appalachian Mountains. There are many routes to the summit of Katahdin, all of which involve some degree of scrambling (using all fours) and all of which are steep and challenging.
     
    We headed out on the Hunt Trail, a popular ascent with outstanding features (far right on Google Earth below). Notice the flat plateau on Katahdin's west side (right), and the collection of cirques on the east side (left). Download trailmaps of Katahdin here.
     
     
    Google Earth View of Katahdin Looking South
     
    

    The trailhead is at Katahdin Stream campground, elevation 1,075 feet. It follows the stream on a persistent upslope built on talus through a mixed boreal forest of hardwoods such as white birch and red maple, and evergreens such as balsam fir, red-black spruce, hemlock and white cedar. The ground flora was rich in mosses, ferns, bunchberry and hobblebush. This is an alpine temperature ecosystem of great diversity.

    Virtually all of the granite bedrock is related to the time of Katahdin's emplacement - Early, possibly some Middle, Devonian age, although a small region in the park’s southwest corner is Late Devonian. Older Cambrian and Silurian rocks surround the park within the aforementioned basins, attributable to the tectonic and emplacement regime of the Katahdin pluton, of which less than half is within Baxter State Park.


    
    The Ascent Team
    Our "ascent team" included my son Will (left) and his friend Leo, both fit as a fiddle and seriously pumped to climb - as one can plainly see. The Hunt Trail is crossing Katahdin Stream on a bridge of logs. Massive boulders of Katahdin granite are everywhere. As the grade increases, the boulders will stack into a near-vertical wall.


    A SHIMMERING LAKE-MIRAGE
    The cold October night created a temperature inversion in the valleys around Katahdin. Looking like a large lake off to the west, trapped cold air created a thick foggy blanket that quickly burned off in the sun. Still near freezing, we immediately began shedding layers as the pitch and our efforts increased.


    Temperature Inversion Fog


    KATAHDIN FALLS
    Picturesque Katahdin Falls, at an elevation of about 1,600 feet, spills over a wall of Katahdin granite. The bedrock is homogeneously granitic on the Katahdin pluton, so the knickpoint didn't form on strata of varying lithologies with differing erosion-resistance typical of a sedimentary rock-dominated terrain. Instead, the falls is a consequence of the varying glacial landscape and mass-wasting that was rendered to the region after 12,000 years of erosion. At this elevation, the forest is predominantly red-black spruce and balsam fir that provides a veneer of aromatic and spongy, orange-brown needles everywhere.


    Katahdin Falls
    The calmness bequeathed here is in contrast to the arduous climb that awaits above.


    EVERGREENS OF THE NORTH WOODS
    The boreal forests of Baxter State Park began to develop about 12,000 years ago with the regression of the Laurentide ice sheet. The land retained its tundra ecology for at least 1,000 years as the first human inhabitants left evidence of their presence. As the climate gradually warmed, it had a profound effect on the resident animal population. Northern forests of spruce and fir support relatively little herbaceous vegetation, offering little subsistence for gregarious herbivores like musk ox and caribou that gradually drifted northward out of the region.

    Today, 8,000 or so years later, the forests of northern Maine changed from boreal to spruce and fir-dominated. The regional soil is generally poorly to moderately drained over compressed glacial till or areas of shallow soil clinging to the bedrock. A great many of the forests have been harvested for logging, but Baxter is a "gem in the woods" - literally.




    GAINING ELEVATION AND INSIGHT
    Upon gaining altitude, the terrain began to unfold. It was even more clear that Katahdin is situated in an extensive forest of the Maine Wilderness. The stands and bands of bright-orange Sugar Maples in the valleys are growing on alluvially-enriched soils generated by huge glacial meltwater channels from the Pleistocene. As we progressed upslope, the soil-till-talus mix gave way to talus-dominated, and ultimately bedrock sprinkled with weather-fractured blocks of granite. The mosaic of hardwoods and softwoods is evident with the change in autumnal color.

    The mountains immediately off to the west of Katahdin have names such as Squaws Bosom, Tabletop, Barren, The Owl and the Brothers. Every one is cored with intrusive granite of the Katahdin pluton. That's not the case north of Katahdin where Traveler Mountain is composed of bluish-gray extrusive rhyolite, yet it's part of the same pluton, or better stated, volcanic complex - a hint at the co-magmatic regime of Katahdin. By the way, Traveler got its name from the early explorers that boated down the East Branch of the Penobscot River since the mountain seemed to travel with them.





    Macrolichens of New England
    A foliose (leafy) and a fruticose (shrubby) lichen - two of the main types - germinate on a hardwood branch. Exposed rocks, particularly at higher elevations, are covered with the third lichen-type - crustose (crusty).


    SILURIAN BASINS IMPRINTED BY THE ADVANCING DEVONIAN OROGEN
    To the west, beyond the composite of summits of the Katahdin pluton and those of the Piscataquis belt, lies the aforementioned sedimentary, Salinic basin of the Connecticut Valley-Gaspe synclinorium. The extensional trough formed in the Middle Silurian within previously-accreted magmatic arcs of the Taconic orogeny (the Shelburne Falls and Bronson Hills arcs) that separated them. The sediments that accumulated within the trough were overlain by those derived from the foreland of the encroaching Acadian orogen. 


    The Migration of the Acadian Front
    Map of Maine showing sequential positions of the Acadian deformation front in its migration from the southeast to the northwest. The region of the Katahdin pluton is encircled. Note the time stamps. 
    Modified from Bradley and Tucker,2001. 


    With the convergence of the Avalon terrane in Late Silurian to Middle Devonian time upon Laurentia’s eastern margin and the trough, the Acadian front and foreland basin migrated northwestward across Maine, adjacent areas of New England, and New Brunswick and eastern Quebec of Canada. With the orogen's advance, it overrode and deformed the earlier Taconic-modified margin and inundated its migrating Acadian foreland basin with clastic successions of Devonian flysch and molasse and blanketed some of the deep-water Silurian sequences that accumulated within the synclinorium.

    The landscape we see today records these Silurian and Devonian sedimentary deposits and retains the barely perceptible, synclinal geomorphology of the extensional tectonic regime. But by what tectonic design did Katahdin and the Piscataquis volcanics emplace?


    View West from the below the Hunt Spur
    The bare granite cliffs to the right are on The Owl. Notice the rockslides on the slopes beyond. Heavy rains saturate the thin cover of soil on steep slopes that are poorly retained on the smooth granite. When they catastrophically fail, steep treeless scars record the event, never to reforest. Also, notice the enigmatic bands of "patterned growth" (Caldwell) or mortality patterns of the spruce and fir in front of the Owl to the far right. Except for elevation, topographical factors are not consistently related to the mortality. A budworm outbreak that reaches epidemic proportions about every 35 years has been implicated. Other hypotheses for the banding include host trees overtopped by hardwood canopies and factors relating to drainage and soil-type.

    
    


    THE EMPLACEMENT OF THE KATAHDIN PLUTON
    Volcanic rocks within the Acadian orogen occur in two broad belts: a Coastal belt that erupted into the basement of the Avalon terrane and a second belt of Silurian-Devonian volcanic rocks – called the Piscataquis magmatic (or volcanic) belt within the foreland of New England (and the Tobique volcanic belt in Canada).

    Plutonic activity in this part of the orogen was produced by Acadian deformation and falls within a narrow range of the Emsian age of the Devonian (400-410 Ma.). The actual deformation front was south of the Katahdin pluton - placing it within the foreland basin, a location of emplacement that departs from the conventional tectonic norm.

    KATAHDIN AND TRAVELER ARE CO-MAGMATIC
    In addition, the ash-flows of Traveler rhyolite on Traveler Mountain to the north of Katahdin AND Katahdin itself are regarded as the volcanic and plutonic parts of the SAME igneous complex. In fact, the granite intrudes the rhyolite (on the north ridge of Wassataquoik Mountain and on the southern slope of South Traveler Mountain both to the north of Katahdin). The rhyolite-granite contact has been Zircon dated at 406.9 ± 0.4 Ma, which sets the maximum age for the granite. 

    The emplacement of the Katahdin pluton likely occurred at shallow depths because of the presence of the granophyric phase of granite and because the granite intruded its cover-carapace of rhyolite. Violent, successive eruptions at the surface spewed thick volcanic ash that flowed over the region preserved in the welded tuff of Traveler Mountain. If the carapace of Traveler rhyolite that once covered the likely caldera of Katahdin (formed when the volcano's magma chamber collapsed within itself), then the Katahdin volcanic complex would qualify as among the largest volcanic features known in the world (Hon, 1976). One can only imagine what this place was like during the Early Devonian!


    Geologic Map of the Katahdin Region
    Less than half of the Katahdin pluton is within Baxter State Park. Oval in outline and elongated in a NE-SW direction, it is roughly 40 X 22 miles and perhaps 3 miles thick. To the north the pluton is overlain by the Traveler rhyolite.
    Modified from Bradley and Tucker, 2001.


    Dating and geologic mapping have arrived at the conclusion that the upper parts of the Katahdin pluton are close to the roof of the magma chamber of the Katahdin granite and that the roof or carapace slopes north toward Traveler Mountain. We will see this in the phases of granite that crops out at various elevations on our climb. Where's the ash that we assume once covered Katahdin? It eroded away in the roughly 400 hundred million years since it blanketed the region, at a rate estimated at 20-100 feet per million years (Judson and Ritter, 1964). What's left of the ash comprises the rhyolite-tuff in the region of Traveler Mountain to Katahdin's north, all that's left of Katahdin's carapace.

    EMPLACEMENT PROFILE FROM HINTERLAND TO FORELAND
    An Emsian-age transect (below) through the orogen in the Katahdin area shows the plutons emplaced into already-deformed Devonian rocks at a depth of 6.5 km. At this time, Katahdin is envisioned to entertain both "volcanism at the surface and plutonism at depth." (Bradley and Tucker, 2001). Emsian magmatism originated within and beneath the orogen BUT were extruded across the deformation front into the foreland. According to Bradley and Turner, "Although these younger plutons are commonly referred to as "Acadian," they postdated the documented cratonward advance of the deformation front and so cannot be linked to Acadian plate convergence."


    Nonpalinspastic Map of Maine
    Sequential positions of the Acadian deformation front are shown with dates as it migrated (arrow) across Maine (find borders of the state for orientation). In the Early Emsian (~407 Ma), the Katahdin pluton emplaced within the Acadian foreland. During this ~40 million year interval, the front is thought to have advanced some 240 km cratonward.
    Modified from Bradley and Tucker, 2001.


    The calc-alkaline, subduction-related granites likely possess a mantle component. The magmatism "cannot be solely a consequence of collision-induced thickening of continental crust" (Bradley and Tucker). One interpretation of the Katahdin-Traveler system is that mafic magma, generated deep within the mantle, ascended perhaps 20 miles from the surface beneath the crust (diagram below). Heat from the ponded magma partially melted the crust, generating a granitic magma. As the magma continued its buoyant ascent, it cooled and crystallized, accumulating gases within the upper chamber. The gas-rich magma escaped to the surface in a series of violent eruptions generating the
    successive ash flows of the Traveler rhyolite.


    
    Cross section through the Acadian Deformation Front during Early Emsian Time in the Katahdin Region
    From Bradley and Tucker, 2001.


    The volume of rhyolite that was produced is estimated to have been 80 cubic miles 
    compared to less than 1/10th of a cubic mile in the devastating 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Typically, large extravasations of rhyolite lead to caldera formation with a rapid evacuation or pressure release within the magma chamber. It's likely that Katadin experienced some caldera formation, since some components of the Traveler rhyolite (Black Cat Member) demonstrate compaction foliation and faulting. Clearly though, the caldera-like geomorphology of Katahdin is the product of erosion following its exhumation.

    THE SPUR SECTION OF THE HUNT TRAIL
    Unfortunately, I have no photos taken from within the Spur - a hundred feet or so of near-vertical, jointed granite. I admit that I was more concerned with safety than photography. However, I borrowed this photo from the web to illustrate my point.


    "What am I doing up here?"
    Jsdangelo.com nicely sums up the Spur


    ON TOP OF THE SPUR
    Leo and Will rejoice from the top of the Spur. Notice the Katahdin granite is now pinkish and blanketed by a black and yellow-iridescent lichen, largely Lecidea geographica. Eight distinct lichen habitats of almost 300 species have been found on Katahdin from its subalpine forests through the krummholz to the exposed alpine tundra at the summit. Lichens are sensitive to elevation, climate and air pollution. Bryophytes (liverworts and mosses) are also abundant - over 200 species.

    In the distance, the chain of post-Pleistocene lakes are within the Maine Wilderness Area. In the lowlands, orange Sugar Maples are sharply demarcated against evergreens that are thriving on nutrient-rich alluvium deposited during glacial melt.


    Atop the Spur
    Leo and Will rejoice at the top of the Spur.


    THE GATEWAY
    At about 3,850 feet, we're entering the Gateway - a ridge of boulder-strewn bedrock that leads to the flat plateau of the Tableland. Having negotiated the Spur we expected to have a glimpse of the summit but were surprised by the size of the Gateway. We were amused by descending climbers who exclaimed, "You're almost there!" - when in reality, there's another 4 miles to the penultimate summit of Katahdin! 

    We're clearly above the treeline. At this elevation, growing conditions have become increasingly severe with scarce nutrients, poorly drained, thin residual soils, wind, exposure and prolonged cold. Mineral soils have given way to organic soils. Most 
    herbaceous plants and tall trees can't tolerate these conditions. This is the sub-arctic krummholz or "crooked-wood" zone, dominated by tangled and stunted balsam fir, many in close stands that are almost impenetrable.  The krummholz transitions to the alpine zone once on the Tableland.

    At first glance, the plantscape appears uniform, but close observation shows a mosaic of 
    mosses, lichens and dwarf shrubs of fir, juniper and spruce. Microclimates and flora vary with the topography - expanses of bare bedrock, areas with thin soil and sheltered depressions out of the wind. You can tell the prevailing direction of the wind by the distorted shrubs that draw to the left.


    The Gateway to the Tableland
    The Gateway is a huge boulder-strewn ramp to the flats of the Tableland. That's Will, now wearing green, and Leo in black above him. The clouds are rolling in from the southeast (right) and dropping down into the cirque to the northwest. We experienced a sense of climbing into the "unknown." Further off to the right is the dangerous, steep and loose trail of Abol Slide, which also summits Katahdin from the west. 

    TWO MAIN PHASES OF KATAHDIN GRANITE
    Katahdin's granite occurs in two phases. The variety that forms the core and most of the pluton is the granitic phase. Largely light gray and homogenous, its an equigranular (uniform), medium-grained granite. Compositionally, the granite is 33% quartz, 33% alkali feldspar, 25% plagioclase, 5-10% biotite and accessory minerals.

    As one ascends Katahdin, a gradual transition occurs from the light gray granitic phase at lower elevations, through mottled white and pink to salmon, and finally to brick red of the granophyric phase near the top of the pluton. The red comes from grains of hematite (iron oxide) contained within crystals of alkali feldspar. The color change is accompanied by higher percentages of fine-grained quartz and alkali feldspar that surround larger crystals with interlocking crystals. The geometric patterns one sees are typical of porphyritic igneous rocks and also contain small vugs (cavities).

    The coarser-grained granitic phase is thought to have cooled more slowly allowing for crystal growth, being closer to the interior of the magma chamber, than the granophyric phase, that cooled more rapidly being closer to the colder bordering rock. Water-rich gas bubbles near the roof of the chamber were trapped by the rapidly cooling granophyric phases.


    The Two Phases of Granite within the Katahdin Pluton - Granitic and Granophyric
    In these specimens photographed on Katahdin, one can readily identify white feldspars,
    black biotites and gray quartz.


    WEATHERING OF THE GRANITE
    Parallel sets of through-going planar cracks or joints that develop in the granite fuel the mass wasting process that sends boulders downslope. It will eventually level Katahdin to a peneplain - the fate of all mountains in time. On the Tableland and scattered across Katadin's summit, the bedrock is broken into scattered boulders on the summit.

    The body of granite can also form joints from contractional cooling and from the strain induced by continent-deforming tectonic processes. Exfoliation or sheet joints are found on steep planar surfaces such as found on the walls of glacial cirques. They are formed more recently by unloading as the weight of the overburden is removed by erosion and the melting of glacial ice. Once formed, granite sheets can be further truncated by erosion as freeze-thaw cycles and gravity pry off the surface and fill the floor with talus debris.


    
    Transitioning from the Granitic to Granophyric Phase of the Katahdin Granite on the Gateway
    White blazes of paint and small cairns mark the trail. Notice the blanket of black and green lichens that cover the granite and its increasingly salmon color.

    Higher on the Gateway, Will forges ahead into the clouds that are streaming up from the cirque on the south face of Katahdin. Rainbow-colored curtains of water vapor shimmer in the wind. A gauntlet of lichen-speckled boulders are thrown everywhere in contrast to the tundral vegetation displaying fall colors. Incredibly beautiful. You want to stay, but the summit beckons. So does nightfall, as we carefully watch the time.


    
    Halfway up the Gateway
    Massive boulders litter the bedrock of the Gateway. "Almost on the plateau!"
    


    Off to the right are Mount Coe and South Brother. The lowlands to the left (west), 
    blanketed in colorful hardwoods, drape away from the Katahdin pluton onto till-covered Early Devonian, Ordovician and Silurian sedimentary rocks.


    
    Will clears the Spur onto the flat of the Tableland


    THE TABLELAND
    The southern region of the Katahdin massif is a broad, open, treeless, weather-exposed, gradually sloping plateau to the peaks that lie on the edge of the cliff-rimmed basins. Weathered blocks of bedrock were strewn everywhere, virtually coated with iridescent green-yellow lichen illuminated by the sun.


    The plants of this arctic zone at this altitude have evolved to tolerate the extreme environmental conditions. Grow low is the dominant survival tactic, but everything from shallow root systems to desiccation-resistant leaves contribute to their ability to thrive in this fragile habitat. Although alpine grasses exist, most herbaceous grass can't survive at this elevation and are mostly sedges. Lichens and mosses are also found in abundance. Climbing a high peak such as this is equivalent to traveling north to the arctic in terms of both the flora and fauna encountered. Many of the plants here are rare or endangered, and are protected by a cobble-lined trail to prevent trampling.


    View to the northwest from the Tableland
    The sign welcomes hikers to the Tableland.


    From the same location in the above photo on the Tableland, we're facing north. The peaks of Katahdin's summit appear to be nothing more than a long trek that ends on a plateau, which is what it is. But looks are deceiving in that the east face, which we can't yet see from here, is sculpted beyond anything imaginable. Also blocked from view, rhyolite-built, co-magmatic Traveler Mountain is 13 miles due north beyond Katahdin. We're nearing the top of the magma chamber that is Katahdin!


    From the Tableland, we're looking due north across a deep ravine that is the Katahdin Stream watershed. The flat-appearing, bare summit to the far right is Hamlin Peak, one of five that comprises Katahdin.


    Looking down from the Tableland to the Gateway, here's a last look at the tabular 
    landscape to the west. The "cloud factory" on Katahdin's south slope is still highly productive as the cool rising valley air meets the warmer air aloft. Our climb that began just above freezing is now a balmy 60 degrees.

    Several theories have been offered to explain the origin of the broad upland surface of the Tableland including erosional peneplanation and bevelling by glacio-peneplanation. The Tableland consists of resistant granophyric granite identical to that of Katahdin's summit. This resistant caprock in many ways is analagous to a sandstone overlying an erodable shale. Thus, the granophyre "holds up" or protects Katahdin. Once removed, rapid slope retreat occurs and decline into the hills and lowlands of the granitic phase around the pluton.


    
     

    THE NORTHWEST PLATEAU AND BASIN
    From the same perspective looking due north (below), we're viewing Hamlin Peak (4,751 feet) to the right across the Northwest Plateau and Basin at the summit of Katahdin. Typical of glaciated terrain in the north, notice the glacial plucking on the south, leeward outcrop of granite. Viewed from the west, the plateau has a roche moutonnee or "sheep-back" configuration with a gently sloping, north face. Our view of Traveler Mountain is blocked by Hamlin peak. To the right are Fort Mountain and North Brother. Our destination of Baxter Peak is to the right (out of view) about 1.4 miles.

    We're near Thoreau Spring. Whether or not he actually reached this area is unknown. It is known from his journal that he never reached the summit of Katahdin, having been determined by bad weather. The Tableland is notorious for high winds and pelting rain and snow.

    In 1924, Governor Baxter lost his Republican party's nomination to Owen Brewster. While in office, Governor Brewster climbed and erected a plaque at the site of the spring as the first "sitting" governor to climb the edifice. Called Governor's Spring, he used photos of his climb to promote his proposal to convert the region to a national park. Baxter defeated the proposal and in 1933 purchased the first parcel of land of what would eventually become Baxter State Park. Of course the Governor's Spring plaque was replaced with one that reads Thoreau Spring - whether or not he was actually there. So the story goes. 





    A SPECTACULAR DISPLAY FROM ATOP BAXTER
    After 5 hours of climbing, our efforts were rewarded with an unmatched view from the east side of Katahdin. Everything in sight is a compendium of a billion years of geological evolution - Rodinia's fragmentation, Paleozoic plate convergence, the closure of two oceans, Acadian deformation, Katahdin emplacement, the rifting apart of Pangaea, hundreds of millions of years of landscape erosion and exhumation, and finally, Pleistocene glaciation.

    Facing northeast from Baxter Peak, the glacial tarn of Chimney Pond lies 2,775 feet at the foot of the ice-carved, semi-circular cirque of South Basin - formed by erosion of an alpine glacier. With the cessation of glaciation, erosion has continued the process of excavation via mass-wasting and repetitive freeze-thaw cycles. Further out on the forest floor of glacial outwash and till, North and South Basins, also tarns, have been impounded by the Basin Ponds end moraine. In the middle distance, North and South Turner Mountains are separated by a glacial U-shaped valley. Rhyolite-composed Traveler Mountain, the co-magmatic partner of Katahdin, is in the clouds at the extreme left.




    Photographic documentation of our ascent to the summit of Katahdin! We're standing on weathered blocks of granite, although bedrock crops out just below the summit. On the far side of the sign is a 2,000 foot drop off to the valley below.

    
    Well done, Will!

    Leo and Will's turn in front of the lens!


    
    This photo says it all.

    This tablet on the summit of Mount Katahdin was placed on March 16,1932 to record the "gift and conveyance" of nine square miles of land to the State of Maine by former Governor Percival P. Baxter, made upon the express condition that the tract "forever be left in the natural wild state."

    Notice the salmon color of the granite. It is estimated that the roof of the pluton was only a few hundred feet above this spot. Also, observe the weather fractured cobbles, boulders and grus (coarse-grained sand and gravel resulting from the granular disintegration of the granite from mechanical and chemical weathering) that cover the summit. Even lichens contribute to the insidious dissintegration of the granite by secreting organic acids.





    THE KNIFE EDGE
    The Knife Edge Trail (blue paint blazes) traverses the apex of a serrated arête that runs the mile or so between Baxter and Pamola Peaks. The north side of the ridge is formed by the glacial cirque of South Basin, while the south side, which likely was sculpted by the Laurentide ice sheet, doesn't bear the classical cirqued-features of alpine glaciation. The south side of the arête may be a greater victim of mass wasting and frost-shattering. Therefore, calling it an arête, which technically requires carving from alpine glaciers on both sides, may not be totally correct.

    That said, nothing detracts from the massivity of the ridge and the focus climbers must maintain while negotiating its exposed sections that are merely two feet wide in some areas and plummet some 2,000 feet in either direction. This is probably the most spectacular mountain trail in the East. High winds can be unpredictable and extremely menacing here. The Baxter State Park website posts the warning "Not for the faint of heart!"

    This photo faces east from Baxter and illustrates how the Knife Edge curves to meet Pamola Peak. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you'll see numerous hikers balancing their way across it.


    The Knife Edge

    From the same perch on Baxter Peak, we're looking south into the "cloud factory" of Katahdin's south face that we experienced earlier on the Gateway and the Tableland, which slopes off to the right. The Knife Edge begins off to the left. Notice the extent of weather-pulverized rock that litters the summit that completely blankets the bedrock.


    South-facing view from Baxter Peak

    The Knife Edge is rather blunted in this early section and covered by large boulders of Katahdin granite. At the far left in the sun, heavily-jointed, granophyric Katahdin bedrock is exposed at the top of South Basin's headwall and throughout most of the arête. Again, notice the climbers for scale. I counted 11 in the photo.


    The Knife Edge as it strikes east from Baxter Peak


    THE LAURENTIDE ICE SHEET
    The Pleistocene epoch began in North America about 2.58 million years ago - traditionally referred to as the first of the Quaternary Period. Over this relatively short span of time geologically, the landscape of North America in Canada and the United States was dramatically altered by at least four phases of glaciation by an up to two-mile thick, slow-moving ice sheet called the Laurentide. Driven by vacillations in the climate, a multitude of glacial advances and regressions (glacial and interglacial episodes) occurred, the most recent of which is the Wisconsinan that extended to about 38 degrees latitude.


    Extent of Pleistocene glaciation at 18,000 years ago.
    Note the depth of the continental ice sheet in meters. Katahdin is at the red dot.
    Modified from A. McIntyre, CLIMAP Project, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, 1981.


    THE ICE AGE IN MAINE AND THE SCULPTING OF THE MODERN LANDSCAPE
    Following Katahdin's emplacement in the Early Devonian, hundreds of millions of years of erosion worked to remove nearly two miles of overburden that buried the pluton. Looking back about 10 million years, we would likely see that the general features of the landscape in Baxter State Park were likely already fashioned. Once exhumed, Pleistocene glaciers began to sculpt Katahdin's modern landscape out of its granite.

    The Laurentide ice sheet flowed southeast across Maine and terminated at Georges Bank (a submerged area of the sea floor between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia) at a time when the level of the seas was 300 feet below present during glacial maximum. The oceans reached their modern level about 3,000 years ago and of course are on the rise - this being an inetrglacial epoch of warming called the Holocene - the most recent time frame of the Quaternary.

    Enough water was held in continental ice sheets during the Pleistocene to lower sea level worldwide by about 150 meters. When deglaciation and the ice age finally ended about 12,000 years ago, the ice sheet left the landscape of Katahdin and the surrounding lowlands with a distinctive array of erosional and depositional landforms in what is a textbook study in glaciomorphology. Few places in the northeastern United states offer a chance to see these features in such an unspoiled setting. Some 400 million years of surface erosion and post-glacial isostatic rebound have allowed the landscape to assume its present attitude almost a mile above sea level. 


    Sandy Stream Pond and Katahdin
    Sandy Stream Pond is one of the best places to see moose at sunrise or sunset. In the distance, Katahdin’s four cirques and five summits are dusted in late October snow. The low, elongate ridge beyond the treeline is the Basin Pond moraine that dams the Basin Ponds.
    Panorama contributed by resident Mainer Donny Doyle (fldoyle.com)

    
    
    North view of the Basin Ponds and the Basin Ponds moraine
    The Google Earth vertical exaggeration is greatly increased in order to visualize the Basin Ponds moraine that impounds three tarns at the foot of Great and South basins.


    THE ENIGMA OF THE BASIN PONDS MORAINE
    Perhaps the most puzzling question concerning Katahdin’s glacial history was whether there was cirque glaciation on Katahdin following the retreat of the continental ice sheet of late Wisconsinan time or perhaps even whether alpine glaciation preceded the arrival of the ice sheet. A second question is whether Katahdin was a nunatak (an Inuit word) with its summit remaining isolated from glaciation.

    Glacial erratics found on Katahdin in addition to polished bedrock and striations indicate that Katahdin was in fact once covered by the last advance of the Laurentide ice sheet during Late Wisconsinan glaciation between about 25,000 and 12,-13,000 years ago (Davis, 1989). That disproves the hypothesis that Katahdin remained a nunatak during continental glacial advance (at least during the late Wisconsinan glacial maximum). On the other hand, arguements against the nunatak explain why the serrate topography such as the Kinfe Edge appears so fresh. The controversy that remains is whether the alpine glaciers persisted in the cirques after the ice sheet retreated to the north.


    I photographed this quartz-veined metamorphic rock high on the slopes of the Hunt Trail of west Katahdin. This small erratic is a confirmation of the glaciers that once covered at least a portion of Katahdin.

    In the past, many (including Caldwell, 1959) felt the cirques and arêtes were too fresh to have been ice sheet overridden and therefore shaped by alpine glaciers. More recently, it has been suggested that the continental ice sheet covered Katahdin but post-glacial mass wasting controlled by vertical jointing of the bedrock shaped the cirques and arêtes (Davis).

    Two scenarios are being entertained today. Caldwell envisions a "two-glacier" history - ice sheet followed by alpine glaciers. He interpreted the Basin Ponds moraine to be a medial moraine between alpine glaciers flowing from the east-side cirques and a tongue of the ice sheet flowing between Katahdin and the Turner Mountains to the east. Davis, on the other hand, hypothesized the continental ice sheet was the final glacial activity on Katahdin and interpreted the Basin Ponds moraine to be a recessional-lateral moraine of the waning ice sheet between Katahdin and the Turner Mountains. Clearly, the Basin Ponds moraine is the most controversial glacial feature in Baxter State Park.

    A TREK ACROSS THE SADDLE
    As we descended from Baxter Peak across the Tableland, the Saddle Trail can be seen below winding along on the low-lying, flat-topped ridge called the Saddle. The Saddle Trail traces the rim of the Great Basin before abruptly heading down the cirque on a precariously steep and loose rock slide from an avalanche that occurred during the winter of 1898-1899. Avalanche scars are common on Katahdin's steep slopes such as the Y-shaped one in the photo. Rockfalls are common as well on the cirque walls, weakened by joints and freeze-thaw action. 


    The Saddle
    Coming off the rubble-covered Tableland from Baxter Peak, the Saddle Trail dips into the Saddle.


    The surface leading to the Saddle is literally covered with weather-pulverized cobbles of granite with larger boulders peppered here and there.


    Weathered and frost-shattered granite literally painted with lichen on the Saddle


    Bright yellow-green and black lichens on the red granophyric phase of Katahdin granite were a feast for the eyes.




    We're looking back at Baxter Peak from the beginning of the Saddle, as we entered the densely packed and stunted trees of the krummholz zone. There are almost 50 people celebrating their ascent on the summit of Baxter, but you'd never know it from here. One group opened a bottle of champagne to toast their accomplishment.


    Glancing back at Baxter Peak, once we cometh, from within the krummholz


    The Saddle Trail strikes a rock-hopping path through the krummholz on large boulders of weathered granite. That's Will in the green shirt picking his way down. The landscape pitches to the right in the direction of the cirques.


    Krummholz zone of the Saddle


    DESCENDING THE SADDLE TRAIL
    The first portion of the Saddle Trail is appropriately called the Slide on the start of Great Basin's headwall. The going is slow on thin, steep ledges and loose slide material. Cathedral Ridge and Trail are in the middle distance - an arête that separates Great Basin from South Basin. The three knobs on the trail are the "cathedrals" formed by the erosion of porphyritic granite that has been sectioned by vertical joints. Triangular-shaped Chimney Pond is at the base of South Basin at the foot of the headwall that rises to Pamola Peak in the clouds. As one progresses downslope, the red granophyric phase of granite gradually transitions back to the light gray granitic phase, the reverse of what we saw on our west side ascent.

    By way of review, every feature in immediate view is composed of intrusive, Devonian-age Katahdin granite with the exception of the more easily eroded sedimentary rocks of the lowlands. The volcano's carapace of extrusive tuff-rhyolite has been eroded away in the process of its exhumation with the exception of Traveler Mountain.

    Surprisingly, the majority of the granites in Maine don't form mountains. The multi-phasic structure of the Katahdin granite - the granophyric phase in particular - is responsible for building the high mountain edifice, or better stated,  preventing its erosion. Finally, glaciers of the Pleistocene are responsible for the extreme topography, and its erosional and depositional features and landforms.




    For another perspective of South Basin, here's a Google Earth view from the middle of the Saddle Trail, which we descended in the above photo. The caldera-like morphology of Katahdin is a consequence of glacial erosion, mass wasting and freeze-thaw action, although some calderic collapse was a likely occurence during Katahdin's post-emplacement history. The U-shaped bowl of South Basin is framed by the arêtes of Keep Ridge on the left and Cathedral Ridge on the right - created by the action of alpine glaciers excavating both sides of the ridges. At the top of the headwall, the Knife Edge runs from Pamola to Baxter Peak.




    THE UPPER AND LOWER BASIN PONDS AND MORAINE
    In the distance (below), Upper and Lower Basin Ponds are dammed by the Basin Ponds moraine just beyond them - the puzzling feature that we discussed. The moraine stretches nearly three miles and has as much as 50 feet of relief. Its largely consists of granite in all sizes, some up to 20 feet  across. It's noteworthy that Davis (mentioned earlier) found that 10-44% of its rocks were non-granitic - in keeping with his only an ice-sheet-conclusion. Davis further pointed out that the ridge of the moraine is convex westward - a curvature opposite to what one would expect from alpine glaciers that might have originated from the west on Katahdin. What's your interpretation? No Biblical Flood theories please.

    The ephemeral Dry Pond in the foreground is water-filled. Beyond, Whidden and Sandy Stream Ponds are almost hidden in the forest before the slopes of South Turner Mountain.

    Subglacial sediment transport as debris-rich ice were deposited as meltout till, but other depositional landforms exist as well in Baxter State Park. While a large drumlin-field exists in southern Maine, the Katahdin esker system consists of a sinuous, branching network of poorly-sorted sand, gravel and boulders that stretches 150 km from its source near the entrance to Baxter State Park just south of Katahdin to its terminus at Pineo Ridge near the Maine coast. These glacio-depositional landforms were left in the wake of the receding ice sheet.

    Eskers are constructed by subglacial streams and rivers flowing within ice-walled tunnels along the glacier bed. Their resemblance to long-abandoned railway embankments led Maine old timers to humorously refer to them as "Indian railroads." In fact, some rural roads in the area are built along the crest of an esker.      


    The Basin Ponds, Dry Pond and the Basin Ponds moraine
    The setting sun on the opposite side of Katahdin is casting long shadows across the valley.


    Perched on a thin ledge of the Saddle Trail, the view was unmatched. That's Katahdin Lake in the middle distance. The Canadian border between eastern Maine and the province of New Brunswick lies 55 miles due east, and Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy is another 160 miles.

    For the record, the Bay of Fundy lies in a rift valley called the Fundy Basin. The rift began to form when Pangaea began to break up in the Late Triassic. The formation of the Atlantic Ocean placed Katahdin and the entire Appalachian Mountain range within reach of the sea along North America's east coast.


    View from the Saddle Trail of the glacial valley at the merging of the foot of the cirques


    Vertical-jointed granite on the knobs of Cathedral Trail stand out in profile. Beyond, Pamola has briefly emerged from the clouds. The notch to the right of the peak is the ridge-crest manifestation of the Chimney, a northwest-trending fault zone of highly fractured rocks that continues to the foot of the cirque as a steep, narrow gully or couloir. The Chimney is a popular challenge for technical climbers heading to the Knife Edge.


    Pamola Peak and the Cathedral Ridge in profile from Saddle Trail


    From the Ranger Cabin at Chimney Pond, the impressive semi-circular headwall of South Basin dominates the frame. The sun was very low on the horizon on the far side of Katahdin. You can make out curtains of granite that are exfoliating from the headwall.

    Eight or nine recognizable cirques surround Katahdin with the exception of its south flank. The three largest are on the east side of the mountain. Why are the east-facing cirques larger than the others? One explanation is that prevailing northwest winds blow snow to the largely sun-sheltered east-side cirques. A similar prevailing climate during the Pleistocene would have encouraged the cirque-size disparity.


    The sheer headwall of South Basin


    From the water-filled Dry Pond seen from above, we're looking back at the base of the Cathedral and Great Basin beyond. Wet Pond is an ephemeral tarn that is subject to the whim of precipitation from the watershed of South Basin. Outwash deposits from meltwater streams blanket the region as do erratics of all shapes and sizes.


    
    A not-so-dry Dry Pond


    BAXTER PARK RANGER TO THE RESCUE
    Pamola, the bad-tempered, winged deity of Katahdin, was good to us. Our west-to-east traverse was a resounding success and an invigorating experience in terms of the geology and the fun we had. Our 10-mile expedition took 11 hours to complete. The only problem was that our car was over 20 miles away on the opposite side of the mountain. Having arrived in the valley and forest wilderness after dark, we more fully appreciated why the gate attendant asked if everyone was carrying a flashlight. Fortunately for us, it was a brilliant full moon, and we didn't even need one.

    Our plan to hitch to our car was totally unsuccessful in that virtually none were leaving the Roaring Brook campground. Fortuitously, a conversation we struck up with a Search and Rescue Ranger on the trail resulted in him radioing ahead to the Park Ranger, unbeknownst to us, who picked us up on the forest road and gave us a lift back to our car.

    That's Leo and Will in the back of the Ranger's pickup. Thank you Baxter Park Rangers and Governor Percival Baxter for making it all happen. What a great day!


    
     
    "What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals."
    Henry David Thoreau
    
     
     
    SUGGESTED READING
    A Guide to the Geology of Baxter State Park and Katahdin by Douglas W. Rankin and Dabney (Dee) W. Caldwell, Maine Geological Society, 2010.
    Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin - Trails Illustrated Topographic Map, National Geographic, 2011.
    Emsian Synorogenic Paleography of the Maine Appalachians by Dwight Bradley and Robert Tucker, The Journal of Geology online, 2001.
    Foreland-forearc Collisional Granitoid and Mafic Magmatism Caused by Lower Plate Lithospheric Slab Breakoff: The Acadian of Maine, and Other Orogens by A. Schoonmaker et al, Geological Society of America, 2005.
    Guidebook for Field Trips in North-Central Maine, 105th Annual NEIG Conference, 2013.
    The Geology of Baxter State Park and Katahdin, Bulletin 43, Plate 1 - Bedrock Geology and Plate 2 - Surficial Geology, 2010.
    Roadside Geology of Maine by D.W. Caldwell, 1998.

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    In March, I escaped from the frigid grip of the Polar Vortex that enveloped New England and found climatic, cultural and culinary refuge in Paris and London. Not expecting to encounter any geological discoveries worthy of a post, I found precisely the opposite. Herein is the first of two posts on the Geological Legacies of the Paris Basin, and later, a few worthy geo-gems I found in London. 

    WHAT'S IN A NAME?
    The Romans called their settlement on the south bank of the Seine River Lutetia Parisiorum or Lutetia of the Parisi, after the Gallic people who settled in the area in the third century BC. Lutetia (Lutece in French) is thought to have been derived from a Celtic root-word luteuo- meaning "marsh" or "swamp." Lutum is also the Latin word for "mud."  

    The settlement also lent its name to the Lutetian Age of the Eocene Epoch that occurred 41.3 to 47.8 million years ago. It was a time when the Paris Basin was invaded by a shallow, warm tropical sea from the north of Europe, one of many marine cycles that have flooded the region. It was also a time of marine sedimentation and the evolution of a carbonate platform, when Lutetian gypsums and limestones formed. Its rocks would eventually help to construct the buildings, monuments and churches of the city of Paris. 




    The official international reference point (GSSP) for the Lutetian is located in the limestone strata of the quarries below the streets of Paris at a water-well that bears the name Bain de pieds des carriers or the Quarrymen's Footbath. The descent to the footbath cuts through the Lower Lutetian limestone allowing the age's precise identification. We'll visit the footbath on post Part II, when we investigate the subterranean catacombs of Paris.

    MOULIN DE LA GALETTE - THE MILL OF GALETTE
    Perched high above Paris on "La Butte" of Montmartre stands a windmill called le Moulin de la Galette or the Mill of Galette. More precisely a cluster of windmills than any one in particular, it was built in 1717. The name is derived from a “galette” - a flat crusty tart baked by the Debray family, the mill’s nineteenth century owners and millers. Along with
    le Moulin de Radet down the street and Moulin a Poivre nearby, they were the last of perhaps thirty (the numbers vary in the literature) that once dominated the heights of Montmartre, a once pastoral village dotted with vineyards on the northern outskirts of Paris and now a heavily touristed, upscale residential district of the city.

    The windmill was also known as the Blute-Fin - from the French verb “bluter” which means to sift flour. In addition to grinding corn and grains, and crushing grapes and flowers, many of the mills crushed gypsum into a fine powder for the making of plaster of Paris.




    The Mill of Montmartre
    In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, bucolic Montmartre
    was a picturesque Paris suburb of windmills and vineyards.
    Georges Michel, oil on canvas, ca. 1820

    
    Moulin de la Galette and Moulin de Radet on Rue Lepic near the end of the nineteenth century
    Public Domain

    According to French history, four Debray family men were involved in defending Montmartre and Paris against the invading Cossacks in 1814. Three were killed with one being quartered and nailed to the blades of the windmill. So the legend goes. The surviving fourth transformed the windmill into the Blute-Fin. The family is buried in the butte's small cemetery with small red windmills marking their graves, a fitting memorial to their nationalistic pride. 

    As we shall see, the Impressionist artists turned their attention to the windmills of Montmartre, joining the tradition of a cadre of great masters in celebrating an iconic image of Bohemian Paris. Today, the windmill stands as a French national monument with a great story to tell - one where history, politics, philosophy, art and even geology come together.


    
    Moulin de Radet, a few doors down Rue Lepic from Moulin de la Galette