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Concept: Geology


New ages for flowstone, sediments and fossil bones from the Dinaledi Chamber are presented. We combined optically stimulated luminescence dating of sediments with U-Th and palaeomagnetic analyses of flowstones to establish that all sediments containing Homo naledi fossils can be allocated to a single stratigraphic entity (sub-unit 3b), interpreted to be deposited between 236 ka and 414 ka. This result has been confirmed independently by dating three H. naledi teeth with combined U-series and electron spin resonance (US-ESR) dating. Two dating scenarios for the fossils were tested by varying the assumed levels of (222)Rn loss in the encasing sediments: a maximum age scenario provides an average age for the two least altered fossil teeth of 253 +82/-70 ka, whilst a minimum age scenario yields an average age of 200 +70/-61 ka. We consider the maximum age scenario to more closely reflect conditions in the cave, and therefore, the true age of the fossils. By combining the US-ESR maximum age estimate obtained from the teeth, with the U-Th age for the oldest flowstone overlying Homo naledi fossils, we have constrained the depositional age of Homo naledi to a period between 236 ka and 335 ka. These age results demonstrate that a morphologically primitive hominin, Homo naledi, survived into the later parts of the Pleistocene in Africa, and indicate a much younger age for the Homo naledi fossils than have previously been hypothesized based on their morphology.

Concepts: Electron, Spin, Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Geology, Fossil, Paleontology, Geologic time scale


Although it is not known when or where life on Earth began, some of the earliest habitable environments may have been submarine-hydrothermal vents. Here we describe putative fossilized microorganisms that are at least 3,770 million and possibly 4,280 million years old in ferruginous sedimentary rocks, interpreted as seafloor-hydrothermal vent-related precipitates, from the Nuvvuagittuq belt in Quebec, Canada. These structures occur as micrometre-scale haematite tubes and filaments with morphologies and mineral assemblages similar to those of filamentous microorganisms from modern hydrothermal vent precipitates and analogous microfossils in younger rocks. The Nuvvuagittuq rocks contain isotopically light carbon in carbonate and carbonaceous material, which occurs as graphitic inclusions in diagenetic carbonate rosettes, apatite blades intergrown among carbonate rosettes and magnetite-haematite granules, and is associated with carbonate in direct contact with the putative microfossils. Collectively, these observations are consistent with an oxidized biomass and provide evidence for biological activity in submarine-hydrothermal environments more than 3,770 million years ago.

Concepts: Water, Sedimentary rock, Mineral, Rock, Geology, Hydrothermal vent, Fossil, Metamorphic rock


Preservation of soft-bodied organisms is exceedingly rare in the fossil record. One way that such fossils are preserved is as carbonaceous compressions in fined-grained marine sedimentary rocks. These deposits of exceptional preservation are known as Burgess Shale-type (BST) deposits. During the Cambrian Period, BST deposits are more common and provide a crucial view of early animal evolution. The earliest definitive fossil evidence for macroscopic animal-grade organisms is found in the preceding Ediacaran Period. BST deposits from the Ediacaran are rarer and lack conclusive evidence for animals. Here we report the discovery of a new Ediacaran BST deposit with exceptional preservation of non-mineralizing macro-organisms in thinly bedded black shale from Zavkhan Province, western Mongolia. This fossil assemblage, here named the Zuun-Arts biota, currently consists of two new species of probable macroscopic multicellular benthic algae. One species, Chinggiskhaania bifurcata n. gen., n. sp., dominates the biota. The other species, Zuunartsphyton delicatum n. gen., n. sp., is known from three specimens. SEM-EDS analysis shows that the fossils are composed of aluminosilicate clay minerals and some carbon, a composition comparable to fossils from the Cambrian Burgess Shale biota. This discovery opens a new window through which to view late Precambrian life.

Concepts: Evolution, Animal, Sedimentary rock, Geology, Fossil, Paleontology, Cambrian, Burgess Shale


Martian habitats are ideally constructed using only locally available soils; extant attempts to process structural materials on Mars, however, generally require additives or calcination. In this work we demonstrate that Martian soil simulant Mars-1a can be directly compressed at ambient into a strong solid without additives, highlighting a possible aspect of complete Martian in-situ resource utilization. Flexural strength of the compact is not only determined by the compaction pressure but also significantly influenced by the lateral boundary condition of processing loading. The compression loading can be applied either quasi-statically or through impact. Nanoparticulate iron oxide (npOx), commonly detected in Martian regolith, is identified as the bonding agent. Gas permeability of compacted samples was measured to be on the order of 10(-16) m(2), close to that of solid rocks. The compaction procedure is adaptive to additive manufacturing.

Concepts: Oxygen, Soil, Mars, Geology, Compact space, Regolith, Geomorphology, In-situ resource utilization


Highly fragmented and morphologically indistinct fossil bone is common in archaeological and paleontological deposits but unfortunately it is of little use in compiling faunal assemblages. The development of a cost-effective methodology to taxonomically identify bulk bone is therefore a key challenge. Here, an ancient DNA methodology using high-throughput sequencing is developed to survey and analyse thousands of archaeological bones from southwest Australia. Fossils were collectively ground together depending on which of fifteen stratigraphical layers they were excavated from. By generating fifteen synthetic blends of bulk bone powder, each corresponding to a chronologically distinct layer, samples could be collectively analysed in an efficient manner. A diverse range of taxa, including endemic, extirpated and hitherto unrecorded taxa, dating back to c.46,000 years BP was characterized. The method is a novel, cost-effective use for unidentifiable bone fragments and a powerful molecular tool for surveying fossils that otherwise end up on the taxonomic “scrapheap”.

Concepts: DNA, Evolution, Geology, Identification, Fossil, Paleontology, Georges Cuvier, Stratigraphy


Increased nitrogen (N) deposition is common worldwide. Questions of where, how, and if reactive N-input influences soil carbon © sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems are of great concern. To explore the potential for soil C sequestration in steppe region under N and phosphorus (P) addition, we conducted a field experiment between 2006 and 2012 in the temperate grasslands of northern China. The experiment examined 6 levels of N (0-56 g N m(-2) yr(-1)), 6 levels of P (0-12.4 g P m(-2) yr(-1)), and a control scenario. Our results showed that addition of both N and P enhanced soil total C storage in grasslands due to significant increases of C input from litter and roots. Compared with control plots, soil organic carbon (SOC) in the 0-100 cm soil layer varied quadratically, from 156.8 to 1352.9 g C m(-2) with N addition gradient (R(2) = 0.99, P < 0.001); and logarithmically, from 293.6 to 788.6 g C m(-2) with P addition gradient (R(2) = 0.56, P = 0.087). Soil inorganic carbon (SIC) decreased quadratically with N addition. The net C sequestration on grassland (including plant, roots, SIC, and SOC) increased linearly from -128.6 to 729.0 g C m(-2) under N addition (R(2) = 0.72, P = 0.023); and increased logarithmically, from 248.5 to 698 g C m(-2)under P addition (R(2) = 0.82, P = 0.014). Our study implies that N addition has complex effects on soil carbon dynamics, and future studies of soil C sequestration on grasslands should include evaluations of both SOC and SIC under various scenarios.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Soil, Carbon, Geology, Grassland, Steppe, Savanna, Temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands


We describe the physical context of the Dinaledi Chamber within the Rising Star cave, South Africa, which contains the fossils of Homo naledi. Approximately 1550 specimens of hominin remains have been recovered from at least 15 individuals, representing a small portion of the total fossil content. Macro-vertebrate fossils are exclusively H. naledi, and occur within clay-rich sediments derived from in situ weathering, and exogenous clay and silt, which entered the chamber through fractures that prevented passage of coarser-grained material. The chamber was always in the dark zone, and not accessible to non-hominins. Bone taphonomy indicates that hominin individuals reached the chamber complete, with disarticulation occurring during/after deposition. Hominins accumulated over time as older laminated mudstone units and sediment along the cave floor were eroded. Preliminary evidence is consistent with deliberate body disposal in a single location, by a hominin species other than Homo sapiens, at an as-yet unknown date.

Concepts: Human, Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Erosion, Geology, Fossil, Silt, Taphonomy


Whilst the fossil record of polychaete worms extends to the early Cambrian, much data on this group derive from microfossils known as scolecodonts. These are sclerotized jaw elements, which generally range from 0.1-2 mm in size, and which, in contrast to the soft-body anatomy, have good preservation potential and a continuous fossil record. Here we describe a new eunicidan polychaete, Websteroprion armstrongi gen. et sp. nov., based primarily on monospecific bedding plane assemblages from the Lower-Middle Devonian Kwataboahegan Formation of Ontario, Canada. The specimens are preserved mainly as three-dimensional moulds in the calcareous host rock, with only parts of the original sclerotized jaw walls occasionally present. This new taxon has a unique morphology and is characterized by an unexpected combination of features seen in several different Palaeozoic polychaete families. Websteroprion armstrongi was a raptorial feeder and possessed the largest jaws recorded in polychaetes from the fossil record, with maxillae reaching over one centimetre in length. Total body length of the species is estimated to have reached over one metre, which is comparable to that of extant ‘giant eunicid’ species colloquially referred to as ‘Bobbit worms’. This demonstrates that polychaete gigantism was already a phenomenon in the Palaeozoic, some 400 million years ago.

Concepts: Evolution, Orders of magnitude, Geology, Annelid, Fossil, Paleontology, Cambrian, Polychaete


Mating behaviors have been widely studied for extant insects. However, cases of mating individuals are particularly rare in the fossil record of insects, and most of them involved preservation in amber while only in rare cases found in compression fossils. This considerably limits our knowledge of mating position and genitalia orientation during the Mesozoic, and hinders our understanding of the evolution of mating behaviors in this major component of modern ecosystems.

Concepts: Evolution, Geology, Fossil, Paleontology, Dinosaur, Trace fossil


Human activity is leaving a pervasive and persistent signature on Earth. Vigorous debate continues about whether this warrants recognition as a new geologic time unit known as the Anthropocene. We review anthropogenic markers of functional changes in the Earth system through the stratigraphic record. The appearance of manufactured materials in sediments, including aluminum, plastics, and concrete, coincides with global spikes in fallout radionuclides and particulates from fossil fuel combustion. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles have been substantially modified over the past century. Rates of sea-level rise and the extent of human perturbation of the climate system exceed Late Holocene changes. Biotic changes include species invasions worldwide and accelerating rates of extinction. These combined signals render the Anthropocene stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene and earlier epochs.

Concepts: Oxygen, Earth, Hydrogen, Climate change, Geology, Paleontology, Global warming, Geologic time scale