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Concept: Metamorphic rock


Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid approximately 9 km in diameter hit the hydrocarbon- and sulfur-rich sedimentary rocks in what is now Mexico. Recent studies have shown that this impact at the Yucatan Peninsula heated the hydrocarbon and sulfur in these rocks, forming stratospheric soot and sulfate aerosols and causing extreme global cooling and drought. These events triggered a mass extinction, including dinosaurs, and led to the subsequent macroevolution of mammals. The amount of hydrocarbon and sulfur in rocks varies widely, depending on location, which suggests that cooling and extinction levels were dependent on impact site. Here we show that the probability of significant global cooling, mass extinction, and the subsequent appearance of mammals was quite low after an asteroid impact on the Earth’s surface. This significant event could have occurred if the asteroid hit the hydrocarbon-rich areas occupying approximately 13% of the Earth’s surface. The site of asteroid impact, therefore, changed the history of life on Earth.

Concepts: Evolution, Earth, Impact event, Jupiter, Metamorphic rock, Dinosaur, Extinction event, Asteroid


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


Biological activity is a major factor in Earth’s chemical cycles, including facilitating CO2 sequestration and providing climate feedbacks. Thus a key question in Earth’s evolution is when did life arise and impact hydrosphere-atmosphere-lithosphere chemical cycles? Until now, evidence for the oldest life on Earth focused on debated stable isotopic signatures of 3,800-3,700 million year (Myr)-old metamorphosed sedimentary rocks and minerals from the Isua supracrustal belt (ISB), southwest Greenland. Here we report evidence for ancient life from a newly exposed outcrop of 3,700-Myr-old metacarbonate rocks in the ISB that contain 1-4-cm-high stromatolites-macroscopically layered structures produced by microbial communities. The ISB stromatolites grew in a shallow marine environment, as indicated by seawater-like rare-earth element plus yttrium trace element signatures of the metacarbonates, and by interlayered detrital sedimentary rocks with cross-lamination and storm-wave generated breccias. The ISB stromatolites predate by 220 Myr the previous most convincing and generally accepted multidisciplinary evidence for oldest life remains in the 3,480-Myr-old Dresser Formation of the Pilbara Craton, Australia. The presence of the ISB stromatolites demonstrates the establishment of shallow marine carbonate production with biotic CO2 sequestration by 3,700 million years ago (Ma), near the start of Earth’s sedimentary record. A sophistication of life by 3,700 Ma is in accord with genetic molecular clock studies placing life’s origin in the Hadean eon (>4,000 Ma).

Concepts: Evolution, Life, Water, Sedimentary rock, Igneous rock, Mineral, Rock, Metamorphic rock


Sea urchins are dominant members of rocky temperate reefs around the world. They often occur in cavities within the rock, and fit so tightly, it is natural to assume they sculpted these “pits.” However, there are no experimental data demonstrating they bore pits. If they do, what are the rates and consequences of bioerosion to nearshore systems? We sampled purple sea urchins, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, from sites with four rock types, three sedimentary (two sandstones and one mudstone) and one metamorphic (granite). A year-long experiment showed urchins excavated depressions on sedimentary rocks in just months. The rate of pit formation varied with rock type and ranged from <5 yr for medium-grain sandstone to >100 yr for granite. In the field, there were differences in pit size and shapes of the urchins (height:diameter ratio). The pits were shallow and urchins flatter at the granite site, and the pits were deeper and urchins taller at the sedimentary sites. Although overall pit sizes were larger on mudstone than on sandstone, urchin size accounted for this difference. A second, short-term experiment, showed the primary mechanism for bioerosion was ingestion of the substratum. This experiment eliminated potential confounding factors of the year-long experiment and yielded higher bioerosion rates. Given the high densities of urchins, large amounts of rock can be converted to sediment over short time periods. Urchins on sandstone can excavate as much as 11.4 kg m-2 yr-1. On a broader geographic scale, sediment production can exceed 100 t ha-1 yr-1, and across their range, their combined bioerosion is comparable to the sediment load of many rivers. The phase shift between urchin barrens and kelp bed habitats in the North Pacific is controlled by the trophic cascade of sea otters. By limiting urchin populations, these apex predators also may indirectly control a substantial component of coastal rates of bioerosion.

Concepts: Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Igneous rock, Rock, Petrology, Sea urchin, Metamorphic rock, Shale


The vestiges of life in Eoarchean rocks have the potential to elucidate the origin of life. However, gathering evidence from many terrains is not always possible, and biogenic graphite has thus far been found only in the 3.7-3.8 Ga (gigayears ago) Isua supracrustal belt. Here we present the total organic carbon contents and carbon isotope values of graphite (δ(13)Corg) and carbonate (δ(13)Ccarb) in the oldest metasedimentary rocks from northern Labrador. Some pelitic rocks have low δ(13)Corg values of -28.2, comparable to the lowest value in younger rocks. The consistency between crystallization temperatures of the graphite and metamorphic temperature of the host rocks establishes that the graphite does not originate from later contamination. A clear correlation between the δ(13)Corg values and metamorphic grade indicates that variations in the δ(13)Corg values are due to metamorphism, and that the pre-metamorphic value was lower than the minimum value. We concluded that the large fractionation between the δ(13)Ccarb and δ(13)Corg values, up to 25‰, indicates the oldest evidence of organisms greater than 3.95 Ga. The discovery of the biogenic graphite enables geochemical study of the biogenic materials themselves, and will provide insight into early life not only on Earth but also on other planets.

Concepts: Sedimentary rock, Carbon, Mineral, Rock, Coal, Calcite, Metamorphic rock, Metamorphism


We determined radiogenic and cosmogenic noble gases in a mudstone on the floor of Gale crater. A K-Ar age of 4.21 ± 0.35 Ga represents a mixture of detrital and authigenic components, and confirms the expected antiquity of rocks comprising the crater rim. Cosmic-ray-produced (3)He, (21)Ne, and (36)Ar yield concordant surface exposure ages of 78 ± 30 Ma. Surface exposure occurred mainly in the present geomorphic setting rather than during primary erosion and transport. Our observations are consistent with mudstone deposition shortly after the Gale impact, or possibly in a later event of rapid erosion and deposition. The mudstone remained buried until recent exposure by wind-driven scarp retreat. Sedimentary rocks exposed by this mechanism may thus offer the best potential for organic biomarker preservation against destruction by cosmic radiation.

Concepts: Time, Middle Ages, Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Rock, Geology, Metamorphic rock, Shale


“Jake_M,” the first rock analyzed by the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer instrument on the Curiosity rover, differs substantially in chemical composition from other known martian igneous rocks: It is alkaline (>15% normative nepheline) and relatively fractionated. Jake_M is compositionally similar to terrestrial mugearites, a rock type typically found at ocean islands and continental rifts. By analogy with these comparable terrestrial rocks, Jake_M could have been produced by extensive fractional crystallization of a primary alkaline or transitional magma at elevated pressure, with or without elevated water contents. The discovery of Jake_M suggests that alkaline magmas may be more abundant on Mars than on Earth and that Curiosity could encounter even more fractionated alkaline rocks (for example, phonolites and trachytes).

Concepts: Mars, Igneous rock, Rock, Petrology, Metamorphic rock, Magma, Granite, Lava


Isotopic discordance is a common feature in zircon that can lead to an erroneous age determination, and it is attributed to the mobilization and escape of radiogenic Pb during its post-crystallization geological evolution. The degree of isotopic discordance measured at analytical scales of ~10 μm often differs among adjacent analysis locations, indicating heterogeneous distributions of Pb at shorter length scales. We use atom probe microscopy to establish the nature of these sites and the mechanisms by which they form. We show that the nanoscale distribution of Pb in a ~2.1 billion year old discordant zircon that was metamorphosed c. 150 million years ago is defined by two distinct Pb reservoirs. Despite overall Pb loss during peak metamorphic conditions, the atom probe data indicate that a component of radiogenic Pb was trapped in 10-nm dislocation loops that formed during the annealing of radiation damage associated with the metamorphic event. A second Pb component, found outside the dislocation loops, represents homogeneous accumulation of radiogenic Pb in the zircon matrix after metamorphism. The (207)Pb/(206)Pb ratios measured from eight dislocation loops are equivalent within uncertainty and yield an age consistent with the original crystallization age of the zircon, as determined by laser ablation spot analysis. Our results provide a specific mechanism for the trapping and retention of radiogenic Pb during metamorphism and confirm that isotopic discordance in this zircon is characterized by discrete nanoscale reservoirs of Pb that record different isotopic compositions and yield age data consistent with distinct geological events. These data may provide a framework for interpreting discordance in zircon as the heterogeneous distribution of discrete radiogenic Pb populations, each yielding geologically meaningful ages.

Concepts: Atom, Sedimentary rock, Geology, Damage, Garnet, Metamorphic rock, Metamorphism, Slate


The Paleoproterozoic Era witnessed crucial steps in the evolution of Earth’s surface environments following the first appreciable rise of free atmospheric oxygen concentrations ∼2.3 to 2.1 Ga ago, and concomitant shallow ocean oxygenation. While most sedimentary successions deposited during this time interval have experienced thermal overprinting from burial diagenesis and metamorphism, the ca. 2.1 Ga black shales of the Francevillian B Formation (FB2) cropping out in southeastern Gabon have not. The Francevillian Formation contains centimeter-sized structures interpreted as organized and spatially discrete populations of colonial organisms living in an oxygenated marine ecosystem. Here, new material from the FB2 black shales is presented and analyzed to further explore its biogenicity and taphonomy. Our extended record comprises variably sized, shaped, and structured pyritized macrofossils of lobate, elongated, and rod-shaped morphologies as well as abundant non-pyritized disk-shaped macrofossils and organic-walled acritarchs. Combined microtomography, geochemistry, and sedimentary analysis suggest a biota fossilized during early diagenesis. The emergence of this biota follows a rise in atmospheric oxygen, which is consistent with the idea that surface oxygenation allowed the evolution and ecological expansion of complex megascopic life.

Concepts: Oxygen, Evolution, Life, Earth, Sedimentary rock, Geology, Fossil, Metamorphic rock


Large earthquakes occur in rocks undergoing high-pressure/low-temperature metamorphism during subduction. Rhythmic major-element zoning in garnet is a common product of such metamorphism, and one that must record a fundamental subduction process. We argue that rhythmic major-element zoning in subduction zone garnets from the Franciscan Complex, California, developed in response to growth-dissolution cycles driven by pressure pulses. Using electron probe microanalysis and novel techniques in Raman and synchrotron Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy, we demonstrate that at least four such pressure pulses, of magnitude 100-350 MPa, occurred over less than 300,000 years. These pressure magnitude and time scale constraints are most consistent with the garnet zoning having resulted from periodic overpressure development-dissipation cycles, related to pore-fluid pressure fluctuations linked to earthquake cycles. This study demonstrates that some metamorphic reactions can track individual earthquake cycles and thereby opens new avenues to the study of seismicity.

Concepts: Earth, Geology, Earthquake, Garnet, Metamorphic rock, Seismology, Subduction, Earthquakes