Meteorite impacts leave behind time-capsules of ecosystems

Glass beads that form inside hot meteors as they fall to Earth capture particles from the atmosphere, creating a kind of permanent record of historic climates.

Meteorite impacts can be very destructive. One that fell in Mexico around 66m years ago created a 180km crater and caused the extinction of dinosaurs while spewing debris and molten rock into the air. Now, in what is a fascinating tale of serendipity, researchers have found that these events don’t entirely destroy all traces of life at the site of impact. Molten rocks can capture and preserve organic matter as they cool down to form glass beads.

When a meteor enters Earth’s atmosphere, the air around the meteor gets very quickly compressed causing it to heat up, scorching everything in its path. Most of the time that is where the story ends, as the meteor burns up in the sky as a “shooting star”. But sometimes it is big enough to reach all the way to the surface and transfer its remaining energy to the ground.

This energy is dissipated, as mild earthquakes, sound shockwaves – but mostly as heat. The heat energy can be so great that it melts rocks on the surface and hurls them up in the atmosphere. Anything that comes in contact with this molten rock would presumably get burnt, leaving nothing but rocky material that cools down in the atmosphere, forming glass beads and tektites (gravel-sized natural glass). This is what City University of New York researcher Kieren Howard assumed, but he was able to show that his assumptions were wrong.

For his PhD, Howard was studying the glass beads and tektites found near the Darwin crater in Tasmania. The 1.2km wide crater was created by a meteorite impact about 800,000 years ago.

The natural glass formed during cooling is (as implied by the term glass) not crystalline. Instead of a regular arrangement of atoms, the atoms inside it are randomly arranged. Howard’s analysis, however, kept showing the presence of crystals. At first, he dismissed this as a problem with the machine or with his method of analysis. But when it kept showing up, as a good scientist, he thought he should ask an expert to look at his data.

“This is unusual,” says Chris Jeynes, a physicist at the University of Surrey. “If there were indeed crystals, then it was the result of uneven cooling, which can occur when something gets trapped inside these glass beads.”

Jeynes used proton-beam analysis, a method to peer inside the glass to reveal its elemental make-up. Inside he found carbon. “Howard had no idea what his samples were, and he was very surprised when I told him,” Jeynes says.

The natural glass formed should contain only silicon, titanium, oxygen and other metallic elements in trace amounts. Detection of carbon meant that there was some organic matter inside. The only hypothesis was that, somehow during the formation of these glass beads, they captured organic matter that was floating in the atmosphere. That organic matter might have already been in the air, but it might also include material thrown up by the impact.

Howard then went to another expert to break open these glass beads and reveal what the carbon-rich matter was. It turned out that it included were cellulose, lignin and other biopolymers. This meant that somehow this matter, which originated from plants, had survived the temperature of more than 500°C, which is what the molten rock would have reached before cooling into a glass bead. Usually these temperatures will break down the organic matter, but clearly it didn’t in this case.

Mark Sephton, a geochemist at Imperial College London, was surprised and pleased: “What the results show is that these glass beads can capture an aliquot of the atmosphere of the planet at impact. It is like a time capsule of that ecosystem.” These results are published in Nature Geoscience.

The implications are enormous. It shows that other meteorite impacts, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, could have created such time capsules too. Sephton is now working on finding glass beads from other impact sites to reveal information about Earth’s ancient atmosphere.

This method of analysis means that we could also go looking for similar beads on other planets, like Mars, where meteorite impacts are common. They could also reveal vital information about the past atmosphere of those planets. Maybe they captured organic matter – if it ever existed there.

“We would not know any of this if it wasn’t for Howard,” Jeynes says, adding that Howard’s persistence to find out what “the wrong results” led the researchers to a phenomenon that nobody knew existed.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Meteor Crater in Arizona. (Photo: Angle Schatz/Flickr)
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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”