Charlie Zheng secures a Student Research Award in Planetary Habitability!

We’re pleased to share that our colleague Charlie Zheng, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas Austin, was just awarded a Student Research Award in Planetary Habitability!

The award is distributed by the UT Center for Planetary Systems Habitability and consists of $24,960. It is a well deserved award which will allow Charlie, along with project collaborators Dr.’s Buatois & Màngano, to continue their fascinating research into the resilience of marine infaunal communities. Charlie describes the project as:

“Trace fossil records are the best indicator of habitability in harsh environments after mass extinctions or during the early evolution of life on earth. In fact, oceanic anoxia is a common theme linked to major environmental perturbations and ancient oceans that hosted early metazoan life ordinarily contained low oxygenations. A comprehensive dataset documenting marine infaunal communities under oxygen-deficient environments from different settings and geologic ages is necessary to better understand the habitability of environments. Moreover ichnology should play an essential role in the search for evidence of early lifeform in other worlds, especially under similar environmental conditions.

The Cretaceous Maverick intrashelf basin is one of the world’s best examples of a shallow marine shelf ecosystem impacted by locally developed anoxia, creating “dead zones” that evolve into shallow basins within the shallow-water shelf. This project aims to integrate ichnologic and sedimentological signatures to characterize distinctive infaunal communities under hostile, oxygen-limited conditions and assess the resilience of marine infaunal communities and the carbonate factory ecosystem evolution across the environmental perturbation. This study will extend the existing ichnologic database in oxygen-deficient settings by providing the first case study on the intrashelf basin lacking modern analogs and serve as an needed update on the subject since the 90’s, when relevant studies were most abundant.” 

Panoramic photograph of an outcrop from the Del Norte area, Devils River State Natural Area, Texas. This outcrop shows the more proximal shallow-water platform facies & architecture of the basin. The awarded research will focus on more distal portions of this same basin. (photo by Charlie Zheng)

A big congratulation’s to Charlie on this accomplishment!! We can’t wait to read about the results of this research!

You can follow Charlie’s research via his Research Gate profile.

Written by Brittany Laing

Were all trilobites fully marine?

Trilobites, the poster-fossil of the Paleozoic, have long been considered to be invariably fully marine. Collaborative work between Dr. Mángano, Dr. Buatois, and Argentinian colleagues questions this assumption. Through the integration of multiple datasets they report uncontroversial evidence of the exploration of tide-dominated estuaries by some trilobite groups (olenids & asaphids) throughout the Furongian to Middle Ordovician. Thick siliciclastic successions in northwest Argentina expose vertically-repeating nearly-identical environments and allowed for the comparison of body-fossil and trace-fossil data in tide-dominated estuaries through time. Their research indicates two forays into brackish water, first the colonization of the outer portion of estuaries by olenids, followed by the colonization of inner to middle estuarine zones by asaphids.

The full article is available in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (including some fantastic photos of trilobite trace fossils in the Supplementary Info!).

Figure. Time-environment matrix showing protracted trilobite expansion into marginal-marine estuarine settings. (From Mángano et al., 2021)

Written by Brittany Laing

Large wild boar tracks discovered in SW Spain

Recent research by colleagues, including former visiting researcher Dr. Belaústegui and former postdoc Dr. Muñiz, has been featured in the Spanish newspaper El País. Their research, first published in Palaois, examines large wild boar tracks from the Late Pleistocene of Huelva, Spain. The novel ichnogenus and ichnospecies (Suidichnus galani igen. and isp. nov.) described in their article are the first published record of fossil suid tracks. The ichnogenus is named after the family Suidae while the ichnospecies name is a nod to José María Galán, a respected local tracker who discovered the trackways (and many more in the formation).

Footprint 'Suidichnus galani' found in Matalascañas.
Paratype of Suidichnus galani igen. and isp. nov., vertically oriented. (Fig. 3 in Neto De Carvalho et al., 2020)

The large size of these tracks, and the boars themselves, are a divergence from the overall trend of the species towards smaller size. The authors delve into the cause of this divergence and suggest that the increase in size was an adaption to either an increase in predation pressure and/or a resource bonanza.

The article in El País is a fantastic piece of science communication and we highly recommend you give it a read! While the text is originally in Spanish, the Google Translate function on Google Chrome produced a good English translation.

Written by Brittany Laing

Luancaia igen. nov., a molting trace fossil

Research in Northern Spain yielded some spectacular Devonian trace fossils. While they may look superficially similar to classic resting traces like Rusophycus, they lack any scratch imprint and have a distinctive axial ridge. In fact, their morphology is strikingly similar to the dorsal side of the euarthropod Camptophyllia. Detailed research by Mangano and workers in Scientific Reports determined that these traces instead represent evidence of infaunal molting. Their new article formally describing these traces and the palaeoecologic and paleonenvironmental implications they hold is available for free until January 16th through this link:

Fig. 3