Saturday, June 07, 2008

Crop circles of the deep sea

If 'cereologists' (people who seriously think that crop circles are made by aliens) knew about deep-water trace fossils, I am sure at least some of them would argue that these structures must also be the work of extraterrestrial intelligence. Many of the traces are so intricately constructed that they raise the question: how is it possible for a not-too-brainy animal to create such patterns.

This group of trace fossils is called 'graphoglyptids' (don't ask me why) and they are usually found on the soles of turbidite sandstones, layers of sand deposited in the deep sea (that is, in water depths of more or much more than a few hundred meters). Their shapes can be relatively simple meanders, can include multiple levels of meandering, meanders with bifurcations, spirals, radial patterns. The most interesting and most famous member of the group is Paleodictyon, an easy-to-recognize trace fossil with almost perfect honeycomb-like hexagonal patterns.

Many years ago I was lucky to do some work on trace fossils of the Carpathian flysch with two of the best trace fossil experts; since then I haven't worked with trace fossils but now I wish we did more documentation of the trace-fossil-rich outcrops in the Romanian Carpathians. The Paleodictyon pictures below show turbidite sandstone soles from the Buzău Valley; I haven't been there for a while but I hear that many of the outcrops are covered now.

The first weird thing about graphoglyptids is that they developed high diversity in an environment with limited amounts of low-quality food (lack of sunlight, hence no primary production; and stuff that sinks down from the photic zone usually has already been food for some other animal). The second weird thing is that they are not simple grazing traces like the tightly meandering patterns of sea urchins; the most widely accepted idea is that they are farming traces. In other words, these guys (whatever they might be, nobody really knows) create well aerated open burrow systems a few millimeters below the sea floor, with multiple openings to the sediment surface, so that chemosynthetic bacteria move in to get the necessary oxygen to oxidize methane and hydrogen sulphide, their favorite food.

Again, despite the abundance of these traces in turbidite successions, it is not clear what is the animal that likes to build delicate hexagonal burrows in the deep sea. It is clear however that the exact same structures have been found near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. In 1976, Peter Rona of Rutgers University and his colleagues were looking at photos of the Atlantic seafloor and discovered some interesting geometric patterns of black dots. When Adolf Seilacher of the University of Tübingen, probably the most famous trace fossil expert, saw the pictures, he got very excited: he became convinced that it was a modern Paleodictyon. Unfortunately, no other data than the photographs with the black dots was available; no animals recovered from the sediment, and no hexagonal patterns seen below the surface. It took more than 26 years before Rona and Seilacher had the opportunity to do a new dive with the submersible Alvin and to show that the black dots on the seafloor indeed represent small shafts that belong to a hexagonal pattern a few millimeters below, a pattern identical to Paleodictyon (more details in an article by Peter Rona in Natural History Magazine; picture below is from the same article and is © of The Stephen Low Company).

This story is fascinating as it is, but it is best to see it in amazing colors and resolution, in the IMAX movie "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea", a documentary about the black smokers of the Atlantic and the discovery of modern Paleodictyon.

The mystery of the tracemaker of Paleodictyon - and all other graphoglyptids - remains unsolved: despite the outstanding success of taking IMAX-quality pictures at the bottom and the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, no animal was ever found in the sediment samples, and we know much more about how actual crop circles are generated than we do about the behavior of Paleodictyon.

Further reading

A beautifully illustrated new book by Adolf Seilacher:
Seilacher, A. (2007) Trace Fossil Analysis. Springer, 226 p.

Paper on trace fossils in the Carpathian flysch:
Buatois, L.A., Mangano, M.G. and Sylvester, Z. (2001) A diverse deep-marine ichnofauna from the Eocene Tarcau Sandstone of the Eastern Carpathians, Romania. Ichnos, 8, 23–62.

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