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Geological Society awards for Cambridge researchers

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Mar 04, 2019.

Congratulations to Professor Marian Holness, Dr Nigel Woodcock and Dr Brendan McCormick Kilbride who have each received awards from the Geological Society of London, announced today.

Historic Quito-Galápagos Alumni trip

By Sally Gibson from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Feb 27, 2019.

The joint Cambridge-Oxford Universities Alumni trip to Historic Quito and Galápagos in September 2018 was the first time I’ve acted as a Trip Scholar. From the outset, I was intrigued as to who would be in the group and how the dynamics would work. I could not have been more pleased with the way things …

Using AI to avert ‘environmental catastrophe’

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 21, 2019.

Funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the Centre for Doctoral Training in Application of Artificial Intelligence to the study of Environmental Risks (AI4ER) is one of 16 new Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) announced today. The Cambridge Centre will be led by Professor Simon Redfern, Head of the Department of Earth Sciences.

Climate risk, environmental change and environmental hazards pose some of the most significant threats we face in the 21st century. At the same time, we have increasingly larger datasets available to observe the planet, from the atomic scale all the way through to global satellite observations.

“These datasets represent a transformation in the way we can study and understand the Earth and environment, as we assess and find solutions to environmental risk,” said Redfern. “Such huge datasets pose their own challenges, however, and new methods need to be developed to tap their potential and to use this information to guide our path away from environmental catastrophe.”

The new Centre brings computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers together with environmental and geoscientists to train the next generation of thought leaders in environmental data science. They will be equipped to apply AI to ever-increasing environmental data and understand and address the risks we face.

At the same time as human-induced climate change becomes increasingly apparent, urbanisation and the growth of megacities generate other risks, as society becomes potentially more fragile and vulnerable to geohazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and tsunamis. Alongside satellite data, autonomous sensors, drones, and networks of instruments provide increasingly detailed information about such risks and their potential impacts.

Examples of the projects we are already engaged in that apply AI methods to exploring environmental risk include the use of satellite observations to chart the distribution and pathways of whales through the oceans, large datasets to understand biodiversity changes in woodland habitats, machine learning to understand earthquake risk and the use of drones to monitor hazards at active volcanos.

Cambridge is a world leader in artificial intelligence and machine learning research, and many of our AI researchers work alongside world leaders in environmental monitoring and modelling, including from the British Antarctic Survey and elsewhere at the University.

The new centre combines this work with the interests of dozens of external partners including Microsoft, DeepMind, The European Development Bank, Friends of the Earth, the European Space Agency, the Environment Agency, resource industry leaders and policy partners, to form an outstanding alliance focused on leading the next generation of environmental data science forward.

The first cohort of PhD students will start their studies in October 2019.

The new Centre is part of an overall £200 million funding announcement, which will support more than 1000 new research and business leaders in AI across the UK.

“Artificial intelligence has great potential to drive up productivity and enhance every industry throughout our economy, from more effective disease diagnosis to building smart homes,” said Business Secretary Greg Clark. “Today’s announcement is our modern Industrial Strategy in action, investing in skills and talent to drive high skilled jobs, growth and productivity across the UK.”

“The UK is not only the birthplace to the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, but we are leading the way on work to ensure AI innovation has ethics at its core,” said Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright. “We want to keep up this momentum and cement our reputation as pioneers in AI.  Working with world-class academic institutions and industry we will be able to train the next generation of top-tier AI talent and maintain the UK’s reputation as a trailblazer in emerging technologies.”

A new Centre at the University of Cambridge will develop AI techniques to help address some of the biggest threats facing the planet. 

These datasets represent a transformation in the way we can study and understand the Earth and environment, as we assess and find solutions to environmental risk
Simon Redfern
Hurricane

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Magnetic properties of meteorite ‘cloudy zones’ revealed

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 12, 2019.

Tales from Bear Island: a month of Arctic fieldwork (or, four weeks without a phone)

By Sean Herron from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Feb 05, 2019.

In August 2018 I was lucky enough to join a CASP expedition to Bear Island, in the Norwegian High Arctic, as a field assistant and as part of my Part III project. My journey to the arctic began as so many do, in Heathrow airport. We unloaded the minivan-sized taxi required to get all our …

‘Magnetic graphene’ switches between insulator and conductor

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 01, 2019.

The international team of researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, say that their results, reported in the journal Physical Review Letters, will aid in understanding the dynamic relationship between the electronic and structural properties of the material, sometimes referred to as ‘magnetic graphene’, and may represent a new way to produce two-dimensional materials.

Magnetic graphene, or iron trithiohypophosphate (FePS3), is from a family of materials known as van der Waals materials, and was first synthesised in the 1960s. In the past decade however, researchers have started looking at FePS3 with fresh eyes. Similar to graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon – FePS3 can be ‘exfoliated’ into ultra-thin layers. Unlike graphene however, FePS3 is magnetic.

The expression for electrons’ intrinsic source of magnetism is known as ‘spin’. Spin makes electrons behave a bit like tiny bar magnets and point a certain way. Magnetism from the arrangement of electron spins is used in most memory devices, and is important for developing new technologies such as spintronics, which could transform the way in which computers process information.

Despite graphene’s extraordinary strength and conductivity, the fact that it is not magnetic limits its application in areas such as magnetic storage and spintronics, and so researchers have been searching for magnetic materials which could be incorporated with graphene-based devices.

For their study, the Cambridge researchers squashed layers of FePS3 together under high pressure (about 10 Gigapascals), they found that it switched between an insulator and conductor, a phenomenon known as a Mott transition. The conductivity could also be tuned by changing the pressure.

These materials are characterised by weak mechanical forces between the planes of their crystal structure. Under pressure, the planes are pressed together, gradually and controllable pushing the system from three to two dimensions, and from insulator to metal.

The researchers also found that even in two dimensions, the material retained its magnetism. “Magnetism in two dimensions is almost against the laws of physics due to the destabilising effect of fluctuations, but in this material, it seems to be true,” said Dr Sebastian Haines from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and Department of Physics, and the paper’s first author.

The materials are inexpensive, non-toxic and easy to synthesise, and with further research, could be incorporated into graphene-based devices.

“We are continuing to study these materials in order to build a solid theoretical understanding of their properties,” said Haines. “This understanding will eventually underpin the engineering of devices, but we need good experimental clues in order to give the theory a good starting point. Our work points to an exciting direction for producing two-dimensional materials with tuneable and conjoined electrical, magnetic and electronic properties.”

The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Reference:
C.R.S. Haines et al. ‘Pressure-Induced Electronic and Structural Phase Evolution in the van der Waals Compound FePS3.’ Physical Review Letters (2018). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.121.266801

Researchers have found that certain ultra-thin magnetic materials can switch from insulator to conductor under high pressure, a phenomenon that could be used in the development of next-generation electronics and memory storage devices.

Magnetism in two dimensions is almost against the laws of physics, but in this material, it seems to be true
Seb Haines

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Interning at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences

By Anna Prescott from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Jan 31, 2019.

Over the summer, I was fortunate enough to complete a research internship at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS), known by locals as the ‘Biological Station’. I was therefore off to a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for two months to research the effects of climate change and swim with …

Research shows what it takes to be a giant shark

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jan 24, 2019.

Have you ever wondered why the Megalodon shark became to be so big? Or wondered why some other sharks are much smaller?

Cambridge team reach bedrock to complete Antarctic ice core

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jan 09, 2019.

WACSWAIN Drill Log: ice core complete!

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Jan 08, 2019.

The aim of our fieldwork in Antarctica is to retrieve an ice core reaching through the entire depth of the ice cap on Skytrain Ice Rise, to obtain ice extending at least 130,000 years back in time. Last night, on Tuesday 7 January, we succeeded. The feeling of elation is all around me, with all …

WACSWAIN Drill Log: Christmas in Antarctica

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Dec 31, 2018.

We’ve now been at Skytrain Ice Rise in Antarctica for about 6 weeks. In previous blogs, I have written about the life in camp and the drilling. Now, just after Christmas, it’s time to take stock of what we have achieved, and what we are aiming to do. The target is to drill an ice …

‘Treasure trove’ of dinosaur footprints found in southern England

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Dec 17, 2018.

More than 85 well-preserved dinosaur footprints – made by at least seven different species – have been uncovered in East Sussex, representing the most diverse and detailed collection of these trace fossils from the Cretaceous Period found in the UK to date. Click here to find out more. 

Two large iguanodontian footprints with skin and claw impressions

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WACSWAIN Drill Log: ice core drilling begins

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Dec 10, 2018.

In order to achieve our goal of retrieving ice that is 130,000 years old, we need to drill a core to the bottom of the ice cap we’re camping on, through about 620 m of ice. All the work so far has been preparation for drilling, so what does the drilling actually involve? The end …

Liz Hide appointed as first full-time Director of the Sedgwick Museum

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Nov 28, 2018.

The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, the oldest of the University of Cambridge museums, has appointed its first full-time director.

WACSWAIN Drill Log: making camp in the Antarctic

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Nov 26, 2018.

In my last blog I wrote about all the expertise needed to get us into the field. Well finally eight of us, including me, have reached Skytrain Ice Rise, and are experiencing all the steps needed before we can drill an ice core. Field leader Robert and field guide Caspar were the first to arrive, …

W.B.R. King – the Cambridge geologist who went to war

By Douglas Palmer from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Nov 11, 2018.

William Bernard Robinson King was awarded the Military Cross for bravery with the British Expeditionary Force before being evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940. He was a Cambridge graduate and World War I veteran who pioneered the use of geological expertise in the theatre of war. King went on to become the 11th Woodwardian Professor of …

WACSWAIN Drill Log: preparing for fieldwork

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Nov 08, 2018.

Most of us assume that the key skills for our research are academic ones. But preparing for our field season in Antarctica for the WACSWAIN project, it’s obvious just how many other skills and attributes are needed, and how we rely on our non-academic support staff. Nine of us are now waiting at Rothera research …

Research on ice – introducing the WACSWAIN project

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Oct 26, 2018.

Four Cambridge Earth Scientists are about to travel to Antarctica for three months, where they will turn to the past to assess the risks to the future of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Project leader Professor Eric Wolff explains the aims and importance of their research. Many large cities, and all those who get their …

Scanning Ediacaran fossils in Newfoundland

By Sasha Dennis from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Oct 24, 2018.

In September, I spent three weeks in Newfoundland, Canada working on world class Ediacaran fossil surfaces with Emily Mitchell, Charlotte Kenchington and Lucy Roberts. After eight hours of travelling, our bright red truck full of precision equipment, people and food arrived in the town of Portugal Cove South. We settled into ‘The Green House’, where …

Taking to the skies: measuring volcanic gas emissions using drones

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Oct 17, 2018.

Many of the world’s most hazardous volcanoes are either too remote or too active to make measurements safely from the ground. Cambridge Earth Scientists are now taking to the skies to investigate the gases being released by these elusive volcanoes.

Dragon watching: unlocking mysteries of lizard movement

By Luke Grinham from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Oct 05, 2018.

Evolutionary biomechanist and NERC DTP PhD student Luke Grinham’s research focuses on the evolutionary transition from a quadrupedal style of movement to a bipedal one in reptiles. I tend to take two different but complimentary approaches to answering my research questions: observations and interpretations of fossil material, and musculoskeletal anatomy and biomechanics of living reptiles. …

Metals mark magma for life

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Sep 03, 2018.

Gases erupted by volcanoes contain various volatile metal products. New research by Marie Edmonds and Emma Liu in Cambridge and Tamsin Mather in Oxford has discovered that different kinds of volcanoes have distinctive metal ‘signatures’, which reflect differences in how their magma forms.

Size matters: if you are a bubble of volcanic gas

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Aug 06, 2018.

A team of scientists, including a volcanologist and mathematician from the University of Cambridge, discovered the phenomenon through detailed observations of gas emissions from Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii.

At many volcanoes around the world, gas emissions are monitored routinely to help with forecasting eruptions. Changes in the output or proportions of different gases - such as carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide – can herald shifts in the activity of a volcano. Volcanologists have considered that these chemical changes reflect the rise and fall of magma in the Earth’s crust but the new research reveals that the composition of volcanic gases depends also on the size of the gas bubbles rising up to the surface.

Until the latest spectacular eruption opened up fissures on the flank of the volcano, Kīlauea held a vast lava lake in its summit crater. The behaviour of this lava lake alternated between phases of fiery ‘spattering’ powered by large gas bubbles bursting through the magma, and more gentle gas release, accompanied by slow and steady motion of the lava.

In the past, volcanic gases have been sampled directly from steaming vents and openings called fumaroles. But this is not possible for the emissions from a lava lake, 200 metres across, and at the bottom of a steep-sided crater. Instead, the team used an infrared spectrometer, which is employed for routine volcano monitoring by co-authors of the study, Jeff Sutton and Tamar Elias from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (US Geological Survey).

The device was located on the edge of the crater, pointed at the lava lake, and recorded gas compositions in the atmosphere every few seconds. The emissions of carbon- and sulphur-bearing gases were measured during both the vigorous and mild phases of activity.

Each individual measurement was used to compute the temperature of the volcanic gas. What immediately struck the scientists was that the gas temperatures ranged from 1150 degrees Celsius – the temperature of the lava – down to around 900 degrees Celsius. “At this temperature, the lava would freeze,” said lead author Dr Clive Oppenheimer, from Cambridge’s Department of Geography. “At first, we couldn’t understand how the gases could emerge much colder than the molten lava sloshing in the lake.”

The clue to this puzzle came from the variation in calculated gas temperatures – they were high when the lava lake was placid, and low when it was bubbling furiously. “We realised it could be because of the size of the gas bubbles,” said co-author Professor Andy Woods, Director of Cambridge’s BP Institute. “Larger bubbles rise faster through the magma and expand rapidly as the pressure reduces, just like bubbles rising in a glass of fizzy drink; the gas cools down because of the expansion.” Larger bubbles form when smaller bubbles bump into each other and merge. 

Woods and Oppenheimer developed a mathematical model to account for the process, which showed a very good fit with the observations.

But there was yet another surprising finding from the gas observations from Hawaii. As well as being cooler, the emissions from the large gas bubbles were more oxidised than expected – they had higher proportions of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide.

The chemical balance of volcanic gases such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (or sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide) is generally thought to be controlled by the chemistry of the surrounding liquid magma but what the new findings showed is that when bubbles get large enough, most of the gas inside follows its own chemical pathway as the gas cools.

The ratio of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide when the lava lake was in its most energetic state was six times higher than during the most stable phase. The scientists suggest this effect should be taken into account when gas measurements are being used to forecast major changes in volcanic activity.

“Gas measurements are critical to our monitoring and hazard assessment; refining our understanding of how magma behaves beneath the volcano allows us to better interpret our observations,” said co-author Tamar Elias from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

And there is another implication of this discovery – not for eruptions today but for the evolution of the Earth’s atmosphere billions of years ago. “Volcanic emissions in Earth’s deep past may have made the atmosphere more oxidising than we thought,” said co-author Bruno Scaillet. “A more oxygen-rich atmosphere would have facilitated the emergence and viability of life on land, by generating an ozone layer, which shields against harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun.”

Reference:
Clive Oppenheimer et al “Influence of eruptive style on volcanic gas emission chemistry and temperature” Nature Geoscience (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41561-018-0194-5

​Inset image: Clive Oppenheimer in Hawaii. Credit: Clive Oppenheimer

 

The chemical composition of gases emitted from volcanoes – which are used to monitor changes in volcanic activity – can change depending on the size of gas bubbles rising to the surface, and relate to the way in which they erupt. The results, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, could be used to improve the forecasting of threats posed by certain volcanoes. 

At first, we couldn’t understand how the gases could emerge much colder than the molten lava sloshing in the lake.
Clive Oppenheimer
Kīlauea eruption, 2018

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Scientists measure severity of drought during the Maya collapse

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Aug 02, 2018.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Florida developed a method to measure the different isotopes of water trapped in gypsum, a mineral that forms during times of drought when the water level is lowered, in Lake Chichancanab in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula where the Maya were based.

Based on these measurements, the researchers found that annual precipitation decreased between 41% and 54% relative to today during the period of the Maya civilisation’s collapse, with periods of up to 70% rainfall reduction during peak drought conditions, and that relative humidity declined by 2% to 7% relative to today. The results are reported in the journal Science.

“The role of climate change in the collapse of Classic Maya civilisation is somewhat controversial, partly because previous records are limited to qualitative reconstructions, for example whether conditions were wetter or drier,” said Nick Evans, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the paper’s first author. “Our study represents a substantial advance as it provides statistically robust estimates of rainfall and humidity levels during the Maya downfall.”

Maya civilisation is divided into four main periods: the Preclassic (2000 BCE – 250 CE), Classic (250 CE – 800 CE), terminal Classic (800 - 1000 CE) and Postclassic (1000 CE – 1539 CE). The Classic period was marked by the construction of monumental architecture, intellectual and artistic development, and the growth of large city-states.

During the 9th century however, there was a major political collapse in the central Maya region: their famous limestone cities were abandoned and dynasties ended. And while the Maya people survived beyond this period, their political and economic power was depleted.

There are multiple theories as to what caused the collapse of the Maya civilisation, such as invasion, war, environmental degradation and collapsing trade routes. In the 1990s, however, researchers were able to piece together climate records for the period of the Maya collapse and found that it correlated with an extended period of extreme drought.

Professor David Hodell, Director of Cambridge’s Godwin Laboratory for Palaeoclimate Research and the senior author of the current paper, provided the first physical evidence of a correlation between this period of drought at Lake Chichancanab and the downfall of the Classic Maya civilisation in a paper published in 1995.

Now, Hodell and his colleagues have applied a new method and estimated the extent of this drought. Using a new geochemical method to measure the water locked within gypsum from Chichancanab, the researchers have built a complete model of hydrological conditions during the terminal Classic Period when the Maya collapsed.

The researchers analysed the different isotopes of water trapped within the crystal structure of the gypsum to determine changes in rainfall and relative humidity during the Maya downfall.

They measured three oxygen and two hydrogen isotopes to reconstruct the history of the lake water between 800 and 1000 CE. When gypsum forms, water molecules are incorporated directly into its crystalline structure, and this water records the different isotopes that were present in the ancient lake water at the time of its formation. “This method is highly accurate and is almost like measuring the water itself,” said Evans.

In periods of drought, more water evaporates from lakes such as Chichancanab, and because the lighter isotopes of water evaporate faster, the water becomes heavier. A higher proportion of the heavier isotopes, such as oxygen-18 and hydrogen-2 (deuterium), would indicate drought conditions. By mapping the proportion of the different isotopes contained within each layer of gypsum, the researchers were able to build a model to estimate past changes in rainfall and relative humidity over the period of the Maya collapse.

This quantitative climate data can be used to better predict how these drought conditions may have affected agriculture, including yields of the Maya’s staple crops, such as maize.

The research was supported by the European Research Council.

Reference:
Nicholas P. Evans et al. ‘Quantification of Drought During the Collapse of the Classic Maya Civilization.’ Science (2018). DOI: 10.1126/science.aas9871

Inset image: Lake Chichancanab, the site of the study. Chichancanab means “Little Sea” in Yucatec Maya, reflecting its relatively salty water composed dominantly of calcium and sulfate. (Credit: Mark Brenner)

The severity of drought conditions during the demise of the Maya civilisation about 1,000 years ago has been quantified, representing another piece of evidence that could be used to solve the longstanding mystery of what caused the downfall of one of the ancient world’s great civilisations. 

The role of climate change in the collapse of Classic Maya civilisation is somewhat controversial, partly because previous records are limited to qualitative reconstructions.
Nick Evans
Edzná ruins, Campeche

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Back to school: introducing GCSE geographers to the geology of Dorset

By Carrie Soderman from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Jul 30, 2018.

In June, after the mad rush of exams and vivas, I found myself back at my secondary school in Birmingham, boarding a coach with some of my old geography teachers and over 60 Year 10 students. I had been asked to come along to highlight some of the amazing geology on show along the Jurassic …

Lessons about a future warmer world using data from the past

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jun 25, 2018.

Selected intervals in the past that were as warm or warmer than today can help us understand what the Earth may be like under future global warming. A latest assessment of past warm periods, by an international team of 59 scientists from 17 nations including Cambridge Earth Sciences' Professor Eric Wolff, shows that in response to the warming ecosystems and climate zones will spatially shift and on millennial time scales ice sheets will substantially shrink.

Why life on Earth first got big

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jun 25, 2018.

The research, led by the University of Cambridge, found that the most successful organisms living in the oceans more than half a billion years ago were the ones that were able to ‘throw’ their offspring the farthest, thereby colonising their surroundings. The results are reported in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Prior to the Ediacaran period, between 635 and 541 million years ago, life forms were microscopic in size, but during the Ediacaran, large, complex organisms first appeared, some of which – such as a type of organism known as rangeomorphs – grew as tall as two metres. These organisms were some of the first complex organisms on Earth, and although they look like ferns, they may have been some of the first animals to exist – although it’s difficult for scientists to be entirely sure. Ediacaran organisms do not appear to have mouths, organs or means of moving, so they are thought to have absorbed nutrients from the water around them.

As Ediacaran organisms got taller, their body shapes diversified, and some developed stem-like structures to support their height.

In modern environments, such as forests, there is intense competition between organisms for resources such as light, so taller trees and plants have an obvious advantage over their shorter neighbours. “We wanted to know whether there were similar drivers for organisms during the Ediacaran period,” said Dr Emily Mitchell of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, the paper’s lead author. “Did life on Earth get big as a result of competition?”

Mitchell and her co-author Dr Charlotte Kenchington from Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada examined fossils from Mistaken Point in south-eastern Newfoundland, one of the richest sites of Ediacaran fossils in the world.

Earlier research hypothesised that increased size was driven by the competition for nutrients at different water depths. However, the current work shows that the Ediacaran oceans were more like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“The oceans at the time were very rich in nutrients, so there wasn’t much competition for resources, and predators did not yet exist,” said Mitchell, who is a Henslow Research Fellow at Murray Edwards College. “So there must have been another reason why life forms got so big during this period.”

Since Ediacaran organisms were not mobile and were preserved where they lived, it’s possible to analyse whole populations from the fossil record. Using spatial analysis techniques, Mitchell and Kenchington found that there was no correlation between height and competition for food. Different types of organisms did not occupy different parts of the water column to avoid competing for resources – a process known as tiering.

“If they were competing for food, then we would expect to find that the organisms with stems were highly tiered,” said Kenchington. “But we found the opposite: the organisms without stems were actually more tiered than those with stems, so the stems probably served another function.”

According to the researchers, one likely function of stems would be to enable the greater dispersion of offspring, which rangeomorphs produced by expelling small propagules. The tallest organisms were surrounded by the largest clusters of offspring, suggesting that the benefit of height was not more food, but a greater chance of colonising an area.

“While taller organisms would have been in faster-flowing water, the lack of tiering within these communities shows that their height didn’t give them any distinct advantages in terms of nutrient uptake,” said Mitchell. “Instead, reproduction appears to have been the main reason that life on Earth got big when it did.”

Despite their success, rangeomorphs and other Ediacaran organisms disappeared at the beginning of the Cambrian period about 540 million years ago, a period of rapid evolutionary development when most major animal groups first appear in the fossil record.

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Cambridge Philosophical Society, Murray Edwards College and Newnham College, Cambridge.

Reference
Emily G. Mitchell and Charlotte G. Kenchington. ‘The utility of height for the Ediacaran organisms of Mistaken Point.’ Nature Ecology and Evolution (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0591-6

Inset image: 
A close-up view of the Mistaken Point ‘E’ surface community. Credit: Emily Mitchell. 

Some of the earliest complex organisms on Earth – possibly some of the earliest animals to exist – got big not to compete for food, but to spread their offspring as far as possible. 

Reproduction appears to have been the main reason that life on Earth got big when it did.
Emily Mitchell
Artist’s reconstruction of the community at Lower Mistaken Point

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Dating the emplacement of the Shap granite using zircon

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jun 07, 2018.

G5a - the distinctive coarse-grained, pink granite exposed at Shap in Cumbria - has long been a favourite igneous hand specimen for Earth Sciences teaching in Cambridge. New research uses the age of zircon crystal formation to suggest a long gestation period in the mid-crust before its final emplacement 405 million years ago.

Sedgwick’s paper time machines

By Guest from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Jun 06, 2018.

21 May 2018 marked two hundred years since Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) became the Woodwardian Professor of Geology in Cambridge. Staff at the Sedgwick Museum have organised events and displays to celebrate this special anniversary. In this blog we look at the Archive – beginning with Sedgwick’s early journals. There are more than 60 journals and …

L'Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science award for Dr Emma Liu

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jun 04, 2018.

Congratulations to Dr Emma Liu, Leverhulme Research Fellow in Volcanology, who has been awarded a 2018 L’Oreal UNESCO For Women In Science fellowship to support her postdoctoral research.

Major shift in marine life occurred 33 million years later in the South

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on May 17, 2018.

A new study of marine fossils from Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand and South America reveals that one of the greatest changes to the evolution of life in our oceans occurred more recently in the Southern Hemisphere than previously thought.

Deploying nBOSS: the North Borneo Orogeny Seismic Survey

By Guest from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on May 04, 2018.

Bye bye “Beast from the East”. We couldn’t have chosen a better time (and location!) for some fieldwork as we left behind an extreme cold snap that froze the UK and dumped fresh snow on Cambridge. In March a team of seismologists from the University of Cambridge and University of Aberdeen boarded a plane for …

A musical, an opera and stand-up comedy: sharing Earth Sciences with the public

By Matthew Kemp from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Apr 27, 2018.

Making science – with all its complexities, uncertainties and nuances – palatable for the general public presents many challenges, and what better place to try this out than the Cambridge Science Festival. As a Research Assistant at the Department of Earth Sciences, I communicate science all the time. Whether discussing my work with colleagues, writing …

Cambridge Earth Sciences once again top amongst UK geology departments in the Complete University Guide

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 25, 2018.

The Department is delighted to be placed first amongst UK geology departments once again.

Gender inequality is ‘drowning out’ the voices of women scientists

By ed515 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 24, 2018.

Dr Heather Ford and her colleagues analysed data from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting and found that, overall; female scientists are offered fewer opportunities than men to present their research.

The team examined the gender, career stage and type of presentation delivered by each participant from 2014 to 2016. They found that female members are at a disadvantage because the majority of them are students or in the early stages of their careers, groups whose members are typically given fewer chances to present their research. The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Conference speakers are often at more senior stages of their careers, where there are usually fewer women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) fields. A further problem is that men are more likely to provide speaking opportunities to other men, potentially limiting women’s career prospects.

“The burden of representation often falls on under-represented groups. We need the majority groups to think about representation, otherwise minority voices will continue to be drowned out,” said Ford, who is a NERC Independent Research Fellow in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences.

However, the research showed some positive signs, as women were invited at a much higher rate than men in the early and mid- career stages.

The researchers are calling for more students and early career researchers to have opportunities to speak at future conferences, in a bid to help some of the many female members who are at the beginning of their careers. They also want to see more women selecting the conference speakers, and suggest that all members may benefit from diversity training before they can invite speakers and assign conference presentations.

Attending and presenting at conferences helps academics at every stage of their careers to build their network, meet potential collaborators and share their research. Conferences are important for career progression, and can be key in helping researchers to find funding and receive job offers. Presenting at academic conferences can also help researchers to gain recognition and awards for their work. 

Ford says she and her co-author Petra Dekens from San Francisco State University were motivated to look into this topic after sitting in “too many conference sessions” with either no female speakers, or a single female speaker.

The global context is also an important issue for Ford, particular the ongoing campaign for gender equality. She said; “A lot of women have been motivated to speak out about gender inequality in the past year – people are much more vocal about how they’ve been treated. I wanted to find a productive way to channel my frustrations.”

The AGU Fall Meeting is the world’s largest geoscience conference, with more than 22,000 presentation proposals each year. The AGU has more than 60,000 members in 137 countries, and around a third of its members are women. Geoscience is one of the least diverse STEM fields.

Reference:  
Heather L. Ford et al. ‘'Gender inequity in speaking opportunities at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.’ Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-03809-5

A University of Cambridge researcher is calling for the voices of women to be given a fairer platform at a leading scientific conference.

We need the majority groups to think about representation, otherwise minority voices will continue to be drowned out.
Heather L. Ford
Margaret Leinen at the 2012 AGU Fall Meeting

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1000 km down: seismologists probe the mid-mantle

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 24, 2018.

Many questions remain unanswered about the mid-mantle, 600 to 1200 km below Earth’s surface. Does this layer decouple convection between the upper and lower mantle? How are processes here linked to plate tectonics and volcanism? Cambridge Earth Scientists are using seismic constraints to determine the compositional heterogeneity in the mid-mantle. They hope to identify processes which could obstruct or divert convection 1000 km down.

Brachiopods prove tougher than previously thought

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 18, 2018.

A remarkable 120-year record of resilience to environmental change in the world’s oceans has been uncovered within a group of marine organisms called brachiopods. Although they are not well known today, brachiopods have had considerable importance in the evolution of seabed life.

Hot, warm or cold?: new insight into how columnar jointing forms

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 13, 2018.

A new study by researchers at the University of Liverpool, with contributions from Cambridge Earth Sciences PhD student Fiona Iddon, has identified the temperature at which cooling magma cracks to form geometric columns such as those found at the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland.

Two billion year old salt rock reveals rise of oxygen in ancient atmosphere

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 12, 2018.

A two billion year old chunk of sea salt provides new evidence for the transformation of Earth's atmosphere into an oxygenated environment capable of supporting life as we know it.

A day in the field: geological mapping of Northern Baffin Island

By Owen Weller from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Apr 10, 2018.

The Archean Eon (4–2.5 billion years ago) is one of the last great frontiers in our knowledge of the Earth. Plate tectonics is considered to have initiated during this time period, and large volumes of the continental crust formed, but fundamental questions remain regarding the timing, mechanisms and drivers of these transitions. Central to these …

Behind the scenes at the Sedgwick Club Conference

By Sean Herron from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Mar 29, 2018.

It began with coffee. Like so many things in life, the Sedgwick Club Conference 2018 started with a healthy dose of caffeine. The doors to the Cambridge Earth Sciences department were nearly ready to be opened and the masses allowed to flood in for the annual speakers’ event. All that was left to do was …

Observing deep carbon with an Icelandic volcano

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Mar 23, 2018.

An important new chemical dataset from the basalt lavas of the Icelandic Borgarhraun volcano is helping Cambridge Earth Scientists John Maclennan and Dan McKenzie with colleagues from the US and Iceland estimate the carbon dioxide content of Earth’s mantle. Borgarhraun is one of the few places in the world from where it is possible to probe the mantle CO2. This new data, published in the latest issue of Geology will improve understanding of the link between volcanism and long-term climate change.

"We all need to press for progress, in science and beyond"

By ed515 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Mar 08, 2018.

Read more about the female scientists at Cambridge taking their fields by storm - and using International Women's Day to encourage others to do the same. 

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In conversation with Nick Rawlinson

By Greg Palmer from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Mar 03, 2018.

Geophysicist Professor Nick Rawlinson recently moved to Cambridge to take up the BP McKenzie Chair in Earth Sciences. During a career in Australia and the UK he has specialised in observational and theoretical seismology. Nick discussed his life and work with Greg Palmer. How did you get in to Earth Sciences? When I finished high …

Evolution of land plants transformed sedimentation on Earth

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Mar 01, 2018.

The vegetation of our planet irrevocably changed surface processes on Earth. New research suggests the evolution of land plants in the Ordovician caused an increase in the volume of mud preserved on the continents. This marked a change in global sedimentation, with implications for the study of sedimentary processes on our planet and beyond.

Investigating the warm climate stability of the West Antarctic ice sheet

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 19, 2018.

Recent modelling studies predict that anthropogenic warming could lead to the loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) in the next few centuries, and a big rise in sea level.

Life in Ice Age Cambridgeshire – a new exhibit in the Sedgwick Museum

By Douglas Palmer from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Feb 19, 2018.

Hippos from Barrington, woolly mammoths from Barnwell and beavers from Burwell Fen help tell the remarkable story of Late Ice Age Cambridgeshire. A new ‘Ice Age’ exhibit in the Sedgwick Museum displays spectacular fossil finds from local villages that show how life, climate and the environment of the region have changed dramatically over the last …

Blue mussel shape is a powerful indicator of environmental change

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 12, 2018.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge and British Antarctic Survey have developed a new method to identify natural patterns of shell shape variation in common blue mussels.

Pteropods tougher than thought

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jan 29, 2018.

Elegant little sea butterflies, more technically known as pteropods, are important members of the marine ecosystem because they are so abundant and are a food source for other marine organisms, especially whales.

RAS Gold Medal for Professor Robert White

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jan 22, 2018.

Congratulations to Robert (Bob) White, Professor of Geophysics and Fellow of St Edmund’s College, who has been awarded the Royal Astronomical Society's Gold Medal for a lifetime of distinguished achievement in solid Earth geophysics.

The beginnings of communal life – 565 million years ago

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jan 18, 2018.

Ancient rock strata exposed within the World Heritage Site of Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland, record one of Life's very first communities of seabed dwelling macro-organisms. Known as the Ediacaran biota, it is around 565 million years old.

Going underground: Cambridge digs into the history of geology with landmark exhibition

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Dec 20, 2017.

A box full of diamonds, volcanic rock from Mount Vesuvius, and the geology guide that Darwin packed for his epic voyage on the Beagle are on display at the Cambridge University Library as part of the first major exhibition to celebrate geological map-making.

Enhancing the growth of plants on inhospitable land using a biological fertiliser

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Nov 20, 2017.

A simple mixture of organic waste, such as chicken manure and zeolite, a porous volcanic mineral, has been developed into a powerful bio-fertiliser which can also reclaim semi-arid and contaminated land.

Collaborating on carbon capture and storage

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Oct 25, 2017.

Cambridge Earth Sciences is part of a global project researching new sites for carbon capture and storage (CCS), supported by leading multinational minerals and energy company BHP.

Carbon capture: universities and industry work together to tackle emissions

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Oct 25, 2017.

The world is not going carbon-free any time soon: that much is clear. Developed and developing countries alike rely on fossil fuels for transport, industry and power, all of which release CO2 into the atmosphere. But as sea levels rise, ‘unprecedented’ weather events become commonplace and the polar ice caps melt, how can we balance our use of fossil fuels with the imperative to combat the catastrophic effects of climate change?

“Everything suggests that we won’t be able to stop burning carbon-based fuels, particularly in rapidly developing countries like India and China,” says Professor Mike Bickle of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. “Along with increasing use of renewable energy and improved energy efficiency, one way to cope with that is to use carbon capture and storage – and there is no technical reason why it can’t be deployed right now.”

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a promising and practical solution to drastically reducing carbon emissions, but it has had a stilted development pathway to date. In 2015, the UK government cancelled a £1 billion competition for CCS technology six months before it was due to be awarded, citing high costs. Just one year later, a high-level advisory group appointed by ministers recommended that establishing a CCS industry in the UK now could save the government and consumers billions per year from the cost of meeting climate change targets.

CCS is the only way of mitigating the 20% of CO2 emissions from industrial processes – such as cement manufacturing and steel making, for which there is no obvious alternative – to help meet the world’s commitments to limit warming to below 2oC. It works by trapping the CO2 emitted from burning fossil fuels, which is then cooled, liquefied and pumped deep underground into geological formations, saline aquifers or disused oil and gas fields. Results from lab-based tests, and from working CCS sites such as Sleipner in the North Sea, suggest that carbon can be safely stored underground in this way for 10,000 years or more.

“The big companies understand the science of climate change, and they understand that we’ve got to invest in technologies like CCS now, before it’s too late,” says Dr Jerome Neufeld of Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and Department of Earth Sciences. “But it’s a tricky business running an industry where nobody is charging for carbon.”

“Everyone always wants the cheapest option, so without some form of carbon tax, it’s going to be difficult to get CCS off the ground at the scale that’s needed,” says Bickle. “But if you look at the cost of electricity produced from gas or coal with CCS added, it’s very similar to the cost of electricity from solar or wind. So if governments put a proper carbon charge in place, renewables and CCS would compete with each other on a relatively even playing field, and companies would have the economic incentive to invest in CCS.”

Bickle and Neufeld are following discussions about CCS closely because, along with collaborators from Stanford and Melbourne Universities, they have recently started a new CCS project with the support of BHP, one of the world’s largest mining and materials companies.

The three-year project will develop and improve methods for the long-term storage of CO2, and will test them at Otway in southern Australia, one of the largest CCS test sites in the world. Using a mix of theoretical modelling and small-, medium- and large-scale experiments, the researchers hope to significantly increase the types of sites where CCS is possible, including in China and developing economies.

In most current CCS schemes, CO2 is stored in porous underground rock formations with a thick layer of non-porous rock, such as shale, on top. The top layer provides extra insurance that the relatively light CO2 will not escape.

The new research, which will support future large-scale CO2 storage, will consider whether CO2 could be effectively trapped without the top seal of impermeable rock, meaning that CCS could be deployed in a wider range of environments. Their research findings will be made publicly available to accelerate the broader deployment of CCS.

“We are seeing a growing acknowledgement from industry, governments and society that to meet emissions reductions targets we are going to need to accelerate the use of this technology – we simply can’t do it quickly enough without CCS across both power generation and industry,” says BHP Vice President of Sustainability and Climate Change, Dr Fiona Wild. “We know CCS technology works and is proven. Our focus at BHP is on how we can help make sure the world has access to the information required to make it work at scale in a cost effective and timely way.”

During the project, Stanford researchers will measure the rate at which porous rock can trap CO2 using small-scale experiments on rock samples at reservoir conditions, while the Cambridge researchers will be using larger analogue models, in the order of metres or tens of metres. The Melbourne-based researchers will use large-scale numerical simulations of complex geological settings.

“One of the things this collaboration will really open up is the ability to deploy CCS almost anywhere,” says Neufeld, who is also affiliated with Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the BP Institute. “We know that CO2 can be safely trapped in porous rock with a seal of shale on top, but the early results from Otway have shown that even without the impenetrable seal, CO2 can be trapped just as effectively.”

When CO2 is pumped into underground saline aquifers, it is in a ‘super-critical’ phase: not quite a liquid and not quite a gas. The super-critical CO2 is less dense than the salt water, and so has a tendency to run uphill, but it’s been found that surface tension between the salt water and the rock is quite effective at pinning the CO2 in place so that it can’t escape. This phenomenon, known as capillary trapping, is also observed when water is held in a sponge.

“The results from Otway show that if you inject CO2 into a heterogeneous reservoir, it will mix with the salt water and capillary trapping will pin it there quite effectively, so it opens up a much broader range of potential carbon storage sites,” says Bickle.

“However, we need to start deploying CCS now, and the biggest challenges we face are economics and policy. If these prevent us from doing anything until it’s too late, and we’re at a stage when we’d have to start capturing carbon directly from the atmosphere, it will be far more expensive. By not starting CCS now, we’re building false economies.”

An international collaboration between universities and industry will further develop carbon capture and storage technology – one of the best hopes for drastically reducing carbon emissions – so that it can be deployed in a wider range of sites around the world.

We need to start deploying CCS now, and the biggest challenges we face are economics and policy. If we’re at a stage when we’d have to start capturing carbon directly from the atmosphere, it will be far more expensive.
Mike Bickle
Modelling CCS

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Award winning researchers in Earth Sciences

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Oct 18, 2017.

Congratulations to our researchers who have recently won awards.

Acting Director of the Sedgwick Museum appointed

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Oct 17, 2017.

Dr Elizabeth Harper has been appointed Acting Director of the Sedgwick Museum following the retirement of Dr Ken McNamara.

100 years since John E Marr elected Woodwardian Professor

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Oct 17, 2017.

To mark 100 years since John E Marr became Woodwardian Professor, on 30 October 1917, a selection of documents have been digitised and will be available to view on the Sedgwick Museum website from 30 October.

Plate Tectonics at 50

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Oct 06, 2017.

The Geological Society of London has launched its new archive of Emeritus Professor Dan McKenzie’s work.

‘Mysterious’ ancient creature was definitely an animal, research confirms

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Sep 15, 2017.

A new study by researchers at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, and the British Geological Survey provides strong proof that Dickinsonia was an animal, confirming recent findings suggesting that animals evolved millions of years before the so-called Cambrian Explosion of animal life. The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Lead author on the paper is Dr Renee Hoekzema, a PhD candidate at Oxford who carried out this research while completing a previous PhD in Oxford’s Department of Earth Sciences. She said: ‘Dickinsonia belongs to the Ediacaran biota – a collection of mostly soft-bodied organisms that lived in the global oceans between roughly 580 and 540 million years ago. They are mysterious because despite there being around 200 different species, very few of them resemble any living or extinct organism, and therefore what they were, and how they relate to modern organisms, has been a long-standing palaeontological mystery.’

In 1947, Dickinsonia became one of the first described Ediacaran fossils and was initially thought to be an organism similar to a jellyfish. Since then, its strange body plan has been compared to that of a worm, a placozoan, a bilaterian and several non-animals including fungi, lichens and even entirely extinct groups.

Co-author Dr Alex Liu, from Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences, said: ‘Discriminating between these different hypotheses has been difficult, as there are so few morphological features in Dickinsonia to compare to modern organisms. In this study we took the approach of looking at populations of this organism, including assumed juvenile and adult individuals, to assess how it grew and to try to work out how to classify it from a developmental perspective.’

The research was carried out on the basis of a widely held assumption that growth and development are ‘conserved’ within lineages – in other words, the way a group of organisms grows today would not have changed significantly from the way its ancestors grew millions of years ago.

Dickinsonia is composed of multiple ‘units’ that run down the length of its body. The researchers counted the number of these units in multiple specimens, measured their lengths and plotted these against the relative ‘age’ of the unit, assuming growth from a particular end of the organism. This data produced a plot with a series of curves, each of which tracked how the organism changed in the size and number of units with age, enabling the researchers to produce a computer model to replicate growth in the organism and test previous hypotheses about where and how growth occurred.

Dr Hoekzema said: ‘We were able to confirm that Dickinsonia grows by both adding and inflating discrete units to its body along its central axis. But we also recognised that there is a switch in the rate of unit addition versus inflation at a certain point in its life cycle. All previous studies have assumed that it grew from the end where each “unit” is smallest, and was therefore considered to be youngest. We tested this assumption and interpreted our data with growth assumed from both ends, eventually coming to the conclusion that people have been interpreting Dickinsonia as having grown at the wrong end for the past 70 years.

‘When we combined this growth data with previously obtained information on how Dickinsonia moved, as well as some of its morphological features, we were able to reject all non-animal possibilities for its original biological affinity and show that it was an early animal, belonging to either the Placozoa or the Eumetazoa.

‘This is one of the first times that a member of the Ediacaran biota has been identified as an animal on the basis of positive evidence.’

Dr Liu added: ‘This finding demonstrates that animals were present among the Ediacaran biota and importantly confirms a number of recent findings that suggest animals had evolved several million years before the “Cambrian Explosion” that has been the focus of attention for studies into animal evolution for so long.

‘It also allows Dickinsonia to be considered in debates surrounding the evolution and development of key animal traits such as bilateral symmetry, segmentation and the development of body axes, which will ultimately improve our knowledge of how the earliest animals made the transition from simple forms to the diverse range of body plans we see today.’

Reference:
Renee S. Hoekzema et al. ‘Quantitative study of developmental biology confirms Dickinsonia as a metazoan’. Proceedings of the Royal Society B (2017). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1348

Adapted from a University of Oxford press release

It lived well over 550 million years ago, is known only through fossils and has variously been described as looking a bit like a jellyfish, a worm, a fungus and lichen. But was the ‘mysterious’ Dickinsonia an animal, or was it something else?

Recent findings suggest animals had evolved several million years before the 'Cambrian Explosion' that has been the focus of attention for studies into animal evolution for so long.
Alex Liu
The Ediacaran fossil Dickinsonia costata, specimen P40135 from the collections of the South Australia Museum, Adelaide

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