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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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Christine Kelsey (1931-2017)

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Aug 31, 2017.

We are very sad to announce the death of Christine Kelsey on Wednesday 23 August.

Study identifies dinosaur ‘missing link’

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Aug 16, 2017.

A bizarre dinosaur which looked like a raptor but was in fact a vegetarian may be the missing link between plant-eating dinosaurs and theropods, the group that includes carnivores such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Natural History Museum used a comprehensive dataset to analyse more than 450 anatomical characteristics of early dinosaurs and correctly place the creature, known as Chilesaurus, in the dinosaur family tree. Their results, reported in the journal Biology Letters, suggest that Chilesaurus effectively fills a large gap between two of the major dinosaur groups, and shows how the divide between them may have happened.

Chilesaurus, which was discovered in southern Chile, was first described in 2015. It lived during the Late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago, and has an odd collection of physical characteristics, which made it difficult to classify. For example, its head resembles that of a carnivore, but it has flat teeth for grinding up plant matter.

Chilesaurus almost looks like it was stitched together from different animals, which is why it baffled everybody,” said Matthew Baron, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and the paper’s joint first author.

Earlier research suggested that this peculiar dinosaur belonging to the group Theropoda, the ‘lizard-hipped’ group of dinosaurs that includes Tyrannosaurus, but the new study suggests that it was probably a very early member of a completely different group, called Ornithischia. This shuffling of the dinosaur family tree has major implications for understanding the origins of Ornithischia, the ‘bird-hipped’ group of dinosaurs that includes Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Iguanodon.

The bird-hipped dinosaurs have several common physical traits: the two most notable of these are an inverted, bird-like hip structure and a beak-like structure for eating. The inverted hips allowed for bigger, more complex digestive systems, which in turn allowed larger plant-eaters to evolve.

While Chilesaurus has a bird-like hip structure, and has flat teeth for grinding up plants, it does not possess the distinctive ‘beak’ of many other bird-hipped dinosaurs, which is what makes it such an important find.

“Before this, there were no transitional specimens – we didn’t know what order these characteristics evolved in,” said Baron. “This shows that in bird-hipped dinosaurs, the gut evolved first, and the jaws evolved later – it fills the gap quite nicely.”

Chilesaurus is one of the most puzzling and intriguing dinosaurs ever discovered,” said co-author Professor Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum. “Its weird mix of features places it in a key position in dinosaur evolution and helps to show how some of the really big splits between the major groups might have come about.”

“There was a split in the dinosaur family tree, and the two branches took different evolutionary directions,” said Baron. “This seems to have happened because of change in diet for Chilesaurus. It seems it became more advantageous for some of the meat eating dinosaurs to start eating plants, possibly even out of necessity.”

Earlier this year, the same group of researchers argued that dinosaur family groupings need to be rearranged, re-defined and re-named. In a study published in Nature, the researchers suggested that bird-hipped dinosaurs and lizard-hipped dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus evolved from a common ancestor, potentially overturning more than a century of theory about the evolutionary history of dinosaurs.

Although their dataset has already thrown up some surprising results, the researchers say that as it currently analyses only early dinosaurs, there are probably many more surprises about dinosaur evolution to be found, once characteristics of later dinosaurs are added.

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Reference:
Matthew G. Baron and Paul M. Barrett. ‘A dinosaur missing-link? Chilesaurus and the early evolution of ornithischian dinosaurs.’ Biology Letters (2017). DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2017.0220

A ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ dinosaur may be the missing link between two major dinosaur groups, plugging what was previously a big gap between them. 

Chilesaurus almost looks like it was stitched together from different animals, which is why it baffled everybody.
Matthew Baron
Life reconstruction of Chilesaurus diegosuarezi

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Alan Smith (1937-2017)

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Aug 14, 2017.

We were very sad to announce the death of Alan Smith on Sunday 13th August.

Meadow of dancing brittle stars shows evolution at work

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Aug 14, 2017.

Researchers have described a new species of brittle star, which are closely related to starfish, and showed how these sea creatures evolved in response to the rise of shell-crushing predators during the late Palaeozoic Era. The results, reported in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, also suggest that brittle stars evolved new traits before the largest mass extinction event in Earth’s history, and not after, as was the case with many other forms of life.

A fossilised ‘meadow’ of dancing brittle stars – frozen in time in the very spot that they lived – was found in Western Australia and dates from 275 million years ago. It contains several remarkably preserved ‘archaic’ brittle stars, a newly-described genus and species called Teleosaster creasyi. They are the last known complete brittle stars of their kind, an evolutionary hangover pushed to the margins of the world’s oceans by the threat from predators.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, suggest that while other species of brittle stars evolved in response to predators such as early forms of rays and crabs, these archaic forms simply moved to where the predators weren’t – namely the seas around Australia, which during the Palaeozoic era was pushed up against Antarctica. In these cold, predator-free waters, the archaic forms were able to grow much larger, and lived at the same time as the modern forms of brittle star, which still exist today.

Brittle stars consist of a central disc and five whip-like appendages, which are used for locomotion. They first appear in the fossil record about 500 million years ago, in the Ordovician Period, and today there are about 2,100 different species, mostly found in the deep ocean.

Early brittle stars were just that: brittle. During the Palaeozoic Era, when early shell-crushing predators first appeared, brittle stars made for easy prey. At this point, a split in the evolutionary tree appears to have occurred: the archaic, clunky brittle stars moved south to polar waters, while the modern form first began to emerge in response to the threat from predators, and was able to continue to live in the warmer waters closer to the equator. Both forms existed at the same time, but in different parts of the ocean.

“The threat from predation is an under-appreciated driver of evolutionary change,” said study co-author Dr Kenneth McNamara of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. “As more predators began to appear, the brittle stars started to evolve more flexible bodies, which enabled them to either burrow into the sediment, or to move more rapidly to escape.”

About 250 million years ago, the greatest mass extinction in Earth’s history – the Permian-Triassic extinction event, or the “Great Dying” – occurred. More than 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species went extinct, and as a result, most surviving species underwent major evolutionary changes as a result.

“Brittle stars appear to have bucked this trend, however,” said co-author Dr Aaron Hunter, a visiting postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences. “They seem to have evolved before the Great Dying, into a form which we still see today.”

Meadows of brittle stars and other invertebrates such as sea urchins and starfish can still be seen today in the seas around Antarctica. As was the case during the Palaeozoic, the threat from predators is fairly low, although the warming of the Antarctic seas due to climate change has been linked to the recent arrival of armies of king crabs, which represent a real threat to these star-filled meadows.

Reference:
Aaron W. Hunter and Kenneth J. McNamara. ‘Prolonged co-existence of “Archaic” and “Modern” Palaeozoic ophiuroids – evidence from the early Permian, Southern Carnarvon Basin, Western Australia.’ Journal of Systematic Palaeontology (2017). DOI: 10.1080/14772019.2017.1353549

Inset image: Brittle stars, by Ratha Grimes.

Newly-described fossil shows how brittle stars evolved in response to pressure from predators, and how an ‘evolutionary hangover’ managed to escape them. 

The threat from predation is an under-appreciated driver of evolutionary change.
Kenneth McNamara
Fossilised Teleosaster creasyi, from the Cundlefo Formation, Gascoyne Junction, Western Australia

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Volcanic arcs recycle crustal carbon

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

New research by Cambridge scientists is helping answer a key question about the origin of carbon emitted from Earth’s volcanoes.

Link identified between continental breakup, volcanic carbon emissions and evolution

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jul 20, 2017.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, used existing measurements of carbon and helium from more than 80 volcanoes around the world in order to determine its origin. Carbon and helium coming out of volcanoes can either come from deep within the Earth or be recycled near the surface, and measuring the chemical fingerprint of these elements can pinpoint their source. When the team analysed the data, they found that most of the carbon coming out of volcanoes is recycled near the surface, in contrast with earlier assumptions that the carbon came from deep in the Earth’s interior. “This is an essential piece of geological carbon cycle puzzle,” said Dr Marie Edmonds, the senior author of the study.

Over millions of years, carbon cycles back and forth between Earth’s deep interior and its surface. Carbon is removed from the surface from processes such as the formation of limestone and the burial and decay of plants and animals, which allows atmospheric oxygen to grow at the surface. Volcanoes are one way that carbon is returned to the surface, although the amount they produce is less than a hundredth of the amount of carbon emissions caused by human activity. Today, the majority of carbon from volcanoes is recycled near the surface, but it is unlikely that this was always the case.

Volcanoes form along large island or continental arcs where tectonic plates collide and one plate slides under the other, such as the Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia, the Andes of South America, the volcanoes throughout Italy, and the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific. These volcanoes have different chemical fingerprints: the ‘island arc’ volcanoes emit less carbon which comes from deep in the mantle, while the ‘continental arc’ volcanoes emit far more carbon which comes from closer to the surface.

Over hundreds of millions of years, the Earth has cycled between periods of continents coming together and breaking apart. During periods when continents come together, volcanic activity was dominated by island arc volcanoes; and when continents break apart, continental volcano arcs dominate. This back and forth changes the chemical fingerprint of carbon coming to Earth’s surface systematically over geological time, and can be measured through the different isotopes of carbon and helium.

Variations in the isotope ratio, or chemical fingerprint, of carbon are commonly measured in limestone. Researchers had previously thought that the only thing that could change the carbon fingerprint in limestone was the production of atmospheric oxygen. As such, the carbon isotope fingerprint in limestone was used to interpret the evolution of habitability of Earth’s surface. The results of the Cambridge team suggest that volcanoes played a larger role in the carbon cycle than had previously been understood, and that earlier assumptions need to be reconsidered.

“This makes us fundamentally re-evaluate the evolution of the carbon cycle,” said Edmonds. “Our results suggest that the limestone record must be completely reinterpreted if the volcanic carbon coming to the surface can change its carbon isotope composition.”

A great example of this is in the Cretaceous Period, 144 to 65 million years ago. During this time period there was a major increase in the carbon isotope ratio found in limestone, which has been interpreted as an increase in atmospheric oxygen concentration. This increase in atmospheric oxygen was causally linked to the proliferation of mammals in the late Cretaceous. However, the results of the Cambridge team suggest that the increase in the carbon isotope ratio in the limestones could be almost entirely due to changes in the types of volcanoes at the surface.

“The link between oxygen levels and the burial of organic material allowed life on Earth as we know it to evolve, but our geological record of this link needs to be re-evaluated,” said co-author Dr Alexandra Turchyn, also from the Department of Earth Sciences.

The research was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Deep Carbon Observatory and the European Research Council.

Reference:
Emily Mason, Marie Edmonds, Alexandra V. Turchyn. ‘Remobilization of crustal carbon may dominate volcanic arc emissions.’ Science (2017). DOI: 10.1126/science.aan5049.

Inset Image: Schematic diagram to show the possible sources of carbon in a subduction zone volcanic system.

Researchers have found that the formation and breakup of supercontinents over hundreds of millions of years controls volcanic carbon emissions. The results, reported in the journal Science, could lead to a reinterpretation of how the carbon cycle has evolved over Earth’s history, and how this has impacted the evolution of Earth’s habitability. 

The link between oxygen levels and the burial of organic material allowed life on Earth as we know it to evolve, but our geological record of this link needs to be re-evaluated.
Alexandra Turchyn
ISS013-E-24184 (23 May 2006) --- Eruption of Cleveland Volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 13 crewmember on the International Space Station.

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Global cooling from a less leaky Ice Age Ocean

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jul 13, 2017.

A new survey and analysis of global radiocarbon dates derived from ocean-dwelling micro-organisms is providing important new measures of the difference between the ocean today and 20,000 years ago, at the height of the last Ice Age.

Shape-shifting rangeomorphs cut fractal frills to grow and grow

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jul 10, 2017.

Around 571 million years ago life first made a grade-change from organisms that were only a few centimetres in size to those that grew to two metres or so high. The organisms that were able to take off in this way were the extinct rangeomorphs, softbodied frondose organisms that grew rooted in the seabed of late Precambrian times.

Big, shape-shifting animals from the dawn of time

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jul 10, 2017.

Why did life on Earth change from small to large when it did? Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Tokyo Institute of Technology have determined how some of the first large organisms, known as rangeomorphs, were able to grow up to two metres in height, by changing their body size and shape as they extracted nutrients from their surrounding environment.

The results, reported in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, could also help explain how life on Earth, which once consisted only of microscopic organisms, changed so that huge organisms like dinosaurs and blue whales could ultimately evolve.

Rangeomorphs were some of the earliest large organisms on Earth, existing during a time when most other forms of life were microscopic in size. Some rangeomorphs were only a few centimetres in height, while others were up to two metres tall.

These organisms were ocean dwellers that lived during the Ediacaran period, between 635 and 541 million years ago. Their soft bodies were made up of branches, each with many smaller side branches, forming a geometric shape known as a fractal, which can be seen today in things like lungs, ferns and snowflakes.

Since rangeomorphs don’t resemble any modern organism, it’s difficult to understand how they fed, grew or reproduced, let alone how they might link with any modern group. However, although they look somewhat like plants, scientists believe that they may have been some of the earliest animals to live on Earth.

“What we wanted to know is why these large organisms appeared at this particular point in Earth’s history,” said Dr Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and Tokyo Tech’s Earth-Life Science Institute, the paper’s first author. “They show up in the fossil record with a bang, at very large size. We wondered, was this simply a coincidence or a direct result of changes in ocean chemistry?”

The researchers used micro-CT scanning, photographic measurements and mathematical and computer models to examine rangeomorph fossils from south-eastern Newfoundland, Canada, the UK and Australia.

Their analysis shows the earliest evidence for nutrient-dependent growth in the fossil record. All organisms need nutrients to survive and grow, but nutrients can also dictate body size and shape. This is known as ‘ecophenotypic plasticity.’ Hoyal Cuthill and her co-author Professor Simon Conway Morris suggest that rangeomorphs not only show a strong degree of ecophenotypic plasticity, but that this provided a crucial advantage in a dramatically changing world. For example, rangeomorphs could rapidly “shape-shift”, growing into a long, tapered shape if the seawater above them happened to have elevated levels of oxygen.

“During the Ediacaran, there seem to have been major changes in the Earth’s oceans, which may have triggered growth, so that life on Earth suddenly starts getting much bigger,” said Hoyal Cuthill. “It’s probably too early to conclude exactly which geochemical changes in the Ediacaran oceans were responsible for the shift to large body sizes, but there are strong contenders, especially increased oxygen, which animals need for respiration.”

This change in ocean chemistry followed a large-scale ice age known as the Gaskiers glaciation. When nutrient levels in the ocean were low, they appear to have kept body sizes small. But with a geologically sudden increase in oxygen or other nutrients, much larger body sizes become possible, even in organisms with the same genetic makeup. This means that the sudden appearance of rangeomorphs at large size could have been a direct result of major changes in climate and ocean chemistry.

However, while rangeomorphs were highly suited to their Ediacaran environment, conditions in the oceans continued to change and from about 541 million years ago the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ began – a period of rapid evolutionary development when most major animal groups first appeared in the fossil record. When the conditions changed, the rangeomorphs were doomed and nothing quite like them has been seen since.

Reference
Jennifer F. Hoyal Cuthill and Simon Conway Morris. ‘Nutrient-dependent growth underpinned the Ediacaran transition to large body size.’ Nature Ecology and Evolution (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0222-7.

Major changes in the chemical composition of the world’s oceans enabled the first large organisms – possibly some of the earliest animals – to exist and thrive more than half a billion years ago, marking the point when conditions on Earth changed and animals began to take over the world. 

We wanted to know why these large organisms appeared at this particular point in Earth’s history.
Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill
Artist's impression of rangeomorphs

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Don’s Diary

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jul 05, 2017.

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine – Issue 81 Easter 2017. Professor Marian Holness is Professor of Petrology and a Fellow of Trinity College.

‘Bulges’ in volcanoes could be used to predict eruptions

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jun 28, 2017.

Using a technique called ‘seismic noise interferometry’ combined with geophysical measurements, the researchers measured the energy moving through a volcano. They found that there is a good correlation between the speed at which the energy travelled and the amount of bulging and shrinking observed in the rock. The technique could be used to predict more accurately when a volcano will erupt. Their results are reported in the journal Science Advances.

Data was collected by the US Geological Survey across Kīlauea in Hawaii, a very active volcano with a lake of bubbling lava just beneath its summit. During a four-year period, the researchers used sensors to measure relative changes in the velocity of seismic waves moving through the volcano over time. They then compared their results with a second set of data which measured tiny changes in the angle of the volcano over the same time period.

As Kīlauea is such an active volcano, it is constantly bulging and shrinking as pressure in the magma chamber beneath the summit increases and decreases. Kīlauea’s current eruption started in 1983, and it spews and sputters lava almost constantly. Earlier this year, a large part of the volcano fell away and it opened up a huge ‘waterfall’ of lava into the ocean below. Due to this high volume of activity, Kīlauea is also one of the most-studied volcanoes on Earth.

The Cambridge researchers used seismic noise to detect what was controlling Kīlauea’s movement. Seismic noise is a persistent low-level vibration in the Earth, caused by everything from earthquakes to waves in the ocean, and can often be read on a single sensor as random noise. But by pairing sensors together, the researchers were able to observe energy passing between the two, therefore allowing them to isolate the seismic noise that was coming from the volcano.

“We were interested in how the energy travelling between the sensors changes, whether it’s getting faster or slower,” said Clare Donaldson, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, and the paper’s first author. “We want to know whether the seismic velocity changes reflect increasing pressure in the volcano, as volcanoes bulge out before an eruption. This is crucial for eruption forecasting.”

One to two kilometres below Kīlauea’s lava lake, there is a reservoir of magma. As the amount of magma changes in this underground reservoir, the whole summit of the volcano bulges and shrinks. At the same time, the seismic velocity changes. As the magma chamber fills up, it causes an increase in pressure, which leads to cracks closing in the surrounding rock and producing faster seismic waves – and vice versa.

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to compare seismic noise with deformation over such a long period, and the strong correlation between the two shows that this could be a new way of predicting volcanic eruptions,” said Donaldson.

Volcano seismology has traditionally measured small earthquakes at volcanoes. When magma moves underground, it often sets off tiny earthquakes, as it cracks its way through solid rock. Detecting these earthquakes is therefore very useful for eruption prediction. But sometimes magma can flow silently, through pre-existing pathways, and no earthquakes may occur. This new technique will still detect the changes caused by the magma flow.

Seismic noise occurs continuously, and is sensitive to changes that would otherwise have been missed. The researchers anticipate that this new research will allow the method to be used at the hundreds of active volcanoes around the world.

Reference
C. Donaldson et al. ‘Relative seismic velocity variations correlate with deformation at Kīlauea volcano’. Science Advances (2017) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700219 

Inset image: Lava Waterfall, Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii. Credit: Dhilung Kirat

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge have developed a new way of measuring the pressure inside volcanoes, and found that it can be a reliable indicator of future eruptions.

This could be a new way of predicting volcanic eruptions.
Clare Donaldson
Kiauea

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‘Plumerang’ health risk

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jun 21, 2017.

Scientists have discovered that significant changes can occur in the composition of volcanic eruptive plumes whilst circulating high above the atmosphere. Nicknamed ‘plumerangs’, the evolution of such plumes represent a previously unappreciated health hazard.

Engaging with Science Policy

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jun 09, 2017.

Victoria Honour, 2nd year PhD student, writes about her experiences as a Science Policy Intern at the House of Commons.

Earth Sciences win second place in the Workplace Travel Challenge

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on May 04, 2017.

A team of nine people from Earth Sciences, took part in the Workplace Travel Challenge at the end of April 2017.

Jo Clegg wins competition with the most sustainable recipe

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on May 04, 2017.

Earth Sciences' Jo Clegg wins a competition on sustainable food with the most sustainable recipe

Cambridge Earth Sciences top in the Complete University Guide

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 27, 2017.

The Department of Earth Sciences is once again top amongst UK geology departments in the latest tables.

Opinion: Worthless mining waste could suck CO₂ out of the atmosphere and reverse emissions

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 20, 2017.

The Paris Agreement commits nations to limiting global warming to less than 2˚C by the end of the century. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, to meet such a massive challenge, societies will need to do more than simply reduce and limit carbon emissions. It seems likely that large scale removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere may be called for: so-called “negative emissions”.

One possibility is to use waste material from mining to trap CO₂ into new minerals, locking it out of the atmosphere. The idea is to exploit and accelerate the same geological processes that have regulated Earth’s climate and surface environment over the 4.5 billion years of its existence.

Across the world, deep and open-pit mining operations have left behind huge piles of worthless rubble – the “overburden” of rock or soil that once lay above the useful coal or metal ore. Often, this rubble is stored in dumps alongside tiny fragments of mining waste – the “tailings” or “fines” left over after processing the ore. The fine-grained waste is particularly reactive, chemically, since more surface is exposed.

A lot of energy is spent on extracting and crushing all this waste. However, breaking rocks into smaller pieces exposes more fresh surfaces, which can react with CO₂. In this sense, energy used in mining could itself be harvested and used to reduce atmospheric carbon.

This is one of the four themes of a new £8.6m research programme launched by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council, which will investigate new ways to reverse emissions and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Spoil tips from current and historic mining operations, such as this gold mine in Kazakhstan, could provide new ways to draw CO₂ from the atmosphere. Photo Credit: Ainur Seitkan, Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge


The process we want to speed up is the “carbonate-silicate cycle”, also known as the slow carbon cycle. Natural silicate rocks like granite and basalt, common at Earth’s surface, play a key part in regulating carbon in the atmosphere and oceans by removing CO₂ from the atmosphere and turning it into carbonate rocks like chalk and limestone.

Atmospheric CO₂ and water can react with the silicate rocks to dissolve elements they contain like calcium and magnesium into the water, which also soaks up the CO₂ as bicarbonate. This weak solution is the natural river water that flows to the oceans, which hold more than 60 times more carbon than the atmosphere. It is here, in the oceans, that the calcium and bicarbonate can recombine, over millions of years, and crystallise as calcite or chalk, often instigated by marine organisms as they build their shells.

Today, rivers deliver hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon each year into the oceans, but this is still around 30 times less than the rate of carbon emission into the atmosphere due to fossil fuel burning. Given immense geological time scales, these processes would return atmospheric CO₂ to its normal steady state. But we don’t have time: the blip in CO₂ emissions from industrialisation easily unbalances nature’s best efforts.

The natural process takes millions of years – but can we do it in decades? Scientists looking at accelerated mine waste dissolution will attempt to answer a number of pressing questions. The group at Cambridge which I lead will be investigating whether we can speed up the process of silicate minerals from pre-existing mine waste being dissolved into water. We may even be able to harness friendly microbes to enhance the reaction rates.

Another part of the same project, conducted by colleagues in Oxford, Southampton and Cardiff, will study how the calcium and magnesium released from the silicate mine waste can react back into minerals like calcite, to lock CO₂ back into solid minerals into the geological future.

Whether this can be done effectively without requiring further fossil fuel energy, and at a scale that is viable and effective, remains to be seen. But accelerating the reaction rates in mining wastes should help us move at least some way towards reaching our climate targets.

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

Could waste material from mining be used to trap COemissions? A new £8.6 million research programme will investigate the possibilities. Simon Redfern (Department of Earth Sciences) explains, in this article from The Conversation. 

Tagebau / Open cast mine

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Drones used to analyse ash clouds from Guatemalan volcano

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 11, 2017.

During a ten-day research trip, the team carried out many proof-of-concept flights at the summits of both Volcán de Fuego and Volcán de Pacaya in Guatemala.  Using lightweight modern sensors they measured temperature, humidity and thermal data within the volcanic clouds and took images of multiple eruptions in real-time.

This is one of the first times that bespoke fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used at a volcano such as Fuego, where the lack of close access to the summit vent has prevented robust gas measurements. Funding from the Cabot Institute has helped the team to develop technologies to enable this capability. The UAVs were successfully flown at distances of up to 8 km away, and at a height of over 3 km above the launch site.

The group plan to return to Guatemala later in the year with a wider range of sensors including a gas analyser, a four-stage filter pack; carbon stubs for ash sampling; thermal and visual cameras, and atmospheric sensors.

Dr Emma Liu, a volcanologist from the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge, said: “Drones offer an invaluable solution to the challenges of in-situ sampling and routine monitoring of volcanic emissions, particularly those where the near-vent region is prohibitively hazardous or inaccessible.

“These sensors not only help to understand emissions from volcanoes, they could also be used in the future to help alert local communities of impending eruptions – particularly if the flights can be automated.”

Dr Kieran Wood, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Bristol, added: “Even during this initial campaign we were able to meet significant science and engineering targets. For example, multiple imaging flights over several days captured the rapidly changing topography of Fuego’s summit. These showed that the volcano was erupting from not just one, but two active summit vents.”

Taking time out from their sample flights, the research group also used their aircraft to map the topology of a barranca and the volcanic deposits within it. These deposits were formed by a recent pyroclastic flow, a fast-moving cloud of superheated ash and gas, which travelled down the barranca from Fuego. The data captured will assist in modelling flow pathways and the potential impact of future volcanic eruptions on nearby settlements.

Dr Matt Watson, Reader in Natural Hazards in the School of Earth Sciences at Bristol, said: “This is exciting initial research for future investigations, and would not be possible without a very close collaboration between volcanology and engineering.”

Adapted from a press release by the University of Bristol.

A team of volcanologists and engineers from the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol has collected measurements from directly within volcanic clouds, together with visual and thermal images of inaccessible volcano peaks.

Volcán de Fuego

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Opinion: The rapidly populating coastal region from the Gulf to Pakistan faces a huge tsunami risk

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 07, 2017.

 

That tsunamis can cause death and devastation has become painfully clear over the past two decades. On Boxing Day, 2004, a magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra caused waves several metres high to devastate the Indian Ocean – killing more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. In 2011, another magnitude 9 earthquake, this time off Japan, produced waves up to 20 metres in height, flooding the Fukushima nuclear reactor. It killed more than 15,000 people. The Conversation

A new study, published in Geophysical Journal International, by my colleagues and me suggests that a 1,000km long fault at the northern end of the Arabian Sea may pose a similar threat.

The Makran, as the southern coastal region of Iran and Pakistan is known, is a subduction zone. In such regions, one of the Earth’s tectonic plates is dragged beneath another, forming a giant fault known as a “megathrust”. As the plates move past each other, they can get stuck, causing stress to build up. At some point the stress becomes high enough that the megathrust breaks in an earthquake.

This was exactly what caused the Sumatra 2004 and Tohoku 2011 earthquakes. When a megathrust moves suddenly, the whole seafloor is offset and the water has to move out of the way over a huge area. This sets off waves with particular characteristics that can cross entire oceans: tsunamis. The phenomenon, along with their potentially large size, makes subduction zone earthquakes particularly dangerous.

The Makran region. Adapted from NASA photo.


But just because a part of a subduction zone produces earthquakes doesn’t mean that the whole megathrust can move in one go. We often see that stress builds up at different rates on different parts of the fault, with some parts sliding smoothly past each other. How much of a megathrust can move in one go is important because it determines the size of the resulting earthquake. The amount that the Makran megathrust can move in earthquakes has been a longstanding question, but the hostile climate and challenging politics of the region have made research there difficult.

We know that the eastern part of the Makran megathrust (in Pakistan) can produce large earthquakes. A magnitude 8.1 quake off the coast of western Pakistan in 1945 caused a tsunami which killed about 300 people along the coasts of Pakistan and Oman. There have been several smaller earthquakes on the megathrust since, including a magnitude 6 in February this year.

If the western part of the Makran (in Iran) also produces earthquakes – and the whole Makran megathrust were to move in one go – it could produce a magnitude 9 earthquake, similar to those in Sumatra and Tohoku.

However, we have never actually recorded a subduction earthquake in this part of Makran. In fact, there are only records of one candidate quake from 1483 – and the actual location of this is disputed. But it’s important to keep in mind that just because we haven’t seen an earthquake doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be one – particularly since the intervals between earthquakes are often hundreds or thousands of years. Historically, not many people have lived in the remote Iranian Makran, a desert which killed Alexander the Great’s army. So earthquakes might simply not have been documented.

GPS data

We used new data to look for tell-tale signs of a possible earthquake. Imagine a piece of paper on a table. If you hold one end and push the other end towards it, the paper crumples up and the distance between the two ends gets shorter. If you let go, the paper flattens out. The fixed end is like a megathrust which is stuck. Indeed, if the Arabian plate is stuck, and stress is building up, southern Iran will be squeezed and shortened. We can look for evidence of this shortening by using a more accurate version of the GPS systems found in smartphones. My coauthors from the National Cartographic Centre in Iran have set up a network of GPS stations to measure how fast different parts of Iran are moving relative to Arabia.

We found that the velocities fit with Iran being shortened near the coast, suggesting that stress is indeed building up – and meaning there could be a large subduction earthquake in the future. This fits with recent work looking at large boulders along the coast of Oman, thought to have been deposited by tsunamis. The locations of these boulders suggest that the tsunami which brought them there would need to have come from a subduction earthquake, either in western Makran or along the entire subduction zone – including Pakistan. These boulders were probably deposited in the last 5,000 years, but we can’t know for sure.

The 2004 Sumatra tsunami strikes Ao Nang, Thailand. David Rydevik/wikipedia, CC BY-SA


This is a hazard that people need to be aware of, particularly those living in coastal regions around the Arabian Sea. Rapid urbanisation along the Omani and Pakistani coasts in recent years has increased the population exposed to earthquakes and tsunamis in the Makran. Karachi, at the eastern end of the subduction zone, is now a megacity and home to around 25m people. Much of Muscat, the Omani capital, is less than 10 metres above sea level, making it vulnerable to tsunamis. The port of Gwadar in Pakistan, which was badly damaged in a 1945 earthquake, is also undergoing massive development.

To help protect these people, and make sure that they are properly prepared, we need to understand this hazard better. Education and early warning are both key – exercises testing the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System are a step in the right direction, especially if they engage the public.

At the moment, we can only say that a large earthquake in the Makran is consistent with the limited data which we have available. By continuing to work with scientists in Iran and Pakistan to make more measurements I hope that in the future we will have a much better idea of what to expect from this subduction zone.

Camilla Penney, PhD Candidate in Geophysics, University of Cambridge

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

In recent years, tsunamis have devastated coastal regions. Writing in The Conversation, Camilla Penney, PhD Candidate in Geophysics at University of Cambridge, looks at the risks faced by Gulf states and what can be done to mitigate them.

MUSCAT OMAN OCT 2010

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The man who split the dinosaurs in two – Harry Govier Seeley

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Mar 23, 2017.

The talk was titled ‘On the Classification of the Fossil Animals Commonly Named Dinosaurs’ and it was given in 1887 by Harry Govier Seeley, Professor of Geology at King’s College, London. Seeley argued that the ‘terrible lizards’, which were becoming increasingly popular at the time, could be simply divided into two great groups – the Saurischia and the Ornithischia based on differences in their hip structure.

When did making mountains the modern way begin?

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Mar 14, 2017.

What with ‘tectonic shifts’ and ‘tectonic proportions’, the processes and terminology of Earth’s major structural change or tectonism have invaded everyday language. Now geological research is adding a new dimension – ‘changing tectonic regimes’, the US presidency comes to mind. So what is a ‘change in tectonic regime’?

Simple rule predicts when an ice age ends

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 27, 2017.

A simple rule can accurately predict when Earth’s climate warms out of an ice age, according to a new study published in Nature. Researchers from UCL, University of Cambridge and University of Louvain have combined existing ideas to solve the problem of which solar energy peaks in the last 2.6 million years led to the melting of the ice sheets and the start of a warm period.

Fossil corset-animals (loriciferans) help solve Darwin’s dilemma

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 13, 2017.

The living corset-animals (loriciferans) are a remarkable group of miniscule, seabed dwelling creatures, which were first found in the 1980s. Now, the discovery by palaeontologists Tom Harvey and Nick Butterfield of the loriciferans’ deep ancestry in 490 million year old Cambrian strata is helping to rewrite the story of the Cambrian explosion of life and resolve what is known as Darwin’s dilemma.

Earth Sciences students winning prizes

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 13, 2017.

Congratulations to our students who have recently won prizes.

Tools of the Trade

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 13, 2017.

A display showcasing a selection of the Sedgwick Museum’s unique historic collection of geological hammers.

The bicentenary of a pioneering account of the Geology of Cambridgeshire

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 13, 2017.

The first account of the geology of Cambridgeshire was published 200 years ago. Written by the Reverend Professor John Hailstone FRS (1759-1847), the ‘Outline of the Geology of Cambridgeshire’ appeared in the third volume of the Transactions of the Geological Society of London.

Curious Objects at the University Library

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Nov 07, 2016.

Curious Objects – an exhibition of ‘some unusual and unexpected items’ from the University Library’s collection runs from 3 Nov 2016 - 31 March 2017 at the Milstein Exhibition Centre, Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR. Free entry.

Graduate Research Opportunities

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Nov 02, 2016.

A full list of PhD topics for students hoping to start PhDs in 2017 with the Cambridge NERC DTP - Earth Sciences are now online.

International team head to Papua New Guinea to measure volcanic carbon degassing

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Sep 01, 2016.

An international team of scientists is traveling to the islands of Papua New Guinea this September to study degassing from active volcanoes in remote jungles there. Some of these volcanoes are among the most active on Earth, ejecting a significant proportion of global volcanic gases into the atmosphere.

Mistaken Point - Canada's 10th geological World Heritage Site

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Aug 02, 2016.

The ancient rugged coastline of Mistaken Point on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula face the winds and waves of the Atlantic Ocean. It can be a difficult place to work, but nevertheless it has been a mecca for geologists for over several decades now.

An underestimated Kevan

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jul 21, 2016.

Douglas Palmer on the Sedgwick Museum’s giant Pliosaurus cf. kevani in the latest edition of Geoscientist

Oesia – a new tube worm from deep Cambrian times

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jul 21, 2016.

Collections up close, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. The discovery of new fossils of an ancient seabed dwelling hemichordate called Oesia, reveals clues about their deep ancestry which is shared with humans.