Ancient Life

Ediacaran ancient life form Dickinsonia CostataThe history of ancient life on Earth is written in its oldest rocks.  Paleontologists, detectives who track the ancient denizens of that early world, continue to gather fossil evidence of the earliest multicellular life, the Ediacara.

These mysterious creatures preceded the famous Cambrian explosion that began 541 million years ago.

The Cambrian, abundant with the fossils from the ancient ocean sediments, including the Burgess Shale in Canada, justifiably captures the popular spotlight.

Trilobite from the Devonian
This little devil, a Devonian trilobite, was armed with an as-yet unexplained trident. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Almost everyone has seen a trilobite, an animal that appeared in the Cambrian and roamed the ancient seas for 270 million years, right up to the Permian-Triassic extinction, the so-called “Great Dying” 252 million years ago.

Of course, even kids know the names of dinosaurs, which came to rule the Earth after the Great Dying until only 66 million years ago.

Ediacaran life has attracted much less celebrity

Beginning in the 1950s, a few fossils began to tell of complex animals that were not even supposed to exist prior to the Cambrian.

This pre-Cambrian time, the Ediacaran period, between 575 and 542 million years ago, followed the Marinoan glaciation or “Snowball Earth,” a period when the entire surface of our planet was frozen solid.

Not that long ago, the Cambrian was considered the boundary before which no multicellular life existed.  That’s all changed.

Simple one-celled life appeared on Earth about a billion years after the planet formed 4.5 billion years ago, a time punctuated by massive meteor bombardments, including a whopping collision with a Mars-sized planet that sent molten rock into space to form our Moon.

Ancient life may have originated at hot geothermal vents
White smokers at the Champagne vent, Northwest Eifuku volcano, Marianas Trench Marine National Monument Photo Credit: NOAA

Life Begins

Within less than a billion years life appeared. Life on Earth may have gotten its start near deep-sea geothermal vents, still the home of extremeophile bacteria and the animals that feed on them.

Whatever process led to the emergence of life, soon single-celled plants began converting the Earth’s carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbohydrates, the stuff you sprinkle on your cereal.

The first oxygen was consumed by iron dissolved in the oceans which became iron oxide or rust, laid down as rich ore deposits later used to make your car.

ancient iron deposits
Dissolved iron in the oceans, which “rusted” when oxygen became plentiful, was deposited as banded ironstones.

The conversion of a carbon-dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere into oxygen may seem like a good thing to mammals like us.  But carbon dioxide traps heat much better than does oxygen.  Simple plants made too much of a good thing!  Oxygen cooled the Earth.

Our planet froze into a Snowball Earth.  Several times.

Why did ancient single-celled life dominate Earth for so long?

Appearing “only” a billion years after the Earth formed, single celled life took more than three billion years to begin forming more complex multicullular life forms during the Ediacaran Period about 600 million years ago.  See time line below.

Notice how quickly simple life appears 4 billion years ago, at the end of meteor bombardment of Earth. Yet, it takes a full 3 billion years and longer for animals to finally appear.  Then, in less than a billion years, animals conquer the Earth, with vertebrate animals only making land in about the last third of a billion, and mammals like humans showing up very, very late to the party.

Geologic Clock of Earth Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Ancient life took its sweet time to go from single cells, around 4 billion years ago, to more complex multicellular plants and animals, during the Ediacaran period, about 45 million years before the Cambrian. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Some scientists think that low oxygen levels in the oceans 1.8 to .8 billion years ago kept life simple. Others believe that Snowball Earths caused, ironically, by plentiful oxygen in the atmosphere, delayed the appearance of complex life. However, some paleontologists continue to push back the time of the first animals. perhaps even before the last “Snowball Earth.”  In any case, the Cambrian is no longer the first word in multicellular animal life.

Ediacaran Ancient Life Finally Gets Some Respect

These ancient critters now have their own explosion, the Avalon Explosion, a rapid increase in the diversity of Ediacara body forms that preceded the Cambrian Explosion by 33 million years.  If 33 million years doesn’t sound like much, it’s a quarter the length of the dinosaurs’ reign and half as long as the Cenozoic, the Age of Mammals.

A Sample Collection of Ediacaran Life Forms

Unless noted all photo credits:  Wikipedia

Dickinsonia

Ediacaran ancient life form Dickinsonia Costata

Dickinsonia grew as big as bath mats and apparently lay flat on the sea bottom, possibly grazing on microbial mats.  The segments of the soft-bodied Dickinsonia have been described as liquid-filled chambers, something like an air mattress. First discovered by Reg Sprigg in 1946 in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, apparently while eating his lunch, Ediacaran fossils were described in a paper submitted to, and rejected by, the journal Nature.

Charnia

Charnia an ediacara

Charnia was first discovered in 1957 in rocks in Charnwood Forest in central England by Tina Negus, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, but her geography schoolteacher ruled out the possibility of Precambrian fossils.

Later, a schoolboy Roger Mason, who later became a geologist, brought the fossils to the attention of scientists.  Charnia lived attached to the sea bottom, too deep for sunlight to allow photosynthesis, suggesting that they absorbed nutrients directly from the seawater.

 CharniodiscusCharniodiscus arboreus

Also first discovered in Charnwood Forest, Charniodiscus was first discovered as only the circular base or holdfast that anchored the stalk and frond to the sandy sea floor. Similar to Charnia, the frond structure is different, although the source of nutrition for this an Ediacaran fossil was presumably similar. Two Charniodiscus forms have been found, one with a short stalk and fat frond, the other with a long stalk that held the frond 20 inches above the sea bottom.

Eoandromeda 

Eoandromeda and Ediacaron fossil

Eoandromeda has eight radial spiral arms, spiraling either clockwise or counterclockwise.  A few dozen fossils are known, ranging from 1 to 4 cm in diameter.  This specimen from Australia has longer, more tightly coiled arms compared to Chinese Eoandrommeda. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/groups/complex_life/

 

Spriggina_flounensi_C

Spriggina

Named for Ron Sprigg, this segmented Edicaran organism reached about 3-5 cm in length and may have been a predator. Two rows of tough interlocking plates cover the bottom, while one row covers its top.  Its front segments are fused to form a head, which may have borne eyes and antennae.

These are but a sample of a growing collection of Ediacaran organisms.  Below is an artist’s conception of an Ediacaran garden

Ediacarans National Museum of History, Smithsonian Institution

The Ediacara appear to have become extinct before the celebrated hustle and bustle of the Cambrian.  Some suggest they are a “failed experiment” that left no descendents.  As objects of scientific study the Ediacara are an active field with a growing list of Ediacaran genera.

Here’s how the Earth’s continents changed from Ediacaran times.

Scientific Picture Book of the Ediacarans

Highly rated, with foreword by Arthur C. Clarke, The Rise of Animals by five respected authors is considered the best account of Ediacaran life.  Organized by fossil location, the book includes an Atlas of Ediacaran paleontology.

Take a Peek

Even if you are just curious, the “Look Inside” button at Amazon offers a generous sampling of the Ediacaran “zoo,” with fossil photos and interpretations of how these strange organisms lived.

Disneyland Bans Children Under 14 Alone, Disney World, California Adventure, too

Photo of California Adventure

Disneyland, Disney World, and California Adventure will ban lone kids under 14 beginning on March 23, 2013.

Previously children of various ages were allowed in the Disney parks unaccompanied by an older person.

The policy will not be enforced based on government-issued identification cards, which youngsters under 14 may not have.  Instead, Disney employees will approach those who look young, and if the children are under 14, they will contact a parent or guardian, according to the Orange County Register.

The new policy for all Disney parks will be the same for Disneyland, Walt Disney World, California Adventure, which previously admitted solo children of varying ages.  

Children visiting any Disney park must be accompanied by someone 14 or older.

A Disneyland spokesperson said that the new rule followed a survey of guests and various child welfare organizations, and that age 14 is the minimum age recommended by the American Red Cross. 

The Orange County Register reported on March 15 that the Disneyland spokesperson said that the policy was not triggered by any specific issue with unaccompanied children in a park.

However, the policy comes within a week of the drowning death of a 13-year-old swimmer in a pool at Disney’s Pop Century Resort on the grounds of Walt Disney World, according to the U.K. Daily Mail and other news organizations.

The boy from Springfield, Missouri, was swimming at about 9:00 pm, March 10, in the hotel pool with a group of children including his little brother and a cousin. The tragedy was discussed on Dizboards. com beginning on Sunday, March 10 and the later drowning death on Tuesday, March 12 was reported by the Orlando Sentinel.  

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Curiosity’s Crazy Risky Mission to Mars

Artists conception of Curiosity entering Mars' atmosphere
Curiosity killed the cat.”  — Popular Saying.

But satisfaction brought it back.”  —  Anonymous

An engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory came right out and admitted that the landing sequence for the Curiosity Mars rover “looks crazy.”

Gambling years of engineers’ and scientists’ careers and millions of dollars (plus one penny), JPL is about to attempt the most daring Mars landing ever conceived.

“When people look at it, it looks crazy.  That’s a very natural thing,” says Adam Stelzner, JPL Engineer. “Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy.  It is the result of reasoned, engineering thought.  But it still looks crazy.”

“It still looks crazy.”  

On August 5th, in the middle of the night for most sane people, and at 10:31 for Californians, the Curiosity rover space vehicle will slam into the atmosphere of Mars at 13,000 miles per hour.  

Artists rendering of Curiosity entering Mars' atmosphere

To save itself, the spacecraft must decelerate to zero miles an hour by the time it reaches the martian surface 7 minutes later.  

JPL Won’t Know If Curiosity Is Dead

It takes 14 minutes for radio signals to travel back to Earth.  By the time they get word that Curiosity has hit the top of Mars’ atmosphere, Curiosity will be already alive or dead on the martian surface for at least 7 minutes.  

JPL will not know Curiosity’s fate for what has been dubbed THE SEVEN MINUTES OF TERROR

Martian Atmosphere Too Weak

The Martian atmosphere is too thin for heat shields and parachutes alone.  Like Viking, Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity will rely partly on a parachute to slow its fall.  

But after 9 G’s of deceleration (the same as the Apollo astronauts endured eyeballs in) and 65,000 pounds of force yanking against its parachute, Curiosity will still be hurtling downward at 200 m.p.h.  

That is too fast to land safely.  

Curiosity, if it is to live, must succeed at acrobatics never attempted on an alien world.

Curiosity must descend from a literal “flying trapeze,” a rocket powered “Sky Crane” (shown here).

Photo of the daring Curiosity descending from a flying trapeze called Sky Crane

After descending to the martian surface, Curiosity must then rely on exploding bolts to free itself from the “flying trapeze” hovering above held up only by rockets.

If the exploding bolts do not release the Sky Crane for a successful “flyaway,” the trapeze will consume its fuel and fall on Curiosity, crushing the multi-million dollar Curiosity rover and traveling laboratory.

“The computer has to do it all by itself with no help from the ground,”  says Tom Rivellini, another JPL engineer.  “If any one thing doesn’t work just right, it’s game over”

Has the United States gone too far in taking these kinds of risks merely to explore another planet?

Every American and every citizen of Earth MUST watch this film The Challenges of Getting to Mars aka Seven Minutes of Terror for the Mars rover, Curiosity.

If the screen above is hard to see Click Here –> Curiosity’s Seven Minutes of Terror before August 5, 2012 at 10:31 Pacific Daylight Time when Earth will learn Curiosity’s fate (well, 7 minutes  later).

Watch the film.  Learn the risks.  Then make up YOUR mind.

What do you think?  Do you think that Curiosity should try to turn back to safety?  Well, that’s not technically feasible.  Any other ideas?

Is this a great film by JPL?  Or the greatest film by JPL?

Here’s a video of the entire mission, including cruise from near Earth, and once Curiosity begins exploration and science.

All images courtesy Jet Propulsion Laboratory (see credits).