Category Archives: fossil record

Sagebrush Ecosystem: Rising from an ancient sea

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Sagebrush country, it kind of makes you itchy and scratchy just looking at it. This is a place where every footstep crackles, and there are no forests to shelter under. You’d never realize that where you’re standing used to lie at the bottom of the ocean.

Look to your feet, the rocks and soil, and you’ll quickly see otherwise. Rocks crumble away revealing more fossil than straight rock. The remains of the ancients run thick through this ground, giving rise to a new ecosystem remarkable for its hardiness and coveted for its carbon.

Here, the faint lemony fragrance of the sage floats in on the breeze. Antelope bolt for the hills, and the  “drip-thoink” calls of male sage grouse echo across the dawn as they try to win the hearts, or at least  reproductive rights, of their ladies.

Nearby Craig, Colo., boasts the largest coal-fired power plant in the state with a 1,304 megawatt capacity. Open pit coal mines and natural gas development serve as a backdrop to rolling hay fields and seemingly endless expanses of sagebrush.

The sagebrush is not endless however. It’s shrinking faster than people know it exists. So here’s my attempt to give it some props. Even if it’s difficult to stand before the sagebrush sea in awe like you would Yosemite and Yellowstone, you can’t help but respect the wilderness that insists on living there.

This isn’t your fluffy, lush Walden Pond wilderness. This is your crawl from a dried up seabed, live where others can’t sort of wild. You fall asleep to shorts and t-shirt kind of weather and wake to 50mph winds and blizzard kind of havoc. But if you have the guts to stop your car and venture out for awhile, you’ll understand that this place fights for every moment of its existence, and it kicks ass.

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Prehistoric mega-snake reveals ancient climate

Godzilla has nothing on a newly discovered snake species that existed 60 million years ago. The nearly 50 foot-long, one and a half ton snake is the largest ever discovered and would dwarf even today’s biggest anacondas. But its size isn’t the only thing impressing scientists. The remains of this constrictor-like snake contain clues about climate and environment that existed during prehistoric times, a link that could also help researchers understand the effects of climate change on today’s ecosystems.

Jonathan Bloch, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Florida, and Carlos Jaramillo, with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, led the expedition into the previously inaccessible Colombian forest. Based on the link between snake body-size and temperature, Jason Head, a University of Toronto Mississauga paleonotologist, and his team were able to deduce the ancient climate down to the degree Celsius. What they found was an equatorial forest environment that was about 6 degrees warmer than today’s annual temperatures.

“The key thing about this discovery is that we can use it as a launching point to develop very precise climatic reconstructions,” said Head in a press release. “It will help us to look at how ecosystems respond to climate change and specifically, what happens when temperatures increase or decrease.” 

You can read more about this colossal herpetology/paleontology/climate discovery in the Feb. 5, 2009 issue of Nature.


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