Italian Wall Lizards and Rapid Evolution

The last few years have been busy but have brought with them an opportunity to travel and to learn about new places, but little time to write.  Each year I spend a bit of time in Europe and extend my work trips to include a bit of time off.  Usually these trips are centered on Germany but I try to visit a few more places and in 2015 I had the opportunity to spent a few weeks in northern and central Italy.

A number of things caught my attention, for example how Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) has become invasive in much of Europe but especially in northern Italy, how different the color pattern of the Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix) is to what I’m used to seeing in the Americas or Asia, the deep similarity of vegetation assemblages and species to those in North America occupying similar habitats, and, of course, the fantastic views and towns perched on hills or nestled into narrow canyons, like Riomaggiore.

Riomaggiore pan above 085-091 small.jpg

Riomaggiore, one of the Cinque Terre, in La Spezia

Of the things I saw in Italy there is one I’d like to focus on for this post.  It is a small, common lizard, often overlooked.

The Cinque Terre coast is very similar to parts of the California coastal chaparral and dry coastal forests, so it was no surprise to find lizards sunning themselves on the trails, hiding in the stone walls of the terraced vineyards, and rustling through the oak, laurel, and chestnut leaf duff layer.  Lizards are funny beasts, sometimes bold as you please standing on their rocks as though they own the world, other times bolting at the bend of a blade of grass.  Unfortunately, these lizards were wary and fled my approach, leaving me with only vague, scaly impressions of what they looked like.

It was in Florence where I finally saw one of the little fellows clearly.  I’d had enough of the noise and crowds and escaped to the Boboli Gardens, where I paid a bit more attention to the plants than I did to the impressive array of statuary.  Near a hedge a slight twitch amongst the dried leaves caught my eye and revealed itself to be a beautiful small green lizard with black and tan patterning sunning itself on a bed of withered sycamore leaves.  It was almost done shedding its skin and the colors were vivid.

Florence Italian Wall Lizard (Podarcis sicula) 112.jpg

Italian Wall Lizard (Podarcis sicula subsp. ?) in the Boboli Gardens, Florence

This is, of course, the Italian Wall Lizard (Podarcis sicula), a highly adaptable small lizard native to Italy and nearby regions.  This not an endangered or even rare species, on the contrary, it is quite common within its range, and its adaptability has led to the development of at least 62 recognized subspecies.  I did not know any of this when I first encountered the species, but something about it seemed familiar.  It wasn’t until I came across several more of them in Bracciano and had the time to identify them that the niggling sense of familiarity clicked.

In 1971 scientists transplanted 10 individuals of this species (5 breeding pairs) from the island of Pod Kopište to Pod Mrčaru, Croatia, a small island; only a few hundred meters long on its longest axis; with a resident population of a different lizard species, the Dalmatian Wall Lizard (Podarcis melisellensis) .  The goal of this experiment was to test competitive exclusion in island biogeography theory.

Pod Mrčaru map.jpg

Unfortunately the 1970s were a troubled time for that part of Europe and Yugoslavia began its fragmentation into what are now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia.  Trouble mounted through the 1970s and in 1980 Josip Broz Tito died, opening up a power vacuum exacerbated by ongoing ethnic conflicts.  It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the dust more-or-less settled.

The long lasting conflicts in the region put a halt to the experiments of Eviatar Nevo  and his team on  Pod Kopište and Pod Mrčaru.  The lizards, of course, were undisturbed by the commotion of the excitable bipeds and the tiny island was left undisturbed until about 2004 when tourism was allowed in the area. Researchers returned to the island shortly afterward.

To the researcher’s surprise, they found that the initial 10 introduced Italian Wall Lizards had increased to a population of over 5,000 and that the native Dalmatian Wall Lizard was now locally extinct.

Further investigation revealed the real shocker; in the brief time the island had been left alone, some 30 lizard generations (abut 36 years), the introduced Italian Wall Lizards lizards had undergone profound evolutionary changes.

This is what had been tickling the back of my mind when I saw that first lizard in the garden of Florence.  Long before my trip to Italy I had seen a documentary discussing the rapid and unexpected changes these lizards had undergone.  I must have remembered the morphology of the lizard, but had lost the connection of that particular lizard to the documentary.  I can’t find the original video I saw, but there is a Richard Dawkins video on the subject:

Italian Wall Lizards are primarily insectivores, but in their new habitat they changed to become primarily herbivores.  For a omnivore like us this doesn’t seem to be a startling thing, we regularly shift back and forth between different types of foods, sometimes craving meat, other times preferring vegetables and many people make long-term dietary commitments to avoiding animal products entirely while other cultures have traditionally had a diet consisting almost entirely of animal products.  We are large animals and have evolved to be generalist gourmands.

For the lizards this switch is not so simple.  Plant matter needs time to ferment and break down to make digestion possible.  Plant matter can be extremely tough, requiring more effort to consume.  The shift from eating insects to eating plants is akin to shifting from eating exclusively fast food to eating primarily home-cooked meals.  Before you just ate what you bought, but now you need a working kitchen and utensils for preparing and cooking the food.

The introduced lizards developed a host of traits to aid in the consumption of tough plant matter; cecal valves (muscles that separate the large and small intestine, slowing down food digestion and effectively creating fermentation chambers – a bit like ruminates with their multiple stomach compartments-, allowed them to process the tough plant cellulose), larger, stronger jaws and bigger muscles to assist in the harvesting plant matter, changes in head morphology, and an over-all larger body size.

These changes may not seem like much, but they’ve been likened to humans evolving a new appendix in only a few hundred years.

Interestingly, the changes in food supply also changed the social behavior of the Italian Wall Lizards, leading them to be less territorial.

Changes in general should not come as a surprise considering the variability of Podarcis sicula.  After all there are some 62 subspecies of this lizard.  Even the between the individuals I saw in Florence and Bracciano there appear to be differences in head shape, color, and patterning.

Wall Lizard comparison (Podarcis sicula) Bracciano 173 Florence 115 small.jpg

Comparison between Italian Wall Lizards (Podarcis sicula) in Florence and Bracciano

What is surprising is how rapidly major evolutionary changes took place.  We tend to view evolution as a gradual process taking place over millennia with changes taking place so gradually that they are almost unnoticeable in human relevant timescales.  We know this is not true, but this view is so prevalent that it forms the backbone for one of the common critiques of evolution by those so inclined. Here we have a lovely example of evolution in action on a human relevant timescale. Better yet, it is an unexpected change, one that could well lead to a new species developing, if given enough time.

This is the largest change seen in this species, but it is far from the only case.  Italian Wall Lizards have been introduced in Turkey, Spain, and the US.  One of their populations in the US in New York, where they were introduced in 1966 or ’67 (most likely via the pet trade) has revealed an interesting an unexpected adaptation.  In the home range of the Italian Wall Lizard the temperatures rarely drop below about -7C and do not remain cold for prolonged periods.  As a result the lizards are active throughout the year with only brief periods of inactivity.  In New York, however, temperatures can drop to -20C and remain below freezing for extended periods.  It turns out that these robust little reptiles have a hidden ability and can supercool themselves and hibernate through the colder months in New York, a behavior not seen in their native range.

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Italian Wall Lizard (Podarcis sicula) in Bracciano outside the Italian Air Force Museum

It is easy to overlook the little things and to take the common things for granted, but it is often those very things that open our eyes and our minds to greater understanding of the world around us.

These humble little lizards provide a window into evolution and adaptability, a window that might never have been noticed if not for the happenstance of a lost experiment carried out decades prior.

Tar Pits, Dung Beetles, and Megafauna

Today Los Angeles is a city with a reputation for excess, dominated by cars and actors, and there is a reason for this.  Money.  Money in the form of oil.  The combination of oil and money led to the nascent fossil fuel industry teaming up with the budding car industry in the early 20th century to sabotage the successful street and rail car industry in the Los Angeles basin.  Money led to loose laws which led to crime, gambling, and guerrilla movie studios moving into the LA area, searching for places that were outside the influence of the film establishment of the times.  All of these things are interesting, but without the oil it is unlikely Los Angeles would have taken the trajectory it did.

Oil Fields, Signal Hill, Los Angeles 1914

Oil Fields, Signal Hill, Los Angeles 1914 – source: National Geographic archives

Oil is usually found deep under ground, but the greater Los Angeles area up through the Santa Barbara area is one of a few places in the world where oil is not just close to the surface, it is on the surface, bubbling in cold pits of bitumen, also known as asphalt and tar.  This asphaltum has been important to humans for as long as they have lived in the region.  In the past it was primarily used to waterproof boats, water carriers, and cooking vessels or as an adhesive.  Now, of course we use it to make a whole range of products from gasoline to Vaseline, rubber, plastics, pantyhose, parachutes, paint, detergents, antifreeze, golf balls, and more.

Bitumen occurs where vast amounts of living material (plankton, diatoms, or plant material usually) were deposited in a quiet anaerobic environment, such as a lake or sea floor, and left alone for a long, long time.  In essence, it is liquid coal.  Coal beds are sometimes repositories for incredible collections of fossils.  These ancient remains and offer a window into the deep past, but for a window into the more recent past we need something a little different from coal.  Bitumen provides one of the best preserving agents for more recent remains.

Near Hollywood there is a famous bitumen pit redundantly named the La Brea Tar Pits (literally “The Tar Tar Pits”).  Between approximately 38,000 years ago and 11,000 years ago the La Brea Tar Pits were very active.  An enormous variety of animals and insects were lured to the waters of what appeared to be a rich wetland and were trapped by the sticky tar that lay beneath the shallow layer of water.  A few posts back I brought up the fact that condors are representatives of an extinct assemblage of fauna.  The La Brea tar Pits provide a window into that now extinct assemblage.  Los Angeles was a land of giant bears and jaguars, pygmy pronghorn antelope, camels, mammoths, dire-wolves, great birds of prey, giant ground sloths, and numerous other animals.  

Mural of the La Brea Tar Pits during the Quaternary

Mural of the La Brea Tar Pits during the Quaternary

Animals trapped by the sticky tar aroused the interest of predators and scavengers which were themselves trapped by the tar.  Herbivores, carnivores, mammals, birds, and insects all fell prey to the tar pits and many of them have been preserved in astoundingly good condition.

Pygmy Pronghorn (Capromeryx minor)

Pygmy Pronghorn (Capromeryx minor)

Along with the large animals is one of the best collections of preserved insects in the world.  Most people know that insects are important in a sort of general way.  In recent years honeybees have been in the news quite a bit and their importance in maintaining our food supply has reached the mainstream audience.  I’ve mentioned the importance of both ladybugs and dragonflies, but these are iconic and popular insects, very much in the public eye.  There are many other insects that have an importance far beyond what their diminutive size would indicate.  One of these is the dung beetle (Scarabaeinae).

Until recently much of the planet was home to a wide range of large animals, grouped into the catch-all term “megafauna”.  This is a generic term for any animal massing more than 45-100 kg (100-220lbs).  Most of the recent megafauna of each continent (with the exception of Africa) went extinct shortly after humans reached the respective region.  Here in North America we had great mammoths, elephant relatives, standing 4 meters (13 feet) tall at the shoulder and weighing 9 metric tons (10 short tons).  You can walk under the tusks of the mammoth skeleton in the La Brea Tar Pits, reach your hand up as high as you can, and the tusks are still out of reach.

Colombian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi)

Colombian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi)

Numerous types of ground sloth roamed the area, including both the Shasta and Harlan’s Sloths.  Harlan’s Ground Sloth was not the largest and even it stood 3 meters (10 feet) tall and weighed more than a ton.

Harlan's Ground Sloth (Paramylodon)

Harlan’s Ground Sloth (Paramylodon)

The Antique Bison, some 15-25% larger than modern bison roamed the region,

Antique Bison (Bison antiquus)

Antique Bison (Bison antiquus)

And there were, or course predators of all sorts.  Dire Wolves are particularly well represented in the La Brea Tar Pit fossils.

Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) skulls.  One panel of a 3-panel display.

Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) skulls. One panel of a 3-panel display.

There were large numbers of these animals and, like all animals, they had to eat.  The larger the animal, the more it eats.  Modern African elephants eat 100-300kg (220-660lbs) of food per day, so it is reasonable to expect that the Colombian mammoth would eat at least that much per day, if not more.  Then, just on the herbivore side of things, there were the giant ground sloths, horses, camelids, bison, elk, antelope, peccaries, deer, and numerous other species.  Additionally there all the predators; giant jaguars, sabre-toothed cats, dire wolves, American cheetahs, bears of all sorts, including the giant short-faced bear, and more besides them.

All animals must eat, and everything they eat must come out eventually.  This is something we don’t really think much about: what happens to all the animal dung?  How much of it was there?

We don’t really have any good idea just what the animal numbers were like in the past, but we do have a very good idea of the numbers of another kind of modern megafauna.  Cows.  The numbers of cows in the US probably only represent a middling-small portion of the total amount of large megafauna in the US portion of North America, but they give some insight into the kinds of numbers we are talking about when it comes to dung quantities.

The 2006 article by Losey and Vaughan provides some insight to those numbers.  Each cow can produce approximately 21 cubic meters of waste per year, that’s a volume roughly equivalent to 1.3 VW buses worth of dung per year per cow.  In 2004 there were nearly 100 million head of cattle in the US, that means more than 2 billion cubic meters of poop per year, just from cows… I’ll let that image settle in.  For comparison that’s enough to cover  Manhattan to a depth of about 70 feet (21 meters) or Disney World to about 60 feet (18 meters) in cow manure every year (in other news: Disney World is larger than Manhattan).  That’s just from the cows and just the ones in the US.

What happens to all that crap?  Enter the humble dung beetle.  For the portion of cattle that are fortunate enough to be in fields, dung beetles take care of the waste.  According to Losey and Vaughan each year dung beetles save ranchers $380 million dollars in clean-up costs.  A 2001 article by Michelle Thomas indicates that without dung beetles each year we would find 5-10% of each cattle acre unusable due to dung pile-up.  Dung beetles are so important that foreign species of dung beetles have been imported to the US and elsewhere for use in areas that experience heavy livestock use.

Dung beetles range in size from just a few millimeters to several inches in length.  Their size is dependent on the size of the dung they have to deal with.  Currently Africa has the largest land animals and the largest dung beetles.  North America used to have an enormous range of very large animals with correspondingly large droppings.  As you might expect there were some very large dung beetles living here to take care of those droppings.  The large beetle on the left is an extinct giant water beetle similar in size the the large, extinct dung beetles.   This beetle is about 2 inches (5 cm) long.

Different species of dung beetles found in the tar pits.  The large one is extinct.

Different species of small dung beetles found in the tar pits and an extinct giant water beetle that is about the size of the large extinct dung beetles.

Ecosystems are delicate things, subject to trophic cascades, as I have previously mentioned, full of unexpected consequences and side effects.  Most of the great predators in North America died out when the large herbivorous megafauna became extinct.  Scavengers also suffered, amongst them the dung beetles.  All the large dung beetles in North America swiftly followed the rest of the megafauna into extinction.  Currently in North America the dung beetles are small, more like the insects to the right in the image above than the large tan one (you can check out photos of them here).

For many people the response to this is a shrug of the shoulders, but the effects of these beetles going missing had a tremendous effect on the ecosystem, in particular on plant growth and distribution.  We don’t know, and probably will never know how great an effect their absence had.  Dung beetles, the Scarabaeinae, are extremely important ecosystem engineers, gathering fresh dung and burying it as a food source for their developing young.  By doing so they fertilize and aerate the soil, speeding up the cycle of nutrient return by putting the nutrients in a safe place where the plant roots can get to them and where they are less likely to be washed away by rain or desiccated by the sun and blown away.  In addition, dung beetles are important in limiting the spread of diseases and parasites by removing fly and pest breeding sites.

Understanding the details of the world, the interactions, the interconnectedness, the causality of it is difficult.  When we look at the present we have the fine resolution, but lack a context.  When we look at the past we establish a context, but lack the fine scale resolution.  When we look to the future, as we must, we need to be able to combine the insights of the past and the present to predict the consequences of our actions.

Hopefully we are getting better at this, but I cannot help but look at connections like that between the mammoth, dung beetle, the dire wolf, the distribution of plants, and the radiating effects of that interleaving and wonder what vital link, or set of links, we are failing to see right now and what what will mean for our future.

The Archives at the La Brea Tar Pits

Archives at the La Brea Tar Pits

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Apologies for the multiple posting.  I made an edit using the WordPress App on my iPad and it deleted the original post.  I had to restore it and repost.

Chert – the birthstone of our species

Few types of stone have as long lasting and intimate relationship with our species as do those of the chert family.  Humans have been using this hard, glassy stone continuously to make tools since the time of Homo habilis, some 1.5-2 million years ago.  Our neolithic ancestors mined chert using fire to crack the stone (see video to see how it was done), at least 33,000 years ago at the Nazlet Khater site in Egypt chert was extracted from subterranean mines,  and flint (a type of chert) was used before we had matches to make fire, today we use crushed chert as the abrasive on some sandpapers, and to extract exquisitely detailed micro-fossils from the distant past.  When I worked as an archaeologist near Santa Barbara most of the projectile points, stone awls, and cutting tools we found were made from chert.

What is this “chert” we have been using so assiduously for the last 2 million years?

Chert is a microcrystalline stone made of silicon dioxide (SiO2) with a cryptocrystalline structure (crystals so fine that they are difficult to see even under a microscope) that lacks cleavage planes.  One of the most useful, for us, aspects of cryptocrystalline materials such as chert is that when they are struck they shatter in a predictable conical manner (conchoidal fracturing).  Obsidian and plate glass share this characteristic, making them and chert excellent for making extremely sharp stone tools.  Chert is more common than obsidian, but still rare enough that it was traded over great distances.  Another beneficial aspect of chert is that it is extremely hard, raking a 7 on the Mohs scale.

A number of well known minerals fall into the chert category: flint, jasper, radiolarite, chalcedony, agate,  and onyx are all types of chert, each with specific characteristics that give them enough difference from each other to warrant specific names.  The famous (and expensive) sharpening stones from Arkansas are made from novaculite, a porous, metamorphosed chert that makes an excellent abrasive.  Flints tend to be high quality cherts that are found specifically in chalk or limestone; these are deposited diagenically (via silicon replacement).  Chalcedony, agate, and onyx are a nested subset of minerals with chalcedony, a fibrous form of chert, being the parent of the group.  Jasper is usually found in association with volcanic activity and is sometimes considered to be under the chalcedony subset.  Jasper, agate, and onyx are popular semi-precious stones used for jewelry and sometimes intricately carved.

Red jasper cameo of Medusa by Benedetto Pistrucci (source)

What got me started thinking about cherts once more was a short day-hike I took with a friend in the Marin Headlands, those steep sided hills to the north of San Francisco that are so often obscured by the thick maritime fog.

Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate bridge partially hidden by fog

Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate bridge partially hidden by fog

The Northern California coast has a complex geology and is undergoing a number of divergent changes simultaneously.  This is an emergent shoreline (Geology of Northern California chapter 10, page 37), a place where the land is slowly rising in elevation.  Rising lands often suffer from high rates of erosion and the California coast has an even more drastic set of factors contributing to the erosion rare than merely rising land.  The bedrock is fractured by many faults, weakening the stone, earthquakes (most extremely minor) shake rubble loose periodically, and both wind and water eat away at the ocean facing slopes.  In addition, the sea level has risen several hundred feet since the last glaciation twelve thousand years ago, and the surf is greedily pounding on the hills, tearing parts of them away.

If you watched the video you probably noticed that the chert they were mining peeled off in plates, indeed that the whole formation was made up of sheets of stone layered atop each other like pastry dough.  About 50% of rock in the Marin Headlands is chert and has a similar texture.

Radiolarin ribbon chert cliff showing soft folds and a sharp fault-line cut

Radiolarite chert cliff showing soft folds and a sharp fault-line cut

This is ribbon chert, more formally known as radiolarite chert.  It gets the latter name because it is a biogenic stone made from the semi-gelled skeletons of radiolaria, a type of plankton that builds a silica based support structure.  These this rock was laid down over a 100 million year span beginning 200 million years ago and is filled with tiny fossils of the radiolaria.  Supposedly some of these are large enough to see with a standard hand-lens.

The folding tells us something interesting.  The folds in the above photo are smooth, meaning that this probably slumped slowly while it was still ductile.  Portions of the cliff have sharp folds where the rock broke, indicating that those deformations most likely happened more rapidly and after the stone had lost much of its ductility.

Red and greenish/blue indicate iron, either in oxodised or reduced form

Red and greenish/blue indicate iron, either in oxidised or reduced form

Much of the chert here is red, but there are many patches of vibrant blue-green and aqua as well.  The colors in chert indicate trace amounts of other minerals.  The red and the lovely greenish-blue are both indicators of iron, the red indicating that the iron has oxidised, the blue-green that it has been reduced (had the oxygen removed from it).  This is similar to the mottled gleying that one sees in wetland clay soils.  I am particularly fond of the blue and green colors in chert, perhaps because they are a bit more rare than the red.

Close-up of blue/green chert bands

Close-up of blue/green chert bands

The hardness of the chert leads to beaches with an interesting texture of sand, more like tiny glossy pebbles than the standard sand.

Chert sand

Chert sand

The combination of colors on the cliffs, beach, sky, and ocean make for a nice combination as well.

Tennessee Valley beach in the Marin Headlands

Tennessee Valley beach in the Marin Headlands

We have been using chert for nearly as long as we have been using tools, close to 2 million years now with no sign of slowing down.  If our species had a birthstone it would probably be chert.

A Long Flight over the Canadian Shield

Recently I flew from Istanbul to Los Angeles, following a great-circle route over Ukraine, Norway, Greenland, and Northern Canada.  As I always do when flying, I got a window seat and spent most of the flight peering out the window, developing a crick in my neck that took several days to loosen.

Much of the European and Greenland portions of the flight were shrouded in clouds, leaving me watching a vast expanse of what looked like glowing cotton.  Occasionally patches would open in the clouds and I would catch a brief glimpse of the land or sea below, and a look at one of the most talked about ecosystems on our planet.

Ice floes on the Arctic Ocean

Ice floes on the Arctic Ocean

The northern polar region, the Arctic.  This is a vast region centered on the bath-tub-like basin of the Arctic Ocean.  Discussing directions in the polar regions is tricky, for in the arctic, pretty much every direction that is not north is south, thus geography is a better indication of location than compass points.  On one side the entryway to the Arctic Ocean is narrow, shallow, and flows over the ancient land-bridge that once connected North America and Asia.  On the other side warm water flows up the Atlantic Ocean to the east of Greenland, keeping Europe warm and pushing the ice away from the Norwegian coast.  This is the primary point of water-flow into the Arctic Ocean.

To the west of Greenland a network of channels in the Queen Elizabeth Islands lets water slowly filter out of the basin, trickling back into the Atlantic via the southern opening of Baffin Bay.  Amongst the islands fierce currents keep polynyas open in the ice, providing open water for eider ducks and other sea-birds that over-winter in the Arctic.  Generally the whales will leave the Arctic during winter, but sometimes they become trapped and these polynyas provide the only places they can find air to breath.

Since we have been keeping records the sea ice extent has been getting smaller and smaller.  Records of sea ice extent and other cold-weather data can be found free of charge at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Several years ago, as part of a graduate project on Ringed Seals I looked at the changes in ice extent for the month of April over the last 30 years.  The photo of the broken sea ice above was taken on the eastern side of Greenland, a place where the sea-ice is extremely variable.

1981 - 2010 April Sea Ice Extent:  Darker colors indicate a greater number of years of coverage, lighter colors, fewer years of coverage

1981 – 2010 April Sea Ice Extent: Darker colors indicate a greater number of years of coverage, lighter colors, fewer years of coverage – green indicates areas outside of ice-cover that are shallow enough to provide foraging areas for Ringed Seals

The little flashes of ice I got to see through the grubby Turkish Airlines plane window were tantalizing, but they were only teases.  The interesting views were to come later, as we passed over the Canadian Shield.

Flying over over the Melville Peninsula, looking east to Foxe Basin... I think

Flying over over the Melville Peninsula, looking east to Foxe Basin… I think

Here, over the Canadian Shield, a 3 million square mile (8 million square kilometer) expanse of heavily weathered, exposed bedrock billions of years old the signs of past glaciation are evident.  Not merely evident, the fossil tracks of vast continental glaciers shout their presence to the sky.  Fortunately, I happened to be in the sky, with a camera at the ready.

There is a common misconception about glaciers.  People have heard that glaciers carve channels into the bedrock and grind down mountains.  This is only partially true.  Ice is not very hard, by itself ice can carve channels into rock the hardness of chalk or talc, but not into tough rocks like granite, the rock much of the Canadian Shield is composed of.  Ice levers out whole boulders and picks up loose material where it lies.  These become embedded in the ice and these are what does the scouring and carving.  The ice provides the weight and movement, much like a person provides the force when sanding or filing a piece of wood or metal, but it is the sandpaper or the file that does the actual cutting.

Ice, when it comes in glacier quantities, is an elasto-plastic material.  The upper surfaces are brittle and crack, making crevasses and seracs, but the deeper ice, down below the 50 meter mark, is more akin to a slow, cold silly-putty than to the brittle thing we put in lemonade.  When the ice is kilometers deep it oozes, flowing like spilled molasses over the land, dragging with it the entrained materials, grinding down high points, smoothing jagged surfaces, and hollowing out U-shaped valleys, leaving behind a stream-lined surface replete with the marks of its passage.

Rocky Mountain Trench in the Canadian Rockies - a classic glacially carved valley

Rocky Mountain Trench in the Canadian Rockies – a classic glacially carved valley

In both photos above the U-shaped valleys are clear.  These valleys come in all sizes, some more impressive than others.  The Rocky Mountain Trench in British Columbia is one of the more impressive ones, as is the Gilkey Trench in South-East Alaska.

The Gilkey Trench, the speck in the foreground is a person and each of the ripples in the bottom is 10 meters high

The Gilkey Trench, the speck in the foreground is a person and each of the ripples in the bottom is 10 meters high

These valleys are often found in mountains, places where the glaciers ground out material between the peaks, but left the high places alone.

Billions of years ago the Canadian Shield used to be home to vast mountains, now they are all gone, only their roots remain.  Erosion from various sources and repeated glaciations have scoured the Canadian Shield over and over again, grinding even the great mountains into low mounds, leaving traces that are best seen from the air.

Exposed bedrock showing fault-lines and ancient mountain cores

Exposed bedrock showing fault-lines and ancient mountain cores

The long, straight lines are old fault lines, places where geologic stresses broke the rock and let it slide against itself.  Here the rock is already damaged and the glaciers excavated long channels that look like canals from the air.  The distorted oval in the lower middle of the photo is where a bubble of rock forced its way up in the distant past, creating a mountain or large hill.  Now it has been ground flat and shows up in the surface pattern, much like cut wood shows the pattern of knots and grain despite being smooth to the touch.

Over much of the Canadian Shield soils are shallow to non-existent.  Even south of the tree-line vast areas are sparsely vegetated for lack of soil.  Roads are difficult to make as the land is smooth only at large scale and it is riddled with lakes and rivers.

In the winter the smoothest parts of the Canadian Shield are the lakes themselves and they are where temporary roads are made.

A road on the frozen lakes to the north of Yellowknife

A road on the frozen lakes to the north of Yellowknife

The last major glaciation was relatively recent, only about 20,000 years ago and the land is still recovering from the effects.  The whole Canadian Shield is undergoing isostatic rebound; with the weight of the up to 3 miles (almost 5 kilometers) of ice coming off the Earth’s crust it is now rising, seeking a new equilibrium as it floats on the liquid rock mantle deep beneath the surface.  Rivers and lakes are draining, the courses sometimes shifting as the land rises, carving out new pathways.  Water, like the ice it came from, does not do the work of carving the rock, it is the sediment it carries, but the Canadian Shield is made of hard stuff and it takes time to carve new channels in this durable granite.

Meandering rivers in glacial sediment

Meandering rivers in glacial sediment

Further south, the land is still flat, but has been overlain by a layer of sediment, left behind as the glaciers retreated.  Here rivers carve into the land more easily, looping back and forth and pinching off sections of themselves.  These oxbow lakes and the irregular rocky ones to the north are home to untold numbers of mosquitoes and other insects with aquatic life-phases.  These insects, when they emerge, lure birds from as far away as the southern hemisphere, and the mosquitoes become the bane of any humans wandering in the vastness of northern Canada during the warm season.  These insects, both adult and larval provide feed for numerous fish, making this an excellent place for fishing.  The first time my family and I drove to Alaska much of our food was from fish we caught each evening after only a few minutes with a line in the water.

The glaciers that covered the Canadian Shield were continental in scale.  There are only a few places where vast sheets of ice like that remain, but many places (for now) where small alpine glaciers are present, and even more places where signs of past glaciation are common.

One of the most famous of the post-glacial relics is Half Dome in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.

Half Dome

Half Dome

The last interesting views I had out the window of my plane were of Half Dome, or Tis-sa-ack in the local native language.  This sheer rock-face is a batholith, a granite upwelling often making the core of a mountain.  Despite its appearance, Half Dome was not split in half, it seems to have formed more or less in the shape it has now.  Glaciers have smoothed and rounded the upper surface and carved out the characteristic U-shaped valley below though.

Glaciers have had a far larger impact on the world than most people realize.  Humans reached Australia some 60,000 years ago, able to walk over-land all the way to where Bali is now, needing boats only for a short stretch from Bali to Lubok.  Fifteen thousand years ago people walked from Siberia to Alaska over a broad grassy plain when the sea level was some 300 feet (91 meters) lower than today as a result of the water locked up in the ice.

When Greenland and Antarctica melt (which they will eventually do with or without our presence, the only difference is when it happens) sea level will rise by some 200 feet (67 meters) above present day levels.  At the moment there is a lot of talk of halting climate change via geo-engineering projects.  This is talk that completely and painfully misses the point.

The climate is a dynamic system, one that experiences wide changes over long periods of time, with the changes sometimes happening rapidly.  Yes, we desperately need to stop messing with the climate by releasing fossil CO2, methane, CFCs, and all the other greenhouse gasses we pump into the atmosphere with such abandon.  We are pushing the natural changes hard, forcing them to be of greater magnitude and to happen faster than they would otherwise.  We need to stop this, but what we do not need to and should not do is compound our mistakes by dumping iron into the oceans, pumping sulfur into the upper atmosphere, or place orbiting mirrors in space to deflect sunlight in a misguided attempt to keep the climate the way it was during the early 1900s.

We are driven by our economic system to keep things in some idealized stasis based on the time when we built our current infrastructure.  We may want things to stay static, but the earth is dynamic and fluid.  In our short-sighted, profit driven efforts to “save” our political and economic systems we will destroy the very thing that those systems and our societies are based on.

Seeing the earth from new perspectives and thinking about what we see tells us about the world is important.  We are on a cusp, we are standing on the edge of our metaphorical Half Dome.  We can tumble off the steep edge with disastrous consequences, or we can ease our way back down the slightly less steep slope, and once more enjoy the rich valley floor below.

Segovia: sandstones and granite

I have always loved things made of stone, especially ancient constructions.  The stone-masonry I have done has only increased my respect for the strength, vision, and talent of past masons.

Vermont garden wall

Small garden wall of Panton Shale for a friend in Vermont

Most of my stone projects have been small in scale.  The largest project was a 180 foot long retaining wall standing between 2 and 6 feet high, using 30 or 40 tons of stone.  That seems large when you’re doing it by yourself, but that’s a tiny project, barely larger than the little garden wall in the photo above.

In Peru there were some truly astounding pieces of megalithic engineering, many of them little known like Lanche and Kuelap, others well known like Saqsaywaman.

Walls at Saqsaywaman.  For scale zoom into the center of the full-size image to see the person.

Walls at Saqsaywaman. For scale zoom into the center of the full-size image to see the person.

Two days ago I went to the small Spanish city of Segovia and got to see several astounding pieces of stone-based architecture.  The first of these is the ancient Roman aqueduct.

The aqueduct in Segovia

The aqueduct in Segovia

The aqueduct runs about 15 km from the mountains into Segovia, with a 683 meter long raised section running through town.  The tall double arch of granite blocks is impressive enough by modern standards, even more so when you consider that it was built in the 1st or 2nd century, that the granite had to be carried in from the mountains, and that it is a dry-laid structure (no morter holding the blocks together) that has been standing for 1800 or 1900 years.  Clearly, this is a place with few earthquakes.

Granite is a favorite building material for many people.  It is an igneous rock that bubbles up in volcanic flows and cools in place.  The size of the crystals in the rock give an estimation of how long it took for the rock to cool and how much water there was in the melt.  The colors tell of the mineral content.  This granite is pale, with moderately large crystals weathering out, leaving the exposed stone extremely rough to the touch.

Due to the way it forms granite has no preferential cleavage plane, meaning that, given the right tools, it is easy to shape into whatever form is needed.  It is a dense and strong rock as well, another reason it is often used as a foundational material.

The blocks of stone making up the aqueduct are large, not enormous, but large, hundreds of pounds each.  At its highest point the aqueduct is 29 meters tall (that’s about as tall as a 4 or 5 story building).  Nearly 2 thousand years ago those blocks had to be hoisted up and set in place.  Clues as to how the Romans did so are carved into the blocks.

Lifting divots on the granite blocks

Lifting divots on the granite blocks

Each block was lifted into place with a pair of metal pincers, like those people used to carry ice-blocks with.  Divots were carved into the stone to prevent the pincers from losing their grip.  Presumably the divots were carved at the balance point of the block as well, a calculation I would be very curious to know how was done.

Supposedly Segovia was a “small outpost” when the Romans ran things in the area, though the effort and cost of building the aqueduct makes me question that assessment.  Small outpost or no, very little happened in the area for a long while, then in the 1200s the town began to grow and with that growth came the buildings that Europe is so well known for.

Castles and Cathedrals.  Segovia has impressive examples of both, the castle being the inspiration for Walt Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty, and the cathedral being on the of the last of built of the great Gothic cathedrals.

Segovia cathedral

Segovia cathedral

Construction of the cathedral began in the 1500s, but took more than a century to complete.  The massive building looms over the city, glowing golden in the sunlight.

The first thing that struck me was neither the size nor the the tremendous amount of fine detail.  It was the color.  A warm, yellow/orange, not the color one associates with Gothic architecture, or with goths in general.  The castle, cathedral, and much of the rest of Segovia is made from this stone, not from the granite the aqueduct is made from.

The town of Segovia rests upon an outcrop of calcareous sandstone (sandstone with the grains cemented together by calcium rather than silica) and the land around rises and falls, exposing the bedrock in numerous small cliffs.  Sandstone is a sedimentary rock, a class of rock at the opposite end of the formation spectrum as granites and other igneous rocks.

Sandstone tends to have horizontal cleavage planes, refection the initial depositional patterns, and is often soft and easy to carve.  The sandstone in Segovia seems made for carving and the cathedral  builders took full advantage of this.

Cathedral detail carved from sandstone

Cathedral detail carved from sandstone

Sandstone weathers and erodes easily, especially in the presence of water.  Segovia, despite being a dry region by my standards (about a half meter of rain per year) is considered a wet place in comparison with nearby areas.  As such the builders took pains to protect the soft sandstone, making their waterspout gargoyles of the more resistant granite.

Cathedral gargoyle rain-spout

Cathedral gargoyle rain-spout

Statues of sandstone have not weathered as well as those of granite.

A royal lion slowly weathering away

A royal lion slowly weathering away

The the level of fine detail in the cathedral architecture is reflected elsewhere in the town.  The older buildings and the castle are covered with patterned façades.  In the past these patterns seem to have indicated which family owned the building and in a few cases older patterns could be seen under the more recent ones.

Old wall pattern, the material looks and feels like reconstituted sandstone.

Old wall pattern, the material looks and feels like reconstituted sandstone.

The castle, the Alcázar de Segovia, has a more simple pattern, but each intersection is studded with fragments of volcanic rock.

Looking up the castle wall to the battlements.  the small black studs are fig sized pieces of vesicular volcanic rock brought in from far away.

Looking up the castle wall to the battlements. the small black studs are fig sized pieces of vesicular volcanic rock brought in from far away.

Like many European castles the one at Segovia has gone through a number of iterations; fort, castle, palace, prison, artillery college, and museum.  It still serves the latter two roles.

The castle commands a wonderful view of the countryside in all directions.  One of the most magnificent views is of the cathedral:

Segovia cathedral from atop the Alcázar de Segovia battlements

Segovia cathedral from atop the Alcázar de Segovia battlements

In the opposite direction an old Templar keep and the sandstone cliffs much of the stone was quarried from to make the city are visible.

Templar keep and sandstone cliffs above the river below the castle

Templar keep and sandstone cliffs above the river below the castle

This has been a less science based post than most, but the trip to Segovia was far too interesting to keep all to myself.

The castle, aqueduct, and cathedral are the largest of the attractions, but not the only ones by far.  The food is delicious, mockingbirds flit about the city, interesting small plants grow from the old walls and on the red tile roofs, and great architecture abounds.

Small church in Segovia

Small church in Segovia