Predatory Queen Helmet Conch eats a sea urchin

Paleontologist explores the ecology and evolution of echinoids

Gloved hands hold a sea urchin skeleton. A measurement device is next to the skeleton.
When predators eat echinoids, they leave traces behind. The hole in this sea urchin skeleton was made by a predatory Queen Helmet Conch.

As is probably the case for a lot of paleontologists, Carrie Tyler’s interest in the field began with dinosaurs.

“My mom read me dinosaur books and took me to museums and I really just fell in love with dinosaurs,” she says.

But Tyler, an assistant professor in Miami University’s Department of Geology and Environmental Earth Science, grew up near the ocean, and so her interest eventually shifted from the creatures that trod prehistoric lands to the creatures that swam prehistoric seas.

Specifically, Tyler is interested in echinoids, a class of animals that includes sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea biscuits and is well represented in the fossil record. She and her collaborator, Michal J. Kowalewski at the University of Florida, recently received a total of $343,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the role predators may have played in the evolution of echinoids.

Tyler says that understanding mechanisms like the interaction between predators and prey in ancient ecosystems can help us better anticipate what’s happening in our ecosystems today.

“Interactions between individuals in an ecosystem may have important evolutionary consequences, and it’s very difficult to determine in a modern ecosystem because we can’t observe them for a long enough time period to collect the necessary data,” she says. “So that’s where paleontology can step in. We can look at an ecosystem from an evolutionary time scale and try to understand how important things like predation are over the long term.”

The data Tyler is working with in this case are tooth marks, fractures, scars, and drill holes, visible on echinoid fossils. She and her team – which, in addition to Kowalewski, will eventually include a post-doctoral researcher and three Miami undergraduate students – will examine thousands of fossils, comparing marks they find to sets of established criteria to determine if those marks result from predation.

If this sounds labor-intensive, Tyler says it is. But she and Kowalewski plan to make things a little easier by taking advantage of existing fossil collections at various museums.

“We are going to do some of our own sampling – we know some great places to collect fossils from the time periods we are interested in,” she says. “But we will also go to museums and look at specimens that other people have already collected so that also cuts down on some of the time involved.”

Tyler also hopes her team’s work on this project will make things a little easier for other researchers studying echinoids. While the existing sets of criteria for determining whether certain marks result from predation are general, one goal of the project is to redefine those criteria to apply specifically to echinoids. Tyler and her team will use these refined criteria to create a database other researchers can use as a global reference system for identifying marks that predators make on echinoids.

Tyler says that because the database may help with future comparisons of echinoid predation with predation on other types of organisms, it will be useful to those studying modern ecosystems as well as to paleoecologists like her. And that’s part of why she loves her subfield, which also has intersections with statistics and computer science.

“It’s great having lots of different disciplines in paleontology because I get to talk to people who are doing all these things,” she says. “Many ecologists write their own code for statistics and do their own statistics. I do get to do a my own coding, which I find very fun.”

It’s clear that Tyler embraces the diversity and need for adaptability inherent in her work, and that seems fitting for someone who studies evolution, which is, after all, a process driven by those very things.


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Photos courtesy of Carrie Tyler.

 

 

A woman holding a sledgehammer stands on a rocky slope.

Geologists to study volcanism in Madagascar

A group of five people stands in a line. A volcano rises behind them in the distance.
Miami University postdoctoral researcher, Fara Rasoazanamparany, second from left, and her supervisor, Dr. Elisabeth Widom, center, pose with colleagues in front of the Paricutin volcano in Mexico.

The Republic of Madagascar consists entirely of islands – most notably the island of Madagascar, which is the fourth largest island in the world. Some 22 million people live on Madagascar’s islands, many in the shadows of extinct or active volcanoes. And yet, as far as she knows, Fara Rasoazanamparany is the first isotope geochemist from Madagascar to study volcanic activity in the country.

Rasoazanamparany is a postdoctoral research fellow in Miami University’s Department of Geology and Environmental Earth Science. Together with her supervisor, Dr. Elisabeth Widom, Rasoazanamparany is working to understand how frequently Madagascar’s volcanoes erupt and to discover the causes and sources of recent volcanism in the central and northern region of the island.

Earthquakes are common in Madagascar. A moderate earthquake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale occurred in January 2013. In addition, hot springs and geysers dot the landscape, and geophysicists have discovered a dome of bulging magma beneath Madagascar’s surface. These are all signs that the area is still volcanically active.

In other words, Rasoazanamparany clarifies, “There’s a chance for future eruption.”

Just when and where that eruption might occur is of obvious concern for Madagascar’s 23 million residents.

“We don’t like to use the word prediction,” Widom says of herself and her fellow geologists.

That’s an understandable policy for scientists accustomed to working with time scales so large margins of error can be measured in centuries or even millennia. Still, it’s clear that when Widom says she wants to understand “the likelihood, the risk, and the hazards associated with a potential future eruption,” her interest is more than academic. All the more so for Rasoazanamparany, whose family still lives near the Itasy-Ankaratra volcanic field in the populous central part of the island of Madagascar, an area that includes the nation’s capital and largest city, Antananarivo.

To get a better fix on what the people of Madagascar may face in the future, Widom and Rasoazanamparany want to better understand Madagascar’s volcanic history. Supported by a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the pair plan to travel to Madagascar this coming summer. While there, they will collect lava samples from the Itasy-Ankarata volcanic field and bring them back to their lab for geochemical analysis. This analysis will tell them about the source of the lavas and how long ago they were expelled, giving them clues about how often the volcanoes have erupted historically.

In the summer of 2017, they will collect lava samples on the island of Nosy Be off the northwest coast of the island of Madagascar. While Nosy Be is less populated than the area around the Itasy-Ankaratra volcanic field, it is Madagascar’s most popular tourist destination.

Although Widom and Rasoazanamparany’s work may have practical implications for the people living in Madagascar, it will also help provide insights about basic volcanic processes.

According to Rasoazanamparany, Madagascar is key to understanding the break-up of the landmass Gondwana. A so-called supercontinent, Gondwana covered a large area of the southern hemisphere from approximately 300 to 180 million years ago. It included most of the landmasses in the modern southern hemisphere, including South America, Africa, and Australia.

“Before the breakup of Gondwana,” Rasoazanamparany says, “Madagascar was in its center. Part of Madagascar was connected to Africa and the other was connected to India. It broke off from Africa around 160 million years ago and around 90 or 80 million years ago, it started to separate from India. That separation coincided with extensive magmatism,” or flow of molten material emerging from beneath the earth’s crust.

As a result, Widom says, “Madagascar is a particularly interesting area to study to understand deep earth processes and their link to present day volcanism much, much later – millions, and maybe even a billion, years later.”

Some geologists theorize that during its break-up with India, Madagascar passed over a mantle plume – a column of hot, rising mantle possibly transmitted from the earth’s core-mantle boundary – that caused volcanoes to form. But because the still-active Itasy-Ankaratra volcanic field is very far away from any known plume, other geologists have speculated that Madagascar’s volcanism results from the melting of ancient mantle Madagascar took with it when it separated from Africa.

Regardless of whether Widom and Rasoazanamparany ’s work helps settle this debate, there’s little question it will contribute to a better understanding of Madagascar’s natural history. It may even help save the lives of people living within reach of its volcanoes. On this, Widom gives Rasoazanamparany much of the credit.

“We wrote the NSF proposal together,” Widom says, “but it was Fara’s idea initially that we work in Madagascar, and that we apply the kinds of techniques we have been using in other parts of the world to her home country.”

For her part, Rasoazanamparany says it’s exciting to be able to give back to the nation and the people she loves. Surely the feeling is mutual.


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Photos courtesy of Elisabeth Widom.

 

Seismologist finds link between fracking operations and earthquakes, but says that’s no reason for a ban in Ohio

A map of Ohio, with each of the counties labeled. The title of the map is "Ohio injection wells." The key shows that a small red square on the map indicates an injection well site. There is one square each in Fulton, Henry, Erie, Lorain, Medina, Summit, Richland, Auglaize, and Hocking Counties. There are two each in Seneca, Lake, Wyandot, Delaware, and Licking Counties. Wayne, Perry, and Galia Counties each have three wells. Washington County has six wells, Pickaway County has seven wells, and Morrow and Ashtabula Counties each have ten wells. One well is on the border of Knox and Coshocton Counties, with two additional wells in Knox County and three additional wells in Coshocton County, including one on the border it shares with Holmes County. Holmes County has three additional wells. Two wells are situated on the border between Geauga and Portage Counties. In addition, Geauga County has two other wells, while Portage County has 15 other wells, including one on the border of Trumbull County and two on the border of Stark County. Trumbull County four wells in addition to the one on the Portage County border. Stark County has 13 wells in addition to the ones on the Portage County border; one of them is on the Columbiana County border, and two are on the Carroll County border. Columbiana County has three additional wells, all of which sit on the Mahoning County border. Mahoning County has one well in addition to the ones on the Columbiana border. In addition to the wells on the Stark County border, Carroll County has one well in its interior, and two on the border it shares with Tuscarawas County. Tuscarawas County has four additional wells. Muskingum County has a total of three wells, one of which sits on the border of Morgan County. Morgan County has eight additional wells. Guernsey County has three wells, with two of them sitting on the border of Noble County. Nobel County has three additional wells. Athens County has a total of four wells, one of which is on the border it shares with Vinton County. Vinton County has one additional well in its interior and one additional well on its border with Meigs County. Meigs County has eight additional wells, one of which is on the Galia County border. There are no wells in Williams, Defiance, Paulding, Van Wert, Mercer, Darke, Preble, Butler, Hamilton, Clermont, Warren, Montogomer, Miami, Shelby, Allen, Punam, Lucas, Wood, Hancock, Hardin, Logan, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Clinton, Brown, Adams, Highland, Fayette, Madison, Union, Marion, Sandusky, Ottawa, Huron, Crawford, Franklin, Ross, Pike, Scioto, Lawrence, Jackson, Fairfield, Ashland, Cuyahoga, Jefferson, Harrison, Belmont, or Monroe Counties.
This map shows the location of wastewater injection wells throughout the state of Ohio. Miami geology professor Dr. Mike Brudzinski has linked operation of one Mahoning County well to a series of small earthquakes.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – a method of extracting oil or natural gas from shale deposits – has injected much-needed cash into struggling communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and other states. But along with those economic benefits come some health and safety concerns, among them the question of whether fracking might cause earthquakes.

Mike Brudzinski, a professor in Miami University’s Department of Geology & Environmental Earth Science, first became interested in this question in 2012, following a series of earthquakes near Youngstown, Ohio. The area had not previously seen seismic activity, and Brudzinski was intrigued by speculation that the earthquakes were caused by a wastewater injection well.

In hydraulic fracturing, a pressurized mixture of water, sand, and chemicals is pumped into a well to crack underground shale, thereby releasing oil or natural gas trapped in the rock. This process generates wastewater, and while some of it can be recycled, large volumes need to be stored deep in the Earth, far away from our drinking water. The inception of the Youngstown earthquakes seemed to coincide with the inception of a nearby wastewater injection well operation.

Acting on a hunch that he could adapt a technique that had been used to identify repeating earthquakes in subduction zones, Brudzinski worked with former doctoral student Steve Holtkamp, masters student Rob Skoumal, and departmental colleague Brian Currie to develop a technique for taking an earthquake’s “fingerprint” from a network of monitoring stations and then scanning for matches by looking for similar signals.

The technique (see more here) works, Brudzinski says, because injection wells “cause some stress at a very localized point, so it appears that any resulting slip on the fault is very localized as well. It’s probably not the exact same patch of the fault that’s moving, but it’s so close that the earthquakes look the same to the stations farther away.”

Eventually, the team was able to use the Youngstown earthquake’s fingerprint to identify about 550 previously undetected, smaller earthquakes hidden in data collected by regional seismometers 100 miles or more away. Specifically, they found that:

  • The earthquakes began almost immediately after injection began at the well in question;
  • The earthquakes moved away from the well over time;
  • There was a strong correlation between the total number of earthquakes and the amount of wastewater injected into the well.

Since then, Brudzinski has analyzed more data and has found a total of six cases of induced earthquakes in Ohio. He says about half of these cases result directly from the hydraulic fracturing process, while the other half result from wastewater injection.

“And there are a lot more fracking wells in Ohio than wastewater injection wells,” he says, “so fracking itself seems less likely to produce earthquakes than wastewater injection.”

Brudzinski and his colleagues’ most recent study, which generated a swirl of media attention when it was published at the beginning of 2015, helped explain why earthquakes during the fracturing process appear to be so rare. In their study southeast of Youngstown, they found that fracking generated earthquakes only when the well was operating less than a half mile from a pre-existing fault.

Even when you consider the wastewater injection cases, earthquakes are not exactly common here. Brudzinski estimates that only 1-2% of the injection wells in Ohio have caused seismic events. Given the relatively low risk, Brudzinski thinks that his work should not be used to justify bans on fracking in Ohio, similar to the one announced in New York this past December.

“There is a lot of economic stimulation for Ohio going on right now because of fracking and wastewater injection,” Brudzinski says. “This is now an opportunity for economically depressed parts of the state to rebound, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is enacting regulations that will reduce the likelihood of future felt induced earthquakes in the state. ”

Brudzinski says that under current regulations, any seismic event that measures greater than a magnitude 1.0 prompts a pause in operations, while any seismic event with a magnitude of 2.0 or greater prompts a complete halt.

“If an earthquake is below a magnitude 3.0, it is unlikely to be felt, and so there’s really no direct influence on the general public,” Brudzinski says. “But there’s a concern from seismologists that just a bunch of little earthquakes isn’t necessarily okay, because we typically see the rates of large earthquakes increase as well. And if the rate of small earthquakes in an area jumps from one per 100 years to ten per year, it suggests larger earthquakes could be much more likely if the operation responsible for the events is not altered.”

Many in the oil and gas industry say Ohio’s current regulations are conservative, and Brudzinski agrees that they are. But while some in the industry might say that regulators are being too aggressive, Brudzinski sees them as merely cautious.

“I think the target is that we’d only see a couple of magnitude 2.0 events, and maybe a dozen or so magnitude 1.0 events. That means it should be unlikely that we’d get another 4.0, let alone a 5.0 or 6.0, which would be much more likely to cause damage.”

To make sure the right balance is being struck between the economic benefits brought by the oil and gas industry and the possibility of inducing earthquakes, Brudzinski says it’s important for regulators and operators to work in partnership with scientists like him, who are working on new techniques to analyze and interpret data rapidly.

“Our earthquake fingerprint scanning technique is set up to investigate any new earthquake for evidence that it’s induced with results returned in less than a half hour,” Brudzinski says. “And our current studies are going back through the catalog of older earthquakes to look for new insights about the physics of how earthquakes are induced.”

In addition, Brudzinski says he’s working on obtaining federal support for research that would help Ohio and other states make better-informed policy decisions. He says that’s difficult right now because the federal agencies are still figuring out who can afford this new fracking research. Ultimately, Brudzinski feels the National Science Foundation (NSF) will eventually take on a primary role because much of the work that needs to be done falls in the category of basic research, and he recognizes that researchers have a responsibility to help demonstrate that.

“It’s on us as investigators to write proposals that make that part clear – while this has impact on society because of the potential to influence hazards in certain areas,” he says, “we still need to understand the basic physics of what’s going on to better assess how much the hazards are changing.”

Doing that will help ensure that Ohio and other states can safely reap the economic rewards of this method of energy extraction.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director and Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Map by the Akron Beacon Journal (ohio.com).  Image of wastewater injection well operation by Daniel Foster via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.