Category Archives: Geology

Rocks and formations in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Ghosts of the Past: Stromatolites

The 1.25 billion year old Castner Formation is exposed in the Franklin Mountains near El Paso.

I believe in ghosts. They hide in plain sight, urging us to listen to the stories they have to tell.

It was my birthday and, feeling just a wee bit sorry for myself (I’m of that age), I decided to go in search of something older than I was—the stromatolites of the Castner Marble in the Franklin Mountains near El Paso. Now, these stromatolites aren’t just a little older than I am, they’re way older than I am. About 1.25 billion years older. Yes, that’s right: 1.25 billion.

Math isn’t the strongest of my academic skills, but let’s work our way through this. Let’s say you wanted to count to 1.25 billion—just to get a sense of how colossal that number is. If you keep up a steady rhythm of a number per second (and absolutely no stopping for dinner, a potty break, or Facebook), it will take you 40 years to reach 1.25 billion. If you wanted to restrict your counting to a mere 8 hour day, buckle down for 120 years. Hopefully, you don’t get confused, skip a number, and have to start all over. That would be depressing.

Tiny, single-celled cyanobacteria create layered sedimentary rocks.

So I’m in search of 1.25 billion-year-old stromatolites. In case you’re wondering, stromatolites are a type of sedimentary rock created by single-celled photosynthetic cyanobacteria (that’s blue-green algae). These microorganisms like to congregate in large groups, forming sticky mats in shallow water along a shoreline. I don’t think anyone knows why the stickiness is necessary, but the result is that the bacterial mats accumulate sediment that clogs the system up. The bacteria, being photosynthetic, need the sun’s energy to produce food, so they move upwards, forming another mat on top of the sediment. And so it goes. Layer after layer, eventually forming a cauliflower-shaped lump of rock in shallow water.

Now the amazing thing is that these single-celled cyanobacteria have been carrying on like this for over 3.2 billion years. In fact, stromatolites are some of the oldest fossils in the world. They reached their peak diversity just about the time the Castner Marble stromatolites formed. After that, they’re harder to find. The theory is that grazers evolved that found a stromatolite mat downright tasty and pretty much ate them to near-extinction.

Arizona Barrel Cactus (Ferrocactus wislizeni) have hook-shaped spines that can grab an unsuspecting ankle.

I cajole a geologist friend into going with me, and we head westward, driving past yucca-studded grasslands and mesquite-topped sand dunes. We skirt El Paso and climb the Trans-Mountain Highway through the Franklin Mountains. I navigate, reading directions from the Geological Excursions to a Transmountain Precambrian Adventure field guide that I’d downloaded from the internet. We’re looking for Stop 2—the Castner Marble Stromatolites. A gust of wind shakes our vehicle as we round the corner.

We pull over onto a wide gravel patch (obviously not the first geologists to investigate this location) and begin walking back down the highway to the end of the guardrail. Another gust of wind nearly knocks me off the mountain.

The authors of the field guide suggest that we follow a small trail down into the valley, and up the other side. The stromatolites will be there.

The trail is, indeed, narrow, and very steep. I cautiously make my way down, trying to avoid the baseball-sized round rocks that ensure a quick—and most likely painful—descent down the slope. I skirt the lechuguilla, prickly pear cactus, and a barrel cactus or two to arrive at a 2 to 3 ft thick band of light-colored rock.

A layered band of stromatolites are exposed in the hillside.

“Are you sure these are stromatolites?” I ask Blaine. He’d gotten there before I had and was poking and prodding at the rock as geologists tend to do.

“Yeah, sure. Look.” He points to the thin, wavy layers in the rock. And there, right before me is evidence of the earliest life in the Chihuahuan Desert.

With just my naked eye I can distinguish layer after layer of sediments trapped by cyanobacteria over a billion years ago. To see the actual fossils, I’d need something slightly stronger, like a microscope. Most of the layers are flat-lying to slightly wavy—an indication that the mats collected sediments in relatively calm waters.

Stromatolites aren’t flashy like a trilobite fossil or spectacular like an ammonite. But all in all, they’re probably far more important. Stromatolites hint at the origin of life. When the cyanobacteria were trapping these sediments, the skies were pink—filled with methane and ammonia and other gasses that would kill us today. The land was barren. Not a single, living thing existed out of the water. But in the water, slimy mats of green bacteria clung together, creating their own little rock. The cyanobacteria were photosynthetic, and that nifty trick of converting the sun’s energy and some carbon dioxide into food while releasing oxygen as a byproduct was changing the world. A few billion years of lilliputian, single-celled bacteria releasing minute bubbles of oxygen created an oxygen-rich atmosphere necessary for complex life to evolve. Take a deep breath. That’s you I’m talking about.

Living stromatolites are pretty rare now, but they’re still around. In Cuatro Ciénegas, a desert wetland in the Chihuahuan Desert of northeastern Mexico, stromatolites can be found in the pozas or spring-fed pools of the marsh.

Scientists working at Cuatro Ciénegas cored one of the active stromatolites. The mat consisted of a complex community of microorganisms—not just cyanobacteria. The top layer was composed of diatoms (distinctive algae with transparent cell walls), below that was photosynthetic cyanobacteria. A third layer consisted of purple sulfur bacteria. These bacteria photosynthesize using hydrogen sulfide rather than water and produce elemental sulfur as their byproduct. Below that was a sulfur-reducing bacteria that takes the elemental sulfur and reduces it to hydrogen sulfide. “Each layer obtains and processes energy in a different way and produces different waste products, and yet it is an interactive community where each layer contributes to the survival of the mat as a whole,” the scientists concluded. Stromatolites are all about being good neighbors.

Stromatolite band exposed in the Franklin Mountains near El Paso.

I poke around the rocks, distracted by rainbow cactus with fat buds, and a lizard warming itself in the sun. None of this would be possible without those little cyanobacteria that lived in an ancient sea long, long ago. I wave at Blaine, who’s wandered off to look at a contact or something geological and we head back to the car. Finding rocks that are billions of years older than I am, makes me happy—all in all, a pretty spectacular birthday.

Also posted in Chihuahuan Desert, Fossils, Texas

Places: Big Bend Ranch State Park’s Arroyo Mexicano

Big Bend Ranch State Park covers 311,000 acres of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Big Bend Ranch State Park: The Other Side of Nowhere

Big Bend Ranch State Park hugs the Mexican border and sprawls over 311,000 acres of the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas. State park staff affectionately call it “The Other Side of Nowhere.” To the casual visitor, the park appears to be all rugged mountains, deep canyons, and miles and miles of rough roads designed to destroy your vehicle and shake the fillings loose from your teeth.

But those rugged mountains and deep canyons hold treasures if you’re a naturalist. The rough roads? They’re just a necessary evil if you want to experience the park.

Groves of cottonwood and ash trees line the bottom of Charro Canyon.

Cottonwood, Ash, and Oak Trees Line the Bottom of Chorro Canyon

I spend two days with Blaine Hall and Roy Morey exploring sites for a Native Plant Society of Texas field trip. Blaine aka “Big Foot” wears one shoe 3 sizes larger than normal to accommodate the brace and bandages that stabilize an ankle broken during a hike two weeks ago. Recently retired from his position as the interpretive ranger for Big Bend Ranch State Park, Blaine chatters away, teasing Roy and me, and pointing out geologic features as he skillfully guides the truck up rock-covered slopes, across ridges of limestone, and down sandy washes. He pulls over frequently so that we can enjoy the view.

Roy is quiet, not letting Blaine’s teasing phase him. Roy is a plant person. After retirement, he moved to Terlingua and began compiling photographs of the plants of Big Bend National Park. His hobby became a full-time pursuit, ultimately resulting in Little Big Bend: Common, Uncommon, and Rare Plants of Big Bend National Park. Once he completed that book, Roy shifted west and began working on a companion volume that will describe the plants of Big Bend Ranch State Park.

“I need to get up there someday,” says Roy, looking up at the sheer cliffs of a mountain. I’m surprised. Between Roy and Blaine, I would have sworn that they’ve walked every inch of the park’s 311,000 acres.

Today, we’re looking for unusual plants, so we head for Arroyo Mexicano, a box canyon that ends at Mexicano Falls. Canyons often harbor botanical treasures such as groves of cottonwood and ash trees and tiny plants that cling to the rock walls. Canyon walls protect plants from the harsh sun and fierce winds of the desert and often have seeps and springs that provide extra moisture. “One of the only mountain laurels in the park is up Arroyo Mexicano,” says Roy. “I hope it’s still alive.” It was.

An ammonite impression in limestone.

A Dinner-Plate Sized Ammonite Fossil in the Limestone

“Want to see an ammonite?” Blaine asks as we drive down Fresno Canyon. The creek has eroded deeply into the rock, exposing the flat-lying, flaggy Cretaceous limestone of the Boquillas Formation and the nobby, white limestone of the Buda Formation.

We pile out of the truck to admire the dinner plate-sized ammonite lying exposed on an upturned piece of Boquillas limestone. The thick limestones and this ammonite fossil are evidence of a time when a shallow sea covered part of Texas. You won’t see ammonites swimming around today. The last of them went extinct when a giant meteorite struck the earth about 66 million years ago. The short and long-term effects of the meteorite impact—wildfires, tsunamis, and clouds of debris that blackened the skies and blocked the sun for years—killed about ¾ of Earth’s plants and animals.

A Mexican Buckeye Provides Nectar for Pollinators

Mexican Buckeye Tree on the Edge of the Arroyo

We eventually arrive at the mouth of Arroyo Mexicano, shoulder our packs, and trudge our way up the canyon. I’d like to say that we hiked briskly, but I have to admit that I’m a trudger in soft sand. Fairly quickly, we see pools of water and a shallow stream meandering its way across the sand bottom. Groves of cottonwoods, their new leaves a beautiful, fresh spring green, provide shade along the way.

Occasionally a spot of pink reveals the location of a Mexican buckeye tree. These early-blooming shrubby trees are an important source of nectar for bees and butterflies. A Mournful Duskywing flits between flowers, ignored by a nectaring Grey Hairstreak. I search unsuccessfully for a Henry’s Elfin—a small brown and silver butterfly that uses Mexican buckeyes as a host plant. Henry’s Elfins are more common in the eastern United States, so seeing one in West Texas is pretty special. Roy and Blaine have moved on, so I quit looking for butterflies and hurry to catch up.

Huge velvet ash trees with their gnarly roots exposed.

Velvet Ash Trees in the Arroyo

As we move up the canyon, we walk under large velvet ash (Fraxinus velutina) trees. I am fascinated by the texture of the bark and the thick, gnarly roots wrapped around giant boulders. Of course, the exposed roots are also a warning sign. This canyon carries water—often with enough force to roll boulders and wash away enough sediment to expose the roots of trees. I check out the sky (gray clouds gathering) and look for high ground. The vertical walls of the canyon look back. I’m doomed.

Conglomerate boulder made of smaller, rounded, igneous rocks.

Volkswagen-sized Conglomerate Boulder in the Arroyo

In places, we skirt boulders the size of Volkswagon Beetles or larger. I envy Blaine his ability to read these rocks. “See,” he says, “this rock is made up of older rocks that have been cemented together to form a conglomerate.” This particular conglomerate is just a baby rock if you can wrap your mind around geologic time.

All of the “clasts” or smaller rocks that make up the conglomerate are volcanic in origin which means they were deposited about 27 million years ago. Over time, they broke away from their parent rock, were tumbled and smoothed, and came to rest in one place long enough for the white matrix rock to cement them all together again. The conglomerate eventually broke up, and Volkswagon-sized boulders tumbled down the slope, coming to rest in the stream bed.

Fern-covered walls and plunge pool of Mexicano Falls

Mexicano Falls at the End of the Arroyo

After about 3.5 hours of walking and stopping to admire rocks, plants, and scenic views we reach the end of the canyon. At this time of year, Mexicano Falls is more of a drip than a fall. Maidenhair ferns, yellow-flowered columbines, and thick carpets of moss fill the cracks where water seeps from the rocks. The plunge pool is thick with green algae.

Blaine points to a gap in the canyon rim where water funnels through to create a waterfall during the summer rainy season. I’d love to be there to see the waterfall, but then I remember those exposed roots and the flood debris wrapped three to four feet high up the trunks of the trees that we were walking through earlier. Flash floods are real and dangerous in this canyon.

The tiny, yellow, fringed monkeyflower hangs from the wet walls of the canyon.

Fringed Monkeyflower Hangs from the Wet Walls of the Canyon

While Blaine and I photograph the ferns and columbines, Roy walks the face, scouring the seeps for fringed monkeyflower (Mimulus dentilobus). “Found it!” he calls. Fringed monkeyflower is a rare plant in Texas, found only in places where water drips from the West Texas mountains. I’m surprised by how tiny it is. The bright yellow flower with its fringed petals and red spots in its throat rises above a mat of small leaves hugging the wet rock face. We’re lucky to find these in bloom. It’s only March and according to the field guides, fringed monkeyflower blooms from June to August.

Blaine and Roy fix a flat tire.

Flat Tire

The wind begins to blow, and the clouds build, getting thicker and grayer. We decide to return to the truck before a storm drenches us. The hike back takes about 2.5 hours. We quickly pack up and drive off, but Blaine stops almost immediately. He walks around the truck and discovers a flat tire. “That’s two this week,” he mutters. Razor-sharp rocks can slice through the sidewalls of a tire and mesquite thorns pierce treads easily. We unload all the gear to access the spare, and Blaine and Roy begin the laborious task of changing the tire. Fortunately, nothing goes wrong and within 30 minutes we’re back on the road. We eliminate a couple of side trips and head straight back to the park headquarters at Sauceda. Driving any further than necessary without a spare is foolish.

The flatirons of the Solitario provide a perfect backdrop for a patch of Big Bend Bluebonnets.

Big Bend Bluebonnets and the Solitario

Since Blaine and Roy have the flat-tire situation in control (and they’re a bit annoyed with my photographic documentation of the event), I wander off a few feet to photograph a patch of Big Bend bluebonnets with the flatirons of the Solitario in the background. The Solitario is a massive igneous dome created when molten rock pushed up the flat-lying rocks above it creating a circular feature 10 miles in diameter. The dome attracts geologists, botanists, and naturalists from around the world and is probably the most famous feature in Big Bend Ranch State Park.

I love going to the Solitario, but this opportunity to explore Arroyo Mexicano with Blaine and Roy was as close to perfect as a day could be.

Also posted in Chihuahuan Desert, Plants, Texas Tagged , , , |

White on White

Sunset at White Sands National Monument

Imagine this.

You’re standing in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico during the last ice age—let’s say about 30,000 years ago. A huge lake shimmers in the background. Herds of mammoth and camels squelch through the mud leaving long lines of tracks. Packs of saber-toothed cats and dire wolves follow, waiting for the opportunity to hunt.

The lake is not unusual for this time period, nor this geologic setting. The Tularosa Basin is completely enclosed, bound by mountains to the east, west, and south; and Chupadera Mesa to the north. Water that drains into the basin has nowhere to go, so—depending on the climate—it either accumulates or it evaporates.

During the last ice age, water accumulated. Temperatures were cooler, evaporation wasn’t as rapid, and there was simply more water. At least eight lakes dotted the basins of the northern Chihuahuan Desert in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico.

But the giant lake of the Tularosa Basin (now known as Lake Otero) is different. Although the water sparkles and shimmers, it’s not “pure.” The mountains surrounding the basin are partially composed of gypsum deposits hundreds of feet thick. As rain or snowmelt flows across the surface, the water slowly but surely dissolves the minerals of the rocks, and carries them away in solution to eventually accumulate in the lake.

Now, jump forward about 20,000 years. The climate is changing. Temperatures are rising and there is less precipitation. The mammoths and camels no longer roam the lake shores. The dire wolves and saber tooth cats have disappeared. The lake is drying up.

As the free water evaporates, millions of tons of dissolved minerals become concentrated in less and less water. Knife-like crystals of selenite begin to grow in the supersaturated muds of the lake bed. Eventually, the water of the lake is gone and the crystals lie exposed. Battered by the wind, cracked during freeze/thaw cycles, broken as animals walk across them, tiny chips and flakes of gypsum from the crystals are ground down into pure white, sand.

The wind picks up the sand grains and bounces them across the landscape. They begin to accumulate around rocks, bushes, and anything stable enough to stop their movement. Sand dunes begin to form.

Take another giant step through time. Pay your admission and enter White Sands National Monument, an amazing system of gypsum sand dunes. These gypsum dunes are quite rare. They require a set of specific conditions to form: a source of gypsum, arid conditions (so the gypsum won’t just dissolve away), and the wind to pile everything up. The three largest gypsum dune systems in the world are in the Chihuahuan Desert (White Sands, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and Cuatro Cienegas, Mexico).

Although the dunes seem barren, they’re actually teaming with life. But you need to be on your toes (or more likely, your knees) to see much. Many of the animals spend their days dug into cool burrows in the sand or tucked into the shade of a bush.

But the main reason that you may not see anything is because the animals have changed color to blend with their environment. Instead of the normal browns and tans of the desert, the animals of white sands are bleached blondes.

This color adaptation is exciting to researchers. After all, the dunes are only about 7,000 years old, so to find white versions of common animals shows speciation moving along at a fairly rapid clip.

The Bleached Earless Lizard (Holbrookia maculata ruthveni) shows the greatest adaptation to its environment of all the lizards at White Sands. On the dark, volcanic rock surrounding White Sands National Monument, the earless lizard is a dark brown. The populations at White Sands are nearly pure white.

Bleached Earless Lizard

A Bleached Earless Lizard blends into the white sand.

This adaptation was probably originally a matter of natural selection. A dark animal on white sand is an easy target for a predator. Since the Bleached Earless Lizard is active during the day and prefers open habitats, the darker lizards would have been removed from the environment, leaving lighter and lighter animals to breed.

Today, predators are probably still picking off darker lizards, but the lizards themselves have changed their way of looking for a suitable mate. Field and experimental studies have shown that White Sands males will display preferentially to the lighter White Sands females when given a choice, thus continuing the selection for lighter animals. Although the Bleached Earless Lizard is considered a subspecies of the general population of Holbrookia maculata, these behavioral changes may indicate that a new species is in the making.

Bleached Earless Lizard

Bleached Earless Lizard (Holbrookia maculata ruthveni)

While other reptiles and animals such as pocket mice and crickets all show adaptation to the white sand, perhaps the most astounding group (evolutionarily speaking) are the moths.

Not much was known about the moths of gypsum dunes until 2006 when lepidopterist Eric Metzler was invited to conduct a long-term study at White Sands National Monument. He established a three km-long transect that cut across the four habitat types within the dune field: open dunes with no vegetation, interdunal spaces, the edge of the dunes, and open habitat outside the dune field.

Using light traps, Metzler and his colleagues collected moths at 11 sample sites along the transect. What they found was astounding. Among the thousands of moths collected were 24 undescribed species in 7 families. As you would expect, many of the new moth species are white or very pale in color.

As Metzler’s study shows, there is still much to be learned in the gypsum dune fields of the Chihuahuan Desert. So the next time you visit White Sands National Monument or venture out into the gypsum dunes at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, take a moment to wander. Watch for movement and holes in the ground. Imagine the life under your feet and admire the resourcefulness of the plants and animals that live here. Perhaps you, too, will discover a new species.

Also posted in Animals, Chihuahuan Desert, Insects, Landscapes Tagged , , |