New paper in Nature Geoscience from the Briggs Lab

Lidya Tarhan, a post-doc in the Briggs lab at Yale, is first author of a new paper published in Nature Geoscience – Protracted Development of bioturbation through the early Plaeozoic Era. This work from Lidya, members of the Briggs Lab, and collaborators, indicates that marine animals took significantly longer than previously thought to commence major bioturbation (burrowing and mixing) of marine surface sediments. Rather than the Cambrian (541 Ma) as previously thought, they propose that this happened much later during the Silurian (~420 Ma). This has potentially broad implications sulfate and oxygen levels in the oceans during this time, for the our understanding of Earth’s ancient ecosystems.

Here is a link to a news story titled ‘Ancient dirt churners took their time stirring up the ocean floor’

Yale Geology field trip to the Alps

The Briggs Lab took part in the Yale department field trip this August. The trip involved a performing a transect across the Alps and Apennines from Frankfurt, Germany to Assisi, Italy.


The Briggs lab group in the Hauff museum, Holzmaden, Germany. In the background is a fossilised log with crinoids attached from the Jurassic Posidonia Shale.

For over two weeks in August, 23 students and faculty travelled about 3000 km and covered the amazing sedimentary record preserved between the mountains belts between Germany, Switzerland and Italy.


Derek and students in discussion on an outcrop during the field trip

Here’s a link to an article about the trip. Make sure to check out loads more photos of the trip on Flickr!

New research from the Briggs Lab reporting on the oldest Eurypterids

New research from the Briggs Lab reporting on the oldest known eurypterid fossils from Iowa was recently published in BMC Evolutionary Biology. Eurypterids were large aquatic arthropods, that are ancestors to modern spiders and lobsters, for example. This new species, called Pentecopterus, lived about 467 Ma, during the Ordovician. Despite the age of this fossil, remarkable preservation was observed. Here is a link to some other media coverage. This research involved collaboration between Yale and the University of Iowa.

Earlier in August, the Briggs Lab published a paper in Biology Letters titled ‘All the better to see you with‘ reporting on the visual system of the eurypterids and the divergent ecological roles between a number of these species. This was a follow-up paper to ‘What big eyes you have‘, published last year. Looking forward to the next paper!


Investigating the preservation of ancient organic microfossils


This photo from Ross shows the range of samples he is analyzing and how he prepares them to be ready for X-ray diffraction analysis

Briggs Lab graduate student Ross Anderson has been working in the Tosca Lab in Oxford recently. He has been using using X-ray diffraction to study clay minerals from Neoproterozoic fossils of exceptional organic preservation (called ‘lagerstatten’). His goal is to try to understand the processes and mechanisms of organic microfossil preservation and to reconstruct the biology, and environmental conditions and perturbations of the Neoproterozoic.

Outreach at the 2015 Cambridge Science Festival

2015-04-25 15.14.38

Members of the Summons Lab represented Foundations of Complex Life in force again at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival. We brought our research to the general public at two of the countless events during the festival, the “Science Carnival and Robot Zoo” held during the first Saturday of the festival, and “Soaring into Sky and Space” at the MIT Museum during the second Saturday. Turnout for both events was excellent—with a constant stream of curious minds, young and old, piling up several faces deep at our booths for the duration of each event.

Coffee filters were among the most popular parts of our booth at the MIT Museum. Why coffee filters, you ask? Well, our booth featured many of the physical objects of our research, from the rocks we collect in the field and the hammers we use to collect them, to the glassware and pieces of analytical instruments we use to extract and identify organic chemicals within those rocks. An important part of the process from rocks to chemicals is chromatography, the separation of chemical compounds. To illustrate this process, we gave visitors to our booth the chance to do a quick, hands-on chromatography experiment themselves, separating the pigments in an ink marker using a coffee filter and few drops of water. The demonstration was a hit, and it was a pleasure to see so many delighted “aha” expressions on the faces of both children and their parents over the course of the day.

At the “Science Carnival and Robot Zoo”, we debuted a multiplayer version of our successful iPad game “Earth in Sixty Seconds”. The game compresses four and a half billion years of Earth history into a single minute, letting players become high-speed time travelers and race through the geologic ages at breakneck speed. Using iPod touch controllers, player guessed the timing of key events in the history of our planet, and the life that evolved on it. When did life originate? When did dinosaurs go extinct, and humans evolve? Although many visitors to our booth had an inkling that human history occupied a short time at the end of our countdown (much, much less that one second!), many were surprised at how recently animals (just the last seven seconds) and even oxygen in the atmosphere (only the second half of the minute) appeared in our planet’s history.


NAI Executive Council Meets in LA


Foundations of Complex Life principal investigator Roger Summons joined the PIs of the other NAI Teams, including the new teams selected during the CAN7 competition, for an in-person meeting hosted by the USC team in Los Angeles last week. As a part of the onboarding process for the new teams, each team gave a brief overview and introduction to their research. You can download and view the MIT Team’s presentation here.

After the business portion of the meeting, attendees got to visit some of the research facilities at USC, including some very impressive prototypes of instrumentation under development for the planned Mars 2020 rover mission. The meeting concluded with a visit to the California Science Center, where the Space Shuttle Endeavour has its retirement home.


Public Outreach in October: Astrobiology Soap Box Series at the MIT Museum


We are very pleased to announce an interactive public discussion series at the MIT Museum every Tuesday evening this October, showcasing research under the Foundations of Complex Life umbrella. The Soap Box series—in which participants of all backgrounds converse with researchers in a café-style setting—is entitled “How to Make Life and Influence Planets.” Topics will span from the origins of life on Earth to the search for life beyond Earth. Six of the eight speakers are Foundations of Complex Life team members: Greg Fournier, Francis Macdonald, David Gold, David Johnston, Ann Pearson, and Giulio Mariotti.

The MIT Museum has more information about the Soap Box series on their website. The discussions will be video recorded and will be archived on MIT World, accessible here. Many thanks to the EAPS department at MIT for supporting this series, and to the Public Programs staff at the MIT Museum for making this series possible. Please join us Tuesdays in October!

Postcards from the Field

Each year, many Foundations of Complex Life team members head out to the field to sample the archives of Earth’s history contained in the rock record—and to understand processes operating today—often in spectacular and remote locations. This year, we’ve invited our team members to send some snapshots of their field sites, which include Mongolia, Newfoundland, Death Valley, and the Yukon.

Ross Anderson, a graduate student in Derek Briggs group, sends these two photos:


This photo is from the Zavkhan terrane, southwestern Mongolia. We were in Mongolia to investigate the taphonomy of eukaryotic microfossils between Cryogenian ice ages. In particular we were sampling stratigraphic sections of carbonates, shales, and cherts to document a combined record of clay mineral assemblages and fossil occurrences. Clay minerals are though to affect organic fossil preservation.


This one is from the Bonavista Peninsula, Newfoundland, Canada. I was here along with David Evans (Yale University) and Bin Wen (Nanjing University) to investigate Ediacaran motion of the Avalon microcontinent using paleomagnetism prior to and during the rise of the Ediacaran fauna. The photo is courtesy of David Evans.

Francis Macdonald sends this photo from Mongolia:


A trench that Ross Anderson dug in organic-rich shales in the post-Sturtian deglacial transgression.

Emmy Smith, a graduate student in Francis Macdonald’s group, sends photos from recent field work in Death Valley and California:


Mapping near Gold Point, NV


Hit by a snow storm in the White Mountains in Coyote Canyon, CA.


Blake and Frances looking at late Ediacaran to early Cambrian stromatolite reefs near Mt. Dunfee, NV.


Athena hiking at Hines Ridge in the White Mountains, CA.


Camp near Gold Point, NV.

Phoebe Cohen sends these snapshots of a field season in the Neoproterozoic of the Yukon, together with Justin Strauss (a graduate student in Francis Macdonald’s group) and others, as well as from the end-Devonian of Western NY:


Home sweet home.


Base of the section!


Justin, Lyle, and Laura goofing off after a long day of sampling.


Justin Strauss gazing over Mount Slipper.


Laura sampling Mount Slipper.


Kelly sampling the end-Devonian mass extinction.


Mary and Kelly sampling the end-Devonian mass extinction.


Phoebe explaining something about the end-Devonian mass extinction.

Sara Pruss sends this photo of “Team Ooid” from the Bahamas:


Here is “Team Ooid” getting ready to catch an airplane home after many successful days examining the distribution of ooids on Cat Island in the Bahamas (from left to right: Sharon Newman, Tanja Bosak, Sara Pruss, Giulio Mariotti, and Roger Summons). As a combined unit, we are examining the geomorphological conditions that must be met to form ooids, the (possible) microbial diversity of ooids, and their distribution along Cat Island to understand something about the precursor conditions that lead to ooid formation.

Kristin Bergmann (Harvard), JC Creveling (Caltech) and Jonathon Cooper (Carleton College) send pictures from their fieldwork examining the Neoproterozoic record of Svalbard. They saw a polar bear while working one day and soaked in the stunning landscape.

Introducing Our Brand New iPad App, “Earth in 60 Seconds”

iconWe are excited to announce the release of our brand new educational game for the iPad, available immediately—for free—in the iTunes App Store. The game is targeted to anyone with an interest in our planet’s history, and the evolution of life upon it, across age brackets. Developed in partnership with Better World Coding and supported in part by an Education and Outreach Grant from the Paleontological Society, the game compresses 4.6 billion years of Earth history into a single minute, challenging players to identify when major events (like the rise of oxygen, the evolution of animals, or the extinction of dinosaurs) happened. Players can compete against each other for the best score and follow links to learn more about each event.



We developed this game, which grew out of our hands-on outreach activities with the Cambridge Science Festival’s Science on the Street and our annual to-scale geologic timeline installation, with classroom use in mind. The Next Generation Science Standards include geological time and Earth history (MS-ESS1.C: The History of Planet Earth, MS-ESS1-4: Earth’s Place in the Universe). With more than 8 million iPads in educational institutions around the world, we hope this app will provide an engaging and captivating teaching tool to allow students to test their knowledge, compete with each other, and build their intuition about geologic scales of time.


We have exciting plans up our sleeves to develop this project further, in several directions: more features for the iPad game, and an outreach version for informal science educators to deploy this game as a multiplayer booth for science fairs, museums, festivals, and community outreach. Watch this space!

For questions and feedback, please don’t hesitate to contact Ben Kotrc, FCL’s education and public outreach lead.

Did Neanderthals eat their vegetables?

MIT study provides first direct evidence of plants in the Neanderthal diet

Jennifer Chu, MIT News

The popular conception of the Neanderthal as a club-wielding carnivore is, well, rather primitive, according to a new study conducted at MIT. Instead, our prehistoric cousin may have had a more varied diet that, while heavy on meat, also included plant tissues, such as tubers and nuts.

Neanderthal art

Illustration: Christine Daniloff/MIT

Scientists from MIT and the University of La Laguna in Spain have identified human fecal remains from El Salt, a known site of Neanderthal occupation in southern Spain that dates back 50,000 years. The researchers analyzed each sample for metabolized versions of animal-derived cholesterol, as well as phytosterol, a cholesterol-like compound found in plants. While all samples contained signs of meat consumption, two samples showed traces of plants — the first direct evidence that Neanderthals may have enjoyed an omnivorous diet.

“We have passed through different phases in our interpretation of Neanderthals,” says Ainara Sistiaga, a graduate student at the University of La Laguna who led the analysis as a visiting student at MIT. She and her colleagues have published their study in the journal PLoS ONE.

“It’s important to understand all aspects of why humanity has come to dominate the planet the way it does,” adds co-author Roger Summons, a professor of geobiology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “A lot of that has to do with improved nutrition over time.”

Unearthing a prehistoric meal

While scientists have attempted to reconstruct the Neanderthal diet, much of the evidence has been inconclusive. For example, researchers have analyzed bone fragments for carbon and nitrogen isotopes — signs that Neanderthals may have consumed certain prey, such as pigs versus cows. But such isotopic data only differentiate between protein sources — underestimating plant intake, and thereby depicting the Neanderthal as exclusively carnivorous.

Other researchers recently identified plant microfossils trapped in Neanderthal teeth — a finding that suggests the species may have led a more complex lifestyle, harvesting and cooking a variety of plants in addition to hunting prey. But Sistiaga says it is also possible that Neanderthals didn’t eat plants directly, but consumed them through the stomach contents of their prey, leaving traces of plants in their teeth.

Equally likely, she says, is another scenario: “Sometimes in prehistoric societies, they used their teeth as tools, biting plants, among other things. We can’t assume they were actually eating the plants based on finding microfossils in their teeth.”

Signs in the soil

For a more direct approach, Sistiaga looked for fecal remains in El Salt, an excavation site in Alicante, Spain, where remnants of multiple Neanderthal occupations have been unearthed. Sistiaga and her colleagues dug out small samples of soil from different layers, and then worked with Summons to analyze the samples at MIT.

In the lab, Sistiaga ground the soil into a powder, then used multiple solvents to extract any organic matter from the sediment. Next, she looked for certain biomarkers in the organic residue that would signal whether the fecal remains were of human origin.

Specifically, Sistiaga looked for signs of coprostanol, a lipid formed when the gut metabolizes cholesterol. As humans are able to break down more cholesterol than any other mammal, Sistiaga looked for a certain peak level of coprostanol that would indicate the sample came from a human.
She and Summons then used the same geochemical techniques to determine the proportions of coprostanol — an animal-derived compound — to 5B-stigmastanol, a substance derived from the breakdown of phytosterol derived from plants.

Each sample contained mostly coprostanol — evidence of a largely meat-based diet. However, two samples also held biomarkers of plants, which Sistiaga says may indicate a rather significant plant intake. As she explains it, gram for gram, there is more cholesterol in meat than there is phytosterol in plants — so it would take a significant plant intake to produce even a small amount of metabolized phytosterol.

In other words, while Neanderthals had a mostly meat-based diet, they may have also consumed a fairly regular portion of plants, such as tubers, berries, and nuts.

“We believe Neanderthals probably ate what was available in different situations, seasons, and climates,” Sistiaga says.

Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, says that since no isotopic signatures have yet been found for plants that might be eaten by Neandertals, determining whether Neanderthals consumed plants “has been entirely a matter of guesswork until recently.”

“These lovely new data on fecal sterols confirm what many people have been increasingly thinking, which is that something is wrong with the inference that Neanderthals were 100 percent carnivores,” says Wrangham, who was not involved in the research. “The Sistiaga data are a wonderful new source for challenging conventional wisdom. In the end it would not be surprising to find that Neanderthals show little difference from sapiens in their diet composition.”

Sistiaga, Summons, and their colleagues plan to use similar geochemical biomarker techniques, coupled with micromorphological analysis, to analyze soil samples in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania — a 1.8-million-year-old site where some of the earliest evidence of human ancestry have been discovered.

“We’re working in a micro context,” Sistiaga says. “Until now, people have carried out residue analysis on pots, tools, and other objects, but 90 percent of archaeology is sediment. We’re opening a new window to the information that is enclosed in Paleolithic soil and sediment.”

Reprinted with permission of MIT News (