Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mopping up some Ediacaran Enigmatics

The most common form of preservation of Ediacaran fossils in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia is by sands covering objects on the sea floor and masking them. Much of the sea floor was covered with algal and bacterial mats, or films, that add an extra dimension to the structures preserved by the covering sands. We have to take this extra dimension into account if we are to successfully interpret what it is that has been preserved. Some organisms lived on the mats, some below, and some had elements below and elements above. Understanding the interactions between organism, mat and sand will allow us to better understand what was going on at the time and help separate out body fossils from trace fossils from non-biogenic traces.

A good example of this are "mops".

"Mops" are a series of abundant, distinct structures which look like the head of a mop - hence the name. "Mops" are always preserved in hyporelief, that is on the underside of the rock, unusually though, they can be either positive - standing up from the surface like a pimple, or negative - a depression in the surface like a dimple. Most Ediacaran fossils are usually either one or the other.

Tarhen et al. studied a series of "mops" which show a highly varied shape and structure, but found some consistent features.

Mop structures in hyporelief from the Ediacaran of South Australia.
Scale bar = 2cm. (Tarhan et al. 2010)

(1) "Mops" are always orientated within 10 degrees of the palaeocurrent as derived from a number lines of evidence.

(2) They have a distinct margin at one end - considered to be the distal or far end. This can be straight (arrowed in (A) above), curved (in (B)) or lumpy (in (C)).

(3) They have a series of roughly parallel lines running at around 90 degrees to the margin (arrowed in (B) above). These appear filament-like and can be either linear or wavy and tangled

These features can vary even within the same bed and between specimens in close proximity.

They do tend to appear in close association with the disc form Aspidella, which it though to represent the holdfast of a Charniodiscus-like organism or sea pen. But are they fossils or non-biogenic marks?

Well they appear biogenic. The association with Aspidella is too strong to be random. But are they body or trace fossil? Well, they are a little of both.

The association with Aspidella appears important. Aspidella is the holdfast of a sea pen-like organism, which had a large bulbous holdfast buried in the sediment, with a stalk and frond rising up into the water column. So the organism has some elements (the holdfast) below the bacterial mat, and some (the frond) above the mat.

In this configuration, the frond will be subject to water currents. What is though to have happened is that strong currents carrying the sand that will eventually overlay the organisms has hit the frond and basically dragged the whole organism including the holdfast, in the direction of the palaeocurrent. As the holdfast is under the mats, this dragging has uprooted the holdfast and dragged it through the microbially bound mat layer. The parallel lines represent torn-up bits of mat which were attached to the top of the holdfast. Lumpy margins of the 'mops' are probably caused by small lumps of sediment trapped next to the holdfast.

Formation of "mops". A: Normal conditions. B: Current drag. C: Current induced structures.
D: Sand deposition. E: Preservation. (Tarhan et al. 2010)

This explanation can explain a number of structures seen in Ediacaran rocks. One in particular is Pseudorhizostomites.

Pseudorhizostomites. Scale bar = 2 cm. (Tarhan et al. 2010).

Pseudorhizostomites has been interpreted as a rhizostomean medusa (a jellyfish without tentacles), and even a gas escape structure formed during the decay of an organism. But an interesting interpretation based on the 'mop' formation, is that they are Aspidella-like holdfasts that have been torn free by current action, but vertically rather than in a more horizontal direction. So they have been plucked out of the sediment rather than being dragged along.

Another structure that appears related is one associated with actual holdfasts.


Here the holdfast has remained intact and in place, but the stem has been flattened and the surface of the holdfast has been distorted by the sheer forces caused by the current pushing the frond and stem over.


Here is an annotated example that has been featured here before. The wrinkles (W) and the impression of the stem (S) are clearly visible and have been caused by the stem and frond being pushed over by a strong current which eventually deposited the overlying sand bed

The explanation of the "mop" structures is a neat use of the interplay between sedimentology and taphonomy, that ties together a number of structures.

Tarhan, L.G., Droser, M.L. and Gelhing, J.G (2010) Taphonomic Controls on Ediacaran Diversity: Uncovering the Holdfast Origin of Morphologically Variable Enigmatic Structures. Palaios V. 25, pp 823-830. DOI:10.2110/palo.2010.p10-074r

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