Sunday, January 15, 2017

A middle Eocene heart urchin

Heart urchins, also called spatangoids, are echinoderms (sand dollars, sea stars, etc.), which are generally characterized by having 5-rayed (pentameral) symmetry. This post focuses on a middle Eocene heart urchin known as Schizaster diabloensis Kew, 1920. It was named for its occurrence in sedimentary layers near Mount Diablo, just east of San Francisco.

A hand specimen of siltstone rock from the Llajas Formation has three specimens of
S. diabloensis on the same bedding plane. The hand specimen is 5 cm (2 in.) wide.
This species of heart urchin was common in northern and southern California during the middle Eocene (approx. 47 million years ago). The specimens shown here are from the Llajas Formation in Simi Valley, California. This formation was deposited in shallow-marine, warm-water conditions. The entire geologic time range for this species is late Paleocene through middle Eocene.

Five specimens of S. diabloensis from the Llajas Formation. The largest specimens are
  2 cm (0.8 in.) wide. All are top-side up.
Echinoderms, past and present, are strongly gregarious and can occur in great numbers on the ocean floor. Spatangoids have a fossil record extending back to the Cretaceous. They are burrowers and living below the surface provides protection against predators. During the Cretaceous, many new forms of predators evolved, which, which gave the force for some echinoderms (like spatangoids) to adapt to these adverse conditions by becoming infaunal (i.e., burrowers), mainly in fine-grained deposits, like siltstone.

You can readily see the five-rayed symmetry of the feeding grooves on the dorsal (top) surface of each specimen. The central groove, called ambulacrum III, is the longest and is sunken on most spatangoids, whereas the two posterior grooves are smaller. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Late Cretaceous stalked crinoid stem

Crinoid remains are extremely rare in the Late Cretaceous fossil record of California. A friend recently donated a stalked crinoid-stem fossil collected from Upper Cretaceous rocks in the Santa Ana Mountains, Orange County, Southern California. I have seen many fossils from these rocks but never a crinoid. Its geologic age is Turonian (about 90 million years old). The genus of this fossil is unknown.

This specimen is 8 cm long and 3 mm wide. I also put a modern-day crinoid "stem" (from Cuba) alongside, for comparison; it is 6.5 cm long and nearly 3 mm wide. You can definitely see that the fossil is, indeed, a crinoid.

Crinoids are echinoderms. Some other examples are sea stars (starfish), brittle stars, sea urchins, and sand dollars. Crinoids were very common in Paleozoic faunas, and their remains have contributed substantially to Paleozoic limestones. Crinoids today are less abundant than they once were, but at the present time there are approximately 25 stalked genera (all attached to the ocean floor and restricted to depths greater than 100 m). There are also about 90 or so unstalked genera, and these are able to swim about when they are adults.

This drawing shows the main morphologic parts of a stalked crinoid (i.e., having a column or "stem"). The "stem" was originally somewhat flexible during life and could sway slightly with the prevailing water currents.

Both the fossil and modern-day columns shown above in the photo are missing their calyx (where the stomach was located) and their arms. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Labradorite, a beautiful, dark-colored mineral with iridescence

Labradorite, which is derived from "red-hot" molten material called magma, is one of several phases (varieties) of the mineral plagioclase. All these phases have the same general formula (Ca, Na)(Al,Si)3O8. As the magma cools, a solid-solution series of different phases/varieties of plagioclase crystallize out sequentially, with varying amounts of Ca (calcium) and Na (sodium). The calcium and sodium ions mix in a continuous series with their ratio varying from 100% calcium and 0% of sodium, to the extreme opposite.

Labradorite consists of 50 to 70% calcium and occurs as blocky to lath-shaped crystals in calcium-rich igneous (magma-derived) rocks, such as basalt, gabbro, and anorthosites. Labradorite is relatively uncommon, but some rocks consist almost entirely of this mineral.
A 3 foot-high slab of labradorite used as a pedestal for a monument.
You can see how some of the crystals are large and lath-shaped.
 The bluish-iridescence of this mineral is especially evident  in the upper part of the picture.
One of the most memorable features of labradorite is its iridescent play of colors, which results from this mineral’s peculiar reflection of light. The reflection is caused by internal fractures that reflect light back and forth.

Polished piece (width 5.7 cm, 2.5 in.) of labradorite showing its iridescence. To see it, one must tilt the specimen at just the right angle to the prevailing light; a few degrees too much or too little tilt, and the iridescence disappears.
Labradorite-bearing rocks occur worldwide, especially in Labrador, Canada (where this mineral inherited its name) and in Norway.

Labradorite is used for making floor tiles, kitchen counter-tops, tables, and benches. It is also a popular gemstone.

For more information about the solid-solution series that is associated with the formation of plagioclase, please Google the term "Bowens Reaction Series." 

Note: I used to include links to topics covered in my posts, but recent changes in Google Posts now deactivate these links when posts go to the "Archive" file.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Pyrite cubes

Pyrite is a mineral that most people have either heard about or seen. It superficially resembles gold, yet the chemical and physical properties of pyrite make it easy to distinguish it from gold. The main differences are listed below:

Pyrite is an iron sulfide, with the chemical formula FeS2. Gold's chemical formula is simply Au.

Pyrite crystal system is isometric (cubic), and crystals formed under perfect conditions will be cubes (as shown below). Gold is rarely found as crystals; rather, it occurs in nuggets, irregular blobs, or small flakes. It cannot occur in cubes.

Single cube of pyrite, width 2.9 cm (from Spain).
Cluster of intergrown pyrite cubes, total width 5 cm long (from Spain).
Pyrite is harder with a value of 6.5 on the Moh's Hardness Scale [i.e., a scale with talc and graphite the softest minerals (value of 1), and with diamond the hardest mineral (value of 10). Gold has a value of 2.5. Gold is very soft; so much so that other elements (e.g., copper, nickel, or platinum) have to be added to it (in the form of an alloy) in order to make jewelry.

Note: An ordinary steel knife (hardness value of 4.5) cannot scratch pyrite but can easily scar gold. The superior hardness and brittleness of pyrite also cause it to smash into bits if struck with the tip of a high-quality knife or shatter into small pieces, if hit with a hammer.

Pyrite's streak (its powdered from when scratched across an unglazed porcelain plate, called a streak plate), is black. Gold's streak is brassy yellow.

Small irregular piece of pyrite with its characteristic black streak on a "streak plate.
Pyrite is less dense, and small flakes normally wash away when placed under running water. Gold flakes are very dense and will sink. This is why "gold panning" works so well for finding gold.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Linarite, a beautiful blue mineral

Linarite is somewhat rare mineral with an intense deep blue color. It is a combined copper lead sulfate hydroxide mineral, which is made of up flat (monoclinic) crystals that are soft (hardness of only 2).

The specimen shown here is one that I collected back in 1964, when I was an undergraduate geology student. The specimen is from the world famous Blanchard Claims in the Hansonburg Mining District, Sierra Oscura Mountains, south of Bingham, New Mexico. When I visited the site, Ora Blanchard was the caretaker. I remember her as a very colorful character. She did not take kindly to thieves trying to sneak onto her property. She wore a pistol, and she also had a flock of geese to serve as "watch dogs."

Mrs. Blanchard allowed me to collect in the famous Royal Flush mine. The linearite crystals occurred with galena, aquamarine-colored fluorite, bladed barite, and druzy quartz, among with many other minerals. The rock matrix is the Pennsylvanian-age Madera Limestone, which was invaded by hydrothermal fluids (about 200°C) emanating from the nearby Rio Grande Rift. Supersaturated fluids moved along any open space and deposited beautiful crystals of the minerals, including linarite.

linarite hand specimen, length 7 cm (2.75 in.)

Monday, November 14, 2016

Mariposite from California

Mariposite is not an officially classified mineral, rather it is a chromium-rich variety of the green mineral phengite. The green color is imparted by the element chromium. Mariposite/phengite occurs in a quartz-rich metamorphic rock also called mariposite. This rock, which is streaked with thin bands of green color alternating with bands of grayish quartz, is named for its occurrence in the southern-most part of the “Mode Lode” (i.e., gold) region northeast of Merced and southwest of Yosemite Valley in Mariposa County, Northern California. Mariposite is associated with gold-bearing quartz veins and has been reported as occurring with visible gold.  
Mariposite rock, length 7.5 cm (3 in.)
Mariposite formed when the rock serpentinite, which was derived from the Earth's mantle, became altered under pressure by mineral-laden hot (650°F) water. These hydothermal fluids flowed upward along fractures, faults, and fissures, and where these fluids reacted with serpentine, they formed deposits of quartz, chromium-rich mica, sulfides, and gold.

Mariposite is a popular landscaping stone. It is also used as a building stone (veneer on walls), as well as for jewelry (as the trade name "Emerald Quartz).
A cut and polished mariposite stone (length 3 cm, 1.2 in.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The large shallow-marine gastropod Forreria belcheri, past and present history

Forreria belcheri (Hinds, 1843) is a rather large gastropod found today along the west coast of Southern California and Baja California, Mexico. Forreria belongs to the family Muricidae, commonly referred to as the "rock shells." Forreria belcheri is the type species of genus Forreria.

This gastropod has a fossil record that extends back about 8 million years to the late Miocene. In the past, it ranged farther north (to central California) than it does today. It lives today mainly offshore on sandy bottoms in relatively shallow water of 60 to 100 feet deep, but it can also be found in bays, lagoons, and mudflats. This gastropod is carnivorous and uses its file-like radular teeth to drill holes through shells of oysters and mussels, as well as other mollusks. 

Forreria belcheri is characterized by a large, heavy shell that can be as much as 6 inches (15 cm) long. The shell is heavy and adult specimens have about 12 spiny nodes on its whorls. Its opening (aperture) is large and the anterior end of its shell is twisted and upturned. 

The first two views in the below series of photographs show the front (apertural) side of a modern specimen from Baja California, Mexico versus a Pleistocene specimen from Newport Beach Mesa, Southern California. The last two views of this series show the back side (abapertural) of the same modern and Pleistocene specimens, respectively.

Forreria belcheri: A modern specimen (13 cm height) vs. a Pleistocene specimen (11.6 cm height).

The next two views show the spatial arrangement of the spiny nodes on the spire whorls of the same two specimens: Modern specimen (on left) vs. Pleistocene specimen (on right). The Pleistocene specimen is somewhat worn and has its lower right-hand spire coated by bryozoans.

This last view, which is of the side of the modern specimen, shows how the twisted anterior end also turns upward (a characteristic feature).