Montana’s autumn is my favorite time of the year to do field work. Daytime temperatures are usually cool enough to encourage one to keep moving and the lighting is simply gorgeous. It is also one of the best times to visit areas in and around Yellowstone National Park (YNP) because most of the tourists have gone home. So no huge bear traffic jams or jostling for parking spots at the better known thermal spots in YNP and surrounding environs – it’s just a wonderfully introspective time for field forays. What follows are several photos that chronicle some of my fall wanderings in the greater Yellowstone area, both in terms of wildlife and geology.
Some of my favorite sightings in YNP are bison at any time of the year. But the autumn snows bring on the bison’s technique of using its head to clear snow away from any vegetative food source. The result of their snow-clearing activity is a snow-masked face.
And where the snow hasn’t stacked up much, the YNP bison calmly graze and occasionally congregate on a ridge line to watch what remains of the YNP visitor traffic.
Geological features in YNP take on new dimensions with the golden low and slanting light of autumn. I’ve spent much time re-photographing geologic features at all scales that seem to glow in this season’s light.
The fall staging areas of sandhill cranes in southwestern Montana are mesmerizing. Staging areas are those locations where cranes annually congregate during late September into October, spend several days foraging through fields for food, and eventually continue on their migration southward from Montana to Colorado and the southwestern U.S.. The staging area that I usually go to is near Dillon, Montana, where hundreds of cranes can be viewed.
As I said initially, it’s hard to surpass a Montana/YNP autumn!
It’s time for our yearly update talk on field work and data compilation for the Tertiary geology and paleontology of the central Gravelly Range project in southwestern Montana. The Madison Ranger District in Ennis, Montana (5 Forest Service Road) will be hosting my talk on Monday, April 2nd at 10am in the Madison Ranger District conference room. We have a project permit from the US Forest Service because our project area lies within the Madison Ranger District – and the USFS District people have been really helpful with our project logistics. Thus, this is the perfect way to let them know what we did this past field season and how the whole project is coming together. The Madison District just sent their public announcement for the talk:
Dr. Hanneman and Dr. Don Lofgren, PhD (Director, Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, CA 91711) and their team have been executing a multiyear study in the Gravelly Range near Black Butte resulting in many interesting paleontological findings right here in our own back yard. Please join Dr. Hanneman and the Madison Ranger District for an update on this project and what they hope to unearth this year!
It’s a very intriguing project on high-elevation, mainly Eocene-Oligocene Tertiary geology and paleontology (mostly vertebrate and floral). So – anyone with an interest in this and who is in the geographic area, is welcome at the talk!
Within the last few weeks I’ve had several requests for available resources on Cuban geology. The requests, of course, have come from individuals outside of the U.S.A. Guess that they sense opportunities for working with and understanding Cuba’s geology that we are backing away from. In any case, I’ve sent the requests on to Manuel Iturralde-Vinet, the person who has worked and published an immense amount of information regarding Cuba’s geology. Manuel has now sent me back an updated list of resources and said:
Siccar Point is unquestionably one of the most important geological sites in the understanding of geological time. It was here in 1778 that James Hutton, John Playfair, and James Hall contemplated the immensity of time needed to produce vertically oriented rocks overlain by gently-dipping rocks. The concept of geological time is so fundamental to the science of geology that I really wanted to explore the locality that gave rise to the idea of geological time. So I finally made the trip to Scotland and Siccar Point a couple weeks ago. Wow – what an amazing country! It was a fantastic trip, but for this blog, I’ll just post a few photos of Siccar Point – just enough, perhaps, to encourage geologic time enthusiasts to also make the trip.
Siccar Point is located on Scotland’s Berwickshire coast, about 40 km southeast of Edinburgh. It is not difficult to get there from Edinburgh if you’re willing to drive a few back roads, and also drive on the left side of the road – which for me was somewhat of an initial challenge (going left on the roundabouts was mind boggling to begin with!). The best directions that I found for getting to Siccar Point are given by Angus Miller, who also runs field trips there. Angus’s directions to Siccar Point and his contact information are found at his Geowalks website.
The pull-off for the hike to Siccar Point is well marked by signage. All that one needs to do is walk through the gate and then follow the fence lines south to the Siccar Point locality. There is a small sign on the entrance gate that advises you to beware of the bull. We happened to meet up with a local person while we were hiking through the fields to Siccar Point and she told us that the land owner posted the sign mainly because he’s at war with the hordes of people that tromp through his fields to get to Siccar Point (in Scotland there is the “right to roam”, so one can hike across private property). She also assured us that at the time we were there, the cows were off in another field, so not to worry about the bull. We then just followed the hiking instructions on the sign at the gate entrance, and found that it’s an easy walk to Siccar Point.
Once one arrives at the rock promontory that is Siccar Point, it is an amazing view looking down the cliff face. The vertical beds of Silurian graywacke outcrop beautifully below Devonian Old Red Sandstone. The “Hutton Unconformity” here marks an approximately 80 million year hiatus. Again, there is also good signage present at the promontory for an explanation of the unconformity.
A rope is attached to the fence at the promontory to help the climber down the cliff face. As it was a muddy and slick climb down to the North Sea, I was very glad to use the rope! Much thanks to whoever put the rope there!
It was fun to investigate the unconformity at the sea’s edge. The base of the Old Red Sandstone contained lags from the graywacke, some of which are cobble size.
I know that we were very lucky to have good weather for our Siccar Point excursion, but I would have gone there whatever the weather. It is really one of the great geologic sites and well worth traveling part way around the world to see. For a drone view of Siccar Point, take a look at the video done by the British Geological Survey which is posted in an earlier Geopostings blog: Siccar Point from a drone’s view.
The Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG) published their first geology field trip guidebook in late 2016 and it is now available for sale to the general public. This guideboook is a collection of geology road logs, associated geological information, and local cultural history of areas within the Canadian Rockies and the Alberta Badlands. The following text is a brief summary of the guidebook:
“TECTONICS, CLIMATE CHANGE AND EVOLUTION – SOUTHERN CANADIAN CORDILLERA: Road Log and Accompanying Narratives From: Calgary – Lake Louise – Icefields – Field – Revelstoke – Fernie -Dinosaur Provincial Park – Calgary”, published by the Association for Women Geoscientists, 2016.
This field trip guidebook is written by Katherine J.E. Boggs and Debra L. Hanneman, and edited by Janet Wert Crampton and Stephanie Yager. It is the AWG’s first fully published field trip guidebook and is a field-tested guide from their two-week 2014 field trip through the Canadian Rockies and Alberta’s Badlands area.
The guidebook is a 209-page geology tour through many of the well-known parts of the Alberta Canadian Rockies, including the Front and Main Ranges of the Canadian Rockies and the Columbia Icefields. The Burgess Shale’s Walcott Quarry, the Okanagan Valley vineyards, and the Rocky Mountain Trench are trip highlights for geo-tours in British Columbia. The field trip guidebook ends with a geology tour of the Crowsnest Pass area on the British Columbia/Alberta border, and with field stops in Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park and at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta.
The field guide is printed on double-sided 8.5″ x 11″ pages with the guide cover on 100 lb paper and the text on 80 lb paper. It has black wire-o binding and a clear acetate front and a black acetate backing for improved field durability. The guidebook’s cost is $55 USD (which includes shipping), and can be purchased at the AWG online store or by phoning the AWG main office at 303-412-6219.
My field season is in full swing. I recently spent time with students from the Webb Schools in Claremont, CA, during their annual sojourn to southwestern Montana. We prospected a few Tertiary localities, with the students making some good fossil mammal and fossil invertebrate finds. We were also extremely lucky to have a southwest Montana landowner give us a tour of a buffalo jump that is on his land. The following photos are from our various fossil site and buffalo jump field adventures.
Siccar Point, located on the southeast coast of Scotland, is well revered in the geological community. Outcrops at this locale display ‘Hutton’s Unconformity’. This is an angular unconformity where tilted rock units of about 370 million years in age called the Old Red Sandstone (with a basal layer of conglomerate) lie atop nearly vertical strata of greywacke that are approximately 435 million years in age. James Hutton observed these rock juxtapositions while on a boat trip past Siccar Point in 1788 with James Hall and John Playfair. His observations and contemplation of this unconformity formed a basis for his theory of repeated cycles of deposition, uplift, and erosion, which was later known as uniformitarianism.
The British Geological Survey posted a new video on Siccar Point a few days ago. Their video features amazing drone video of the locale and good accompanying audio. It is well worth a view!
The Dog Town Mine Tertiary fossil vertebrate locality is nestled on private property within the southern extent of the Elkhorn Mountains, southwestern Montana. The locality is about 20 miles southwest of Townsend, Montana, where Mesozoic and Paleozoic carbonate, quartzite, and red-colored mudstone, siltstone, and sandstone rocks underlie Eocene (Chadronian) strata. These unconformable Eocene strata contain the Dog Town Mine vertebrate fossil locality.
Earl Douglass (yes, that Earl Douglass of the Dinosaur National Monument fame) first collected at the site on Friday, June 27, 1902 (based on transcriptions from Earl Douglass’ journals done by Alan Tabrum and volunteers from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History). According to his journal, Douglass met a man from Toston, Montana, on horseback and this person told him about the Dog Town Mine, which was located on the divide between the Toston/Townsend and North Boulder Valleys. Douglass was headed to the North Boulder Valley anyways, so he rode to the mine where he found invertebrate fossils (brachiopods and bryozoa) in carbonate rock which was in contact with the ore deposit. A Mr. Allen, who he dined with that evening, told him that more fossils could be found a little ways west of the mine. After dinner Douglass rode a short way west of the mine and found banks along a ravine that looked like Tertiary White River beds. Here he found “Oreodont, Ischyromys, Palaeolagus, Titanotherium, and turtle remains” (June 28, 1902, Douglass Journal entry). This area is the present Dog Town Mine vertebrate fossil locality.
Tertiary strata at the Dog Town Mine are fine-grained, predominantly consisting of siltstone with minor fine-grained sandstone units. The deposits are probably of aeolian origin, originating from areal sediments rich in volcanic ash. These deposits are probably similar lithologically and in mode of origin to those Tertiary White River units found at high elevations within the Laramie Range and Medicine Bow Mountains (Evanoff, E., 1990, Early Oligocene paleovalleys in southern and central Wyoming: Evidence of high local relief on the late Eocene unconformity: Geology, v. 18, p. 443–446; Lloyd and Eberle, 2012, A late Eocene (Chadronian) mammalian fauna from the White River Formation in Kings Canyon, northern Colorado: Rocky Mountain Geology, v. 47, no. 2, p. 113–132).
Vertebrate fossils have been collected at the Dog Town Mine site for various museums since Douglass’ initial collection. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, PA houses a collection from the site as well as the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, MT.
Iceberg Lake is situated in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park. The hike is about a 10 mile round trip and gains about 1275 feet in elevation. The trail winds through prime grizzly bear habitat, so be sure to hike with a group, make lots of noise, and carry bear spray. When I hiked the trail back in September, many returning hikers told our group about a grizzly sow and two cubs that were roaming around by Iceberg Lake. The bears actually walked by the lake shore while my group and many others were at the lake, but there were no harmful encounters. However – just this past week, in this same general area, a sow grizzly with 2 sub-adult cubs (I’m guessing that this is the same set of bears that walked by my group at Iceberg Lake) was surprised by a lone hiker and the sow grabbed and shook the hiker. The hiker used his bear spray escaped with puncture wounds to his lower leg and a hand. So – some words of caution about about hiking in bear country!
The Iceberg Lake Trail
The trailhead to Iceberg Lake is behind the cabins near the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. The first part of the hike, about 1/4 mile, gains about 185 feet. After that initial elevation gain, the trail’s elevation gain moderates. Ptarmigan Falls is about 2.5 miles from the trailhead, and a short way above this is a footbridge that crosses Ptarmigan Creek. The rocky area near the footbridge is a great place for a snack break. Another 1/10 mile beyond the footbridge is the Iceberg Lake Trail junction. The Ptarmigan Trail continues towards the right and goes to Ptarmigan Tunnel and Ptarmigan Lake.Take the other trail branch to continue on to Iceberg Lake. A good trail hike summary for the Iceberg Lake Trail is found at the website “Hiking in Glacier”.
The popularity of the trail was clear to me when even on a rainy, sleety, and snowy day,I passed many people on the trail. My group did a leisurely hike, stopping at several places to look at the geology alongside the trail and to do a snack stop by the Ptarmigan Creek footbridge both on the way up and back. It took us about 5 hours for the round trip. That put us back just in time to have a much enjoyed dinner at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn.
The Iceberg Glacier: Recession from 1940 to the Present
The Iceberg Glacier is shown in the above photo set beginning in 1940 (this is the photo on the left, which is a Hileman photo from the Glacier National Park Archives) and ending with the 9/6/2015 photo on the right, which I took during my hike to Iceberg Lake. In the 1940 photo, the glacier terminus is quite thick and extends into the basin. By 2015, there is not much left of the glacier. Even with a comparison between the center 2008 photo by Lisa McKeon and my 2015 photo, one can see that much more bedrock is exposed. The older photos are also posted on the US Geological Survey’s Repeat Photography Map Tour Website. For those interested in glacial recession within Glacier National Park, the Repeat Photography website is a valuable resource. The Repeat Photography project is summarized on the USGS website –
This project began in 1997 with a search of photo archives. We used many of the high quality historic photographs to select and frame repeated photographs of seventeen different glaciers. Thirteen of those glaciers have shown marked recession and some of the more intensely studied glaciers have proved to be just 1/3 of their estimated maximum size that occurred at the end of the Little Ice Age (circa 1850). In fact, only 26 named glaciers presently exist of the 150 glaciers present in 1850.
Much of the Iceberg Lake Trail winds through the Grinnell Formation, which is a Proterozoic geologic unit within the Belt Supergroup. As Callan Bentley has succintly said of the Belt Supergroup rocks in Glacier National Park:
The rocks exposed firstly from the top down are old sedimentary rocks of the Belt Supergroup. It is called “Belt” after Belt, Montana, and “supergroup” because it is immense. These rocks were deposited in a Mesoproteozoic (1.6-1.2 Ga) sea basin, and show little to no metamorphism despite their age.
I was lucky to be hiking with Jeff Kuhn from Helena, Montana, who has done much work with Belt Supergroup rocks in the Glacier Park to Whitefish Range areas. Jeff stopped us at several locations along the trail to look more closely at features within the Grinnell Formation. In general, the Grinnell Formation consists of sandstone and argillite and is approximately 1740-2590 feet thick. It has a deep brick-red color owing to its contained hematite and because it was deposited in a shallow oxygen-rich environment. Sedimentary features that are consistent with the shallow water depositional interpretation include mudstone rip-up clasts, mudcracks, and ripple marks.
All told, it was a hike well worth doing, even if you are not a geology enthusiast!
The Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale and its contained fossils are legendary to earth scientists. These fossils are by far the best record of Cambrian animal fossils. The importance of the Burgess Shale fossils is also linked to their excellent preservation. The fossils include many soft bodied animals in addition to those with hard parts – an extremely rare occurrence for fossil assemblages.
I finally hiked to the Walcott Quarry on Fossil Ridge near Field, B.C., last year, just to better understand the context of the Burgess Shale. It was well worth the effort (it is a long, and as other hikers phrased it – a gut-busting hike). Before my Walcott Quarry hike, I’d read that Kootenay National Park just started hosting hikes to Burgess Shale type faunas (BST) in the Stanley Glacier area. It only took a good dinner and a beer after the Walcott Quarry hike to decide that I’d do the Stanley Glacier Burgess Shale hike.
Stanley Glacier BST fossils (approximately 505 million years in age) are about 40 km southeast of the Field, B.C. (Yoho National Park) locales. Recent work in both the Marble Canyon and the Stanley Glacier areas of Kootenay National Park yielded noteworthy additions to understanding the BST fossils and their depositional environments. BST fossils found in the Marble Canyon area include 25 new species of organisms; 8 new species are now recorded for the Stanley Glacier BST fossils. Of more interest to me (being a sedimentologist), is that the depositional environment in the Kootenay National Park area differs from that of the Field, B.C. area. Although the Burgess Shale fossils are found within the Stephen Formation in both areas, there is a marked difference in this rock unit from one area to the other area. Around Field, B.C., the Stephen Formation is the “thick or basinal” (about 276 to 370 meters thick) Stephen and it resulted from deposition at the base of the older Cathedral Formation Escarpment (a submarine cliff) via turbidity flows. In the Stanley Glacier area, the Stephen Formation is relatively “thin” (about 33 meters thick) and is probably the result of deposition at the distal edge of a marine platform (Caron and others, 2010; Gaines, 2011). The stratigraphic placement of the Burgess Shale rock units also differs from the Field, B.C. area to the Stanley Glacier area. Based upon the presence certain trilobites and stratigraphic evidence (Caron and others, 2010), the “thin” Stephen Formation at Stanley Glacier is stratigraphically above the Field, B.C. Burgess Shale localities.
With that small bit of Burgess Shale background, I’ll get back to the actual hike up the Stanley Glacier valley to the Stephen Formation talus slopes and outcrop. The hike is hosted by Kootenay National Park and is about 10 km for the round trip. The elevation gain is about 450 meters. The first part of the hike is through glacial material and a fire-swept lodgepole pine forest. Forest fires burned through this area most recently in 1968 and in 2003. Luckily for paleontologists, the fire bared many slopes and definitely helped in locating BST fossil beds. A little more than halfway through the hike, one breaks out of the trees onto the talus slopes of Stanley Glacier’s valley. The hike continues over the talus slope to a very large boulder. Several BST fossil specimens are locked in a box kept behind this boulder. Our guide gives an informative talk about the lockbox fossils and we have much time to pick around the talus slope for more fossils.
In 1989, an expedition party from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) located fossils from Stephen Formation talus in this area (Rigby and Collins, 2004: Sponges of the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale and Stephen Formations, British Columbia; Royal Ontario Museum Contributions in Science 1: 1–155.). Caron and others (2010) also document that some of their fossil assemblage material came from the talus slope, so it’s worth some time to look around (Caron and others, 2010 GSA Data Repository).
Stanley Glacier BST shelly fauna includes characteristic Cambrian taxa such as hyolithids, brachiopods, and trilobites. Soft-bodied BST creatures such as the necktobenthic or nektonic arthropods and proto-arthropods Stanleycaris hirpex n. gen., n. sp., Tuzoia retifera, and Sidneyia inexpectans also are part of the BST fauna. Trace fossils are plentiful on some bedding surfaces. These include trails, shallow burrows, and arthropod trackways.