Tanis (fossil site)
Tanis is the name given to a site of paleontological interest in southwestern North Dakota, United States. Tanis is part of the heavily studied Hell Creek Formation, a group of rocks spanning four states in North America renowned for many significant fossil discoveries from the Upper Cretaceous and lower Paleocene. Tanis is an extraordinary and unique site because it appears to record the events from the first minutes until a few hours after the impact of the giant Chicxulub asteroid in extreme detail. This impact, which struck the Gulf of Mexico about 66 million years ago, wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and many other species (the so-called "K-Pg" or "K-T" extinction). The extinction event caused by this impact paved the way for the domination of the Earth by mammals, including human beings.
Stratigraphic range: 65.76 +/- 0.15 MYa
|Unit of||Montana GroupTO CHECK AND UPDATE – COPIED FROM HELL CREEK FOR NOW|
|Underlies||Fort Union FormationTO CHECK AND UPDATE – COPIED FROM HELL CREEK FOR NOW|
|Overlies||Fox Hills FormationTO CHECK AND UPDATE – COPIED FROM HELL CREEK FOR NOW|
|Primary||Claystone, mudstoneTO CHECK AND UPDATE – COPIED FROM HELL CREEK FOR NOW|
|Other||Sandstone, siltstone, conglomerate, amberTO CHECK AND UPDATE – COPIED FROM HELL CREEK FOR NOW|
|Region||south-west North Dakota, within the Hell Creek Formation|
|Named for||Tanis, Ancient Egypt|
|Named by||Robert DePalma|
The site was originally discovered in 2008 by University of North Georgia Professor Steve Nicklas and field paleontologist Rob Sula. Their team successfully removed fossil field jackets that contained articulated sturgeons, paddlefish, and bowfins. These fossils were delivered for research to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Recognizing the unique nature of the site, Nicklas and Sula brought in Robert DePalma, a University of Kansas graduate student, to perform additional excavations. The site was systematically excavated by Robert DePalma over several years beginning in 2012, working in near-total secrecy.:pg.11 Key findings were presented in two conference papers in October 2017. The full paper introducing Tanis was widely covered in worldwide media on 29 March 2019, in advance of its official publication three days later. The co-authors included Walter Alvarez and Jan Smit, both renowned experts on the K-Pg impact and extinction. Other papers describing the site and its fossils are in progress.
At Tanis, unlike any other known Lagerstätte site, it appears freak circumstances allowed for the preservation of exquisite, moment-by-moment details caused by the impact event. These include many rare and unique finds, which allow unprecedented examination of the direct effects of the impact on plants and animals alive at the time of the large bolide impact some 3000 km distant. The events at Tanis occurred far too soon after impact to be caused by the megatsunamis expected from any large impact near large bodies of water. Instead, much faster seismic waves from the massive magnitude 10 – 11.5 earthquakes:p.8 probably reached the Hell Creek area as soon as ten minutes after the impact, creating seiche waves between 10–100 metres (33–328 ft) high in the Western Interior Seaway :p.8 and perhaps in other waters nearer Tanis, which was near an ancient river. These waves carried sea, land, freshwater animals and plants, and other debris several miles inland. The seiche waves exposed and covered the site twice, as millions of tiny droplets and debris from the impact were arriving on ballistic trajectories from their source in what is now the Yucatán Peninsula.
As of April 2019, reported findings include:
- animals and plant material preserved in three-dimensional detail and at times upright, rather than pressed flat as usual, their remains thrown together by the massive wave movements
- articulated and cartilaginous salt and freshwater fish and marine reptiles found together miles inland, with many microtektites (molten debris particles from the impact) embedded in their gills as they tried to breathe
- millions of "near perfect" primary (that is, not reworked) microtektites "almost indistinguishable" in chemical composition from previously-reported Chicxulub tektites found buried contemporaneous to the fossils in their own impact holes in the soft riverbed mud, and also preserved in amber on tree-trunks
- large primitive feathers 30–40 cm long with 3.5mm quills believed to come from large dinosaurs
- broken remains from almost all known Hell Creek dinosaur groups
and some incredibly rare finds, such as:
- fossils of hatchlings and intact eggs with embryo fossils
- fossil pterosaurs for which no other fossils exist at that time
- drowned ant nests with ants inside and chambers filled with asteroid debris, and
- tiny inhabited burrows from some of the first mammals in the area after the impact
The hundreds of fish remains are distributed by size, and generally show evidence of tetany (a body posture related to suffocation in fish), suggesting strongly that they were all killed indiscriminately by a common suffocating cause that affected the entire population. Fragile remains spanning the layers of debris show that the site was laid down in a single event over a short timespan. A Triceratops or other ceratopsian ilium (hip bone) was found at the high water mark, in circumstances hinting that the dinosaur might speculatively have been a floating carcass and possibly alive at or just before impact, but the paper describing such remains is still in progress As of 2019[update] – the initial papers only include a photograph and its location within Tanis.:figure S29 pg.53
The exceptional nature of the findings and conclusions have led some scientists to await further scrutiny by the scientific community before agreeing that the discoveries at Tanis have been correctly understood. The site continues to be explored.
The K-Pg extinction eventEdit
|Location of Tanis and of the Chicxulub crater|
Left: present day, Right: at impact 65 million years ago
The Cretaceous–Paleogene ("K-Pg" or "K-T") extinction event around 66 million years ago wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and many other species. Proposed by Luis and Walter Alvarez, it is now widely accepted that the extinction was caused by a huge asteroid or bolide that impacted Earth in the shallow seas of the Gulf of Mexico, leaving behind the Chicxulub crater. The impactor tore through the earth's crust, creating huge earthquakes, giant waves, and a crater 180 kilometers (112 mi) wide, and blasted aloft trillions of tons of dust, debris, and climate-changing sulfates from the gypsum seabed, and it may have created firestorms worldwide. With the exception of some ectothermic species such as the leatherback sea turtle and crocodiles, no tetrapods weighing more than 25 kilograms (55 lb) survived. It marked the end of the Cretaceous period and the Mesozoic Era, opening the Cenozoic Era that continues today.
However, because it is rare in any case for animals and plants to be fossilized, the fossil record leaves some major questions unanswered. One of these is whether dinosaurs were already declining at the time of the event due to ongoing volcanic climate change. Also, there is little evidence on the detailed effects of the event on Earth and its biosphere. No fossil beds were yet known that could clearly show the details that might resolve these questions. There is considerable detail for times greater than hundreds of thousands of years either side of the event, and for certain kinds of change on either side of the K-Pg boundary layer. But relatively little fossil evidence is available from times nearer the crucial event, a difficulty known as the "Three metre problem".
Hell Creek FormationEdit
The Hell Creek Formation is a well-known and much-studied fossil-bearing formation (geological region) of mostly Upper Cretaceous and some lower Paleocene rock, that stretches across portions of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming in North America. The formation is named for early studies at Hell Creek, located near Jordan, Montana, and it was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1966.
The formation contains a series of fresh and brackish-water clays, mudstones, and sandstones deposited during the Maastrichtian and Danian (respectively, the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Paleogene periods) by fluvial activity in fluctuating river channels and deltas and very occasional peaty swamp deposits along the low-lying eastern continental margin fronting the late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway. The iridium-enriched Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, which separates the Cretaceous from the Cenozoic, is distinctly visible as a discontinuous thin marker above and occasionally within the formation. Numerous famous fossils of plants and animals, including many types of dinosaur fossils, have been discovered there.
At the time of the Chicxulub impact, the present-day North American continent was still forming. Most of central North America had recently been a large shallow seaway, called the Western Interior Seaway (also known as the North American Sea or the Western Interior Sea), and parts were still submerged. This had initially been a seaway between separate continents, but it had narrowed in the late Cretaceous to become, in effect, a large inland extension to the Gulf of Mexico. The Hell Creek Formation was at this time very low-lying or partly submerged land at the northern end of the seaway, and the Chicxulub impact occurred in the shallow seas at the southern end, approximately 3,050 km (1,900 mi) from the site.:p.8
Although Tanis and Chicxulub were connected by the remaining Interior Seaway, the massive water waves from the impact area were probably not responsible for the deposits at Tanis. Any water-borne waves would have arrived between 18 and 26 hours later,:p.24 long after the microtektites had already fallen back to earth, and far too late to leave the geological record found at the site. It is not even clear whether the massive waves were able to traverse the entire Interior Seaway.:p.8 Instead, the initial papers on Tanis conclude that much faster earthquake waves, the primary waves travelling through rock at about 5 km/s (11,000 mph),:p.8 probably reached Hell Creek within six minutes, and quickly caused massive water surges known as seiches in the shallow waters close to Tanis.:p.8 Seiche waves often occur shortly after significant earthquakes, even thousands of miles away, and can be sudden and violent. Some recent examples include the 1964 Alaskan earthquake (seiches in Puerto Rico), the 1950 Assam-Tibet earthquake (India/China) (seiches in England and Norway), the 2010 Chile earthquake (seiches in Louisiana). Notably, the powerful magnitude 9.0 – 9.1 Tōhoku earthquake in 2011, slower secondary waves traveled over 8,000 km (5,000 mi) in less than 30 minutes to cause seiches around 1.5–1.8 m (4.9–5.9 ft) high in Norway.:p.8
The Chicxulub impact is believed to have triggered earthquakes estimated at magnitude 10 – 11.5,:p.8 releasing up to 4000 times the energy of the Tohoku quake.[note 1] Co-author Mark Richards, a professor of earth sciences focusing on dynamic earth crust processes suggests that the resulting seiche waves would have been approximately 10–100 metres (33–328 ft) high in the Western Interior Seaway near Tanis:p.8 and credibly, could have created the 10 – 11m (33 – 36 feet) high water movements evidenced inland at the site; the time taken by the seismic waves to reach the region and cause earthquakes almost exactly matched the flight time of the microtektites found at the site. This would resolve conflicting evidence that huge water movements had occurred in the Hell Creek region near Tanis much less than an hour after impact, although the first megatsunamis from the impact zone could not have arrived at the site for almost a full day.
Robert DePalma is a lifelong paleontologist with an M.A. in geology, the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History, and a doctoral student in paleontology at the University of Kansas. He has published several discoveries, including a 2010 paper presenting the first known amber-trapped insect fossils from Hell Creek, and a 2013 paper presenting a tyrannosaur tooth embedded in a hadrosaur tail, showing that tyrannosaurs were indeed hunters rather than pure scavengers – a controversy at the time. On the other hand, a published paper was criticized in 2015 and corrected in 2016, after other scientists noticed that in his reconstruction of a new species he called Dakotaraptor, he had accidentally included turtle entoplastron (armour) fragments in error, taking them to be part of the fossilized furculum. As a result, some paleontologists felt that he might be prone to "over-interpret".
Co-author Professor Phillip Manning, a specialist in fossil soft tissues, described DePalma's working techniques at Tanis as "meticulous" and "borderline archaeological in his excavation approach". His work with the 2013 tyrannosaur-hadrosaur specimen was similarly characterized as "meticulous" and "archeological" by the vertebrate paleontology department of the University of Kansas on its website.
In 2004, DePalma was studying a small site in the well-known Hell Creek Formation, containing numerous layers of thin sediment, creating a geological record of great detail. His advisor suggested seeking a similar site, closer to the K-Pg boundary layer. The original discoverers of the site (Rob Sula and Steve Nicklas), who worked the site for several years, recognized its scientific importance and offered it to Depalma as he had some previous experience with working on fish sites. The site lacked the fine sediment layers he was initially looking for. Instead, the layers had never fully solidified, the fossils at the site were fragile, and everything appeared to have been laid down in a single large flood.
Discovery and exploration of 'Tanis'Edit
DePalma began excavating systematically in 2012:11 and quickly found the site to contain very unusual and promising features. Everything he found had been covered so quickly that details were exceptionally well preserved, and the fossils as a whole formed a very unusual collection – fish fins and complete fish, tree trunks with amber, fossils in upright rather than squashed flat positions, hundreds or thousands of cartilaginous fully articulated freshwater paddlefish, sturgeon and even saltwater mosasaurs which had ended up on the same mudbank miles inland (only about four fossilized fish were previously known from the entire Hell Creek formation), fragile body parts such as complete and intact tails, ripped from the seafish's bodies and preserved inland in a manner that suggested they were covered almost immediately after death, and – everywhere –millions of tiny spheres of glassy material known as microtektites, the result of tiny splatters of molten material reaching the ground. The microtektites were present and concentrated in the gills of about 50% of the fossilized fish, in amber, and buried in the small pits in the mud which they had made when they contemporaneously impacted. The fish were not bottom feeders. They had breathed in early debris that fell into water, in the seconds or minutes before death. The sediment appeared to have liquefied and covered the deposited biota, then quickly solidified, preserving much of the contents in three dimensions.
Later discoveries included large primitive feathers 30–40 cm long with 3.5 mm quills believed to come from large dinosaurs; broken remains from almost all known Hell Creek dinosaur groups, including some incredibly rare hatchling and intact egg with embryo fossils; fossil pterosaurs for which no other fossils exist at that time; drowned ant nests with ants inside and chambers filled with asteroid debris; and burrows of small mammals living at the site immediately after the impact. Analysis of early samples showed that the microtektites at Tanis were almost identical to those found at the Mexican impact site, and were likely to be primary deposits (directly from the impact) and not reworked (moved from their original location by later geological processes).
DePalma quickly began to suspect that he had stumbled upon a monumentally important and unique site – not just "near" the K-Pg boundary, but a unique killing field that precisely captured the first minutes and hours after impact, when the K-Pg boundary was created, along with an unprecedented fossil record of creatures and plants that died on that day, as well as material directly from the impact itself, in circumstances that allowed exceptional preservation.
When I saw [microtektites in their own impact craters], I knew this wasn’t just any flood deposit. We weren’t just near the KT boundary. This whole site is the KT boundary ... We have the whole KT event preserved in these sediments. With this deposit, we can chart what happened the day the Cretaceous died.— Robert DePalma
It is truly a magnificent site ... surely one of the best sites ever found for telling just what happened on the day of the impact.— Walter Alvarez
By 2013, he was still studying the site, which he named 'Tanis' after the ancient Egyptian city of the same name, and had told only three close colleagues about it. Secrecy about Tanis was maintained until disclosed by DePalma and co-author Jan Smit in two short summary papers presented in October 2017, which remained the only public information before widespread media coverage of the full prepublication paper on 29 March 2019.
PNAS Paper published in 2019Edit
Initial papers at GSA Conference, 2017Edit
Eighteen months before publication of the peer-reviewed PNAS paper in 2019  DePalma and his colleagues presented two conference papers on fossil finds at Tanis on 23 October 2017 at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. Jan Smit first presented a paper describing the Tanis site, its association with the K-Pg boundary event and associated fossil discoveries, including the presence of glass spherules from the Chicxulub impact clustered in the gill rakers of acipenciform fishes and also found in amber. DePalma then presented a paper describing excavation of a burrow created by a small mammal that had been made "immediately following the K-Pg impact" at Tanis.
A paper documenting Tanis was released as a prepublication on 1 April 2019. Simultaneous media disclosure had been intended via the New Yorker, but the newspaper learned that a rival newspaper had heard about the story, and asked permission to publish early to avoid being scooped by waiting until the paper was published. The discovery received widespread media coverage from 29 March 2019.
DePalma's co-authors include luminaries such as Jan Smit (retired paleontologist and world authority on the K-Pg impact and its tektites) and Walter Alvarez (professor, recipient of numerous prestigious awards, and co-developer with his Nobel Laureate father of the K-Pg impact theory, sometimes called the Alvarez hypothesis). Other authors are his advisor David Burnham, Klaudia Kuiper (professor of geochronology focusing on chronology of the late Cretaceous ), Phillip Manning (professor of natural sciences, specialist in soft tissue scanning ), Anton Oleinik (associate professor geosciences, specializing in Cenozoic periods of change and stratigraphy ), Peter Larson (paleontologist and fossil collector), Florentin Maurrasse (professor specializing in stratigraphy and biostratigraphy, and the K-Pg boundary in the Caribbean ), Johan Vellekoop (postdoctoral researcher, published on microfossil record of the Chicxulub impactor), Mark Richards (professor earth and planetary sciences, focus on earth crust tectonic and dynamic processes), and Loren Gurche (a colleague at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History). A wide range of other people are credited with analysis, specific studies, and other contributions.
As of April 2019, several other papers are in preparation, with further papers anticipated by DePalma and co-authors, and some by visiting researchers.
- If two earthquakes have moment magnitudes M1 and M2, then the energy released by the second earthquake is about 101.5 x (M2 – M1) times as much at the first. (Formula and details)
The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami was estimated at magnitude 9.1, so the energy released by the Chicxulub earthquakes, estimated at up to magnitude 11.5, may have been up to 101.5 x (11.5 – 9.1) = 3981 times larger. The 1960 Valdivia Chile earthquake was the most powerful ever recorded, estimated at magnitude 9.4 to 9.6. Using the same formula, the Chicxulub earthquakes may have released up to 1412 times as much energy as the Chile event.
- Depalma, Robert A.; Smit, Jan; Burnham, David A.; Kuiper, Klaudia; Manning, Phillip L.; Oleinik, Anton; Larson, Peter; Maurrasse, Florentin J.; Vellekoop, Johan; Richards, Mark A.; Gurche, Loren; Alvarez, Walter (2019). "A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPG boundary, North Dakota". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116 (17): 8190–8199. Bibcode:2019PNAS..116.8190D. doi:10.1073/pnas.1817407116. PMC 6486721. PMID 30936306.
- Supplementary data and detailed findings – PNAS
- DePalma, R. et al. (2017) Life after impact: A remarkable mammal burrow from the Chicxulub aftermath in the Hell Creek Formation, North Dakota Paper No. 113-16, presented 23 October 2017 at the GSA Annual Meeting, Seattle, Washington, USA.
- Smit, J., et al. (2017) Tanis, a mixed marine-continental event deposit at the KPG Boundary in North Dakota caused by a seiche triggered by seismic waves of the Chicxulub Impact Paper No. 113-15, presented 23 October 2017 at the GSA Annual Meeting, Seattle, Washington, USA.
- The Day the Dinosaurs Died – The New Yorker, 8 April 2019
- Tweet by Kate Wong, 3 April 2019: I can’t wait to see papers describing the fossils, including the dinosaurs—which members of the Tanis team have said are in the works
- Astonishment, skepticism greet fossils claimed to record dinosaur-killing asteroid impact – Science magazine, 2019-04-01
- "International Consensus — Link Between Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction Is Rock Solid". www.lpi.usra.edu. Retrieved 28 October 2015.
- Schulte, Peter (5 March 2010). "The Chicxulub Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary" (PDF). Science. 327 (5970): 1214–8. Bibcode:2010Sci...327.1214S. doi:10.1126/science.1177265. PMID 20203042. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 June 2015. Retrieved 25 June 2015.
- Muench, David; Muench, Marc; Gilders, Michelle A. (2000). Primal Forces. Portland: Graphic Arts Center Publishing. p. 20. ISBN 978-1-55868-522-2.
- "National Natural Landmarks – National Natural Landmarks (U.S. National Park Service)". www.nps.gov. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
Year designated: 1966
- "Seiche". School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawaii at Manoa. 19 May 1996. Retrieved 10 April 2019.
- Fjorden svinga av skjelvet Archived 2011-03-18 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on 2011-03-17.
- "Mark Richards academic profile". Earth and Planetary Science, University of California, Berkeley. 3 April 2019. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- "Fossil site is first ever to show deaths from mass extinction asteroid impact". Newatlas.com. 29 November 2017. Retrieved 10 April 2019.
- "Staff Directory – Palm Beach Museum of Natural History". Palm Beach Museum of Natural History (pbmnh.org). 20 June 2014. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- Preliminary Notes on the First Recorded Amber Insects from the Hell Creek Formation – Journal of Paleontological Sciences JPS. C.10.0001
- "Fossil Tooth Is "Smoking Gun" That T. Rex Was a Killer". National Geographic. 15 July 2013. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- Arbour, V.M.; Zanno, L.E.; Larson, D.W.; Evans, D.C.; Sues, H. (2015). "The furculae of the dromaeosaurid dinosaur Dakotaraptor steini are trionychid turtle entoplastra". PeerJ. 3: e1957. doi:10.7717/peerj.1691. PMC 4756751. PMID 26893972. – publication date Feb 9 2016
- DePalma, R.A.; Burnham, D.A.; Martin, L.D.; Larson, P.L.; Bakker, R.T. (2016). "Corrigendum to: The First Giant Raptor (Theropoda: Dromaeosauridae) from the Hell Creek Formation". Paleontological Contributions. 16. doi:10.17161/1808.22120.
- "Phillip Manning academic profile". University of Manchester, Great Britain. 20 December 2015. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- "University of Kansas – vertebrate paleontology department website". Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum, University of Kansas. Retrieved 10 April 2019.
- "Stunning discovery offers glimpse of minutes following 'dinosaur-killer' Chicxulub impact". University of Kansas. 29 March 2019. Retrieved 10 April 2019.
- "Google News search 'Robert DePalma fossil' before 2019-03-28". 28 March 2019. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- Marshall, Michael (1 April 2019). "Incredible fossil find may be first victims of dino-killer asteroid". New Scientist. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- "Google News search 'Robert DePalma fossil' 27-03 to 29–03 2019". Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- https://www.washington.edu/news/2019/03/29/north-dakota-site-shows-wreckage-from-same-object-that-killed-the-dinosaurs – "Jan Smit ... who is considered the world expert on tektites from the impact, analyzed and dated the tektites from the Tanis site."
- https://web.archive.org/web/20150207173038/http://www.dinosaurus.net/portret/smit.htm : Smit, die is verbonden aan de Vrije universiteit van Amsterdam, wordt door Alvarez omschreven als een K-T expert. "Jan heeft meer K-T vindplaatsen over de gehele wereld bestudeerd dan alle anderen. ('Smit, who is affiliated with the Free University of Amsterdam, is described by Alvarez as a KT expert: "Jan has studied more KT sites around the world than anyone else" ' – translated from original Dutch)
- "Klaudia Kuiper academic profile". Department of Earth Sciences, Vrije University ("VU"), Amsterdam, Netherlands. 11 October 2012. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- "Anton Oleinik academic profile". Department of Geosciences, Florida Atlantic University. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- College of Arts, Sciences & Education. "Florentin Maurrasse academic profile". Florida International University. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- "Johan Vellekoop academic profile". Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Catholic University of Leuven ("KU Leuven"), Belgium. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
- – Robert DePalma voice interview with Jason Spiess on the 'Crude Life Content Network' channel, YouTube, at time 10m 40s. Uploaded on YouTube 2019-04-02