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Records of Plants and Animals

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



BROADLY considered, there are two distinct ways in which Plants and Animals leave their mark upon the surface of the earth. In the first place, they act directly by promoting or arresting the decay of the land, and by forming out of their own remains deposits which are sometimes thick and extensive. In the second place, their remains are transported and entombed in sedimentary accumulations of many different kinds, and furnish important evidence as to the conditions under which these accumulations were formed. Each of these two forms of memorial deserves the most generally interesting departments of geology, and those in which the history of the earth is principally discussed.

I. Direct Action of Living Things upon the Surface of the Globe.—This action is often of a destructive kind, both plants and animals taking their part in promoting the general disintegration of rocks and soils. Thus, by their decay they furnish to the soil those organic acids which have been referred to as so important in increasing the solvent power of water, and thereby promoting the waste of rocks. By thrusting their roots into crevices of cliffs, plants loosen and gradually wedge off pieces of rock, and by sending their roots and rootlets through the soil, they open up the subsoil to be attacked by the air and the descending moisture. The action of the common earth-worm in bringing up fine soil to be exposed to the influences of wind and rain has an enormous effect. Many burrowing animals also, such as the mole and rabbit, throw up large quantities of soil and subsoil which are liable to be blown or washed away.

On the other hand, the action may be conservative, as, for instance, where, by forming a covering of turf, vegetation protects the soil underneath from being rapidly removed, or where sand-loving plants bind together the surface of dunes, and thereby arrest the progress of the sand, or where forests shield a mountainside from the effects of heavy rains and descending avalanches.

(1) Deposits Formed of the Remains of Plants.—But it is chiefly by the aggregation of their own remains into more or less extensive deposits that plants and animals leave their most prominent and enduring memorials. As examples of the way in which this is done by plants, reference may be made to peat-bogs, mangrove-swamps, infusorial earth, and calcareous sea-weeds.

Peat-bogs.—In temperate and arctic countries, marshy vegetation accumulates in peat-bogs over areas from an acre or two to many square miles, and to a depth of some-times fifty feet. These deposits are largely due to the growth of bog-mosses and other aquatic plants which, dying in their lower parts, continue to grow upward on the same spot. On flat or gently-inclined moors, in hollows between hills, on valley-bottoms, and in shallow lakes, this marshy vegetation accumulates as a wet spongy fibrous mass, the lower portions of which by degrees become a more or less compact dark-brown or black pulpy substance, wherein the fibrous texture, so well seen in the upper or younger parts, in large measure disappears. In a thick bed of peat, it is not infrequently possible to detect a succession of plant remains, showing that one kind of vegetation has given place to another during the accumulation of the mass. In Europe, as has been already mentioned, peat-bogs often rest directly upon fresh-water marl containing remains of lacustrine shells. In every such case, it is evident that the peat has accumulated on the site of a shallow lake which has been filled up, and converted into a morass by the growth of marsh-plants along its edges and over its floor. The lowest parts of the peat may contain remains of the reeds, sedges, and other aquatic plants which choked up the lake. Higher up, the peat consists almost entirely of the matted fibres of different mosses, especially of the kind known as Bog-moss or Sphagnum. The uppermost layers may be full of roots of different heaths which spread over the surface of the bog.

The rate of growth of peat has been observed in different situations in Central Europe to vary from less than a foot to about two feet in ten years; but in more north-ern latitudes the growth is probably slower. Many thou-sand square miles of Europe and North America are covered with peat-bogs, those of Ireland being computed to occupy a seventh part of the surface of the island, or upwards of 4,000 square miles.

As the aquatic plants grow from the sides toward the centre of a shallow lake, they gradually cover over the surface of the water with a spongy layer of matted vegetation. Animals, and man himself, venturing on this treacherous surface sink through it, and may be drowned in the black peaty mire underneath. Long afterwards, when the morass has become firm ground, and openings are made in it for digging out the peat to be used as fuel, their bodies may be found in an excellent state of preservation. The peaty water so protects them from decay that the very skin and hair sometimes remain. In Ire-land, numerous skeletons of the great Irish elk have been obtained from the bogs, though the animal itself has been extinct since before the beginning of the authentic history of the country.

Mangrove-swamps.--Along the flat shores of tropical lands, the mangrove trees grow out into the salt water, forming a belt of jungle which runs up or completely fills the creeks and bays. So dense is the vegetation that the sand and mud, washed into the sea from the land, are arrested among the roots and radicles of the trees, and thus the sea is gradually replaced by firm ground. The coast of Florida is fringed with such mangrove-swamps for a breadth of from five to twenty miles. In such regions, not only does the growth of these swamps add to the breadth of the land, but the sea is barred back, and prevented from attacking the newly-formed ground inside.

Infusorial Earth.—A third kind of vegetable deposit to be referred to here is that known by the names of infusorial earth, diatom-earth, and tripoli-powder. It consists almost entirely of the minute frustules of microscopic plants called diatoms, which are found abundantly in lakes and likewise in some regions of the ocean. These lowly organisms are remarkable for secreting silica in their structure. As they die, their singularly durable siliceous remains fall like a fine dust on the bottom of the water, and accumulate there as a pale gray or straw-colored deposit, which, when dry, is like flour, and in its pure varieties is made almost entirely of silica (90 to 97 per cent.). Underneath the peat-bogs of Britain a layer of this material is sometimes met with. One of the most famous examples is that of Richmond, Virginia, where a bed of it occurs thirty feet thick. At Bilin, in Bohemia, also, an important bed has long been known. The bottom of some parts of the Southern Ocean is covered with a diatom ooze made up mainly of siliceous diatoms, but containing also other siliceous organisms (radiolarians) and calcareous foraminifera.

Accumulations of Sea-weeds.—Yet one further illustration of plant-action in the building up of solid rock may be given. As a rule the plants of the sea form no permanent accumulations, though here and there under favorable conditions, such as in bays and estuaries, they may be thrown up and buried under sand so as eventually to be compressed into a kind of peat. Some sea-weeds, however, abstract from sea-water carbonate of lime, which they secrete to such an extent as to form a hard stony structure, as in the case of the common nullipore. When the plants die, their remains are thrown ashore and pounded up by the waves, and being durable they form a white calcareous sand. By the action of the wind, this sand is blown inland and may accumulate into dunes. But unlike ordinary sand, it is liable to be slightly dissolved by rain-water, and as the portion so dissolved is soon re-deposited by the evaporation of the moisture, the little sand-grains are cemented together, and a hard crust is formed which protects the sand underneath from being blown away. Meanwhile rain-water percolating through the mounds gradually solidifies them by cementing the particles of sand to each other, and thick masses of solid white stone are thus produced. Changes of this kind have taken place on a great scale at Bermuda, where all the dry land consists of limestone formed of compacted calcareous sand, mainly the detritus of sea-weeds.

(2) Deposits Formed of the Remains of Animals.—Animals are, on the whole, far more successful than plants in leaving enduring memorials of their life and work. They secrete hard outer shells and internal skeletons endowed with great durability, and capable of being piled up into thick and extensive deposits which may be solidified into compact and enduring stone. On land, we have an example of this kind of accumulation in the lacustrine marl already described as formed of the congregated remains of various shells. But it is in the sea that animals, secreting carbonate of lime, build up thick masses of rock, such as shell-banks, ooze, and coral reefs.

Shell-banks.—Some molluscs, such as the oyster, live in populous communities upon submarine banks. In the course of generations, thick accumulations of their shells are formed on these banks. By the action of currents also large quantities of broken shells are drifted to various parts of the sea-bottom not far from land. Such deposits of shells, in situ or transported, may be more or less mixed with or buried under sand and silt, according as the currents vary in direction and force. On the other hand, they may be gradually cemented into a solid calcareous mass, as has been observed off the coast of Florida, when they form on the sea-bottom a sheet of limestone, made up of their remains.

Ooze.—From observations made during the great expedition of the Challenger, it has been estimated that in a square mile of the tropical ocean down to a depth of 100 fathoms there are more than 16 tons of carbonate of lime in the form of living animals. A continual rain of dead calcareous organisms is falling to the bottom, where their remains accumulate as a soft chalky ooze. Wide tracks of the ocean-floor are covered with a pale-gray ooze of this nature, composed mainly of the remains of the shells of the foraminifer Globigerina. In the north Atlantio this deposit probably extends not less than 1,300 miles from east to west, and several hundred miles from north to south.

Here and there, especially among volcanic islands, portions of the sea-bed have been raised up into land, and masses of modern limestone have thereby been exposed to view. Though they are full of the same kind of shells as are still living in the neighboring sea, they have been cemented into compact and even somewhat crystalline rock, which has been eaten into caverns by percolating water, like limestones of much older date. This cementation, as above remarked, is due to water permeating the stone, dissolving from its outer parts the calcareous matter of shells, corallines, and other organic remains, and re-depositing it again lower down, so as to cement the organic detritus into a compact stone.

Coral-reefs offer an impressive example of how extensive masses of solid rock may be built up entirely of the aggregated remains of animals. In some of the warmer seas of the globe, and notably in the track of the great ocean-currents, where marine life is so abundant, various kinds of coral take root upon the edges and summits of submerged ridges and peaks, as well as on the shelving sea-bottom facing continents or encircling islands. These creatures do not appear to flourish at a greater depth than 15 or 20 fathoms, and they are killed by exposure to sun and air. The vertical space within which they live may therefore be stated broadly as about 100 feet. They grow in colonies, each composed of many individuals, but all united into one mass, which at first may be merely a little solitary clump on the sea-floor, but which, as it grows, joins other similar clumps to form what is known as a reef.

Each individual secretes from the sea-water a hard calcareous skeleton inside its transparent jelly-like body, and when it dies, this skeleton forms part of the platform upon which the next generation starts. Thus the reef is gradually built upward as a mass of calcareous rock, though only its upper surface is covered with living corals. These creatures continue to work upward until they reach low-water mark, and then their further upward progress is checked. But they are still able to grow outward. On the outer edges of the reef they flourish most vigorously, for there, amid the play of the breakers, they find the food that is brought to them by the ocean-currents. From time to time fragments are torn off by breakers from the reef and roll down its steep front. There, partly by the chemical action of the sea-water, and partly by the fine calcareous mud and sand, produced by the grinding action of the waves and washed into their crevices, these loose blocks are cemented into a firm, steep slope, on the top of which the reef continues to grow outwards. Blocks of coral and quantities of coral-sand are also thrown up on the surface of the reef, where by degrees they form a belt of low land above the reach of the waves. On the inside of the reef, where the corals cannot find the abundant food-supply afforded by the open water outside, they dwindle and die. Thus the tendency of all reefs must be to grow seawards, and to in-crease in breadth. Perhaps their breadth may afford some indication of their relative age.

Where a reef has started on a shelving sea-bottom near the coast of a continent, or round a volcanic island, the space of water inside is termed the Lagoon Channel. Where the reef has been built up on some submarine ridge or peak, and there is consequently no land inside, the enclosed space of water is called a Lagoon, and the circular reef of coral is known as an Atoll. If no subsidence of the sea-bottom takes place, the maximum thickness of a reef must be limited by the space within which the corals can thrive—that is, a vertical depth of about 100 feet from the surface of the sea. But the effect of the destruction of the ocean-front of the reef, and the piling up of a slope of its fragments on the sea-bottom outside, will be to furnish a platform of the same materials on which the reef itself may grow outward, so that the united mass of calcareous rock may attain a very much greater thickness than 100 feet. On the other hand, if the sea-bottom were to sink at so slow a rate that the reef-building corals could keep pace with the subsidence, a mass of calcareous rock many thousand feet thick might obviously be formed by them. It is a disputed question in which of these two ways atolls have been formed.

It is remarkable how rapidly and completely the structure of the coral-skeleton is effaced from the coral-rock, and a more or less crystalline and compact texture is put in its place. The change is brought about partly by the action of both sea-water and rain-water in dissolving and re-depositing carbonate of lime among the minute interstices of the rock, and partly also by the abundant mud and sand produced by the pounding action of the breakers on the reef and washed into the crevices. On the portion of a reef laid dry at low water, the coral-rock looks in many places as solid and old as some of the ancient white limestones and marbles of the land. There, in pools where a current or ripple of water keeps the grains of coral-sand in motion, each grain may be seen to have taken a spherical form unlike that of the ordinary irregularly rounded or angular particles. This arises because carbonate of lime in solution in the water is deposited round each grain as it moves along. A mass of such grains aggregated together is called oölite, from its resemblance to fish-roe. In many limestones, now forming wide tracts of richly cultivated country, this oölitic structure is strikingly exhibited. There can be no doubt that in these cases it was produced in a similar way to that now in progress on coral-reefs.

In the coral tracts of the Pacific Ocean there are nearly 300 coral islands, besides extensive reefs round volcanic islands. Others occur in the Indian Ocean. Coral-reefs abound in the West Indian Seas, where, on many of the islands, they have been upraised into dry land, in Cuba to a height of 1,100 feet above sea-level. The Great Barrier Reef that fronts the northeastern coast of Australia is 1,250 miles long, and from 10 to 90 miles broad.

There are other ways in which the aggregation of animal remains forms more or less extensive and durable rocks. To some of these reference will be made in later chapters. Enough has been said here to show that by the accumulation of their hard parts animals leave permanent records of their presence both on land and in the sea.

II. Presentation of Remains of Plants and Animals in Sedimentary Deposits.—But it is not only in rocks formed out of their remains that living things leave their enduring records. These remains may be preserved in almost every kind of deposit, under the most wonderful variety of conditions. And as it is in large measure from their occurrence in such deposits that the geologist de-rives the evidence that successive tribes of plants and animals have peopled the globe, and that the climate and geography of the earth have greatly varied at different periods, we shall find it useful to observe the different ways in which the remains both of plants and animals are at this moment being entombed and preserved upon the land and in the sea. With the knowledge thus gained, it will be easier to understand the lessons taught by the organic remains that lie among the various solid rocks around us.

It is evident that in the vast majority of cases, the plants and animals of the land leave no perceptible trace of their presence. Of the forests that once covered so much of Central and Northern Europe, which is now bare ground, most have disappeared, and unless authentic history told that they had once flourished, we should never have known anything about them. There were also herds of wild oxen, bears, wolves, and other denizens contemporaneous with the vanished forests. But they too have passed away, and we might ransack the soil in vain for any trace of them.

If the remains of terrestrial vegetation and animals are anywhere preserved it must obviously be only locally, but the favorable circumstances for their preservation, although not everywhere to be found, do present them-selves in many places if we seek for them. The fundamental condition is that the relics should, as soon as possible after death, be so covered up as to be protected from the air and from too rapid decomposition. Where this condition is fulfilled, the more durable of them may be preserved for an indefinite series of ages.

(a) On the Land there are various places where the re-mains both of plants and animals are buried and shielded from decay. To some of these reference has already been made. Thus amid the fine silt, mud, and marl gathering on the floors of lakes, leaves, fruits, and branches, or tree-trunks, washed from the neighboring shores, may be imbedded, together with insects, birds, fishes, lizards, frogs, field-mice, rabbits, and other inhabitants. These remains may of course often decay on the lake-bottom, but where they sink into or are quickly covered up by the sediment, they may be effectually preserved from obliteration. They undergo a change, indeed, being gradually turned into stone. But this conversion may be effected so gently as to retain the finest microscopic textures of the original organisms.

In peat-bogs also, as stated elsewhere, wild animals are often engulfed, and their soft parts occasionally pre-served as well as their skeletons. The deltas of river-mouths must receive abundantly the remains of animals swept off by floods. As the carcasses float seawards, they begin to fall to pieces and the separate bones sink to the bottom, where they are soon buried in the silt. Among the first bones to separate from the rest of the skeleton are the lower jaws. We should therefore expect that in excavations made in a delta these bones would occur most frequently. The rest of the skeleton is apt to be carried farther out to sea before it can find its way to the bottom. The stalagmite floor of caverns is an admirable material for enclosing and preserving organic remains. The animals that fell into these recesses, or used them as dens in which they lived or into which they dragged their prey, have left their bones on the floors, where en-cased in or covered by solid stalagmite, these relics have remained for ages. Most of our knowledge of the animals which inhabited Europe at the time when man appeared, is derived from the materials disinterred from these Bone-caves. We may also refer here to the travertine formed by mineral-springs and to the facility with which leaves, shells, insects, and small birds, rep-tiles, or mammals may be enclosed and preserved in travertine. Thus, while the plants and animals of the laud for the most part die and decay into mere mould, there are here and there localities where their remains are covered up from decay and preserved as memorials of the life of the time.

(b) On the bottom of the Sea the conditions for the preservation of organic remains are more general and favorable than on land. Among the sands and gravels of the shore, some of the stronger shells that live in the shallower waters near land may be covered up and pre-served, though often only in rolled fragments. It is below tide-mark, however, and more especially beneath the limit to which the disturbing action of breakers descends, that the remains of the denizens of the sea are most likely to be buried in sediment and to be preserved there as memorials of the life of the sea. It is evident that hard and therefore durable relics have the best chance of escaping destruction. Shells, corals, corallines, spicules of sponges, teeth, vertebræ, and ear-bones of fishes may be securely entombed in successive layers of silt or mud. But the vast crowds of marine creatures that have no hard parts must always perish without leaving any trace whatever of their existence. And even in the case of those which possess hard shells or skeletons, it will be easily understood that the great majority of them must be decomposed upon the sea-bottom, their component elements passing back again into the sea-water from which they were originally derived. It is only where sediment is deposited fast enough to cover them up and protect them before they have time to decay, that they may be expected to be preserved.

In the most favorable circumstances, therefore, only a very small proportion of the creatures living in the sea at any time leave a tangible record of their presence in the deposits of the sea-bottom. It is in the upper waters of the ocean, and especially in the neighborhood of land, that life is most abundant. The same region also is that in which the sediment derived from the waste of the land is chiefly distributed. Hence it is in these marginal parts of the ocean that the conditions for preserving memorials of the animals that inhabit the sea are best developed.

As we recede from the land, the rate of deposit of sediment on the sea-floor gradually diminishes, until in the central abysses it reaches that feeble stage so strikingly brought before us by the evidence of the manganese nodules. The larger and thinner calcareous organisms are attacked by the sea-water and dissolved, apparently before they can sink to the bottom; at least their remains are comparatively rarely found, there. It is such indestructible objects as sharks' teeth and vertebræ and ear-bones of whales that form the most conspicuous organic relics in these abysmal deposits.

Summary.—Plants and animals leave their records in geological history, partly by forming distinct accumulations of their remains, partly by contributing their re-mains to be imbedded in different kinds of deposits both on land and in the sea. As examples of the first mode of chronicling their existence, we may take the growth of marsh-plants in peat-bogs, the spread of mangrove-swamps along tropical shores, and the deposition of infusorial earth on the bottom of lakes and of the sea; the accumulation of nullipore sand into solid stone, the formation of extensive shell-banks in many seas, the wide diffusion of organic ooze over the floor of the sea, and the growth of coral reefs. As illustrations of the second method, we may cite the manner in which the remains of terrestrial plants and animals are preserved in peat-bogs, in the deltas of rivers, in the stalagmite of caverns, and in the travertine of springs; and in the way in which the hard parts of marine creatures are entombed in the sediments of the sea-floor, more especially along that belt fringing the continents and islands, where the chief de-posit of sediment from the disintegration of the land takes place. Nevertheless, alike on land and sea, the pro-portion of organic remains thus sealed up and preserved is probably always but an insignificant part of the total population of plants and animals living at any given moment.



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