University of Calgary

Conodonts

July 14, 2009

Tiny but critical extinct animal examined at U of C conference

Charles Henderson, a geoscience professor at the U of C and organizer of the conference. / Photo: Ken Bendiktsen

Charles Henderson, a geoscience professor at the
U of C and organizer of the conference.
/ Photo: Ken Bendiktsen
A tiny, extinct, soft-bodied eel-like creature with numerous tiny teeth that provide critical information on hydrocarbon deposits, historic climate fluctuations and prehistoric global extinctions, is the centerpiece of an international conference taking place at the University of Calgary this week.

Micropaleontologists from all over the world are attending the International Conodont Symposium to discuss these fascinating microfossils called conodonts. Topics range from the first report of possible conodont eggs to the colour of conodont elements as an indicator of hydrocarbon potential in Western Canada.

“Sometimes the best gifts come in small packages and these one millimeter-long teeth pack a lot of valuable information, contributing not only to our understanding of evolution, but also to our economy,” says Charles Henderson, a geoscience professor at the U of C and organizer of the conference.

Scientists will examine new research concerning what these creatures could have eaten as well as new information that they shed about a climate change event over 290 million years ago during the Lower Permian when giant ice-sheets melted away, similar to what has occurred over the past 15,000 years and continues to occur today.

“Investigating micro-wear patterns and shape complexity of conodont teeth reveals new information about feeding habits that will help geoscientists better reconstruct the ecology of the ancient environments in which they lived,” says Henderson.

This information, combined with thermal maturity studies, make conodonts a valuable exploration tool for oil and gas in basins around the world. The conodonts change colour after burial because of heating effects deep beneath the Earth’s surface. A similar process alters other organic matter into oil and gas and therefore the colour alteration index of conodonts can predict what type of hydrocarbon may be discovered.

Conodonts first appeared in the Earth’s warm oceans about 500 million years ago and disappeared 300 million years later. Fossils of the soft-bodied animal are rare, but its hard teeth easily survive the fossilization process and may be found by the hundreds in a kilogram of rock. The study of these ancient teeth helps the geologic community piece together a cohesive and detailed geologic timeline of the Earth because their evolution provides a means of comparing rocks across the globe.

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