Sniffing The Air Breathed By Earth’s First Animals

Sniffing The Air Breathed By Earth’s First Animals

Tech Prof’s Research Shed New Light On Earth’s Early Atmosphere

Tech adjunct professor Dr. Nigel Blamey is the lead author on a paper in the August 2016 issue of Geology that has important implications when the Earth’s atmosphere could support animal life. Using a mass spectrometer at New Mexico Tech, Blamey and his colleagues made a breakthrough in measuring atmospheric oxygen from 815 million years ago.

 “Perhaps the most important requirement for advanced life on Earth is the oxygen that allows animals such as ourselves to breathe,” Blamey said. “For most of the planet’s history, there was not enough available, and life was restricted to very simple forms like microbes.”


Dr. Nigel Blamey


The full article in Geology can be read at http://bit.ly/2ahfjma. To view a press release from the GSA, go to http://bit.ly/29Wdd6I.

With this study, the oxygen in the air that allowed the earliest animals to breathe has been measured directly for the first time. Blamey used samples of halite – salt that forms naturally at the intersection of sea and atmosphere – that have been dated at 815 million years old. He crushed the halite in a vacuum, removing the gasses trapped within the salt crystals. He then measured the percentage of oxygen in the trapped gasses at 10.3 to 13.4 percent of the atmosphere.

“That’s adequate for life to evolve,” Blamey said. “We probably would’ve struggled and died, but worms and brachiopods can survive with that amount of oxygen.”

In comparison, the oxygen content of modern Earth’s atmosphere is 20.9 percent.

“With the mass spec, I am measuring the fossil gasses trapped 815 million years ago,” he said. “I’m doing direct analysis by measuring gasses coming from contact with the atmosphere and brine. Others who are studying this are analyzing deep marine sediment by indirect methods. So, this is a huge step forward in science.”

The measurement was made possible by collaboration between scientists in Canada, United States, United Kingdom, France, Australia and China. This brought together expertise in technology, ancient rocks and the evolution of life.

“We built on years of experience crushing rocks exploring for gold, oil and gas,” Blamey said.

Professor Uwe Brand of Brock University said, “This is really important evidence about the oxygen in the air, which helped one of key events on our planet, the rise of animals.”

Professor John Parnell at the University of Aberdeen said, “We had a good idea about how to get at the ancient air, and it’s very pleasing that our hunch has paid off.”

Blamey earned his doctorate at New Mexico in 2000 in geology, with advisor Dr. Dave Norman. He is an assistant professor at Brock University in Canada and spends his summers in Socorro as an adjunct professor.

He previously made headlines in 2015 when he published an analysis of methane in meteorites from Mars. That publication also relied on Tech’s mass spectrometer. “Evidence for Methane in Martian Meteorites” was published in the June 16, 2015, issue of Nature Communications.

– NMT –