Ichnology Can Tell Geologic Tales

AAPG award winner and short course instructor George Pemberton has a passion for teaching, and for ichnology:
AAPG award winner and short course instructor George Pemberton has a passion for teaching, and for ichnology: "I had been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes in my youth, and ichnology kind of reminded me of a Sherlockian mystery.”
There’s a vocabulary screen saver for some computers called Word of the Day. It features thousands of words crawling against a pretty blue background, offering their multiple meanings, history and usage. And while there are some scientific terms featured, “ichnology” is not one of them.

One gets the impression if AAPG award winning professor George Pemberton had his way, it would be.

Pemberton, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta, is teaching “Applied Ichnology: The Use of Trace Fossils in Sequence Stratigraphy, Exploration and Production Geology” in London November 24-26.

He says ichnology is a field that may provide a number of answers to a number of today’s geologic questions.

So, you’re asking, what is it?

“Ichnology,” Pemberton says, “is the study of animal-sediment inter-relationships.”

Specifically, it brings sedimentologists, paleontologists, stratigraphers and geochemists together to unravel the post-depositional history of sedimentary rocks with respect to the lasting effects that the activities of small animals and plants have on sediment properties and stratification.

It focuses on trace fossils (sedimentary structures that directly reflect organism activity such as burrows, borings, trails, tracks and fecal pellets), bioturbation and bioerosion.

Interpretation of such post depositional biogenic features can help geologists solve major problems of paleoecology, paleoenvironmental reconstruction, basin analysis, diagenesis and so on.

A New Appreciation

Big, bearded and with a knowing smile, he’s the passionate kind of scientist/educator that makes students want to make a life of such endeavors – something he’s proud of.

“I have always loved teaching,” said Pemberton, a 2008 winner of AAPG’s Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator award.

And the subject of ichnology is something he loves to teach.

“Biogenic sedimentary structures (trace fossils) are the manifestation of animal behavior as a response to environmental parameters,” he said. “As such they are sensitive in delineating parameters that are difficult to ascertain any other way (temperature, salinity, low oxygen levels, etc.). Such parameters are then used to discern paleoenvironmental interpretations.”

What all this means for the profession, he continued, is, “In the past, trace fossil research in hydrocarbon reservoir rocks was almost exclusively restricted to exploration geology; however, recent research shows that ichnology has significant applications in production geology as well.”

And that could mean interest.

And that could mean money.

He knows that the study and the seminar will be somewhat new for most participants, which is why he thinks even those tangentially interested in the field should be familiar with the fundamentals.

“The topic is not really mainstream, and people are always skeptical of new ideas,” he said. “What I hope is that participants in the course come away with a new appreciation of a relatively new tool.”

Looking for Clues

Pemberton’s interest in ichnology started in undergraduate school.

“I did a bachelor’s thesis on Ordovician carbonates in 1972, and the unit had trace fossils,” he said. “I then read all of Dolf Seilacher’s papers in German and was hooked on the subject.

“I had been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes in my youth, and ichnology kind of reminded me of a Sherlockian mystery,” he said. “I then went to McMaster University and did both a master’s and Ph.D. in ichnology and was hooked.”

During his studies, Pemberton worked both on modern animal-sediment relationships and in ancient rock units.

“I realized that by ignoring the biologic aspects of a sedimentary unit you could not make a credible interpretation of the depositional system,” he said. “Sedimentary geologists commonly ignore the biogenic structures, and the course points out how they can be used in both exploration and production.

“I find that once people are exposed to it they usually can see the value in incorporating the ichnological data.”

Pretty heady stuff, but then Pemberton comes back, again, to his love for teaching. He says you either get it or you don’t about the transcendence – the joy, he calls it – of seeing someone turn-on to a subject.

“Sometimes there is a moment that you see it click for the person, and nothing can top that moment,” he said. “I have seen average students turn into brilliant ones almost overnight because it clicked in. I feel that the most important role of a professor is teaching and supervising students.”

And unlike parents, who will never tell you who their favorite child is, Pemberton, who is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a member of the Canada Research Chair in Petroleum Geology, isn’t quite so reticent.

“I enjoy the challenges of undergraduate teaching as well as graduate level teaching, but there is something about watching the scientific maturity of a graduate student,” he said.

“My father once asked me why I did not take one of the high paying jobs that companies offer me, and I gave him two Ph.D. dissertations and asked him to read the acknowledgements,” he said. “I told him there was no amount of money that I could make that would be as valuable to me as what one of those students wrote about me in the acknowledgement.”

Perhaps you need that kind of passion and joy to teach about depositional systems and biogenic aspects.

Or perhaps you just need to be one of those geologists who understand that under every rock, literally, is a Sherlockian mystery. 

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Education Update

A new AAPG course on applied ichnology will be offered Nov. 24-26 in London, England.

Applied Ichnology: The Use of Trace Fossils in Sequence Stratigraphy, Exploration and Production Geology,” will be taught by George Pemberton, a 2008 AAPG Grover E. Murray Memorial Distinguished Educator award winner.

Pemberton’s course will be a combined lecture-core workshop, with a focus on geologic problem-solving and practical applications, conceptual models and case histories of trace fossils in paleoenvironmental analysis.

Included will be such topics as:

  • General models of bioturbation.
  • Animal-sediment relationships.
  • Paleoenvironmental interpretations based on trace fossil associations.
  • Sedimentologic implications of biogenic textures and fabrics.
  • The influence of bioturbation on early diagenic processes.
  • The implications of burrowing on fluid flow pathways in hydrocarbon bearing reservoirs.

Registration and additional information is available online.  

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