This is the third in a series of photographs of Silurian rocks from Clogher Bay. A brief examination of the literature indicates that the rocks in these pictures belong to the Drom Point Formation which has accumulated to a depth of 300 metres and is part of the Dunquin Group of Silurian Period strata in Ireland. The Drom Point and Croagh-marhin Formations consist of shallow-marine, fossiliferous siltstones and very fine to fine grained sandstones.
You don’t have to be a rockhound to be impressed by the spectacular scenery at The Hopewell Rocks. Tall cliffs of sloping red strata rise high above the Bay of Fundy shore, with an abundance of naturally worked shapes, caves, arches, and free-standing pillars of rock called sea stacks. At high tide, people can kayak around the stacks, also known locally as “Flower Pots” because of the groups of full-grown trees that grow on top of them – as they also do right to the cliff edges, with their root systems often clearly visible. At low tide, it is possible to descend a staircase to the ocean floor itself and explore these geological phenomena close up. Viewing time on the seashore is limited by the enormous and potentially dangerous rise and fall of the tides in this narrower northern neck of the Bay, where in some places, and at certain times, the sea can rise by as much as 56 feet.
At one time, about 600 million years ago, this part of Canada’s New Brunswick Province started its life near the Equator. Here it was subjected to uplifting earth movements that incorporated it into the Appalachian Oregon, an ancient mountain chain that now stretches from New Foundland to Florida. By 360 million years ago, the Appalachian building activities had ended and were followed by predominantly erosional processes.
The rocks exposed at Hopewell originated specifically in that part of the Appalachians called the Caledonian Mountains. Erosion by water and wind about 350 million years ago, in the Lower Carboniferous Period, steadily wore down the mountains, creating massive volumes of boulders, stones, gravel, sand and mud. Near the highland areas, flash floods tore through the valleys and canyons, washing away loads of eroded sediment and depositing it as stony and gravelly debris. Further from the highlands, sediment formed alluvial plains with sorted layers of sand and mud. The region covered by these terrestrial deposits in present day Atlantic Canada is called the Maritime Basin.
Over time, the coarser material in the erosion deposits on the flood plain became consolidated and cemented together with finer sand and silt. Because the land lay near the equator, the climate was hot and dry. Iron-bearing minerals became oxidised, and the rocks turned into redbeds. The series of red rock layers is now known as the Hopewell Cape Formation; this is the rock exposed in the cliffs and sea stacks at Hopewell today – eventually brought to its current position by Continental Drift, the tectonic movement of continental crustal plates.
In the first instance, the variably-textured sedimentary strata were deposited in horizontal layers. However, earth movements tilted them to angles between 30 and 45 degrees. The tilting of the rocks caused horizontal cracks to form parallel to the bedding planes, and also vertically at right angles to the strata. These lines of weakness in the rocks have become the points of entry for weathering agents – glaciers, tides, snow, ice, and winds. Erosion by these forces widens the cracks and steadily works away at the softer horizontal strata. The expansion of water as it changes to ice is a significant factor in the enlargement of cracks and crevices, and the breaking up the rock. Sandstone is softer than the conglomerate and easy for waves to wear away. The overall result is that broad columns of rock are carved into the cliff face. Undercutting at the cliff base creates caves and arches. Eventually, some columns are completely separated from the cliff face and become sea-stacks or “flower pots”.
The erosion activities are on-going. Extreme weather events and storms of recent years may accelerate the processes. The cliff face is gradually receding. Sea stacks eventually collapse and new ones are formed. A sea stack can last as little as 100 years or as long as a thousand. However, there is no need to panic about seeing the sights at Hopewell as soon as possible for fear that they will all disappear into the sea – geologists have calculated that there is enough conglomerate in the Hopewell Cape Formation to make “flower pots” for the next 100,000 years.
Chondrites are trace fossils or ichnofossils. They are small branching burrows or tunnels that were made while the sediments were still soft and have subsequently become preserved in the hardened strata. There is a great deal of uncertainty about which organisms created the burrows because no animal has ever been found within them – but they may have been some kind of small marine worm. There is evidence to support the idea that the burrows were formed in sediments with reduced oxygen or none at all.
The trace fossil Chondrites, a highly branched burrow system of unknown endobenthic deposit feeders, occurs in all types of sediment, including those deposited under anaerobic conditions. In some cases, such as the Jurassic Posidonienschiefer Formation of Germany, Chondrites occurs in black, laminated, carbonaceous sediment that was deposited in chemically reducing conditions. In other cases, such as numerous oxic clastic and carbonate units throughout the geologic column, Chondrites typically represents the last trace fossil in a biotutbation sequence. This indicates that the burrow system was produced deep within the sediment in the anaerobic zone below the surficial oxidized zone that was characterized by freely circulating and oxidizing pore waters.
The Chondrites shown in these pictures occurred in Silurian rocks of the Dunquin Group on the Dingle Peninsula in western Ireland. Some were found in beach stones at the northern end of Smerwick Harbour, however, the majority were photographed in Clogher Bay on large boulders and in bedrock.
From the southern sandy shore of Rhossili Beach in Gower, the cliffs tower overhead, bearing the village itself. Sheep with bright red and purple markings nonchalantly graze the craggy upper slopes. Visitors to the Worms Head Causeway are minute figures among the hummocks of a former castle, peering recklessly over the edge to the beach below.
The path down from the village to the beach has been disrupted by last winter’s land slip, and heavy machinery continues to make a new, easier way to the shore. The red earth scars of the recent and many previous movements are visible along the face of the fault-line valley that separates the Carboniferous Limestone Rhossili headland from the greater height of the Old Red Sandstone in Rhossili Down. Boulders litter the beach at this point. Some loose rocks are red sandstones and conglomerates from the Down. Many of the larger boulders are composed of angular limestone fragments (something to do with glaciation I think – maybe till) held together by a crystalline matrix that formed from calcium-rich groundwater percolating between the stones. Some boulders are huge chunks of Black Rock Limestone or similar from the headland and must weigh many tons.
Standing far out on the shore allows a panoramic view of the cliffs, from the soft red soil and erratic turf of the land slip area, along the bare rock exposed strata of the basal third of the cliffs, to the tidal island of Worms Head beyond. The cliff face is scalloped in and out by early quarrying activities. The distinct diagonal arrangement of the dipping rock layers contrasts with the horizontal colour banding caused by the colonisation of the rock surface between tide levels by organisms with different tolerances to exposure.
In places, tidal pools of strangely blue water skirt the pale, barnacle and mussel encrusted rock. Sand ripples like the lans and grooves of massive fingerprints decorate the beach, and create intricate arrangements around isolated boulders, reminding me of Japanese Zen gardens. Rounded smooth limestone pebbles in caves and alcoves bear fossil Sea Lily stems. And everywhere, sharp-edged fragments on the beach are evidence for the continuous weathering of the cliff face where each rock fall is signified by the fresh exposure of frequently orange-coloured stone
This marks the final post in the series about the rocks at Ferriters Cove. I had spent a happy few hours on the beach and reached the limit of accessible shore at Ferriters Cove. Time to call it a day. At this northernmost part of the shore, the steeply sloping strata in the cliff, with the bedding planes facing outwards as a continuous sheet, at first seem to be buckling under their own weight, as seen in images 55a and 56 in the previous post. Then, just a few metres further on, the strata can be viewed side-on across the bedding planes with the sequence of individual layers revealed. The strata are curved concavely so that the cliff face is like the under-side of a huge wave, the crest of which is curving over and about to crash down and break. You can see this best in images 60 and 61.
There are also some enigmatic markings on that part of the bedrock on the beach which is covered each day by the tide. I wonder if these are fossils. Photo 73 has a number of rounded shapes that look like they might be gastropods; and Bembexia is a marine snail that is recorded in this locality.
More problematic are the plant-like patterns which occur on a number of rocks (see images 79 – 81). They seem to have a central stem with numerous branchlets along the length. I am not at all certain that these are fossils although they seem to be integral with the surface of the rock and to have a slightly different composition which is reflected in the fact that there is no black biofilm (maybe lichen) growing on them. I am fairly sure that the ‘plants’ are not grazing trails left by the feeding activities of the adjacent limpets and periwinkles. Plants are in fact recorded from the Silurian but I cannot find any illustrations that resemble these Ferriters Cove ‘plants’.
In an article about the Silurian Period on the website of the University of California Museum of Paleontology it says:
Perhaps the most striking of all biological events in the Silurian was the evolution of vascular plants, which have been the basis of terrestrial ecology since their appearance. Most Silurian plant fossils have been assigned to the genus Cocksonia, a collection of branching-stemmed plants that produce sporangia at their tips.
However, drawings of that particular genus show a very different branching system to that exhibited by the Ferriters Cove ‘plants’. Maybe I will get a clearer understanding when I have tracked down some of the specialist research papers on the fossils of this area such as those written by C. H. Holland:
Holland, C. H. (1969) Irish counterpart of the Silurian of Newfoundland. Memoir of the association of Petroleum Geologists 12, 298-308.
Holland, C. H. (1987) Stratigraphical and structural relationships of the Dingle Group (Silurian), County Kerry, Ireland. Geological Magazine 124, 33-42.
Holland, C. H. (1988) The fossiliferous Silurian rocks of the Dunquin inlier, Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Ireland. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Earth Sciences 79, 347-360.