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Ben Author Profile Page

Posts: 2270

Reply: 101

PostPosted: January 22, 2007 11:50 AM 

brian: Thanks for your input. I was beginning to feel all alone in this debate.
I think we all probably see only what we want to but it is hard to dispute that evidence.

marsman Author Profile Page

Posts: 303

Reply: 102

PostPosted: January 22, 2007 12:43 PM 

Indentations (Upper Left, Center Right, and Lower Right) in the soil are not spherical.

In the case of the spherules, the indentations should be spherical and display an erosion shadow.

However, if these 'spherical' holes are somehow closing up all by themselves (i.e. soil is accreting in a dry wind blown environment), then there is yet another problem for the 'wind blown sand' erosion theory.

Sol 28 (No visible spherule sockets)

Sol 25 (No visible spherule sockets)

RATed image (No visible spherule sockets)

I.E. - No spherules have been dislodged from their sockets in this image.

And to date, no spherules have been dislodged from their sockets from a single RAT, either.

This picture is on Earth, and the holes (large or small) do not get filled up with sand from wind erosion.

marsman Author Profile Page

Posts: 303

Reply: 103

PostPosted: January 22, 2007 1:11 PM 

Sol 39 (Floating spherule center right)

This spherule is just 'hanging there' in mid-air. Now, most of us know that it is attached to a 'stalk' that we have seen in the PanCam images.

...But where the heck is the spherule socket?

And with regards to 'wind erosion', how is it that the 'stalk' can be of a much harder substance than the underlying rock? If this is a wind erosion phenomenon (dedo), then shouldn't the stalk have the same degree of hardness as the underlying rock?

If the spherule-and-stalk is eroding out to the surface, then why don't we see any spherules-with-stalks lying on the ground (or a bit underground) on the surface?

And if the sherule-and-stalks are getting constantly buried by sand, then why do the spherules themselves persist on the surface without any stalks?

marsman Author Profile Page

Posts: 303

Reply: 104

PostPosted: January 22, 2007 1:55 PM 

Here's another one..

If the stalks are a rigid crystalline structure that is much harder than the underlying rock, then why do these stalks bend over like a letter 'J'?

Courtesy of hortonheardawho:

I've noted before that the stalks are always pointing horizontal with respect to the bedding plane.

However, in the picture above, it shows a flatish layered rock on the ground with spherule / spherule stalks that are bending over and pointing horizontal with respect to the surface!

marsman Author Profile Page

Posts: 303

Reply: 105

PostPosted: January 22, 2007 2:17 PM 

Sol 35:

No spherule has been dislodged by the RAT.

Sol 34 (Similar to Sol 35):

Spherule in the lower left corner has also been sliced by the RAT, but has not been dislodged, either. It instead remains firmly anchored by 'something'..

My guess is that the reason these spherules didn't get dislodged by the RAT is because they are being held in place by spherule stalks.

Another counterpoint would be that the spherule stalks are not a 'wind erosion' phenomenon ..but, are instead something that forms in the rocks, and anchors the spherules to the rocks, and for some period of time grows outward away from the surface of the rock.

marsman Author Profile Page

Posts: 303

Reply: 106

PostPosted: January 22, 2007 4:45 PM 

We have seen the concretion indicators from tyhe begimning, berry sockets, spherules uncovered within rock by ratting, spherules dug up in trenches and spherules split in situ.

Fragile, broken, worn out berries...

All Earthly concretions, especially ones that are solely made out of hematite, have a hardness rating equivalent to quartz. Fragileness is typically not a physical characteristic of a concretion, with one exception..

"Desert ecology - Life in the upper crust : Article : Nature

Desert crusts consist of a tangled mesh of various types of organism that bind, in a mucilaginous, fragile concretion, the fine-textured inorganic particles ... "

Warning: Pay-per-view link ($1 Cool


And BTW, desert varnish can also be classified as being a 'fragile concretion'.



Your original "desert varnish" hypothesis for the Mars spherules keeps sounding better to me all the time..

LWS Author Profile Page

Posts: 3062

Reply: 107

PostPosted: January 22, 2007 4:54 PM 

Hi Marsman

You've been busy.

In your reply #102, the berries in the Sol 25 image were dislodged from the surface. They are on the sides of a trench created by Oppy.


LWS Author Profile Page

Posts: 3062

Reply: 108

PostPosted: January 22, 2007 10:07 PM 

Hi Marsman

The first 2 images in your reply 106 seem to show what looks like a former socket for a berry. See here:-

The putative empty socket does'nt look like it was recently freed up by the rat as it contains material that looks like it has been there for sometime.

Also, those 2 sliced berries in my "enhancement" above seem to show some internal structure (Look at them in stereoimagemaker), not like that in some of the broken berries, but like an agglomeration of the sods in their immediate environment and not what one would expect from hard, inert haematite.

I think we need to take a closer look, as far as is possible within the limitations of the MI, at the earlier berry pictures for clues of a possible origin from microbes aggregating surface material and forming a skin around the circumference of the berries and laying down a thin haematite desert varnish rind.


marsman Author Profile Page

Posts: 303

Reply: 109

PostPosted: January 23, 2007 11:38 AM 

I think my response would be that this is not a spherule socket (or a former spherule socket) because:

1. Only the upper left quadrant looks like it might be part of a sphere. However, it may instead just be the rounded edge of the rock.

2. Lower left quadrant looks more like an optical illusion, to me. (i.e. the human brain wanting to see something spherical where nothing is there by trying to 'connect the dots').

3. Same problem with the upper right quadrant.

4. The lower right quadrant does not look spherical at all; let alone circular.

5. The material buildup inside the hole seems to be consistent with the surrounding rock. However, if this were a hole from a dislodged spherule, then I would expect this material buildup to be absent or at best a fine powder leftover from the RAT.


Different topic:

On the surface, I would expect to see spherule sockets that look like concave spherical holes that have been widened out by wind erosion.

but like an agglomeration of the sods in their immediate environment and not what one would expect from hard, inert haematite.

This is consistent with a desert varnish or a desert crust.

I think we need to take a closer look, as far as is possible within the limitations of the MI, at the earlier berry pictures for clues of a possible origin from microbes aggregating surface material and forming a skin around the circumference of the berries and laying down a thin haematite desert varnish rind.

I agree.



LWS Author Profile Page

Posts: 3062

Reply: 110

PostPosted: January 23, 2007 1:09 PM 

Hi Marsman

I agree with you that It is almost certainly not a socket for the reasons you give. Just checking that you're paying attention javascript:emoticon(' Very Happy ')
Very Happy.

Very respectfully


danajohnson Author Profile Page

Posts: 1195

Reply: 111

PostPosted: January 24, 2007 9:46 AM 

If these spheroids and some of the tubules or 'stalks' were very well crystallized or organized in patterns which were very geometric and repeated, would it be possible to distinguish the cause as either organic, or, inorganic? I am asking this to you as a group because you have a professional history and an educated base of reference and experience.
Organic processes are very complex and still well ordered on Earth commonly. Even so, the 'remains' and the ongoing items can appear very chaotic at the visual size of colony and organism surface content. We think of the higher ordered organisms such as vertebrates, and think of rigid order as a prerequisite for functional ordering. As I remember the the early weeks of the MER mission, we saw a great percentage of ordered items even in the odd non-spherical spheroids and the smaller solid items in the soil(regolith) surface.
With many of the item ordered internally, can we now distinguish between organic ordering and inorganic?
If the spheroids and 'stalks' are ordered does it make an argument favorable or dis-favorable to the question of organic influence in the construction of these items?

I am asking this as there is great and complex order in some, simple order in others, and apparent particulate sub-ordering in still others. I believe the order is indicative of a remineralizing influence in the overall collection of spheroid types, as these spheroid sized items are rather large for a single moment of crystallization.
Has anyone been able to recognize Earth based crystallographic similar processes in any spheroids, either volcanic/impact, or sedimentary? Any organic based Earth spheroids with ordered content?
Are there any sequences which would produce complex ordering along a spheroid and stem in combination, especially in Earth type examples?
I was asking this of both the life scientists and the geology trained persons, as we have a far larger planet to find examples within and on, right here on Earth.
Has there been any success in precise matches between Earth items and Mars?
We can see that the 'stem' items are somehow an integral aspect of the spheroid population even if the numbers are minor in the free standing surface Mars 'blueberries'(spheroids).
In the argument of organic/inorganic is there a basis for a sub-population of spheroids which are biologically controlled and produced, and would those be the type which show structural ordering or the more featureless types?
I felt compelled to ask these questions as these early weeks images linked to the previous replies show our first views of Mars with the 'stems' or 'stalks'. The stems are often oriented, but not consistently in various scenes. I don't remember the geologists bringing forward any Earth type similar examples at the size scale of a few millimeters. Has there been any success at finding inorganic Earth types at the size range?


Posts: 708

Reply: 112

PostPosted: January 24, 2007 11:04 PM 

LWS, re your reply 107. Why the contention that the berries in the Sol 25 image (reply 102) were dislodged from the surface? I can't see any indication that they were not uncovered in situ. The soil around them is undisturbed and in fact covers the greater part of the spherules at the top. Also significant is the surface of the spherules which is different to the surface spherules in other shots of the trenching. This is clear evidence of the fact that spherules are in fact buried in the regolith.

The spherule at top right of the sol 34 image clearly shows where a 'stalk' has formed during concretion development and been ratted out. Again a clear indication of a concretion.


Posts: 708

Reply: 113

PostPosted: January 24, 2007 11:14 PM 

Forgot to mention in my last post. The Sol 28 photo in reply 102. Far left, 2/3 down. To my tired eyes that is a socket with the same aspect as the filled socket to the right.

LWS Author Profile Page

Posts: 3062

Reply: 114

PostPosted: January 26, 2007 5:55 PM 

Hi Brian

Thanks for contributing again after so many months. Your well reasoned arguments deserve similar well reasoned rebuttal and I note that Marsman and others have provided some of this rebuttal. Unfortunately, pressure of work does not permit me to give you the full point-by-point answers to the points you have made at this time. However, I will endeavour to do so soon.

Re. your reply #119, however. I have looked at several of these images of trenches, both pancam and MI's. The pancams give a better indication of the original placement of berries that are found in the trench or on its sides and It is usually clear that most, if not all, of the berries seen in trenches came from the surface and that there are few berries below the surface. Therefore the MI's, like the ones from sol 25, might well have been focused on the very few berries in the trench and imo do not show that it is a characteristic of berries to be well distributed below the soil surface.

RE. the differences between the sub-surface and surface berries, i.e. brighter, more polished, darker, etc. Such differences are quite subjective and non-scientific and might not be real since there are so few of the sub-surface ones to make the comparison. The sub-surface ones seen in the MIs might have been dusted off by the action of the rover wheel and so appear brighter than the in-situ surface berries. There also might be more holes in the subsurface ones, again an effect of the removal and rolling by the rover wheel as compared with the surface berries that might have holes on their undersurface where they can't be seen by the MI camera.

In addition, I think I've also read in one of the papers published by rover scientists on the distribution of berries that they form a thin layer on the surface of the soil. They do not appear to be a normal constituent of the sub-surface.

Re the stalk in the sol 34 top berry. I fear this might be anathema to some, but I think that it is possible that the apparent extension might not be a "stalk" at all but merely a portion of the nearby evaporite rock that looks like it is attached to the berry because of the angle of the RAT cut and the fortuitous form of the nearby evaporite.


Ben Author Profile Page

Posts: 2270

Reply: 115

PostPosted: January 26, 2007 10:47 PM 

Winston:I agree with your last sentence. I have thought the same thing.

brian Author Profile Page

Posts: 708

Reply: 116

PostPosted: January 27, 2007 2:54 AM 

Winston, re reply 114 last sentence - there is a high probability that you are right, although the geometry of the rat striations on the spherule compared to the data point from the part ratted spherule in post 105 (sol 34 picture) seems to imply that it rotated during ratting which would have broken a stalk connection.

Given my contention that we are looking at a desert pavenment on the surface the lack of buried berries is in fact hard evidence for that hypothesis. I would not expect to see spherules distributed sub surface. But there are always exceptions and the sol 25 trench berries, IMHO, were uncovered by trenching. In fact their presence caused me to ignore the desert pavement hypothesis until a large number of subsequent excavations failed to show any significant number of buried spherules.

I have no problems with the concept of a desert varnish on some rocks. But there is strong evidence that while desert varnish is exploited by microbes, there is no biological influence in its formation. Last year I posted a link to a paper with extensive research on this but regret I crashed a hard drive and lost the data and haven't been able to locate the post.

marsman Author Profile Page

Posts: 303

Reply: 117

PostPosted: January 28, 2007 12:01 AM 

Here is another white paper to read on desert varnish:

"So much has been said about desert varnish that one wonders if there is anything else that can be said about the topic without repetition of old ideas. Most of the approach to desert varnish so far has been reductionist, by necessity. Desert varnish, however, is a complex phenomenon, an entire miniature Gaia, by itself, in which rocks, dust, bacteria and microcolonial fungi (MCF), water, and desert sun all play roles, which have not been clearly understood.

There has long been a debate as to whether desert varnish is a result of inorganic or of biological processes. To date, few explanations for formation have been suggested for inorganic mechanisms. Most of the ideas about formation have been centered on microbial processes. Most of these have been put forth because microbes or their remnants have been found in association with varnished rocks. Recently, it has been suggested 1 that the remnant organic constituents of dead microbes may act in consort with inorganic processes. This process then, although involving organic compounds, would be a non-biological process. However, since varnishes occur in diverse environments, it is entirely conceivable that their compositions and mechanisms of formation are different. The central question remains: is there an underlying principle for varnish or possibly all rock coatings?

First we review various biological hypotheses by others and ourselves, including our current findings of organic
constituents of coatings. We then present a novel mechanism for the formation process and then introduce a new variable: the role of silicic acid in cementing varnish.
Alexander von Humbodlt, a German geographer, in 1799, described granite boulders among the cataracts near the mouth of the Orinoco River in northeastern Venezuela as covered with a “smooth, black, and if as coated with plumbago”. Strangely, we are still in an observational stage of the desert varnish theory. We know about the association between MCF, bacteria and varnish, but we do not have a clear-cut cause-and-effect explanation. We suggest here a possible connection between the mechanisms of biomineralization involving microbial exo-polymeric carbohydrate substances and silicic acid, and a possible entombment of MCF, fungi, spores, and bacterial products in the rock coatings via their polymerization with silicic acid. The hardening of varnish could be due to the additional crosslinking of silicic acid or its sugar and other organic complexes, with ferric and manganese hydroxides. "


The idea (weird or not) that I have proposed before is that the Mars Spherules may be an 'evolved' form of desert varnish.

marsman Author Profile Page

Posts: 303

Reply: 118

PostPosted: January 28, 2007 12:32 AM 

Here is another article on desert varnish that is more recent:

"Diversity of Microorganisms within Rock Varnish in the Whipple Mountains, California†

K. R. Kuhlman,1* W. G. Fusco,2 M. T. La Duc,1 L. B. Allenbach,2 C. L. Ball,2 G. M. Kuhlman,1 R. C. Anderson,1 I. K. Erickson,3 T. Stuecker,1 J. Benardini,2 J. L. Strap,2 and R. L. Crawford2

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91109,1 Environmental Biotechnology Institute, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho 83844-1052,2 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho 83844-30513

*Corresponding author. Present address: Planetary Science Institute, 1700 East Fort Lowell Rd., Suite 106, Tucson, AZ 85719. Phone: (520) 622-6300. Fax: (520) 622-8060. E-mail:

Received February 16, 2005; Accepted October 19, 2005.

Rock varnish from Arizona's Whipple Mountains harbors a microbial community containing about 10^8 microorganisms g−1 of varnish. Analyses of varnish phospholipid fatty acids and rRNA gene libraries reveal a community comprised of mostly Proteobacteria but also including Actinobacteria, eukaryota, and a few members of the Archaea. Rock varnish represents a significant niche for microbial colonization.

Rock varnish (also known as desert varnish) is a dark, thin (usually 5 to 500 μm thick), layered veneer composed of clay minerals cemented together by oxides and hydroxides of manganese and iron (11, 20, 56, 63, 64). Nineteenth century references to rock varnish include those of Humboldt (42) and Darwin (14). Modern observations of varnish were initiated with the studies of Laudermilk (49) and Engel and Sharp (25); however, despite decades of study, the nucleation and growth mechanisms of rock varnish remain a mystery (11, 18, 37, 44, 57, 5 Cool .

Mn(II) is the soluble form of manganese that is available to organisms. It is stable between pH 6 and 9. Mn(III) and Mn(IV) primarily form insoluble oxides and oxyhydroxides. Microbial Mn(II) oxidation could thus result in the formation of manganese oxides as mineral phases in varnishes, as occurs in other environments (23, 39). Like manganese oxidation, iron oxidation (95) occurs at the exterior of the cell surface. Iron hydroxides are often deposited on the remains of biogenic structures (24). The extracellular deposition of ferric hydroxides is a way for iron-oxidizing organisms to prevent encrustation in iron oxide precipitates (8 Cool . Such precipitates might be incorporated in a varnish matrix through the activities of iron-oxidizing bacteria.

Rock varnish may hold a record of the microclimate in which it is found (7, 10, 11, 30), a hypothesis that has been questioned previously (67, 6 Cool . Some investigators suggest that rock varnish may harbor a historical record of important environmental processes such as long-term climate change (51). Bao et al. (7) studied preservation of atmospheric signatures in rock varnish and concluded that rock varnishes or other surface deposits may provide a record of paleoclimatic information and sulfur biogeochemical cycles. As a deposit of submicrometer layering, rock varnish may record the activity of dust storms, moisture and temperature fluctuations, biological activity, and the occurrence of fires over thousands of years. Rock varnish forms very slowly at rates thought to be between

It has been suggested that varnish or varnish-like materials may exist on Mars (2, 36, 44, 65). If so, varnish may be a niche for colonization by extraterrestrial life forms such as bacteria. Microorganisms are ubiquitous within varnishes on Earth. Thus, the study of Earthly varnishes may lead to the proper design of experiments in coming decades for detection of life on other planets. For example, iron and manganese oxidation by microbes cultivated from varnish has been extensively investigated (1, 19, 26, 33, 43, 46, 47, 54, 56, 77, 78, 80, 83). Perry et al. (59) observed a variety of amino acids in rock varnish and suggested that this is evidence for an intimate association of bacteria with the varnish material. A large variety of bacterial genera have been cultivated from rock varnish. These include Bacillus (43, 56), Geodermatophilus, Arthrobacter, Micrococcus, Curtobacterium, Cellulomonas (43, 4 Cool , Pedomicrobium, and a Metallogenium-like strain (19, 20). Eppard et al. (26) isolated several actinomycete species including Geodermatophilus. Staley et al. (78, 79) observed microcolonial fungi on rock varnish. Taylor-George et al. (83), Gorbushina et al. (32), and Perry (55) have provided evidence that these fungi may be involved in the formation of varnish... "


It's definitely worth reading in its entirety.

marsman Author Profile Page

Posts: 303

Reply: 119

PostPosted: January 28, 2007 12:47 AM 

Near the bottom of the white paper:

"In addition, quantitative real-time PCR using primers specific for enzymes known to be involved in metal oxidation may shed light on the roles that the microbial communities found within rock varnish play with respect to the formation and maintenance of the varnish."

This is why the Mars spherules always persist on the near surface on the sloping sides and crests of dunes, and on the surfaces of rocks despite endless sandstorms, meteorite impacts, cyclonic events, etc.

It is the need to thrive and reproduce that keeps a desert varnish from being destroyed by the elements.

brian Author Profile Page

Posts: 708

Reply: 120

PostPosted: January 28, 2007 3:26 AM 

Re your 114, Thank you. This blog is my favourite. I left for a period because the trend of the blog was towards denegration of the achievements of JPL and an 'agree with me or your an idiot' approach by some posters. I am a mathematician and an engineer, not a biologist or geologist so perhaps some of my contentions are based on naivity. But I freely admit that I support the right of evey poster to make statements, regardless of whether they are woo woo or scientifically based. After all, we all knew tht the earth was center ofr t6he ubniverse 'cause the Pope did say so but!

Regardless, I do not believe foor a second that there is any biological or unusual vector to the formation of the spherules!

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