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Science at UCMP : Research : Field notes : Lorraine Casazza

Pyramids, forams, and Red Sea reefs: Field notes from Lorraine Casazza

By UCMP grad student Lorraine Casazza, December, 2007–January 7, 2008


Lorraine came to Egypt on a Fulbright Fellowship to work on a coral reef monitoring method using foraminifera, and has been granted a six-month extension to continue her work. Lorraine believes that the decline of coral reefs is a global problem that requires global solutions. Through international collaboration, scientists have the ability to bring cultures, and nations, together.

December, 2007

Lorraine with a 250,000-year-old uplifted coral terrace
Here I am with a 250,000-year-old, uplifted coral terrace behind me. *Click on any photo on this page to see an enlargement.
The coral reefs of the Red Sea
If you're a SCUBA diver, or even a fan of Jacques Cousteau, then you've probably heard about the coral reefs of the Red Sea. Cousteau, most famous for his hugely popular television series "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," filmed the first color footage taken at a depth of 150 feet there, and called the Red Sea his favorite diving area in the world.

And with good reason — the Red Sea reefs are arguably the most spectacularly beautiful reefs in the world. But as much as I agree with Monsieur Cousteau and love exploring the living coral reefs of the Red Sea, this holiday season I'm headed to the coast to investigate their history.

History's clues to the future
The Red Sea is relatively young. It's only about 25 million years old, compared to, say, the Atlantic Ocean, which formed closer to 200 million years ago. The two salt-water bodies do have something in common though; they both formed as a result of a sea-floor spreading at a divergent plate boundary. This is a place where two plates of Earth's crust meet, and are actually being pushed apart by hot magma flowing up from the mantle to the Earth's surface. It's a little like two conveyor belts running in opposite directions; the hot magma comes to the surface where it cools and hardens, then is pushed apart by more hot magma rising up.

In the Atlantic this boundary is called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and because it's been active for almost 200 million years, the Atlantic's had time to grow into a huge ocean basin. The Red Sea, which lies along a plate boundary known generally as the Great Rift Valley, might be as big as the Atlantic some day, but at a growth rate of about one centimeter of new seafloor on each side of the boundary per year, it's going to take a long, long time.

But it's one of the side effects of past sea-floor spreading in the Red Sea that's important to my work. As the two sides of the ocean basin have been pushed apart by activity along the plate boundary, rocks along the margins have gotten pushed up to higher elevations. That means that stuff that was once underwater along the coast has been pushed up so high that it's not underwater anymore.

So all along the coast of Egypt (and along nearly all the coastline of the Red Sea) there are fossil coral reefs that have been pushed up above the water. These were fringing reefs, reefs that grow right along shorelines, much like the extensive fringing reefs that still live in the Red Sea today. In terms of geologic time, these fossil reefs are just babies — the oldest reef terrace I'm interested in is only about 230,000 years old.

There are two sets of reef terraces I'm going to be looking at. The first set occur right along the water's edge — they're the youngest at about 50,000-130,000 years old, and they lived during the last interglacial period. Then there's another set of terraces that are even older, and they lived during the interglacial before the last one, with glacial periods of much colder temperatures and lower sea-levels occurring between them, and between the youngest terraces and today.

The youngest fossil terrace at Wadi Gassus is right along the shoreline The oldest fossil terrace is well above sea level
Left: The youngest fossil terrace at Wadi Gassus is right along the shoreline, whereas … Right: The oldest fossil terrace is well above sea level.

I want to know what species of coral lived during these different periods, and if they changed from period to period. Why? Because looking at the fossil record of reefs, and seeing if and how they changed across these big fluctuations in climate might tell us something about how coral communities are going to change in the future in response to the climate changes we're undergoing now. For countries that rely heavily on coral reefs to draw tourists, having a sense of how their resources are going to be effected in the coming decades could be a big help in making smart policy decisions.

Field work along the Red Sea coast of Egypt can be tricky. Sure, there are the usual logistical obstacles: arranging transportation to field sites, buying and organizing equipment and supplies, plus making sure you have all the necessary permits to be working on the rocks. There's also knowing where you're going of course.

All of this is stuff that I've been working on for months. I've been out here about a dozen times, driving up and down the coast to scout out good outcrops, i.e., places where fossil coral reefs are preserved and easy to get at and climb on. Without someone to be your field guide and bring you right to the sweet spots, you have to find them yourself.

I was at least lucky enough to have a good paper written by an Egyptian scientist, Mohamed El Moursi, who worked out the geology of the Egyptian coastal plain and described the locations where good fossil outcrops could be found, along with radiometric dates so we know how old the outcrops are. Of course, the coast is pretty much empty desert with a single road running along the water's edge, and the place names he uses are names that might be known by locals, but they don't appear on any signs. That means a lot of long days of drive, stop, explore, drive, stop, explore, drive, stop, explore ….

Actually, for me it's the most fun part of paleontological field work. It has all the thrill and excitement of discovering great fossil locations combined with the pleasure of hiking around some truly beautiful, desert locations.

Most of the time I explored with my great friend, Hysam. He started out as a hired driver on my first trip to the coast, but quickly turned into the best field assistant I've ever had. Sometimes I brought my husband, Tim, or my friend Mariam from Cairo, but mostly it was just Hysam and I. He thought I was crazy for going out in the hot sun every day (Egyptians are wise to the dangers of prolonged sun exposure), but he soldiered on with me anyway.

Hysam, the greatest field assistant there ever was My husband Tim does battle with the only fly in the Eastern Desert before walking another transect Mariam takes a break from exploring new fossil localities
I had some good help with my field work. Left: Hysam, the greatest field assistant there ever was, next to a giant fossil Porites. Middle: My husband Tim does battle with the only fly in the Eastern Desert before walking another transect. Right: Mariam takes a break from exploring new fossil localities.

With their help and El Moursi's original work, I was able to identify three locations along the coast that have what I want: two lower reef terraces from the last interglacial, and at least one terrace from the interglacial before the last one. Plus the outcrops are extensive, and I can get to them without needing ropes.

I also have my permits. The Fulbright granted me permission from the Egyptian government to conduct research in the country, but more permits are needed to actually access specific field sites. It wasn't clear which governing body was the right one to give that permission, but after many, many cups of strong, Egyptian tea drunk in many, many dusty Cairo offices, I've been given permission by the Egyptian Environmental Assessment Agency to work along the coast south of Hurghada.

So now that the arrangements are made, and I've roped my city slicker husband into helping Hysam and I work, we're about to discover some of the special complications of work along the Egyptian Red Sea coast.

Don't cross the barbed wire
One of the long-lasting and tragic side effects of the Egypt-Israel wars is the 5.1 million landmines that remain around the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea coast. In theory, the areas that have mines have been identified by the military, and you can see some of these as you drive along the coastal road. The signs might be rusty, and the barbed wire fences sagging, but no matter how dilapidated they look you should never, never cross a barbed wire fence.

My field sites are all located at the mouths of wadis, or dry riverbeds. The primary reason for this is that these allow for easy access to the coastal outcrops — you just walk along the wadi to the ocean, and there they are. But a great side benefit is that these natural beaches are popular with both occasional tourists, and the Bedouin who come down to catch fish and collect conch to eat, so you can be sure they're safe.

December 21, 2007

Not without a police escort
When I said the coastline here is empty desert, I wasn't being totally accurate. As recently as a few years ago it was empty desert, but increasingly it's empty desert punctuated with sprawling resorts. In fact, over the course of the last year I have personally counted at least 10 resorts that sprang up where once there was just sand.

In some ways it can make things easier. My husband isn't much of a camper, so we've opted to stay at a resort called Mangrove Bay, just up the road from my first field site, Wadi Wizr.

Since this is going to be a long trip and it's expensive to rent a car in Egypt (around $100 USD a day) I decide to hire one of the taxis at the local taxi stand to drive us down here. From the airport in Hurghada, it's roughly 150 miles south, but it feels much longer in the back of an old Peugeot station wagon in the hot, hot sun with no air conditioning. But our driver is cheerful and friendly, and he agrees to come back down and pick us up six days later.

Once we get settled in, I head to the front desk to arrange for a ride to the outcrop each day. All I want is someone to drop us off at the outcrop in the morning, and pick us up at sunset each day. Simple, yes? Alas, no.

The hotel manager informs me that despite the fact I have all the proper permits, despite the fact I have the head of the EEAA on speed dial, he cannot possibly allow me to spend the day 10 minutes down the road unattended. Because I am a foreigner, I must have a police escort with me at all times.

This isn't the first time I've run into this problem, and I'm filled with dread. Egyptian police do not like being out in the desert, and when they get bored it's time to go, which means it's tough to get a full day's work in. Plus, it makes them nervous and uncomfortable to see a woman climbing around on rocks, swinging a hammer and carrying heavy bags, and that means they are forever trying to prevent me from working. I can already hear the chorus of "Madam, No! No Madam!"

I try being reasonable, then I try begging, and finally I resort to waving my permits around and threatening to cancel my reservation and leave. I'm bluffing, and he knows it, but he decides to take some pity on me. Instead of sending me out with a cadre of heavily armed obstructionists, he calls his personal friend who also happens to be the chief of police. It will just be one plain-clothes officer with a pistol, and he won't make us leave the outcrop until I'm ready.

I decide to consider this a success.

A new resort stakes its claim on the once empty coast In our taxi on the 150-mile drive to the Mangrove Bay resort The bus takes us back to the hotel, and you can see how happy our police escort is about it
Left: A new resort stakes its claim on the once empty coast. This sign is odd because the letter 'P' doesn't exist in Arabic, and usually gets translated as 'B' — so one would not expect a mistake like this. Perhaps an over-zealous translator wanted to show off his knowledge of the letter 'P.' But then there's the 'A' that's missing from "PRIVATE" …. Middle: In our taxi on the 150-mile drive to the Mangrove Bay resort. Right: At the end of the day, the bus takes us back to the hotel, and you can see how happy our police escort is about it.

December 22-24

We wake up before dawn and watch the sunrise over breakfast at the resort restaurant, then climb on board the giant tourist bus that will be our ride for the next six days.

In order to characterize the assemblage of corals on the fossil reef, we lay a tape measure down along the outcrop, and make a record of the coral species that touches the tape measure every one meter. To get substantial coverage, we do this for 100-120 meters of outcrop. Some of the corals are species I recognize — things like Galaxia fascicularis, which is so distinctive it can't be confused with anything else. Some of the species I'm not so sure of, or simply don't recognize. So in order to be able to identify these later — and to create a lasting record of the outcrops, I take a series of photographs at each meter: one to show the overall shape and context of the coral, then close-ups showing the tiny structures inside each corallite — which is most of what taxonomists use to identify coral. I also collect specimens to take home with me, which will be necessary for making IDs, then these will be deposited in the UCMP so that other researchers can check my identifications in the future.

Corals on the youngest terraces are much better preserved The giant clam, <i>Tridacna</i>, wedged into a colony of the coral <i>Galaxia fascicularis</i> More than coral gets preserved in the terraces. The white material is calcareous algae
Left: Corals on the youngest terraces are much better preserved. This is Favites pentagona, a species still common in the Red Sea today. Middle: Other organisms are preserved on the reef as well. This is the remains of a giant clam, Tridacna, wedged into a colony of the coral Galaxia fascicularis. Like Favites, Tridacna is still a part of modern Red Sea reefs. Right: More than coral gets preserved in the terraces. The white material is calcareous algae, preserved in a matrix of sediment.

I know it sounds straightforward, but it's slower going than you might think. The outcrop is uneven, just like a living reef, and getting in a good position to take pictures can be difficult. Also, just like a living reef, the whole thing isn't just corals — there are pockets and patches of sand and reef debris preserved in the outcrop too. It's important to be consistent with your methods in the field, so even when there are no corals, I still make a record of what's on the one meter mark. Later, when I do my analysis, the number of points on the transect that are sand and not coral, can tell me something about the kind of reef environment preserved.

The youngest fossil terrace at Wadi Gassus is right along the shoreline
The oldest fossil terrace is well above sea level
Top: This is Scorpaenopsis diabolus, the devil scorpionfish. These guys are poisonous, and blend in with the rubble they like to rest on, so you have to keep your eyes peeled for them when walking across the shallow backreef area along the shore. Luckily we saw him first! Bottom: Corals on the oldest terraces have been weathered so that many of the important morphological features have been "erased," making them harder to identify.

It's really hot out, but luckily, the lowest terrace is right at the shoreline, and as the tide comes in, we're standing in salt water which helps keep us cool. I also take a break to go for a swim when the heat gets to be too much.

We're a mess by the sunset, but we've made good progress and I'm happy as we climb back on the bus — which drives back up the wadi (no, there is no road in the wadi) to the main road and back to our hotel.

December 25, 2007

Christmas in Egypt
My husband had agreed to postpone Christmas (and New Year) until we got back to Cairo and could celebrate properly with presents, carols, and our new Egyptian plastic Christmas tree. I felt a little guilty asking him to spend the actual day of his favorite holiday holding a tape measure against a rock (even though he did it with a smile), so it seems like a good omen when the resort manager comes by our breakfast table to let us know a special "animation" (meaning an entertainment show involving dancing, music, etc.) is being planned for that night. It seems like a slightly less-good omen when he informs us that attendance is mandatory … and it will cost us an extra $20 USD per head.

My husband grumbles about forking over the extra dough, but while working at the outcrop later, we speculate about what the special animation might be. The birth of Jesus doesn't seem to lend itself to the glitzy style of the local resort animations — but it's almost as difficult to imagine Santa Claus dancing in an Egyptian show. By the time dinner rolls around and we walk up to the restaurant for the special event, we're pretty excited to see what they have planned.

As we get ready to eat, the lights go down, and a Russian girl in a terrible black wig runs into the room, breathless. The music starts up, and she begins to jerk her hips, completely ignoring the rhythm. Tim looks at me, his fork hanging in the air halfway to his mouth. I get this terrible feeling that he's going to start laughing, so I quickly pinch him under the table. I'm sure that this is supposed to be belly dancing, and equally sure that it is not belly dancing at all.

Egypt is the birthplace of belly dance, but in the current social and religious climate it's disappearing as an art form. It's not the sort of thing Egyptian fathers want their daughters to learn. Which explains why any time you see a dancer in Egypt, they are invariably Russian. Some of the Russian girls are well-trained and dance beautifully, while some, like this girl tonight, just fake it.

I suspect the show is intended as an exhibition of traditional Egyptian music and dance, but something has gone terribly wrong in the translation. In addition to the fraudulent dancer, my husband swears the musicians are playing Gnawa, which is rooted in pre-Islamic, sub-Saharan Africa with a long history in Algeria and Morocco — but nothing to do with Egypt. Then there's a British man dressed as a Sufi who spins in a circle for something like 10 or 15 minutes. Spinning is a form of meditation among Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam, but in this case it involves tricks with hula-hoops and scarves. The next performance of "traditional" dance at least has Egyptian performers, but it looks suspiciously like hip-hop with sticks. "A tradition they made up yesterday" my husband mutters around his potatoes, remembering that twenty dollars with increasing bitterness.

There is something very post-globalization about it that intrigues me though: sitting in an audience of Germans at an Egyptian resort watching British and Russian performers act out some colonial fantasy version of Arabic culture that has nothing to do with actual Egyptian traditions. At what other point in history could such a cross-cultural scramble exist? It may not be the most traditional Christmas we've ever had, but it just might be the most memorable!

December 28-29
After spending six days at Wadi Wizr, we make our way north to work on the next location — Wadi Gassus. I've actually done most of the work on the lower terraces here already, so we focus on the older terrace — a 30-meter-high cliff set well back from the water.

The steepness of the cliff makes work slower and harder, but I'm mostly distracted by how different the older reef looks from the younger ones. I recognize many of the same corals I saw on the older reefs at Wadi Wizr, but again, they don't look much like the species on the younger fossil reefs.

One thing to consider, however, is how much more weathered these older corals are. They've been around a lot longer, and the preservation isn't anywhere near as good as for the younger ones. Am I really seeing a change in the coral assemblages from one interglacial to the next, or do they just look so different because of the way they've been worn away?

I won't know the answer to that until I get my specimens home and spend some quality time examining them.

December 30, 2007-January 6, 2008
One of the drawbacks of the expanding development on the Red Sea coast is the loss of so many great fossil outcrops. My last field site, Sharm Al Arab, is the prime example of this. It was already a construction site when I first visited it last year. Hysam had to spend some serious time chatting up the construction crew before they would let us come in and walk around the steep cliffs cut by a wadi. It's the only site south of a place called Gebel Zeit where all eight uplifted fossil reef and beach terraces — representing 330,000 years of time — can be found.

Since that first visit we've had sporadic luck getting access to the site. Sometimes whoever was in charge would let us go walk around, sometimes they wouldn't. My permits meant nothing to them because the land was now privately owned, and it was up to the owner whether I could work there. Complicating the situation was the fact that there were some disputes about who exactly owned which cliff areas. My one face-to-face meeting with the owner didn't go so well. He would let me look at the site, but I was forbidden to take a single photograph. I think he suspected me of spying for his rival.

But now the resort is finished, and I've been told that as long as I'm a paying guest, I can take pictures of whatever I want. Of course, if I chose not to be a paying guest, I can forget about it.

So now we're staying at a brand new, sprawling resort. It sounds great, I know, but they've dynamited so much of the cliffs that a lot of my outcrops are covered over or just a big pile of rubble. One of them is divided by a giant staircase and has a swimming pool on top.

But after freaking out, I realize that there's still enough exposed and intact to get a good sampling. Tim and I might look like crazy people scaling the side of the cliffs while everyone else lounges under umbrellas around the pool or on the beach, but at least there's something left to work on. We decide to enjoy the resort for our first day, since we'll be working dawn to dusk for the rest of our stay.

This resort is the only place I've ever been that has an "all-you-can-drink" policy at dinner. I'm not kidding. There's a table of Egyptian hard liquor and diners are invited to help themselves. I'm afraid of going blind, so I don't touch it, but the many Russian guests make good use.

We get to bed early because tomorrow it's time to get back to work.

January 7, 2008
That's it! I actually have all of my transects done! My suitcases (and Tim's) are full of fossil corals and weigh about a thousand pounds, which is going to make customs at the airport fun, but that's okay. In another day I'll have them all back in Cairo, and I can start figuring out what species my mystery corals are. I can't wait!

I love fieldwork, but I'm definitely tired after working in the hot sun, dawn 'til dusk, for more than two weeks. I'm actually looking forward to being back in Cairo for a while.


All photos by Lorraine Casazza.