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  • Writer's pictureM Akbar Hussain

Lake Torrens; A Living Fossil

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

'We acknowledge the Kuyani, Kokatha and Arabunna people as the traditional owners of the Lake Torrens and surrounding lands, and pay our respects to their Elders past and present. We will forever strive for maintaining the sanctity of the lake for its spiritual and cultural significance and advocate its preservation for its natural beauty, pristine nature and the importance of its fragile and unique history, geography, geology and ecosystem for being an important source of knowledge and understanding of our past, present and the future.’


(Stuarts Creek delta at the northern tip of Lake Torrens)


Lake Torrens (Ngurndamukina): More than meets the eye


Lake Torrens (Kuyani: Ngarndamukia or Ngurndamukinah) is the second largest lake in Australia that occasionally fills with water after heavy rain spells once every few years. It was a part of an ancient inland sea that got lifted and turned into lake around 70 million years ago.

Lake Torrens is a place of great cultural and spiritual significance for Kuyani, Kokatha and Arabunna people and forms an important part of the seven sisters dreaming.




My fascination for Australia is perhaps as old as my memories, not for its alpine beauty or metropolitan life style, but for the lack of it. Stretched flat over millions of square kilometers, this humongous granite slab is an old time keeper and a window into the ancient past of our planet.


Australia; An Ultimate Time Capsule?



As the plot goes, an unsuspecting curious girl from year 3000 accidentally gets caught in a crossfire between the peaceful people of remote future and a trigger-happy 'bogan' from the year 2500 (perhaps from a northern Adelaide suburb!), and is taken to the year 1992 in a time capsule where she has to face all the troubles of the early 90's…all this happening in Australia, which according to the movie, happens to be the only spared corner of the world by the year 3000 that survives extinction from the catastrophic interference of humans at a global scale. From the fiction to the reality, the fact of the matter is that Australia indeed has survived major geological pandemoniums throughout the history of Earth over millions, perhaps billions of years, just like a time capsule.



A dead continent?



Nothing could be further from the truth than this. While Australian interior is dry and desolate, with no active volcanism, or major climatic shift for eons, it is far from dead. Australia is the land boasting not only the oldest continuous civilization on Earth, but also the preservation of the relics of the planet’s ancient past, live and kicking, and that by a huge margin. The Aboriginal Australia has survived more or less in its current form for at least 70,000 years. To put that in perspective, it is 65,000 years older than the Pyramids of Egypt. The preserved geology of Australia is even more mind boggling. From the world’s oldest continuously flowing river, the Finke River in Northern Territory, to one of the world’s most ancient mountain ranges including Flinders Ranges and the Gawler Ranges in South Australia, and the Petermann’s Ranges at the confluence of Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia dating back to 550-600 millions years, to the 1.2 billion years old granite monoliths of the Eyre Peninsula such a the Pildappa wave rock, Australia never fails to amuse how it has kept its ancient secrets so well preserved and alive. Australia is an old time-keeper. It is a perfect time capsule.

Step into another dimension: The Lake Torrens


(Gibber plains meet the northern shores of the dry inland lake)


We visited the northern shores of the lake after learning about the existence of fossilised stromatolites. Stromatolites are the colonies of some of the earliest forms of life on Earth, the cyanobacteria which covered vast areas of land on Earth in its early biological history from 3.5 billion years to several hundred million years ago. These were photosynthetic life forms that released oxygen in the atmosphere, shaping the biological timeline of the planet as we know today. While most of the cyanobacterial colonies have disappeared from the face of Earth, few scattered examples of living cyanobacterial colonies or stromatolites are still in existence such as shores of Western Australia.


With the shaping and shifting of Earth's crust over past billions of years, vast majority of the stromatolite fossils are found embedded in the sedimentary layers of rocks, such as in Capitol Reef NP in Utah, US.


Lake Torrens is unique in this perspective as we found large areas of fossilised stromatolites preserved in their natural habitats where they thrived hundreds of millions of years ago; preserved by the undisturbed nature of the Lake Torrens from erosion and human interference. This may be one of the very few places on Earth where evidence of ancient stromatolites is so well preserved in their natural habitat.


While we were aware of the existence of fossilised stromatolites in Lake Torrens, observing which was the sole purpose of the our visit there, their numbers and how well these were preserved by nature took us by surprise. To avoid any damage to this delicate relic of nature, we mostly used drones to study the areas covered by stromatolites in order to preserve the pristine nature of the delicate environment of the Lake Torrens.


A day well spent


Here is an account of our travel to the northern shores of Lake Torrens in the delta region of Stuarts Creek.


2nd April 2023: Day 2 in Andamooka after a successful astronomy outreach evening under the clear and pristine skies above the remote mining town nearly 600 km north of Adelaide, we drove to the very northern tip of the Lake Torrens where the fossilized stromatolites are believed to be present.


Lake Torrens is located in one of the driest parts of Australia and it seldom becomes a very shallow salt lake once in many years. This part of Lake Torrens has several brine pools and streams and very little vegetation. We used two off-road vehicles to get there. It was a pleasant 26 degrees Celsius autumn day with beautiful clear blue skies. After driving across twenty something sand dunes and vast gibber plains (gibbers are flat gravels with naturally polished surfaces and are fairly smooth) for nearly a couple of hours drive from Andamooka, we arrived at the vantage point where the seasonal Stuarts Creek joins the northern tip of the vast salt pans of the Lake Torrens. The lake shore starts as a bed of mud-rock that smoothly transitions into the salt pans. The first thing that got my attention was the presence of thousands of concentric ring-like structures roughly equal is size to a pancake, yet many were smaller or larger, spread all over the mud-rock layer. Each concentric circle usually has a central knob-like structure. We were careful to not step on any of these concentric structures. The concentric ring-like structures are the fossilised remains of the cyanobacterial colonies that lived and thrived in these landscapes hundreds of millions of years ago when the Lake Torrens was probably a part of an ancient ocean or a tidal inland sea. There was a shallow brine stream with a dark greyish or greenish mat covering its entire bed, with rosette-like structure jutting out with concentrated salts around their circumferences. I did not know what these structures were. The brine pools smelled strongly of sulphur.


One of the things that struck me was these large circular concentric rings slightly raised from the surrounding ground tens of feet across. The pancake-sized concentric rings or fossilized stromatolites were mainly concentrated around these large circular structures. These were fresher near the shores of the salt pans and more aged and eroded as you further walk into the lake.


Dave Simons is a science teacher at Roxby Downs School. He is a tardigrade fan and holds much interest in the extremophile and ancient terrestrial biology; kind of a cool science guy you would want to be with when you visit such places. For some, it may be a dead dry salt pan and for him it was an extremophile paradise. He has visited this place on several occasions. So I asked him about his insight into the fossilized stromatolites (video below).


Mehdi and Bec had brought their drones. It was a good call as you would not want to walk on these very fragile stromatolite fossils to explore hard to reach places over the mud rock pans, and also to have a birds-eye view of the Lake Torrens from an altitude.


Richard and Bec mentioned about some brine pools further down into the lake, roughly a kilometer walk, where schools of fish thrive…a very unusual location for anything larger than a few cells to thrive in such an unforgiving and harsh terrain. On the way, we found numerous fossilized stromatolites and the larger circular rings with increasing level of erosion, until these almost blended into the landscape.


The brine pools are essentially salt streams with no apparent ingress or egress, yet you see it flowing, a few millimeters a second. These brine streams have floors covered in different coloured mats of cyanobacteria or purple sulphur bacteria and ranged from black, to dark green, pink, yellow and gold. The deeper black or dark grey pools had schools of small fish swimming from one end to another in the stream. The more coloured ones were devoid of any higher life. All the streams smelled strongly of sulphur. There was a red stream dropping into a small fall on the other side of the brine streams. The shores of these salt streams were covered in salt concentrates and there were similar flat mounds exposed above the water surface.


Temperatures soared as we walked back to the drop off zone. The smartwatch sensor registered a temperature of 41c (and it felt so too). There was too much light being reflected from the dry salt pans and being lower than the surrounding terrain, creating a perfect heat trap. It was a heck-of-a-walk. Thanks to Bec who had a good supply of iced tea in the esky which felt like a beverage from heaven.


We made a short offroad hop to a flatter part of the Struats Creek further upstream. Though this place looked nothing like the dry salt pan landscape of the Lake Torrens, with plenty of scrub and short trees (home to a kind of giant orb-weaver spiders) we found a few loose rocks with fossilised stromatolites there as well. This was a significant find showing that the stromatolites were not restricted to Lake Torrens alone but also being washed down into the lake by Stuarts Creek, at least in the distant past.


(Entering the lake. The Stuarts Creek is reduced to a few shallow brine pools)


(Fossilised remains of ancient stromatolites. Cyanobacterial colonies deposit minerals in the form of concentric circles in small domes. Over a long period of time, the softer parts of the colonies are eroded and harder silicate rich concentric rings are left behind.) (Addendum - 01 June 2023 as per Dr Kranendonk's feedback; While many of these concentric patterns are likely to be fossilized stromatolites, some may be due to weathering under saline conditions)

(These fossilised stromatolites range from coin to pancake-size concentric circles)


(Size guide; comparison with a wrist watch)



(Some can be deep)



(Some form raised domes)


(Mostly they are intact)


(But many are eroded)


(Eroded)


(Glossy and speckled)


(They can be of different colours)


(Bluish grey)


(Close-up of the broken chunks reveal a layered composition)


(More layered structures)


(Many fossilised stromatolites have a central knob-like structure)


(A well-preserved fossilised stromatolite with a central knob-like structure)


(Heavily eroded fossilised stromatolites further down into the lake)


(A beautifully preserved one)


(We found many large near-perfectly circular slightly raised structures 5-15 meters or so in diameter, around which the smaller concentric fossilised stromatolites clustered, like a galaxy. We don’t know what these were)


(More examples)


(Some were very eroded)


(These large circular structures have concentric rings too!)


(More concentric rings)


(An ancient shoreline with many eroded fossilized stromatolites. Very similar to the pictures from the Curiosity Rover on Mars)


(A beautiful dome-shaped one)


(and another)


(A brine pool with living stromatolites (explanation in the next section) and the pool bed covered in a mat of cyanobacteria)



(More living stromatolites)


(A beautiful rosette-shaped living stromatolite)


(A close-up of living stromatolite in Lake Torrens shows digitate structures formed by the silicate deposits. The stromatolites in Lake Torrens maintain these digitate structures perhaps due to lack of erosion by waves or flowing water) (Addendum - 01 June 2023: The finger-like projections can be evaporative driven crystallization as per Dr Kranendonk, which can nucleate around old stromatolite structures. My observation from the visit was that when one of the structures got disfigured unfortunately while trying to retrieve a specimen and revealed dark greenish-greyish smooth algae-like paste that smelled strongly of sulphur. It is possible that this could be a living stromatolite concentrating salts and minerals around it forming digitate structures)


(Brine streams further into the Lake Torrens)


(The darker pool has schools of sardine-like fish, signifying presence of oxygen. The reddish-pink pool is devoid of any fish perhaps due to lack of oxygen. The darker pool bed is covered in a dark coloured mat of possibly cyanobacteria which produce oxygen as a by-product. The reddish-pink pool is covered in purple-sulphur bacteria which do not produce oxygen)


(A school of fish in the dark-greenish pool. Bubble of oxygen sticking to the mat are visible)



(A close-up of this floating biological mass shows air bubbles)



(A string of bacterial mass bridging across the pool)


(Black jelly-like blobs. I didn’t know what these were)


(Close-up)

(Addendum - 01 June 2023. Dr Kranendonk has confirmed that these are bacterial colonies , aka stromatolites. My observation is that the flatter and larger blob, may have formed from small blobs merging together and could start accumulating the salts and minerals)

(Silicate digitate structures, likely from the evaporation-driven crystallisation from a supersaturated fluid)


(A yellowish-green brine pool)


(A rust-coloured brine pool)


(A red stream flowing in the brine pool, perhaps carrying iron-oxide)


(A thick reddish brown bacterial mat)


(Temperature soared to 41c on our walk back to the cars)


(A brine pool in Lake Torrens)


(Dave Simons explains fossilised stromatolites and how they were formed. We thank Dave for his comprehensive explanation and knowledge sharing)



An encounter with Professor Martin Van Kranendonk

(Professor Martin Van Kranendonk (centre) discussing his Life Springs Mars Project at the Australian Space Summit on 17th May 2023 at ICC Sydney)


Prof Kranendonk is the chair of the Australian Centre of Astrobiology and the director of LifeSprings Mars project. He is doing research on the terrestrial analogues of life on Mars. He has worked on the morphological and biochemical properties of the silica digitate structures in Chile and fossilised stromatolites in Pilbara region in WA.


I was lucky to attend his panel talk and presentation at the Australian Space Summit 2023. His mention of the discovery of digitate structures on Mars in Spirit Rover’s pictures caught my attention as these looked familiar but I could not recall where I may have seen these. In his presentation, he mentioned the existence of similar digitate structures in fossilised form in El Tatio hot springs region in Chile. After he completed his talk, I found a chance to talk to him and ask him a question or two. I shared with him my fascination about his Life Springs Mars project and showed him the pictures of concentric ring like structures that we knew as fossilised stromatolites at the lake bed of Lake Torrens. He agreed that these were the fossilised colonies of bacteria or stromatolites and rejoiced at their existence preserved so well in their natural habitats. But what actually drew his excitement the most was the rosette-like structures in the dark floored brine pools. “These are living stromatolites!” he said, and zoomed in the picture, “…and these are the digitate structures that we have been talking about”. My excitement knew no limits for once I not only didn't realize with high confidence earlier that these structures could be living, breathing stromatolites, but these have those finger-like structures called digitates that actually gave these structures the rosette-like appearance. The living stromatolites are not a rarity. They are found in numerous places on Earth, including shores of Western Australia (Hamelin Pool, and Lake Thetis and Clifton). Stromatolites in WA don’t seem to have the digitates. One explanation could be a constant abrasion from sea water in the form of waves and tides. The living stromatolites in Lake Torrens are similar but they are not subject to much erosion, and have maintained the fine textured digitate-like structures similar in their dimension to the digitate structures found in the Spirit rover pictures from Mars or the fossilised ones in El Tatio region in Chile. The only difference is that the digitate structures on the stromatolites in Lake Torrens are living and growing. The living stromatolites of Lake Torrens may be one of the very few examples around the world with digitate structures.


(Digitate silica structures in El Tatio, Chile. Source: Morphogenesis of digitate structures in hot spring silica sinters of the El Tatio geothermal field, Chile. Jian Gong et al, Geobiology Aug 2021)


(Spirit rover image of digitate silica structures on Mars similar to El Tatio region in Chile) Source: Silica deposits on Mars with features resembling hot spring biosignatures at El Tatio in Chile; Ruff S.W., Farmer J.D., Nature Communication Nov 2016)


The implications of Lake Torrens Stromatolite field (fossilised and living)


We had visited the Lake Torrens at its northern tip. This is the region where Stuarts Creek enters the dry salt lake and fans out in the form of a delta. A similar analogy is possibly being analysed on Mars with the landing of Perseverance Rover in the Jezero Crater near the delta of the stream ingressing the crater from its north-western flank. However the structures in Jezero Crater including the size of the delta and its contour are at a much bigger scale and has been subject to much greater debris flows and flash flooding events than the Lake Torrens. The delta of the northern tip of Lake Torrens is much more subtle but it has survived over millenia and continues to bring in life-giving water and minerals into the Lake Torrens for the bacterial colonies to thrive.


The existence of fossilised stromatolites may have huge astrobiological significance in relation to our quest for the existence of life on Mars, as Mars is known to have similar environment to early Earth in its early history over 3.7 billion years ago. If there was any life that ever existed on Mars at that time, it could be single cell microbial organisms similar to the cyanobacteria forming stromatolite-like colonies. Martian surface is believed to become uninhabitable billions of years ago, and if there has been any such life there, it may have been well preserved as fossilised colonies such as the fossilised stromatolites in Lake Torrens. As Mars has been subject to much less geological changes and erosion, these colonies could still be well preserved at their location of existence untouched by the elements. Since single cell microbes do not leave fossils per se, their only existence may be in the form of fossilised colonies similar to the fossilised stromatolites, waiting to be discovered and explored on the Red Planet.


Discovery of the fossilised stromatolite-like colonies on Mars may be a bigger compelling evidence of life on Mars, than finding living life forms, discovery of which may raise questions about their terrestrial origin through contamination from landers and rovers. For fossilised colonies, there is no possibility of contamination from Earth through landers.


The existence of rare fossilised stromatolites in Lake Torrens may be pivotal in our quest for the ultimate question of humanity if there have been more than one genesis of life in the Universe and whether or not we are alone. The rovers on Mars such as Curiosity and specially Perseverance (being in Jezero Crater; a site of ancient shallow lake on Mars and very much analogous to Lake Torrens) can be remotely recalibrated to look for the evidence of stromatolite-like structures on Mars and study their chemical composition and compare it with the fossilised stromatolites on Earth. Lake Torrens may hold the key to the secrets of genesis not only on Earth but on Mars too through its pristine and untouched environment, preserved through time from elements due to its climate, and protection through its spiritual and cultural significance by its traditional custodians. The existence of fossilised stromatolites and its astrobiological significance in relation to our search for life on Mars makes it even more important to preserve the pristine nature of the Lake Torrens and its surrounding areas.


(Me describing the existence of fossilised stromatolites (ancient fossilised bacterial colonies) in Lake Torrens and its implications on the search for Life on Mars.)



Existential threat to Lake Torrens; thwarted but not terminated


Approval to drill Lake Torrens was awarded to private mining companies for copper and iron ores in December 2020. This was later halted by Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the approval which is a temporary sigh of relief. However, the future still remains unknown for the fate of Lake Torrens.


Lake Torrens (Ngurndamukina) is a site of extreme religious and cultural significance for the Kuyani, Kokatha and Arabunna people and is an important source of dreamtime stories of the origins of the land and indigenous astronomy.


Australian indigenous culture is deeply intertwined on the preservation of the land and the pristine nature. For Lake Torrens, the need for preservation of the land is important for its cultural significance.


The wisdom of the custodians of these ancient landscape cannot be overemphasized and even more so with our understanding of the significance of this place for its importance in understanding the origins of life not only on Earth 3.5 billion years ago, but also for exploring and discovery of potential existence of life on Mars. Lake Torrens is an ultimate time capsule, and an important relic preserved in time in its original form since the beginning of life itself. Lake Torrens may hold important answers to the question not only of our own origins, but also the question of existence of life on Mars…the answers perhaps no-where else to be found.


For me, Lake Torrens holds a special sentimental value. We travelled to Lake Torrens in search of answers for our quest to understand the origins of life on Earth and Mars…and the Lake Torrens answered back! It provided us with more than we asked for. Places like this are, and will remain, a great source of knowledge and wisdom in any stage of our scientific journey. You just have to ask the right question.


Conclusion


The cultural importance of Lake Torrens for its traditional owners and local Indigenous population is enough reason to protect it. But to ensure protection of its pristine and fragile environment, Lake Torrens needs to be highlighted for its unique yet so far little known and understood astrobiological importance. Lake Torrens hides secrets to our ultimate quest for understanding our own origins on this planet and whether we are alone or a parallel genesis occurred elsewhere too such as Mars. Mareekh Dynamics will continue to advocate preservation of Lake Torrens and all other places of cultural and astrobiological significance anywhere in Australia and beyond, for our present and future generations.



Footnote: The author is the co-founder and CEO of Mareekh Dynamics. He is a Swinburne Graduate in Astronomy and owns several engineering patents with the USPTO for developing engineering solutions for human habitation on Mars. He has been the finalist for the Innovator of the Year in Australian Space Awards in 2022 and 2023 and a finalist for the Scientist of the Year Award in 2023.

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