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Texas A&M University
News Release
Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Texas’ Permian Reef Can Give Clues About Earth’s History, Say Texas A&M Researchers


COLLEGE STATION – Rocks from the fossil Permian Reef in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas reveal secrets about changes in sea level and marine life 265 million years ago, according to two Texas A&M University researchers.


Thomas Olszewski, associate professor in the department of geology and geophysics, and Leigh Fall, who recently received her Ph.D. from Texas A&M, have examined the Permian Reef several times and their findings have been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B and the journal Palaios.


Improved understanding of this ancient reef can shed light on the effects of environmental change on living systems as well as provide insight on the distribution of hydrocarbon reservoirs in the Permian Basin, one of the largest petroleum provinces in the United States.


Much like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef today, which stretches more than 1,600 miles and is so large it can be seen from space, the Permian Reef grew in shallow tropical waters 265 million years ago.


 “The ancient reef grew in water just below sea level and it overlooked the Permian Basin, which was more than 1,000 feet deep,” he notes. “The rocks at the foot of the mountains preserve sediments that record natural environmental changes caused by changing sea level and climate.”


The rocks can show a record of past events in Earth history, and in the Permian Reef geologists can clearly see evidence for numerous rises and falls of sea level, Olszewski adds.


“Living organisms tend to be very sensitive to changes in their environment, and by examining the reef’s fossil ecosystem, it is possible to piece together the way they changed over the millions of years it took for the sediments to accumulate,” he says.


“From the fossils preserved in these rock layers, we can get a good idea of how the ecosystems responded to environmental changes over millions of years.


“For example, as a result of Leigh’s work, we’ve realized that the Permian Reef community was probably highly competitive and was not vulnerable to invasion by exotic species except in the aftermath of major sea level drops, when the system was disrupted. Because sea level played a critical role in the distribution of sediments that now contain oil and gas, what we’ve learned from the fossils helps geologists understand the Permian Basin as a whole, including its hydrocarbon resources.”


The project was funded by the Petroleum Research Fund of the American Chemical Society and was made possible by cooperation of Guadalupe Mountains National Park officials.


A video illustrating this story is available at:


About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents an annual investment of more than $630 million, which ranks third nationally for universities without a medical school, and underwrites approximately 3,500 sponsored projects. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world.

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