Did dinosaurs enjoy Grand Canyon views? Definitely not, say researchers

June 10, 2015

Did dinosaurs roam the Grand Canyon?

Well, the answer depends on whom you talk to. And how old they believe the majestic canyon to be. Grand Canyon Did dinosaurs roam the Grand Canyon? ASU researchers say that the canyon is much too young to have been the stomping ground of prehistoric lizards. Photo by: Rich Rudow Download Full Image

Although it might be fun to imagine scientists and researchers arguing about whether giant reptiles were hanging around Arizona’s most famous landmark 65 million years ago, this isn’t a debate about dinosaur territories. It’s a question of when the deep walls of the Grand Canyon were eroded by the snaking Colorado River.

Recently two different groups published papers that suggested the Grand Canyon started forming more than 6 million years ago. One group said the canyon had eroded to nearly its current form by 70 million years ago, and another said it started eroding 17 million years ago. These papers have caused several groups to take a closer look at both old and new data sets – including researchers from Arizona State University.

“We are confident the western canyon is younger than 6 million years and is certainly younger than 18 million years,” said Andrew Darling, a graduate student in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. The research is published online June 10 in the journal Geosphere.

The problem with the assertion is that studying the age of the Grand Canyon isn’t easy.

Measuring time can be tricky when everything you’re studying is eroding away. And the whole region has been eroding for a long time, so not much is left of the landscape that was there when the Grand Canyon started forming. Yet, most people think the Grand Canyon is young – around 6 million years old based on what is preserved. 

While many different detective methods exist to gauge the canyon’s age, Darling and his adviser, Kelin Whipple, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, decided to see whether the shape of the landscape could be used to infer the timing of canyon incision in a different way.

They analyzed the shape of the land and an understanding about how landforms change, plus comparisons to other thoroughly dated features in the region – like the Grand Wash Fault and the cliff-band along it.

As Darling put together computer analyses of the landscape, he and Whipple noticed the cliffs that make the edge of the Colorado Plateau (the Grand Wash Cliffs) look different than the cliffs that make the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon cliffs are steeper. Looking more closely, the tributary streams that pour into the Colorado River are also steeper than those in the Grand Wash Cliffs.

Many other researchers have shown the fault that formed the Grand Wash Cliffs experienced most of its movement in a long period of fault slip between 18 million and 12 million years ago. The west side of the fault has slipped downward a few kilometers, making a hole for sediment eroding from the Grand Wash Cliffs to pile into. As erosion occurs, steep cliffs become more gradual slopes and rivers flatten out over time. But the western Grand Canyon has steeper cliffs and steeper tributary rivers than those along the Grand Wash Cliffs.

“We think this means that the western Grand Canyon is younger and started eroding more recently and at a higher rate than the area of the Grand Wash Cliffs,” Darling explained.

In both landscapes, the amount of erosion measured vertically is about the same: but the time taken to do that erosion is different and hence the erosion rates are different.

Using this inference, they evaluated the three previous hypotheses for the age of incision of Western Grand Canyon: 70 million years ago, 17 million years ago or about 6 million years ago.

“Since the canyon seems to be younger than the fault slip, only the most recent 6-million-year-old incision idea is supported by the topographic and erosion rate data,” Darling said.

Which, if Darling is correct, means we have an answer to our question: “There’s no way dinosaurs overlapped with what we call the Grand Canyon.”

Nikki Cassis

marketing and communications director, School of Earth and Space Exploration

ASU, Banner Health launch major effort to fight neurodegenerative diseases

June 10, 2015

Arizona State University and Banner Health today announced a new research alliance to advance the scientific study, treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

The partnership between ASU and Phoenix-based Banner Health, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit health systems, includes the launch of a new Arizona State University-Banner Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center on ASU’s Tempe campus.  Alzheimer's brain healthy brain In this image from the National Institute on Aging, a cross-section of a healthy brain (left) is shown next to the brain of someone with Alzheimer's. The extreme shrinkage of the cerebral cortex is clearly visible. Photo by: National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health Download Full Image

“We are grateful for the opportunity to work together to build one of the world’s largest basic science centers for the study of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases at ASU and to further develop our clinical and research programs at Banner,” said Eric Reiman.

Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and a university professor of neuroscience at ASU, will lead the new alliance along with Raymond N. DuBois, executive director of the Biodesign Institute at ASU. The new center at ASU will launch July 1, and the search for a scientific director will continue.

The effort capitalizes on Banner’s internationally recognized programs in Alzheimer’s research and patient care and  on ASU’s rapid ascension as a world-class research university. It also leverages Banner’s close working relationships with other research organizations in Arizona.

“This extraordinary research alliance will help galvanize the search for answers to degenerative brain diseases,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “This is yet another example of how institutions in Arizona are leading the way for groundbreaking research in age-related diseases. This new effort will be a magnet to attract more researchers, more businesses and more resources to this urgent fight.” 

More than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s. This has profound implications for Arizona, with a population of more than 1 million people older than 65, a number that is expected to grow to 2.4 million by 2050.

As part of this partnership, ASU will invite six scientists from the Banner Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City to relocate to the Tempe campus, where they will have access to other scientists, state-of-the-art laboratory space and support to advance their research. The center is expected to rapidly grow in both size and impact through aggressive recruitment of innovative research teams pursuing causes and treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.

Banner will continue to grow its clinical and research programs at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and Banner Sun Health Research Institute. Together, Banner and ASU receive nearly $65 million in current research funding in the neurosciences. That number is expected to rise significantly with the recruitment of new researchers and funding.

“This collaboration is an opportunity to bring together Banner Health’s leadership roles in research and patient care with ASU’s growing translational science expertise to fight devastating neurodegenerative diseases,” said Peter Fine, Banner’s president and CEO.

“Leaders from Banner Health and ASU have worked hard to make this partnership a reality – a partnership that will enhance the scientific strengths of our two organizations, provide major growth opportunities for research in the Sun City area, and strengthen Arizona’s position as a major research center.”

Barring any significant treatment breakthroughs, the number of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease could more than triple to 16 million in the U.S. by 2050, at a health-care cost of more than $1.2 trillion annually.

Parkinson’s afflicts up to 10 million people worldwide. An estimated 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson's each year, while thousands of cases go undetected. Other neurodegenerative diseases continue to take a devastating toll on patients and family caregivers.

“Bringing the two groups together will accelerate the bench-to-bedside development of new diagnostic, drug and other treatment options for patients and family caregivers,” said DuBois. “Time and time again, the scientific community has shown how multidisciplinary teams can come together as incubators for innovation and discovery.”

In addition to his other positions, Reiman is the CEO of Banner Research. He is internationally recognized for his contributions to brain imaging, the early detection and tracking of Alzheimer’s disease, and the accelerated evaluation of Alzheimer’s prevention therapies. The Neurodegenerative Disease Research Center will be closely affiliated with faculty from ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Biodesign Institute, a translational science institute with some 500 faculty, staff and students, representing expertise in the biosciences, engineering and advanced computing.

The agreement between Banner and ASU is an extension of their work with the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium, a leading model of statewide collaboration in biomedical research, and it is intended to help make Arizona a destination for the best and brightest minds in this field. Under the agreement, the center’s scientists will hold joint faculty appointments at both ASU and Banner Research.

“The new collaboration will allow Banner, ASU and other organizations in the state to have an even greater impact in the scientific fight against Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases,” said Reiman, “and it will permit us to have an even greater impact on the care of patients and family caregivers.”

Penny Walker

News director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications