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Life leaves subtle signature in the lay of the land

One of the paradoxes of recent explorations of the Martian surface is that the more we see of the planet, the more it looks like Earth, despite a very big difference: Complex life forms have existed for billions of years on Earth, while Mars never saw life bigger than a microbe, if that.

"The rounded hills, meandering stream channels, deltas and alluvial fans are all shockingly familiar," said William E. Dietrich, professor of earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley. "This caused us to ask: Can we tell from topography alone, and in the absence of the obvious influence of humans, that life pervades the Earth? Does life matter?"

In a paper published in the Jan. 26 issue of the journal Nature, Dietrich and graduate student J. Taylor Perron reported, to their surprise, no distinct signature of life in the landforms of Earth.

"Despite the profound influence of biota on erosion processes and landscape evolution, surprisingly,there are no landforms that can exist only in the presence of life and, thus, an abiotic Earth probably would present no unfamiliar landscapes," said Dietrich.

Instead, Dietrich and Perron propose that life - everything from the lowest plants to large grazing animals - creates a subtle effect on the land not obvious to the casual eye: more of the "beautiful, rounded hills" typical of Earth's vegetated areas, and fewer sharp, rocky ridges.

"Rounded hills are the purest expression of life's influence on geomorphology," Dietrich said. "If we could walk across an Earth on which life has been eliminated, we would still see rounded hills, steep bedrock mountains, meandering rivers, etc., but their relative frequency would be different."

When a NASA scientist acknowledged to Dietrich a few years ago that he saw nothing in the Martian landscape that didn't have a parallel on Earth, Dietrich began thinking about what effects life does have on landforms and whether there is anything d
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Contact: Robert Sanders
rsanders@berkeley.edu
510-643-6998
University of California - Berkeley
26-Jan-2006


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