Oolites

Utah’s Oolitic Sand, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Imagine if prehistoric brine shrimp were responsible for one of the finest examples of architecture in Salt Lake City today.

Okay, so it may be a bit of a stretch, but let me explain. In a previous episode of Wild About Utah, I discussed the life cycle of brine shrimp and the important role that they play in the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem. Well, as the billions of brine shrimp feed on bacteria in Great Salt Lake, they excrete waste in the form of tiny fecal pellets. These pellets, along with sand grains and other bits of debris, eventually settle to the bottom of Great Salt Lake.

In shallow areas of the lake, where wind and waves routinely mix the water, these small particles gradually accumulate layers of calcium carbonate, forming an oolite (spelled o-o-l-i-t-e). This is very similar to how a pearl, also layers of calcium carbonate around a small particle, is formed within the shell of an oyster or mussel. The main difference, aside from a pearl being much larger, is that oolites are typically oblong, rather than round. The beaches on the west side of Antelope Island are a great place to find oolitic sand, which will look and feel as though you have a handful of tiny pearls.

Utah’s Oolitic Sandstone
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova

Around 50 million years ago, large fresh- and salt-water lakes covered parts of Utah, and in these areas, vast amounts of sediments, including oolites, were deposited. Over time, these oolites were compressed and cemented together into limestone.

A quarry near Ephraim in Sanpete County supplied oolitic limestone for the construction of the Governor’s Mansion in 1902 and the original Salt Lake City Public Library in 1905. The Library building, located at 15 South State Street, eventually housed the Hansen Planetarium and is now home to the O.C. Tanner flagship store. The building underwent an extensive restoration just a couple of years ago, and now serves as a shining example of neoclassical architecture in our capitol city.

The truth is, there are tens of millions of years separating oolitic limestone from our modern-day brine shrimp. So, we can’t exactly say that prehistoric brine shrimp were responsible for the existence of the O.C. Tanner building. But, it’s fun to imagine precious gems from around the world housed in a beautiful building constructed from the ‘pearls’ of Great Salt Lake.

Historic OC Tanner Building
(formerly the Salt Lake Library
and later the Hansen Planetarium)
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.
Credits:

Images: Courtesy and copyright Mark Larese-Casanova

Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

Utah Geological Survey http://geology.utah.gov/utahgeo/rockmineral/collecting/oolitic.htm

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program
http://wildlife.utah.gov/gsl/facts/oolitic_sand.php