Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 2

 In the previous post, Ronald Richards discussed the current mammoth and mastodon exhibit at the Indiana State Museum. In this post, he described what it is like to excavate fossils in that state.

 

Ronald Richards’ self-described “obsession” with fossils began when he was ten.

This interest only intensified when—at age 12—he discovered scientific books on the subject. He found his first bone in a cave when he was 16; he published his first paper as an undergraduate.

And when he arrived at the Indiana State Museum, he took an interest in the fossils within its collection that had yet to be studied, publishing a paper of his research. This was when he began to focus on proboscideans: the mammalian group to which mammoths and mastodons belong.

Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons has enabled Ron and his team at the museum to share extensive knowledge of these extinct animals with visitors.

He summarized the three main points of this exhibit about Indiana proboscideans: “They’re everywhere, we’ve dug them, and it’s fun science.”

Ron noted that the fact that people from the State Museum actively excavate fossils is a surprise to many visitors.

“I’d say we’ve salvaged or had a full dig—and most of it’s a full dig—on 16 sites in all different parts of Indiana,” he explained. “Most are northern Indiana. That’s the formerly glaciated area, where the glaciers stagnated. They left behind all these blocks of ice, and they melted. All these former glacial lakes fill up with sediment and mud and plant vegetation and bones of mastodons! And so up north we have a lot more complete skeletons.”

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 1

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Image of Bothwell mastodon dig, 2005.]

“There is a lot of science going on. We’re still dealing with site preservation: you know, interpretation, cataloging, trying to get profiles, dates and all that.”

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 2

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Close-up of Bothwell mastodon jaw, 2005. Water is sprayed on the fossils to prevent them from drying out.]

Excavating fossils is not an easy process, nor is it something one can plan in advance. Many of the fossils excavated by the museum were found by members of the public, digging for peat moss, for example, or when building a pond on private property.

“My general rule to the landowner is: we’re not going to lay one shovel in the ground until we determine ownership,” Ron said.

“We can’t help a private land owner solve their problem on public funds,” he explained further. “We can do it if we get the skeleton. If we can handle it, we can dig it. We cannot dig it and have them get the skeleton. That would be a misuse of public funds.”

“So, we always have a deed-of-gift before we go in and understand that everything we find—all remains, all samples and this and that—will be donated to the state museum or sold for a certain amount. And we’ve had to do that a couple times. There’s always a written agreement.”

Confusion amongst the general public remains constant about bones found within Indiana. The truth is that, while there are strict rules in place for archaeological artifacts, there are none for those related to paleontology.

“[Archaeological laws are] very tough in Indiana. If a person were to go and systematically try to dig up an archaeological site–even on their own property to recover those artifacts–they are in big trouble,” said Ron. “The conservation officers can move anywhere in the state of Indiana. They don’t even need to have permits. They can come onto your property, and they can investigate.”

Not so with fossils. And as such, if a person finds any on their land, it is within their rights to attempt to sell it.

“We try to get people NOT to sell them on eBay, bone-by-bone, to the highest bidder,” Ron continued, “because it’s part of our heritage. But [fossils are] still not protected by law.”

Remarkably, about 85% of the fossils in the Indiana State Museum were donated.

 ISM - 2008 Benedict mastodon humurus

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Notice the orange tint of this mastodon humerus. This color indicates a fresh bone, pictured right after uncovering it. Bones change color from the moment they are excavated. Benedict mastodon, 2008.]

Some might equate digging for fossils with dry, hard rock. But this is not always the case, and certainly not in Indiana.

ISM - 2006 Lewis mastodon dig

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Lewis mastodon dig, 2006.]

Unlike excavations in the drier Western regions of the country, digging in Indiana means one will need to de-water the site. In other words, the appropriate type of pumps are necessary to remove the water, another pit needs to be dug in order to contain that water, a substantial amount of gas needs to be purchased to run those pumps, and volunteer diggers can expect to work in wet and muddy conditions.

ISM - 2006 Day mastodon dig

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum.]

Ron explained that he will try to encourage a landowner to enable them to dig in the drier months of the year, but it is not always possible.

Describing digs in either April or October, he noted that “you’ve got people in water screens all day with big fire hoses, and they’re soaking wet. That’s not the time to be cold. We’ve screened with icicles hanging off of our raincoats.”

ISM - 2006 Day mastodon dig volunteers

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Here, volunteers skim the surface with their shovels a few inches at a time. Removed soil is screened for small remains. When a large bone is found, excavators stop shoveling and get down on their knees with their trowels. Day mastodon dig, 2006.]

“I don’t enjoy the process,” Ron admitted, referring to organizing and leading a dig site. “Anybody on the dig that doesn’t have to run it, does.”

ISM - 2008 Benedict mastodon spine

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Benedict mastodon spine, 2008.]

“It’s one of the most stressful things you can do. You have to let go what you’re doing if you can, do the dig while all the same deadlines are still backing up at the museum. Everybody needs other things from you, so it’s a highly stressful time usually before we launch [a dig].”

“When we’re there, it’s not bad.”

“But when you get back,” he said, “it’s horrible.” And then chuckled.

“I feel we really do some satisfying things, we do some important things, but I don’t have time to have fun doing it. It’s a rare moment, you know, usually at the end of the dig, [when] I can finally relax, and say, ‘Wow, we did it.’”

“So it’s satisfaction. Great satisfaction. But it doesn’t seem to be a fun thing.”

The number of fossils collected, the new facility in which they are stored at the Indiana State Museum, and the way in which they are preserved impressed neighboring paleontologists Dr. Chris Widga and Dr. Jeffrey Saunders of the Illinois State Museum. They visited as part of a research project regarding proboscideans and extinction within the Midwest.
Dr. Widga outlines that research in his first blog post about it on Backyard Paleo:

“We started a project in 2011 to better understand 1) when mammoths and mastodonts went extinct, and 2) the ecological mechanisms that might have played a major role in how they went extinct. The major foundation of this project is a museum-by-museum survey of mammoths and mastodonts in collections from nine states and one province (MN, WI, IA, MO, IL, IN, OH, KY, MI, and ON). Over the last 2.5 years, we’ve documented mammoths and mastodonts from 576 localities.”

Dr. Widga and Dr. Saunders anticipated a relatively short visit, but the depth of the Indiana collection caused them to stay longer.

“We’re not really driving a lot of research,” explained Ron of the Indiana State Museum, “but we’re driving some of the best collections.”

ISM - Anderson mastodon skull front

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Ob-139C 71.3.226 Anderson A]

“I really just have to do the best job with discovery and preservation in Indiana and get general site reports out, with dates and all that, so we can really document it,” he said. “Basically it’s like a crime lab! You have the crime, and you have to gather all the evidence you’re going to need. They didn’t know 50 years ago that they needed to save samples for DNA, you see? But I know that.”

He alluded to possible future scientific improvements in paleontology, and how the samples he preserves now might be able to help new generations of scientists learn more.

ISM - Anderson mastodon

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Ob-139D 71.3.226 Anderson B]

“So my focus is doing a good job, with documenting and preserving and interpreting, what we’ve found in Indiana.”

“And the bigger high-level stuff,” he concluded, “that’s for the people like Dan Fisher.”

—————

Indiana State Museum: http://www.indianamuseum.org/

Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons: now through August 17th, 2014 in Indianapolis! http://www.indianamuseum.org/exhibits/details/id/278

You can read more about Dr. Widga’s and Dr. Saunder’s project here: http://backyardpaleo.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/midwestern-mammoths-and-mastodonts-the-m-cubed-project/

 

Once again, a Mammuthus-Columbi-sized THANK YOU to Ron Richards.  His generosity, his time, and his enthusiasm were wonderful. What a great honor and pleasure speaking with him!

Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 1

The current mammoth and mastodon exhibit at the Indiana State Museum is the brainchild of paleobiologist, Ronald Richards.

In a phone interview, he discussed the evolution of this exhibit; excavating fossils in Indiana; and working with neighboring proboscidean experts: Dr. Chris Widga, Dr. Jeffrey Saunders and Dr. Dan Fisher.

 

Chances are, most people—upon seeing the image below—would describe these animals as ‘woolly mammoths.’

Indiana State Museum - Ice Age depiction

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, more info at the end of the blog post*]

And many would not point to the state of Indiana as a rich source of these fossils.

Which are two of the myriad reasons behind the creation of Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons, an exhibit currently available at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.

ISM - Title Wall

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, title wall of the exhibit]

The exhibit opened this past November, but it has taken years of hard work, as well as numerous people and resources, to bring it to fruition.

“It’s a process that consumes your life,” said Ron Richards by phone, referring to the creation of an exhibit. “It consumed me for a couple years. I mean, there’s always a deadline; there’s always something you haven’t got done.”

“It’s not for the frail, I’ll tell you,” he added with a chuckle.

Ron Richards, Paleobiologist at the State Museum, had the idea for the exhibit back in the 1990s.

Thirty years of work there—a job that involves both educating the public and excavating fossils—has provided plenty of fodder for potential displays.

He remarked how often, after giving talks about local fossils, people would approach him in wonder and say, “THIS was found in Indiana??”

With gentle enthusiasm—a cadence that accentuated his descriptions—Ron described what he hoped visitors would take away from the exhibit: how to tell the difference between mammoths and mastodons, the age and gender of such fossils, a better understanding of the habitat that was Indiana during the time of the Pleistocene, and the knowledge that people at the museum are actively digging up these fossils within the state.

So what exactly is the difference between a mammoth and a mastodon?

Almost universally, the word ‘mammoth’ invokes but one of 160 known mammoth species: the woolly mammoth.

The most common mammoth fossils throughout the United States, however, are that of the Columbian mammoth—a veritable behemoth that probably did not have the same furry coat as their woolly relatives and tended to live in warmer climates.

Woolly mammoth fossils are found largely in the upper parts of North America, as well as in Russia, Europe and China.

In sum: when you think of woolly mammoths, think cold. When you think of Columbian mammoths, think warm.

ISM - Mammoth tooth

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Teeth are an easy way to determine whether a fossil is a mammoth or a mastodon. This is a mammoth tooth. Notice the flat surface with ridges for grinding vegetation.]

Mastodons—the mammoth’s stockier, and, compared to some mammoth species, shorter and hairier cousin—also lived throughout the United States.

Physically, mastodons differ from mammoths in that their backs and their tusks are straighter, their teeth are easily recognizable as teeth (they are bumpy), and their heads are generally smaller.

ISM - Mastodon tooth

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Above is a mastodon tooth.]

Yet the woolly mammoth and the American mastodon are often confused.

According to Mammoths & Mastodons of the Ice Age, by Dr. Adrian Lister, “in their detailed adaptations and their evolutionary position [the American mastodon and the woolly mammoth] were as distinct as a human and a monkey, separated by at least 25 million years of evolution.” (Firefly Books, 2014, pg. 42)

Still, faced with a large skeleton with tusks, four legs, and a short tail, most would immediately assume ‘mammoth’.

ISM - Hebior mammoth

ISM - Fred

[Can you tell which skeleton is a mammoth and which is a mastodon? Images courtesy of Indiana State Museum.]

How does one pull together so much information–so many possible ideas–into a coherent and engaging learning experience for the public?

“Even I, when I walk through an exhibit, I don’t want to read very much,” confessed Ron. “You have to find a real good balance.”

“One day,” he continued, “we just cut out all the [potential exhibit] labels, and we laid them out in a whole big room. Then we lay down the images of all the proposed specimens. There were about 300! And I realized that when someone walks through this, they want a 45-minute or an hour tour on a 5,000-foot space. How much can we tell them?

“So I just walked through and dictated [the narrative] as though I were giving a special tour for somebody…a VIP… of the exhibit. I timed it to about 45 – 50 minutes. And actually then we converted it into text, more or less.”

Doing so caused him to further realize, “Hey, there just isn’t time to talk about all these little things.”

“We had some high hopes, but it came down to, well, we just can’t do all that. It’s very expensive. We haven’t got the money. We can’t fit it all in. And we’d never get it done.”

He paused for a moment to recall the wise words of an archaeologist with whom he’d worked: ‘There are great projects, and there are finished projects.’

“I understood,” he continued, “that this could go on for a long time. And we really just had to get it done, because it had been dragging since 1990.”

The centerpiece of this exhibit is the Buesching mastodon—a nearly complete male mastodon fossil discovered in Indiana in 1998. It was found on land belonging to Janne and Fred Buesching. The fossil has been nicknamed “Fred”, in honor of Mr. Buesching, who has since passed away.

ISM - Ron Richards, Dan and Janne Buesching

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, Buesching mastodon skull. Pictured from left to right are: Ronald Richards, Dan Buesching, who originally discovered the fossil, and Janne Buesching, Dan’s mother.]

“One advantage we have with an in-house exhibit—and there have been a lot of mammoth and mastodon exhibits out there—is that normally they have to work with casts (as they’re transporting them, and you can’t have curators go with them). Because [our exhibit is] in-house, we used mainly REAL bone. That is a big difference. And the other is that we focus right on Indiana.”

The Buesching mastodon exemplifies this: it was mounted using its actual bones. This feat was accomplished with the help of people at the NY State Museum, who had demonstrated that this could be done on a fossil of their own.

ISM - Fred installation 1

ISM - Fred installation 2

[Images courtesy of Indiana State Museum, installing Fred]

Ron noted another striking distinction: the legs of this mastodon were brought in, mimicking the pose of a fossil cast of this same animal done by proboscidean expert Dr. Daniel Fisher.

Prior to making its home at the Indiana State Museum, the Buesching mastodon was studied by Dr. Fisher at the University of Michigan. The Bueschings had initially contacted Dr. Fisher when the fossil was found.

“He went down and gave them some pointers, some assessments of the site,” Ron explained, “and after that, Dan said, ‘Boy, I’d really like to study this’, so they shipped it up to him.”

“At that point, he took it on. He actually made some casts of Fred.”

“He brought the legs underneath the animal like mastodons and elephants walk. Normally, [museums] stand their skeletons like a bulldog, with their legs real wide. Not only does he understand modern elephants and how they move, but he also has a track-way [of proboscidean footprints] from Michigan to prove it!”

“So he brought the legs in under the animal. And he brought the front ribs together on the chest bone.”

ISM - Beautiful Fred

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, the Buesching mastodon as it appears in the exhibit]

“It’s really a piece of art,” he concluded of the Buesching mastodon.

The exhibit contains a wealth of information and exciting fossil displays. Among other things, one can see a simulated dig pit with real bones as they might have been found, casts of mastodon and mammoth jaws that mechanically demonstrates how they worked, and examples of some of the bones discovered in Indiana.

ISM - Hall of Giants

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, the Hall of Giants--Ron Richards' favorite par of the exhibit]

There is discussion regarding the theories behind the mammoth and mastodon extinctions: hunted too heavily by people? Disease? Rapid environmental change?

There is even an audio and video panel designed to give visitors an idea of what it might have been like to hunt a mammoth.

‘So you think you can hunt a mammoth with a spear, huh?’ says a label near a metal spear.

Touching the spear triggers a large screen to initiate an image of a mammoth. The floor underneath the visitor begins to vibrate with the sound of an animal charging, as the image of the mammoth becomes larger and larger.

ISM - Mammoth and spear

 [Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, metal spear and the growing image of a mammoth charging toward the visitor]

Said Ron of that particular display, “I wanted [visitors] to get an emotional charge!”

And to give visitors a sense of just how many fossil sites have been discovered in Indiana, the team at the museum created an interactive map.

“You can push buttons and see where all the mammoths and mastodons were found [throughout the state.] We’ve got about 300 dots for mammoths and mastodons.”

There could be another couple hundred,” he continued, referring to more data from ongoing research that is not included on the exhibit map. “I’ve been doing this research for years, even before [working at] the museum, so I’ve got a lot of dots on maps.”

ISM - Map of mammoths and mastodons

 [Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, interactive map of Indiana, displaying various fossil sites]

That number is extraordinary.

Given how many fossils have been found locally, one might wonder why this is a temporary—rather than a permanent—exhibit.

“We’re a state museum,” Ron responded. “So we deal with archaeology, paleontology, geology, biology and natural history. We’ve got Amish quilts; we’ve got fine art; we’ve got sports history; [general] history; popular culture; science and technology; applied technology. We’ve got curators in all these areas. We’ve only got so much rotating space. And there are other stories. And we’ve got to constantly bring people in the door.”

“I wanted to have a 2-year exhibit,” he continued, referring to the Ice Age exhibit, “but we have granting and funding for a lot of things that need to fill that space. I think our exhibit schedules are set for 5 years out.”

“If I had my druthers, I’d say, ‘let’s leave it in for 2 years.’ But then it starts tapering down. After a while, everybody has sort of already seen it.”

Included in this exhibit is information regarding today’s elephants, a distant relative of mammoths and mastodons, not a direct descendant. Elephants are in danger of extinction themselves.

ISM - Elephants

 [Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, the plight of elephants today]

This particular part of the exhibit is important to Ron, but he paused to ponder some of the conflicts between people and elephants.

“It’s hard to talk to other cultures and countries and tell them how they should take care of THEIR wildlife,” he mused. “I mean, you look back at North America, and you look at what happened to bison, and the passenger pigeon, and you know, we’ve been through this ourselves until we had conservation laws.”

“Look at how abundant deer are today, but the white-tailed deer were extirpated from Indiana by 1891. They were hunted out. There were none left. And they were all reintroduced [later].”

“Without regulation, you get hunted out into extermination.”

—————————–

 *Initial image in the blog post is of mastodons.

Part 2, discussing fossil excavations in Indiana, coming up next!

Indiana State Museum: http://www.indianamuseum.org/

Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons: http://www.indianamuseum.org/exhibits/details/id/278 — on exhibit now through August 17, 2014!

Online Repository of Fossils, Museum of Paleontology, University of Michigan: (which features interactive images of the Buesching mastodon, among many others!) http://umorf.ummp.lsa.umich.edu/wp/

An enormous THANK YOU to Ron Richards for his incredibly generous time, enthusiasm and patience with my many questions!!  An equally enormous thank you to Bruce Williams!

Wankel T. Rex: Historic Fossil and National Treasure Moves to DC

Almost 30 years ago, Kathy Wankel discovered a few bones while vacationing with her family. Bringing these bones to the Museum of the Rockies, Montana—instead of keeping them–enabled paleontologists to uncover a rare, almost complete T. Rex skeleton.

This week, that fossil moves to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Kathy Wankel, Sheldon McKamey (Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies), Dr. David Varricchio (Associate Professor at Montana State University) and Julie Price (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) describe the discovery of the Wankel T-Rex, the challenges of excavating fossils, and the reasons behind this week’s transition.

Big Mike - Bronze Cast of Wankel T.Rex

(image of the bronze cast of the Wankel T.Rex, known as “Big Mike”, image courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies)

Labor Day weekend, 1988, the Wankel family vacationed at Fort Peck Reservoir, Montana, near the Badlands.

Kathy Wankel and her husband, Tom, were taking a moment to look for fossils on a nearby island.

And Kathy actually found a few bones.

“I would like to confess up-front that really it was either blind luck or divine providence that I found the thing,” wrote Kathy Wankel in an email, referring to the fossil that has come to be known as the “Wankel T. Rex.”

“And here is why I think so: Yes, I was a curious ‘rock hound’ and was fascinated by the Badlands that surrounded the Ft. Peck Reservoir. And yes, I was looking for a fossil when I discovered the T. Rex. But when I say ‘a fossil,’ by that I mean that prior to finding our T. Rex, I had found bits and pieces of what I thought were fossils, but I had never before found an entire fossil bone!”

We know now that what she found was absolutely extraordinary: at the time, it was one of only eleven T.Rex fossils ever found, most of which were not as complete as what she had discovered.

But on that weekend, they just knew they had dinosaur bones. Neither the species nor the size of the fossil was apparent.

Kathy described the discovery in detail.

“My husband, Tom, and I and our three children, Lee (then 8 years old), Rock (then 5), and Whitney (then 14 months) were enjoying one last weekend of camping and fishing at Ft. Peck Reservoir before the start of the school year. Tom’s brother, Jim, and his daughter, Christy, were also camped there with us.

“Jim generously offered to look after the children while Tom and I took the boat across the bay to look for bones. Tom was walking below along the base of a small, eroded gumbo ridge while I walked along the top of the ridge. The sun was just right, and I spotted a small knife-blade-shaped protrusion in the gumbo. I could see some fine whitish-grey chips and the distinctive bone pattern. Just as I was getting a closer look, Tom yelled that he thought he may have found something. I said ‘You’d better come up here…I think I have found something better!’

“The gumbo clay dirt surrounding the bones was baked hard as cement as Montana was experiencing an extreme drought that year. We used Tom’s pocketknife to chisel away at the gumbo surrounding the bones, but decided we needed more tools. The small protrusion of bones later turned out to be the top ridge of the shoulder blade and the ends of some rib bones. I was so excited, and exclaimed to Tom ‘I think this is a MEGA-FIND!’ I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal, but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.

“I was so excited, and exclaimed to Tom ‘I think this is a MEGA-FIND!’  I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal, but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to. “ – Kathy Wankel, discoverer of the Wankel T.Rex

 

“We went back to camp and loaded everyone in the boat to come see what we had found. But more digging would have to wait for another time. We needed to pack up camp and get home to get ready for school. We vowed to come back the following weekend. But that didn’t happen. As you may recall, 1988 was the year of the terrible fires in Yellowstone Park. Our governor put a moratorium on all outdoor activity, and it was mid-October before we were able to go see what exactly we had found. The evening of the day we removed the bones there was a horrific thunder and lightning storm.”

The Wankels took the bones to the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) in Bozeman, where paleontologists Jack Horner and Pat Leiggi recognized the bones as the shoulder and arm bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

These relatively fragile bones had never been recovered before.

As Dr. David Varricchio, Associate Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University and one of the original excavators, explained, “At the time it was discovered, the specimen had the best (most complete) T. rex arm ever discovered. Those little arms just don’t preserve very well in contrast to all the rest of the skeleton which is much more robust.”

He emphasizes the importance of what the Wankels did with the bones they’d discovered.

“The bones were found by amateur [fossil hunters] who did the right thing: they called a museum.”

This is a choice not everyone makes.

One has but to look at the controversy surrounding Sue, another T. Rex skeleton found in 1990 by Sue Hendrickson, or review fossils available for sale online. The United States as a whole has no definitive law regarding fossils found on land outside of that owned by Federal agencies. [*Per Paul Rubenstein at USACE, there is a law regarding Federal lands: the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009, Public Law 111-011] These laws are left to each state. Hence, some states within the US have laws protecting paleontological finds; others do not.

When asked what prompted her to bring the bones to MOR, Kathy wrote in an email, “I knew that the Museum of the Rockies had recently excavated and preserved a triceratops skull that was found on a neighbor’s ranch. I thought the people at MOR would have the expertise to identify the kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.”

“The bones stayed in our basement,” she continued, “until November of 1988 when we made a trip to Bozeman to be with my sister for Thanksgiving. We took our ‘find’ to MOR and asked if someone could identify the bones we had found.

“Pat Leiggi came outside to our station wagon, took one look, and with big eyes said, ‘You’d better come with me!’ Pat and the other paleontologists were able to immediately identify the bones as belonging to a meat-eating dinosaur and they were pretty sure the bones were the small front arm bones of a T. Rex, some of which had never been found before!”

Below is a timeline of the events that followed, as described in The Complete T. Rex by Jack Horner and Don Lessem:

  • Labor Day weekend, 1988: Kathy Wankel discovers the bones
  • May 1989: paleontologists from MOR accompany the Wankels to the place of discovery
  • September 1989: additional paleontologists return to this site for further digging and review
  • June 1990: actual excavation of the fossil begins

Someone who is neither a paleontologist nor familiar with fossil digs might wonder why more than a year passed before the full excavation began.

Sheldon McKamey, Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies, explained further.

“When you find fossils on the surface of the ground,” she said in a phone interview, “you don’t know if they’re the first bones of an entire skeleton underground, whether they’re the first bones to ‘weather out,’ or if they’re the last bones and everything else is gone. I mean, you just don’t know. So when you find something, you kind of poke around and see if there’s more. Because you don’t know at which stage you’re finding that specimen.”

In other words, there is always a chance that no further bones exist.

The paleontologists who explored the site in May 1989 thought there might indeed be more below the surface. This is what prompted a second crew, she added, to go out that September–once the tourist season in the area had passed–and try to discover even more.

“That’s when we found significant parts of the animal,” she said.

But even knowing that more bones exist underground does not necessarily accelerate the dig. There are challenges to excavating fossils.

It is never a quick process, and one must take into account the climate of the area, the logistics of assembling a crew—the people and equipment needed—and the constraints of scientists who are generally working on limited budgets with limited time. Not to mention the accessibility (or lack thereof) of the site itself.

“The land is so inhospitable,” Sheldon McKamey explained of the Badlands, “It’s hard to get things. We find things occasionally that we would love to collect, but there’s no way to get them out. The land really dictates what you can collect.”

 “The land really dictates what you can collect.” – Sheldon McKamey, Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT

 

(Badlands near Hell Creek, Montana, photo by Alan Majchrowicz, courtesy Getty Images)

According to Jack Horner and Don Lessem (The Complete T. Rex), the crew needed “an antiquities permit” from the landowners—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)–in order to excavate there. The USACE representatives with whom they spoke were “unbelievably cooperative.”

Julie Price, the USACE Omaha District Cultural Resource Program Manager, offered additional information about this ownership.

“The land where the Wankel T. Rex was discovered was acquired for the Ft. Peck Dam and Ft. Peck Lake by the 1935 Rivers and Harbors Act,” she wrote in an email. “Basically, the Federal Government acquired lands necessary to construct the dam and impound the waters of the reservoir. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the land-managing agency for the lands surrounding Ft. Peck Lake.”

“Nationally,” she added, “USACE manages 12 million acres of public land and waters, which includes 54,800 miles of shoreline, 7,700 miles of trails and 92,800 campsites.”

When Kathy Wankel found the bones, the area was an island. When paleontologists returned to dig, the water level had dropped.

One might be surprised to know that the USACE generously bulldozed a road into the area in order to help paleontologists access the dig site and then help remove the fossil once excavated.

“This excavation was quite unique as this fossil was not found by a paleontologist with a permit to search and/or excavate on federal land, but a happenstance discovery by a member of the public,” Julie Price wrote. “Since the specimen was located on USACE-managed lands, it was the responsibility of the USACE (federal agency) to preserve and protect the fossil. At the time of excavation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had the capability to assist with heavy equipment needed for the road construction. However, several entities donated time, effort, equipment and professional expertise. The significance of this find spurred all entities to come together to ensure proper preservation and care of the fossil.”

This includes Sheldon McKamey’s brother, Bill, who drove his flatbed semi over 300 miles to the site and then—with sections of the fossil, plastered for protection and ready to travel—another 360 miles to the museum once the excavation was completed. Tom Wankel also helped with his grain-truck.

Dr. David Varricchio described his experience as a member of the excavation crew.

“I was a grad student at the time,” he wrote, “and had worked at a few dinosaur sites before. These were mostly bone-beds of disarticulated skeletons. So, when we got the whole skeleton uncovered and could stand back and look at it as it lay in the ground….that was incredibly impressive. Even though it was dead a long time ago, it still was awe-inspiring and really fit the word ‘dinosaur’. Over twenty years later, it remains one of the most impressive fossil localities I have ever experienced.”

“Over twenty years later, it remains one of the most impressive fossil localities I have ever experienced.”—Dr. David Varricchio, Associate Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University and one of the original excavators

“We tried to keep the site location a secret, or at least, told as few people as possible in an effort to avoid unwanted visitors,” Dr. Varricchio continued. “So, we were startled one day to see a truck rumbling towards us in the distance.”

“As it got closer, we were further surprised to see that it was a FedEx truck.”

“We all watched in wonder, scratching our heads, as it continued to drive all the way to the site. The driver got out and said, ‘I’ve got a package for Greg Erickson.’ Greg, currently a paleontologist at Florida State University, was a fellow grad student also working on the site. I don’t remember what it was he got.”

With some amusement, Dr. Varricchio recalled, “The driver had asked in town, and they gave him directions. Apparently, everyone knew where we were.”

No small feat in an expanse of land that is remarkably unpopulated and difficult to access.

And the need for secrecy, sadly, makes sense. Fossil theft and damage–then and now—is a very real concern.

Sheldon McKamey, hired by MOR as Director of Marketing in 1987, highlighted this by stating that “if you’d uncovered bones and then left them, anybody could’ve stopped there and scavenged them or damaged them.” She noted that once excavation began, people remained at the site to protect them.

“We knew this was a big deal,” Sheldon McKamey said, “We’d done a lot of advance press on it. We had a NOVA crew coming out to do a documentary on it. And we wanted to have a ‘public day’, so the people that wanted to see it from the surrounding area, or the legislators, or whoever could come. As we dug it up, we knew that we couldn’t put it in plaster until people had a chance to see it.”

“As soon as the press day was over, we started jacketing everything, and it takes a long time to do that.”

Since the excavation, researchers at the Museum of the Rockies have prepared the bones so that they appear in-situ, a process that took years to complete. A bronze cast of the skeleton–upright and complete, as it may have appeared in life–has been greeting museum visitors for years at the entrance to the museum.

This week, however, the fossil is moving to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The move was originally set to take place in October 2013, but this was rescheduled due to the government shut-down.

When asked why the decision to move the fossil was made, Julie Price responded, “The Wankel T. Rex will always remain the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Smithsonian Institute approached the Museum of the Rockies and USACE about a long-term loan agreement for the Wankel T. Rex to be showcased in their new exhibit in Washington, DC.”

“USACE, the Museum and the people of Montana are very proud of the significance of the specimens that reside in the state. Through a collaborative effort with all entities,” she explained, “USACE quickly realized the contribution this particular specimen would have to the nation. The Wankel T. Rex will be on display in the new 31,000 square foot exhibit space within the National Museum of Natural History and available to eight million visitors annually. Additionally, this specimen will increase research opportunities for scientists and scholars nationwide.”

“USACE, the Museum [of the Rockies] and the people of Montana are very proud of the significance of the specimens that reside in the state.  Through a collaborative effort with all entities, USACE quickly realized the contribution this particular specimen would have to the nation.”—Julie Price, USACE Omaha District Cultural Resource Program Manager

Sheldon McKamey concurs.

“It’s such a wonderful specimen that we’re sharing. We agreed that it should be shared with everybody at the Smithsonian.”

“We have a second US Army Corps of Engineers specimen in our collection, and that one we’re going to mount in the next year or so and put on display at the Museum of the Rockies. So, people will see one here, and they’ll see one at the Smithsonian.”

“The fact is,” she continued, “we’re a research institution, and we got significant data from it. And we don’t collect things just for display. So this is something that I think will benefit a lot of people. And we know that it’s always going to say at the label at the Smithsonian that it’s the Wankel T. Rex, and the museum’s name is going to be a part of that. That’s pretty significant.”

When asked if he was surprised about the fossil move, Dr. Varricchio replied, “Not really. It was collected on federal land, so technically it belongs to the people of the US, and so it seems natural that it would go to the Smithsonian. Plus, MOR has collected a couple more [T.Rex fossils]; our shelves are pretty full. DC is a wonderful place for many people from the US and abroad to get to see it.”

But Kathy Wankel has a slightly different opinion.

“We have mixed feelings about the Wankel T. Rex being moved to DC,” she wrote. “We feel very honored that millions of people will be viewing our discovery and that our T. Rex will now be known as ‘The Nation’s T. Rex.’ The loan/lease agreement between the USACE and the Smithsonian is for 50 years. We hope that our T. Rex will be able to come home to Montana at the end of those 50 years.”

The Wankel T. Rex begins its journey to D.C. on April 11th. Events are planned at the Smithsonian on April 15th to celebrate its arrival.

And how does one move a fossil of that size across the country?

Apparently, the Smithsonian has contracted the very same company that surprised the crew during the dig.

It will be moved by a FedEx truck.


————-

Full Q&A with Kathy Wankel, discoverer of the Wankel T. Rex:

1. Were you looking for fossils when you found the bones? Do you want to describe how you found them?

 
I would like to confess up front that really it was either blind luck or divine providence that I found the thing. And here is why I think so: Yes, I was a curious “rock hound” and was fascinated by the badlands that surrounded the Ft. Peck reservoir. And yes, I was looking for a fossil when I discovered the T. Rex. But when I say “a fossil”, by that I mean that prior to finding our T. Rex, I had found bits and pieces of what I thought were fossils, but I had never before found an entire fossil bone!
We found our T. Rex Labor Day weekend of 1988. My husband, Tom, and I and our three children, Lee (then 8 years old), Rock (then 5), and Whitney (then 14 months) were enjoying one last weekend of camping and fishing at Ft. Peck Reservoir before the start of the school year. Tom’s brother, Jim, and his daughter, Christy, were also camped there with us.

Jim generously offered to look after the children while Tom and I took the boat across the bay to look for bones. Tom was walking below along the base of a small, eroded gumbo ridge while I walked along the top of the ridge. The sun was just right and I spotted a small knife-blade-shaped protrusion in the gumbo. I could see some fine whitish-grey chips and the distinctive bone pattern. Just as I was getting a closer look, Tom yelled that he thought he may have found something. I said “You’d better come up here…I think I have found something better!”

The gumbo clay dirt surrounding the bones was baked hard as cement as Montana was experiencing an extreme drought that year. We used Tom’s pocketknife to chisel away at the gumbo surrounding the bones but decided we needed more tools. The small protrusion of bones later turned out to be the top ridge of the shoulder blade and the ends of some rib bones. I was so excited and exclaimed to Tom “I think this is a MEGA-FIND”! I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.

We went back to camp and loaded everyone in the boat to come see what we had found. But more digging would have to wait for another time. We needed to pack up camp and get home to get ready for school. We vowed to come back the following weekend. But that didn’t happen. As you may recall, 1988 was the year of the terrible fires in Yellowstone Park. Our governor put a moratorium on all outdoor activity and it was mid-October before we were able to go see what exactly we had found. The evening of the day we removed the bones there was a horrific thunder and lightning storm.

2. What prompted you to bring them to the Museum of the Rockies?
I knew that the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) had recently excavated and preserved a triceratops skull that was found on a neighbor’s ranch. I thought the people at MOR would have the expertise to identify the kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.
The bones stayed in our basement until November of 1988 when we made a trip to Bozeman to be with my sister for Thanksgiving. We took our “find” to MOR and asked if someone could identify the bones we had found. Pat Leiggi came outside to our station wagon, took one look and with big eyes said “You’d better come with me!” Pat and the other paleontologists were able to immediately identify the bones as belonging to a meat-eating dinosaur and they were pretty sure the bones were the small front arm bones of a T. Rex, some of which had never been found before!

3. You discovered the bones in 1988, but the actual dig didn’t begin until 1990. There is a very cute passage in The Complete T-Rex (Jack Horner/Don Lessem, as I’m sure you know!) that describes the paleontologists asking you to keep the info about the fossil “under your hat”, and your husband said he thought a “bigger hat” was needed.

Yes, Tom got a bigger hat…a ten gallon cowboy hat …and we were able to keep the site a secret. In the summer of 1989, Tom and I led Pat Leiggi and Ken Carpenter from MOR along with a US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) representative to the site. Pat and Ken explored and decided there may be more of the skeleton embedded there. It must have taken some time to get the proper government approvals completed and time to gather enough financial resources for MOR to send a field crew later that summer. The excavation was started in the summer of 1989 and was completed in 1990.

4. Do you want to comment on your feelings or any surprises you experienced throughout those years, from discovery to full excavation?

It has been a wonderful learning experience for our entire family. We have met (and continue to meet) wonderfully interesting people, have been interviewed by CBS This Morning with Paula Zahn, numerous newspapers and magazines, were in a PBS/NOVA documentary as well as other documentaries, and even a family trip to Los Angeles to appear on a game show “To Tell the Truth”!

5. Have you and your family visited the T. Rex at MOR over the years? Were you already a dinosaur-fan or did the discovery prompt you to learn more about them?

Yes, our family visits MOR frequently whenever we are in Bozeman. We have been witness to MOR developing from a small building in 1988 to the world-class museum that it is today.

6. Were you surprised that the T-Rex is going to DC, and how do you feel about it?

We have mixed feelings about the Wankel T. Rex being moved to DC. We feel very honored that millions of people will be viewing our discovery and that our T. Rex will now be known as “The Nation’s T Rex”. The loan/lease agreement between the USACE and the Smithsonian is for 50 years. We hope that our T. Rex will be able to come home to Montana at the end of those 50 years.

7. Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like people to know?

Twenty members of our extended family are making the trip to Washington DC. for the Wankel T. Rex reception events at the Smithsonian. What great memories for our entire family!

————-

I would like to extend a T. Rex-sized ‘Thank you!’ to Kathy Wankel, Sheldon McKamey, Dr. David Varricchio, Julie Price, Mark Robinson, and Kevin Ropp! What a great pleasure and honor!!

Thank you to Paul Rubenstein at USACE for informing me of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009, Public Law 111-011!

You can follow the fossil’s move to DC on Twitter: #trexroadtrip

Interested in supporting current fossil digs or paleontological research? Check your local museum and see how you can help!

Find out more about the Museum of the Rockies: http://museumoftherockies.org/

The fossil is moving to the Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History (NMNH): https://www.mnh.si.edu/

More info on USACE, per Julie Price:

“USACE owns other fossils.

“Those fossils are managed by the local USACE District offices administering the lands from which they are discovered. These local USACE offices are assisted and provided with technical support by the Corps Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections Center (CMAC) in St. Louis.

“The Center which was created by USACE in 1994 is responsible for curation of archaeological materials, curation of associated documentation, collections management, collections management database development and special purpose design and construction requirements of curation facilities. The Center also assists other Army major commands, Department of Defense services and agencies, and other federal, state, and local government agencies.

More information is available here http://www.mvs.usace.army.mil/Missions/CentersofExpertise/CurationMgmtofArchaeologicalCollections.aspx”

VI International Conference on Mammoths and Their Relatives – May 2014!

Every three to four years, mammoth experts and scientists from all over the world congregate for several days to discuss the most recent findings and cutting-edge discoveries.

This year, that event takes place in Greece.

This location is particularly fitting, not only for its exciting mammoth and mastodon finds (including the world’s largest tusks found to-date), but also because the name of the mammalian Order to which mammoths belong is derived from a Greek word: proboskis (προβοσκίδα).

The name Proboscidea–from proboscis (trunk)—aptly describes some of its more popular members: today’s elephants and yesterday’s mastodons and mammoths.

This marks the 6th time this conference has been held.  It is not an annual event, nor is it necessarily held in the same location or on the same continent.

This year’s honorary president is a US-based scientist: Dr. Larry Agenbroad, from the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Dr. Larry Agenbroad

(Image of Dr. Larry Agenbroad with short-faced bear replica, courtesy of Dr. Larry Agenbroad)

The president of the conference is Dr. Evangelia Tsoukala, Associate Professor of Geology at the University of Thessaloniki, and one of the team of paleontologists who excavated the largest tusks mentioned above.

The vice president is Dr. George Theodorou, Professor of Palaeontology and Stratigraphy at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

The list of scientists and experts involved in this event is both impressive and exciting.  Among so many others, (there were too many to mention here, but you can find them at this link) some of the participating specialists are:

  • Dr. Paul Bahn, British archaeologist and co-author of Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age with Dr. Adrian Lister;
  • Dr. Daniel Fisher, Professor at the University of Michigan, Curator and Director at the Museum of Paleontology, Michigan, mammoth-tusk expert, and one of the original scientists to study Lyuba, the best preserved baby mammoth found to-date;
  • Dr. Victoria Herridge of the Natural History Museum, London and dwarf mammoth expert;
  • Dr. Frédéric Lacombat, paleontologist at the Musée Crozatier, France, and president of the Vth International Mammoth Conference, 2010;
  • Dr. Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum, London and author of the two most comprehensive books on mammoths published in English;
  • Dick Mol, mammoth expert from the Netherlands who has been involved in mammoth research and discoveries for decades, and one of the paleontologists who excavated the tusks in Greece with Dr. Tsoukala;
  • Dr. Doris Nagel of the Institute of Palaeontology, University of Vienna;
  • Dr. Maria Rita Palombo of the Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza;
  • Dr. Alexei Tikhonov, Deputy Director of the Zoological Institute, St. Petersburg,  Scientific Secretary of the Mammoth Committee, Russian Academy of Sciences, and also one of the scientists who originally studied Lyuba;
  • Dr. Haowen Tong, Adjunct Professor of the Graduate University, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Historical Paleontological Collection of Siatista

(Image of the Historical Paleontological Collection of Siatista, Municipality of Voion, courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)

Evangelos Vlachos, a PhD student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and one of the many organizers of the event very generously responded to my questions.

———————————————

1. What will your PhD be in and what is your doctoral thesis? How did you become involved in the Mammoth Conference?

I am doing my PhD on Vertebrate Paleontology, specifically on the study of turtles and tortoises from Greece.

But what is a “turtle guy” doing at the Mammoth Conference?

Well, being part of Evangelia Tsoukala’s team includes excavating for proboscideans, including some of the biggest ever lived. In my first years of study, I considered working with fossil proboscideans, but later I changed to the study of chelonians.

My first experience with the Mammoth Conference was at the Vth Mammoth Conference in Le Puy-en-Velay, France in 2010.  In Le Puy, the Greek side participated with many oral and poster presentations, and the scientific community had the chance to get familiar with the exciting proboscidean findings from Greece.

Poster presentations of the Greek-Dutch team

[Image of poster presentations of the Greek-Dutch team during the Vth ICMR in Le-Puy-en-Velay, France (2010, picture credits W. van Logchem), courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

2. How wonderful that the Mammoth Conference is held in Greece this year! How was the decision to hold it in Greece made?

Indeed, it is wonderful, but it was sudden!

Normally, at the end of each conference, the Organizing Committee examines all of the available proposals and decides where the next Mammoth Conference will be held.

In Le Puy, the Organizing Committee decided that Anchorage, Alaska would host the VIth Mammoth Conference in May 2013. Although the scientific community was excited to visit this remote place, which has played an important role in the history of the mammoths, things didn’t work out.

In the beginning of 2014, new proposals were requested. Within a few days, we filed a proposal to host the next conference in the historic towns of West Macedonia, Grevena and Siatista, which have brilliant collections of fossil proboscideans.

Luckily, our proposal was accepted, and we are honored to host the next conference in Greece.

Dutch artist Remie Bakker

[Children making their own mammoth under the guidance of the Dutch artist Remie Bakker, during the opening ceremony of the Historical Paleontological Collection of Siatista. Similar events are going to be held during the conference (2011, picture credits V. Makridis), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

3. Who organizes this conference and who determines the president of the conference? (Do the organizers change each year?)

The organization of the conference is the responsibility of the Organizing Committee.

Some members are regular; they have been there since 1995 when the first conference was held in Saint Petersburg.

Specialists like Dick Mol provide the experience of organizing a Mammoth Conference and access to the network of the proboscidean scientific community.

Many people from the host country itself are involved to make sure that everything will be organized in detail. The organizers of the conference are supported by the Scientific Committee: specialists of various topics related to the conference. Their role is to consult the committee in scientific matters and to serve as reviewers of the abstracts and papers submitted to the conference.

This year, we are privileged to have a large Scientific Committee of 43 specialists from all fields related to proboscidean study. Moreover, in this conference, many young scientists are included in the Scientific Committee, which is very important for us. One of the goals of this conference is to ensure that the study of proboscideans will not only have a glorious past, but a great future as well.

4. Who typically attends this conference? Do you have an idea of how many people will be attending this year?

The Mammoth Conference attracts the interest of scientists from many different fields, but all joined by the interest of promoting knowledge surrounding proboscidean evolution.

Among the numerous participants, you will find paleontologists presenting new findings that improve our knowledge of the fossil record; geneticists examining the DNA of present-day elephants and from the frozen carcasses of the woolly mammoths; scientists applying new techniques like stable isotope and dental microwear analysis on proboscidean molars; archaeologists investigating the interaction between humans and proboscideans.

This is not all. At each conference, something new comes up!

Early registration for the participants closed on 31th of January 2014.

The interest of the proboscidean community in the VIth ICMR was enormous and far exceeded the expectations of the Organizing Committee!

We received more than 150 registrations from all corners of the world: from Cape Town, South Africa in the South to Stockholm, Sweden in the North; from Wollongong, Australia in the Southeast to Edmonton, Canada in the Northwest; from Kusatsu, Japan in the East to Nevada in the West; from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in South America to Yakutsk in Siberia. In total, all the participants will have to travel more than 11 times the circumference of Earth to come to Grevena and Siatista!

Mammoth Conference Global Participants

 (Geographic representation of this year’s Mammoth Conference participants, image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR))

5. How does one decide what topics and papers will be discussed?

The Organizing Committee, in close co-operation with the Scientific Committee, set an initial number of topics to be discussed in the conference. They have to summarize the current open questions in the field.

Some of the topics, however, are “classical,” we could say, such as the information from soft tissues from the frozen carcasses, or the interaction between humans and mammoths.

At the same time, in every conference we are trying to promote the regional research by proposing topics that could stimulate researchers to come up with ideas. For example, in our conference, we are particularly interested in the “primitive” probiscidean proboscidean forms–before the appearance of mammoths–like the mastodons or gomphotheres.

Sometimes, the participants are able to propose new topics of interest. This was the case with our Brazilian colleagues, who suggested we have a session on extinct South American proboscideans that, until recently, have been relatively unknown.

6. What do you think is the most exciting part of the Mammoth Conference?

As a young scientist, the most exciting part is definitely to get to know all the well-known specialists in this field and exchange ideas with them.

Standing up in front of a well-qualified audience and presenting your ideas is a great challenge. But the experience you get is unique.

Presentations - Vth ICMR

[Presenting in front of the world’s leading experts (Vth ICMR in Le-Puy-en-Velay, France, 2010, picture credits V. Makridis), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

 

In the end, when you are returning to your country, you feel overwhelmed by the information you have received. But as the days go by, ideas start to form and with the experience gained by attending an International Conference, you can make good progress on your studies.

Science is not only reading and writing, but communicating your ideas.

Preparing a plaster jacket for a partial femur of a mastodon

[Preparing a plaster jacket for a partial femur of a mastodon. Now this specimen is part of the Paleontological Exhibition of Milia (2012, picture credits W. van Logchem), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

Moreover, it is always exciting to take part in the field trips of the Conference.

In our conference, not only we will visit all of the impressive sites in Northern Greece, like Grevena, Milia, Siatista and Ptolemaida, but we have planned a unique post-conference field trip. The participants will travel to the remote island of Tilos where the last European elephants lived, as dwarf forms, in the Charkadio Cave. To reach this island, we will go through Athens and the world famous site of Pikermi.

Excavating in site Milia-4 using rope techniques

 

[Excavating in site Milia-4 using rope techniques. One of the sites that the participants will visit during the Field Sessions of the conference (2010, picture credits W. van Logchem), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

 

7. Are there any challenges to organizing or hosting the Mammoth Conference?

One word: logistics.

The amount of work needed to arrange everything–the registrations, the abstracts, transportation and accommodation, the field trips–is enormous. In those cases, especially when you have so many people from different countries and cultures, you need to pay attention to every detail to make sure that all will go according to plan.

But the Organizing Committee is working hard, night and day, to extend an example of traditional Greek hospitality to everyone involved!
8. Is there anything else that you would want people to know?

Latest News:

This week, members of the Organizing Committee visited the places where the conference will take place (Grevena, Milia, Siatista and Ptolemaida) and inspected all venues, exhibition and facilities. At the moment, everything is going according to plan and the Organizing Committee works day and night to make a wonderful conference for the participants.

 Paleontological Exhibition of Milia

(Image of the the Paleontological Exhibition of Milia, Municipality of Grevena, courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)

———————————————

I would like to extend an Archelon ischyros-sized thank you to Evangelos Vlachos for his lightning quick responses to my emails, his generosity and his detailed answers! 

When he mentions that the Organizing Committee works night-and-day for this conference, he is not kidding. Some of our emails were exchanged at 3am his time!  

Σας ευχαριστούμε!

Thank you, as well, to Dr. Evangelia Tsoukala and to Dick Mol, who also generously shared their time for this post (behind the scenes)!

Please check out the VI International Conference website:  www.mammothconference.com

You can follow them on Twitter! @mammoths2014 / #mammoths2014

Videos on YouTube related to the Conference and excavating the world’s longest tusks from the mastodon in Greece!

a. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=caDUsZHehyY&list=UUJJtPaGIosoQiSHtBSyQ7RA&feature=c4-overview

(The video above is multilingual.)

b. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCMDHJSTYZE&list=LLIWT11-xMeFd4CEztS2eB9g

c. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJPB4Vdy70A&list=LLIWT11-xMeFd4CEztS2eB9g

It has been my great honor to have connected previously with two of the many mammoth experts listed above:

Dr. Daniel Fisher:

http://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/mammoth-article-qa-dr-daniel-fisher-renowned-paleontologist/

Dr. Larry Agenbroad:

http://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/the-mammoth-site-and-dr-larry-agenbroad-renowned-paleontologist/

EoFauna – Science, Art, Dinosaurs, Mammoths – Bringing the Extinct Back to Life!

(**To see any of these incredible images below in more detail, please click on them!)

Initially, the idea was a dream.

Asier Larramendi, from Donostia-San Sebastian, participated in social media platforms with people who shared his enthusiasm for mammoths and dinosaurs. Discussing and debating scientific details. Reading up on the latest scientific papers.

It was through these discussions on a dinosaur blog in 2007 that he met Rubén Molina: another artist, another person passionate about prehistoric life, and a person who—based in Mexico City—lived on the other side of the world.

They quit their jobs in 2010, and they formed a company in 2012.

Their dream took shape in the form of EoFauna, an international collection of award-winning paleoartists, sculptors, researchers and prehistoric enthusiasts. Their goal: to create scientifically accurate representations of prehistoric fauna, using the most up-to-date research as their guide. In addition, they hope to educate others and help correct any inaccuracies currently within the media and in museums.

eofauna - logo

(Image of the EoFauna Logo, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

The members and collaborators of their company are from all over the world:

Sante Mazzei, an award-winning paleoillustrator from Italy;
Andrey Atuchin, a zoologist and paleoillustrator from Russia;
Shuhei Tamura, a traditional artist from Japan;
Jorge Ortiz, a biologist, sculptor and paleoillustrator from Mexico;
Martha Garcia, a technical expert and painter from Mexico;
Shu-yu Hsu, a sculptor from Taiwan;
Feng Shan Lu, a modeler from Taiwan;
Alejandro Muñoz, a sculptor from Spain;
David Zhou, a sculptor from China;
Heraldo Mussolini, a paleoillustrator from Argentina;
Jimmy Liu, 3D animator from Taiwan.

Perhaps most striking about the people who make up EoFauna is that most are self-taught—if not within the science itself, then within their artistic mediums. Their knowledge stems from reading thousands of scientific papers, all of the related contemporary scientific books, and from a powerful motivation to understand prehistoric life and impart that understanding to other people.

EoFauna - extant proboscideans

(Image of extant proboscidean models, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

EoFana - extinct proboscideans

(Image of extinct proboscidean models, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

Asier Larramendi himself, has just published a paper about the Songhua River Mammoths in the peer-reviewed journal Paläontologische Zeitschrift (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12542-014-0222-8).

Their artwork is absolutely beautiful, incredibly detailed and so very lifelike.  One could say that this talented group of artists and researchers bring these extinct animals back to life.

Asier and Rubén very graciously took time out of their busy schedules to answer questions–in Spanish AND in English–about their company, their artwork and their research.

———————————————–

1. From the “Prehistoric Times” article you very kindly sent, I can see that you and Rubén met through a blog.  How did you meet the other members of your staff?

De muy diferentes maneras, pero básicamente gracias a Internet. Con algunos de los colaboradores nos pusimos en contacto a través de conocidos sitios web de arte como DeviantArt, otros mediante blogs personales y redes sociales como Facebook, también hemos llegado a acuerdos con gente que contactan directamente con nosotros. Siempre buscamos y elegimos Artistas con gran talento y ganas de trabajar en diferentes proyectos. También hemos contactado con otro tipo de profesionales (Biólogos, Paleontólogos) a través de museos y universidades. Uno de nuestros objetivos es crear y dar servicios de primera calidad basados en la excelencia, rigurosidad científica y belleza artística.

In many different ways, but basically thanks to the Internet. Some of the partners we contacted through art websites known as DeviantArt; others through personal blogs and social networks like Facebook. We have also reached agreements with people who contact us directly. We always look for and chose artists with great talent and desire to work on different projects. We have also contacted other professionals (biologists, paleontologists) through museums and universities. One of our goals is to create and provide quality services based on excellence, scientific stringency and artistic pulchritrude.

EoFauna - Skulls

(Image of various skull sculptures, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

2. What kinds of clients contact you?  Is your artwork found in museums or in universities?

Por ahora la mayoría son particulares y coleccionistas, pero poco a poco nos estamos abriendo mercado en museos y otras instituciones, todavía somos una empresa muy joven. Algunas de nuestras paleo-esculturas se pueden ver en el Museo y Centro de Interpretación Luberri (http://www.luberri.org/eu/). Por otra parte ayudamos a museos que requieren de asesoría bibliográfica, identificación de fósiles fragmentados y apoyo para reconstrucción de organismos extintos.

At the moment, most are individual people and collectors, but gradually we are expanding our market to include museums and other institutions. We are still a very young company. Some of our paleo-sculptures can be seen at the Museum and Interpretation Centre of Luberri (http://www.luberri.org/eu/). On the other hand we help museums requiring bibliographic advice, identification of fragmented fossils, and support for reconstruction of extinct organisms.

EoFauna - Charonosaurus Andrey

(Image of Charonosaurus, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

 

3. Would your artwork be used in movies?

Si, eso es algo que tenemos mente, de hecho en estos momentos estamos trabajando en proyecto de animación 3D sobre un Mammuthus meridionalis para un museo Francés. Contamos con un fantástico modelador y un animador 3D de primer nivel. Colaborar en algún documental acerca de la vida prehistórica con nuestros 3D y asesoría científica, eso sería algo genial y trabajaremos para lograr ese sueño.

Yeah, that’s something that we have in our minds.  In fact, right now we are working on a 3D animation project: a Mammuthus meridionalis (Southern Mammoth) for a French museum. We collaborate with a fantastic 3D modeler and first-rate animator. Participating on a documentary about prehistoric life with our 3D and scientific advice, that would be something great, and we will work to achieve that dream.

EoFauna - Mammuthus meridonionalis

(Image of Mammuthus meridionalis, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

4. Have any of you participated in any fossil digs?

Alguno de nuestros colaboradores como Andrey Atuchin ha participado en trabajos de campo un par de años atrás en Blagoveshchensk (Lejano Oriente, Rusia, Cretácico Superior), y en Sharipovo (SO Siberia, edad Bathonian).

Por otro lado Rubén Molina ha visitado algunas colecciones fósiles tales como: Centro paleontológico Lago Barreales (CEPALB) o el museo de La Plata  a fin de tomar medidas propias de los holotipos de Futalognkosaurus,  Macrogryphosaurus, Argentinosaurus entre otros más. Asier Larramendi por su parte ha realizado trabajos de investigación estudiando algunas colecciones de Mueso de China, Taiwan y Europa. Las más destacadas serían la colección del Inner Mongolian Museum, Zhalainuoer National Mine Museum, National Museum of Natural Science of Taiwan, National natural history museum of Madrid, Mainz Natural history Museum…

Some of our collaborators. For example, Andrey Atuchin, participated in field work a couple of years ago in Blagoveshchensk (Far East, Russia, Late Cretaceous), and in Sharipovo (SW Siberia, Bathonian age).

Furthermore, Rubén Molina visited some fossil collections such as the Lake Barreales Paleontological Center (CEPALB) or the Museum of La Plata in order to make holotypes of Futalognkosaurus, Macrogryphosaurus, Argentinosaurus among others measures. Asier Larramendi, meanwhile, has conducted research studying some museum collections from China, Taiwan and Europe. The most notable would be the Inner Mongolian Museum, Zhalainuoer National Mine Museum, National Museum of Natural Science of Taiwan, National Natural History Museum of Madrid, Mainz Natural history Museum…

5. Your website says that most of your research relies on scientific papers, but that you’ve also been to a number of museums.  Has there been any specific paper or museum that has truly impacted your research?  Or do you have favorites among museums?

Bien, no hay un articulo en concreto, más bien nos fijamos en los trabajos de diferentes autores que nos llaman la atención. A parte de estar muy interesados en la evolución, filogenia, ecología, comportamiento… de las criaturas prehistóricas, uno de los campos más interesante para poder crear nuestras obras y productos, es el de la anatomía y morfología.

Son numerosos los títulos que utilizamos para nuestros trabajos, sin embargo destacan algunos por contener estudios especializados en ciertos temas:

Paleorecontrucción y estimación de pesos (Gregory Paul, Scott Hartman, Jerison)

Icnología  (Tony Thulborn)

Fisiología (Robert  Bakker)

Historia (Spalding &  Sarjeant)

Geografía (Weishampel, Dodson & Osmólska)

Recopilaciones (Matthew Carrano et al en Paleobiology Database)

Anatomía (Mathew Wedel , Mike Taylor, Mickey Mortimer en Theropod Database, Jeheskel Shoshani )

Bibliografía especializada (Tracy Ford en Paleofile)

Etc…

Tratamos siempre de estar actualizados y conseguir el mayor número de artículos científicos, libros relacionados con los dinosaurios y otros animales, temas prehistóricos, zoológicos y todo lo relacionado con el mundo animal. Por supuesto, uno de nuestros objetivos en relación con los dinosaurios es hacernos con todos los artículos descriptivos de todas las especies descritas hasta el día de hoy, por lo que siempre estamos muy encima en todo lo que se publica.

No tenemos un museo favorito, cada uno tiene su encanto. Algunos museos son muy espectaculares de cara al publico pero su colección en ocasiones es escasa, por lo contrario, en otras veces, pese que el museo es pequeño, en las entrañas de su colección puedes descubrir algo maravilloso que ha permanecido oculto e impacte a la comunidad científica. Todos guardan algún pequeño tesoro.

Well, there is no specific article. Rather, we follow the work of various authors who draw our attention.

Apart from being very interested in the evolution, phylogeny, ecology, behavior… of prehistoric creatures, anatomy and morphology are two of the most interesting fields in relation to our products.

There are numerous titles we use for our work. However, some are highlighted below as they contain specialized studies in certain subjects:

Paleoreconstruction and body mass estimates (Gregory Paul, Scott Hartman, Jerison)
Ichnology (Tony Thulborn)
Physiology (Robert Bakker)
History (Spalding & Sarjeant)
Geography (Weishampel , Dodson & Osmolska)
Compilations (Matthew Carrano et al in Paleobiology Database)
Anatomy (Mathew Wedel, Mike Taylor, Mickey Mortimer on Theropod Database, Jeheskel Shoshani)
Specialized literature (Tracy Ford on Paleofile)
Etc…

We always try to be up-to-date and get the highest number of scientific papers, books about dinosaurs and other animals, prehistoric and zoological themes, and everything related to the animal world. Of course, one of our objectives regarding dinosaurs, for example, is to get all of the recently published described-species articles, so we are always up on everything that is published.

We do not have a favorite museum; each has its charm. Some museums are spectacular for the general public, but its collection might be limited. In contrast, although the museum may be small, something wonderful might be discovered in the bowels of its collection that has remained hidden and might impact the scientific community. Normally all of them have some little treasure.

EoFauna - Guanlong

(Image of Guanlong, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

6. I notice feedback on your DeviantArt pages: http://EoFauna.deviantart.com/gallery/

Do you have a lot of debate with scientists over the details of your artwork?

Si, con Leonardo Filippi por ejemplo, revisamos el género Pitekunsaurus pues al parecer el occipital no coincidía en proporción con los demás huesos encontrados, que por mala fortuna son pocos. Analizamos y comparamos con otros géneros como son Antarctosaurus, Bonatitan, Rapetosaurus, Malawisaurus, Bonitasaura, Tapuiasaura y encontramos que resulta demasiado pequeño. Esto nos lleva a sugerir dos probabilidades, que el cráneo perteneció a otro ejemplar juvenil o que ese género fue un dinosaurio con la cabeza relativamente pequeña.

Yes. For example, we reviewed the genus of Pitekunsaurus with Leonardo Filippi because the occipital bone apparently did not match the proportion of other bones found. Those are very few. We analyzed and compared it to other genera such as Antarctosaurus, Bonatitan, Rapetosaurus, Malawisaurus, Bonitasaura, Tapuiasaura, and we found it too small. This leads us to suggest two probabilities: that the skull belonged to another juvenile individual, or that it was a dinosaur with a relatively small head.

EoFauna - Psittacosaurus bite force

(Image of Psittacosaurus, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

7. Can you tell me more about the book you’re working on? 

Claro, la obra en la que estamos trabajando trata sobre diferentes tipos de records en dinosaurios. Estos records, no sólo tratarán sobre los más grandes y de menor tamaño, incluirá record históricos, anatómicos y taxonómicos. Revisaremos algunos mitos que se han creado a fin de sustentarlos y descartarlos.

La obra está basada en datos recopilados durante años y cuidadosamente analizados para ofrecer un material confiable, además de que intentaremos aportar nuevas observaciones en diversos temas. Como adelanto decir que  mostraremos que dinosaurios fueron lo más grandes y más pequeños por zonas geográficas, periódicas, familias… Por otra parte, nuestro libro será el primero en mostrar todas las especies descritas hasta el día de hoy con su correspondiente tamaño estimado. Contamos con una base de datos basada en miles de artículos y recopilaciones que se publicará junto con la obra, para que se pueda verificar a fin de darle autenticidad de lo que se mostraremos. El libro será dibujado por los ilustradores Andrey Atuchin, Sante Mazzei, Jorge Ortiz Mendieta y los dos autores: Rubén Molina y Asier Larramendi.

Sure. The book we are working on is about different types of dinosaur records. We will include the largest and the smallest dinosaurs by epoch, geographic location, and families. We will also include historical, anatomical and taxonomic records. We will review some myths that have been created and discard them.

The work  is based on data collected for years and carefully analyzed to offer reliable material. Moreover, we will try to try  to bring new observations on various subjects. We will show which dinosaurs were largest and smallest geographically, by different periods, by families… Furthermore, our book will be the first to show all species described to-date with each species’ corresponding estimated size. We have a database based on thousands of papers and collections that will be published along with the book in order that anyone can verify the authenticity of that which we present. The book will be contain artwork by illustrators Andrey Atuchin, Sante Mazzei, Jorge Ortiz Mendieta, and two authors: Rubén Molina and Asier Larramendi .

EoFauna - Eotriceratops vs Triceratops

(Image of Triceratops horridus and Eotriceratops xerinsularis, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

 

8. Do you attend any paleontological conferences?  Will you be attending the Mammoth Conference in Greece this year? 

Si, Asier Larramendi como especialista en proboscideos estará presente en la sexta conferencia internacional de Mamuts y sus relativos (VI International Conference on Mammoths and their Relatives). Acudirán cerca de 200 científicos de todo el mundo, entre ellos varios de los mayores expertos en proboscídeos como Dick Mol o Adrian Lister. Será una gran oportunidad para estar al día de los nuevos descubrimientos y debatir con diferentes especialistas y poder hablar cara a cara con esos colegas que sólo se tiene contacto vía e-mail. La misma conferencia dará la oportunidad de ver in-situ algunos impresionantes hallazgos de probsocidos como los restos del mastodonte europeo, Mammut borsoni, incluyendo los dos colmillos más largos descubiertos en todo el mundo.

Asier por su parte, está preparando un manuscrito sobre la altura, tamaño corporal y morfología de los proboscídeos extintos que será enviado al congreso.

Yes. Asier Larramendi, our proboscideans specialist, will attend the Sixth International Conference on Mammoths and Their Relatives. The conference will be attended by nearly 200 scientists from all around the world, including several of the leading experts in proboscidea, such as Dick Mol and Adrian Lister. It will be a great opportunity to keep abreast of new discoveries and to be able to debate face-to-face with those specialists with whom we have only contacted via e-mail. The same conference will give the opportunity to see in-situ some awesome proboscidean findings, such as the remains of the European mastodon, Mammut borsoni, and the two of the longest tusks ever discovered worldwide.

Asier, meanwhile, is preparing a manuscript on the height, body size, and morphology of extinct proboscidea that will be sent to Congress.

Eofauna - M meridionalis and running paleontologist

(Image of paleontologist running from Mammuthus meridionalis, courtesy of Eofauna.com)

 

9. Can you tell me in what kind of projects or scientific papers are you involved?

Bien, tenemos en mente algunos otros libros relacionados con la vida prehistórica que nos gustaría ir realizando durante los próximos años. Durante esta año por ejemplo, revisaremos algunas colecciones y publicaremos algunos estudios en revistas con revisión científica externa. Asier por ejemplo acaba de publicar un estudio sobre los Mamuts del Río Songhua en la revista Paläontologische Zeitschrift (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12542-014-0222-8), en el que describe un espécimen completo. Como hemos comentado en la pregunta anterior, Asier está trabajando en un manuscrito acerca del tamaño y morfología de Proboscideos extintos. Rubén por su parte, está realizando diferentes estudios sobre la distribución geográfica de los dinosaurios durante las diferentes periodos y un estudio comparativo entre huesos incompletos de diferentes tipos de dinosaurios en México. Los resultados de estos estudios serán publicados durante el 2014.

Well, we have in mind to publish some other books related to prehistoric life over the next few years. During this year, for example, some collections will be revised, and several studies will be published in peer-reviewed journals. Asier, for example, has just published a study on Songhua River Mammoths in Zeitschrift Paläontologische (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12542-014-0222-8), which describes a complete specimen. As mentioned in the previous question, Asier is also working on a manuscript about the size and morphology of extinct proboscidea. Rubén, meanwhile, is conducting various studies on the geographical distribution of the dinosaurs during different periods and a comparative study on incomplete bones of different types of dinosaurs in Mexico. The results of these studies will be published in 2014.

EoFauna - Juvenile mastodon

(Image of juvenile mastodon, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

———————————————–

A Mammuthus Columbi-sized thank you to Asier Larramendi and Rubén Molina!  What a great pleasure connecting with them and learning about their exciting company!

¡Muchas, muchas gracias!

Please be sure to check out their website! http://eofauna.com/en/

Asier’s recent paper is here:

Skeleton of a Late Pleistocene steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) from Zhalainuoer, Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, China

Abstract

In 1980, in the Lingquan Strip Mine of Zhalainuoer, Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, China, two partial skeletons of Mammuthus trogontherii were unearthed and subsequently stored at the Inner Mongolian Museum in Hohhot. In March 1984, an almost complete skeleton of M. trogontherii was recovered in the same coal mine. This third steppe mammoth skeleton (Zhalainuoer III) is now exhibited at the Zhalainuoer Coal Mine Museum. It is the best-preserved skeleton of M. trogontherii ever found. A previously identified dropping and the enclosing sediments where the Zhalainuoer skeletons were found were dated to the Late Pleistocene. The almost complete third skeleton (Zhalainuoer III) is that of a fully grown male. The age at death of this individual was estimated at c. 53 years. It had a shoulder height of 389 cm in the flesh and a body mass of 10.5 tons. The completeness of the Zhalainuoer III skeleton provides new information about the morphology and the osteology of M. trogontherii. Especially noteworthy is the complete preservation of the caudal vertebrae.

 

Happy International Women’s Day!

Here are highlights of some truly remarkable women.

Where My Ladies At? – an exceptionally well-done video by Emily Graslie at the Field Museum in her BrainScoop series: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRNt7ZLY0Kc

World’s Smallest Mini Mammoth – a video about dwarf mammoths hosted by Dr. Victoria Herridge at the Natural History Museum of London: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/life/dinosaurs-other-extinct-creatures/dwarf-mammoth/index.html

More info on Dorothea Bate (1878 – 1951), a remarkable paleontologist, and one I had not heard of prior to the work of Dr. Victoria Herridge and Dr. Adrian Lister at the Natural History Museum:  http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/science-of-natural-history/biographies/dorothea-bate/index.html

An engaging interview with Dr. Karen Chin, Associate Professor, Department of Geological Sciences and Curator of Paleontology, University of Colorado Museum, with a CU Boulder student: (move to minute: 5:02) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeAGtotGtDI

And–a personal favorite–an interview with director Mira Nair on the Tavis Smiley Show: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365005247/

 

Have a wonderful International Women’s Day!

 

Autopsy of 9000-year-old bison

Fascinating!

Article by Sarah Griffiths:

http://www.capitalbay.com/news/481034-autopsy-of-perfectly-preserved-9-000-year-old-bison-could-reveal-the-parasites-that-plagued-prehistoric-animals-and-led-to-their-extinction.html

From the article above:

“The discovery has an enormous value for scientists since it is the best preserved bison ever found,” said Albert Protopopov, chief of the Mammoth Fauna Research Department of the Yakutian Academy of Sciences.

He told The Siberian Times: “We have ascertained that the bison lived 9,000 years ago, at the very beginning of the Holocene epoch and died aged approximately four.

By that time, many mammoths had died here, but the bison still lived.”

Earlier article by Anastasia Longinova:

http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/ancient-bison-remains-allow-scientists-to-travel-back-in-time-9000-years/