Meet Henry Sharpe – Paleoartist, Future Paleontologist

In one painting, a Daspletosaurus is rubbing its snout against tree bark as a way to clean its skin after eating.  In another, a small velicoraptor simply investigates a much larger hadrosauroid (Plesiohadros djadokhtaensis).  Henry Sharpe focuses his artistic lens a little differently than other paleoartists might; shifting the view from one of naked aggression and survival to one of (potential) everyday moments in prehistoric existence.

These moments, often gentle–evocative of the behavior of extant animals, behavior we may readily recognize and understand—and absent drama, make his artwork perhaps that much more realistic.


 

Screenshots of artwork by Henry Sharpe from his website

He bases them all on the latest research, keeping up with the most current scientific papers.  He also extrapolates known behavior of creatures alive today and applies it to similar extinct animals, an educated guess rather than a flight of pure imaginative fancy.  And in that way, he prompts the viewer to think and question: could this be how that animal truly behaved?  Is this how a snapshot in time might have looked at that moment for those animals?  How much do we know about that animal?  What else do we have yet to discover?

Or such are the thoughts that any good paleoart encourages within me. Good paleoart—in my opinion—invites more questions, inspires more interest, encourages more research.  Because that art opens doors that I didn’t realize were there. It offers a tantalizing glimpse of animals many of us yearn so deeply to actually know and see and understand. Paleontological research is a huge step in that process; paleoart is its creative partner.

Getting that art right—or as much as we can possibly make it ‘right’ in our relatively limited knowledge so far—is extremely important.*

“So much of palaeoart involves dinosaurs roaring and trying to kill each other,” Henry explained in an email, “which is unfortunate because not only are we pretty sure most of them didn’t roar, but also because nature isn’t like that. So much of the lives of modern animals are not represented in palaeoart: things like drinking, sleeping, patrolling, caring for young, resting, etc.

“In fact, when you look at many modern predators, not only does hunting for prey take up a vast minority of time, but most hunting attempts are unsuccessful.  I would love to see a piece showing a beaten and bruised Allosaurus looking longingly in the distance as its Camptosaurus quarry escapes.

“There are also a great deal of unusual behaviours unique to certain animal groups that are pretty likely for dinosaurs. Case in point is my Daspletosaurus, which is based on Komodo Dragons (the largest living lizards in the world, and the largest reptiles with lips, which were likely features for Tyrannosaurs like Daspletosaurus). Komodos, despite their filthy and disgusting reputation, are actually remarkably clean animals, and have been observed cleaning their muzzles of blood on bits of foliage after feeding, and I translated this to Daspletosaurus.”

Embed from Getty Images

image of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), photo: C.E. Seo from Getty Images

Henry doesn’t just read about paleontology: he is a frequent visitor at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, discussing paleontology with its experts and volunteering at their Kids’ Camp.  He is a recently published author with a scientific article in Earth Archives and other articles in the works related to Canada’s 150th year anniversary.  He writes about paleontology on his blog; he posts his artwork on his website.

It is very easy to forget that Henry Sharpe is 15 years old.

This couldn’t have been clearer when, after asking him by phone if he sells any of his art, he replied, “I don’t really get any requests now mostly because I haven’t really been around that long to advertise it.”

“But,” he continued, “down the road, I hope I can.”

His passion for art and science seem marvelously balanced by his own thoughtful sensitivity to the world around him, an awareness of the opportunities he’s had in life, a certain graciousness, and a refreshing lack of arrogance despite his considerable talent and intelligence.

When I expressed amazement at his knowledge, his humble response was, “I wouldn’t say I have the greatest breadth of knowledge, as I usually overlook obvious mistakes trying to get the rest of the painting right. For instance, in one piece I spent so much time working on the body shapes of the three protagonists (a mosasaur and two elasmosaurids) that I failed to check whether or not they would have had external ear openings (turns out they didn’t, which I found out a few months later)!”

Screenshot of artwork from his website

 

He credits his family for prompting his interests.  The members of his family, he wrote, “are all very much interested in science, nature, and design. They’ve also impressed the importance of knowing what you’re talking about, especially in preparation for friendly debates around the dining room table. School has also been pretty helpful, not only in its stress on locating and interpreting technical articles, but also in the expansive archive of papers the library provides (I’m pretty lucky with that).”

“They’ve always kind of encouraged critical thinking and exploring careers in science,” he continued by phone when I asked if they shared his love of art and paleontology.  “Both of my parents are kind of illustrators in their own right.  My dad is a scientific illustrator.  My mom is an interior designer, so I kind of get the technical artistic kind of thing from them.

“But, yeah, I think a lot of it is just me dragging them around to places.”

It seems that he stands alone in his passion at school, as well.

“My school is kind of half divided among the kids who want to go into the kind of more money-making fields and kids who want to go into science.  And among those, there are the few kids who want to go into biology.  And among them, there’s me, who wants to do paleontology!”

Which prompted me to ask if his friends love dinosaurs they way he does.

“[I]n terms of dinosaurs,” he replied, “no, I’m completely alone.”

He added, “I tried to start a dinosaur club and,” his emphasis here was tinged with humour, “it failed SPECTACULARLY.”

“The truth about the digital stuff that I do, most of it is just practice. There’s a great arts program at my school, but it’s kind of evenly distributed between sculpting and drawing and film studies.  So, a lot of the stuff that I’ve been doing on the computer is a lot of just me doodling away for hours on end.”

“My preferred medium is probably still pencil, for the sole reason that I can doodle inconspicuously in class when things get slow.”

This made me smile when we discussed this by phone, as I could certainly relate, thinking back to when I was in school. (How often had my friends and I done the same thing for the same reason!)

“It’s easy to pretend you’re writing something down when you have a pencil and a piece of paper, when in reality you’re just drawing a dinosaur.

“[T]his year we had a new teacher and on the first day, they caught me drawing a dinosaur on a sheet of paper.  [The teacher’s response was:] ‘Oh yeah, you’re the dinosaur kid everyone told me about!’”

But regarding his preference for pencil, Henry continued, “It’s also a great portable medium for museums and wildlife. Outside of that, I’d say it’s a tie between acrylic and digital; digital for most research projects as I can change it due to a change in research or noticing something I accidentally ignored earlier in the process, and acrylic for more landscapes, although space and time have been an issue for this.”

Screenshot of a drawing from his website

 

“In terms of dinosaurs, I gotta say coelurosaurs are my favourite, mostly because their feathers are somewhat easier to paint than scales. Besides them, I would love to be able to study spinosaurs; I’ve been smitten with them since seeing ‘Jurassic Park 3’,” he wrote in an email.

“Outside of dinosaurs, my biggest love is mosasaurs, which despite extensive media coverage still don’t really have the palaeontological recognition that other marine reptiles like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs do. There’s so much about them that no one has really explored, and I am looking forward to being able to study them in university.

“In terms of other interests, I’ve always sort of had a fascination for the arthropods of the Cambrian, Ordovician, and Carboniferous (thanks mostly to Nigel Marven in Prehistoric Park), and I would given the opportunity love to do some research regarding the pleistocene faunas of Canada.

“The biggest challenge I find is probably in the composition stage. There is a great deal of palaeoart which completely disregards aesthetics overall and opts for a more ‘dinosaur with an environment in the background’ look. There are many amazing paleoartists however that master composition and placement, ensuring that dinosaurs look not only a part of their environment, but are interacting with it as well.”

Examples he gave of such artists include James Gurney, Douglas Henderson, Danielle Dufault and Julius Csotonyi.

Partial screenshot of a beautiful painting on his website; the caption reads “Fanart based on the survival game “Saurian”, to be released in early 2017. Three Ornithomimids explore a dust hollow in a Hell Creek forest, with one speculatively (though plausibly) bathing in it, much like modern birds.”

 

“This is something that I’ve been trying to work on as I progress, but I still have a long way to go. The biggest reward is being done, and being able to look at the finished piece without cringing. My finishing process usually involves me getting too tired with the piece to try adding more, so if that matches up with me feeling good about it, it’s pretty great!”

Henry attributes two things for prompting his interest in paleontology: the movie “Jurassic Park” and the Royal Ontario Museum (the ROM).

“While in ‘Jurassic Park’ I could see real dinosaurs from afar, I was always kind of fascinated with how they worked from the inside, and the ROM gave me an inside look at them, while also allowing me to get up close and personal with them. The ROM was all the cooler to me when I realized that the dinosaurs of JP weren’t all that accurate anymore, and I think the concept that we knew actually very little about dinosaurs made me want to try to learn as much as I could.”

David Evans is a really great guy,” he continued. “He’s really into scientific communications.  He’s been really easy-going about me going in and trying to learn as much as I can. I’ve probably been a bit–” Here he paused as if trying to find the right word, and then said: “annoying at parts, but he’s put up with it, which is really great.”

Henry will be attending the next Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Calgary this summer. I recommend striking up a conversation with him if you go!

And be sure to keep an eye on him: there are exciting developments in his near future!

*****

*This statement is not intended to discredit or dismiss the increasingly ENORMOUS body of paleontological knowledge that we have so far.  It is, however, meant to honestly reflect the limitations of that knowledge at this point in time.

 

An enormous and heartfelt THANK YOU to Henry Sharpe for his correspondence, his time speaking with me by phone, and the very generous use of his artwork on this blog!  It was a tremendous pleasure connecting with him!  I have no doubt he will make a great impact on the future of both paleoart and paleontology!

 

  1. Henry Sharpe’s blog: https://bonesharpesite.wordpress.com
  2. Henry Sharpe’s website/artwork: http://henrysharpe.weebly.com
  3. On Twitter: @bone_sharpe
  4. How pug-faced dinosaurs conquered Gondwana, Henry Sharpe, Earth Archives
  5. Get some of Henry’s artwork here at Studio 252MYA: https://252mya.com/collections/shop/henry-sharpe
  6. Manitoba’s marine monsters, Henry Sharpe, Earth Archives

Screenshot of artwork from his website

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Sousatitan: Brazil’s oldest sauropod bone found in a sea of trace fossils

One man happened to see the bone; one scientist happened to see the picture he posted online.

These two chance occurrences brought about a remarkable discovery: the first fossil dinosaur bone to be found where none have been found before.

Not only is it the first dinosaur bone in the area, it is also the oldest sauropod bone in Brazil to-date, a new as-yet-unnamed species of titanosaur.

Luiz Carlos Gomes was looking for fossil footprints in Sousa, Brazil. Hundreds upon hundreds of trackways, footprints and other trace fossils have already been found in Paraíba–a state in the West coast of that country and where Sousa is located–in an area known as the ‘Valley of the Dinosaurs‘ (‘Vale dos Dinossauros‘). But actual bone fossils? None.

None, that is, until he recognized actual bone within rock.

“He was the main [person] responsible for the discovery,” wrote Dr. Aline Ghilardi, paleontologist at Universidade Federal de São Carlos, in an email. “Luiz Carlos is a very curious retired gentleman whose hobby is to look for dinosaur footprints. He found the bone by chance (it was still inserted into the rock, so he knew it was not only a recent bone), took a picture of it and posted on the internet. Searching information about the area, I found the photo by chance, and, knowing the importance of the discovery, immediately got in touch with him.”

 

Trackway from Bone Collectors Video - Brazil

More tracks in Brazil from Bone Collectors video

Images of fossil footprints found in the Valley of the Dinosaurs (Vale dos Dinossauros) in the state of Paraíba, Brazil; screenshots from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Luiz Carlos and Aline from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Image of Luiz Carlos S. Gomes and Dr. Aline Ghilardi; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

That bone was the subject of a paper published this past July in Cretaceous Research by Aline Ghilardi, Tito Aureliano, Rudah Duque, Marcelo Fernandes and Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan (“A new titanosaur in the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil“).

 

DSC_0025 - Sousa fossil in-situ

Fossil of the sauropod bone found in-situ in Sousa, Brazil, nicknamed ‘Sousatitan’; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi.

 

Through its bone histology, they believe this fibula belonged to a young titanosaur, rather than a small adult.  They noted rapid growth, and they highlighted an aspect within the bone that intrigued them.  In their paper, they point out that “…the lateral part of the bone wall has what appears to be bone tissue not formed in laminae and a predominance of longitudinally orientated vascular channels within a woven bone matrix.”

“This suggests that different parts of the bone wall [are] growing at different rates,” wrote Dr. Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, paleobiologist and professor at the University of Cape Town, “i.e.: the rate of bone formation is not constant around the whole cross section of the bone wall.”

Research from Anusuya Chinsamy from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Image of “fibrolamellar bone tissue in the process of being deposited on the medial side of the bone wall” and Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

Their comparisons with other titanosaur fibula indicate it is a new species, although the authors are cautious about this.  And using a complicated mathematical formula, they can estimate the size of Sousatitan, the nickname they have given this dinosaur.

Tito Aureliano, a PhD student at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, helped elucidate how, equipped with a single fossil bone, they could make an educated guess about its size. His solution involved tweaking a previously published equation and quite a bit of ichnofossil measurement.  Keep in mind that the Valley of the Dinosaurs has at least 74 known sauropod footsteps.

Tito Aureliano from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Tito Aureliano; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

“We used equations in two steps in our paper,” he explained by email, “because we needed to relate and compare one single fossil specimen to the abundant ichnospecimens from Sousa. The most accurate and mathematically secure way to do that (and [to avoid] speculation) was calculating hip height joint from footprints and total leg height from the bone we found.  We didn’t work with total length because that varies quite a lot in Titanosauria, and it wouldn’t be [scientifically useful].”

“First, we observed titanosaur tracksites from the same age as Sousatitan’s leg size.  We measured the diameter of every ‘back leg’ footprint available at Rio Piranha Formation outcrops.  Then, we calculated the hip height of all titanos that roamed the area at this formation and noticed there were a variety of sizes in individuals.

Comparative image of titantosaur fibula

 

 

Fig. 4.; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

“Previous authors developed equations to predict general dinosaur hip heights from tracksites, but if you are working specifically with titanosaur ones, you should work with the Argentinian equation.  González-Riga found a complete articulated titano leg in the same area he has encountered large footprints that fit exactly in size with his fossil.  By using this evidence, he was able to develop this accurate equation to estimate hip height from a single titanosaurian footprint.

“Secondly, we had to estimate Sousatitan’s leg size. We had just one single bone. How did we do that?  In González-Riga’s paper I mentioned before, he also presented a formula to calculate total leg length from its skeletal elements.  The major problem is that it had so many variables and geometry elements in it.  It would be impossible [to use] if a scientist has only one or two of these elements.  So, I worked on the equation to simplify it into just three variables: femur, ulna and fibula length. H = ¼1.106*(0.96F + T), where H represents hip joint height, F is femur length, and T is tibia length.  Now colleagues with less titanosaur limb bones [can use] González-Riga’s original idea with what they have.”

 

Sousatitan fossil from Colecionadores de Ossos video

A view of Sousatitan’s fibula (or ‘DGEO-CTG-UPFE-7517’), viewed from every angle; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Size comparison Sousatitan

 

Great depiction of the estimated size of Sousatitan (in black) with the fossil found; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

 

Tito continued, “‘Ok, a cool new formula with three elements. But you have just one! How did you do it then?’

“It’s simple morphometry.  I gathered limb bones from a lot of different titanosaur genera and measured the ration between these three bones. Then, I could estimate the theoretical size of the other limb bones.”

Sousa Basin stratigraphy

Sousa Basin stratigraphy; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

 

Coming from an area of the United States known more for ichnofossils than bone fossils, I share their excitement.

And yet, “internationally, for now, we have only observed colleagues’ mentions regarding the work and its importance,” wrote Dr. Ghilardi.

Fortunately, this sense of excitement seems to permeate Brazil.

“The discovery is getting lots of attention in Brazil, from both our colleagues and the popular media,” she continued. “The bone’s discovery was announced in all major newspapers of the country and, [thus far], in two of the largest television channels of Brazil.  Visits to the ‘Vale dos Dinossauros’ Park (where the bone is now housed) increased significantly after the first announcement of the discovery in popular media.  The dinosaur’s nickname got very popular and soon reached even Wikipedia in Portuguese.”

Aline Ghildardi from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Dr. Aline Ghilardi; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

When I asked what brought these six scientists–from Brazil and South Africa–together on this research, Tito Aureliano explained that he and Dr. Ghilardi are married.  In addition, he explained, “our friend, [Rudah] Duque, is a technician in paleontological preparation at PaleoLab (UFPE, Recife city). Prof. Barreto is the chief of the PaleoLab. We have been working together for the past four years visiting the least explored areas of NE Brazil in search of new Cretaceous fossils.

Prof. Anusuya had previously assisted us in pterosaur research [that included] some histological observations. She possesses not only great knowledge on the subject, but she is also very polite and friendly. Aline and I think it was wonderful to work with her and to learn from her.

“Our friend Marcelo is the chief of the Paleontological Museum of the Universidade Federal de São Carlos. He is a renowned specialist in dinosaur ichnofossils (he is that guy that published the first urolite, ‘dinosaur pee‘).”

Marcelo Fernandes from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Dr. Marcelo Fernandes; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video;  courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Urolites from Fernandes et al paper from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Trace fossils from paper by Fernandes et al corresponding to liquid wastes (urolites!); screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video;  courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Without doubt, the authors will continue to search for additional bone fossils in the area.

“The intention is to seek funding to continue doing searches in the region.  We hope to find more material in [the] Lagoa do Forno site (including other parts of the same individual) and also other promising localities,” Dr. Ghilardi wrote.

 

Sousatitan map of discovery

 

Location of the find and map of Brazil; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

 

“I believe it is worth mentioning the importance of the contact between researchers and the population,” she added.  “It is always a good partnership and yields good results.  The locals are interacting every day with the fossiliferous rocks, therefore, they are the most likely people to find materials such as this bone.

“[Making] people feel part of the scientific knowledge process is a very effective way to preserve paleontological heritage for future generations. And not only create a sense of protection about it….but also a sense of pride in their heritage and their land.  Finally, this can be a fundamental social change factor for the local population, which is so needed in so many respects.”

Referencing Sousatitan’s discoverer, Luiz Carlos Gomes, she wrote, “Today, he is very proud of [what has transpired since the initial find].”

 

Sousatitan by Marcos Paulo

Depiction of Sousatitan amongst larger sauropods of the same species; artwork by Marcos Paulo; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

You can help the Bone Collectors continue to educate the public by donating here

 

It was a remarkable honor and pleasure connecting with Dr. Aline Ghilardi, Tito Aureliano and Dr. Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan. That cannot be stated enough! It was exciting to learn more about their incredible discovery, and they were very generous with their time and help. From New England to Brazil and South Africa: THANK YOU!!

 

References:

  1. A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Aline M. Ghilardi, Tito Aureliano, Rudah R. C. Duque, Marcelo A. Fernandes, Alcina M. F. Barreto, Anusuya Chinsamy; Cretaceous Research, Vol 67, December 2016; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cretres.2016.07.001

Videos by the Bone Collectors (Colecionadores de Ossos), several authors of this research:

Further Information:

  1. Bone Collectors – Colecionadores de Ossos: http://bonecollectors.org (website of several of the authors in this paper)
  2. The Bone Collectors’ Blog: http://scienceblogs.com.br/colecionadores
  3. Bone Collectors – Colecionadores de Ossos on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/ColecionadoresOssos
  4. Um novo dinossauro Brasileiro: blog post about the Sousatitan discovery by Aline Ghilardi on the Bone Collector blog
  5. Occurrence of urolites related to dinosaurs in the Lower Cretaceous of the Botucatu Formation, Paraná Basin, São Paulo State, Brazil, Marcelo A. Fernandes, Luciana B. R. Fernandes, Paulo R. F. Souto, Revisita Brasileira de Paleontologia, July/August 2004
  6. Dinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony J. Martin, 2014, Pegasus Books — (Dr. Martin includes an illustration of one of the urolites discovered by Fernandes et al in this book; he also discusses their research on pages 245-246!)

 

Pegasus - Dinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony Martin

 

Maiasaura Life History Project: The Art of Scientific Research (Part 2)

It’s one thing to be a detective. It’s another to be an artist: shifting expectations, making unlikely comparisons, causing one to consider entirely new perspectives.

Comparing elements of extant alligators and red deer to an extinct hadrosaur certainly changes how one views paleontology.  There is something unifying about it, connecting traits of living species—creatures that share the world with us today—to species that died out millions of years ago.  Instead of a scientific field one might put into a box labeled “the study of the past,” it becomes an increasingly complex vine weaving the past with the present.  And if animals as seemingly disparate as alligators, red deer and hadrosaurs share similarities, what else among us does?

Maiasaura HWB - Maiasaura replica

Maiasaura peeblesorum model; courtesy Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard

This connection was made all the more apparent in speaking with Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard about her background and her recent paper.  Her love of dinosaurs and microscopes were a perfect match for osteohistology, a field she pursued during her Masters.

Dr. Jim Farlow and Dr. Jack Horner—both members of her PhD committee and who have experience studying the bone microstructure of alligators and Maiasaura respectively—contributed to her Maiasaura peeblesorum research. They acknowledge that comparing alligator bone growth to dinosaurs has been done before; alligator bone growth has been studied extensively.

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Red deer on the Isle of Rum, however, have been studied even longer. Dr. Woodward Ballard and her colleagues found similarities to Maiasaura in their survivorship rates, as well as within their bone microstructure.

Embed from Getty Images

Just as the red deer in Scotland, Maiasaura seem to have experienced a high mortality rate in the first year.  If, however, they survived that first year, they seemed more likely to live through sexual maturity, which may have been between 2-3 years of age. Eight or nine years marks another difficult year for both species. This is when their bodies appear to decline, or senesce, and they are at greater risk for mortality at this age.  Dr. Woodward Ballard and her colleagues note that one Maiasaura tibia with 10 lines of arrested growth (“LAGs”, indicating 10 years of life) appeared to still be growing.

“We have to understand the biology of modern animals and how it works before we can make any kind of hypotheses or inferences into extinct animals,” she explained. “The most important thing I learned from this experience was that we really don’t know as much as we should know about how modern animals grow and the life history details that are stored their bone tissue.”

“It’s sort of circular in that the more we learn about modern animals to apply it to the extinct ones, the more we learn about how bone biology works, how bone grows, and that has direct applications to the medical field, to veterinary biology, and to all kinds of modern fields where bone biomechanics and that sort of thing play a big role.”

Studying bones was only part of the research.  The other involved applying statistical models to the data compiled.  There are advantages to so many fossils from what the authors of the paper described as a  “monodominant” bonebed.  As mentioned in the previous post, the Maiasaura bones originate from three bonebeds in Montana, but these bonebeds are from the same stratigraphy across 2 km.  This means that the scientists can be relatively sure these animals experienced the same environmental stresses.  Differences in the bones, therefore, would indicate differences within each animal instead of being caused by external factors.

And the number of tibia studied in this paper was highly significant.

“There was one paper that came out about the mortality rates–survivorship curve distribution,” said Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler of Montana State University, co-author of Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard’s paper, “and the math in that was fairly complicated. Holly wanted to make sure that she did it right, and so that’s where I came in. It is quite complicated math making sure that you get all the different steps right.  Because the paper was critiquing and criticizing a previous paper that had done it wrong slightly, we wanted to use the methods of this kind of revision paper to make sure that we analyzed things appropriately.”

Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler new dinosaur

Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler with a painting of an entirely separate (and new!) species of hadrosaur she helped discoverProbrachylophosaurus bergei; photo by Sepp Janotta of the Montana State University News Service

 

“[A sample size of 50] was their suggestion,” she explained further, “because the previous histology papers that have been looking at mortality rates, they’ve been using a much smaller sample size: 10-15 individuals, [for example], which is still big for paleontology. But, you know, the smaller your sample size, the greater the chance that what you’re seeing is just random variation in your sample.  Whereas when you get a larger sample size, you can be more confident that you’re more accurately representing the population.

“Normally with dinosaurs you only have maybe two or three examples of a single species. So there’s really not much you can do mathematically because there’s just not enough data to run statistics on.”

Referenced throughout their paper was one published in Paleobiology in 2011 by David Steinsaltz and Steven Hecht Orzack.  The Steinsaltz/Orzack paper was a response to one published in Science in 2006.

“Based on [Steinsaltz and Orzack’s] modeling,” Dr. Woodward Ballard explained, “they recommended that the minimum sample size of 50 is what you would need for an extinct population in order to figure out what the shape of the survivorship curve is.  It’s not really a hard-and-fast rule.  But this is the only time that mathematicians have actually suggested a minimum number for producing statistically robust survivorship curves for dinosaurs. The fact that we were able to then meet their suggested requirements was pretty important.”

Upon first reading the paper by Dr. Woodward Ballard et al, I believed that one needed a sample of at least 50 fossils of a species in order to estimate a statistically-significant survivorship curve.  But—of all numbers—why 50? And why so many when most bones of extinct species are not as abundant as those found so far for Maiasaura?

Over the course of a conversation with Dr. Steven Orzack, I learned that what he and his co-author offered was a way to decrease potential misclassification errors in statistical calculations.

In simplest terms, they were raising the bar.

The 2006 paper by Erickson et al had used a sample size of 22 different Albertosaurus skeletons to calculate a convex survivorship curve. Convex, in other words, means that the survival rates decrease with age.

Yale - Albertosaurus side great

Cast of Albertosaurus libratus from (appropriately for this post) Red Deer River Valley, Alberta, Canada at the Yale Peabody Museum; image taken by the author of this blog

 

By using computer simulation to repeatedly “resample” that estimated curve, as well as a survivorship curve that was not convex (one in which some survival rates increased with age), Steinsaltz and Orzack found that about 10% of the simulated samples of size 22 taken from the non-convex sample would look convex. Such a result would mislead a scientist to misclassify the underlying survivorship curve as being convex when, in fact, it was non-convex.  When they repeated this process by more than doubling it to a sample size of 50, they discovered the misclassification error rate fell to less than 1%.

Paleontologists don’t always have access to a wealth of fossils from the same species.  This is something Dr. Orzack—trained as both a paleontologist and a neontologist—knows all too well.

HMNH - Deionychus

HMNH - Deionychus skull

Images of a partial Deinonychus skeleton, discovered in Montana in 1974 by Dr. Steven Orzack and a team of Harvard researchers, now at the Harvard Museum of Natural History; images taken by the author

 

“I don’t have any problem with sample sizes of 22 in the sense that if that’s the best you have, that’s fine,” he said. “What would have been better is [if Erickson et al had done] the statistics better.”

“Convexity,” he stated, “is a very specific claim.”

“[There are] weaker conclusions you can make about how survival rates change with age than [those published in the paper by Erickson et al.] If you boost your sample size to 50, you have a much lower probability of saying incorrectly that there is convexity when there isn’t,” he concluded.

“Paleontology is moving in a much more mathematical and analytical direction,” Dr. Freedman Fowler explained. “ We’re trying to be more rigorous and treat it more like a modern science.  That’s why we often use the term ‘paleobiology,’ instead of just ‘paleontology’ now. We’re trying to use the science and the tools of modern biology to look at how fossil organisms lived and kind of reconstruct their lives.”

And certainly, the math contained within the paper by Dr. Woodward Ballard, Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler and their colleagues is—to someone like myself—a bit overwhelming.

When speaking with Dr. Freedman Fowler, I asked her if her mathematical skills were rare within the field.

“I wouldn’t say ‘rare’,” she replied, “but it’s certainly not all of us. There are quite a lot of other paleontologists that use R and use math and things. But it’s a minority that goes in that direction.”

Maiasaura HWB - Maiasaura life history

FIGURE 6. Survivorship curve for Maiasaura. Sample size of 50 tibiae was standardized to an initial cohort of 1000 individuals (assumes 0% neonate mortality). Survivorship is based on the number of individuals surviving to reach age x (the end of the growth hiatus marked by LAG x). Age at death for individuals over 1 year old was determined by the number of LAGs plus growth marks within the EFS, when present. Error bars represent 95% confidence interval. Mean annual mortality rates (μ^) given for age ranges 0–1 years, 2–8 years, and 9–15 years. Vertical gray bars visually separate the three mortality rate age ranges; courtesy Dr. Woodward Ballard.

 

“Paleontology is very collaborative because it’s such a broad and interdisciplinary field. Nobody can be an expert in everything.”

When I asked her whether the sub-fields within paleontology have always been so diverse, she responded, “It is certainly a more recent development, and that’s true for many sciences.”

“[Looking back at] papers written 50 years ago, they’re almost all single authors. They’re also much more simple. These papers were just ‘I found this new species. Here’s what it looks like.’  There wasn’t much analysis.

“But now, as all these different branches of science have grown–all the different subfields within biology and geology and chemistry–we’re getting so many more tools that we can use to analyze fossils and look at them in all these different ways.  We’re also having a much larger sample size of fossils. We’re constantly out in the field collecting new specimens and that’s filling in gaps.  Between two species, [for example], we now find the intermediate species.  And we’re getting more complete growth series—the ontogenetic series—of animals. We’re out there finding juvenile dinosaurs and sub-adult dinosaurs and comparing them to the adult dinosaurs.

“Because we’re always adding this data, we always have more and more to work with. So we’re able to do types of analyses that we couldn’t 50 years ago. It was just impossible.”

And this paper is only the beginning. Dr. Woodward Ballard explained that she wants to “really make Maiasaura the dinosaur that we know the most about and really use it as a model to compare to other dinosaurs.”

In a moment of reflection, she said, “I get this question a lot:  ‘Well, great, you’re studying dinosaurs, but what’s that going to do for me?’”

She hopes that the interest in dinosaurs will pull people into science in general, describing a scenario in which the kids—wanting to see dinosaurs—visit a museum with their parents.  While there, the family may learn of other scientific discoveries, prompting even more interest in various scientific fields.

“The more we can make dinosaurs these realistic animals, [not just animals that are no longer around], I think it’s really going to get [kids] interested in science and the world around them.  Being able to continue to add more information to Maiasaura, I think, is going to be the way to really draw people in.”

“The big thing for me,” she said, “is not only collecting fossils, but [also] bringing college-aged kids to Montana to see a different part of the United States, [especially those] kids who might not [otherwise] have the opportunity to be exposed to science.”

“There’s still so much that can be done with the Maiasaura bonebed,” she continued, “with Maiasaura as an animal, so [many] opportunities for outreach and scientific investigation. I spoke with Jack Horner about this during my dissertation work and afterwards; I told him that I would really like to be able to work on Maiasaura potentially for the rest of my career. He thought it was a great idea.  I’ll do other research, too, but I plan to get out to Montana every summer.

“There’s just so much work that I decided to call it the ‘Maiasaura Life History Project’ and every paper that comes out will just be adding to what we already know about Maiasaura.”

At this time, there is no overall funding for the project. Dr. Woodward Ballard is currently writing grant proposals for future expeditions.

 

Holly Woodward-WCA-Branvold Quarry-Aug5-2015

Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard; photo by Dr. Karen Chin, courtesy of Dr. Woodward Ballard

 

 

References:

  1. Maiasaura, a model organism for extinct population biology: a large sample statistical assessment of growth dynamics and survivorship; Holly N. Woodward, Elizabeth A. Freedman Fowler, James O. Farlow, John R. Horner, Paleobiology, October 2015
  2. Statistical methods for paleodemography on fossil assemblages having small numbers of specimens: an investigation of dinosaur survivorship rates; David Steinsaltz, Steven Hecht Orzack, Paleobiology, Winter 2011
  3. Largest dinosaur population growth study ever shows how Maiasaura lived and died, Montana State University, MSU News Service
  4. MSU team finds new dinosaur species, reveals evolutionary link, Montana State University, MSU News Service
  5. Tyrannosaur Life Tables: An Example of Nonavian Dinosaur Population Biology; Gregory M. Erickson, Philip J. Currie, Brian D. Inouye, Alice A. Winn

 

**I need to stress that the methods used in this paper and the overall research by Dr. Woodward Ballard and Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler were extremely complex. Dr. Woodard Ballard, Dr. Freedman Fowler and Dr. Orzack graciously walked me through scientific and statistical elements that I had trouble understanding. If there are any errors in this post, they are my own.

Also, while comparisons between extant and extinct species may be normal to those in the field, it was not as dramatically apparent to me until this paper. 

I would like to extend, again, an enormous THANK YOU to Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard. I would also like to extend that same thank you to Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler and Dr. Steven Orzack.  It was a great pleasure and honor speaking with each of them–not to mention fun!–and I am profoundly grateful for their generosity!  

I am very eager to learn more as the Maiasaura Life History Project continues!! 

Maiasaura Life History Project: Paleontology at an Entirely New Depth (Part 1)

I envy the future.

I really do.

Every time I read a dinosaur book—whether a kids’ book with my nieces and nephews or otherwise—I am reminded just how much we’ve learned since I was young. It is staggering, the amount of information available to dinosaur enthusiasts. Whether it is in the number of new species discovered each year, the unbelievable details paleontologists glean (from teeth alone!), or the new technology that helps scientists unravel the once unknowable.

If this is what we know now, and in the relatively brief time since paleontology was first established, what are we going to know fifty years from now? A century? A millennium?

I think about the future almost as much as I marvel at the past. Assuming our knowledge base only increases, the future of paleontology promises to reveal what can only be—at this point in time—imagined.

Which is why when I learned of the Maiasaura Life History Project, I had to know more.

Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard wants to flesh out one particular species of dinosaur such that we know it almost as intimately as living animals today.  That species is a type of hadrosaur, an extinct herbivore from the late Cretaceous. Thanks to almost 40 years of excavation in Montana, we have thousands of its fossils from which to extract information and this, according to Dr. Woodward Ballard, is to be her life’s work.

Holly Woodward-WCA-Branvold Quarry-Aug5-2015

Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard at Branvold Quarry, August 2015; Photo taken by Dr. Karen Chin, courtesy of Dr. Woodward Ballard

Maiasaura peeblesorum was inadvertently discovered in the late 1970s, both by the people who initially found the bones and by the paleontologists who eventually described them.  “Inadvertently” because Marion and John Brandvold, the people who found the bones, didn’t know what they’d found, and because Dr. Jack Horner and Bob Makela—who had done extensive research prior to their expedition—did not expect to find the object of their search in a local fossil shop they visited on a whim.

The 1988 book “Digging Dinosaurs” by Jack Horner and James Gorman describes this discovery. In it, there is a fascinating anecdote: Prior to 1978—the year Maiasaura peeblesorum was found—they say that the number of adult fossils found globally could be listed in a volume the size of a book. The number of juvenile fossils could be listed in something the size of a pamphlet.  But the number of known baby fossils could fit on an index card.

All of that changed thanks to Dr. Horner and Bob Makela. The Brandvold bones gave them specific clues about where to look and what to look for.  Their subsequent excavations revealed not only numerous baby dinosaurs, but actual nests. These significant discoveries prompted the following revolutionary ideas: that some dinosaurs may have cared for their young and that they may have been warm-blooded. The latter hypothesis continues to be debated today.

Paleontologists have been digging in the area ever since.  Their efforts have produced one of the few species of dinosaur to be so well represented in the fossil record, a fact that inspired Dr. Woodward Ballard in her research at Montana State University.

Maiasaura field site Montana

Maiasaura field site in Montana, photo courtesy of Dr. Woodward Ballard

Jack Horner, her PhD advisor, proposed the idea that she focus on population histology—revealing the growth history of a specific dinosaur species.  Given her interest in osteohistology and the wealth of Maiasaura fossils, this seemed a perfect fit.  Her dissertation was but a prelude to the work that followed.

This past October, Dr. Woodward Ballard, now of Oklahoma State University, Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler and Dr. Jack Horner of Montana State University and Dr. Jim Farlow of Indiana Purdue University published a paper in Paleobiology on the growth and survivorship rates of Maiasaura peeblesorumThe paper was unique in that, unlike most dinosaur species, they had 50 bones with which to analyze and sample.

Bone microstructure, much like trees or proboscidean tusks, records the growth of an animal in rings. In this case, Dr. Woodward Ballard was able to identify the “lines of arrested growth” (or “LAGs” for short).

“A LAG,”she explained by phone, “represents a period of missing time.”

Growth rings in Maiasaura bone

Growth rings in Maiasaura bone, courtesy of Dr. Woodward Ballard

The paper is a fascinating glimpse into the depth of detective work paleontologists must do in order to understand long extinct species. Comparing bone growth in extant reptiles and mammals to these fossil bones, using complicated statistical models, and analyzing bone structure under the microscope, the authors offer an extraordinary view into the life of Maiasaura.  It is, to date, the largest sample set of a single dinosaur species analyzed to such a degree.

Fifty Maiasaura tibiae from three Montana bonebeds provided the details. This specific leg bone was chosen for analysis because it displays histology so clearly.  The same is not true, for example, of a hadrosaur femur.

“The femur,” Dr. Woodward Ballard said, “is special in all hadrosaurs, [not just] Maiasaura. It has this big flange coming off of it, and it’s this spur bone that a fairly large tail muscle was attached to.”

“Because bone responds to stress and remodels based on the stress that’s applied to it, this flange of bone is always changing and getting larger as the [animal grows.] The remodeling that occurs within [this] bone overprints–or erases–the original signal that was there. So it’s very hard to get at that same record of growth in the femur because it’s constantly being erased in that particular area.”

One of the things they discovered through lines of arrested growth (LAGs) was that most of the tibiae in this study belonged to Maiasaura younger than a year old.

But deciphering this required understanding bone growth in living species.

“We have to use modern animals and use what we see in their bones as a basis for what we say in the fossil record,” she replied when asked about this. “We have to assume that the same processes today were working back in the Cretaceous (in this case).”

So they looked to previously published alligator studies and those of the red deer on the Isle of Rum, Scotland—one of the most extensively studied mammals anywhere in the world.

Acknowledging that these inferences should be treated with some caution, they note similarities in tibia bone growth between alligators and Maiasaura. Growth marks within the bone and lines of arrested growth (LAGs) are similar in red deer and this species of dinosaur.

“When the growth is being kept track of from year-to-year, we find that one LAG appears every year for every year of growth,” she explained.

Hence, if there are no LAGs in the bone, it indicates that the animal was less than a year. And the high mortality rate among such young animals—considerably smaller than their enormous parents and therefore not as able, perhaps, to aptly defend themselves—is not necessarily surprising.  The paper also calculates survivorship rates among Maiasaura, enabling us to know how old the dinosaur was at sexual maturity, how long it tended to live, the age at which it was at higher risk for mortality among its species.

“Once I compiled the data from Maiasaura,” she said, “got all the bone measurements, got all the LAG circumference measurements within the bones—I realized that I wanted this paper to be more than just quantitative and simple growth curve graphs. I mean, I could do that much, but I really wanted it to be statistically strong, very robust, something that followed the rules put forth by other papers, such as the Steinsaltz and Orzack paper. [Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler] was just a natural choice to have to help me figure out what to do with all this data.”

————–

In Part 2: more detail about the Maiasaura peeblesorum survivorship curves, as well as applying complicated statistical methods to paleontological data.

An enormous and sincere thank you to Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard for her generosity: her time, her patience, her willingness to go over points I had difficulty understanding and for the beautiful pictures accompanying this post!

References:

  1. Maiasaura, a model organism for extinct population biology: a large sample statistical assessment of growth dynamics and survivorship; Holly N. Woodward, Elizabeth A. Freedman Fowler, James O. Farlow, John R. Horner, Paleobiology, October 2015
  2. Digging Dinosaurs, John R. Horner and James Gorman, 1988, Workman Publishing Ltd
  3. Largest dinosaur population growth study ever shows how Maiasaura lived and died, Montana State University, MSU News Service

Digging Dinosaurs book cover

Jack Horner - inscription for post

Treasured copy of “Digging Dinosaurs”, the book that details the discovery of Maiasaura peeblesorum and its nests, signed by Jack Horner at the Boston Museum of Science when the author of this blog met him in 2013

A Personal Fossil Journey in New England

“Can you please help me find the Beneski Museum?”

This was the second student I’d asked. Initially, I’d asked a student for help finding the museum—no thank you, GPS–and then help with elusive parking. My request to the young woman in front of me was to help re-find the building I’d lost sight of amongst many other brick buildings.

She pointed me in the right direction, gave me detailed instructions, and added, “It will take you approximately three minutes to get there.” A thoughtful detail that made me smile that much more broadly.

Students with backpacks dotted the campus and passed me as I headed forward: some lost in thought, some in conversation, others laughing. Their presence, just as much as the rolling hills of manicured lawns, towering trees and historic buildings, made me feel right at home. Although not where I’d attended school, it felt similar, and I basked in the feelings that surfaced. Of course, none of these feelings included the stress or the struggles I felt throughout college. Long gone are the days of working most of the night on papers, studying for exams or the abject terror of oral presentations. No. These days I learn on my own, at my own pace, as I wish, and where I wish. I adore it.

But learning in this fashion is not at all linear.

A recent trip back to see Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, CT, enabled me to re-read exhibits that didn’t mean as much to me when I’d first seen them so many years prior.

DSP - entrance

DSP - great view of tracks bridge diorama

Images of Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, CT, taken by the author

 

Since that time, I’d read Dr. Anthony Martin’s “Dinosaurs Without Bones”—a fascinating journey into the science of learning more about extinct creatures through fossil traces. I’d also spoken with paleontologist, Dr. Karen Chin, about both ichnology (the aforementioned science) and the work of Dr. Martin Lockley—a man who has spent a lifetime learning about and collecting fossil footprints.

Pegasus - Dinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony Martin

Book cover to”Dinosaurs Without Bones” by Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

 

So when I saw a small note about Edward Hitchcock and his collection of footprints, I decided to check it out.

DSP - sign New England ichnology

Informational panel at Dinosaur State Park that mentions Edward Hitchcock and Amherst College, taken by the author

 

Which is a long way of explaining why I had traveled a couple of hours south to Amherst College.

I knew the museum offered other fossils along with Hitchcock’s fossil footprint collection, but I did not expect them to be as diverse or as impressive.

 

 

Beneski - mammoth front

Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, Amherst College, taken by the author.  Smilodon and dire wolf skeletons are on the right.

Beneski - Irish elk

Irish elk (Megaloceros hibernicus) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - mastodon front

American mastodon (Mammut americanum) at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

 

Beneski - mastodon close-up jaw

Close-up of the American mastodon mandible at Beneski Museum, taken by the author. The lower tusk on this mastodon surprised me, and I spoke about this with Museum Educator, Fred Venne.  Conversations on Twitter prompted very interesting comments by @maxthemastodon from the Western Science Center, @dr_mastodonna (Dr. Katy Smith) and @chriswidga (Dr. Chris Widga).  It is important to note that this mastodon is comprised of components from at least two or more different mastodons.

 

Asking whether I could take pictures in the museum is how I first met Fred Venne, a tall, gracious man who walked toward me the moment he saw that I had questions.
I had never previously met a Museum Educator in person. Fred has now set the bar exceedingly high. It seems artful, his ability to share knowledge and offer insight, yet step away and enable someone to learn on one’s own—a very considerate balance. I marveled at this, just as I marveled at everything around me.

 

Beneski - Fossil Mammal Wall full great

Fossil Mammal Wall at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - Fossil Mammal Wall sign images

Images corresponding to the skeletons on the Fossil Mammal Wall at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - view of bottom and first floors

A view between two of the three floors at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author; notice the hint of fossil footprint slabs a the bottom right.

Beneski - gryposaurus - hadrosaur

Triceratops skull and Gryposaurus (a hadrosaur) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - racks of Hitchcocks trace fossils

Beneski - great wall of tracks

Beneski - footprint on rack of trace fossils

Various images of the many trace fossils collected by Edward Hitchcock over his lifetime at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

 

It was Fred who informed me of a nearby excavation site. Searching online in his office and writing down the address for me, he then called the owner of the site to make sure he knew I was coming.

(Fred also introduced me to a member of the team who discovered Tiktaalik and visiting scholar, Steve Gatesy. Dr. Gatesy very generously proceeded to explain a bit about his current research, picking up and showing me specimens of single fossil tracks. For a day in which my expectations were simply to see fossil footprints and maybe a handful of bone fossils, this was proving to be extraordinary.)

My GPS almost got it right. I pulled in to the driveway just short of the actual destination, the neighbors smiling and waving good-bye after explaining it was just down the road.

At first glance, Nash Dinosaur Tracks has the air of a campground. Situated in a rural area, one drives up a path to a large opening, surrounded by forest. There is a single building in the corner, a cozy construction with hand-made signs.

Nash Dinosaur Tracks sign

Entrance sign to Nash Dinosaur Tracks and Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - road to the fossil store

Path leading into Nash Dinosaur Tracks and Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - store outside

Nash Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - dilophosaurus sign

Sign depicting Dilophosaurus, the type of dinosaur thought to produce the type of tracks in the area.  “Eubrontes” is a name coined by Edward Hitchcock to describe these tracks.  Image taken by the author.

Beneski - types of Hitchcock tracks2

Image of two types of tracks believed to be made by two different (as yet unknown) types of dinosaur, as defined by Edward Hitchcock: eubrontes and grallator.  Sign at Beneski Museum, image taken by the author.

 

I feel it’s important I mention two conflicting feelings I had when Fred first described Nash Dinosaur Tracks, an area of active excavation with a fossil shop: ambivalence and overwhelming enthusiasm.

I’m not a paleontologist.  I don’t even work in a museum. I’m still learning many of the very basics of paleontology. And I know that in this country, fossils found on personal land belong to the person who owns that land. I’ve read quite a bit about the sale of fossils throughout the world. I’ve communicated with paleontologists who have differing views on the subject.

It is enormously complicated.

Large, beautiful skeletons arrive on the market for auction, sold to those who can afford their extravagant prices and then lost to the general public.  Sometimes, those skeletons are donated to a museum (or sold at a lower price). But in some places, the sale of important fossils means survival for those who sell them, a much different type of economic exchange. The biggest lightning rod right now is the sale of ivory, a turbulent conflict that affects both human and elephant lives, and extends into the sale of mammoth tusks.

Do fossils belong to the general public?  And if so, what public? (Country of origin? International groups?) Do museums or scientists have a right to them above all?

I don’t have answers.

But I do know that I cringe every time I read about fossils being sold, and this colors my perspective on the sale of any fossil any where.  Even on personal land, such as that of Kornell Nash.

So it was with mixed feelings that I walked into the fossil shop and called out, “Hello?”

Nash - store inside

View inside Nash Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - store footprints and fossil for sale

Examples of fossils for sale, some under $100, some $3000 in the shop; image taken by the author

Nash - store Kornell Nash - displaying layers of stone

Kornell Nash, holding a fossil footprint on its side to display the layers of rock; image taken by the author

 

Kornell Nash appeared and introductions were made. He seemed a very gentle, unassuming man.  I learned later that this had been his day off; he had, in fact, just awoken from a nap.  But he mentioned none of that initially.  When I asked about the quarry, he indicated where it was, pointing to a door leading behind the shop.

“Feel free to look around,” he said and disappeared.

Nash - store - outside door - footprints in stone

Stone outside of the door leading from the fossil shop to the quarry.  Can you find the fossil tracks?  (According to Kornell Nash, this stone was obtained by his father, Carlton Nash, from a different location.) Image taken by the author.

 

The word “quarry” in my mind conjures enormous stone and cavernous holes.  This was not such a place.  As I eagerly walked on a pine needle-strewn path, I kept expecting something bigger, something huge. Something to match my expectations of a place that had produced fossil footprints for decades.

What I came upon was a modest outcrop on an incline.

 

Nash - quarry - whole thing from path

View of the fossil quarry from the path, taken by the author

Nash - quarry looking up

View of the entire quarry, looking up, taken by the author

 

As I got closer, something crunched under foot.  I looked around me and saw bits of shale everywhere and I panicked.  Was I crushing fossil footprints?  Shale littered the ground; there was no where to walk without stepping on it, so I continued….gingerly.

Kornell had indicated there were large footprints across the top of the stone, but I didn’t see anything at first.  It wasn’t until I literally stepped upon the stone outcrop that I found them.

 

Nash - quarry footprint and pieces taken out

Example of an area of stone cut out by Kornell Nash, taken by the author

Nash - quarry shale segments

Segments of shale detritus that lines the back of the quarry, taken but the author

Nash - quarry footprint detail

One of the many fossil footprints in the quarry, taken by the author

 

This was my first experience with fossils in-situ.  More importantly, this was my first experience actually touching the evidence of the life of an extinct creature.  While I love fossil skeletons, there was something much more significant–something inordinately more meaningful–in seeing where an actual dinosaur had STEPPED. And it is no exaggeration to say that putting my fingers into these footprints was the closest thing to a spiritual moment for me.

This, from private land with a fossil shop. Not from a museum, my normal haven and revered institution, but from the very thing that caused my self-righteousness.

I thought about this when I eventually walked back to the shop.

Nash - store newspaper articles on wall

Nash - store newspaper articles on wall2

Newspaper articles of Nash Dinosaur Tracks (formerly known as “Dinosaurland”) and Kornell Nash on a wall in the fossil shop, images taken by the author

Nash - store pictures of Hitchcock and Mignon Talbot (blurry)

Pictures of Edward Hitchcock and Dr. Mignon Talbot–a paleontologist from Mount Holyoke College who discovered Podokesaurus in 1911. Kornell Nash’s dad, Carlton, corresponded with Dr. Talbot. Image taken by the author.  

 

There is so much history to the place, in and around the fossil shop.  Echoes of it hang on the walls, yellowed newspaper articles with edges curling and wrinkled.  Letters are tacked to a post.

Looking later on the Nash Dinosaur Tracks website, I was surprised to learn that Carlton (and George) Nash purchased the land in 1939 for $85.  Carlton Nash–Kornell’s father–is mentioned in the book “Bones for Barnum Brown” by Roland T. Bird.  Bird describes his visit with the family and seeing the fossilized remnants of what Carlton believed was an animal lying or sitting down.

Nash - store picture of how his dad found the footprints and animal lying down

Image of a picture of the fossilized trace of an animal lying or sitting down, according to Carlton Nash; picture of this picture taken by the author at the Nash Fossil Shop. This was described in a book by Roland T. Bird.

Nash - store footprints and impression of animal with tail lying

Image of that actual fossil with a slab of tracks above it in the fossil shop; image taken by the author

 

He communicated with numerous well-known scientists, including Dr. Mignon Talbot of Mount Holyoke College, discoverer of the Podokesaurus.  He donated a section of tracks to what is now known as Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.  A response was sent from Grace Coolidge, the wife of former US president, Calvin Coolidge.

Carlton Nash passed away in 1997.  Kornell Nash has been the owner since.

I asked him if he shared his father’s passion for paleontology and geology.

“In a different way,” he emailed back. “I really enjoyed the travel growing up.  We traveled all over the United States at a time many of my friends didn’t even get out of the Northeast. In a way, dinosaurs are quite common to me. Doesn’t everyone’s father dig dinosaur tracks?”

Nash - store Kornell Nash describing detail of footprint

Kornell Nash describing the detail of a footprint in his fossil shop, taken by the author

 

I had a long way to drive home, and it was a beautiful drive on a beautiful day.  Autumn in New England means brisk air, pumpkins on the side of the road, corn stalks decorating porches. My head churned with what I’d experienced.  I pondered the people I’d met and the things I’d witnessed.

It was but one page in the chapters of my life thus far, but this page, I savor.

Nash - quarry footprints

A fossil footprint path in the quarry behind Nash Fossil Shop; image taken by the author

———-

Fred Venne made what might have been a good trip to the Beneski Museum one that was an absolutely outstanding adventure.  He is a superb ambassador for Amherst College, and I am profoundly grateful for his thoughtfulness.

A sincere thank you to Dr. Steve Gatesy for his time and his willingness to share details about his current research!

I am indebted to Kornell Nash for letting me explore his fossil quarry alone and for being able to actually touch fossil footprints in-situ.  I am grateful for his willingness to connect with me and share more insight into his father’s communication.

I am sincerely thankful to Amherst College for making the Beneski Museum open to the public (and for free!) It is a marvelous museum, and I encourage all interested to make the trip to see it!

And I remain consistently grateful (and awed) by the generosity of so many paleontologists who have helped me as I learn more about their field. You are all extraordinary!

Strange Monsters and Turkey Tracks

Mary Anning was only 5 or 6 years old when she started down the path of discovery; Edward Hitchcock was in his late 30’s. Born on different continents 6 years and 3 days apart, both contributed to a world in which science was blossoming in new and exciting directions.

Their lives couldn’t have been more different.

Mary Anning was born May 21, 1799, to Molly and Richard Anning.  She and her older brother, Joseph, were the only children out of ten to survive to adulthood.  They learned from their father how to find fossils along the shore of their home in Lyme Regis, England. Mary accompanied her father on these hunts from age 5 or 6.  She learned how to excavate fossils from the rock, how to polish them, how to sell them to local tourists.

Lyme Regis, Dorset looking along the beach towards Charmouth, with the promenade to the left. The coast contains many fossils in the rocks which draws tourism from around the globe. Photo by Chris Hopkins, courtesy Getty Images. This is where Mary Anning searched for fossils throughout her life.

*****

When she was 11, Mary found her first major discovery: the complete skeleton of the first known ichthyosaur. Her brother had found its skull the year before—the same year that their father died—and she had gone back to excavate further.

Its discovery puzzled scientists at the time. Extinction and evolution were concepts that had yet to be introduced. The first dinosaur, Megolosaurus, would not be named until 13 years later; the actual term ‘dinosaur’ would not appear until 1842.  So this skeleton, with components recognized as those of lizards and fish, was utterly alien to the world.

 

Yale Peabody - Ichthyosaurus detail

Yale Peabody - Ichthyosaurus

Images of Stenopterygius quadricissus at the Yale Peabody Museum; this is a “thunnosaur ichthyosaur”, as described here at Wikipedia.  In any case, not the exact type of ichthyosaur–a marine reptile that co-existed with dinosaurs–discovered by Mary Anning, but it is something similar. Photos taken by the author.

*****

And it was just one of many new species Mary would go on to discover in her lifetime.

In 1823, she would find the skeleton of what was eventually known as Plesiosaurus giganteus. Five years later, she would find a pterosaur (Dimorphodon).  She discovered a transitional fossil—one that actually demonstrates in its skeleton traits that show it is evolving from one form to another—in 1829. That became known as Squaloraja polyspondyla. In 1830, she found another plesiosaur: Plesiosaurus macrocephalus.  Ultimately, she would also discover 34 new species of ancient fish.  She correctly identified fossilized dung within ichthyosaur skeletons, a type of fossil newly named coprolites and described by William Buckland after discussions with Mary Anning and Gideon Mantell.

 

DSP - diorama detail

Part of a life-size diorama at Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, CT; replicas of Dimorphodon, a pterosaur discovered by Mary Anning in 1828, can be seen in the top right. Photo taken by the author.

Squaloraja_polyspondyla

Image of Squaloraja polyspondyla, a type of fossil discovered by Mary Anning in 1829. You can read about this in more detail at the blog Mary Anning’s Revenge here

Plesiosaurus_macrocephalus_mary_anning

Drawing of Plesiosaurus macrocephalus discovered by Mary Anning in 1830; image courtesy of Brian Switek and Wikipedia

Beneski - great vertebrae from ichthyosaurus

Beneski - great vertebrae ichthyosaurus sign

Images of a polished section of Ichthyosaurus communis vertebrae in a drawer at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College.  Not only does this come from Lyme Regis, but this is the type of Ichthyosaur discovered in 1832. Mary Anning found the skull and was convinced that there was nothing more to be found. Fellow-fossil hunter Thomas Hawkins, however, believed there was more.  She led him to where she’d found the skull, and he and his team did find the rest of the skeleton.  When the skeleton shattered as they moved it, Mary Anning helped Hawkins put it together.

*****

Her discoveries fueled scientific revelations, were studied by the most prominent scientists of the age, and were discussed in the relatively new Geological Society of London.

As a woman, she was never allowed to attend any of their meetings or lectures.  Moreover, she was almost never credited for her remarkable fossil finds.

Her male friends could attend university (as both a woman and a member of the Dissenter religion, this was not an option), join scientific organizations, have papers published, discuss the latest scientific research among peers in professional institutions, travel extensively (without chaperones) and make substantial financial gains in their careers.

Mary’s life was marked by periods of financial gain and of teetering terribly close to financial ruin. She had three years of formal education.  She traveled to London once.

And yet, she constantly persevered. Her work enabled her to buy a home for her family at the age of 27, the first floor of which she created her fossil shop.  Although she was not privy to university resources, she taught herself scientific illustration.  Using marine life from the local beach, she taught herself anatomy through dissection.  She was in communication with and visited by scientists from all of Europe.

Embed from Getty Images

Illustration of Mary Anning selling fossils by Dorling Kindersley (DK), courtesy Getty Images.

In fact, some of the very same people in communication with Edward Hitchcock were communicating with or visiting Mary Anning: Charles Lyell, Roderick Murchison, Richard Owen, Gideon Mantell, and William Buckland.

Across the ocean, Edward Hitchcock was born in Deerfield, Massachusetts on May 24, 1793, several years before Mary Anning was born.  He would also outlive her.  While she died of breast cancer at the age of 47, Edward died at 70.

Had he been African-American (or simply African) in the newly-formed United States or a woman anywhere, his opportunities would have been severely limited, but he was none of those things.  Still, although he hoped to study astronomy at Harvard, he ultimately never attended college.

He did, however, become the first state geologist for Massachusetts in 1830 (the same year Mary made one of her major fossil discoveries).  He created the first geologic map of Massachusetts—only the 2nd ever created in the country—in 1832.  He believed the state exhibited proof of the Great Flood referenced in the Bible; it was later found to be remnants of the Ice Age.

 

DSP - sign New England ichnology

Sign at Dinosaur State Park that offers a brief history of ichnology in New England. Edward Hitchcock is pictured at the very top. Below that, a drawing of the fossil tracks found by Pliny Moody–a name you will see in marble in the “Donors to the Footmarks” frame further below. Photo taken by the author

*****

Remarkably, he believed that women should receive education and learn about science. One of his well-known students was Mary Lyon, a woman who went on to found Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now known as Mount Holyoke College), among some of the country’s first academic institutions for women. Orra White Hitchcock, who married Edward in 1824, was a prolific artist and scientific illustrator.  She created many of the illustrations he used in his classes.

Classroom chart on linen drawn by Orra White Hitchcock, Amherst College.

Drawing of plesiosaurus skeleton by Orra White Hitchcock, 1828 – 1840, Classroom chart on linen, courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College

 

In 1835, things changed abruptly.  Dr. James Deane, from a nearby town, wrote to Edward about tracks found in stone slabs that were to be used to build a sidewalk.  Edward dismissed their importance until the surgeon sent him plaster casts of the tracks.

Most people referred to these tracks, seen in other local stone slabs, as “turkey tracks”.  Edward believed they were created by birds.  It was a belief he would defend for the rest his life, despite new discoveries that may have indicated otherwise.

Wild turkey tracks in snow

Wild turkey tracks in the snow, late Spring, New England; photo taken by the author

Wild turkey in Fall

Wild turkey in the Fall, New England; photo taken by the author

In part, his theory made sense.  The tracks looked remarkably similar to the familiar tracks of extant turkeys, and fossils of any ancient creatures responsible for the tracks in stone were not found.  New England, with its acidic conditions and lack of fossil-preserving stone, is not fossil-friendly.

Edward created a new science he named “ornithichnology,” a name that references birds, but was later shortened to just “ichnology” by William Buckland.

Beneski - 1802 footprints

Beneski - 1802 footprints

Images of the first documented fossil footprints, discovered in 1802, displayed at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, part of the Hitchcock collection. Photos taken by the author

Beneski - gem of Hitchcocks collection

Fossil tracks displayed at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College. According to Window into the Jurassic World by Nicholas G. McDonald, these tracks were the “gem” of Hitchcock’s collection (pg. 58, Figure 6-8). This slab was originally used as paving. Photo taken by the author (of this blog)

*****

While major discoveries of reptiles and dinosaurs were starting to pepper European science, Edward continued studying fossil tracks and traces.  He wrote about his work and his theory to the men on the forefront of these discoveries (as mentioned earlier, women were not allowed or, apparently, credited). He began publishing books and submitted papers to the Yale American Journal of Science.

Richard Owen disagreed with Edward’s findings at first.  He would eventually change his mind after describing an extinct bird in 1939 (the ‘moa’ of New Zealand).  In 1841, Charles Lyell actually visited Edward and became a prominent supporter.

Although Mary Anning discovered and identified coprolites more than 15 years earlier, Edward discovered these fossils in 1844 in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts.

Beneski - coprolites

Coprolites displayed in a drawer at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College.  These are not necessarily those discovered by Edward Hitchcock in 1944. Photo by the author

 

His two major works outlining his life’s work were published in 1858 (“Ichnology of New England“) and then two years following his death in 1865 (“Supplement to Ichnology of New England“).

He maintained that these fossil tracks were made by birds, and his work was heavily influenced by his desire to find proof of God in nature. In his own words, he taught “natural theology.”

 

DSP - Ichnology Hitchcock

The book Ichnology of New England, written by Edward Hitchcock in 1858; copy displayed at Dinosaur State Park. Photo taken by the author

DSP - Supplement Ichnology Hitchcock

The Supplement to the Ichnology of New England, written by Edward Hitchcock but published posthumously in 1865copy displayed at Dinosaur State Park. Photo taken by the author

Beneski - Hitchcock - donors sign

Framed marble sign highlighting donors and the amount donated; displayed at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College; photo taken by the author

 

His efforts as college president in the 1840’s prevented the closure of Amherst College.  One of his particularly successful years was the same year that Mary Anning passed away, 1847.

Today, his vast collection–thousands of fossil footprints and traces–reside in the elegant Beneski Museum of Natural History.  We are extremely fortunate, as Edward Hitchcock made it very clear he did not want his collection owned by anyone who did not share his evangelical Christian views.  Although the college moved to a more secular philosophy, his family did not honor this request.

Beneski - racks of Hitchcocks trace fossils

A small section of the Hitchcock collection of fossil tracks and traces at the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College.  This author encourages anyone interested to visit this amazing museum. Photo by the author

*****

Did Mary Anning and Edward Hitchcock know of each other across the Atlantic?  Did their names or their work ever come up in conversation? Did their mutual friends in science discuss them with the other?

There is no evidence to suggest this.

But the world would be increasingly changed thanks to their contributions, their dedication and their lifelong efforts.

Mary Anning Painting

Mary Anning painting” Credited to ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996) – Two versions side by side, Sedgwick Museum. According to the Sedgwick Museum, there are two versions. The earlier version is by an unknown artist, dated before 1842 and credited to the Geological Society. The later version is a copy by B.J. M. Donne in 1847 or 1850, and is credited to the Natural History Museum in London. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

———–

References:

  1. The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World by Shelley Emling, 2009, Palgrave Macmillan
  2. Window into the Jurassic World by Nicholas G. McDonald, 2010, Friends of Dinosaur State Park and Arboretum, Inc.
  3. Curious Footprints: Professor Hitchcock’s Dinosaur Tracks & Other Natural History Treasures at Amherst College by Nancy Pick & Frank Ward, 2006, Amherst College Press
  4. Amherst College Archives & Special Collections – Edward & Orra Hitchcock: https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/hitchcock
  5. Amherst College Digital Collections: https://acdc.amherst.edu

 

Locations:

  1. Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, CT
  2. Beneski Museum of Natural History, Amherst College, Amherst, MA
  3. Yale Peabody Museum, New Haven, CT
Classroom chart on linen drawn by Orra White Hitchcock, Amherst College.
One of 61 drawings done by Orra White Hitchcock for use in Professor Edward Hitchcock’s classes on geology and natural history. This is a reproduction of a preexisting drawing. Pen and ink on linen, Mastodon maximus skeleton, 1828 – 1840, courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College

Triceratops Fossil Will Remain in Boston!!

The triceratops fossil, named “Cliff”* after the grandfather of the man who originally bought it from the Christie’s auction in Paris and loaned it to the Museum of Science, Boston, WILL STAY IN BOSTON!!  The goal of $850,000 was actually exceeded (only 11 days before the deadline!) Additional money raised will go toward fossil maintenance, per the article in the Boston Globe.

THANK YOU TO EVERYONE who donated to this cause or made it known through word-of-mouth or online venues!!

CONGRATULATIONS, MUSEUM OF SCIENCE!

Goal reach for Mos.org

Screenshot of mos.org/keepcliff as it appears today

*Gender is not known in triceratops fossils, as I understand it, so this is not necessarily a male triceratops.

Thank you to Erin Shannon for keeping me in the loop!

Here is the Boston Globe’s article: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/06/18/museum-science-gets-keep-cliff-triceratops/goTIqJg9hTslNm9xwWg48O/story.html

An Ice Age Wonderland – Yukon Paleontology, Part 3

In 2004, scientists in the Yukon discovered a rare and surprising remnant of the Pleistocene: an Ice Age meadow. And some of the grass, although at least 30,000 years old, was STILL GREEN.

Gold bottom turf_30,000 year old grass below ash

[Fossil grass below layer of tephra at Gold Bottom Creek, part of a 30,000-year-old grassy meadow discovered in 2004, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. To see a picture of some of the green grass, please see page 33.]

 

In Ice Age Klondike, Dr. Grant Zazula and Dr. Duane Froese explain that this layer—at least 40 meters long–was buried by volcanic ash, or ‘tephra’.

 

30,000 year old bed of Dawson tephra

[The layer of tephra is the whitish colored portion toward the bottom; 30,000-year-old tephra, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

Few places in the world offer us such a concentrated wealth of information about the Pleistocene, and the Yukon is one of them.

“There are a lot of common animals like woolly mammoths and bison and horses that we find all the time,” Dr. Zazula said. “But it’s really exciting when we find the bones or the fossils of the rare species, things like camels, or short-faced bears, or lions. Probably for every 500 bones we find, we might find one bone of a carnivore.”

Susan Hewitson in field with lion humerus

[Susan Hewitson holding an Ice Age lion humerus, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

lion mandible

[Ice Age lion mandible, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“I think that one of the things that has really been exciting for me,” he offered, “is that, in the last 10 years, the field of ancient genetics has really taken off in terms of being able to extract DNA from Ice Age bones, then study the details of evolution and how these animals are related to one another.”

beth shapiro with horse jaw 2

[Geneticist Beth Shapiro examines a partial upper jaw bone of a Yukon horse emerging from the frozen mud at Quartz Creek, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

fossil horse jaw

[Yukon horse jaw uncovered by placer miners on Quartz Creek near Dawson City, from Ice Age Mammals of Yukon, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

“[The Yukon is] one of the best places in the world to do that because of the bones being found in permafrost. [There are] so many Ice Age bones that are being found, and they’re really accessible.

“So we work really closely with the geneticists all the time; we’re working on all kinds of different projects together. It’s nice to be able to collaborate with a field like that and make fossils from the Yukon available for study.”

Geneticist Mathias Stiller - tusk - BonesnBugs.2010.TKuhn_082

[Geneticist Mathias Stiller with tusk found in the muck at Quartz Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

This author writes from an area within the United States that is fossil-poor (finding one mastodon tooth is an enormous deal, and most years pass without a single reported fossil). In comparison, the amount of fossil bones found in the Yukon staggers the imagination. But that is not all that the Yukon has to offer.

Even those not generally interested in paleontology get excited when they see or hear about mummified Ice Age animals. There is something so much more dramatic, that much more intriguing, about seeing an extinct animal in the flesh.

Dr. Zazula was frank about being slightly envious of Siberia’s wealth in that domain. Outside of Blue Babe, a steppe bison carcass found in Alaska, the most spectacular mummified animals have been found on the other side of the world.

And yet, one cannot ignore that mummified remains—partial or otherwise—are also an exciting part of Yukon paleontology.

mummified ferret

[40,000-year-old mummified black-footed ferret discovered by the McDougall family’s dog, Molly, at their placer gold mine on the Sixtymile River, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

One of the more remarkable finds was a partially mummified horse, discovered by Lee Olynyk and Ron Toews in a gold mine.

26,000 year old mummified Yukon horse (Equus lambei) foreleg recovered a....Canadian Museum of Nature

 

[26,000-year-old mummified horse (Equus lambeii) foreleg showing preserved hair, hide and muscle tissue, recovered at Last Chance Creek, Yukon, from Ice Age Mammals of Yukon, courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Nature.]

 

horse tail

[Image of mummified horse tail, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

Internal organs as well as a significant portion of the hide (with mane and hair!) were recovered. One can see this at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, the museum in the capital city of Whitehorse.

Embed from Getty Images

 

Also exciting, but from the neighboring Canadian Territory, was a discovery in the village of Tsiigehtchic. Dr. Zazula participated in uncovering this animal.

“[We excavated] a good portion of a carcass and a skeleton of a steppe bison, which turned out to be about 12,000 years old. There was still a bunch of hair and stomach and intestines and some of the limb bones were still articulated with muscle.”

He wrote about this in more depth with Dr. Beth Shapiro (image above) and several other colleagues in 2009. Not only remarkable for its level of preservation, this was also the first reported mammal soft tissue from the Pleistocene in “the glaciated regions of Northern Canada.

fossil steppe bison skull quartz creek

[Large fossil steppe bison skull found Quartz Creek, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Not the same bison fossil mentioned above.]

Then in 2010, Derek Turner and Brent Ward found the “oldest reliably dated” Western camel fossil found in what was once Eastern Beringia. As mentioned in previous posts, Beringia was the area that covered most of Siberia, Alaska and Yukon when the land was connected in the Pleistocene.

Derek Turner, Brent Ward and Dr. Zazula explain, in their paper about this discovery, that North America was once home to possibly six different species of camel. (There appears to be some dispute about whether six distinctly separate species existed.) And, contrary to what one might expect, Camelops—the camel genus—originated in Central Mexico.

ice age camel metatarsal (foot bone)

[Ice Age camel metatarsal (foot bone), courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

For someone who has never participated in the excavation of either a mummified animal or fossils from permafrost, it was interesting to learn that there is a distinct smell when working with the muck.

Monitoring Dominion Crk (1)

[Placer gold mining monitor, Dominion Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“The only thing that’s kind of similar is the smell of a barnyard. But this is a barnyard from 30,000 years ago, and it’s from mammoths and horses and camels. All this rotten stuff that was [once] animals and plants that died a long, long time ago, frozen in the ground, and it’s now starting to thaw.”

The ever-growing research and discoveries from the Yukon paint a vivid picture of a by-gone era. It is, perhaps, the closest thing to a window into the Ice Age that we have.

When asked if there was anything that had not yet been found that he would be thrilled to find, Dr. Zazula didn’t hesitate: a woolly rhinoceros.

“We know that woolly rhinoceros are, so far, only found in Siberia,” he said, explaining why this would be so significant. “They extended all the way to the Bering Sea essentially, but they seem to never have crossed Beringia into North America. There is no fossil record of Ice Age rhinos here. But if they did [cross Beringia], that would be pretty amazing to find one of their fossils.”

Dinosaur enthusiasts, however, may be disappointed.

“In the Yukon, there’s almost no record of dinosaurs or Mesozoic fossils at all. I’ve been working with colleagues over the past handful of years, trying to find dinosaur deposits. But there’s no record of dinosaurs here except for a few handful of things. So, it’s not really [the place to be] if you’re interested in dinosaur paleontology. And that’s fine for me because then I don’t have to get involved in dinosaur work.”

“The Ice Age,” he continued, “is definitely what I’m interested in.”

Zazula with horse skull selfie

[Paleontologist Grant Zazula with Ice Age horse skull, discovered this past summer, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

Dr. Zazula began grad school in Alberta studying anthropology. Initially, he wanted to become an archaeologist. His undergrad studies focused on Arctic people and research. A strong theme, he explained, centered on the first humans to cross the land bridge into what is now North America.

“I found myself becoming more interested in the environments that those first peoples in North America were encountering,” he mused. “Instead of just trying to study the people themselves, [I wanted to understand] them in more of a wider geographic or environmental context. So, I switched gears during my grad school days from anthropology into biological sciences.”

After doing paleoecological work in the Old Crow region of the Yukon, Dr. Zazula was invited to join a group of researchers working in the Klondike.

“We started doing fieldwork at these gold mines, and we kept on running into these strange balls of hay frozen in the frozen mud, in the Ice Age sediments. And we didn’t really know what they were at first.”

So he contacted Dick Harington—a well-known paleontologist within Canada for his decades of work with fossils and gold miners in the Yukon. Dr. Harington thought they might be Arctic ground squirrel nests, and in further conversation, explained that they had not yet been a topic of study. In other words, not much was known about them.

25,000 year old fossil arctic ground squirrel nest at Quartz Creek, summer 2005 (photo by G. Zazula)

[Fossil nest of an Arctic ground squirrel, 30,000 years old, found at Quartz Creek in summer 2005, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“Over the first summer of fieldwork, I think I collected almost a hundred of these ground squirrel nests. And what was really cool about it is that the group that I was working with specialized in glacial stratigraphy [and] using volcanic ash beds to date sediments.

“Because they knew the age of these different volcanic ash layers that are found in the sediment, we could actually place these ground squirrel nests in different points in time in the past. We were able to develop sort of a time series of these Arctic ground squirrel nests.

“[Over] the next four years, I picked apart Arctic ground squirrel nests that [dated] between 20,000 and 80,000 years old or so.”

 Nest with squirrel skull

 

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

These nests are also known as “middens.” In his paper on the topic, Dr. Zazula and his colleagues describe these underground Ice Age homes. What these middens revealed, not just about these specific Ice Age animals, but about the Pleistocene environment at the time, is incredible.

Contained within these middens were ‘caches’ of food—seeds and plants from the area. These tiny plants give scientists a much better understanding of the climate and environment thousands of years ago.

squirrel nest - quartz creek

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

squirrelnest - cache

 

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, cache highlighted by author, per the paper on this subject.]

 

“I think we’ve identified over 60 different plant species in them, and I wasn’t expecting that at all.”

In addition—and much to this author’s surprise–they found fossil insects, including beetles.

“Fossil Pleistocene beetle remains are actually quite common in sediments,” he said. “And they’re actually pretty useful for climatic reconstructions, because most beetles have a very narrow temperature or climatic envelope that they can live within.”

Squirrel nest - DawsonFieldwork_2011_TKuhn_254

 

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Can you find the squirrel skull?]

 

Embed from Getty Images

[Extant Arctic Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) hibernating in burrow, Fairbanks, Alaska; Getty Images]

 

In all of Dr. Zazula’s papers, one can see scientists from a variety of fields as co-authors or in the acknowledgements for their help with research. This was reiterated in our phone conversation: he is uniquely positioned as Yukon paleontologist to provide Ice Age material for a wide-range of study to a wide-range of fields.

“Especially with the Pleistocene,” he explained, “there are so many interconnected aspects of research. You need to have a geologist around. And then, in terms of putting the big picture together, you want to have someone that can reconstruct plant fossils. If you’re just doing it alone, you wouldn’t get much of the [big] picture anyway.

“So we’ve really kind of developed this way of doing things as a team.”

Morehouse, Zazula and Stiller

[Archaeologist Jana Morehouse, Paleontologist Grant Zazula and Geneticist Mathias Stiller, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“To me, it’s all so interconnected: the geology, the ecology and the mammals and then the archaeology. You might as well work together to try to accomplish goals, and that’s how we’ve done it. It’s been pretty successful.”

“And,” he added, “it’s a lot more fun that way anyway.”

Beth Shapiro_withHorse

[Geneticist Beth Shapiro with Ice Age horse jaw, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“Prior to the Yukon government establishing the paleontology program, all of the fossils that were being collected went back to Ottawa for the National collection and the National Museum. So most of the material that has ever been collected from the Yukon is actually not here. It’s in Ottawa.

“The Yukon government decided in the mid ‘90’s that they would like to establish its own program in Arctic archaeology and paleontology. Since that time, fossils collected here, stay here. And the position [of Yukon paleontologist] was created to oversee that.”

It’s a position he’s held for the past eight years, and one can hear his genuine enthusiasm for it in his voice.

“It’s a great job,” he stated. “Sometimes I’m shocked that I get paid to do this. It’s pretty exciting.”

Over the years, Dr. Zazula has been featured in some of the most prominent global media. Some of those include NPR, the CBC, the NY Times, and the National Post. This past summer, he was filmed with paleontologist Dick Mol from the Netherlands by a German documentary team. That documentary has been aired in Europe since this past December.

Dick Mol and Grant Zazula - Yukon

[Paleontologists Grant Zazula and Dick Mol, photographed by Florian Breier, the director of the German documentary; image courtesy of Dick Mol.]

Not everyone, regardless of their profession, is as comfortable with media or journalists.

“I think there are a lot of people that stay in labs and put their heads down and don’t really interact with the media, but I think it’s really important,” he said.

[I]t’s one thing that’s never taught: how to conduct interviews or how to take your scientific work and present it or make it relevant to the public. And I think that’s a real problem, because if you are a practicing scientist after graduate school, you’re undoubtedly going to do research that attracts interest, and if you don’t have the ability to speak about it or to present it, you lose a lot of traction. In a lot of regards, science is kind of a big competition. It’s like a big science fair. If you don’t produce results and attract attention, you won’t continue to be funded. You can be an excellent scientist and sort of fade away if you don’t have the ability to attract people’s attention.

“I work for [the] government, where we’re publically funded by tax dollars. [F]or some people, [paleontology] might not seem very relevant for society. Still, I think it’s pretty important whenever we have something new to talk about, in terms of new results or new and interesting things, we should make sure it gets out to the public through media.

“Politicians are the people that decide if these programs continue to be funded. And if they see that there’s a lot of media interest and a lot of people learning because of it, then they’ll definitely keep funding these kinds of programs. And I’m grateful that they continue to do so.”

paleoecologist Rolf Mathewes from Simon Fraser University_bison jaw and mammoth tooth

[Paleoecologist Rolf Mathewes from Simon Fraser University,courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Can you pick out the mammoth tooth?]

Explaining the reasons for his fascination with the Ice Age, Dr. Zazula said, “Dinosaur paleontology doesn’t really tell us much about the modern environment. If we’re interested in what we have today and how it’s changing because of, say, climate change, or environmental change, we’re not going to get much information about environmental processes by studying dinosaurs.

The study of the Ice Age, [however], is how the modern world came to be.

“When you think of tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, it may seem like a long time ago, [but] it’s just a geological instant. And in that short time period–in that geological instant–the changes that have happened to result in what we have here today are amazing!

“To think of giant elephants and lions running around North America: it’s such a different world. And yet so many aspects of that world can inform us of what we’re dealing with today.”

sixtymile mammoth 1

[Image of mammoth skull found by Hawk Mining along the Sixtymile River, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

Embed from Getty Images

 

——————–

This trilogy of posts on the Yukon–with all of the beautiful images and the fascinating information they contain–could not have been possible without the generosity of Dr. Grant Zazula.  He is an adept and engaging speaker; the Yukon is incredibly lucky to have him at the helm of the paleontology program!  Once again, and with great sincerity, a Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to him.

This trilogy would not have occurred without the great generosity and wonderful thoughtfulness of Dick Mol, who is a wonderful, wonderful person.  With great sincerity, I wish him, too, a Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU!

——————–

If you haven’t already checked out these publications by Grant Zazula, Duane Frose and Tyler Kuhn, please do! They are available online:

Other articles referenced:

 

Yukon Paleontology Program: http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/palaeontology.html

Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre: http://www.beringia.com/index.html

Terra X – German Documentary: Mammuts – Stars der Eiszeit, http://www.zdf.de/terra-x/mammuts-ikonen-der-eiszeit-35507636.html

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

 

Embed from Getty Images

(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.

Embed from Getty Images
————-

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”

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)

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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.