Ghostly Traces of Ancient Behemoths

A recent article in the New York Times described challenges facing the Iraq Museum. Heavily looted in 2003 during the US invasion, it reopened in 2015 with a considerable collection, yet still struggles with public engagement. Not surprising, as there appear to be few resources to help visitors, such as audiovisual aids or docents. But what struck me most were the words of Iraq’s Cultural Minister, Abdulameer al-Hamdani, who said, referencing the artifacts in display cases, “In a box, art has no soul.”  His statement revolved around context: if you don’t understand what you’re looking at, its impact may not be as powerful.  As NY Times journalist, Alissa Rubin, explained, “Great works like the three-foot-tall Warka vase…are arresting sights but much more so when their history is explained.”

This resonates strongly for me when thinking of paleontology.

It’s easy to be impressed with larger fossils, articulated skeletons displayed in life-like poses. Regardless of one’s level of interest or knowledge, we can appreciate a mounted Triceratops. We know what that is. When you learn about the research done within the bones, however, and discover how scientists are learning about growth rates, blood vessel volume, what that blood vessel volume means for the way that dinosaur looked, whether areas of the body were covered in keratin or scales, that mounted skeleton takes on an entirely new meaning.  It becomes fleshed out in our mental images.  It goes from, “yes, that is an impressive fossil” to “WOW.  What an incredible animal!”  And, consequently, we have more connection to it.

That connection, to me, is the “soul” referenced by Mr. al-Hamdani. The details an ordinary person wouldn’t see when looking at fossils are the very things that bring that extinct species back to life.

 

Image of ‘Cliff,’ the Triceratops fossil at the Boston Museum of Science, photo taken by Jeanne Timmons. (‘Cliff’ might imply we know the sex of this animal; we do not. I don’t believe this was named by museum staff.)

 

When a friend of mine mentioned an upcoming trip to White Sands National Monument, it was with a sense of excitement, and I was happy for him.  White Sands was a name I recognized. It was, after all, the site of an incredible discovery unveiled last year: Giant Ground Sloth fossil footprints interacting with fossil hominid footprints. Evidence that humans may have been stalking that sloth, perhaps hunting it or, as Ed Yong at The Atlantic suggested in his piece about the discovery, maybe toying with it. Whatever their intent, hominids were doing something that repeatedly caused the sloth to turn abruptly and leave prints suggesting defensive movement.  

Paleoart of the possible interaction between a Giant Ground Sloth and ancient hominids, as depicted by Alex McClelland from Bournemouth University

 

That research put the National Monument on the map for many of us. I’d read the research and the articles about it.  I had a general idea of what was there.  “Footprints preserve terminal Pleistocene hunt? Human-sloth interactions in North America” (the 2018 paper of that discovery) mentioned that sloth and hominid footprints are only two of several species that left tracks so long ago in what is now New Mexico.  Preserved tracks remain of camelids, canids, bovids, felids, and proboscideans (most likely Columbian mammoths, although mastodons are possible, too).

So I understood my friend’s excitement, and I shared it to the degree of what little I knew of White Sands at the time, but I think it’s fair to say our levels of excitement were distinctly different.

 

Image of fossil hominid footprint inside a fossil Giant Ground Sloth footprint, photo courtesy of David Bustos, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

 

 

Then I connected with scientists actively researching there.  Dr. Sally Reynolds, Dr. Matthew Bennett and David Bustos are three of the co-authors on the aforementioned paper, and they are among the authors of yet another paper on White Sands to be published in this August’s edition of Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

Soft-sediment deformation below mammoth tracks at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico) with implications for biomechanical inferences from tracks” offers detailed insight into mammoth footprints and how they impacted the ground upon which they walked. To do so, the scientists analyzed the rock below the tracks themselves.

This study is arguably an asset to ichnologists, those who specialize in fossil traces such as bite marks, scratches, footprints and more. It provides richly detailed graphics and descriptions of how the mammoths’ foot pressures affected the sediment. Because hominid tracks intersect and even step into mammoth tracks, these footprints are analyzed as well.

Admittedly, this information might not be first choice among those who aren’t ichnologists, but I guarantee you their interpretation of this information might be.

Understanding what these footprints reveal is like opening a window into a moment of that animal’s life.  It can tell us about the possible weight and size of the animal who made them; the stride of that animal; whether it was walking, limping or running; whether it was alone or not; and it tell us about the environment in which it walked.  These are clues into the behavior of the animal, an entire realm beyond its physical make-up.

 

 

Screenshot of mammoth footprint analysis (deformation structures) at White Sands by Bennett et al, “Soft-sediment deformation below mammoth tracks at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico) with implications for biomechanical inferences from tracks” 

 

 

This is exactly what interests Dr. Sally Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Hominin Palaeoecology and Deputy Head of the Institute for Studies of Landscape and Human Evolution (ISLHE) at Bournemouth University.

“I’m interested in the footprint in the behavioural context,” she wrote in an email. “What do the footprints tell us about the snapshot of activity taking place?”

“I like to think in terms of how these people used their landscape,” she continued, referencing her work understanding the paleoecology of an area and how that impacted ancient hominids. “I ask myself and the team questions like:

  1. Where was the water? Were they waiting by the water to ambush the prey animals?
  2. What were they eating? Plants, insects, animal prey?
  3. What sort of technologies did they have for collecting these? Evidence of hunting, but also gathering, trapping etc.
  4. What sort of toolkits did they have to use? Stone tools, fire etc.
  5. What were they afraid of? Predators, poisonous snakes, etc. These animals are still largely resident in the region today. There is much recent ethnographic and ecosystem evidence that can be considered when reconstructing the ancient worlds of these people.
  6. Group size? Gender roles, presence of children, roles of children.”

While he focuses more on ichnology, that sentiment is echoed by Dr. Matthew Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, also at Bournemouth University.

“I am now more interested in behavioural ecology derived from footprints – basically how one animal (human or not) interacts with another,” he wrote. “This for me is where the excitement and new research frontier is.”

 

Fossil hominid footprint within a fossil mammoth footprint at White Sands, photo courtesy of David Bustos

 

Both scientists have published on fossil hominids–footprints and bones–and associated ichnofossils of other species for years. Their collective expertise lends crucial understanding to an area in which there are not just a few footprints here and there, but thousands upon thousands.

More importantly, these footprints—in some cases—go on extensively.

“Some of [the trackways] go for half a mile or a mile. We have a camel track that [is] almost two miles,” David Bustos, Resource Manager for White Sands explained by phone.  “Because these prints are so long, they allow you to see interactions that you wouldn’t see at other places. They’re so unique. There are prints all over the world, but to have prints that extend for such a long distance and keep interacting with other animals or people is very unique.”

I want to reiterate that point, because this is where my enthusiasm for White Sands became almost palpable: the tracks at that site are not only profuse, they can be followed over 1-2 miles.  If relatively short trackways have provided great insight into extinct behavior, these tracks offer potentially unparalleled revelations.

“[T]he thing about it is,” he continued, referencing the sloth and hominid trackways described in the 2018 paper, “it’s not the only occurrence.  This is happening over and over across Monument lands.”

 

Screenshot of fig. S3. from Supplementary Materials for “Footprints preserve terminal Pleistocene hunt? Human-sloth interactions in North America”

fig. S3. Map of part of the study site. The map shows sloth and human tracks as well as track density across the whole site (inset). Note the non-linear sloth trackways and sudden changes of direction. “Flailing circles” occur only in association with human tracks.

 

“We see human, mammoth, Giant Ground Sloth, and camel prints commonly together across the monument. Occasionally you’ll see bison and occasionally you’ll see dire wolf or American lion or some type of felid.”

“The proboscidean prints we have are amazing. We have thousands of these prints at the monument. (They are probably the most numerous track type we have.) In the tracks, you can see young and old animals.  Some places you can see the prints of the young running in circles and then nudging up against the larger animals perhaps to say ‘hello’ or [to] nurse.“

A fossil Giant Ground Sloth trackway at White Sands, photo courtesy of David Bustos.

 

But there’s a twist: seeing some of the tracks depends upon just the right environmental conditions.

As David explains, “You’ll walk by the same area for years, [and] then the conditions will change. There is now a fine salt crust on the surface, and in the crust you’ll find a whole new set of prints, only to be gone the next day. These are the trackways that we call ghost prints.”

“[We saw] thousands of new prints we’ve never seen before,” he said, illustrating just one example. “And they were gone two or three days later. You couldn’t see them anymore. [S]omething changed with the soil that didn’t leave a fine salt crust over everything.”

Alarmed, I asked him if this meant they were gone for good.  He assured me that, “They’re still there, so if we were to look for them with GPR [ground-penetrating radar] or scrape back the soil, they would be there. But they’re not visible to the naked eye. You can’t see them.”

Ghost tracks (or “ghost prints”) aside, there is another, more ominous threat to the trackways: erosion.  This has lead David Bustos and his team at White Sands to work diligently to preserve as much as they as quickly as they can.  They are a small operation.  They’ve looked to outside groups and experts to help understand the fossils, see the value of the site, get the word out and help save the footprints.  To that end, they have actually excavated tracks.

“[The footprints] that we have brushed open [are] a small sample of [specific trackways],” David expressed. “There might be 2-3,000 prints, and, of those, we might open up 15 prints or so.  [The reason we excavate them at all is to get a better] understanding of the different types of prints, how they differ from each other (are toes visible,  how deep are the prints, how did they walk, were they slipping in the mud), and to get [good] measurements for the gait and stride and pace and all of those types of things. After the measurements are taken and prints documented, the prints are filled in.”

 

Images of the various types of proboscidean footprints found at White Sands: what they look like above ground and then images of what they look like underground; photos and graphics from the National Park Service.

 

 

Despite their hard work, it is not always enough.

“We were seeing places where we know we’ve lost large-scale sets of prints and tracks from soil erosion,” he stated.

David compared the loss of those prints to a significant loss of books from the Library of Congress.  Losing those fossils is like losing an enormous “volume of data.”

“[T]hey’re incredible in the stories that they tell you,” he said.  “A mother carrying a child. Or an old person limping along w/a larger group. Or maybe a younger person sprinting along the larger group (deep prints that are nearly three times the length of a walking stride). You see people interacting with each other.  And you see people interacting with the megafauna.”

Still, he is hopeful.

“It’s been an amazing project and we’ve had a lot of great support from everyone who helped us to get where we are.”

“It seems like every year there’s more and more  discoveries.  We’ve looked at maybe less than 1% of 51,000 acres that could contain trackways.”

The published research done by David, Sally, Matthew and their co-authors is far from finished.  Offering me tantalizing clues, I would encourage everyone to keep an eye out for what comes next.

As far as the secrets revealed by White Sands National Monument, this is only the beginning.

Partial screenshot of an image from “Soft-sediment deformation below mammoth tracks at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico) with implications for biomechanical inferences from tracks” that illustrates where in White Sands the research was done and the megafauna that left footprints

 

*****

There is currently a Senate bill to make White Sands National Monument a National Park!!

More info here: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/116/s1582/text/

Dr. Matthew Bennett has freeware that, as he describes it, “allows you to capture tracks digitally using photogrammetry (20-40 oblique photos with a digital camera), but crucially it provides you with a series of tools to analysis and compare those tracks. Unlike many 3D programmes that have to cater for lots of users with different requirements, this is purely for footprints.”

Find out more here: DigTrace, http://www.digtrace.co.uk

 

References:

  1. Bennett, Matthew R., Bustos, David, Belvedere, Matteo, Martinez, Patrick, Reynolds, Sally C., Urban, Tommy; Soft-sediment deformation below mammoth tracks at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico) with implications for biomechanical inferences from tracks; Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 1 August 2019
  2. Bustos, David,  Jakeway, Jackson, Urban, Tommy M., Holliday, Vance T., Fenerty, Brendan, Raichlen, David A., Budka, Marcin, Reynolds, Sally C., Allen, Bruce D., Love, David W., Santucci,  Vincent L., Odess, Daniel, Willey, Patric, McDonald,  H. Gregory,  Bennett, Matthew R.; Footprints preserve terminal Pleistocene hunt? Human-sloth interactions in North America; Science Advances, 25 April 2018
  3. Bustos, David, Much More than a Sand Box: Fossil Tracks from the Lakes of the World’s Largest Gypsum Dune Field, Park Paleontology News – Vol. 09, No. 2, Fall 2017
  4. Bustos, David, National Park Service, Lake Lucero Ranger Minute, YouTube, Nov 21, 2016
  5. Bustos, David, Love, David W., Allen, Bruce D., Santucci, Vincent L., Knapp, Jonathan P.; Diverse Array of Soft-Sediment Fossil Vertebrate Tracks from the World’s Largest Gypsum Dune Field, GSA Annual Meeting, Denver, 2016
  6. Martin, Anthony J., Dinosaurs Without Bones, Pegasus Books, 2014
  7. National Park Service, White Sands National Monument, The Pleistocene Trackways of White Sands National Monument, 2013
  8. Rubin, Alissa J., In Iraq Museum, There Are Things ‘That Are Nowhere Else in the World‘, NY Times, June 9, 2019
  9. Yong, Ed, Fossilized Human Footprint Found Nestled in a Giant Sloth Footprint, The Atlantic, April 25, 2018
  10. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, USA

 

What a great honor and a pleasure to connect with Sally Reynolds, Matthew Bennett and David Bustos!! Sincere thanks to all of you!!  Sally, your kind responses to my emails, your fascinating answers to my questions, and your constant support on Twitter have been great.  Matthew, thank you for your detailed responses at a time when you were incredibly busy.  David, thank you for responding to my emails and for making time to discuss my questions further by phone.  I wish all of you the best with your research, and I cannot wait to read what comes out next!!

This post would not have been possible without the thoughtfulness and help of my friend, Dick Mol.  Dick: You are a wonderful and generous person. THANK YOU. This post is dedicated to you and Friedje.

Advertisements

Dr. Advait Jukar – Solving Mysteries in South Asian Fossil Communities

Dr. Advait Jukar–Deep Time – Peter Buck Fellow at the Smithsonian Institute–wants to really understand ancient ecosystems in South Asia, but doing so means beginning with some of the very basics. Challenges include not just a lack of available fossils from the region, but also the lack of detailed records from early paleontologists and a dearth of contemporary research.

He is, in a sense, an explorer.  (All paleontologists are.)  If we think of paleontology as a sculpture in progress, many scientists are working on the fine details.  Dr. Jukar, on the other hand, has the clay and the tools, but the sculpture itself hasn’t even begun to take form.

Consider what he has to work with: isolated proboscidean teeth and skulls, for example, collected by Hugh Falconer and his crew in the early 1800s.  They didn’t record where the bones were found, let alone where each fossil was in relation to the other.  Those who later described these fossils made dubious claims regarding the species.  And few people to this day have revisited this data or expanded upon it. 

 

Image of Dr. Advait Jukar at work with an Elephas hysudricus molar; courtesy of Dr. Jukar

 

Compare this to Maiasaura fossils in the Northwest US.  So many fossils of this species have been excavated that Dr. Holly Woodward Ballard has created the Maiasaura Life History Project.  Its goal is to uncover more details about this particular species than any other currently known extinct creature.  She has a wealth of data at her disposal. Unlike Dr. Jukar, the fossils she can study have been found fairly well articulated, very well documented, and in remarkable abundance.  There are adults, sub-adults, juveniles and embryos.  She and her colleagues are able to add to existing scientific literature using the latest technology.  It’s an exciting project with absolutely fascinating possibilities.

 

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 for this post

 

 

 

But so, too, is Dr. Jukar’s intended research.   Focusing on the tail end of the Neogene, about 4 million years ago, through the Quaternary, he wants to understand herbivorous mammals—their community, their ecology, their biogeography.  It’s just a question of building the necessary foundation first.

“I started to compile all of these species lists,” he explained by phone, “and saw that there were lots of species of proboscideans in South Asia during that period of time.  We have gomphotheres; we have stegodons; we have elephants.”

One way to understand an animal’s impact on its environment is to assess its body mass.  How big (or small) were these animals?  And therefore, how much did they need to eat?  A larger animal would presumably need to eat a larger amount of vegetation.  Similarly, a larger animal might reproduce less frequently than smaller animals.  Body mass reveals clues about how an animal fits into the ecosystem.

However, he continued, “I hit a wall because there was no way for me to estimate how big these elephants were.  The problem was they were largely known either from skulls or teeth, and the traditional methods to estimate the weight of an extinct elephant were using shoulder height or the length and circumference of the long bones. So if I have a skull but I don’t have long bones, I’m sort of in a bind, because now I can’t estimate how much this animal weighed when it was alive.”

He looked to methods that others have used in the past. One method used by his colleagues at Howard University seemed to be a promising fit.  They used the occipital condyle breadth of seacows—a proboscidean relative–as an indicator for body mass.  Dr. Jukar’s PhD advisor, Mark Uhen, mentioned that this method had also been used on yet another large mammal: the whale. 

The occipital condyle is a bone found at the base of the back of the skull, connecting the skull to the spinal column.  It’s a relatively small bone.  Why would this have an impact on determining body mass?

“If occipital condyle breadth is correlated with the size of the animal,” Dr. Jukar said, “and if the occipital condyle is the point where the skull attaches to the rest of the skeleton, then maybe the size of the skull scales with the size of the overall body. And if that’s true, then maybe the occipital condyle breadth will scale with the size of the limb bones as well.”

 

Image of the back of a mastodon (nicknamed ‘Max’) skull at the Western Science Center in California displaying the occipital condyle bone resting on the metal stand; photo taken by Jeanne Timmons

 

In other words, if a paleontologist has but one skull of an extinct proboscidean and no other related fossils, can that person measure the breadth of the occipital condyle as a way to determine the size and weight of that animal?

To test this theory on proboscideans, he researched available scientific literature and visited a number of museum collections.  Ultimately, he and his two co-authors, S. Kathleen Lyons and Mark Uhen, compared the occipital condyle breadth to the length and circumference of leg bones within extant elephants and extinct relatives.  Two elephant species were studied, as were six gomphotheres, three mastodons and one stegodon.  

Image of a fossil Moeritherium at the Yale Peabody Museum; photo taken by Jeanne Timmons

 

While careful to note that this method has its limitations, the results were promising.  The equations are different for each proboscidean family (gomphothere body structure and size is not the same as that of a mastodon) and they do not work for some of the smaller proboscidean species, such as Moeritherium.  In layperson’s terms, this research works for taller, lumbering proboscideans, not those with much shorter limbs and a perhaps waddling gait. Their paper and its results were published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society: A cranial correlate of body mass in proboscideans.

This, though, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Dr. Jukar’s research.  An enormous collection of fossils from India resides in the Natural History Museum of London.  Found in an area referred to as the Siwalik Hills (or the “Siwaliks”) at the base of the Himalayas, Scottish paleontologist Hugh Falconer and his team collected them in the 1800s.  Among them are several stegodon teeth and skulls. 

Image of Dr. Advait Jukar measuring a Stegodon ganesa fossil in the Natural History Museum of London collection; courtesy of Dr. Jukar

 

The two species of stegodon excavated from the Siwaliks are, to this date, known as Stegodon insignis and Stegodon ganesa.  The species have very similar teeth, but their skulls seem to differ greatly.  The skull of S. insignis, according to Dr. Jukar, is “almost triangular in shape with relatively small tusks,” which Falconer chalked up to sexual dimorphism.

“Which I just thought was the weirdest thing to ever say about stegodons because the skulls are clearly different. They’re clearly not sexually dimorphic.”

Moreover, there seems to be confusion regarding which fossils Falconer assigned to which stegodon species that continues to this day.  

“So what was going on in his mind? I have no idea.  It’s a problem! Because since then, people have said that both of these must be the same species without really truly investigating them. 

“Any Stegodon tooth that they’re finding in the Siwaliks, they’re calling Stegodon insignis or Stegodon ganesa or a hyphenated version of the two: Stegodon insignis-ganesa, which is taxonomic heresy.” 

And here Dr. Jukar was emphatic: “You CANNOT do that with the taxonomic code.”

“And that was Osborn’s fault.”

He was referring to Henry Fairfield Osborn, former professor then curator of the American Museum of Natural History in the late 1800s.

“Osborn [is known to have asserted], ‘I agree with what Falconer said, so I’m going to hyphenate these two words.’  Which created such a mess.  So we have no idea what’s going on there. 

“There’s a lot of work to be done with elephant taxonomy, biogeography and systematics and comparisons between China, the Levant, East Africa and India.”

 

Image of the Levant (Public Domain)

 

Dr. Jukar and other colleagues have also recently published papers on the earliest known fossil of Hexaprotodon, an extinct hippo, from South Asia, and the first record of a Hippaprionine horse (Plesiohipparion huangheense) from the Indian Pliocene.

He is currently working with Dr. Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum in London to further understand the various proboscidean fossils in the Siwalik collection.

This is important work, but Dr. Jukar pondered its reception to the wider world.

“For a long time paleontologists have been criticized as being mere stamp collectors because we find things and then we name them and then we try to figure out in what larger group they belong to.  But that is the basis of our data.

“Only when I have a comprehensive sense of what the species are, when they lived and where they lived can I start doing these more complicated community-level analyses.

“But because the basic science of naming a fossil might not be very exciting, [as it doesn’t directly impact] human life very much, it doesn’t get a lot of attention. 

“I am definitely interested in the big picture questions of dispersal from Africa into South Asia, about the ecology of these groups, about how communities have changed through time, but I can’t really do a rigorous analysis until I figure out who the [basic] players are in this place.”

Image of Dr. Advait Jukar with a Mammuthus columbi (Columbian mammoth) skull; courtesy of Dr. Jukar

 

References:

  1. Colbert E. (1996). Henry Fairfield Osborn and the Proboscidea. In:  Shoshani J, Tassy P. The Proboscidea : evolution and palaeoecology of elephants and their relatives, Oxford: Oxford University Press, xxii – xxv
  2. Dr. Advait Jukar’s website: https://advaitjukar.weebly.com
  3. Jukar, Advait M., Lyons, S. Kathleen, Uhen, Mark D. (2018.  A cranial correlate of body mass in proboscideansZoological Journal of the Linnean Society, Volume 184, Issue 3, 20 October 2018, Pages 919–931, https://doi.org/10.1093/zoolinnean/zlx108
  4. Jukar, Advait M., Patnaik, Rajeev, Chauhan, Parth R., Li, Hong-Chun, Lin, Jih-Pai (2019). The youngest occurrence of Hexaprotodon Falconer and Cautley, 1836 (Hippopotamidae, Mammalia) from South Asia with a discussion on its extinction, Quaternary International, January 2019, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2019.01.005
  5. Jukar, Advait Mahesh, Sun, Boyang, Bernor, Raymond Louis, (2018). The first occurrence of Plesiohipparion huangheense (Qiu, Huang & Guo, 1987) (Equidae, Hipparionini) from the late Pliocene of India,  Bollettino della Società Paleontologica Italiana; 57(2):125-132 · August 2018
  6. Saegusa H. (1996). Stegodontidae: Evolutionary Relationships. In:  Shoshani J, Tassy P. The Proboscidea : evolution and palaeoecology of elephants and their relatives, Oxford: Oxford University Press, xxii – xxv

 

It was a GREAT pleasure and honor speaking with Dr. Advait Jukar.  Many, many thanks for your time, Advait, your help, your fascinating insight and your gorgeous images!! I cannot wait to read your future scientific papers!

 

Fossil Discoveries in Niger with Dr. Ralf Kosma

“I often wrapped wet clothes around my head in order to cool my brain during digging.”

Dr. Ralf Kosma, curator of paleontology at the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig, Germany, was part of an international team that excavated fossils in Niger during the late 2000s.

“[T]he heat was incredible,” he wrote in an email, “especially in April/May. Usually I can stand the heat, and I did in Niger, but many colleagues in our team (both German and Nigerien) became ill as a result of the horrifying heat.”

Embed from Getty Images

 

Much of the country—particularly in the northern region, which is where Dr. Kosma and team excavated–is in the Sahara desert.  In an area devoid of many trees (hence, shade), where temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and where water is in short supply, heat is a crucial concern.

Word of a large dinosaur bone traveled from Niger to Germany by way of Edgar Sommer, both a friend of State Museum of Natural History Director Dr. Ulrich Joger and someone with ties to an educational organization in Niger.

Paleontologists from the museum worked together with those from the local Aderbissinat community: a people comprised—like the country (and the continent!) entire—of various cultures.  Among those cultures are the Tuareg, the Hausa, and the Fulani people.

“This was organized,” Dr. Kosma wrote, describing who they hired from the community, “by Ahmad Bahani, our local Tuareg partner, and Mohammed Echika, Tuareg Chief and Mayor of the village Tadibene…”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Back row from left to right: Sidi Bahani, Dr. Ralf Kosma (Braunschweig), Abdul Khader, Achim Ritter (Braunschweig, technican and artist), Prof. Dr. Ulrich Joger (Director of our museum, the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig, Germany), Hanna Joger (daughter of Ulrich Joger) from Darmstadt, Germany, Jannis Joger (with colorful turban; son of Ulrich Joger from Darmstadt, Germany), Fritz J. Krüger (Braunschweig, paleontological volunteer of the SNHM), Michel Rabe (with hat, Braunschweig, also museum volunteer), Azziz Bahani.

Front row from left to right: Moussa, Aghali, Abdul Raman, Mohammed, Dr. Alexander Mudroch (Paleontologist, Hannover, Germany), Jörg Faust (camera assistant, from Berlin)

Picture was taken in spring 2007 in Aderbissinat at our field camp at the Spinophorosaurus site.

Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Proud Tuareg camel riders celebrating the “Festival of Salt” in Agadez, 2007. Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

They camped in the field—using a campfire to cook food, some of it local, some of it brought with them in tins from Germany.  Along with the heat, they dealt with several sandstorms.

“It was peeling our skin. One was really hard and we took shelter in our laboratory truck.”

But they were also excavating at a time when civil war broke out within the country.

“We were,” he wrote, “protected by the army and by Mayor Mohammed Echika.”

 

“We encountered snakes, scorpions, a monitor lizard, geckoes, skinks and a variety of toads, birds and mammals. Due to our director being a herpetologist we were well prepared against bites of venomous snakes. At night we went snake hunting with [flashlights].” – Dr. Ralf Kosma.  Caption and photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Between 2005 and 2008, the team excavated several places near Aderbissinat.  Petrified wood fossils of Taxodioideae amongst other conifers, fossil crocodile teeth, and ganoid fish scales indicate that the arid area of today was actually swampy and wet in the Jurassic.  Perhaps their most exciting finds: a partial sauropod skeleton and 5 individual theropod trackways.

Excavation of the sauropod took place in 2007; removal of the fossil occurred in 2008, when it was taken to the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig. Now on permanent display in its dinosaur hall, the partial sauropod is 8 meters long: 37 caudal vertebrae and 5 fused sacral vertebrae.

Specimen 1 from Spinophorosaurus nigerensis [a different fossil and species from the one discussed in this blog], directly after excavating in November 2006. The specimen was almost completely articulated. This specimen was later taken by a Spanish team and brought to the paleontological museum of Elche in the vicinity of Alicante in Spain. The person on the picture is Ahmed Bahani, our Tuareg coordinator. Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Fossilized tree trunk on top of the cliffs of Tiguidit. 2008. Probably Cretaceous. (Attention! If you thought this is a sauropod vertebrae – it is not!) Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Further study by Dr. Emanuel Tschopp and team indicates the sauropod might be Jobaria tiguidensis.  Research undertaken by Florian Witzmann, Oliver Hampe, Bruce Rothschild, Ulrich Joger, Ralf Kosma, Daniela Schwarz and Patrick Asbach reveals that the poor Jobaria may have suffered from a painful bone pathology.

There is a debate—since soft-tissues rarely fossilize—about what existed between vertebrae in dinosaurs.  What connected the bones, of what did that connection consist, and how exactly did it make that connection to the bone?  We don’t know.  But research gives us insightful clues.

Dr. Witzmann and team, in their 2016 paper (Subchondral cysts at synovial vertebral joints as analogies of Schmorl’s nodes in a sauropod dinosaur from Niger), looked to the work of Steve Salisbury and Eberhard Frey.  Comparing extant and extinct crocodile vertebrae with that of mammalian vertebrae, they found evidence pointing to synovial joints in dinosaurs.  This is in direct contrast to the discovertebral junctions known in mammals. The two are shaped differently, enable different range of movement within the joints, and are comprised of different substances.

Ultimately, we don’t know for certain whether dinosaurs had a discovertebral junction or whether they had synovial joints. This is important because these distinctions impact our understanding of the Nigerien sauropod’s pathology.

A 1978 paper by Resnick and Niwayama suggests subchondral cysts near synovial joints result in the same pathology as “Schmorl’s nodes,” a pathology that presents as holes or lesions in the bone. This is particularly interesting, as, thus far, only extant mammals (animals with discovertebral junctions) have exhibited traces of Schmorl’s nodes. (Only one case of possible Schmorl’s nodes in a reptile was published in 2001.)

Schmorl’s Nodes from Wikipedia credit: By J. Lengerke 22:47, 12. Jan. 2010 (CET) (Praxis Dr. Jochen Lengerke) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

CT scanning provided further insight into the sauropod vertebrae.  While the team wondered whether the holes might be the work of ancient insects, this was discounted because there are no traces of insect mandibles and the holes are too large.  As the vertebrae were articulated when they were discovered, it was determined the space was too small for tiny mammals to make any impact postmortem.  The team therefore suggests that the lesions on the sauropod vertebrae are subchondral cysts, perhaps an analog to Schmorl’s nodes.

 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

Preparing the ribs of Spinophorosaurus nigerensis, specimen 2, for transportation in spring 2007. Aderbissinat. Constructing plaster jackets. Persons from left to right: Tuareg helper Aghali, our museum volonteer Fritz J. Krüger (from Braunschweig, Germany), and me (Dr. Ralf Kosma, Staatliches Naturhistorisches Museum, Braunschweig, Germany). Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

The fossil footprints—120 tracks thus far, all of which remain in-situ in Niger—were discovered in 2007 and 2008.  Researchers from the Archaeological Institute of the University Abdou Moumouni (Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines, Niamey) and paleontologists from the German Museum worked together to both find and study them (Alexander Mudroch, Ute Richter, Ulrich Joger, Ralf Kosma, Oumarou Idé, Abdoulaye Maga in their 2011 paper: Didactyl Tracks of Paravian Theropods (Maniraptora) from the ?Middle Jurassic of Africa).

Casts and molds were taken of the tracks, of which, it was determined there are 5 distinct trackways.  Their unique shape gave rise to a new ichnotaxon: Paravipus didactyloides.

Although found in an area believed to be by a stream or lake during the Jurassic, the footprints are not believed to be swim traces.  Nothing in the sediment supports this.

There is, however, indication that two individual dinosaurs walked together at one point.  The size and shape of the footprints suggest those dinosaurs were theropods, possibly Deinonychus.

Figure 2. Map of dinosaur localities in the vicinity of Agadez, Rep. Niger. Generated with GoogleEarth MapMaker Utility 2009. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0014642.g002
Taking casts of the perfectly preserved Paravipus didactyloides trackways. About 1 mile SE of the Spinophorosaurus site, Aderbissinat. These tracks were later scientifically described in PlosOne by our team. They were caused by rather large dromaeosaurids (“raptors”). The tracks are numerous, large, perfectly preserved, the first proof for this group from rocks as old als middle Jurassic and, last but not least, the first proof for this group in subsaharan Africa. The person with hat is Michel Rabe, volunteer at our museum. The three guys to the right are Tuareg and Hausa helpers. Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma
Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

After removing the silicone mould of the Paravipus tracks. Michel Rabe (with hat) and me (with turban). Photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

 

In 2009, the State Museum of Natural History in Braunschweig opened “Projekt Dino,” an exhibition highlighting dinosaurs from West Africa.

“It was open to public for 4 months until March 2010, as far as I remember,” wrote Dr. Kosma. “Afterwards Spinophorosaurus [nigerensis—another sauropod from Niger] and Jobaria [tiguidensis] were moved to our main building.  Since 2010, the Niger-story is represented in our permanent exhibition…[W]e dedicated a complete hall–our dinosaur hall–to that topic.  Visitors of all ages are very fascinated by these skeletons. They are a central point of interest and strongly help the understanding of Earth history…Many school classes come here to learn about the giants of the Mesozoic.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Ralf Kosma

The acknowledgments at the end of “Subchondral cysts at synovial vertebral joints as analogies of Schmorl’s nodes in a sauropod dinosaur from Niger” state: “We also thank the people of Aderbissinat, Niger, for all the support and help they have offered us during our field campaigns.”

At the beginning of “Didactyl Tracks of Paravian Theropods (Maniraptora) from the ?Middle Jurassic of Africa,” it is noted that in exchange for paleontological work and recovery of fossils, part of the funds donated for the research were given toward building a local school, providing food for the children and 20,000 school books.

In corresponding with Dr. Kosma, one of his comments struck a personal chord with me:

“We all miss Niger very much: the country, the people, the desert, and would like to go there again digging for dinosaurs. We are still in contact with the local people, and they tell us the situation of the civil war is getting better right now.”

 

 

References:

  1. Florian Witzmann, Oliver Hampe, Bruce M. Rothschild, Ulrich Joger, Ralf Kosma, Daniela Schwarz & Patrick Asbach (2016) Subchondral cysts at synovial vertebral joints as analogies of Schmorl’s nodes in a sauropod dinosaur from Niger, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 36:2, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2016.1080719
  2. Mudroch A, Richter U, Joger U, Kosma R, Idé O, Maga A (2011) Didactyl Tracks of Paravian Theropods (Maniraptora) from the ?Middle Jurassic of Africa. PLoS ONE 6(2): e14642. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0014642
  3. Salisbury, S, and E. Frey.  2001. A biomechanical transformation model for the evolution of semi-spheroidal articulations between adjoining vertebral bodies in crocodilians; pp. 85 – 134 in G. C. Grigg, F. Seebacher, and C. E. Franklin (eds.), Crocodilian Biology and Evolution. Surrey Beatty and Sons, Chipping Norton, England.

 

An absolutely tremendous and heartfelt thank you to Dr. Ralf Kosma, who was not only very generous with the pictures he provided of his experiences, but with his help and patience with this blog.  It took much longer to write this post than normal; he was exceedingly kind throughout the process.

An equally heartfelt thank you to Dr. Florian Witzmann, who not only put me in touch with Dr. Kosma, but helped clarify some points on his research.

A special thank you to Dr. Emanuel Tschopp who kindly confirmed the species of sauropod to be Jobaria tiguidensis (so far!)

Valley of the Mastodons – Final post: Related articles

Putting a reluctant end to the posts about the “Valley of the Mastodons,” below are articles related to the initial fossil discoveries by Kathleen Springer, Eric Scott and team, as well as the innovative museum- and exhibit-work done by those currently at the Western Science Center, headed by the remarkable Dr. Alton Dooley, jr.

(There are more articles in the works as I post this; I’ll add them after they’ve been published.)

 

Late Pleistocene large mammal fauna dynamics from inland Southern California: The Diamond Valley Lake local fauna, Kathleen Springer, Eric Scott, J. Christopher Sagebiel, Lyndon K. Murray, Quaternary International, 15 April 2010, Pages 256-265

Paper published after 7 years of excavation in the Diamond Valley Lake area and 3 years of research.

 

The SoCal Ice Age Fossil Treasure Trove You’ve Never Heard Of, by Brian Switek, KCET (kcet.org), May 11, 2016

An excellent introduction to the Western Science Center Museum, its fossils and a little of the history behind it.

 

Education and Outreach: Exhibiting the Scientific Process, by Brittney Stoneburg, Palaeontology Online, July 1, 2017

A fantastic behind-the-scenes look at the unique exhibit work done by those at the Western Science Center by Brittney Stoneburg, whose title doesn’t accurately cover the enormous work she contributes to the museum (much like everyone on staff there!)

 

 

 

Exploring the Valley of the Mastodon, by Jeanne Timmons, PLOS Paleo Community Blog, July 30, 2017

An introduction to the “Valley of the Mastodons” event, organizers and those attending.

 

Engaging the Public: The Experiment of the “Valley of the Mastodons” Workshop & Exhibit, by Jeanne Timmons, PLOS Paleo Community Blog, October 4, 2017

How one young visitor (Anja) was both impacted by and impacted those attending the “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop, as well as a look into how this workshop/exhibit worked to shorten the walls between researchers and the public.

Anja showing Dr. Ashley Leger her field notebook, in which she draws and records the fossils she finds!

 

Printing the Past:3D Printed Artifact Replicas Aid in Research, Education, by Dr. Bernard K. Means, 10 October 2017, R&D Magazine

A great look into how 3D printing broadens science and its applications to so many more people.  Digitizing fossils was done at “Valley of the Mastodons” by Dr. Bernard Means and Dr. Chris Widga.

 

How a newly-discovered mastodon jaw became a mammoth mystery, by Jeanne Timmons, The Guardian, Notes & Theories Blog, 13 September 2017

 

More information about the as-yet-unknown type of mastodon excavated at the Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tennessee.  Dr. Chris Widga presented this mastodon at a talk during the “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop. Comments in the post by Dr. Chris Widga, Rachel Silverstein, and Michael Pasenko.

 

Screenshots from The Guardian post

 

Megafuana mega-find: the extraordinary discoveries at Diamond Valley Lake, by Jeanne Timmons, The Guardian, Notes & Theories Blog, 21 November 2017

The story behind the remarkable treasure trove of fossils found at Diamond Valley Lake during the late 1990s by Kathleen Springer, Eric Scott and their team.  About 150,000 fossils now reside in the collections of the Western Science Center, Hemet, CA. Comments by Kathleen Springer and Eric Scott.

Screenshots from The Guardian post

 

A simple ‘thank you’ isn’t enough to the amazing staff at the Western Science Center and those behind the event itself.  The “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop/exhibit was not only a remarkable experience, it was a dream come true for me.  If you are ever in Southern California, stop by the Western Science Center; meet the people there.  You won’t regret it!

You can check out the museum here.

You can follow Dr. Alton Dooley, jr’s blog here.

You can follow any of these amazing people on Twitter:

  • @MaxMastodon
  • @WesternCenter
  • @AltonDooley
  • @BrittandBone
  • @DarlaRadford

 

You can follow the original discoverers of the Diamond Valley Lake Local Fauna on Twitter:

  • @kathspringer (Kathleen Springer)
  • @captainfossil (Eric Scott)

 

 

Valley of the Mastodons – final pictorial interlude

A final compilation of images and Twitter screenshots related to the “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop and exhibit!

KTLA anchor with Eric Scott and Kathleen Springer at the Western Science Center before filming for a TV spot about “Valley of the Mastodons.”  Notice the glassed display in the right corner: that’s where the fossils belonging to a mastodon nicknamed ‘Lil Stevie’ reside. They were taken out and studied during the workshop.


Brian Switek’s tweet picturing Eric Scott, Dr. Brett Dooley and Dr. Andrew McDonald (the new museum curator) taking Lil Stevie’s fossils out of the case for study.

 

Unsung hero Dr. Brett Dooley–who was responsible for extensive driving of paleos and writers to the museum and its events–and kind Dr. Andrew McDonald–newly hired museum curator who started work the week of the workshop!–removing Lil Stevie’s fossils.

 

The indefatigable Brittney Stoneburg–the Western Science Museum’s ‘Marketing and Events Specialist’–who made all of us feel at home and tended to a million details that ensured a marvelous experience and a smooth operation!

Another unsung hero: Darla Radford, Collections Manager at the Western Science Center!

 

 

Dr. Jeremy Green and Dr. Katy Smith taking measurements on one of Lil Stevie’s tusks.

Dr. Katy Smith measuring Lil Stevie’s fossils.

 

Brian Switek and Dr. Katy Smith

On the museum floor with visitors

Brian Switek and Dr. Ashley Leger on the museum floor

 

 

A great example of how Dr. Bernard Means (and often, Aubree, a student at the nearby Western Center Academy) digitalized fossils.

Pictures of Aubree, Dr. Bernard Means and Aubree’s dad, thanks to tweets by Dr. Bernard Means!

 

Dr. Chris Widga working on mastodon fossils, per a tweet from Dr. Bernard Means.

 

Victor de la Cruz, the Western Science Center’s Maintenance Technician, as he puts up the many white boards for the “Valley of the Mastodons” exhibit.

Some of the mastodon teeth and mandibles on display, pictures taken before glass was added and the exhibit was completed.

Dr. Alton Dooley, jr. with the Zygolophodon fossil on loan from the Alf Museum.

Kathleen Springer taking samples from a mastodon fossil to determine whether the black substance is carbon or manganese.

Dr. Chris Widga scanning the larger fossils for digitization.

Dr. Jeremy Green, PhD candidate Greg Smith and Michael Pasenko working on the mastodon nicknamed ‘Max.’

 

PhD candidate Greg Smith working on Max’s teeth.

Greg Smith and Dr. Jeremy Green working on Max. 

Greg Smith–remarkably patient and good-natured as I take yet another shot of him working on Max’s teeth. 

 

Dr. Alton Dooley, jr; Brittney Stoneburg; Max the Mastodon (mascot); Eric Scott; Dominic Cumo; Dr. Grant Zazula at the opening of the “Valley of the Mastodons” exhibit.

This is how I first learned of Dominic Cumo–through @MaxMastodon from #SVP2015!  It was an honor to meet him in person at the exhibit opening!!

 

Poet Christina Olson’s tweets; my favorite!

 

 


Images from my crappy cellphone: the view from my window as I left California at night and then the view as I arrived in NH at 10am the next morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Valley of the Mastodons – Part 2: Experimenting with an Exhibit

We could hear singing and playful shouting from the bus in front of us.  Those of us in the car behind them—a much smaller vehicle carrying an apparently more sedate group–looked at each other and started laughing.  We’d parked briefly at the edge of an enormous grapefruit orchard, its rows of trees mostly silhouettes and shadows against the moonlight.  A few people jumped out to pick grapefruit (someone knew the orchard owner; this was encouraged). And one person burst into a loud rendition of ‘O, Canada!’ somewhere in the darkness amongst the trees.

(Moon over cedars in Idyllwild–the view from my seat in the open-air seating of the Brew Pub we were visiting; image taken with my crappy cellphone)

Our jovial group was on its way back from a trip up in the mountains to Idyllwild, a beautiful little town that lived up to its name. Everything was quaint and rustic, nestled amongst giant cedars.  Getting there meant leaving the valley where the Western Science Center resides—a flat expanse of land—and then driving up narrow roads that twist as they go higher and loop back and up and around in ways that cause one to simultaneously appreciate the views and feel vaguely car-sick.

Along the way, Alton and Brett (Dooley) pointed out a specific plant dotting the landscape around us—one of the very plants depicted in the mural by paleoartist Brian Engh now hanging in the museum.

 

(The mural now hanging in the Western Science Center by Brian Engh; screenshot from his website: Dontmesswithdinosaurs.com)


(Screenshot of the lower right corner, highlighting the plant that still grows in the San Jacinto mountain area)

I knew his artwork was based on the fossil record of the Diamond Valley Lake Local Fauna, but I didn’t realize this plant existed today.  Something about that seemed marvelous to me: that here was a plant whose ancestors lived when Pleistocene animals roamed the area.  A species that survived when so many others didn’t; a connection to life thousands of years ago.

Brian’s mural depicts what might have occurred to Max, the nickname for the enormous mastodon at the Western Science Center, and only one part of the 689 mastodon fossils recovered by Kathleen Springer, Eric Scott and their team in the 1990s.  Injuries on Max’s jaw prompted Brian to research how modern bull elephants might receive similar wounds.  This depiction of two male mastodons engaged in combat–surrounded by plants, insects, birds and amphibians matching the fossil record of the area–is the result.

(Picture of Brian Engh with his original artwork in front of the mural at the Western Science Center, photo by Jeanne Timmons)

 

Twelve or so partial skeletons of mastodons went on display in the “Valley of the Mastodons” exhibit following the three-day workshop hosted by the museum. Many exhibits may have put the fossils into body displays—illustrating what each animal may have looked like as a complete skeleton.  The Western Science Center, however, kept the fossils in their jackets – offering visitors another peek into paleontological work.  Illustrations of a mastodon skeleton—the specific bones in that fossil jacket highlighted—appear above each fossil, along with where in Diamond Valley Lake it was found and what year.  Next to that, each fossil has a white board, where scientists at the workshop posed a question or highlighted their observations after studying the fossils.

 

 

(Images of one particular mastodon fossil still in its jacket, the display text above it detailing what part of mastodon anatomy is seen here and where it was found, and Kathleen Springer’s notes on it; photos by Jeanne Timmons)

 

 

(Images of a cast of Max’s skull and Dr. Alton Dooley jr’s notes on it; photos by Jeanne Timmons)

 

 

Just as visitors could ask paleontologists questions as they worked on the floor of the museum the days prior, paleontologists were available on opening night to answer questions anyone had while exploring the exhibit.

“I think it’s really fun to talk to ANYBODY about mastodons or paleontology,” Katy (Smith) explained in a phone interview prior to the event.

This sentiment seems to encapsulate the enthusiasm I witnessed by all of the scientists attending.

“’Valley of the Mastodons’ was a very new experience for me! I’ve been to lots of classic conferences, but never one that was this open to the community,” wrote Ashley (Leger) in an email. “I’ve also never put together a new exhibit during a conference!!  Having real-world paleontologists available to interact with museum-goers of all walks of life was really interesting!  I thought we got to meet a lot of wonderful folks, talk about things that interest us, and give them a whole new take on their museum.  Anyone can go to a museum and read the signage, but not everyone can ask a scientist a question and get an answer immediately.”

(Dr. Ashley Leger answering questions of a very engaged group of museum visitors on opening night of the exhibit; photo by Jeanne Timmons)

 

 

“I think what transpired on Aug 2-4, 2017 at the Western Science Center is just incredible,” Kathleen (Springer) wrote.

As mentioned earlier, Kathleen and Eric (Scott) lead a team of volunteers over 7 years of excavations in the Diamond Valley Lake area.  Before construction even began on the human-made reservoir, Kathleen maintained that fossils would be profuse at the depths they intended to dig.  This was in direct opposition to the view held by the paleontologist initially hired for the job. When digging began and bones began surfacing, however, Kathleen and her team were hired.

“The whole reason we have that collection in that museum is because she knows her geology,” Eric said in a phone interview.

“Throughout that project,” he continued, “Kathleen, and to some extent, I had to keep reminding them, ‘if you’re digging, you’re going to find [fossils].’ I don’t know [if] they didn’t want to hear it, but they had to keep being…” Here, he paused as if searching for the right word. “…encouraged. They just didn’t get the geology, even when she told them. They just kept thinking ‘this is a one-off. Or maybe a two-off.  But we can’t keep hitting this stuff, right?’ And the answer is: yes, you can.”

(Details of one of the mastodon fossils — in this case skull and tusk — in the exhibit.  None of these fossils have been on display since their discovery in the 1990s by Kathleen Springer, Eric Scott and team; photos by Jeanne Timmons.)

 

Understanding the amount of work and time Kathleen and Eric put into uncovering and caring for the 100,000 fossils now at the museum, as well as knowing that this Pleistocene treasure had been largely unstudied, Kathleen’s enthusiasm for the workshop and event is significant.

“An amazing assemblage of paleontologists came together to talk and study mastodons,” she wrote. “That combined with the ‘Valley of the Mastodons’ exhibit, and the public interaction that ensued, was just fantastic. So much collegial dialogue occurred during and has continued since.”

“I’m happy [the fossils are] in such a beautiful place,” she said, “and they’re curated so wonderfully.”

 

(Image of part of the exhibit space before it was open to the public and before most of the displays were hung; photo by Jeanne Timmons.)

Valley of the Mastodons (initial pictorial interlude)

Following my last post, I wanted to include some pictures of the “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop and exhibit, including tweets leading up to and during the event. (You can see a lot more on Twitter by searching on the hashtag #ValleyoftheMastodons — no Twitter account needed to do this.) These are just some highlights.

 

 

Kathleen Springer and Eric Scott – our heroes! – the two paleontologists who worked for a decade on the Diamond Valley Lake excavations (7 years of digging; 3 years of research), producing 100,000 fossils now housed in the Western Science Center. Their work not only populates the Hemet, CA museum, it also helped prompt the “Valley of the Mastodons” event – an opportunity for paleontologists to study these largely unstudied fossils (over 600 of which are mastodons!)

 

Dr. Brett Dooley doing research in advance of the event.

Below, the amazing staff at the Western Science Center get the exhibit space ready with an incredible mural done by Brian Engh.

 

Most of the event participants had connected in some way (by Twitter, by work or by research), but most of us hadn’t met in person.  Dr. Bernard K. Means (Virginia) and Dr. Grant Zazula (Yukon, Canada) were the first to arrive.

 

 

The rest of us trickled in throughout the next day or so.  At each layover, I checked Twitter–eager to see who had arrived, what was going on.

Taken upon my arrival at the airport in California, where the first person I met was Dr. Jeremy Green (Ohio) followed by Dr. Brett Dooley (Hemet, CA), who graciously drove us the hour + back to where we were staying.

 

Where we were housed during the event.  These were described as “cabins”, and as such, I anticipated bunk beds, shared space, community rooms and rustic accommodations.  Wow, was I wrong! Separate cabins (mini-homes) with air-conditioning, wifi, comfortable beds…..

 

One of the many rabbits that could be seen in the area — day or night — as shown in Alton’s tweet below.


One of the first things I saw when I stepped out of the car at the Western Science Center. (Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?) Despite the many signs wherever we went, I saw exactly zero snakes.

Quick shot taken outside the museum on the first morning there.  The clouds are misleading; rain is rare in the area.

Shot taken looking out from the museum.

Some of the many mountains surrounding the museum.

 

The museum displays — designed by Kathleen Springer, Eric Scott and a design team — are GORGEOUS, and particularly helpful for those of us who aren’t yet able to tell which bone goes where (outside the biggest ones).  That’s Xena, a Columbian mammoth.  Beyond her is a huge fossil sloth.

In front is Max, the iconic and very large mastodon at the Western Science Center, alongside Xena.

 

Downsized this image because it is blurry, but HERE is the reason for the green tape Katy packed (in tweet above).

Another image of Katy at work.

Grant working on mastodon molars he brought from the Yukon.

Jeremy working on a tusk.

Dr. Chris Widga looking at a fossil he’d 3D scanned.

Doug, Brian Switek, Dr. Andrew McDonald (the museum’s new curator), Chris, Katy and Christina Olson (resident poet for the event!)

Michael Pasenko and Dr. Ashley Leger discussing paleontology (perhaps mammoths, perhaps gomphotheres!)

 

 

You can check out the videos here: http://ktla.com/2017/08/02/valley-of-the-mastodons-exhibit-at-the-western-science-center/

Valley of the Mastodons – Part 1

There is a certain quiet at that altitude.  A height where the normal cacophony of daily life—human and otherwise—fades into the wind; where the senses of sight and smell take over; where it is easy, in that relative silence, to contemplate the eons that have come and gone, and what those eons have left in their wake.

Image of Diamond Valley Lake, taken by Jeanne Timmons

 

We were not in the Alps, but we were at a considerable height, surrounded on all sides by a dearth of civilization. The only beings making any kind of noise atop the viewing point for Diamond Valley Lake were those in our small group: a handful of paleontologists, a geologist, an archaeologist, the museum’s PR person, a poet, a paleoartist and a couple of writers.  It was why we’d all come from various places in North America to Hemet, California.

Not for the lake, of course.  But what had been found deep beneath it, before the lake had even come into existence.

Its origins took shape over two decades ago, when a site was needed to create a 6-month emergency water supply for southern California.  It had to be enormous, it had to be situated on relatively stable land geologically, and it had to be able–when needed–to provide that water by gravity.  The neighboring Diamond and Domenigoni Valleys met that criteria.

We were looking over this vast expanse of water, knowing full well that through the 1990s, this was where paleontologists Kathleen Springer and Eric Scott excavated for 7 years.  They and their team of volunteers worked six days a week, 20 hours a day in separate shifts, finding 2646 fossil localities that produced 100,000 fossils.

I thought a lot about the depths those fossils lay, the tonnage of rock and sediment above them, sheltering them from the surface climate, the thousands of years of changes.  How—if senses had been a part of their experience—they might have eventually felt the weight of truly enormous construction vehicles slashing into the very rock that protected them. How, in time, a softer, much gentler movement may have shifted the rock and dirt—the work of an army of humans eager to find them. Until at last, rays of light—warmth unfelt for an unfathomable amount of time—revealed their existence.

It must have been incredible, finding the first set of fossils.  How must it have felt to consistently find more and more and more? I wondered, too, about Kathleen’s personal experiences, especially as she knew the fossils would not only be there, but that they would be profuse. 

But we arrived at a different point in the story, long after the initial discovery. The fossils had been long since been collected, cleaned, and labeled. They were now housed at the Western Science Center in Hemet, not far from Diamond Valley Lake.  And we’d come to study them, discuss them, learn from both the fossils and each other, and share that knowledge with the public.

It was a unique idea, the “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop and exhibit.  Dr. Alton Dooley, jr.—Executive Director of the Western Science Center—and Dr. Katy Smith—Associate Professor at Georgia Southern University—invited paleontologists who had studied various aspects of mastodon anatomy to research the mastodons within this largely unstudied fossil assemblage.  But they also invited some of us outside the field: an artist, a poet, a couple of writers.   After a series of days, loosely structured to allow for research and outreach, an exhibit of mastodon fossils would be unveiled to the public.

All of it was new to me; I’d never attended a scientific conference before.  But I had seen the schedules of larger events—days filled with presentation after presentation, exciting scientific research explained to those lucky enough to attend them.  Even with my limited knowledge of such things, however, I recognized this for what it was: an innovative experiment.

How was this different than other scientific conferences?

Size, for one.  Rather than thousands of participants, there were less than 20 of us actively involved.

Audience, for another.  This was not a forum created solely for scientists to speak with other scientists. The larger goal, and one that was woven naturally into each day, was bringing that research to the public. Inviting them in, encouraging questions, sharing what was being learned right there on the museum floor as the research was being done.

And structure. The structure of those days, as mentioned previously, was far from rigid.  Aside from a morning of presentations, where scheduling became important, most days were fairly open—enabling all of us to do what we needed or wanted to do as we felt best to do it.  From my vantage point, it felt like Alton and Katy opened the doors to the museum, pointed to the fossils and said, “Make yourself at home.”  Which is exactly what everyone did! And it’s amazing how fast days go by when you are doing something you love, something about which you are passionate and enthused, surrounded by those who feel the same way.

The first day I felt almost dizzy, watching everything and everyone around me, excited to witness it, excited to participate, if a little unsure how best to move forward.  It was not a question of my ability to engage and then write about it; my uncertainty was determining where to focus, who to observe, what—of all the myriad things taking place around me—to be part of.  There was so much going on all at once!

As an example:

  • Katy measured tusks;
  • Dr. Jeremy Green (Kent State) sampled tusks;
  • Greg Smith (PhD candidate at Vanderbilt) and Dr. Grant Zazula (Yukon, Canada) studied mastodon molars Grant had brought with him;
  • Dr. Bernard Means (VA Commonwealth University) scanned smaller fossils for 3D images online;
  • Dr. Chris Widga (East Tennessee State University, Gray Fossil Site) scanned larger fossils for that same purpose;
  • and others helped move fossils from their displays or the collection for research.

 

Dr. Katy Smith measuring mastodon fossils, photo by Jeanne Timmons

Paleos (and a writer and poet!) at work, photo by Jeanne Timmons

Members of the public congregated near them, some asking questions, many others observing quietly.  The jocularity of some of the paleontologists broke that barrier, changing visitor observation to interaction. I was a bit star-struck myself by these paleontologists. I marveled at their casual charisma, their down-to-earth conversations, their ability to engage people of all ages.

 

Greg Smith and Dr. Grant Zazula working on mastodon molars from the Yukon, photo by Jeanne Timmons

Public observation on the museum floor, photo by Jeanne Timmons

 

Even on breaks, when we stopped for lunch or dinner or any other reason, there were constant discussions about proboscidean research or paleontology in general.   Some of us discussed books we’d read or were reading; others spoke of current research.  With almost unquenchable thirst, I drank it all in–from the most serious to the most frivolous of moments–whether I was part of the conversation or not.  These moments were what I’d dreamed of: seeing paleontologists in action.  I LOVED it.  But taking in everything and feeling such an intense emotional high takes its toll.  By the end of each day, my head reeling with information and experiences, I was more than ready to retire to my own cabin, my own space, my own quiet.

 

 

 

 

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.”

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

Science in a Troubling Political Climate – Dr. Chris Widga – Part 2

New Hampshire doesn’t have a state museum.  I never realized there were such things until someone I interviewed mentioned a mastodon fossil in Albany, which prompted me to travel to the NY State Museum soon after to see it.

Not understanding what a state museum is, it shocked me that there was no admission fee; anyone from anywhere could visit the museum at no cost.  I marveled then—as I marvel still—that such places exist. (To be clear: not all state museums are free.)

The Cohoes Mastodon at the NY State Museum in Albany, NY; picture taken by the author of this blog.  I learned of this mastodon thanks to Dartmouth professor, Dr. Roger Sloboda, after interviewing him for a piece I was writing about a mammoth & mastodon exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science in 2012.

 

 

Illinois not only has a state museum, that museum is made up of five separate museums with over 13 million artifacts.  And in 2015, Governor Bruce Rauner wanted to close it completely.

During a messy and contentious budget battle, the museum was shuttered for nine months, only to be reopened this past July with a new $5 admission fee.  But by then, most of the staff had gone, forced to take jobs in other places as their future at the museum was decidedly uncertain.

 

Screenshot from this page of the Illinois State Museum website.

 

No one knows this better than Dr. Chris Widga, who had been a vertebrate paleontologist employed at the Illinois State Museum.  He now works at the Center for Excellence in Paleontology at East Tennessee State University (ETSU).

“The whole question of Channel Islands and island mammoths probably got me through last winter,” Dr. Widga explained as we spoke by phone.

We were discussing the effect islands had on proboscidean evolution and the exciting recent research done in part by researchers from The Mammoth Site and the National Park Service.

“In Illinois, as the State government was falling apart around my ears, as the State Museum was closed, I basically closed my door and was doing the analysis for the Quaternary International article. In so doing, I was thinking about these pygmy mammoths. As it’s icy outside and subzero for about six weeks at a time, that kept my sanity.” He laughed.  “So the Channel Islands has been my refuge, I guess, even though I’ve never actually been out on one of them.”

The move from Illinois to Tennessee was not just a contrast in physical environments.  It also meant moving from a scientific institution founded in 1855 to one that has been open for just 10 years.  Dr. Widga explained that a mere two weeks prior to his start date at ETSU, the university formed a partnership with a local science center.   The ETSU staff maintains the collections, conducts research, and oversees excavations at the nearby Gray Fossil Site.  The science center staff is responsible for educational activities within the museum and overall maintenance.

“Their [educational] philosophy is very similar to ours,” Dr. Widga said of the science center. “It’s inquiry-based. We want people to come in and learn through asking questions rather than just be spoon-fed facts.”

So much of what Dr. Widga has done involves public outreach.  From videos about the collections at the Illinois State Museum to long-distance learning programs like The Mammoth Expedition, work he did in conjunction with Dr. Katy Smith at Georgia Southern University and with the Milwaukee Public Museum.

When I commented on how much I loved that kind of publicly accessible information, his response was, “Part of that is because I’m in a museum. I’m not buried under coursework and teaching. Outreach is valued. The way you justify your existence in a museum is to connect with the public.  And part of that is figuring out how we can connect with the public in ways where it’s an exponential relationship.”

In other words, not having a one-on-one conversation with a museum visitor, but creating a website about the Ice Age in the Midwest, for example.

Figure from a presentation done by Dr. Chris Widga as part of the National Science Foundation grant received; image courtesy of Chris Widga.

 

Despite everything he’s gone through, there is no question Dr. Widga loves what he does.  It permeates his voice when he speaks of paleontology, and it prompted me to ask if he ever becomes excited at work.  His response was a definitive ‘YES.’

By way of explanation, he quoted his now-retired colleague, Dr. Jeff Saunders, who used to say, “‘Going to work in the morning was like going to Disney Land everyday.’”

Not only did the two scientists literally work across the hall from each other at the Illinois State Museum, they were apparently known to shout out excitedly to the other whenever one read a great article or wanted to share a relevant scientific image.

“Part of the reason I like museums is because you just never know!” Dr. Widga continued. “Some of the new things come from the collections; some of the new things come from new papers. You read them and you’re like, ‘oh, this explains it!’ It was something that you had been working on for a long time and, all of a sudden, somebody else had that last piece of the puzzle that puts the whole thing together.

“At least once a day—even on the worst days—there’s something that comes through and I’m like, ‘oh, this is so cool!’”

Proboscideans at Morrill Hall at the University of Nebraska State Museum of Natural History; image courtesy of Chris Widga

 

The seemingly idyllic work environment in Illinois lasted for a decade until 2015. Despite protests, a MoveOn.org petition and public outcry about the museum closing, Dr. Widga and his colleagues were forced to consider other options.  The fate of the museum was out of their hands.

“There was a point as I started looking for jobs last year that I asked myself, you know, do I want to continue in this vein?”

“I’d watched many of [my colleagues] that had taken jobs in Research One institutions [become] totally burned out.  Or they’d kind of gone in weird and funky directions, not because the research was taking them in that direction, but because they were getting pressure from their institution to go in a certain direction or something like that.

“And that was part of the fun of the Illinois State Museum is that I could work on anything. Nobody was saying, ‘You have to work on elephants.’ That was a choice that was mine. Nobody was saying, ‘well, you have to work on dogs.’ That was a choice that was mine. You could chase whatever questions were out there.

“The feedback that I got from the people that interviewed me [was that] they were very interested in what I did.  It was a very different situation than what we were going through at the Illinois State Museum where, essentially, you were being told, ‘what you do is not important.  And none of what you do—your position, your entire existence—is important.’ [The feedback I got while interviewing for other jobs] revived this idea that what we do is important, and it’s exciting.”

I couldn’t help but compare his experience in Illinois to the general anti-science climate in our government today.  It was particularly interesting for me to speak with Dr. Widga about his paper on Pleistocene ecology a day or so after the House Science Committee’s so-called hearing on climate change.  Dr. Widga’s infectious enthusiasm took a very somber turn, as he conceded how difficult things become when “politics starts really driving the boat and reason takes a back seat.”

“That won’t change any of the science,” he added, “[but] it may change how the science is funded. It also won’t change any outreach that we do or the educational activities! In fact, if anything, it’s going to make those seem more important and put more emphasis on those.

“We can talk about the scientific community writ-large, but certainly within the paleontological community, you will find very few working paleontologists, working scientists, who say that education and outreach is not a good thing anymore.

“It used to be that you could just hole-up and do your research and never really interact with the public.  But if anything, this whole process [with the IL governor and the Illinois State Museum] has made us realize that that can’t happen.

“There’s this realization that pre-dates this modern political atmosphere: That you really do need to work with the public and you need to make sure that the point of what you’re doing is out there. Not just in terms of dinosaurs are always cool so therefore that’s why we’re doing it. But we’re also doing it to learn more about how our world works–the nuts-and-bolts of how ecosystems are put together, the nuts-and-bolts of how climate changes impact those ecosystems–that has real-life implications for today and into the future.

“And there’ve been some really loud voices in the last couple of years that have said that over and over and over again. Some of which are people like Jacquelyn Gill! And that is a big shift in science. It’s a big shift in science communications.

“I’m glad that we were moving on that before the current [political] atmosphere because it makes it much more difficult to sideline us as, you know, a bunch of eggheads.”

It didn’t take long for our conversation to take a positive swing upward, as Dr. Widga then described possible future projects involving scientists across the country.

His statement “I’ve always been of the opinion that science is a collaborative effort” couldn’t be more apt.  And I, for one, cannot wait to see what he and his colleagues work on next.

Artwork by Velizar Simeonovski based on scientific research at Mastodon Lake in Aurora, IL; courtesy of Chris Widga

*****

THANK YOU, Dr. Chris Widga, for your generosity of time and spirit in speaking with me about paleontology and the difficulty you’ve gone through.  I loved conversing with you, and I’m eager to read about, watch or see the projects you dive into next!

 

References:

  1. Illinois State Museum reopens to public after nine-month shutdown, John Reynolds, The State Journal-Register, July 2, 2016
  2. Closing decimates Illinois State Museum management, Chris Dettro, The State Journal-Register, December 27, 2015
  3. Much of Illinois State Museum management leaves amid closure, Chicago-Tribune, December 28, 2015
  4. Museums caught in middle of state budget showdown, Steve Johnson, Chicago-Tribune, June 25, 2015
  5. Rainer prepares to close state museums, shutter some prisons to balance ‘phony’ Democratic budget, Becky Schlikerman, Chicago Sun-Times, June 24, 2015