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

North American Proboscideans and Dr. Chris Widga – Part 1

“Most zooarchaeologists are interested in the people, and they use the animals as kind of a tool for understanding butchering patterns or food ways or something like that.”

Dr. Chris Widga and I were in the midst of a great conversation about three recent papers he co-authored, paleontology, proboscideans, and the state of science today.

“I was always interested in the animals themselves,” he continued, “so when I got the position as a vertebrate paleontologist at the [Illinois State Museum], all of my friends who’d known me for years said, ‘well, that was a no-brainer for us. You were doing vertebrate paleontology all the time on Holocene bison. You never cared much about the people!’”

That beginning in zooarchaeology and the subsequent immersion in paleontology are what give him a unique perspective of the two sciences.  Or, as he himself explained: “I guess I kind of have this foot in both worlds.”

The two occasionally overlap.  In the paper published this past February in Boreas, “Late Pleistocene proboscidean population dynamics in the North American Midcontinent,” he and his colleagues take a closer look at what might have caused the extinction of mammoths and mastodons in what is now the middle of North America. Possible culprits include climate change, shifts in available vegetation, and predators (including humans).

Of the 627 localities included in this study, only 3 offer any kind of human association.  The authors state that these sites were “re-visited to ensure consistent taphonomic and zooarchaeological data,” and that, despite this, whether or not these specific humans and proboscideans interacted remains unclear.

“That’s a distinction I like to make as a paleontologist and a zooarchaeologist,” Dr. Widga offered. “Just because we have a couple of the sites with humans associated [doesn’t necessarily indicate that] humans actually hunted, killed and butchered those animals.  [Humans] may have scavenged them.  They may just simply be associated in these sites. And very few of those sites have been analyzed to the degree of detail that we really need to start teasing apart those issues.”

What he and co-authors Stacey N. Lengyel, Jeff Saunders, Gregory Hodgins, J. Douglas Walker, and Alan D. Wanamaker try to do, however, is take a deeper look at the late Pleistocene environment in which these proboscideans lived.  It’s exciting research: Rather than simply describing fossils discovered in the various US states and one Canadian province, they are trying to put them into context.  In other words, they are trying to understand the ecology of that time period and how that may have affected the megafauna living within it.

But it’s not an easy task.

“Ecologists can look at modern ecosystems and say, ‘Ok. This is what’s going on, and this is why we think that, and this is how we’re measuring it’ in great detail.  But extrapolating those same processes back into the paleontological record is often really, really difficult even with the best data set.

For example, “[w]e can observe boom-and-bust cycles in deer populations, in caribou populations, in musk ox and things like that. But when you try and translate that into the paleontological record, most of the time it’s really difficult because you simply don’t have the samples and you don’t have the time resolution.

“Even in our case, where we have really good samples and we have really good dates on our samples and we’re creating this chronological structure to kind of fit them in, it’s really difficult to translate those patterns into ecology.

“We can’t date a single mastodon any more precisely than about a hundred-year window.”

The fact that some of the ecological constructs used today in extant populations are controversial makes trying to apply such constructs to extinct animals that much more of a challenge.

“When even the ecologists can’t truly [agree upon] what’s going on, you have to navigate things very, very carefully.”

The amount of work put into this paper (work that has produced previous, subsequent and yet-to-be-published papers) is staggering.  Thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, Dr. Widga and Dr. Jeff Saunders—both previously at the Illinois State Museum—were able to visit an astounding number of museum collections in the Midwest and review their proboscidean fossils.

“We’ve [basically] spent the last 5 years in other people’s collections,” he explained. “It was fun because we visited a lot of collections that people don’t usually go to. About half of the data set comes from repositories that have fewer than five mammoths and mastodons.”

 

 

An inside look at the extensive fossil collection at the Indiana State Museum collection–one of the many collections visited by Dr. Widga.  In our conversation, he said, “The Indiana State Museum is a big dot on the map in terms of mammoths and mastodons, in part because of [paleobiologist Ron Richards’] work!”   This image was taken in 2005, picturing then Collections Manager Michele Gretna (currently Director of Archaeology); image courtesy Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.

Another inside look at the Indiana State Museum collection; Preparator Elizabeth Scott after the reconstruction of the Kolarik locality mastodon tusks, 2014; image courtesy Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites

 

 

Their work involved the review of over 1600 fossils that currently reside in collections in Ontario, Canada, as well as in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

“We doubled the number of known published sites for mammoths and mastodons in the Midwest.”

Information that they are willing to share with other scientists, as evidenced by the number of papers they continue to co-author.  Following the Boreas paper, Dr. Widga was part of another two papers published in March in Quaternary International and then in Scientific Reports.

Mammoth teeth take a leading role in the paper, “Reconciling phylogenetic and morphological trends in North American Mammuthus,” published in Quaternary International and co-written with Jeff Saunders and Jacob Enk.

“We’re starting to put out some of these ideas that actually put data onto these [traditional] species boxes that we like to put specimens into.  So that was one of the first steps into thinking about these things: more as morphologically variable populations rather than just trying to assign them to a particular species.

“A lot of times these studies kind of happen in isolation.  So the people that think about morphology, they’ll publish on the morphology and then post-hoc, they’ll say, ‘oh but this doesn’t agree with the genetics at all.’ Or the geneticists will publish on the genetics, but they don’t integrate any morphology.  So our point was to try and integrate both of them and see what they say. Can you use the genetics to kind of structure your interpretations of what the morphology means?”

The authors studied “M3s”—the permanent upper 3rd molar—of both female and male mammoths of various ages from museum collections and from previously published work.

Per Dr. Widga, this is the upper 3rd mammoth molar from Clear Lake Sand and Gravel Pit, Sangamon County, IL. One of his favorites from the ISM collection. It dates to the Last Glacial Maximum and had preserved DNA so is included in the Enk dataset; image and caption courtesy Chris Widga.

 

“Jeff [Saunders] and I would say, ‘this genetic information actually fits perfectly with our morphological information which suggests that there’s a lot of population overlap in between these normally well-defined populations.’ So in between Columbian mammoths in the Great Plains and woolly mammoths from the Great Lakes you have Iowa mammoths that show characteristics of both. And also they show characteristics of both in the same animal!

“That was kind of the impetus for the [Quaternary International paper]: to get that out there, show that you do get a lot of overlap in the morphology. It’s not just clean boxes of Columbian mammoths and woolly mammoths. And even pygmy mammoths overlap with Western Columbian mammoths! So that was kind of the point of the paper: to get the conversation going and make a first pass–a first attempt–to reconcile the two data sets.”

Following soon after the paper in Quaternary International, he was part of a remarkable group of proboscidean and genetic scientists whose paper The evolutionary and phylogeographic history of woolly mammoths: a comprehensive mitogenomic analysis analyzed 143 woolly mammoth mitochondrial genomes.

As Dr. Widga said with characteristic enthusiasm about his work in paleontology, “It’s always fun! There’s always a mountain to climb and a vista to see!”

*****

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Chris Widga, who was remarkably generous with his time, with images to use and with answering my many, many questions (both for this blog and for my own proboscidean curiosity).  Speaking with him was delightful; he is an incredible ambassador for science in general!

Another sincere THANK YOU to Ron Richards for providing the great images of the Indiana State Museum collection. 

References:

  1. Widga, C., Lengyel, S. N., Saunders, J., Hodgins, G., Walker, J. D. & Wanamaker, A. D.: Late Pleistocene proboscidean population dynamics in the North American Midcontinent. Boreas. 10.1111/bor.12235. ISSN 0300- 9483.
  2. Widga, C., et al., Reconciling phylogenetic and morphological trends in North American Mammuthus, Quaternary International (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2017.01.034
  3. Chang, D. et al. The evolutionary and phylogeographic history of woolly mammoths: a comprehensive mitogenomic analysis. Sci. Rep. 7, 44585; doi: 10.1038/srep44585 (2017).

Mastodon fossil at the Illinois State Museum; image courtesy of Chris Widga.

The Evolution Underground – Part 2: Behind the Scenes

“I still don’t understand why they were looking for alligator dens.”

My dad and I had been discussing the review I’d written about Dr. Anthony Martin’s latest book, “The Evolution Underground.”  He voiced this confusion with more concern for the overall safety (and perhaps sanity?) of the Emory professor and his students than an interest in what knowledge they hoped to gain.

To be fair, my dad hadn’t yet read this or any book about ichnology and was not familiar with the field.  My inability to make that part of the book clearer aside, it also spoke to a question I’d had this past December.  Speaking with him by phone, I asked Dr. Martin: Did he think more people know about ichnology as a result of his prolific work?

“I think,” he began thoughtfully, “through the books, [through] giving public talks, and [by blogging] about it, I’m fairly confident in saying, ‘yes, more people are more aware now of ichnology as a science.’ I think that ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones’ was a really good step [toward] popularizing ichnology as science, and then I think that ‘The Evolution Underground’ will take it another step further.”

Dr Anthony Martin courtesy of Carol Clark

Image of  Dr. Anthony Martin, courtesy of Emory University 

It is telling that, of the four books Dr. Martin has written so far, three of them focus on ichnology.  His handle on Twitter is @ichnologist.  Most of his blog posts feature concepts related to ichnology.  During our conversation, he chuckled and admitted he refers to himself as an “ichno-evangelist.”

Any physical remnant of an extinct or extant creature falls into ichnology: bites, scratches, footprints, marks indicating the drag of a tail, coprolites or scat.  Reading those traces—recognizing them for what they are—is a skill, and one for which there are relatively fewer reference points than the much older field of paleontology.*  Dr. Martin explains this in his first work with Pegasus Books, “Dinosaurs Without Bones.”  It is one thing to see a fossil femur, for example, and understand what it is.  Recognizing a fossil nest, however, or a fossil burrow, is considerably more challenging.  Without “search images” or reference points that help other scientists understand what to look for, such fossils might be easily missed.

beneski-tracks-and-raindrops

Detail of a slab of fossil footprints surrounded with what are believed to be fossil raindrops at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts. Both the footprints and the raindrops are examples of ichnology. Picture taken by the author of this blog.

 

beneski-not-tracks

beneski-fascinating-trace-fossil-narrow

Can you tell what these are? I can’t, and, so far, neither can the experts.  As-yet unknown trace fossils at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts; pictures taken by the author of this blog.

Figure 1: A brief summary of animal burrowing through time, from the Ediacaran Period through today.  Geologic eras on left, periods on right, MYA = millions of years ago, and red arrows indicate times of mass extinctions in the geologic past. (Image and caption used with permission from Pegasus Books)

 

“Sage scents wafted by on the wind and, in between scoops, I looked around at the nearby pine forests and rolling, high-plains grassland nearly everywhere else, then up at an expansive blue sky hosting white, fluffy clouds.  You might say I was in a country where the sky was big: Some people just call it ‘Montana.’” – page 87, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

In the book, Dr. Martin describes participating in an excavation in the Blackleaf Formation that lead to the discovery of the first known fossilized burrow, found collectively by Dr. Martin, Yoshi Katsura, and Dr. David Varricchio of Montana State University.

This discovery—based solely on noticing the odd structure of sediment surrounding bones—is no small feat.  Looking at an image of this burrow, which you can see in Dr. Martin’s blog post here, I am amazed that anyone would be able to decipher what it actually is when working through layers of other rock, let alone when it was completely revealed.

Dr. Martin credits his mentor and former professor, Bob Frey, with guiding him in ichnology.  Both Dr. Varricchio and Dr. Martin were fellow students in his class, a class that seems to have been a road map for both of them in their future discoveries.

And while in this book Dr. Martin discusses many extant burrowers, he certainly addresses those found in the fossil record as well.

Figure 38: Early Cretaceous (130 mya) lobster burrow preserved as natural cast on bottom of limestone bed, Portugal.  Although the lobster’s body is not preserved, its leg impressions and body outline were left behind.  (Photo by Anthony J. Martin; image and caption used with permission from Pegasus Books)

The bigger picture behind these everyday observations of many holes in the ground, however, is that the long history of these burrowing invertebrates completely altered global environments, from the deepest sea to the highest mountains, and even affected the atmosphere and climate.  In short, the entire surface of our planet is built upon one big complex and constantly evolving burrow system, controlling the nature of our existence.” — page 14, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

 

The quote above is the central theme of “The Evolution Underground.”  I wondered if he’d gained this perspective after completing the book, or if this was something he carried as he began writing.

“I did go in with that big picture idea about burrows having this overarching influence on all of our ecosystems,” he replied. “[That, we, too,] have this evolutionary heritage that [is] connected to burrows. So I did have that idea in mind, but it was really scattered. Really disparate.  Also, it wasn’t an original idea. Lots of other people really deserve credit for that, [and they are] cited in the endnotes of the book.

But, he said, “[w]riting the book definitely helped me pull together a lot of those previously separated ideas into the theme that I summarized as ‘burrows acting as the midwife in the birth of Gaia.’

“We can’t really talk about the evolution of ecosystems or the evolution of life without talking about burrows.”

Figure 16: Folk-art rendering inspired by the Lystrosaurus saga set during the Permian-Triassic transition (Chapter 5), with a cutaway view of a Lystrosaurus burrow. (Artwork by Ruth Schowalter and Anthony J. Martin; image and caption used with permission from Pegasus Books) — (The author of this blog wants to note, as Dr. Martin does in the endnotes, that his interest in the species was inspired by this piece by Annalee Newitz.)

Having written four books, did writing them get easier?

“It did get easier with each book,” he acknowledged. Then laughed. “But, of course, the word ‘easy’ is relative.”

“[‘The Life Traces of the Georgia Coast‘] was hard to write because it was so comprehensive.  It was almost 700 pages long; it had more than 800 peer-reviewed references. It’s an academic book, but I [also] wrote it for a popular audience.  So it’s a hybrid kind of book in that respect. That took four years from the acceptance of the book proposal to actually holding it in my hands.”

“And,” he added, “a book is not finished until I’m holding it in my hands.”

“In contrast to that, ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones’ was quick. That took me—from start to end—less than two years. I felt like [‘The Evolution Underground’] was a little bit easier than ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones,’ but that’s only because I used Pegasus Books again as the publisher. And I had the same editor: Jessica Case. With that said, it was still difficult to write because it covered so many different burrowing animals, [not to mention it covered] the last 560 million years!

“The main takeaway point of it is for people to better appreciate the world they don’t often see, and that’s the world below their feet. We might not even be here talking about burrowing animals if our earliest mammalian ancestors hadn’t burrowed.”

 

*This comment is not meant to hold one field over another. I have great respect for the skills needed for both paleontology and ichnology.

******

Thank you to Carol Clark, Senior Science Communicator at Emory University, for the wonderful picture of Dr. Martin!

A sincere and enthusiastic THANK YOU to Dr. Anthony Martin for his willingness to connect by phone and for his generous responses to my questions!  It was a pleasure and an honor to be able to speak with him, and—like his writing—he made it fun!  I eagerly (if impatiently) await any possible future work.  

FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this blog loved Dr. Martin’s previous book with Pegasus, “Dinosaurs Without Bones,” and thus, jumped at the chance to review his latest work (fully predisposed to embrace it) by requesting a review copy from the publisher.  I am very grateful to Pegasus Books for the opportunity to do so. Being able to use such beautiful images from the book is a great honor! I am specifically grateful to Deputy Publisher, Jessica Case, with whom it was wonderful to work!!

******

References:

  1. The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet, Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books, 2017
  2. Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils, Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books, 2014
  3. Life Traces of the Georgia Coast Blog, Anthony J. Martin

Evolution Underground

The Evolution Underground – Part 1: Book Review

Not all scholars write with the playfulness or the open curiosity found in books written by Dr. Anthony Martin, professor at Emory University.

In his second work with Pegasus Books, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” he opens with an anecdote about an outdoor class on an island off of the Georgia coast.  If you have any question about whether this book is for you, read those first several pages.

He, his colleague, Michael Page, and several students were mapping alligator dens.  While they’d witnessed many active dens from a safe distance, in this instance, they were exploring those long abandoned by their former occupants.  They were, he explained to the reader, in the middle of the forest where a now-nonexistent canal once ran.  Without water, there would, of course, be no alligators.

Only he was wrong.  And this was pointed out when a student noticed teeth within the den.

Picture of alligators by Michael Leggero, courtesy of Getty Images

You will need to read the book to find out what happens, but this first chapter perfectly encapsulates how Dr. Martin writes. If you want to learn about any aspect of our world from a scientific and curious lens, here is an author you might want as your guide.  He is no stranger to presenting enormous volumes of information in an easily digestible way, nor is he one to make it cumbersome. His wit and sense of adventure make learning fun.  Moreover, there is no arrogance in his books.  The words “so far,” “unknown,” and “as yet” are sprinkled throughout the text.  He is not afraid to admit when science (or, indeed, when he himself!) has been mistaken, when theories are disproven, educational assumptions found incorrect. He writes with the understanding that our scientific knowledge–like life itself–is still evolving. And like so much of his writing, it only serves to prompt the reader into thoughtful reverie: where might science take us in the future? What will be revealed years, decades, centuries from now, and how will this impact the world?  The creative and wondrous question “What if?” floats like a butterfly through its chapters.

Dr. Martin describes how these seemingly abandoned alligator dens may have indeed been dug when water was present, but that even despite drought, parts of their internal structures may connect with the groundwater table.  Water within the den may have also attracted thirsty birds and animals on the island.  He and his students later found the ravaged corpses and bones from such unsuspecting creatures both in and outside of other forest dens.

“All of this trace evidence told us the alligators could switch from aquatic to terrestrial predation if necessary, like a shark deciding it was going to turn into a lion.  This surprising behavioral transformation and adaptability in alligators was made possible through their dens, which during times of environmental change became all-purpose hunting lodges.” – page 7, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

And thus begins his exploration of the animals—including humans!—worms, insects and birds that have created sanctuaries below ground.  Burrows, he posits, have made survival possible throughout Earth’s history, and these underground homes have made and continue to make enormous impact on life above ground.

“The bigger picture behind these everyday observations of many holes in the ground, however, is that the long history of these burrowing invertebrates completely altered global environments, from the deepest sea to the highest mountains, and even affected the atmosphere and climate.  In short, the entire surface of our planet is built upon one big complex and constantly evolving burrow system, controlling the nature of our existence.” – page 14, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

Dr. Martin encourages us to take a closer look at a generally overlooked part of our world. That closer look involves fascinating details about creatures and places one may not have realized existed.  Burrowing owls–with their photogenic and often amusing images–may be familiar, but perhaps not so much the charming fairy penguins of Tasmania, or the alarming assassin flies associated with gopher tortoise burrows, who both kill and start digesting their hapless victims with an injection of neurotoxins and enzymes.

Image of burrowing fairy penguins, courtesy of Getty Images

Slideshow of burrowing owls, courtesy of Getty Images

 

Perhaps the most powerful section of the book—one that really drives home his point about survival underground—involves the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State thirty-seven years ago.

Whether you’ve only read about it or whether you’ve actually visited, Mount St. Helens is a stark reminder of how devastating Nature can be.  After a couple of months of earthquakes, the volcano erupted in the morning of May 18th, 1980. Not only did it obliterate everything in its path, the eruption and its aftermath killed 57 people and all of the wildlife within about 150 square miles.


Image of Mount St. Helens before the eruption of 1980, photo by Jeff Goulden, courtesy of Getty Images

Image of Mount St. Helens today, courtesy of Getty Images

Here, Dr. Martin uses creative nonfiction (or ‘narrative nonfiction’) to help illustrate how, despite this traumatic event, the entire area made a comeback.  Loowit, a sweet little fictional pocket gopher, takes the reader through some of the natural events that transformed devastation into renewal and rebirth.

He describes her home: a branching set of underground tunnels and rooms that can reach up to 500 feet long, complete with food storage areas, latrines, and other chambers. Although undeterred by snow, she was, at the time of the eruption, comfortably ensconced in her burrow.  This saved her.  He takes us through how she emerges after the eruption, her confusion, her tentative steps back into a new world above ground, how she and other survivors may have eventually formed communities.

In sum, in a world that now knew mostly death and destruction, these pocket gophers not only survived, but kept surviving, and in so doing, helped bring life back to an area that did not outwardly appear to contain much.

…these little ecosystem engineers began terraforming the previously desolate landscape, first by helping plants take root and grow. Each individual pocket gopher was capable of overturning more than a ton of soil each year…” – page 262, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

Image of a pocket gopher, courtesy of Getty Images

Of the 55 mammal species in the area of Mount St. Helens in May 1980, only 14 survived the volcanic eruption and its collateral damage. Surface-dwelling elk, deer, black bears…and all other large- to medium-size mammals perished. On the other hand, nearly all the small mammals that lived were burrowing rodents…One of the few non-rodent survivors was the tiny Trowbridge’s shrew (Sorex trowbridgii), which (not coincidentally) is also a burrower.  Pocket gophers are active year round, but many other small-mammal species were both underground and still hibernating when the eruption took place.  The fortuitous timing of this disaster at the transition between winter and spring thus greatly enhanced the chances of these minutest of mammals to emerge and thrive.  Of the rodents that had already come out of hibernation, nocturnal species were doubly lucky to have already retired for the day in their burrows when the blast occurred.  Had the volcano erupted at night, many more would have died.” – page 264, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

For the pocket gopher populations that survived the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, their collective actions were the key to turning a desolate, monochromatic landscape back into a vibrant and verdant one.  From a geological perspective, their effects were astoundingly quick, with partial ecological restoration apparent within just five years of the eruption. Consequently, pocket gophers and other burrowing animals that lived beyond May 18, 1980, send a powerful message about the benefits of burrows for surviving such an ecologically traumatic events, as well as for their role in restoring an ecosystem after it is nearly destroyed.” – pages 266-267, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

 

I want more books like “The Evolution Underground” and “Dinosaurs Without Bones.”  Books that tickle my intellect and my sense of humor.  Books that pull me in with their interesting anecdotes, their engaging playfulness, their sensitivity to all genders (ie: not referring to all humans as “mankind” or simply “man”), and their ability to make me think outside the pages.

When I read a book and am left not only with the satisfaction that comes from something that I’ve enjoyed but also an eagerness for more, I know I’ve found a talented author.

Dr. Anthony Martin is, indeed, a talented author.

 

******

A sincere and enthusiastic THANK YOU to Dr. Anthony Martin for his willingness to connect by phone and for his generous responses to my questions!  It was a pleasure and an honor to be able to speak with him, and—like his writing—he made it fun!  I eagerly (if impatiently) await any possible future work.  

FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this blog loved Dr. Martin’s previous book with Pegasus, “Dinosaurs Without Bones,” and thus, jumped at the chance to review his latest work (fully predisposed to embrace it) by requesting a review copy from the publisher.  I am very grateful to Pegasus Books for the opportunity to do so. I am specifically grateful to Deputy Publisher, Jessica Case, with whom it was wonderful to work!

Dinosaurs Without Bones

Rewriting the Story of How They Died – Columbian Mammoths in Waco

[[The following text has been edited from the original post.  Email me for the original post: mostlymammoths (at) gmail.com or read the full scientific paper by the authors here.]]

*****

Sometimes, it just takes a different point of view.

The largest known potential nursery herd of Columbian mammoth fossils in the world exists in Waco, Texas.  Of the 25 mammoth skeletons found to-date, 16-22 of them died at the same time. Something catastrophic occurred to these animals in the Pleistocene, but just what remains inconclusive.

While some speculate death by lightning, disease or miring, the predominant theory maintains that this is a herd of mammoths that died and were buried in the same flash flood.  It’s an idea that has stuck for many years given the existence of aquatic fauna and the evidence of an ancient river upon which many of the fossils have been found.

Female W - Waco Mammoth NM - Larry D. Moore

Image of Female Mammoth “W” at the Waco Mammoth National Monument, photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0, 2013

 

But Logan Wiest, Don Esker and Steven Driese of Baylor University have a different hypothesis, one published this past December in Palaios.  By studying traces on the bones available in situ, as well as those available in the nearby Mayborn Museum, they offer an entirely new idea: water didn’t kill them; its absence did.  Struggling to find water in a drought, these animals may have collapsed and died at a watering hole that could no longer sustain them or anything else.

Columbian mammoths were enormous animals.  In general, they are known to be much larger than woolly mammoths and considerably larger than mastodons, both of which were behemoths in their own right.

The mammoth skeletons at Waco are thought to be a matriarchal herd, consisting mainly of females and youth (no calves).  The evidence suggests a herd, and there is more research to be done to prove it using stable isotopes.  A single bull has been discovered in a different geologic layer.  Separate fossils of other species—none of them complete except for a western camel—have also been found throughout the site.

Don admitted he didn’t have an alternative explanation for the death of so many animals. He invited his colleague, Logan Wiest, to take a closer look at the fossil evidence.

“I’d brought [Logan] in hoping he’d look at the [site’s paleosols],” Don said. “I knew he was a trace fossil expert, so I’d hoped he [might] tell me a little bit about the conditions based on worm burrows, [for example].

“What he found instead was much more interesting! He found that there were all kinds of bite marks on the bones.  We didn’t find those all at once.  It actually took quite a while [before] we recognized what we were seeing as bite marks.  A lot of literature research and a lot of staring at bones.  Those bite marks shouldn’t have been there if the mammoths were immediately buried.

“One of the first things he noticed and was able to identify quickly were dermestid beetle bite marks: pits that the beetles dig in the bones when they’re going to lay eggs.

“I thought that perhaps [evidence of dermestid beetles] might be there, but I didn’t realize the significance of [that evidence].  He’s more of an expert on this than I am.

“And he knew that dermestid beetles don’t eat wet meat.  It actually has to be almost completely dessicated–no moisture left at all, just the fats and proteins–before the dermestid beetles will touch it. And that didn’t fit well with animals that were killed in a flood and rapidly buried.

“Dermestid beetles also don’t burrow. Even a single inch of soil is enough to keep dermestid beetles from digging down to perfectly good meat.  They can’t dig.”

Figure 7 - Palaios

FIG. 7.—Cubiculum isp. on various skeletal elements. A) Slightly elliptical, hemispherical bore on in situ rib of mammoth W. B) Hemispherical boring on mammoth U phalanx (545-BU-MMC). C) Shallow bore on femoral articulation surface 761a-BU-MMC. D) Shallow bore on eroded long bone of mammoth D limb fragment (203-BU-MMC). E) Hemispherical bore in cancellous bone on the surface of a spiral fracture (20-BU-MMC). F) Comparative trace generated by captive hide beetles on a wild-hog skull (Sus scrofa). Note the similarities in size and morphology to Figs. 7A-E.

 

Used with permission, PALAIOS, v. 31, 2016, © SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology 2016.

 

“So, it was Logan looking at this and trying to think about what might be causing this instead of a flood, and he said, ‘Well, how about a drought?’

“I knew about some other evidence that really fit with that. So that clicked with me very quickly, particularly the fact that we’ve got both aquatic and terrestrial animals—a great diversity of them all in the same place.  What that suggested to me was a diminishing watering hole. And I wouldn’t have realized that if Logan hadn’t noticed the dermestids and figured out the drought angle.”

Beyond studying the available literature for trace fossil search images, they tested their ideas on the heads of deceased wild hogs using extant dermestid beetles. In effect: they put the fleshy heads into a contained area and let loose the beetles, who proceeded to consume all of the flesh, leaving clean skulls. It’s an efficient and chemical-free method used by scientists and museums the world over.  But for Logan, Dan and Steven, this provided more data for comparison. Traces left by the beetles on the wild hog skulls are similar to traces on the fossils in Waco.

 

dermestid-beetles-lisa-buckley1

Screenshot of a tweet regarding the use of dermestid beetles from Dr. Lisa Buckley, paleontologist and ichnologist at the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre

 

“Previous studies have attributed trace fossils of this size and morphology to dermestid beetles,” Logan wrote in response to what prompted them–of all insects that might have left traces on fossils–to think of dermestid beetles.  “We simply wanted to test this notion by providing bone to dermestid beetles and seeing if these traces could be duplicated under controlled conditions. The beetles came from a nearby museum, but they are also native to Texas. We used the head from a hog simply because wild hogs are easily accessible in central Texas.”

A true ichnologist, Logan added, “I’ve also spent a great deal of time observing bones of modern cattle that were scavenged upon in pastures near my home.”

They didn’t just find evidence of ancient dermestid beetle traces; they found traces of animals who gnawed at the bones: rodents and carnivores, including a possible saber-toothed cat.  It is important to consider that animals drowned and then rapidly buried in a flash flood would not be accessible to these terrestrial scavengers.  This indicates that these Columbian mammoth carcasses were exposed on land long enough to be at least partially devoured.

That, too, is key. Remember that most of these mammoth fossils are articulated skeletons, complete except for missing tails and parts of their feet.  In an area devastated by drought, even scavengers would lack the energy to completely devour and tear apart a carcass.  All of these clues add more weight to the scenario proposed by these authors.

Figure 5 - Palaios

FIG. 5.—Brutalichnus brutalis on M. columbi skeletal elements. A) Arcuate grooves on femoral head 761a-BU-MMC. B) Relatively deep, arcuate grooves on mammoth Q in situ patella. C) Isolated arcuate groove on proximal radius (40-BU-MMC) of mammoth B. Note the similarity in curvature between the arcuate groove and the saber-toothed cat canine recovered from WMNM. The tooth is 6.4 cm for scale. Also note the faintly colored lines that are parallel to the arc of the groove. Dashed white box highlights the area depicted in D. D) Close-up image of groove depicting the microfractures within the trace on 40-BU-MMC. Notice how the fractures are all open towards the upper-right corner of the image, indicating the trace was generated from a force moving from the upper right towards the lower left. E) In situ femur of bull mammoth at WMNM. F) Arcuate grooves on mammoth Q phalanx 522-BU-MMC.

 

Used with permission, PALAIOS, v. 31, 2016, © SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology 2016.

 

Describing the tools they used to study the fossils in situ, Logan wrote, “The low-angle light creates a shadow which makes the small structures on the bone surface to be easier to see and photograph. We used a Dino-Lite portable microscope to study the fossils mainly because we are unable to transport the mammoth remains from the site to the laboratory. Studying the fossils in place is the best way to ensure preservation of the original positions.”

In other words, because the fossils remain where they were found, they studied those available directly at the site.  Their paper states that the in situ fossils comprise 30% of the available Waco fossils.  The rest reside at the Mayborn Museum, some of which are available in their collections, but most of which remain unopened in their plaster jackets.

“It’s an amazing site,” Don enthused, “and there’s decades and decades of research there, on top of potentially a lot more excavation, too, because they are in NO WAY finished excavating. What they’ve got probably represents a fairly small fraction of the whole deposit.

“One of the things that Logan and I were speculating about [is] if you’ve got a really big regional drought, that should show up in multiple places in the geologic record, especially right in that area.  The bed that we’ve got marking the drought as this depositional hiatus could be covered with bones for acres and acres in every direction.

“And we know that it’s covered in bones at least 80 or 90 feet away from where the known deposits are because we’ve done core sampling that have pulled out large bone fragments.  We only did a couple of them—a couple at random!—and they hit bones both times.”

 

Figure 4 - Palaios

FIG. 4.—Machichnus regularis on various skeletal remains of M. columbi (unless otherwise noted). A) Rodent gnaw marks on rib 764b-BU-MMC. B) Rodent traces on mammoth E limb fragment 203a-BU-MMC. C) Rasps on vertebra of in situ camel. D) Rodent gnaw marks on in situ neural spine of juvenile mammoth T in L1. E) Rodent traces on in situ left scapula of bull mammoth (Q) in L2. F) Close-up image of the same trace depicted in view E.

 

Used with permission, PALAIOS, v. 31, 2016, © SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology 2016.

 

 

The Waco Mammoth site itself has been around for 39 years, but it has only been part of the National Park Service since July 2015, thanks to President Barack Obama and the work of many people years beforehand who helped bring that to fruition.  Don and I discussed this by phone, given the current political climate and the fears that some National Monuments might lose their status.

“That’s really worrisome,” he remarked. “And what really sticks in my craw about the Waco Monument in particular is that it’s costing the Federal Government almost nothing.  The city of Waco is paying for almost all of the upkeep.  The original buildings? That wasn’t tax money. That was done by good old fashioned fund-raising. And the day-to-day operations are almost all city.  There are a couple of rangers there alongside city employees and some signage and brochures. And that’s really all the Federal Government’s paying into it.”

“It’s a really incredible place.  There are not a lot of sites like this anywhere, as far as in situ fossils sites go.”

*****

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Don Esker and Logan Wiest for their remarkable generosity in answering my questions and for sharing their research with me.  It was an enormous pleasure speaking with and communicating through email with them.  I loved reading their research and hearing more of the history behind it!!

You can read the paper here.

A sincere and enthusiastic thank you to Kathleen Huber, Managing Editor at Palaios, for her gracious permission to use the figures contained in this post!

References:

  1. The Waco National Monument may represent a diminished watering-hole scenario based on preliminary evidence of post-mortem scavenging, Wiest, Logan A.; Esker, Don; Driese, Steven G., Palaios, December 2016, DOI: 10.2110/palo.2016.053
  2. Waco National Monument, Waco, TX
  3. City of Waco, TX – Waco Mammoth National Monument, Waco, TX
  4. Mammoth Opportunity, Jeff Hampton, Baylor Arts & Sciences Magazine, Fall 2016
  5. What is Ichnology? from Introduction to Ichnology, Anthony J. Martin, Emory University (This page offers a great explanation of some of the more technical ichnological terms included in the scientific paper referenced for this post. I also recommend Dr. Martin’s book, “Dinosaurs Without Bones” for a more comprehensive look into ichnology.)
  6. Flesh-Eating Beetles Explained, Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato, National Geographic, January 17, 2013

 

waco-mammoths-3-from-city-of-waco-video

Screenshot of the entrance to Waco Mammoth National Monument from a video done by the City of Waco

Eliann Stoffel – Unlocking the Secrets of a Forgotten Mammoth

A rather large bone, revealed by his bulldozer, prompted William McEvoy and his crew to cease work on the road and call the police. The police then called the local archaeological society, who, in turn, called an archaeologist at the local Natural History Museum.

When word got out that a mammoth had been discovered, visitors began pouring in to see the site.  Just a few miles outside of the town of Kyle in Saskatchewan, Canada, the excavation of these fragile bones from the hard clay was witnessed by an ever-growing number of people.  It is estimated that 20,000 visitors came to see the site that autumn in 1964.

 

Eventually, the plaster casts protecting the bones were taken to the Natural History Museum (now known as the Royal Saskatchewan Museum); radiocarbon dating was conducted.  Possible museum displays and skeletal reconstructions were discussed.

And then?

Nothing.

Once the cause of great local excitement, the bones of the Kyle Mammoth faded from view.

The references above to archaeology are not errors.  Although the bones found were paleontological in nature, the focus on the find—and, indeed, the very reason they were recently resurrected—was to determine whether there was any evidence of human-proboscidean interaction.  When no stone tools were recovered in the surrounding sediment and with no obvious signs of butchering on the bones, interest in the fossil seems to have collectively disappeared.  For over 50 years, the various bones found on that stretch of road have been shelved in the Museum’s collections.

“I had always planned on doing my thesis at the University of Saskatchewan and I knew I wanted to do my thesis on hunting and butchering strategies utilized by Paleoindian people,” explained Eliann Stoffel, a recent graduate, in an email.

Her interest was not specific to any one species of megafauna. She hoped to study any and all large animals ancient people may have hunted: camels, bison, horse, proboscidea.

“I had approached my supervisor, Dr. Ernie Walker, with this topic and he had spoken with a member of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, Frank McDougal, who had suggested taking a look at the Kyle Mammoth.”

Which is how the long-forgotten fossil came back into view in 2015.

“We knew that the mammoth belonged to a time when people were in North America and actively hunting mammoths so we had the possibility of finding some sort of evidence of humans on the Kyle mammoth.”

This evidence is rare in the area known as the Northern Great Plains, an area that encompasses Saskatchewan (as well as another Canadian province and five U.S. states).

“It was one of those projects,” she said later by phone, “that, as soon as it came up, I couldn’t turn it down.  It needed to be done.”

Travelling between Saskatoon and Regina (where the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and the fossil are located), Eliann spent many hours studying and analyzing the bones from the 1964 excavation.  This included five boxes of bone fragments as well as 56 complete or near-complete bones, such as vertebrae, mandible, a partial tusk, and ribs.  Also included were ungulate bones, which—like the mammoth—did not comprise a full skeleton and did not present any clear association with its proboscidean fossil companion.

 

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About 20% of the mammoth skeleton survived; image courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Eliann’s thesis presents a comprehensive taphonomic analysis of the mammoth bones, and this was done because she and her advisors “knew that we needed to keep in mind that we might not find any evidence of human involvement.”

The idea of determining who or what made any kind of marks on a fossil seems like an overwhelming challenge.  This was not an animal that died the other day.  In this case, it died roughly 12,000 years ago. That is a considerable amount of time in which—after an animal is butchered, killed or otherwise dies of natural causes–it can be scavenged after death, it can be moved and scraped by natural elements, it can be affected by its fossilization, and then possibly affected by the process of discovery (in this case, by a bulldozer). How is anyone able to read the marks on fossil bones and know what they represent?

“[T]he first giveaway is the colour,” she wrote. “Bone, when it has been buried for a long time, tends to become stained from the surrounding sediment but only the outer surface. So when someone (an excavator) knicks the bone, the unstained inner portion of the bone is exposed and tends to be a lighter colour.

“The other indicator can be the clustering of marks. [With] butchering, there tends to be more than one cut mark on the bone in the same general area, usually at muscle attachment sites, and they tend to be orientated in the same direction. Rarely do you find cut marks that intersect each other. They are usually parallel. In accidental knick marks there is usually just the single mark and it tends to be located in a spot that you wouldn’t generally find cut marks (i.e. on joint surfaces or midshaft of a long bone).”

 

figure-b-15-kyle-mammoth-eliann-stoffel-thesis

 

Photo of the Kyle Mammoth right mandible from her thesis; courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Contrary to initial review in the 1960s, Eliann discovered a few tantalizing signs that this mammoth may have, indeed, suffered from trauma induced by ancient humans.  From a suspicious-looking lesion to a possible puncture wound on vertebrae to a puzzling set of lines in a bone fragment, there was reason to wonder whether humans had been responsible for these scars.

Ultimately, however, the first two were determined to be pathological. The lesions conform to known understanding of malnutrition in the form of osteolytic lesions.

Knowing her hope to find evidence of human interaction, I asked if this was a bit of a disappointment.

“[I]t was a bit of a kick in the knees,” she admitted, “but still a super interesting avenue of study in terms of pathology. I am more than thrilled with my findings though!”

 

figure-5-5-kyle-mammoth-eliann-stoffel-thesis

figure-5-1-kyle-mammoth-eliann-stoffel-thesisImages courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Another startling discovery appeared in what she describes as a “spongy” bone fragment, shown above, which contain traces of blood vessels.

“I remember bringing it to my supervisor and we both scratched our heads over it…So we called on our resident bioarchaeologist Dr. [Angela] Lieverse to take a look and she wasn’t sure but suggested possibly something vascular. Sure enough, when I searched for studies fitting that criteria, a couple articles turned up. So it seems that it is an occurring phenomena but possibly not that common,” Eliann wrote.

Ultimately, Eliann determined that this was a young male woolly mammoth (between 28 – 35 years old) that was still growing at the time of its death.  She estimates it was 328.66 cm (approximately 10.8 feet) tall.  While the large open wound on one of the vertebra points to a possible puncture wound from Clovis weaponry, other pathological features point to a mammoth suffering from malnutrition.

Eliann’s enthusiasm for those who helped her in her research was apparent.

“[T]he folks at the [Royal Saskatchewan M]useum were more than happy to help in any way possible,” she expressed, “and it is something that I have always appreciated! Also my major funders [were] the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation, the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, and, of course, the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the [University of Saskatchewan].”

More than just a strenuous academic endeavor, Eliann’s research has painted a picture that has been missing for decades on a significant local paleontological find.

“The [people in the] town of Kyle identify with this mammoth.  As you come into Kyle, there’s this statue of a mammoth.  Their sign that says ‘Welcome to Kyle’ has a picture of a mammoth on it.  It’s clear that they identify with it.”

 

 

A Mammuthus primigenius-sized THANK YOU to Eliann Stoffel—not only for her time in emails and by phone–but also for her gracious permission to use a number of pictures from her work!  Her thesis is fascinating and well written.  I recommend it to all!  Eliann, may you find many mammoths with evidence of human association in the future!

Another enormous thank you to Dr. Angela Lieverse, head of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan, who was also responsible for the generous use of images from Eliann’s thesis!

And I am very grateful to Dr. Emily Bamforth at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum for connecting me to Eliann! I could not have written this otherwise. THANK YOU!!

*****

References:

  1. The Kyle Mammoth: An Archaeological, Palaeoecological and Taphonomic Analysis, Eliann W. Stoffel, July 2016, University of Saskatchewan
  2. Shedding Some Light on the Kyle Mammoth, David Zammit, Swift Current Online, Nov. 13, 2016; the article that brought Eliann Stoffel and the Kyle Mammoth to my attention!
  3. PDF about the Kyle Mammoth from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Screenshot Kyle Mammoth RSM

Screenshot from the aforementioned PDF of the Kyle Mammoth, Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Minute Trace Fossils Offer Major Implications For Extinction Recovery

Large body fossils of extinct creatures capture our imagination.  It’s understandable.  These were fascinating behemoths, and we can see something of their life in the bones that remain. While our collective attention might be focused on these very big things, researchers published a paper this past November that centered on some very tiny things.  And what they found has enormous implications for our understanding of ancient life.

Fossi leaf with insect damage - Michael Donovan

Insect feeding damage on a fossil leaf, including holes and a leaf mine (bottom right), made by a larval insect that fed on tissue within the leaf. The fossil is 67-66 million years old and from the Lefipán Formation in Patagonia, Argentina; photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan.

 

The authors Michael Donovan, Ari Iglesias, Peter Wilf, Conrad Labandeira, and N. Rubén Cúneo studied trace fossils of insect feeding damage on over 3000 fossil leaves from Patagonia (an area that encompasses the southern part of Argentina and Chile).

Remarkably, fossil leaves number in the tens of thousands in the Western Hemisphere alone.  But studying them for insect damage during the end Cretaceous and early Paleocene is relatively new.  Keep in mind that the end Cretaceous marked the last mass extinction this planet has known thus far.  The early Paleocene marks the time when life was, however slowly, working its way back into existence.

There is a preponderance of fossil leaves in the western interior North America (WINA) from this time period, and they have been studied.  In “Rapid recovery of Patagonian plant-insect associations after the end-Cretaceous extinction” published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, the authors compared the relatively smaller number of fossil leaves in Patagonia to the much larger numbers of such leaves from WINA.

What interested them was the diversity of insect damage to these Patagonian plant leaves.

pl2-585

Tiny insect piercing and sucking marks on a fossil leaf from the fossil locality Palacio de los Loros 2 in Patagonia, Argentina (approximately 64 million years old). Piercing and sucking damage is made by insects that use their straw-like mouthparts to feed on fluids from within plants; photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan.

pl2-585-closeup

Close up of the picture above; photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan.

The type of insect damage—the different ways insects fed upon a leaf–relates to the diversity of insects. That diversity of herbivorous insects, in turn, relates to a much larger food web.  In other words, the traces these ancient insects made indicate that there was a growing population of different types of insects. That growing population suggests a growing, thriving food web.  Life in Patagonia, after the last mass extinction, may have been returning at a much faster rate than its northern counterpart.

 

“If we’re just looking at the raw numbers, there are way more fossils, but less insect-damage diversity,” explained Michael Donovan in a phone interview referring to the WINA fossil leaf damage.  “In the Western US, there’s around almost 20,000 leaves included in those data sets. Maybe a little less.” He chuckled. “And that’s compared to the 3,646 [fossil leaves] in Patagonia. So, it’s a big difference!”

“We can’t always say exactly what insects were making the damage,” he wrote earlier in an email.  “During this study, we found many different kinds of damage representing the work of a wide range of plant-eating insects. Some types of damage can be made by a variety of insects. For example, many different kinds of insects with chewing mouthparts, such as beetles or grasshoppers, can create holes in leaves by feeding through the plant tissue. Other types of insect damage provide more specific information about the culprit. Leaf mines, for example, are made by larvae of some species of moths, flies, wasps, and beetles. The mines act as a detailed record of the behavior of the insect, which we can use to infer the type of insect that may have made the mine.”

palacio-de-los-loros-2

View of an excavation at the Palacio de los Loros 2 fossil plant locality in Chubut, Patagonia, Argentina. The fossils there were formed in the early Paleocene around 64 million years ago;photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan.

 

Michael was the one responsible for studying these 3,646 fossil leaves to see if any had any damage to begin with, and then to see whether that damage may have been insect-related.  (In a nod to how I may have organized such things, I wondered whether museum collections separate out fossils with traces of damage.  They do not. Or rather, as Michael explained, “How they are organized usually depends on the collector or museum. The collections used in this study are organized by plant morphotype/species. To collect the data, I inspected all of the leaf fossils under a microscope for insect damage.”)

But how can one determine the difference between disease-related traces and insect-related traces in a fossil leaf?

“One good thing to look for is reaction from the plant to the insect damage,” he answered.  “So, for example, if an insect chews through a leaf and makes a hole, [scar] tissue [will form] around the edges of the hole. On the fossil, it looks like a little dark area surrounding the hole.  That’s where the plant healed itself after the damage was made, and that shows that [the insect ate the leaf] when the plant was still alive. If it happened when the leaf was dead, it wouldn’t form that scar tissue. So if there’s something like a tear that was made when the leaf was already dead, reaction tissue wouldn’t form. Then some other types of damage are very distinctive, such as leaf mines, and look very similar to damage we see on modern leaves.”

pl2-2506

Skeletonization (feeding on leaf tissue between leaf veins but leaving the veins intact) caused by a plant-feeding insect. The leaf is from the Palacio de los Loros 2 fossil plant locality in Patagonia, Argentina (approximately 64 million years old); photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan.

 

Their research determined that there is a greater diversity of insect-damage to fossil leaves in Patagonia, and that this diversity occurred 4 million years after the meteorite crashed into Earth at Chicxulub, Mexico.  Contrast this to the western interior North America, in which insect-damage indicates that same recovery took 9 million years.

“The fossil plant collections that we studied were collected relatively recently by my coauthors (Ari Iglesias, Peter Wilf, and Rubén Cúneo) and other scientists as part of a larger research program on Patagonian fossil floras from the end of the Cretaceous through the Eocene,” Michael described. “The Paleocene floras have been dated with a variety of methods, which show us that the fossil sites were formed during three time slices in the early Paleocene. Using these dates, we were able to observe how plant-insect associations in Patagonia recovered in the 4 million years after the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact.”

Co-authors Conrad Labandeira and Peter Wilf were part of a 2014 study published in PLOS One (“Insect Leaf-Chewing Damage Tracks Herbivore Richness in Modern and Ancient Forests,” also by Mónica R. Carvalho, Héctor Barrios, Donald M. Windsor, Ellen D. Currano, and Carlos A. Jamarillo) in which extant insect leaf damage was correlated to the larger food web of two tropical rainforests.  The variety of insect traces on today’s leaves represents a healthy variety of insect species.  Like keystone species in any ecosystem, these traces indicate a thriving web of life.

 

How remarkable to then extrapolate that insects so many millions of years ago, simply eating the leaves available to them in the Southern Hemisphere, can offer important clues to the state of life after the devastation our planet endured.  The traces of these tiny creatures—and the fragile plants that survived fossilization—are extraordinarily significant.

“It was pretty exciting to see what was happening in another part of the world,” Michael enthused.

When asked why fossil leaves and insects interested him, he responded, “Plants and insects are the most diverse multi-cellular organisms on Earth, and their interactions are important components of food webs on land. By studying insect feeding damage on fossil leaves, we can learn how insects and plants responded to major environmental changes in the past and have a better idea of how they may be affected in the future.”

“This is what I’m interested in continuing doing. This is a relatively newer field within paleontology, so there are lots of projects to pursue, lots of periods of time in the ancient past where we don’t know much about how insects and plants were interacting.”

“The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction was a major event in the history of life and the most recent of the big mass extinctions. The plants and animals that we see today are all descended from organisms that survived this asteroid impact. We observed a faster recovery of plant-feeding insects in the Southern hemisphere—in Patagonia—compared to the Northern hemisphere—[in WINA.]  These patterns from the early Paleocene may be related to biodiversity patterns that we see today.”

 

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Leaf mine made by a larval insect that fed on tissue within the leaf. The fossil is ~65 million years old and from the Palacio de los Loros 1 fossil site in Patagonia, Argentina; photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan. 

 

An absolutely ENORMOUS thank you to Michael Donovan for making so much time to answer my questions, both in email and by phone.  The number of pictures he sent, and their detailed captions, was AMAZING.  I did not include them all here. I encourage you to read the paper done by him and his colleagues to see how many and beautiful they are. THANK YOU, MICHAEL!!

 

References:

  1. Donovan, M. P., Iglesias, A., Wilf, P., Labandeira, C. C. & Cúneo, N. R. Rapid recovery of Patagonian plant–insect associations a er the end-Cretaceous extinction. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 1, 0012 (2016).
  2. Carvalho MR, Wilf P, Barrios H, Windsor DM, Currano ED, Labandeira CC, et al. (2014) Insect Leaf-Chewing Damage Tracks Herbivore Richness in Modern and Ancient Forests. PLoS ONE 9(5): e94950. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094950
  3. Monocots versus Dicots, University of California Museum of Paleontology
  4. Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio, Trelew, Argentina
  5. Check out more research done in Patagonia! Patagonia Paleofloras Project

 

Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio

Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio, home to the fossil leaves used in this paper and many other exciting fossils; photo by Pedrochubut (Template:MEF Photo) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Researching Fossil Ungulate Communities

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Alces alces (moose), Porkkala, Finland; photo courtesy of Juha Saarinen

In their paper “Patterns of diet and body mass of large ungulates from the Pleistocene of Western Europe, and their relation to vegetation,” published this past September in Palaeontologia Electronica, Juha Saarinen, Jussi Eronen, Mikael Fortelius, Heikki Seppä, and Adrian Lister investigate fossil ungulate communities found in England, Ireland, and Germany.

Not fossil ungulates, fossil ungulate communities.

The variety of fossils studied is just one of the exciting elements of their research.  Rather than focusing on a single species—which, given the limitations of the fossil record, is usually the case—they studied groups of fossils from at least 14 different ungulate species from the Middle to Late Pleistocene.

“[W]e are now at a point,” wrote Juha Saarinen, lead author of the paper, in an email, “where enough fossil material of ungulates and pollen records have accumulated to enable such a large scale quantitative comparison of body size and diets of ungulate with local vegetation patterns in the past as we did. Comparing vegetation proxies and mammal ecometrics from fossil data using such quantitative statistical analyses as we did has, to our knowledge, never been attempted before, so that is probably the most novel achievement of this study.”

The ungainly name of ‘ungulate’ refers to hooved animals: even-toed and odd-toed (Artiodactyla and Perissodactyla, respectively). Examples include horses, deer, moose, rhinoceros, bison, pigs and hippopotamuses.

beneski-brontops-tyleri-brontothere-view-from-skull

Brontops tyleri (a type of brontothere and a Perissodactyl) at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts.   Brontotheres survived until the Eocene, an era that ended approximately 30+ million years BEFORE the Pleistocene, so this animal–although an ungulate–was not part of this study. Picture taken by the author of this blog

 

Using mesowear on the fossil teeth, they were able to determine information about their diets (from browsing to grazing), and by comparing this data with the pollen record associated with the areas in which these fossils were found, they were able to tell whether they ate more browse or grass in either open or closed environments. Body mass for these fossils was calculated and then compared to the diet of these animals.

They were searching for answers to how these species adapted to the environment in which they lived.  How did their body size relate to the vegetation available? Was their body size influenced by possible predators or by other members of their species? (In other words, were they bigger to intimidate predators or were they smaller because they lived in expansive herds?) Or was thermoregulation the single determining factor in how big these animals became, as has been proposed in earlier studies?

 

Beneski - Irish elk

Megaloceros giganteus (otherwise known as Irish Elk and an Artiodactyl) in between a mastodon and a mammoth fossil at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts; picture taken by the author of this blog

 

It interested me to learn that they relied on what I rather simplistically referred to as the ‘physical observation’ of fossils.

Mesowear analysis looks at the wear and shape of fossil teeth.  Various plant material affects tooth-wear in distinctly different ways, which can be seen both on the teeth themselves and in the way the teeth have evolved.

To be clear, “this is specifically wear-induced shape, not the original shape of the unworn teeth,” Juha added. “In other words, mesowear is the change in the shape of the teeth as they get worn, and different food items cause different worn shape to develop (browse maintains high and sharp features on the tooth surface, whereas grass “grinds” them down leading to them to progressively wear down lower and more blunted the more there is grass in the diet).”

hmnh-mammoth-and-mastodon-teeth

Examples of a mammoth tooth — used to eat mostly grasses and sedges — and a mastodon tooth — used to eat trees and shrubs. Notice the very different shape of these teeth for very different types of vegetation. Proboscideans such as mammoths and mastodons were once grouped in with ungulates, but this has changed. Picture taken at the Harvard Museum of Natural History by the author of this blog.

 

Obtaining data about the pollen record (non-arboreal pollen percentages, or NAP %) meant researching published information and connecting that information with the related fossil sites.

The mathematical work behind all of this–determining mesowear, animal body size, and then relating this to the available pollen record—is staggering.

Surely, I thought, isotopic analysis would have been a much easier way to obtain information about each fossil’s diet at least.  Especially given that the pollen record isn’t always available, or—in one case—runs the risk of being skewed by the defecation of Pleistocene hippopotamuses that grazed in the area.  Why, I wondered, did they rely on methods that seemed considerably more labor-intensive and potentially (to my understanding) less accurate?

“There are a number of reasons for this,” Juha explained. “First, we wanted to obtain as much palaeodietary data as possible, comprising as complete ungulate communities as possible, and this meant dealing with very large samples of fossil molar teeth. Taking isotope samples from all those teeth would have been laborious, time consuming and expensive, not to mention also slightly destructive to the fossil specimens.

cervus-elaphus-richmond-park-london-uk

Cervus elaphus (Red Deer, Artiodactyl) at Richmond Park, London; photo courtesy of Juha Saarinen. Red Deer are one of the most extensively studied animals today. You can read about another study that references Red Deer in this post.

 

“Second, stable isotopes work best at resolving herbivore diet compositions in tropical areas where carbon isotope composition reflects roughly the proportions of C4/C3 –photosynthesizing plants (roughly grass vs. browse) in diet, but outside tropical areas all plants, grasses included, are C3 photosynthesizing and the carbon isotope composition varies also considerably according to so called canopy effect (open vs. closed environment), not just according to diet, and thus isotopes would not have allowed us to estimate the amount of grass vs. browse in the Pleistocene European ungulates as consistently and quantitatively as we could with mesowear analysis.

“Third, mesowear has been specifically shown to reflect average grass vs. browse compositions in the diets of ungulate populations, without being significantly obscured by other environmental variables, such as climate or environmental openness (e.g. Louys et al. 2012, Kaiser et al. 2013). Even if mesowear is a ‘physical observation’ as you say, it has been shown to specifically reflect the amount of abrasive dietary items (mostly grass) in herbivore diets.”

The authors focused on fossil-rich sites, where they could study between 3 – 10 fossils of each species.  They made sure to include species that were browsers, grazers and mixed-feeders.

figure-1-saarinen-et-al

Screenshot of Figure 1 from “Patterns of diet and body mass of large ungulates from the Pleistocene of Western Europe, and their relation to vegetation.” Palaeontologia Electronica19.3.32A: 1-58

 

“I owe thanks to my co-authors who knew much of the available European Pleistocene mammal collections already, having experience on working on them for many years,” Juha responded when asked how they knew of or had access to so many fossils.

Adrian Lister from the Natural History Museum of London in particular has a huge amount of knowledge and experience about Pleistocene mammal collections.

“I was also in contact with the curators of the museum collections, who gave me valuable information about the how much and what kind of material they have. Also, information about important fossil finds and numbers of specimens found have often been published before in scientific journals.

“The authors of this paper represent different fields of research experience on the various aspects of the study. I started to work on this research as a part of my PhD work, and I originally planned it with my PhD thesis supervisors Mikael Fortelius, Jussi Eronen and Heikki Seppä from the University of Helsinki.

“During the work, I visited the Natural History Museum of London, where I worked together with Professor Adrian Lister, whose expertise on British Pleistocene mammals, the NHM fossil mammal collections and mammal palaeoecology in general were very important for this work.”

NHM-DrListerLyuba

Image of Professor Adrian Lister, Natural History Museum of London, with the mummified baby mammoth, Lyuba; photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of London for this post.

 

This work was not without its challenges.  As with any study of fossils, there are limits to the number of fossils available.  While pollen record availability has increased, there is still so much more to be discovered.  And although some species–based on extant examples–do not exhibit sexual dimorphism in body size, the sex of most of the fossils they studied was indeterminate.

“Indeed, these were some of biggest challenges in this study,” Juha acknowledged, “but they were expected and nothing much could be done to completely avoid them. I would add that it was often challenging to connect the fossil mammals with associated pollen records, especially when the fossil pollen was not obtained directly from the mammal fossils. To succeed in this study, it was important to analyze lots of data in order to overcome these problems, and to ensure that the main results and conclusions of this study are robust despite of them.”

The authors of this paper considered numerous variables in their research, and they suggest that ungulate size has a lot to do with a number of factors.  This might seem obvious, but such has not been the result of past studies.  In particular, Bergmann’s rule, which stipulates that body size corresponds largely to thermoregulation (i.e.: big body size is the result of living in colder environments), has been supported before.

bison-bonasus-kraansvlak-netherlands

Bison bonasus (Artiodactyla), Kraansvlak, Netherlands;photo courtesy of Juha Saarinen. 

 

“[T]here has been a lot of discussion as to what ultimately explains the tendency of some (but not all) organisms to be larger in cold climate. This was actually one of the main questions I discussed in my PhD thesis,” wrote Juha. “Already in 1950s some researchers (e.g. Scholander 1955, Irving 1957, Hayward 1965) pointed out that increase in size alone would not give a large enough benefit for thermoregulation in cold climates, especially considering that mammals have far more effective mechanisms of keeping warm, such as thick fur.

“Since then, many authors have noted that while there is a tendency of mammals being larger in higher latitudes, there are a number of exceptions to this ‘rule’ and heat conservation alone would not explain it.

“However, body size in mammals does correlate with food quality and availability and this seems to explain most of the body size patterns observed in mammals (e.g. Rosenzweig 1968, Geist 1987, Meiri et al. 2007, McNab 2010). For example, many herbivorous mammals tend to be larger at higher latitudes because food quality is better there (e.g. because of fertile soils created by glacial erosion and because plant defense mechanisms are lower), and thus predators eating them also tend to be larger there, but for example brown bear body mass does not correlate with latitude but with distance to nearest salmon spawning areas. On the other hand, population density also affects body size through resource availability: individual body size has been noted to decrease in many species of mammals when population densities are high leading to increased intraspecific resource competition (e.g. Wolverton et al. 2009).”

The authors of this paper argue that environment–climate, open or closed vegetation, food availability and quality–and species social structure–large or small herds–affect body size.

“[T]here are many (often interconnected) factors which together affect body size,” Juha explained. “This makes it quite complicated and challenging to study what ultimately regulates body size in mammals (and other organisms).

“In fact, our results do not support Bergmann’s rule as such, because even if our analyses show that larger sizes seem to occur in some species in open environments, this is not because of low temperature, as some of the open environments were in fact quite warm. Also, we often see that when one species was particularly large in an environment, another species was particularly small under those same conditions. E.g., we found out that red deer (Cervus elaphus) tends to be large in open environments, but wild horse (Equus ferus) tends to be small in those same environments. Thus, our results do not support the assumption of Bergmann’s rule or any other “single-cause” explanation for ungulate body size variation.

“What ultimately regulates ungulate body size is primarily food quality and availability, which is affected by the interplay of vegetation structure (regulated by environmental temperature, precipitation and soil fertility), interspecific resource competition (depending on the presence of competing species) and intraspecific resource competition (depending on population density). For example, species with large population densities in open environments, such as reindeer, bison and wild horses, could be small under those conditions because of increased intraspecific resource competition, whereas species with smaller population densities in open environments, such as red deer are large under such conditions, e.g. because of abundant, high-quality food and diminished plant defense mechanics. This is also the main conclusion concerning our results of Pleistocene European ungulate body size variation.”

“I think that studying how mammals in the past interacted with their environments is important for understanding how these interactions work in general,” he concluded. “At present, environments and their mammal faunas are so heavily influenced by human activities, and they have lost so much of their original diversity, that I believe that we simply need to study fossil mammals and their palaeoenvironments to better understand how these things have worked and ‘should usually work’ in nature.”

equus-ferus-mongolian-wild-horse-lippeaue-germany

Equus ferus (Mongolian wild horse and Perissodactyl), Lippeaue, Germany;photo courtesy of Juha Saarinen. 

It was a great honor and pleasure connecting with Dr. Juha Saarinen!  Reading this paper and gaining more insight about it from him was absolutely fascinating!  An enormous thank you to him for all of his generous help!!

Additionally, Dr. Saarinen was extraordinarily kind and helpful in clarifying points about the research that I had misunderstood.  That is always appreciated.  THANK YOU!!

Reference:

  1. Saarinen, Juha, Eronen, Jussi, Fortelius, Mikael, Seppä, Heikki, and Lister, Adrian M. 2016. Patterns of diet and body mass of large ungulates from the Pleistocene of Western Europe, and their relation to vegetation. Palaeontologia Electronica 19.3.32A: 1-58 palaeo-electronica.org/content/2016/1567-pleistocene-mammal-ecometrics

Fossil plant defenses and the rise of African savannas

 

Endangered Rothschild Giraffe bending over eating the leaves from a small Acacia tree in Lake Nakuru, Kenya, Africa – notice the thorns!; photo: David Gomez, from Getty Images

 

We are still a long way from understanding the animals* around us, but in many regards, it’s a lot easier to infer the emotions and actions of other mammals than it is to grasp anything about plants.

I know, for example, when my cats want attention, when they’re hungry, and—especially when one of them ambushes my legs with her furry paws—when they want to play.

I can’t say the same for my plants.  I’m not sure I ever think of them in terms of having emotions.  Am I concerned with their growth? Absolutely.  Do I make sure to water and feed them appropriately?  Yes.

But I suspect most of us think of plants in a completely different way than we think of animals.

This particular view of life on our planet was expressed in “Jurassic Park.”  After their initial introduction to the dinosaur park created by John Hammond and his team, the invited scientists gathered for lunch.  Mathematician Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) expressed his doubts and concerns about the park.  This led the others to offer their opinions as well.  Paleobotanist Dr. Sattler (played by Laura Dern) stated:

“Well the question is: how can you know anything about an extinct ecosystem?  And, therefore, how could you ever assume that you can control it?  You have plants in this building that are poisonous. You picked them because they look good, but these are aggressive living things that have no idea what century they’re in, and they’ll defend themselves. Violently, if necessary.”

Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) - Jurassic Park - Universal Studios

Dr. Ellie Sattler (played by Laura Dern), Jurassic Park, 1993, Universal Studios

That very statement (albeit in a movie) challenges the conventional view of plants on this Earth.  Rather than simple sedentary life forms, it suggests that plants are more complex, engaging in the world around them, just as we know animals do.

And once you start thinking about plants defending themselves—taking an active part in the world around them rather than simply existing and having things done to them—it changes how you look at everything around you.

Scientific research into the realm of extant plant communication, defense and even participation in community is relatively new.  Dispersal of that scientific knowledge to the general public is even newer.

Remarkably—given how much we have yet to learn about existing plants—scientists from South Africa, Canada and the United States published research regarding the possible origin of African savannas, an origin that has roots** in plant defense millions of years ago.

An example of an African savanna: Mt Kilimanjaro & Mawenzi Peak, clouds, grassland, and Acacia; photo: 1001slide, from Getty Images

 

A significant amount of land in the Miocene belonged to savannas, pushing forests to recede where they once flourished.  Some have attributed this to climate change; others to a change in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The authors of “Spiny plants, mammal browsers, and the origin of African savannas”, published in PNAS this September, found a striking correlation between savannas, the evolution of plant spinescence, and the rise of ancient bovids.

“Savannas grow in climates and on soils that also support closed forests. So there is no ‘savanna climate’ uniquely predicting where they occur. Their rather abrupt appearance in the Miocene implies the emergence of new ecological processes favouring grasses at the expense of forest trees,” wrote Dr. William Bond of the University of Cape Town, one of the co-authors of the paper.

But how to even begin?  The fossil record, in general, doesn’t contain everything scientists would need to completely recreate any particular ancient ecosystem.  Where one might find animal fossils, that same rock may not preserve plant fossils, and vice versa.

The authors drew upon knowledge of today’s African megafauna, how it impacts existing ecosystems, and compared that with information about African fossils from the Miocene.  Elephants, for example, are known to knock down trees.  Antelopes, sheep, deer and other browsers  maintain open ecosystems today. Could their ancient ancestors have done the same?

“We had worked on fire as a major factor promoting [the spread of savannas,]” explained Dr. Bond. “We used a marker, underground trees, of fire-maintained higher rainfall savannas to explore their origins. Our dates of the emergence of ‘fire savannas’ in Africa were remarkably convergent with dates for ‘fire savannas’ in South America (cerrado) and also consistent with the sparse fossil record (Maurin et al 2014, New Phytologist and Pennington and Hughes, same issue with a commentary on our paper). In drier savannas, grasses do not build up enough fuel to burn regularly.  We wondered whether mammal browsing may help maintain open savanna vegetation where fire is less important. We needed a marker of savannas with high herbivore pressure and chose spiny plants.”


A sparrow sits amongst the large white thorns of an Acacia tree, Kenya; photo: Richard du Toit, from Getty Images

 

In other words, fire was originally thought to be the reason behind the rise of savannas.  Evidence of fire has been found in fossil charcoal,  in paleosols and in fossil teeth.  The authors of this paper expanded their research to include fossil mammals.  Knowing that today’s savanna plants defend themselves with thorns from browsing mammals, the authors wanted to see if these same defenses occurred in fossil plants.

They had an incredible tool to help with this task: the African Centre for DNA Barcoding.

 

Types of thorns - Supplemental info, Charles-Dominique et al

Fig. S1. Types of spines. (A) Prickles: Zanthoxylum davyi. (B) Straight stipular spines: Vachellia robusta. (C) Straight stipular spines and stipular hooks: Ziziphus mucronata. (D) Straight thorns: Gymnosporia harveyana. (E) Hook thorns: Scutia myrtina. (F) Straight stipular spines and stipular hooks: Vachellia tortilis. (G) Stipular hooks: Senegalia nigrescens. Es, epidermic spine; L, leaf; Ls, leaf scar; Ss, stipular spine; T, thorn (i.e., branch with a sharp tip); from Charles-Dominique et al. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/short/1607493113

 

What they discovered was that savannas existed before the large-scale evidence of fire, rather than simply because of it.  Thorns didn’t appear until well after the rise of proboscideans and hyracoids, indicating that neither of these species triggered the need for that specific physical defense.  Interestingly, the rise of ancient bovids (and possibly ancient giraffoids) corresponds to the emergence of thorns in the Miocene.  Ultimately, they found that spinescence evolved at least 55 times.

Browsing impala — a type of modern antelope (bovid); photo by: annick vanderschelden photography, from Getty Images

“One might think that spines are a general defence against an archetypal mammal herbivore,” Dr. Bond wrote. “So we were most surprised at the late emergence of spines in African trees. We speculate that spines don’t work to limit food intake by proboscideans (a reasonable guess based on extant elephant feeding) and also hyracoids. But just why hyrax don’t select for spines is an intriguing puzzle. Observations on the remaining few hyrax species may be informative.”

“Physical plant defences are far less studied than chemical defences. They seem to resemble more plant-pollinator or plant-disperser interactions in being adapted to particular types of herbivore with particular modes of feeding. Spines don’t work for monkeys, for example, with their ability to pluck leaves with their fingers and manipulate branches. I have also worked on plant physical defences against extinct giant browsing birds (moas in New Zealand, elephant birds in Madagascar). They are utterly different from spines and exploit the limitations of beaks and the ‘catch and throw’ swallowing mechanism of the birds.”

“Molecular phylogenies dated with fossils were our main tool for exploring the past,” he continued. “Molecular phylogenies for mammals have been controversial tending to give much older dates for lineages than the fossil evidence. We used a recent phylogeny for bovids produced by Bibi (2013, BMC Evol Biol) using many more fossils than usual for calibrating the molecular phylogeny. Christine Janis, in an early e-mail exchange, kindly pointed us to the excellent book on Cenozoic mammals of Africa (Werdelin, Sanders 2010), among others, for help in reconstructing herbivore assemblages at different times.”

 

Spiny species distribution - Charles-Dominique et al PNAS

Screenshot of species distribution and environment correlates; from Charles-Dominique et al. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/short/1607493113

 

The sheer size and scale of the African continent is overwhelming.  This recent paper doesn’t focus on part of it; it encompassed the entire continent. When I asked Dr. Bond if this project was as enormous as it seemed, he wrote, rather amusingly, “Yes! Very daunting for me. People used to publish papers analyzing environmental correlates of single species distributions. Our team did the analyses for 1852 tree species. The mammal data was also enormous. Seems the younger generation is used to these vast data sets. I was amazed at the speed at which results became available.”

The list of websites cited in this paper (http://www.ville-ge.ch/cjb/; http://www.theplantlist.org; http://www.naturalis.nl/nl/; http://www.gbif.org; http://www.fao.org/home/en/) and the information those websites provide prompted me to ask whether it was fair to say that this paper could not have been written at an earlier point in time (without that online data). I also wondered if it was fair to say that science (in instances like this, where researchers share data online and make it accessible to others worldwide) is becoming more cooperative or team-oriented.

He responded: “You are absolutely right about ‘more cooperative and team-oriented’. The availability of massive data sets, and the tools to analyze them, has made analyses such as ours possible. Our team included people with diverse skills and knowledge. Hard to see how one or two researchers could have pulled this off.”

“The study is the outcome of several years of collaboration between systematists led by Prof Michelle van der Bank of the University of Johannesburg, ecologists working with me at the University of Cape Town, and a phylogenetic specialist, Prof Jonathan Davies from McGill University in Canada and an old friend of Michelle.

“Michelle, who heads up a DNA barcoding unit, had invited me to work with her group on ecological questions that could be addressed with molecular phylogenies. It has been a wonderful collaboration.

Tristan Charles-Dominique worked with me as a post-doc bringing new skills in the French tradition of plant architecture. He made great strides in understanding plant traits of savanna trees. His work on physical defences against mammal herbivores is the most original and important contribution since the 1980s in my view.

Gareth Hempson,  also an ex post-doc with me, had spent a great deal of effort compiling a map of African mammal herbivore abundance, and species richness, as it would have been ~1000 years ago (Hempson, Archibald, Bond 2015, Science). He combined mammals into functional groups which helped enormously in simplifying ecological functions of different groups. His participation allowed us to link the key mammal browsers to concentrations of spiny plant species.”

“It’s a rare combination of people to address a big question.”

Gerenuk, or giraffe antelope (Litocranius walleri) feeding from a bush; photo: 1001slide, from Getty Images

 

————————–

*including our own species!

**an unintended pun


It was a great honor and a great pleasure connecting with Dr. William Bond, who–despite a very busy schedule and an unfortunate stay in the hospital–responded so quickly to my inquiries!  Thank you so much, Dr. Bond!  The research by you and your colleagues has opened a fascinating door for me!!

 

References

Spiny plants, mammal browsers, and the origin of African savannas,Tristan Charles-Dominique, T. Jonathan Davies, Gareth P. Hampson, Bezeng S. Bezeng, Barnabas H. Daru, Ronny M. Kabongo, Olivier Maurin, A. Mathuma Muaysa, Michelle van der Bank, William J. Bond (2016), PNAS, vol. 113 no. 38. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1607493113

What Plants Talk About, Nature, PBS, 2013

Savanna fire and the origins of the ‘underground forests’ of Africa, Olivier Maurin, T. Jonathan Davies, John E. Burrows, Barnabas H. Daru, Kowiyou Yessoufou, A. Mathuma Muaysa, Michelle van der Bank, William J. Bond (2014), New PhytologistDOI: 10.1111/nph.12936

Jurassic Park, (movie) Universal Studios, directed by Steven Spielberg, 1993

 

How Trees Talk to Each Other - Dr. Suzanne Simard TED

 

Further FASCINATING information on contemporary plants

How Trees Talk to Each Other, Suzanne Simard, TED talk, June 2016

Published papers by Suzanne Simard, University of British Columbia

The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben, 2016, Greystone Books

How Trees Fight Back, Dave Anderson, Chris Martin, and Andrew Parrella, “Something Wild,” NH Public Radio, September 23, 2016

The Herbivore Elicitor-Regulated1 (HER1) gene enhances abscisic acid levels and defenses against herbivores in Nicotiana attenuate plants, Son Truong Dinh, Ian T. Baldwin, Ivan Galis, Plant Physiology,162, 2106-2124, 2013. doi:10.1104/pp.113.221150.

Plant Kin Recognition Enhances Abundance of Symbiotic Microbial Partner, Amanda L. File, John Klironomos, Hafiz Maherali, Susan A. Dudley, PLOS One, September 28, 2012.

Fitness consequences of plants growing with siblings: reconciling kin selection, niche partitioning and competitive ability, Amanda L. File, Guillermo P. Murphy, Susan A. Dudley, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol: 279, issue 1727, 2012. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1995

 

Hidden Life of Trees - Peter Wohlleben