Valley of the Mastodons – Final post: Related articles

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Screenshots from The Guardian post

 

 

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

You can check out the museum here.

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

You can follow any of these amazing people on Twitter:

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

 

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

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

 

 

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Valley of the Mastodons – final pictorial interlude

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

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


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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

Dr. Katy Smith measuring Lil Stevie’s fossils.

 

Brian Switek and Dr. Katy Smith

On the museum floor with visitors

Brian Switek and Dr. Ashley Leger on the museum floor

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Dr. Chris Widga scanning the larger fossils for digitization.

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

 

PhD candidate Greg Smith working on Max’s teeth.

Greg Smith and Dr. Jeremy Green working on Max. 

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

 

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

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

 

Poet Christina Olson’s tweets; my favorite!

 

 


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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Valley of the Mastodons (initial pictorial interlude)

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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


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

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

Shot taken looking out from the museum.

Some of the many mountains surrounding the museum.

 

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

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

 

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

Another image of Katy at work.

Grant working on mastodon molars he brought from the Yukon.

Jeremy working on a tusk.

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

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

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

 

 

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

Valley of the Mastodons – Part 1

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

Image of Diamond Valley Lake, taken by Jeanne Timmons

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How was this different than other scientific conferences?

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

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

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

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

As an example:

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Public observation on the museum floor, photo by Jeanne Timmons

 

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

 

 

 

 

Meet Henry Sharpe – Paleoartist, Future Paleontologist

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

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


 

Screenshots of artwork by Henry Sharpe from his website

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot of artwork from his website

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot of a drawing from his website

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

 

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

 

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

Screenshot of artwork from his website

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.

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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.

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Image of burrowing fairy penguins, courtesy of Getty Images
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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.

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

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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
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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.

 

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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