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.

From the Depths of an Indiana Cave: A Fossil Treasure Trove

Around perhaps 25,000 years ago in Southern Indiana, an injured Dire Wolf made its way into a cave and never came back out. With three good legs and one that had been out of socket for a year or so, the wolf crawled through the smaller spaces and eventually—whether through an accidental fall or otherwise—landed at the bottom of a deep pit. It was trapped.

Ron Richards, Senior Research Curator of Paleobiology at the Indiana State Museum, and his crew discovered its skeleton after digging in that particular room for 3 or 4 seasons.

Ron took that set of bones to pathologists for more information. However long that injury was sustained, and it was not a short amount of time, that wolf was a survivor. They determined the one leg probably didn’t touch the ground, but that it could probably still run using the other three.

“What normally is a circular ball-joint on his thighbone was flattened on one whole side,” Ron explained in a phone interview.

“I think that probably affected his ability to back out. Maybe he smelled some rotting carcass smell or something, got too near and couldn’t back out, and probably went over the top [of the pit.]”

A reconstruction of that event, complete with an actual cast of that specific room in the cave, can be seen at the Indiana State Museum today.

What may not be apparent was the work involved in creating that cast.

The word “cave” might invoke images of enormous open spaces underground. This is not at all that kind of cave. Not at the initial opening, nor at any space within as one moves deeper inside.

“Years ago, you had to go into a belly-crawl,” Ron said of the entrance, “but now we’ve moved through it so much, we can do a hands-and-knees crawl.”

They built a platform to work above water pooling at the bottom of the pit, and—in order to keep the walls dry for rubber molds—they used blowtorches. Ron, cave dig crewmembers and people from RCI (Research Casting International) worked together on the beginning stages of the room’s cast. The finished product was done at RCI headquarters in Ontario.

RCI - Dire wolf replica

[Image of the cave cast and wolf replica, http://www.rescast.com, by Research Casting International for the Indiana State Museum]

Nothing done in that cave is an easy process.

When Ron first began digging in that cave, he said, “I thought it would take 9 people 9 days, and we could finish the project.”

That was in 1987. The dig was prompted by the discovery of a single peccary bone.

Ever since, for approximately two weeks each year, Ron and his crew have returned to dig.

“[It was] the first big cave dig we had done,” he continued, describing that first year. “We’d done a couple of mastodon digs at the time, but we really had no money for the budget. There was nothing there. We had no trained staff. We had almost no equipment.”

“I remember pulling this together, pulling different people from different sections of the museum.”

And when it came to potential funding for this excavation, Ron recalled that he was asked, ‘Can’t you do this another time?’

“I didn’t know what to say,” he admitted, “so I didn’t say anything. The next day, we got the gear loaded, and we headed down for the cave. We just did not look back!”

“As it worked out, we dug, we found more bone: parts of little peccaries, parts of big peccaries, and other animals that no longer occur in the region.”

Peccaries are relatives of modern pigs, but instead of upper canine teeth that curve up—as in modern hogs—their teeth “drive straight down like daggers,” as Ron explained. Today, modern peccaries live within the Southwest United States, as well as in Central and South America. But during the Ice Age, peccaries were common in Indiana and Eastern U.S.

Peccary Fig 02  iceage13a upgraded

[Pleistocene peccary by Karen Yoler, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.  Per Ron Richards: “This image is artist Karen Yoler’s  concept of what the peccary looked like.  We did drop off the larger dew claws on the front legs and added a little more canine tooth size and gave it a more perpendicular orientation.”]

 

[Angry javelina–or collared peccary–close up. Javelina go by many names such as wild pig,boar,etc.; image and caption from Getty Images.]

Working deep in the cave initially, the crew created a system that they continue to use, with some improvements, to this day: some people dig in the cave and place the soil into buckets; other people haul the buckets out of the cave and bring them down to a stream; still others screen the soil for fossils.

All of the data is recorded; all of the soil is screened.

“Above you are big spiders—lots of cave spiders and cave crickets. They don’t bother you, but some people get the heebie-jeebies, you know? I mean, you look up, and there [are these] massive things moving around,” he said and chuckled.

In recent years, they’ve developed what Ron refers to as “tramways,” 60-70 feet of ramps created by parallel boards with cross slats. Tramways—some with rollers—help bring the buckets out of the entrance to the cave and down the hillside.

ISM - Cave with tramway

 

[Digging…with the tramway in position for hauling buckets of sediment out, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.]

To help carry 15-20 buckets at a time down to the spring to be screened, they employ an ATV with a tractor.

“[From all of the] tons of soil that gets screened,” Ron stated, “[there remains some] soil that’s left with small bones. We bag that out, bring it back to the museum, and then they rescreen it and clean it. And then–spoonful by spoonful–they go under the binocular microscope, and they pick out all the small bones and teeth.”

His crew is a dedicated group: leaving their hotel rooms at 8am and working throughout the day—with a short break for lunch–until 5pm (or later if the weather holds). Ideally, there are nine crewmembers per season, but they have done it with less people. Digging has sometimes required breaking rock, so among the many tools used are sledgehammers and chisels.

ISM - Cave digging

 

[Digging for peccary bones, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.]

 

Over the years, the cave rooms have gained descriptive names: the Peccary Room, for example, the X Room, and the Bat Room.

The “Microfauna Room” was named after the large amount of small bones they found when they began digging through the top layers of soil and rock. This is where the aforementioned Dire Wolf was discovered.

“Near the bottom of that room, down at the 25,000-yr level,” Ron explained, “we began to get fairly complete skeletons of things like Dire Wolf, Black Bear, an otter, a snowshoe hare, a lot of small shrews and mice.”

“We really believe that those animals fell in this pit. They dropped, and they went down about 15-20 feet. I think most of the time it was probably full of water.

“It’s just a lonely place to be. Whether they could stand at the bottom, I don’t know. But there’s no way out.

“There [was] enough mud washing in from the ceiling of that room that they were buried under real fine sediments. And that preserved them very well.”

Some of the fossils discovered have been both remarkable and rare. A tapir tooth—only the second to be found in the entire state of Indiana—was found in the cave. Several beautiful armadillo (Dasypus bellus) plates [osteoderms] have been discovered have been discovered (that is the actual name; ‘beautiful’ is not necessarily a description). Ron painted a picture of this by saying, “When one animal dies, there’s about 3,000 plates that disintegrate and go everywhere, like little dominoes.”

“Two years ago,” he said, describing the ‘Twilight Room’, “we started finding some articulated peccary skeletons.”

“Deep in the cave we didn’t find a lot of that. The bones would be disturbed, and you could just see sort of a jumbled mass that had been moved by water, by gravity, [or] by other animals.”

“In this room, we found things that were articulated, feet in place, all of the little toes in place. Really unusual.”

The earliest fossils found were parts of a giant land tortoise, a species that cannot live in cold climates. Finding this indicated that the area, at that time, did not freeze.

Also found were fossils of a pine marten, a species that, conversely, lives in Northern climates today.

And as for peccaries, Ron estimates that they have found the bones of approximately 650 individuals. They determined this number by by counting the total number of large, pointed canine teeth and dividing by four.

ISM - flat-headed peccary

[Bones & skull of the flat-headed peccary, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.]

“So the question is then: did they live here? Or did they all have a misfortune and die here? It’s a little of both, but it’s mainly that they probably inhabited this cave and rock shelter for most of that time period.”

Ron mentioned that a number of the fossil discoveries in the cave are new to him.

So how does one identify unfamiliar fossils?

“We have a general reference collection of modern bones,” he replied, “and there is a big collection at Indiana University, Bloomington that I had become very familiar with in the 1970’s and 1980’s.”

He went on to explain that he referenced available literature and visited other museum collections.

“I had written correspondence,” he continued, “and the mailing of specimens with several experts in the eastern United States. My foremost ‘mentors’ were Dr. Russell Graham (then The Illinois State Museum), and the late Dr. J. Alan Holman (The Museum, Michigan State University), but I also had open correspondence with the late John E. Guilday (Carnegie Museum of Natural History), the late Dr. Paul W. Parmalee (The McClung Museum, University of Tennessee), Dr. Holmes Semken (University of Iowa) and the late Wm. R. Adams (Zooarchaeology Laboratory, Indiana University).”

“Everything [is] dug in square units,” he said. “We have thousands of these units. We can show the distribution and abundance of anything that pretty much died in that cave for thousands of years.”

And the work is hardly done. Ron estimates that the digging portion may be completed within the next 5 seasons (5 years), but the analysis of the immense amount of fossils has yet to begin.

“We’ve got probably 30 radiocarbon dates from the cave. Every year, we get one or two more.”

Ron explained that the cave has, so far, produced “probably 7,000 small plastic boxes of small bones, and 2,000-3000 larger containers of larger bones.”

“It’s my job to identify those. But, you understand,” he said, laughing, “life is short. I could spend all my time, day and night, just working with that alone. It’s an immense project.”

————–

Many, many thanks to Ron Richards, whose generosity astounds me.  I am profoundly grateful for his time, his patience with my “volley of questions” and his fascinating descriptions.  It is always a pleasure and an honor connecting with him!

A sincere thank you to Bruce Williams for prompting this post!

**The name and location of this cave were intentionally left out for security reasons.

[Image of the Indiana State Museum, Getty Images]

Will the Illinois State Museum close?

IL State Museum, State Journal-Register

 

Screenshot from an excellent and informative article by Bernard Schoenburg at The State Journal-Register

 

The doors to the Illinois State Museum are not shut today, and–fortunately–they are not set to close until at least August 8th, according to an article yesterday in The State Journal-Register.

When I asked Chris Young, spokesperson at the IL Department of Natural Resources,  if there were any updates, he wrote, “There is no specific date set to suspend operations. As we discussed earlier, there is more work remaining to properly store collections, return borrowed items and call back items loaned for research.”

To keep informed on this issue, please check out the following resources:

  • Save the Illinois State Museum blog: https://savetheillinoisstatemuseum.wordpress.com (this page has contact details and how you can help: https://savetheillinoisstatemuseum.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/hello-world/)
  • Save the Illinois State Museum Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Save-the-Illinois-State-Museum/917517601639564?fref=nf
  • Sign the petition on MoveOn.org: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/governor-rauner-dont
  • Save the Illinois State Museum page on the American Alliance of Museums: http://t.congressweb.com/w/?GILOPWGAPZ

The commission this week set a public hearing on the closure of the Springfield museum for 4 p.m. July 13 in Room 2012 of the Statehouse. Anyone wishing to give oral testimony or submit written testimony can contact the commission at 785-3208 or by email at facilityclosure@ilga.gov. The email address is the same for submitting public comments.–Bernard Schoenburg, The State Journal-Register

—————

References:

Thank you again to Chris Young at the IL DNR!  

Thank you to Samantha Reif, the American Alliance of Museums, those behind any of the “Save the Illinois State Museum” resources (Facebook page, blog), and to all who are working behind the scenes to prevent the closure of these museums!

 

These Two Museums Need Your Help: Pt. 2 Illinois State Museum

Actually, the title to this post is a misnomer: there is one main branch of the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, but there are 4 other state museums in different locations that also fall under the “Illinois State Museum.”

And all five of them are under the threat of closure on July 1st.

On June 2nd, the office of Governor Bruce Rauner announced what programs he intended to cut in an attempt to save $400 million in the Illinois state budget.

As these museums fall under the responsibility of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Governor’s press release stated that the [IDNR] “will begin the process to suspend operations and close the five state museums to visitors. The state will continue to maintain and secure the museums to protect the artifacts and exhibits.

Gov Rauner shuts down museums

 

Screenshot of the Governor’s press release, highlighting the museum closure.

You can read about the many other program cuts and their potential impact here in this article in the Chicago Tribune. (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-rauner-madigan-budget-cuts-met-0603-20150602-story.html)

 

The idea of shutting down one museum—let alone five—seems incomprehensible. These museums collectively contain millions of artifacts.

Chris Young, a spokesperson for the IDNR, wrote in an email that the number of visitors to all museums last year was 386,750 people.  The specific number of people for each museum in 2014 is as follows:

  • Illinois State Museum main facility in Springfield plus Research and Collections Center:  199,304
  • Dickson Mounds:  50,297
  • Chicago Gallery:  64,300
  • Illinois Artisans Shop Chicago:  39,896
  • Lockport Gallery:  14,253
  • Southern Illinois Art Gallery:  18,700

These numbers do not take into account the online resources provided by the museums nor the collaboration between researchers in other states or countries.

Illinois State Museum websitehttp://www.museum.state.il.us/ismsites/main/

Illinois State Museum’s Ice Age website: http://iceage.museum.state.il.us/

iceage.museum.state.il.us

Screenshot of the Ice Age website released this year by the IL State Museum.

 

Enter Samantha Reif.  According to an article on NPR Illinois, she is both a museum volunteer and a geology teacher, and she created the MoveOn.org petition asking Gov. Rauner not to shut down the museums.  At the time of this post, there are 4,514 signatures.

But if the threat of shuttering them becomes real, how does one actually go about closing museums?

“The museum will return art objects owned by other entities that are currently on display,” Chris Young of the IDNR responded. “Consigned Illinois Artisan works also will be returned, as well as scientific collections from other museums and universities that have been borrowed for research purposes.”

“The museum’s staff will also be calling back artifacts and specimens that are on loan to other entities for research and exhibition,” he continued. “At this time, there is no definitive list of objects or collections to be returned.”

In addition, he wrote that the “museum currently has three active research grants from the National Science Foundation, and is a partner on a NSF education grant. [The] museum administration is working on a strategy for completion of the current grants.”

He noted that there are 68 people employed throughout these museums, but that lay-off notices have not yet been sent.

“Closure will come after the museum’s professional staff has adequate time to ensure that collections are properly accounted for and stored. No specific date has been set for closure as details are still being worked out.”

——————-

If you are Facebook, you can stay informed here:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Save-the-Illinois-State-Museum/917517601639564

You can sign this petition as well: Governor Rauner: Don’t Close the Illinois State Museum – MoveOn.org
http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/governor-rauner-dont.fb48

 

ISM Hot Science: The Importance of Museum Collections, Dr. Chris Widga at the IL State Museum on YouTube

 

Thank you to Chris Young at the IL Department of Natural Resources for his help and quick responses to my questions!

An enormous THANK YOU to Samantha Reif for creating the MoveOn.org petition!! 

Thank you to the American Alliance of Museums, from whom I initially heard about this through their tweet (https://twitter.com/AAMers/status/608034565085642752)!

This particular writer has gained invaluable information and help in the past from one of the museum’s paleontologists, Dr. Chris Widga, and from the informative website recently released about the Ice Age (http://iceage.museum.state.il.us/).

Tweet I love museums

(#ILoveMuseums originates from http://ilovemuseums.com, a campaign in the UK by the National Museum Directors’ Council.)

—————

References:

  1. Rauner starts budget cuts to force Dems to negotiate on his agenda, by Rick Pearson, Monique Garcia and Alejandra Cancino http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-rauner-madigan-budget-cuts-met-0603-20150602-story.html
  2. Rauner prepares to close state museums, shutter some prisons to balance ‘phony’ Democratic budget, by Becky Schlikerman: http://chicago.suntimes.com/news/7/71/656741/rauner-orders-cuts 
  3. Administration Initiates Management Steps to Prepare for Madigan-Cullerton Budget, Governor Rauner’s Office Press Release: http://www3.illinois.gov/PressReleases/ShowPressRelease.cfm?SubjectID=3&RecNum=13115
  4. Who won’t get paid if the Illinois budget stalemate drags on, by Thomas A. Corfman: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20150610/NEWS02/150619982/who-wont-get-paid-if-the-illinois-budget-stalemate-drags-on
  5. Illinois State Museum closing would be devastating, advocate says, by Bernard Schoenburg: http://www.sj-r.com/article/20150610/NEWS/150619927
  6. Will The Illinois State Museum Go The Way Of The Mastodon? by Amanda Vinicky, NPR Illinois: http://wuis.org/post/will-illinois-state-museum-go-way-mastodon

 

Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 1

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

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

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ISM - 2008 Benedict mastodon humurus

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

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

ISM - 2006 Lewis mastodon dig

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

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

ISM - 2006 Day mastodon dig

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum.]

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

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

ISM - 2006 Day mastodon dig volunteers

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

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

ISM - 2008 Benedict mastodon spine

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

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

“When we’re there, it’s not bad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Anderson mastodon skull front

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

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

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

ISM - Anderson mastodon

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

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

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

—————

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

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

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

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