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.

 

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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

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Minute Trace Fossils Offer Major Implications For Extinction Recovery

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

Fossi leaf with insect damage - Michael Donovan

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

References:

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

 

Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio

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

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

I envy the future.

I really do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maiasaura field site Montana

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

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

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

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

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

Growth rings in Maiasaura bone

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

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

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

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

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

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

But deciphering this required understanding bone growth in living species.

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

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

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

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

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

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

————–

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

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

References:

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

Digging Dinosaurs book cover

Jack Horner - inscription for post

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

Dick Mol – Renowned Mammoth Expert: Fossil Hunting in the Sea

‘Fossil-hunting’ often brings to mind remote locations filled with rocks, sparse vegetation and a bright, merciless sun.

But Dick Mol–an internationally renowned paleontologist–is part of a team that regularly uncovers fossils in an unusual place: the ocean.

Dick MolDick Mol holding Ice Age bison skull found in the North Sea, image courtesy of Rene Bleuanus and Dick Mol

 His expeditions take place upon the North Sea, a large expanse of ocean between the East coast of the United Kingdom and the coasts of several other European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany up through to Norway.

 

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“The North Sea is very rich,” wrote Dick Mol in an email. “Ever since 1874, fishermen have brought large quantities of bones and molars ashore.”

He himself has written articles about these finds, describing how the area is routinely dredged, enabling large ships passage on this navigational route. This dredging is what helps uncover fossils deposited there so many thousands of years ago. Coupled with trawling—a method of fishing that pulls weighted nets along the sea floor—these fossils are then brought to the surface.

“I learned about the Ice Age mammal remains, trawled by fishermen,” he explained, “from the curator of the Geological and Mineralogical Museum in Leiden, now the NCB Naturalis (Netherlands Center for Biodiversity). At that time, the attic of the museum was full of large bones of trawled mammoth bones, skulls and lower jaws. It was very impressive.”

Trawling boat, Stellendam harborFisherman preparing trawling nets as the ship leaves Stellendam harbor for the North Sea, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

“I remember,” he continued, “that in November 1992 I brought the late Dr. Andrei Sher, a renowned mammoth expert from Moscow, to the museum. When he entered the large attic, he didn’t believe what he was seeing: perhaps one of the largest collections of isolated mammoth bones in the world. This was recorded by a film crew making a documentary on mammoths in the Netherlands. Once in a while, I rewatch this brief documentary again, and it gives me very good memories of a longtime ago.”

“When he entered the large attic, he didn’t believe what he was seeing: perhaps one of the largest collections of isolated mammoth bones in the world.” — Dick Mol, describing the reaction of Dr. Andrei Sher to a collection of mammoth fossils from the North Sea at the NCB Naturalis in the Netherlands

Known to the world as Dick Mol, his name is actually Dirk Jan Mol, and he has been researching mammoths and other Pleistocene fauna for decades. One cannot study mammoths without becoming acquainted with his name and his work.

In response to what prompted his career in mammoths, he wrote, “I grew up on the border with Germany. Around the town of Winterswijk a lot of different geological sediments and fossils can be found from the Triassic, Cretaceous, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene and Holocene eras. In different quarries and clay-pits you could collect fossils, but none were of mammoths or remains of other Ice Age creatures.”

“I have been, since 1968, fascinated by mammoths. In the literature, you could read that these prehistoric animals stood up to 5 meters at shoulder (which was exaggerated, of course). I wanted to know more about mammoths and their ancestors. I wanted to find my own mammoths, but it seems that the mammoth has found me!”

“I wanted to find my own mammoths, but it seems that the mammoth has found me!” — Dick Mol

His enthusiasm for the topic has lead him to become a visiting scientist in 1990 and 1994 at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota—part of the “Visiting Scholar” program designed by Dr. Larry Agenbroad. He has co-authored numerous papers over the years, and his books include Mammoths (published 1993) and, more recently, Mammoths and Mastodons of the Haute-Loire (published 2010), a bilingual book he co-authored with French paleontologist, Frédéric Lacombat.

Scientists and explorers from all over the world have invited him to help excavate their discoveries: some of the most notable finds include the Jarkov woolly mammoth in Russia (Mammuthus primigenius), the Nolhac steppe mammoth in France (Mammuthus trogontherii), and parts of a mastodon skeleton in Greece (Mammut borsoni), in which the longest tusks found to-date were uncovered (502 cm in length).

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands knighted him for his work in paleontology in 2000. In addition, he is President of Mammuthus Club International and has been involved in the international conference related to mammoth research for years.

His family’s personal collection of fossils exceeds 30,000 specimens that have been used for educational purposes and scientific studies.

Today, he is a Research Associate at the following institutions:

For all of his accolades and accomplishments, Dick Mol is a very accessible and kind man. One witnesses his infectious enthusiasm in these two videos about his work in the North Sea:

 

Trawling for Mammoths: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01q0gfr

A Mammoth Task: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01q29mg

 

“Over the years, tons and tons of bones have been trawled by fishermen in their nets,” he reiterated. “Between 1997 and 2003, we weighed the mammoth bones: 57 tons, not including 8000 mammoth molars (!) of woolly mammoths. The southern bight of the North Sea between the British Islands and the Netherlands is very rich in Pleistocene mammal remains. It is a real treasure trove.”

“Between 1997 and 2003, we weighed the mammoth bones: 57 tons, not including 8000 mammoth molars (!) of woolly mammoths. The southern bight of the North Sea between the British Islands and the Netherlands is very rich in Pleistocene mammal remains. It is a real treasure trove.”–Dick Mol

“In the meantime, I have organized 43 mammoth fishing expeditions on the North Sea using big beam trawlers. Quite spectacular and always a good catch. Doing these expeditions gave us very good insight into those areas that are very productive and those areas in which Pleistocene fossils are scarce.”

Given the enormous number of fossils brought up from dredging, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to wonder whether there might be exciting fossil discoveries just waiting to be found if one could go even deeper.

“Yes, for sure,” he agreed. “Most of the bones trawled by the fishermen have been washed out of the seabed by currents. The Eurogully area, off the coast of the province of South-Holland, was dredged from 13 to 40 meters below sea level. At approximately 23-26 meters, there is a rich layer with bones and teeth from the Late Pleistocene. Deeper, there is a layer containing an interglacial fauna (110.000-130.000 BP) including Hippopotamusses and straight-tusked elephants. This is true for the entire southern bight of the North Sea.”

Private collector with femur of the so-called straight-tusked elepahnt, North Sea

Private collector with the femur of the so-called straight-tusked elephant from the North Sea,image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

But the cost of such an underwater excavation might be prohibitive.

“Once, I used a diver on one of the expeditions. Visibility was very poor, and it was not successful. But some divers in the past have found some mammoth remains. Amongst others, a diver brought up a complete mammoth tusk.”

Aside from the need to desalinate fossils found in the North Sea, they are not physically treated any differently than fossils one finds on land. And despite the wealth of fossils found thus far, Dick Mol does not have any favorites.

“For me,” he wrote, “every bone, bone fragment or remnant is unique and tells us a story….”

Mammoth tibia, freshly trawled, with fish... (1)

Mammoth tibia freshly trawled from the North Sea with fish, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

Keep in mind, however, that these fragments and bones are not found together.

Paleontology is like detective work: terrestrial excavations include mapping by grid, pictures, and notes related to where each bone is found. All of these details help paleontologists better understand what species it is and what happened to that animal before and after it died.

The bones found in the North Sea are pulled up individually in a mass of fish and other debris.

Without any of the clues available to someone digging on land, this begs the question: can one determine to which species a bone belongs in isolation?

“[A]fter spending more than 40 years of my life identifying isolated skeletal elements (we have never retrieved a complete skeleton from the North Sea bed) again and again, using comparative collections, it is possible to identify the specimens as soon as they are on the deck of the vessel.”

“Sometimes,” he added, “I need to use literature, but in most cases, an experienced anatomist can do it right away.”

And what about the isolated teeth that have been found in abundance?

“[A]t least three different species of mammoths are well-documented: from the Early Pleistocene the southern mammoth, (Mammuthus meridionalis); from the Middle Pleistocene the steppe mammoth, (Mammuthus trogontherii); and from the Late Pleistocene the woolly mammoth, the icon of the Ice Age, (Mammuthus primigenius). The molars of these species are quite different and easy to tell apart from each other by an experienced specialist.”

Grooves and marks upon the bones give rise to questions about who or what caused them: humans or other Pleistocene animals? And how can one tell the difference?

“Hyena gnawing marks and other predators are well-known and, in general, easy to recognize. Of course, you need some training and experience. Sometimes, especially in large bones, one can see the deep grooves in the so-called material spongiosa caused by hyena (pre)molars. Hyena gnawing marks are very often found in the skeletal remains of woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. The ice-aged hyena was very common on the Late Pleistocene mammoth steppe environment. Cut marks caused by human activity are completely different from those of predators.”

The “quality and quantity” of the fossils in the North Sea are two things that surprise him the most.

“We have huge collections, and we are constantly learning from them.”

Storage private collection Urk (1)

Private fossil collection storage, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol (Dick Mol is pictured on the left)

Highlighting mammoth teeth

Please click on this (or any) image to see it in more detail, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol; highlighting by author

“Recently, many collectors are also focusing on small mammal remains (micro-mammals like voles and lemmings). These remains can be found on the beaches of the North Sea where Pleistocene sediments have been added to strengthen the coastline. Some collectors have hundreds and hundreds of small molars of the entire small mammal fauna. These small mammal remains provide very interesting data to complete the picture of the woolly mammoth and its Ice Age world. In other words, it gives us a window into the small animal community that coexisted with the megafauna.”

“These small mammal remains provide very interesting data to complete the picture of the woolly mammoth and its Ice Age world. In other words, it gives us a window into the small animal community that coexisted with the megafauna.”–Dick Mol

There are two questions that come to mind regarding the volume of fossils collected so far: where are these fossils stored and how long does it take to catalog and study such collections?

“It is a continuous process,” he stated, referring to the length of time needed to catalog and study the fossils.

But in terms of where they are stored, he wrote, “[t]he NCB Naturalis (Netherlands Center of Biodiversity Naturalis in Leiden) has a huge collection of fossil bones from both the North Sea, as well as from dredging operations in the floodplain of our rivers like Rhine, Meuse and IJssel. Really, a huge collection.”

“Using about 200 skeletal elements of mammoths of almost the same size, same age and same gender, we compiled a skeleton for museum display, a huge male individual. Another extensive collection is housed at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam. Here, a huge collection of Pliocene and Pleistocene marine mammals is stored. Most of these marine mammal remains have been trawled from the seabed as well, and some of these animals coexisted together with terrestrial mammals like mammoths and other large animals. The marine mammals were living in the paleodeltas.”

Compilation skeleton woolly mammoth, NCB Naturalis Leiden (1)

 

Woolly mammoth skeleton at the NCB Naturalis Leiden Museum, the Netherlands, composed of individual fossils found within the North Sea, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

“And there are some private collections. Some of them are very well documented. They are like professional collections, and they are available and often used for scientific studies.”

“The co-operation between non-professional and professional paleontologists is extremely good in the Netherlands. For more than three decades, both groups have been working closely together on mammoths and mammoth fauna, scoring very interesting results like 14C, stabile isotopes, new species, etc.”

Dick Mol himself posed the final question: “What can we learn from the mammoth bones trawled from the North Sea between the British Islands and the Netherlands?

“The rich terrestrial mammal remains trawled teach us that the North Sea between Britain and the Netherlands was once dry land,” he explained. “The British Islands were connected with the mainland of Europe during the entire Pleistocene or Ice Age (2.580.000 – 11.500 BP). That area was inhabited by different faunas.”

“In the Early Pleistocene, it was a savannah-like environment, dominated by the southern or ancestral mammoths, (Mammuthus meridionalis). In the Middle Pleistocene, it was a steppe-like environment dominated by the steppe mammoth, (Mammuthus trogontherii), and in the Late Pleistocene, it was a cold, dry and almost treeless steppe dominated by woolly mammoths, (Mammuthus primigenius).”

Dick Mol - compilation skeleton

Woolly mammoth skeleton at the Hellevoetsluis Museum, the Netherlands, composed of individual fossils found within the North Sea, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

“At the end of the Pleistocene, this landscape disappeared, caused by dramatic change of climate. It became warmer and warmer, and ice–which blanketed the northern hemisphere–started to melt. Melted water filled up lower countries, and the vast plain became ocean. We know this area today as the ‘North Sea’, and it reached its present sea level about 8,000 years ago. The mammoth steppe disappeared and the mammoth fauna became extinct. This extinction is what we need to accept; it is not dramatic.”

“These events—of which we can learn from the North Sea fossils–show us that we are on a living planet and extinction belongs to it.”
————-

A Mammuthus trogontherii-sized THANK YOU to Dick Mol for his generous and detailed answers to my many, many questions; for his time, his wisdom and his thoughtfulness! What a truly great honor and a great pleasure!!

Dick Mol

 

Dick Mol, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

Dick Mol’s papers and research: http://hetnatuurhistorisch.academia.edu/DickMol

The Eurogeul—first report of the palaeontological, palynological and archaeological investigations of this part of the North Sea:  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1040618205000649

For fascinating pictures and in-depth descriptions of mastodons and mammoths, Mammoths and Mastodons of the Haute-Loire is a great book (published 2010, in English and in French):  http://www.amazon.fr/Mammouths-Mastodontes-Haute-Loire-Dick-Mol/dp/2911794974/

If you are interested in seeing more of Hans Wildschut’s exciting work, here are links provided by Dick Mol:

Trawling and fossils:

Hans Wildschut – trawling for fossils

Hans Wildschut – fossil finds

Hans Wildschut – trawling for fossils, December 2010

Hans Wildschut – exciting fossil finds and collection (Urk)

Remie Bakker and the creation of the life-sized model of the Mastodon of Auvergne:

Hans Wildschut – Remie Bakker’s work