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
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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.

Persistence Cave: A rich resource for paleontological research

Caves whisper exploration and discovery.

Anyone who has ever set foot in a cave of any size cannot help but wonder what lies beyond, what lurks in the crevices, the darkness.  Stepping into a cave is stepping into the entrance of mystery just waiting to be revealed.  In a world that has been largely tamed to fit the human species, there are few spaces that still hold an element of danger.  These unknown spaces beckon to the adventurous: “Explore me!” And who wouldn’t answer that call?

Me, that’s who. I am perfectly happy learning about the discoveries in caves from other people, thank you very much.

For people like me, Twitter and blogs have provided tantalizing glimpses of such explorations the world over.  And one of the more fascinating adventures has taken place at Persistence Cave, just one cave of many at Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.

“Wind Cave National Park is full of fossils. Almost everywhere you go there’s going to be fossils: in the cave and at the surface. So Wind Cave National Park actually has [perhaps] 30-40 fossil sites.”

PhD student Jeff Martin explained more about the work he and his colleagues conducted there last season as he and his wife were literally driving to Texas to begin a new chapter in their lives. He was in the moving truck; his wife was in the jeep ahead.  Jeff and I had been in touch by email from time-to-time over the past year. As luck would have it, and thanks to his seemingly unending generosity, the time to discuss Persistence Cave by phone was while he was on the open road.

Wind Cave—as we know it now—was named because of the air that blows through an opening within.  It was considered a sacred place to the Native Americans long before settlers knew of its existence.  The Lakota people refer to the Black Hills (where Wind Cave is located) as ‘He Sapa’, (although it is listed as ‘Paha Sapa‘ on the Wind Cave National Park site).  Eventually, in 1903, it became the 8th National Park, but the first one to center around a cave.

Persistence Cave, a much smaller and less-explored cave in the park, was discovered by accident by Marc Ohms, spelunker and physical science technician for the park, in 2004.  His initial foray into the cave was brief: moving a cap rock, peering inside, seeing a rattlesnake, and deftly removing himself from the opening.

But its value as a fossil site was discovered thanks to another member of the park.

“Rod Horrocks, Wind Cave National Park Physical Scientist, in 2013, collected some sediment for preliminary analysis to see whether the site is paleontologically productive,” Jeff explained by email earlier.

It was, and this analysis is what eventually brought several scientists from diverse locations together.

Rod Horrocks sent the material to Dr. Jim Mead, Persistence Cave Project Leader, then at East Tennessee State University, where Jeff was a Master’s student at the time.  Jeff eventually moved to the University of Maine for his PhD, where Dr. Jacquelyn Gill was his advisor.

Sharon Holte, PhD Candidate at the University of Florida, was also a previous Master’s student of Jim’s, as well as Dr. Chris Jass at the Royal Alberta Museum,” wrote Jeff, explaining the connections between the Persistence Cave teammates. “He knows that we each excel in different aspects of vertebrate paleontology, and he invited each of us to collaborate on [and] bring our expertise into the research project. I brought Dr. Gill with me to the Black Hills to see the cave and to learn how a paleontological excavation is usually conducted. She brings a different set of skills related to paleoecology and palynology.”

Also on the team are undergraduate Chason Frost from the University of Maine who studies horticulture.  His skills and those of Dr. Gill help the group understand that fossil plants and pollen found in the cave.

Sharon Holte, aside from being one of the three principal spelunkers in this dig, is in charge of educational components.  Chris Bell at the University of Texas Austin studies the fossil rodents; Dr. Chris Jass and Dr. Jim Mead study fossil rodents as well, but include fossil snakes.

“Each person has their role,” he said, “their own ecological-niche, if you will.”

And Jeff?  He is the “bison guy.”

“My PhD research and dissertation focuses on bison body size adaptation to climate change over the past 40,000 years and how does that evolutionary legacy influence the bison we ranch today,” he wrote before he graduated this past Spring. “To answer this, I am using Persistence Cave and other fossil sites in Wind Cave National Park boundaries to geographically isolate my variation to only local animals.”

Wind Cave National Park, currently home to 400+ extant bison, offers information on both fossil bison and their living descendants.

 

EPSON DSC picture
EPSON DSC picture; bison at Wind Cave National Park, public domain from the National Park Service

 

“Collectively, we (Jacquelyn, Chason, and I) will then also look at the pollen grains and macro-botanicals preserved in the sediment to reconstruct the paleoecology and paleoclimate of the Black Hills through the last 11,000+ years to today. This is [to understand] the climate and ecology the bison were living in at these times.”

But let’s get back to the cave itself.

Below is an image of Natural Trap Cave (another exciting fossil cave dig in Wyoming; photo from myfossil.org):

 

Natural Trap Cave from myfossil.org

 

Compare that to an image of Persistence Cave from the top looking in (photo: Chason Frost as posted on Jeff Martin’s blog here):

 

Photo by Chason Frost - Persistence Cave entrance from Jeff's blog

 

 

 

And one of Sharon Holte peering out:

 

CB - SHolte peering out of cave

 

 

Finally, below is an image from the Rapid City Journal of “a tight spot in Wind Cave” (photo: National Park Service):

Marc Ohms WCNP National Park Service

 

When I asked about how this image compares to the space within Persistence Cave, I was surprised by Jeff’s email response.

“The picture above is much larger than the cave we are working in,” he described of the 2015 dig.  “The cave is very narrow and only fits one person’s shoulder width and up to 1.5 shoulder widths in places. The vertical height is similar to the above photo though.”

“I’m a broad shouldered fella’ and very, very tall,” he continued by phone recently. “The space in there to turn around is not quite enough for me, so I’d have to climb in and then climb backwards out.”

“Chris Jass and I are both the exact same height. Chris is a far more experienced spelunker, and even Chris wasn’t going in there.”

Sharon Holte, Chason Frost and Jim Mead were the principal spelunkers for the site.  Only one person could be in the cave at a time, and their only source of light came from a headlamp.  Trowels, buckets and ropes: their only tools.

 

CB - Sharon Holte important gear


“I thanked them endlessly, and I still thank them for all the work they were doing down in there,” Jeff said of his three colleagues. (A video of Sharon’s work in the cave can be found here.)

Work involved taking chunks of sediment in buckets out of the cave, tagging it, labeling the information (where that sediment appeared on the appropriate grid, at what depth, etc.), bagging that sediment, and then sending it down—by zipline, of all things!—to the truck below, where it could be taken to be screenwashed by other team members. (You can see a video of that process here, on Jeff’s blog.)

 

CB - screenwashing for microfossils

Screenshot of tweet during the 2015 Persistence Cave (#cavebison) dig

 

Their fossil discoveries have been diverse. Jeff wrote that “[a] camelid, (the species is unknown at this time), has been an extraordinary find. We have 5 different kinds of snakes and at least 5 different species of bats. [A] pika is also an intriguing find.”

 

 

CB - Jim Mead and snakes

CB - fossils found

 

CB - snake fossil

 

CB - toe bone and Jeff Martin

 

CB - Jeff Martins favorite bone found at that point

Screenshots of some of the many tweets during the 2015 Persistence Cave (#cavebison) dig

 

“One of the fun things that we ran across was a ton of Ponderosa pine needles,” he mused later by phone. “That’s the primary tree out there now.  Today, they’re mostly a two-needle bundle. In the past, it seems as though they were a three-needle bundle. And we don’t know exactly what that means yet.  So we’re trying to figure out if that means anything at all; if it’s a genetic difference; or if it truly is an environmental difference that it’s responding to.”

 

CB - Twitter conversation about plants

Screenshots of some of the many tweets during the 2015 Persistence Cave (#cavebison) dig; the scientists involved in this dig didn’t just conduct research, they also conducted outreach to the larger public through social media.

 

 

Work did not continue as expected on the site this year for a number of reasons, but it’s not over yet.  Studies on the fossils continue at the University of Maine (pollen and plants); the bison fossils have travelled with Jeff to Texas A&M University where he is now in wildlife sciences; and the rest of the fossils are housed at The Mammoth Site, where Dr. Jim Mead is currently Chief Scientist and Director.

The Mammoth Site is another major connection between many of the team members, as they have each “worked [there] at some point…over the last 40 years.”

As many know, that site is a paleontological (and proboscidean!) goldmine turned museum, thanks to the work of many, including the late Dr. Larry Agenbroad.  Over 60 mammoth fossils have been discovered there to-date, among other fossil species.

Bonebed at The Mammoth Site

Image of the bonebed at The Mammoth Site where excavations continue to this day

 

“He was probably THE reason that I got into the School of Mines [as an undergrad] and was also the reason I got into paleontology,” Jeff said of Dr. Agenbroad.

“I’m not alone,” he continued. “There are several of us that are like that.  We all stem from Larry.”

The reverence in his voice was not difficult for me to understand.

Jeff’s introduction to this paleontologist began when he was much younger, through the 2000 documentary “Raising the Mammoth.” The film focuses on the Jarkov mammoth, and Bernard Buigues’ attempts to excavate it.  The team Buigues calls upon to help include some giants of proboscidean research: Dick Mol and Larry Agenbroad.

A year or so after seeing that film, Jeff’s family traveled to The Mammoth Site.  It was winter in South Dakota, and, he said, his family basically had “the run of the whole place.”  With a graciousness I am sure permeates everyone who works at that site, one of the interpreters (‘docents’) offered to bring Dr. Agenbroad out to meet them.

“There’s 8-year-old me that’s just giddy with joy to be able to meet one of my idols,” Jeff shared with no small amount of enthusiasm. “And then he said, ‘You’re a little bit too young to work for me. Come back when you’re older.’”

“So that’s exactly what I did. I worked for him in [the summers of] 2007 at the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Site and  2008 and 2009 at the Mammoth Site as an intern while I was at the School of Mines.”

Dr. Agenbroad passed away two years ago, followed by his wife, Wanda, a month later.  This saddened me as someone who did not know him closely; I could only imagine how this affected Jeff, who had.

“I’ve made my peace with it,” he acknowledged, and then said something that truly moved me: “I have several things that Jim [Mead] gave me…and one of them is a pocketknife that I carry on me every single day. One of the same pocketknives that Larry carried on him every single day. So I’ve got Larry with me, right now, as a matter of fact.”

Jeff and his colleagues hope to resume work at Persistence Cave next year.

As we discussed some of the findings from last year’s dig, he said, “The oldest date right now at Persistence Cave is at 39,000 and the youngest date is at 3,200.  We have some 37,000 years of deposits with bison throughout. And we also have [modern-day] bison living at the surface!”

Jeff’s research, both of Persistence Cave and of Project Bison, underscore his passion for this animal, as well as the desire to understand its ecological significance.

“I’m looking at both the fossil record and looking at their body size, using the calcaneum [heel bone] as the proxy for body mass. And then also comparing that to modern bison that have just recently passed away within the past 1-3 years.  That’s what I was doing this past summer: going to carcass sites and measuring their calcanea. The unique thing about Wind Cave is that they have almost every single animal microchipped. So they can track this animal throughout its life. On top of that, they bring them in once a year and weigh them. So now we have a known mass of these animals and now a known measurement, because I measured some of their calcanea.

“I’ve got some [fossil bison calcaneal] measurements that go up to 180 millimeters, and I also have Bison bison today that the longest that I’ll find are 130 millimeters.  So quite a body size change in between the fossil and modern.”

Jeff presented some of his research at last year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) meeting in Dallas.

Describing the results, he explained, “As it gets colder, bison get bigger.  As temperatures are increasing, bison get smaller. That has modern day application to the bison industry today. If we’ll have smaller bison with future global warming, we’re going to have to change our management options.”

As I pondered all of the information Jeff had shared with me about the work he and his colleagues had done, I couldn’t help but go back to the images of how small the cave actually is. If Wind Cave National Park has an abundance of fossil sites, why go through the trouble of trying to access this one?

“Surface localities often represent a one-time event,” he explained. “Persistence Cave represents many events over a long period of time. That’s the unique part of this locality.”

I will continue to enjoy their adventures from the safety of my computer!

 

**************

Jeff Martin: you were extraordinarily generous with your time and responses to my myriad questions.  Likewise, I am in awe of how open you were with your experiences.  For being willing to share all of this, I am truly grateful.  It was an honor and a pleasure connecting with you!

When #CaveBison starts up again, you can be sure it will be on Twitter!  Follow these scientists:

@BisonJeff

@JacquelynGill

@SharonHolte

@Pocket_Botanist

@MammothSite

 

You can follow Jeff’s research here and here

Jacquelyn Gill is one of three hosts of the podcast, Warm Regards, which discusses climate change.