Ghostly Traces of Ancient Behemoths

A recent article in the New York Times described challenges facing the Iraq Museum. Heavily looted in 2003 during the US invasion, it reopened in 2015 with a considerable collection, yet still struggles with public engagement. Not surprising, as there appear to be few resources to help visitors, such as audiovisual aids or docents. But what struck me most were the words of Iraq’s Cultural Minister, Abdulameer al-Hamdani, who said, referencing the artifacts in display cases, “In a box, art has no soul.”  His statement revolved around context: if you don’t understand what you’re looking at, its impact may not be as powerful.  As NY Times journalist, Alissa Rubin, explained, “Great works like the three-foot-tall Warka vase…are arresting sights but much more so when their history is explained.”

This resonates strongly for me when thinking of paleontology.

It’s easy to be impressed with larger fossils, articulated skeletons displayed in life-like poses. Regardless of one’s level of interest or knowledge, we can appreciate a mounted Triceratops. We know what that is. When you learn about the research done within the bones, however, and discover how scientists are learning about growth rates, blood vessel volume, what that blood vessel volume means for the way that dinosaur looked, whether areas of the body were covered in keratin or scales, that mounted skeleton takes on an entirely new meaning.  It becomes fleshed out in our mental images.  It goes from, “yes, that is an impressive fossil” to “WOW.  What an incredible animal!”  And, consequently, we have more connection to it.

That connection, to me, is the “soul” referenced by Mr. al-Hamdani. The details an ordinary person wouldn’t see when looking at fossils are the very things that bring that extinct species back to life.

 

Image of ‘Cliff,’ the Triceratops fossil at the Boston Museum of Science, photo taken by Jeanne Timmons. (‘Cliff’ might imply we know the sex of this animal; we do not. I don’t believe this was named by museum staff.)

 

When a friend of mine mentioned an upcoming trip to White Sands National Monument, it was with a sense of excitement, and I was happy for him.  White Sands was a name I recognized. It was, after all, the site of an incredible discovery unveiled last year: Giant Ground Sloth fossil footprints interacting with fossil hominid footprints. Evidence that humans may have been stalking that sloth, perhaps hunting it or, as Ed Yong at The Atlantic suggested in his piece about the discovery, maybe toying with it. Whatever their intent, hominids were doing something that repeatedly caused the sloth to turn abruptly and leave prints suggesting defensive movement.  

Paleoart of the possible interaction between a Giant Ground Sloth and ancient hominids, as depicted by Alex McClelland from Bournemouth University

 

That research put the National Monument on the map for many of us. I’d read the research and the articles about it.  I had a general idea of what was there.  “Footprints preserve terminal Pleistocene hunt? Human-sloth interactions in North America” (the 2018 paper of that discovery) mentioned that sloth and hominid footprints are only two of several species that left tracks so long ago in what is now New Mexico.  Preserved tracks remain of camelids, canids, bovids, felids, and proboscideans (most likely Columbian mammoths, although mastodons are possible, too).

So I understood my friend’s excitement, and I shared it to the degree of what little I knew of White Sands at the time, but I think it’s fair to say our levels of excitement were distinctly different.

 

Image of fossil hominid footprint inside a fossil Giant Ground Sloth footprint, photo courtesy of David Bustos, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

 

 

Then I connected with scientists actively researching there.  Dr. Sally Reynolds, Dr. Matthew Bennett and David Bustos are three of the co-authors on the aforementioned paper, and they are among the authors of yet another paper on White Sands to be published in this August’s edition of Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

Soft-sediment deformation below mammoth tracks at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico) with implications for biomechanical inferences from tracks” offers detailed insight into mammoth footprints and how they impacted the ground upon which they walked. To do so, the scientists analyzed the rock below the tracks themselves.

This study is arguably an asset to ichnologists, those who specialize in fossil traces such as bite marks, scratches, footprints and more. It provides richly detailed graphics and descriptions of how the mammoths’ foot pressures affected the sediment. Because hominid tracks intersect and even step into mammoth tracks, these footprints are analyzed as well.

Admittedly, this information might not be first choice among those who aren’t ichnologists, but I guarantee you their interpretation of this information might be.

Understanding what these footprints reveal is like opening a window into a moment of that animal’s life.  It can tell us about the possible weight and size of the animal who made them; the stride of that animal; whether it was walking, limping or running; whether it was alone or not; and it tell us about the environment in which it walked.  These are clues into the behavior of the animal, an entire realm beyond its physical make-up.

 

 

Screenshot of mammoth footprint analysis (deformation structures) at White Sands by Bennett et al, “Soft-sediment deformation below mammoth tracks at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico) with implications for biomechanical inferences from tracks” 

 

 

This is exactly what interests Dr. Sally Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Hominin Palaeoecology and Deputy Head of the Institute for Studies of Landscape and Human Evolution (ISLHE) at Bournemouth University.

“I’m interested in the footprint in the behavioural context,” she wrote in an email. “What do the footprints tell us about the snapshot of activity taking place?”

“I like to think in terms of how these people used their landscape,” she continued, referencing her work understanding the paleoecology of an area and how that impacted ancient hominids. “I ask myself and the team questions like:

  1. Where was the water? Were they waiting by the water to ambush the prey animals?
  2. What were they eating? Plants, insects, animal prey?
  3. What sort of technologies did they have for collecting these? Evidence of hunting, but also gathering, trapping etc.
  4. What sort of toolkits did they have to use? Stone tools, fire etc.
  5. What were they afraid of? Predators, poisonous snakes, etc. These animals are still largely resident in the region today. There is much recent ethnographic and ecosystem evidence that can be considered when reconstructing the ancient worlds of these people.
  6. Group size? Gender roles, presence of children, roles of children.”

While he focuses more on ichnology, that sentiment is echoed by Dr. Matthew Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, also at Bournemouth University.

“I am now more interested in behavioural ecology derived from footprints – basically how one animal (human or not) interacts with another,” he wrote. “This for me is where the excitement and new research frontier is.”

 

Fossil hominid footprint within a fossil mammoth footprint at White Sands, photo courtesy of David Bustos

 

Both scientists have published on fossil hominids–footprints and bones–and associated ichnofossils of other species for years. Their collective expertise lends crucial understanding to an area in which there are not just a few footprints here and there, but thousands upon thousands.

More importantly, these footprints—in some cases—go on extensively.

“Some of [the trackways] go for half a mile or a mile. We have a camel track that [is] almost two miles,” David Bustos, Resource Manager for White Sands explained by phone.  “Because these prints are so long, they allow you to see interactions that you wouldn’t see at other places. They’re so unique. There are prints all over the world, but to have prints that extend for such a long distance and keep interacting with other animals or people is very unique.”

I want to reiterate that point, because this is where my enthusiasm for White Sands became almost palpable: the tracks at that site are not only profuse, they can be followed over 1-2 miles.  If relatively short trackways have provided great insight into extinct behavior, these tracks offer potentially unparalleled revelations.

“[T]he thing about it is,” he continued, referencing the sloth and hominid trackways described in the 2018 paper, “it’s not the only occurrence.  This is happening over and over across Monument lands.”

 

Screenshot of fig. S3. from Supplementary Materials for “Footprints preserve terminal Pleistocene hunt? Human-sloth interactions in North America”

fig. S3. Map of part of the study site. The map shows sloth and human tracks as well as track density across the whole site (inset). Note the non-linear sloth trackways and sudden changes of direction. “Flailing circles” occur only in association with human tracks.

 

“We see human, mammoth, Giant Ground Sloth, and camel prints commonly together across the monument. Occasionally you’ll see bison and occasionally you’ll see dire wolf or American lion or some type of felid.”

“The proboscidean prints we have are amazing. We have thousands of these prints at the monument. (They are probably the most numerous track type we have.) In the tracks, you can see young and old animals.  Some places you can see the prints of the young running in circles and then nudging up against the larger animals perhaps to say ‘hello’ or [to] nurse.“

A fossil Giant Ground Sloth trackway at White Sands, photo courtesy of David Bustos.

 

But there’s a twist: seeing some of the tracks depends upon just the right environmental conditions.

As David explains, “You’ll walk by the same area for years, [and] then the conditions will change. There is now a fine salt crust on the surface, and in the crust you’ll find a whole new set of prints, only to be gone the next day. These are the trackways that we call ghost prints.”

“[We saw] thousands of new prints we’ve never seen before,” he said, illustrating just one example. “And they were gone two or three days later. You couldn’t see them anymore. [S]omething changed with the soil that didn’t leave a fine salt crust over everything.”

Alarmed, I asked him if this meant they were gone for good.  He assured me that, “They’re still there, so if we were to look for them with GPR [ground-penetrating radar] or scrape back the soil, they would be there. But they’re not visible to the naked eye. You can’t see them.”

Ghost tracks (or “ghost prints”) aside, there is another, more ominous threat to the trackways: erosion.  This has lead David Bustos and his team at White Sands to work diligently to preserve as much as they as quickly as they can.  They are a small operation.  They’ve looked to outside groups and experts to help understand the fossils, see the value of the site, get the word out and help save the footprints.  To that end, they have actually excavated tracks.

“[The footprints] that we have brushed open [are] a small sample of [specific trackways],” David expressed. “There might be 2-3,000 prints, and, of those, we might open up 15 prints or so.  [The reason we excavate them at all is to get a better] understanding of the different types of prints, how they differ from each other (are toes visible,  how deep are the prints, how did they walk, were they slipping in the mud), and to get [good] measurements for the gait and stride and pace and all of those types of things. After the measurements are taken and prints documented, the prints are filled in.”

 

Images of the various types of proboscidean footprints found at White Sands: what they look like above ground and then images of what they look like underground; photos and graphics from the National Park Service.

 

 

Despite their hard work, it is not always enough.

“We were seeing places where we know we’ve lost large-scale sets of prints and tracks from soil erosion,” he stated.

David compared the loss of those prints to a significant loss of books from the Library of Congress.  Losing those fossils is like losing an enormous “volume of data.”

“[T]hey’re incredible in the stories that they tell you,” he said.  “A mother carrying a child. Or an old person limping along w/a larger group. Or maybe a younger person sprinting along the larger group (deep prints that are nearly three times the length of a walking stride). You see people interacting with each other.  And you see people interacting with the megafauna.”

Still, he is hopeful.

“It’s been an amazing project and we’ve had a lot of great support from everyone who helped us to get where we are.”

“It seems like every year there’s more and more  discoveries.  We’ve looked at maybe less than 1% of 51,000 acres that could contain trackways.”

The published research done by David, Sally, Matthew and their co-authors is far from finished.  Offering me tantalizing clues, I would encourage everyone to keep an eye out for what comes next.

As far as the secrets revealed by White Sands National Monument, this is only the beginning.

Partial screenshot of an image from “Soft-sediment deformation below mammoth tracks at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico) with implications for biomechanical inferences from tracks” that illustrates where in White Sands the research was done and the megafauna that left footprints

 

*****

There is currently a Senate bill to make White Sands National Monument a National Park!!

More info here: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/116/s1582/text/

Dr. Matthew Bennett has freeware that, as he describes it, “allows you to capture tracks digitally using photogrammetry (20-40 oblique photos with a digital camera), but crucially it provides you with a series of tools to analysis and compare those tracks. Unlike many 3D programmes that have to cater for lots of users with different requirements, this is purely for footprints.”

Find out more here: DigTrace, http://www.digtrace.co.uk

 

References:

  1. Bennett, Matthew R., Bustos, David, Belvedere, Matteo, Martinez, Patrick, Reynolds, Sally C., Urban, Tommy; Soft-sediment deformation below mammoth tracks at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico) with implications for biomechanical inferences from tracks; Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 1 August 2019
  2. Bustos, David,  Jakeway, Jackson, Urban, Tommy M., Holliday, Vance T., Fenerty, Brendan, Raichlen, David A., Budka, Marcin, Reynolds, Sally C., Allen, Bruce D., Love, David W., Santucci,  Vincent L., Odess, Daniel, Willey, Patric, McDonald,  H. Gregory,  Bennett, Matthew R.; Footprints preserve terminal Pleistocene hunt? Human-sloth interactions in North America; Science Advances, 25 April 2018
  3. Bustos, David, Much More than a Sand Box: Fossil Tracks from the Lakes of the World’s Largest Gypsum Dune Field, Park Paleontology News – Vol. 09, No. 2, Fall 2017
  4. Bustos, David, National Park Service, Lake Lucero Ranger Minute, YouTube, Nov 21, 2016
  5. Bustos, David, Love, David W., Allen, Bruce D., Santucci, Vincent L., Knapp, Jonathan P.; Diverse Array of Soft-Sediment Fossil Vertebrate Tracks from the World’s Largest Gypsum Dune Field, GSA Annual Meeting, Denver, 2016
  6. Martin, Anthony J., Dinosaurs Without Bones, Pegasus Books, 2014
  7. National Park Service, White Sands National Monument, The Pleistocene Trackways of White Sands National Monument, 2013
  8. Rubin, Alissa J., In Iraq Museum, There Are Things ‘That Are Nowhere Else in the World‘, NY Times, June 9, 2019
  9. Yong, Ed, Fossilized Human Footprint Found Nestled in a Giant Sloth Footprint, The Atlantic, April 25, 2018
  10. White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, USA

 

What a great honor and a pleasure to connect with Sally Reynolds, Matthew Bennett and David Bustos!! Sincere thanks to all of you!!  Sally, your kind responses to my emails, your fascinating answers to my questions, and your constant support on Twitter have been great.  Matthew, thank you for your detailed responses at a time when you were incredibly busy.  David, thank you for responding to my emails and for making time to discuss my questions further by phone.  I wish all of you the best with your research, and I cannot wait to read what comes out next!!

This post would not have been possible without the thoughtfulness and help of my friend, Dick Mol.  Dick: You are a wonderful and generous person. THANK YOU. This post is dedicated to you and Friedje.

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Sousatitan: Brazil’s oldest sauropod bone found in a sea of trace fossils

One man happened to see the bone; one scientist happened to see the picture he posted online.

These two chance occurrences brought about a remarkable discovery: the first fossil dinosaur bone to be found where none have been found before.

Not only is it the first dinosaur bone in the area, it is also the oldest sauropod bone in Brazil to-date, a new as-yet-unnamed species of titanosaur.

Luiz Carlos Gomes was looking for fossil footprints in Sousa, Brazil. Hundreds upon hundreds of trackways, footprints and other trace fossils have already been found in Paraíba–a state in the West coast of that country and where Sousa is located–in an area known as the ‘Valley of the Dinosaurs‘ (‘Vale dos Dinossauros‘). But actual bone fossils? None.

None, that is, until he recognized actual bone within rock.

“He was the main [person] responsible for the discovery,” wrote Dr. Aline Ghilardi, paleontologist at Universidade Federal de São Carlos, in an email. “Luiz Carlos is a very curious retired gentleman whose hobby is to look for dinosaur footprints. He found the bone by chance (it was still inserted into the rock, so he knew it was not only a recent bone), took a picture of it and posted on the internet. Searching information about the area, I found the photo by chance, and, knowing the importance of the discovery, immediately got in touch with him.”

 

Trackway from Bone Collectors Video - Brazil

More tracks in Brazil from Bone Collectors video

Images of fossil footprints found in the Valley of the Dinosaurs (Vale dos Dinossauros) in the state of Paraíba, Brazil; screenshots from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Luiz Carlos and Aline from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Image of Luiz Carlos S. Gomes and Dr. Aline Ghilardi; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

That bone was the subject of a paper published this past July in Cretaceous Research by Aline Ghilardi, Tito Aureliano, Rudah Duque, Marcelo Fernandes and Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan (“A new titanosaur in the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil“).

 

DSC_0025 - Sousa fossil in-situ

Fossil of the sauropod bone found in-situ in Sousa, Brazil, nicknamed ‘Sousatitan’; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi.

 

Through its bone histology, they believe this fibula belonged to a young titanosaur, rather than a small adult.  They noted rapid growth, and they highlighted an aspect within the bone that intrigued them.  In their paper, they point out that “…the lateral part of the bone wall has what appears to be bone tissue not formed in laminae and a predominance of longitudinally orientated vascular channels within a woven bone matrix.”

“This suggests that different parts of the bone wall [are] growing at different rates,” wrote Dr. Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, paleobiologist and professor at the University of Cape Town, “i.e.: the rate of bone formation is not constant around the whole cross section of the bone wall.”

Research from Anusuya Chinsamy from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Image of “fibrolamellar bone tissue in the process of being deposited on the medial side of the bone wall” and Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

Their comparisons with other titanosaur fibula indicate it is a new species, although the authors are cautious about this.  And using a complicated mathematical formula, they can estimate the size of Sousatitan, the nickname they have given this dinosaur.

Tito Aureliano, a PhD student at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, helped elucidate how, equipped with a single fossil bone, they could make an educated guess about its size. His solution involved tweaking a previously published equation and quite a bit of ichnofossil measurement.  Keep in mind that the Valley of the Dinosaurs has at least 74 known sauropod footsteps.

Tito Aureliano from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Tito Aureliano; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

“We used equations in two steps in our paper,” he explained by email, “because we needed to relate and compare one single fossil specimen to the abundant ichnospecimens from Sousa. The most accurate and mathematically secure way to do that (and [to avoid] speculation) was calculating hip height joint from footprints and total leg height from the bone we found.  We didn’t work with total length because that varies quite a lot in Titanosauria, and it wouldn’t be [scientifically useful].”

“First, we observed titanosaur tracksites from the same age as Sousatitan’s leg size.  We measured the diameter of every ‘back leg’ footprint available at Rio Piranha Formation outcrops.  Then, we calculated the hip height of all titanos that roamed the area at this formation and noticed there were a variety of sizes in individuals.

Comparative image of titantosaur fibula

 

 

Fig. 4.; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

“Previous authors developed equations to predict general dinosaur hip heights from tracksites, but if you are working specifically with titanosaur ones, you should work with the Argentinian equation.  González-Riga found a complete articulated titano leg in the same area he has encountered large footprints that fit exactly in size with his fossil.  By using this evidence, he was able to develop this accurate equation to estimate hip height from a single titanosaurian footprint.

“Secondly, we had to estimate Sousatitan’s leg size. We had just one single bone. How did we do that?  In González-Riga’s paper I mentioned before, he also presented a formula to calculate total leg length from its skeletal elements.  The major problem is that it had so many variables and geometry elements in it.  It would be impossible [to use] if a scientist has only one or two of these elements.  So, I worked on the equation to simplify it into just three variables: femur, ulna and fibula length. H = ¼1.106*(0.96F + T), where H represents hip joint height, F is femur length, and T is tibia length.  Now colleagues with less titanosaur limb bones [can use] González-Riga’s original idea with what they have.”

 

Sousatitan fossil from Colecionadores de Ossos video

A view of Sousatitan’s fibula (or ‘DGEO-CTG-UPFE-7517’), viewed from every angle; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Size comparison Sousatitan

 

Great depiction of the estimated size of Sousatitan (in black) with the fossil found; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

 

Tito continued, “‘Ok, a cool new formula with three elements. But you have just one! How did you do it then?’

“It’s simple morphometry.  I gathered limb bones from a lot of different titanosaur genera and measured the ration between these three bones. Then, I could estimate the theoretical size of the other limb bones.”

Sousa Basin stratigraphy

Sousa Basin stratigraphy; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

 

Coming from an area of the United States known more for ichnofossils than bone fossils, I share their excitement.

And yet, “internationally, for now, we have only observed colleagues’ mentions regarding the work and its importance,” wrote Dr. Ghilardi.

Fortunately, this sense of excitement seems to permeate Brazil.

“The discovery is getting lots of attention in Brazil, from both our colleagues and the popular media,” she continued. “The bone’s discovery was announced in all major newspapers of the country and, [thus far], in two of the largest television channels of Brazil.  Visits to the ‘Vale dos Dinossauros’ Park (where the bone is now housed) increased significantly after the first announcement of the discovery in popular media.  The dinosaur’s nickname got very popular and soon reached even Wikipedia in Portuguese.”

Aline Ghildardi from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Dr. Aline Ghilardi; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

When I asked what brought these six scientists–from Brazil and South Africa–together on this research, Tito Aureliano explained that he and Dr. Ghilardi are married.  In addition, he explained, “our friend, [Rudah] Duque, is a technician in paleontological preparation at PaleoLab (UFPE, Recife city). Prof. Barreto is the chief of the PaleoLab. We have been working together for the past four years visiting the least explored areas of NE Brazil in search of new Cretaceous fossils.

Prof. Anusuya had previously assisted us in pterosaur research [that included] some histological observations. She possesses not only great knowledge on the subject, but she is also very polite and friendly. Aline and I think it was wonderful to work with her and to learn from her.

“Our friend Marcelo is the chief of the Paleontological Museum of the Universidade Federal de São Carlos. He is a renowned specialist in dinosaur ichnofossils (he is that guy that published the first urolite, ‘dinosaur pee‘).”

Marcelo Fernandes from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Dr. Marcelo Fernandes; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video;  courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Urolites from Fernandes et al paper from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Trace fossils from paper by Fernandes et al corresponding to liquid wastes (urolites!); screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video;  courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Without doubt, the authors will continue to search for additional bone fossils in the area.

“The intention is to seek funding to continue doing searches in the region.  We hope to find more material in [the] Lagoa do Forno site (including other parts of the same individual) and also other promising localities,” Dr. Ghilardi wrote.

 

Sousatitan map of discovery

 

Location of the find and map of Brazil; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

 

“I believe it is worth mentioning the importance of the contact between researchers and the population,” she added.  “It is always a good partnership and yields good results.  The locals are interacting every day with the fossiliferous rocks, therefore, they are the most likely people to find materials such as this bone.

“[Making] people feel part of the scientific knowledge process is a very effective way to preserve paleontological heritage for future generations. And not only create a sense of protection about it….but also a sense of pride in their heritage and their land.  Finally, this can be a fundamental social change factor for the local population, which is so needed in so many respects.”

Referencing Sousatitan’s discoverer, Luiz Carlos Gomes, she wrote, “Today, he is very proud of [what has transpired since the initial find].”

 

Sousatitan by Marcos Paulo

Depiction of Sousatitan amongst larger sauropods of the same species; artwork by Marcos Paulo; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

You can help the Bone Collectors continue to educate the public by donating here

 

It was a remarkable honor and pleasure connecting with Dr. Aline Ghilardi, Tito Aureliano and Dr. Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan. That cannot be stated enough! It was exciting to learn more about their incredible discovery, and they were very generous with their time and help. From New England to Brazil and South Africa: THANK YOU!!

 

References:

  1. A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Aline M. Ghilardi, Tito Aureliano, Rudah R. C. Duque, Marcelo A. Fernandes, Alcina M. F. Barreto, Anusuya Chinsamy; Cretaceous Research, Vol 67, December 2016; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cretres.2016.07.001

Videos by the Bone Collectors (Colecionadores de Ossos), several authors of this research:

Further Information:

  1. Bone Collectors – Colecionadores de Ossos: http://bonecollectors.org (website of several of the authors in this paper)
  2. The Bone Collectors’ Blog: http://scienceblogs.com.br/colecionadores
  3. Bone Collectors – Colecionadores de Ossos on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/ColecionadoresOssos
  4. Um novo dinossauro Brasileiro: blog post about the Sousatitan discovery by Aline Ghilardi on the Bone Collector blog
  5. Occurrence of urolites related to dinosaurs in the Lower Cretaceous of the Botucatu Formation, Paraná Basin, São Paulo State, Brazil, Marcelo A. Fernandes, Luciana B. R. Fernandes, Paulo R. F. Souto, Revisita Brasileira de Paleontologia, July/August 2004
  6. Dinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony J. Martin, 2014, Pegasus Books — (Dr. Martin includes an illustration of one of the urolites discovered by Fernandes et al in this book; he also discusses their research on pages 245-246!)

 

Pegasus - Dinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony Martin

 

A Personal Fossil Journey in New England

“Can you please help me find the Beneski Museum?”

This was the second student I’d asked. Initially, I’d asked a student for help finding the museum—no thank you, GPS–and then help with elusive parking. My request to the young woman in front of me was to help re-find the building I’d lost sight of amongst many other brick buildings.

She pointed me in the right direction, gave me detailed instructions, and added, “It will take you approximately three minutes to get there.” A thoughtful detail that made me smile that much more broadly.

Students with backpacks dotted the campus and passed me as I headed forward: some lost in thought, some in conversation, others laughing. Their presence, just as much as the rolling hills of manicured lawns, towering trees and historic buildings, made me feel right at home. Although not where I’d attended school, it felt similar, and I basked in the feelings that surfaced. Of course, none of these feelings included the stress or the struggles I felt throughout college. Long gone are the days of working most of the night on papers, studying for exams or the abject terror of oral presentations. No. These days I learn on my own, at my own pace, as I wish, and where I wish. I adore it.

But learning in this fashion is not at all linear.

A recent trip back to see Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, CT, enabled me to re-read exhibits that didn’t mean as much to me when I’d first seen them so many years prior.

DSP - entrance

DSP - great view of tracks bridge diorama

Images of Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, CT, taken by the author

 

Since that time, I’d read Dr. Anthony Martin’s “Dinosaurs Without Bones”—a fascinating journey into the science of learning more about extinct creatures through fossil traces. I’d also spoken with paleontologist, Dr. Karen Chin, about both ichnology (the aforementioned science) and the work of Dr. Martin Lockley—a man who has spent a lifetime learning about and collecting fossil footprints.

Pegasus - Dinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony Martin

Book cover to”Dinosaurs Without Bones” by Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

 

So when I saw a small note about Edward Hitchcock and his collection of footprints, I decided to check it out.

DSP - sign New England ichnology

Informational panel at Dinosaur State Park that mentions Edward Hitchcock and Amherst College, taken by the author

 

Which is a long way of explaining why I had traveled a couple of hours south to Amherst College.

I knew the museum offered other fossils along with Hitchcock’s fossil footprint collection, but I did not expect them to be as diverse or as impressive.

 

 

Beneski - mammoth front

Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, Amherst College, taken by the author.  Smilodon and dire wolf skeletons are on the right.

Beneski - Irish elk

Irish elk (Megaloceros hibernicus) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - mastodon front

American mastodon (Mammut americanum) at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

 

Beneski - mastodon close-up jaw

Close-up of the American mastodon mandible at Beneski Museum, taken by the author. The lower tusk on this mastodon surprised me, and I spoke about this with Museum Educator, Fred Venne.  Conversations on Twitter prompted very interesting comments by @maxthemastodon from the Western Science Center, @dr_mastodonna (Dr. Katy Smith) and @chriswidga (Dr. Chris Widga).  It is important to note that this mastodon is comprised of components from at least two or more different mastodons.

 

Asking whether I could take pictures in the museum is how I first met Fred Venne, a tall, gracious man who walked toward me the moment he saw that I had questions.
I had never previously met a Museum Educator in person. Fred has now set the bar exceedingly high. It seems artful, his ability to share knowledge and offer insight, yet step away and enable someone to learn on one’s own—a very considerate balance. I marveled at this, just as I marveled at everything around me.

 

Beneski - Fossil Mammal Wall full great

Fossil Mammal Wall at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - Fossil Mammal Wall sign images

Images corresponding to the skeletons on the Fossil Mammal Wall at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - view of bottom and first floors

A view between two of the three floors at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author; notice the hint of fossil footprint slabs a the bottom right.

Beneski - gryposaurus - hadrosaur

Triceratops skull and Gryposaurus (a hadrosaur) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - racks of Hitchcocks trace fossils

Beneski - great wall of tracks

Beneski - footprint on rack of trace fossils

Various images of the many trace fossils collected by Edward Hitchcock over his lifetime at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

 

It was Fred who informed me of a nearby excavation site. Searching online in his office and writing down the address for me, he then called the owner of the site to make sure he knew I was coming.

(Fred also introduced me to a member of the team who discovered Tiktaalik and visiting scholar, Steve Gatesy. Dr. Gatesy very generously proceeded to explain a bit about his current research, picking up and showing me specimens of single fossil tracks. For a day in which my expectations were simply to see fossil footprints and maybe a handful of bone fossils, this was proving to be extraordinary.)

My GPS almost got it right. I pulled in to the driveway just short of the actual destination, the neighbors smiling and waving good-bye after explaining it was just down the road.

At first glance, Nash Dinosaur Tracks has the air of a campground. Situated in a rural area, one drives up a path to a large opening, surrounded by forest. There is a single building in the corner, a cozy construction with hand-made signs.

Nash Dinosaur Tracks sign

Entrance sign to Nash Dinosaur Tracks and Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - road to the fossil store

Path leading into Nash Dinosaur Tracks and Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - store outside

Nash Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - dilophosaurus sign

Sign depicting Dilophosaurus, the type of dinosaur thought to produce the type of tracks in the area.  “Eubrontes” is a name coined by Edward Hitchcock to describe these tracks.  Image taken by the author.

Beneski - types of Hitchcock tracks2

Image of two types of tracks believed to be made by two different (as yet unknown) types of dinosaur, as defined by Edward Hitchcock: eubrontes and grallator.  Sign at Beneski Museum, image taken by the author.

 

I feel it’s important I mention two conflicting feelings I had when Fred first described Nash Dinosaur Tracks, an area of active excavation with a fossil shop: ambivalence and overwhelming enthusiasm.

I’m not a paleontologist.  I don’t even work in a museum. I’m still learning many of the very basics of paleontology. And I know that in this country, fossils found on personal land belong to the person who owns that land. I’ve read quite a bit about the sale of fossils throughout the world. I’ve communicated with paleontologists who have differing views on the subject.

It is enormously complicated.

Large, beautiful skeletons arrive on the market for auction, sold to those who can afford their extravagant prices and then lost to the general public.  Sometimes, those skeletons are donated to a museum (or sold at a lower price). But in some places, the sale of important fossils means survival for those who sell them, a much different type of economic exchange. The biggest lightning rod right now is the sale of ivory, a turbulent conflict that affects both human and elephant lives, and extends into the sale of mammoth tusks.

Do fossils belong to the general public?  And if so, what public? (Country of origin? International groups?) Do museums or scientists have a right to them above all?

I don’t have answers.

But I do know that I cringe every time I read about fossils being sold, and this colors my perspective on the sale of any fossil any where.  Even on personal land, such as that of Kornell Nash.

So it was with mixed feelings that I walked into the fossil shop and called out, “Hello?”

Nash - store inside

View inside Nash Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - store footprints and fossil for sale

Examples of fossils for sale, some under $100, some $3000 in the shop; image taken by the author

Nash - store Kornell Nash - displaying layers of stone

Kornell Nash, holding a fossil footprint on its side to display the layers of rock; image taken by the author

 

Kornell Nash appeared and introductions were made. He seemed a very gentle, unassuming man.  I learned later that this had been his day off; he had, in fact, just awoken from a nap.  But he mentioned none of that initially.  When I asked about the quarry, he indicated where it was, pointing to a door leading behind the shop.

“Feel free to look around,” he said and disappeared.

Nash - store - outside door - footprints in stone

Stone outside of the door leading from the fossil shop to the quarry.  Can you find the fossil tracks?  (According to Kornell Nash, this stone was obtained by his father, Carlton Nash, from a different location.) Image taken by the author.

 

The word “quarry” in my mind conjures enormous stone and cavernous holes.  This was not such a place.  As I eagerly walked on a pine needle-strewn path, I kept expecting something bigger, something huge. Something to match my expectations of a place that had produced fossil footprints for decades.

What I came upon was a modest outcrop on an incline.

 

Nash - quarry - whole thing from path

View of the fossil quarry from the path, taken by the author

Nash - quarry looking up

View of the entire quarry, looking up, taken by the author

 

As I got closer, something crunched under foot.  I looked around me and saw bits of shale everywhere and I panicked.  Was I crushing fossil footprints?  Shale littered the ground; there was no where to walk without stepping on it, so I continued….gingerly.

Kornell had indicated there were large footprints across the top of the stone, but I didn’t see anything at first.  It wasn’t until I literally stepped upon the stone outcrop that I found them.

 

Nash - quarry footprint and pieces taken out

Example of an area of stone cut out by Kornell Nash, taken by the author

Nash - quarry shale segments

Segments of shale detritus that lines the back of the quarry, taken but the author

Nash - quarry footprint detail

One of the many fossil footprints in the quarry, taken by the author

 

This was my first experience with fossils in-situ.  More importantly, this was my first experience actually touching the evidence of the life of an extinct creature.  While I love fossil skeletons, there was something much more significant–something inordinately more meaningful–in seeing where an actual dinosaur had STEPPED. And it is no exaggeration to say that putting my fingers into these footprints was the closest thing to a spiritual moment for me.

This, from private land with a fossil shop. Not from a museum, my normal haven and revered institution, but from the very thing that caused my self-righteousness.

I thought about this when I eventually walked back to the shop.

Nash - store newspaper articles on wall

Nash - store newspaper articles on wall2

Newspaper articles of Nash Dinosaur Tracks (formerly known as “Dinosaurland”) and Kornell Nash on a wall in the fossil shop, images taken by the author

Nash - store pictures of Hitchcock and Mignon Talbot (blurry)

Pictures of Edward Hitchcock and Dr. Mignon Talbot–a paleontologist from Mount Holyoke College who discovered Podokesaurus in 1911. Kornell Nash’s dad, Carlton, corresponded with Dr. Talbot. Image taken by the author.  

 

There is so much history to the place, in and around the fossil shop.  Echoes of it hang on the walls, yellowed newspaper articles with edges curling and wrinkled.  Letters are tacked to a post.

Looking later on the Nash Dinosaur Tracks website, I was surprised to learn that Carlton (and George) Nash purchased the land in 1939 for $85.  Carlton Nash–Kornell’s father–is mentioned in the book “Bones for Barnum Brown” by Roland T. Bird.  Bird describes his visit with the family and seeing the fossilized remnants of what Carlton believed was an animal lying or sitting down.

Nash - store picture of how his dad found the footprints and animal lying down

Image of a picture of the fossilized trace of an animal lying or sitting down, according to Carlton Nash; picture of this picture taken by the author at the Nash Fossil Shop. This was described in a book by Roland T. Bird.

Nash - store footprints and impression of animal with tail lying

Image of that actual fossil with a slab of tracks above it in the fossil shop; image taken by the author

 

He communicated with numerous well-known scientists, including Dr. Mignon Talbot of Mount Holyoke College, discoverer of the Podokesaurus.  He donated a section of tracks to what is now known as Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.  A response was sent from Grace Coolidge, the wife of former US president, Calvin Coolidge.

Carlton Nash passed away in 1997.  Kornell Nash has been the owner since.

I asked him if he shared his father’s passion for paleontology and geology.

“In a different way,” he emailed back. “I really enjoyed the travel growing up.  We traveled all over the United States at a time many of my friends didn’t even get out of the Northeast. In a way, dinosaurs are quite common to me. Doesn’t everyone’s father dig dinosaur tracks?”

Nash - store Kornell Nash describing detail of footprint

Kornell Nash describing the detail of a footprint in his fossil shop, taken by the author

 

I had a long way to drive home, and it was a beautiful drive on a beautiful day.  Autumn in New England means brisk air, pumpkins on the side of the road, corn stalks decorating porches. My head churned with what I’d experienced.  I pondered the people I’d met and the things I’d witnessed.

It was but one page in the chapters of my life thus far, but this page, I savor.

Nash - quarry footprints

A fossil footprint path in the quarry behind Nash Fossil Shop; image taken by the author

———-

Fred Venne made what might have been a good trip to the Beneski Museum one that was an absolutely outstanding adventure.  He is a superb ambassador for Amherst College, and I am profoundly grateful for his thoughtfulness.

A sincere thank you to Dr. Steve Gatesy for his time and his willingness to share details about his current research!

I am indebted to Kornell Nash for letting me explore his fossil quarry alone and for being able to actually touch fossil footprints in-situ.  I am grateful for his willingness to connect with me and share more insight into his father’s communication.

I am sincerely thankful to Amherst College for making the Beneski Museum open to the public (and for free!) It is a marvelous museum, and I encourage all interested to make the trip to see it!

And I remain consistently grateful (and awed) by the generosity of so many paleontologists who have helped me as I learn more about their field. You are all extraordinary!

Strange Monsters and Turkey Tracks

Mary Anning was only 5 or 6 years old when she started down the path of discovery; Edward Hitchcock was in his late 30’s. Born on different continents 6 years and 3 days apart, both contributed to a world in which science was blossoming in new and exciting directions.

Their lives couldn’t have been more different.

Mary Anning was born May 21, 1799, to Molly and Richard Anning.  She and her older brother, Joseph, were the only children out of ten to survive to adulthood.  They learned from their father how to find fossils along the shore of their home in Lyme Regis, England. Mary accompanied her father on these hunts from age 5 or 6.  She learned how to excavate fossils from the rock, how to polish them, how to sell them to local tourists.

Lyme Regis, Dorset looking along the beach towards Charmouth, with the promenade to the left. The coast contains many fossils in the rocks which draws tourism from around the globe. Photo by Chris Hopkins, courtesy Getty Images. This is where Mary Anning searched for fossils throughout her life.

*****

When she was 11, Mary found her first major discovery: the complete skeleton of the first known ichthyosaur. Her brother had found its skull the year before—the same year that their father died—and she had gone back to excavate further.

Its discovery puzzled scientists at the time. Extinction and evolution were concepts that had yet to be introduced. The first dinosaur, Megolosaurus, would not be named until 13 years later; the actual term ‘dinosaur’ would not appear until 1842.  So this skeleton, with components recognized as those of lizards and fish, was utterly alien to the world.

 

Yale Peabody - Ichthyosaurus detail

Yale Peabody - Ichthyosaurus

Images of Stenopterygius quadricissus at the Yale Peabody Museum; this is a “thunnosaur ichthyosaur”, as described here at Wikipedia.  In any case, not the exact type of ichthyosaur–a marine reptile that co-existed with dinosaurs–discovered by Mary Anning, but it is something similar. Photos taken by the author.

*****

And it was just one of many new species Mary would go on to discover in her lifetime.

In 1823, she would find the skeleton of what was eventually known as Plesiosaurus giganteus. Five years later, she would find a pterosaur (Dimorphodon).  She discovered a transitional fossil—one that actually demonstrates in its skeleton traits that show it is evolving from one form to another—in 1829. That became known as Squaloraja polyspondyla. In 1830, she found another plesiosaur: Plesiosaurus macrocephalus.  Ultimately, she would also discover 34 new species of ancient fish.  She correctly identified fossilized dung within ichthyosaur skeletons, a type of fossil newly named coprolites and described by William Buckland after discussions with Mary Anning and Gideon Mantell.

 

DSP - diorama detail

Part of a life-size diorama at Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, CT; replicas of Dimorphodon, a pterosaur discovered by Mary Anning in 1828, can be seen in the top right. Photo taken by the author.

Squaloraja_polyspondyla

Image of Squaloraja polyspondyla, a type of fossil discovered by Mary Anning in 1829. You can read about this in more detail at the blog Mary Anning’s Revenge here

Plesiosaurus_macrocephalus_mary_anning

Drawing of Plesiosaurus macrocephalus discovered by Mary Anning in 1830; image courtesy of Brian Switek and Wikipedia

Beneski - great vertebrae from ichthyosaurus

Beneski - great vertebrae ichthyosaurus sign

Images of a polished section of Ichthyosaurus communis vertebrae in a drawer at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College.  Not only does this come from Lyme Regis, but this is the type of Ichthyosaur discovered in 1832. Mary Anning found the skull and was convinced that there was nothing more to be found. Fellow-fossil hunter Thomas Hawkins, however, believed there was more.  She led him to where she’d found the skull, and he and his team did find the rest of the skeleton.  When the skeleton shattered as they moved it, Mary Anning helped Hawkins put it together.

*****

Her discoveries fueled scientific revelations, were studied by the most prominent scientists of the age, and were discussed in the relatively new Geological Society of London.

As a woman, she was never allowed to attend any of their meetings or lectures.  Moreover, she was almost never credited for her remarkable fossil finds.

Her male friends could attend university (as both a woman and a member of the Dissenter religion, this was not an option), join scientific organizations, have papers published, discuss the latest scientific research among peers in professional institutions, travel extensively (without chaperones) and make substantial financial gains in their careers.

Mary’s life was marked by periods of financial gain and of teetering terribly close to financial ruin. She had three years of formal education.  She traveled to London once.

And yet, she constantly persevered. Her work enabled her to buy a home for her family at the age of 27, the first floor of which she created her fossil shop.  Although she was not privy to university resources, she taught herself scientific illustration.  Using marine life from the local beach, she taught herself anatomy through dissection.  She was in communication with and visited by scientists from all of Europe.

Embed from Getty Images

Illustration of Mary Anning selling fossils by Dorling Kindersley (DK), courtesy Getty Images.

In fact, some of the very same people in communication with Edward Hitchcock were communicating with or visiting Mary Anning: Charles Lyell, Roderick Murchison, Richard Owen, Gideon Mantell, and William Buckland.

Across the ocean, Edward Hitchcock was born in Deerfield, Massachusetts on May 24, 1793, several years before Mary Anning was born.  He would also outlive her.  While she died of breast cancer at the age of 47, Edward died at 70.

Had he been African-American (or simply African) in the newly-formed United States or a woman anywhere, his opportunities would have been severely limited, but he was none of those things.  Still, although he hoped to study astronomy at Harvard, he ultimately never attended college.

He did, however, become the first state geologist for Massachusetts in 1830 (the same year Mary made one of her major fossil discoveries).  He created the first geologic map of Massachusetts—only the 2nd ever created in the country—in 1832.  He believed the state exhibited proof of the Great Flood referenced in the Bible; it was later found to be remnants of the Ice Age.

 

DSP - sign New England ichnology

Sign at Dinosaur State Park that offers a brief history of ichnology in New England. Edward Hitchcock is pictured at the very top. Below that, a drawing of the fossil tracks found by Pliny Moody–a name you will see in marble in the “Donors to the Footmarks” frame further below. Photo taken by the author

*****

Remarkably, he believed that women should receive education and learn about science. One of his well-known students was Mary Lyon, a woman who went on to found Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now known as Mount Holyoke College), among some of the country’s first academic institutions for women. Orra White Hitchcock, who married Edward in 1824, was a prolific artist and scientific illustrator.  She created many of the illustrations he used in his classes.

Classroom chart on linen drawn by Orra White Hitchcock, Amherst College.

Drawing of plesiosaurus skeleton by Orra White Hitchcock, 1828 – 1840, Classroom chart on linen, courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College

 

In 1835, things changed abruptly.  Dr. James Deane, from a nearby town, wrote to Edward about tracks found in stone slabs that were to be used to build a sidewalk.  Edward dismissed their importance until the surgeon sent him plaster casts of the tracks.

Most people referred to these tracks, seen in other local stone slabs, as “turkey tracks”.  Edward believed they were created by birds.  It was a belief he would defend for the rest his life, despite new discoveries that may have indicated otherwise.

Wild turkey tracks in snow

Wild turkey tracks in the snow, late Spring, New England; photo taken by the author

Wild turkey in Fall

Wild turkey in the Fall, New England; photo taken by the author

In part, his theory made sense.  The tracks looked remarkably similar to the familiar tracks of extant turkeys, and fossils of any ancient creatures responsible for the tracks in stone were not found.  New England, with its acidic conditions and lack of fossil-preserving stone, is not fossil-friendly.

Edward created a new science he named “ornithichnology,” a name that references birds, but was later shortened to just “ichnology” by William Buckland.

Beneski - 1802 footprints

Beneski - 1802 footprints

Images of the first documented fossil footprints, discovered in 1802, displayed at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, part of the Hitchcock collection. Photos taken by the author

Beneski - gem of Hitchcocks collection

Fossil tracks displayed at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College. According to Window into the Jurassic World by Nicholas G. McDonald, these tracks were the “gem” of Hitchcock’s collection (pg. 58, Figure 6-8). This slab was originally used as paving. Photo taken by the author (of this blog)

*****

While major discoveries of reptiles and dinosaurs were starting to pepper European science, Edward continued studying fossil tracks and traces.  He wrote about his work and his theory to the men on the forefront of these discoveries (as mentioned earlier, women were not allowed or, apparently, credited). He began publishing books and submitted papers to the Yale American Journal of Science.

Richard Owen disagreed with Edward’s findings at first.  He would eventually change his mind after describing an extinct bird in 1939 (the ‘moa’ of New Zealand).  In 1841, Charles Lyell actually visited Edward and became a prominent supporter.

Although Mary Anning discovered and identified coprolites more than 15 years earlier, Edward discovered these fossils in 1844 in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts.

Beneski - coprolites

Coprolites displayed in a drawer at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College.  These are not necessarily those discovered by Edward Hitchcock in 1944. Photo by the author

 

His two major works outlining his life’s work were published in 1858 (“Ichnology of New England“) and then two years following his death in 1865 (“Supplement to Ichnology of New England“).

He maintained that these fossil tracks were made by birds, and his work was heavily influenced by his desire to find proof of God in nature. In his own words, he taught “natural theology.”

 

DSP - Ichnology Hitchcock

The book Ichnology of New England, written by Edward Hitchcock in 1858; copy displayed at Dinosaur State Park. Photo taken by the author

DSP - Supplement Ichnology Hitchcock

The Supplement to the Ichnology of New England, written by Edward Hitchcock but published posthumously in 1865copy displayed at Dinosaur State Park. Photo taken by the author

Beneski - Hitchcock - donors sign

Framed marble sign highlighting donors and the amount donated; displayed at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College; photo taken by the author

 

His efforts as college president in the 1840’s prevented the closure of Amherst College.  One of his particularly successful years was the same year that Mary Anning passed away, 1847.

Today, his vast collection–thousands of fossil footprints and traces–reside in the elegant Beneski Museum of Natural History.  We are extremely fortunate, as Edward Hitchcock made it very clear he did not want his collection owned by anyone who did not share his evangelical Christian views.  Although the college moved to a more secular philosophy, his family did not honor this request.

Beneski - racks of Hitchcocks trace fossils

A small section of the Hitchcock collection of fossil tracks and traces at the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College.  This author encourages anyone interested to visit this amazing museum. Photo by the author

*****

Did Mary Anning and Edward Hitchcock know of each other across the Atlantic?  Did their names or their work ever come up in conversation? Did their mutual friends in science discuss them with the other?

There is no evidence to suggest this.

But the world would be increasingly changed thanks to their contributions, their dedication and their lifelong efforts.

Mary Anning Painting

Mary Anning painting” Credited to ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996) – Two versions side by side, Sedgwick Museum. According to the Sedgwick Museum, there are two versions. The earlier version is by an unknown artist, dated before 1842 and credited to the Geological Society. The later version is a copy by B.J. M. Donne in 1847 or 1850, and is credited to the Natural History Museum in London. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

———–

References:

  1. The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World by Shelley Emling, 2009, Palgrave Macmillan
  2. Window into the Jurassic World by Nicholas G. McDonald, 2010, Friends of Dinosaur State Park and Arboretum, Inc.
  3. Curious Footprints: Professor Hitchcock’s Dinosaur Tracks & Other Natural History Treasures at Amherst College by Nancy Pick & Frank Ward, 2006, Amherst College Press
  4. Amherst College Archives & Special Collections – Edward & Orra Hitchcock: https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/hitchcock
  5. Amherst College Digital Collections: https://acdc.amherst.edu

 

Locations:

  1. Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, CT
  2. Beneski Museum of Natural History, Amherst College, Amherst, MA
  3. Yale Peabody Museum, New Haven, CT
Classroom chart on linen drawn by Orra White Hitchcock, Amherst College.
One of 61 drawings done by Orra White Hitchcock for use in Professor Edward Hitchcock’s classes on geology and natural history. This is a reproduction of a preexisting drawing. Pen and ink on linen, Mastodon maximus skeleton, 1828 – 1840, courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College

Fossilized Footprints – Dr. Karen Chin on the work of Dr. Martin Lockley

There is something uniquely spectacular about trace fossils.

Trace fossils—or ichnofossils—are fossilized remnants of animal activity. They are echoes of animal life, many that are millions of years old, that we can see and touch, tantalizing clues into their behavior and environment.

These traces take a number of forms, including coprolites (feces), gastroliths (stones ingested to help digestion), burrows, nests, and footprints.

 

 

[image of dinosaur tracks, Colorado, courtesy of David Parsons and Getty Images]

Footprints are the focus of Dr. Martin Lockley’s work.  Over 30 years of his fossilized track research now resides at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Dr. Karen Chin, another trace fossil specialist with decades of experience, is widely known for her work on coprolites.

Coprolite - Dr. Chin MOS

 

MOS - Dr. Karen Chin coprolite

 

[images of coprolite and display info from the Boston Museum of Science, taken by the author]

The work of these two scientists comes together in the exhibit “Steps in Stone,” now at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.  Showcasing some of Dr. Lockley’s extensive collection, the exhibit is curated by Dr. Chin.

Steps in Stone entrance

[image of exhibit entrance, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

Originally from the UK, Dr. Martin Lockley began teaching at the University of Colorado Denver in the 1980’s.  He retired in 2010, but his research continues today.

“When he decided to retire from his professor position,” Dr. Chin explained in a phone interview, “he wanted his research collection to go to a place where it would be cared for in perpetuity and would still be available for people to study.  And since the University of Colorado Boulder is a sister institution to the University of Colorado Denver, it made sense for the collection to come to us.”

An accompanying website, with text written by Allison Vitkus—one of Dr. Chin’s graduate students—Dr. Karen Chin and Dr. Martin Lockley, describes in more detail the type of tracks Dr. Lockley has collected and donated to the University.

“Because of Prof. Lockley’s efforts, the University of Colorado’s Fossil Tracks Collection is exceptional in having specimens that represent tremendous temporal, taxonomic, and geographic breadth. It includes around 3,000 original or replica specimens of footprints and trackways, as well as about 1,600 full-size acetate footprint and trackway tracings. These specimens come from over 20 countries on five continents (including 21 states within the USA).” – Allison Vitkus, Dr. Karen Chin

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/science/trackways/index.php

Moving such a collection from one university to another is not a small enterprise.

“Martin Lockley and I applied for and received an NSF (National Science Foundation) grant to help us transfer the tracks to our museum.”

Dr. Chin described the process of creating the current exhibit, a team effort of about 15 people from various departments within the Museum of Natural History.

“Allison and I had already been writing about different aspects of fossil track research.  We sat down and asked, ‘what are the things that we think are the most fundamental and interesting concepts of fossil tracks that would be interesting for people to learn about?’  We then put together a list of things we wanted to write about and matched that with tracks in the collection.”

Dr. Karen Chin and docents

 

[image of Dr. Karen Chin and exhibit docents, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

“We decided we wanted people to think about the concept of ‘moving’ and to recognize that fossil tracks tell us about locomotion in the past. ”

In other words, it is not just a look backward in time; it encourages the visitor to think about movement in all forms today and the evolution of that movement over Earth’s history.

Embed from Getty Images

Consider, for example, how fish might make tracks: fins brush the ground while swimming in shallow water.  Consider, too, the tracks animals make while running, walking, limping, or even swimming.   The type of footprint remaining and the length between each step (or stroke) offers valuable insight to scientists. Insects, mammals, birds, pterosaurs, dinosaurs….all of these species have left their marks in stone, and all of them are represented in this exhibit.

To help highlight how different body structures affect the type of tracks an animal leaves, members of the museum’s educational department procured imitation animal tails that kids can wear.  Kids are also encouraged to ‘Walk Like a Pterosaur!’ in which they can don representations of pterosaur forelimbs with wings.

“There’s a portion of the exhibit that’s called ‘Locomotion Without Legs,’ that reminds us that not all animals that leave tracks or traces have legs,” said Dr. Chin. “Modern snails and sea urchins and are good examples of this.”

“We discuss the oldest evidence that we know of for movement in the fossil record, which is about 565 million years. We don’t know what kind of animal made the trace. It may have been something like a sea urchin, but we just don’t know.”

“There are a certain number of deposits around the world that preserve weird impressions of animals from before the Cambrian,” she continued. “Actually, we don’t even know whether all of them were animals or plants! There are no modern analogues of these organisms because they went extinct.”

“One of the oldest deposits of this particular biota comes from Newfoundland.  Researchers found an unusual trace in this deposits that extends for several inches.  The trace appears to provide evidence of locomotion.  This suggests that an animal had the capacity to move itself, which further suggests that it had muscles.  This is a huge deal because the fossil trace is so old. I think this is very cool because we often take our ability to move for granted.”

This particular trace fossil was described by Dr. Alexander Liu, Dr. Duncan McIlroy, and Dr. Martin Brasier in 2010.  How fascinating to think that something this small and from an organism that remains a mystery provides important evidence for movement when the Earth was still relatively young. (First evidence for locomotion in the Ediacaran biota from the 565 Ma Mistaken Point Formation, Newfoundland) The actual trace fossil is not part of the exhibit, but its image is available for visitors to see.

“We often automatically think that animals have the ability to move from point A to point B,” Dr. Chin mused. “But there are a number of very successful animals that live without relocating from one place to another, such as sponges and corals.   So it is interesting to think about when animals first developed the ability to move. ”

Another example of the variety and importance of tracks are the Laetoli trackway: a set of prints from Tanzania.  The exhibit displays a life-sized cast of the trackway, footprints from two hominin adults and a smaller set of footprints that might have been a child.

“Their footprints were preserved when they walked on recently deposited volcanic ash. These tracks are important because they provide some of the earliest evidence that our ancient relatives, the australopithecines, walked bipedally.”

“As Dr. Lockley has continued his research on tracks,” explained Dr. Chin, “he has often acquired replicas of fossil tracks from around the world.  That is what is great about tracks: that you can make a lot of different casts of them.”

“It’s an intense process,” Dr. Chin stated, referring to the creation of an exhibit. “There are so many details. But I gained new appreciation for the great work that the exhibit designers and the museum education people do.”

In response to whether it was a positive experience, she said, “I did enjoy it!”

“Now, I have to say,” she laughed, “it’s a lot of work.  I didn’t mind the work, it’s just that I’m also teaching and doing research, so it’s kind of hard to juggle doing all of that at the same time.”

“I think there are two larger points that I’d like people to take away from the exhibit.

“I want people to gain a sense of appreciation for the tremendous amount of research Dr. Lockley has done on fossil tracks all over the world.

“I also want people to appreciate the informative value of tracks and other trace fossils.”

Dr. Karen Chin and docents 2

[image of Dr. Karen Chin and docents, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

“At many times we tend to focus on body fossils: the bones of mammoths and the bones of dinosaurs, for example. They are very interesting, and they really fire up our imagination in considering what those ancient animals were like.

“But, I also want people to appreciate that trace fossils–which provide evidence organisms’ activity—also offer important information on the history of life.

“It’s very much akin to walking on a trail these days and looking for animal sign.  You look for tracks and scat and scratches and toothmarks.  And we do the same when we look for trace fossils in the fossil record.  Tracks are just one exciting example of trace fossils.”

 

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A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Karen Chin for her time, her fascinating insight and for generously helping me understand Ediacaran biota!  It was a tremendous honor and pleasure for me to connect with her.  An enormous thank you to Cathy Regan as well for providing wonderful images of the exhibit!

Steps in Stone” is available through December 31, 2015: http://cumuseum.colorado.edu

If you are interested in learning more about trace fossils, Dr. Martin Lockley has written a number of books.  Dinosaurs Without Bones by Dr. Anthony J. Martin was published this year, and this author highly recommends it!