The Evolution Underground – Part 2: Behind the Scenes

“I still don’t understand why they were looking for alligator dens.”

My dad and I had been discussing the review I’d written about Dr. Anthony Martin’s latest book, “The Evolution Underground.”  He voiced this confusion with more concern for the overall safety (and perhaps sanity?) of the Emory professor and his students than an interest in what knowledge they hoped to gain.

To be fair, my dad hadn’t yet read this or any book about ichnology and was not familiar with the field.  My inability to make that part of the book clearer aside, it also spoke to a question I’d had this past December.  Speaking with him by phone, I asked Dr. Martin: Did he think more people know about ichnology as a result of his prolific work?

“I think,” he began thoughtfully, “through the books, [through] giving public talks, and [by blogging] about it, I’m fairly confident in saying, ‘yes, more people are more aware now of ichnology as a science.’ I think that ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones’ was a really good step [toward] popularizing ichnology as science, and then I think that ‘The Evolution Underground’ will take it another step further.”

Dr Anthony Martin courtesy of Carol Clark

Image of  Dr. Anthony Martin, courtesy of Emory University 

It is telling that, of the four books Dr. Martin has written so far, three of them focus on ichnology.  His handle on Twitter is @ichnologist.  Most of his blog posts feature concepts related to ichnology.  During our conversation, he chuckled and admitted he refers to himself as an “ichno-evangelist.”

Any physical remnant of an extinct or extant creature falls into ichnology: bites, scratches, footprints, marks indicating the drag of a tail, coprolites or scat.  Reading those traces—recognizing them for what they are—is a skill, and one for which there are relatively fewer reference points than the much older field of paleontology.*  Dr. Martin explains this in his first work with Pegasus Books, “Dinosaurs Without Bones.”  It is one thing to see a fossil femur, for example, and understand what it is.  Recognizing a fossil nest, however, or a fossil burrow, is considerably more challenging.  Without “search images” or reference points that help other scientists understand what to look for, such fossils might be easily missed.

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Detail of a slab of fossil footprints surrounded with what are believed to be fossil raindrops at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts. Both the footprints and the raindrops are examples of ichnology. Picture taken by the author of this blog.

 

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Can you tell what these are? I can’t, and, so far, neither can the experts.  As-yet unknown trace fossils at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts; pictures taken by the author of this blog.

Figure 1: A brief summary of animal burrowing through time, from the Ediacaran Period through today.  Geologic eras on left, periods on right, MYA = millions of years ago, and red arrows indicate times of mass extinctions in the geologic past. (Image and caption used with permission from Pegasus Books)

 

“Sage scents wafted by on the wind and, in between scoops, I looked around at the nearby pine forests and rolling, high-plains grassland nearly everywhere else, then up at an expansive blue sky hosting white, fluffy clouds.  You might say I was in a country where the sky was big: Some people just call it ‘Montana.’” – page 87, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

In the book, Dr. Martin describes participating in an excavation in the Blackleaf Formation that lead to the discovery of the first known fossilized burrow, found collectively by Dr. Martin, Yoshi Katsura, and Dr. David Varricchio of Montana State University.

This discovery—based solely on noticing the odd structure of sediment surrounding bones—is no small feat.  Looking at an image of this burrow, which you can see in Dr. Martin’s blog post here, I am amazed that anyone would be able to decipher what it actually is when working through layers of other rock, let alone when it was completely revealed.

Dr. Martin credits his mentor and former professor, Bob Frey, with guiding him in ichnology.  Both Dr. Varricchio and Dr. Martin were fellow students in his class, a class that seems to have been a road map for both of them in their future discoveries.

And while in this book Dr. Martin discusses many extant burrowers, he certainly addresses those found in the fossil record as well.

Figure 38: Early Cretaceous (130 mya) lobster burrow preserved as natural cast on bottom of limestone bed, Portugal.  Although the lobster’s body is not preserved, its leg impressions and body outline were left behind.  (Photo by Anthony J. Martin; image and caption used with permission from Pegasus Books)

The bigger picture behind these everyday observations of many holes in the ground, however, is that the long history of these burrowing invertebrates completely altered global environments, from the deepest sea to the highest mountains, and even affected the atmosphere and climate.  In short, the entire surface of our planet is built upon one big complex and constantly evolving burrow system, controlling the nature of our existence.” — page 14, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

 

The quote above is the central theme of “The Evolution Underground.”  I wondered if he’d gained this perspective after completing the book, or if this was something he carried as he began writing.

“I did go in with that big picture idea about burrows having this overarching influence on all of our ecosystems,” he replied. “[That, we, too,] have this evolutionary heritage that [is] connected to burrows. So I did have that idea in mind, but it was really scattered. Really disparate.  Also, it wasn’t an original idea. Lots of other people really deserve credit for that, [and they are] cited in the endnotes of the book.

But, he said, “[w]riting the book definitely helped me pull together a lot of those previously separated ideas into the theme that I summarized as ‘burrows acting as the midwife in the birth of Gaia.’

“We can’t really talk about the evolution of ecosystems or the evolution of life without talking about burrows.”

Figure 16: Folk-art rendering inspired by the Lystrosaurus saga set during the Permian-Triassic transition (Chapter 5), with a cutaway view of a Lystrosaurus burrow. (Artwork by Ruth Schowalter and Anthony J. Martin; image and caption used with permission from Pegasus Books) — (The author of this blog wants to note, as Dr. Martin does in the endnotes, that his interest in the species was inspired by this piece by Annalee Newitz.)

Having written four books, did writing them get easier?

“It did get easier with each book,” he acknowledged. Then laughed. “But, of course, the word ‘easy’ is relative.”

“[‘The Life Traces of the Georgia Coast‘] was hard to write because it was so comprehensive.  It was almost 700 pages long; it had more than 800 peer-reviewed references. It’s an academic book, but I [also] wrote it for a popular audience.  So it’s a hybrid kind of book in that respect. That took four years from the acceptance of the book proposal to actually holding it in my hands.”

“And,” he added, “a book is not finished until I’m holding it in my hands.”

“In contrast to that, ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones’ was quick. That took me—from start to end—less than two years. I felt like [‘The Evolution Underground’] was a little bit easier than ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones,’ but that’s only because I used Pegasus Books again as the publisher. And I had the same editor: Jessica Case. With that said, it was still difficult to write because it covered so many different burrowing animals, [not to mention it covered] the last 560 million years!

“The main takeaway point of it is for people to better appreciate the world they don’t often see, and that’s the world below their feet. We might not even be here talking about burrowing animals if our earliest mammalian ancestors hadn’t burrowed.”

 

*This comment is not meant to hold one field over another. I have great respect for the skills needed for both paleontology and ichnology.

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Thank you to Carol Clark, Senior Science Communicator at Emory University, for the wonderful picture of Dr. Martin!

A sincere and enthusiastic THANK YOU to Dr. Anthony Martin for his willingness to connect by phone and for his generous responses to my questions!  It was a pleasure and an honor to be able to speak with him, and—like his writing—he made it fun!  I eagerly (if impatiently) await any possible future work.  

FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this blog loved Dr. Martin’s previous book with Pegasus, “Dinosaurs Without Bones,” and thus, jumped at the chance to review his latest work (fully predisposed to embrace it) by requesting a review copy from the publisher.  I am very grateful to Pegasus Books for the opportunity to do so. Being able to use such beautiful images from the book is a great honor! I am specifically grateful to Deputy Publisher, Jessica Case, with whom it was wonderful to work!!

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References:

  1. The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet, Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books, 2017
  2. Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils, Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books, 2014
  3. Life Traces of the Georgia Coast Blog, Anthony J. Martin

Evolution Underground

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The Evolution Underground – Part 1: Book Review

Not all scholars write with the playfulness or the open curiosity found in books written by Dr. Anthony Martin, professor at Emory University.

In his second work with Pegasus Books, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” he opens with an anecdote about an outdoor class on an island off of the Georgia coast.  If you have any question about whether this book is for you, read those first several pages.

He, his colleague, Michael Page, and several students were mapping alligator dens.  While they’d witnessed many active dens from a safe distance, in this instance, they were exploring those long abandoned by their former occupants.  They were, he explained to the reader, in the middle of the forest where a now-nonexistent canal once ran.  Without water, there would, of course, be no alligators.

Only he was wrong.  And this was pointed out when a student noticed teeth within the den.

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Picture of alligators by Michael Leggero, courtesy of Getty Images

You will need to read the book to find out what happens, but this first chapter perfectly encapsulates how Dr. Martin writes. If you want to learn about any aspect of our world from a scientific and curious lens, here is an author you might want as your guide.  He is no stranger to presenting enormous volumes of information in an easily digestible way, nor is he one to make it cumbersome. His wit and sense of adventure make learning fun.  Moreover, there is no arrogance in his books.  The words “so far,” “unknown,” and “as yet” are sprinkled throughout the text.  He is not afraid to admit when science (or, indeed, when he himself!) has been mistaken, when theories are disproven, educational assumptions found incorrect. He writes with the understanding that our scientific knowledge–like life itself–is still evolving. And like so much of his writing, it only serves to prompt the reader into thoughtful reverie: where might science take us in the future? What will be revealed years, decades, centuries from now, and how will this impact the world?  The creative and wondrous question “What if?” floats like a butterfly through its chapters.

Dr. Martin describes how these seemingly abandoned alligator dens may have indeed been dug when water was present, but that even despite drought, parts of their internal structures may connect with the groundwater table.  Water within the den may have also attracted thirsty birds and animals on the island.  He and his students later found the ravaged corpses and bones from such unsuspecting creatures both in and outside of other forest dens.

“All of this trace evidence told us the alligators could switch from aquatic to terrestrial predation if necessary, like a shark deciding it was going to turn into a lion.  This surprising behavioral transformation and adaptability in alligators was made possible through their dens, which during times of environmental change became all-purpose hunting lodges.” – page 7, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

And thus begins his exploration of the animals—including humans!—worms, insects and birds that have created sanctuaries below ground.  Burrows, he posits, have made survival possible throughout Earth’s history, and these underground homes have made and continue to make enormous impact on life above ground.

“The bigger picture behind these everyday observations of many holes in the ground, however, is that the long history of these burrowing invertebrates completely altered global environments, from the deepest sea to the highest mountains, and even affected the atmosphere and climate.  In short, the entire surface of our planet is built upon one big complex and constantly evolving burrow system, controlling the nature of our existence.” – page 14, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

Dr. Martin encourages us to take a closer look at a generally overlooked part of our world. That closer look involves fascinating details about creatures and places one may not have realized existed.  Burrowing owls–with their photogenic and often amusing images–may be familiar, but perhaps not so much the charming fairy penguins of Tasmania, or the alarming assassin flies associated with gopher tortoise burrows, who both kill and start digesting their hapless victims with an injection of neurotoxins and enzymes.

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Image of burrowing fairy penguins, courtesy of Getty Images
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Slideshow of burrowing owls, courtesy of Getty Images

 

Perhaps the most powerful section of the book—one that really drives home his point about survival underground—involves the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State thirty-seven years ago.

Whether you’ve only read about it or whether you’ve actually visited, Mount St. Helens is a stark reminder of how devastating Nature can be.  After a couple of months of earthquakes, the volcano erupted in the morning of May 18th, 1980. Not only did it obliterate everything in its path, the eruption and its aftermath killed 57 people and all of the wildlife within about 150 square miles.

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

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Image of Mount St. Helens today, courtesy of Getty Images

Here, Dr. Martin uses creative nonfiction (or ‘narrative nonfiction’) to help illustrate how, despite this traumatic event, the entire area made a comeback.  Loowit, a sweet little fictional pocket gopher, takes the reader through some of the natural events that transformed devastation into renewal and rebirth.

He describes her home: a branching set of underground tunnels and rooms that can reach up to 500 feet long, complete with food storage areas, latrines, and other chambers. Although undeterred by snow, she was, at the time of the eruption, comfortably ensconced in her burrow.  This saved her.  He takes us through how she emerges after the eruption, her confusion, her tentative steps back into a new world above ground, how she and other survivors may have eventually formed communities.

In sum, in a world that now knew mostly death and destruction, these pocket gophers not only survived, but kept surviving, and in so doing, helped bring life back to an area that did not outwardly appear to contain much.

…these little ecosystem engineers began terraforming the previously desolate landscape, first by helping plants take root and grow. Each individual pocket gopher was capable of overturning more than a ton of soil each year…” – page 262, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books
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Image of a pocket gopher, courtesy of Getty Images

Of the 55 mammal species in the area of Mount St. Helens in May 1980, only 14 survived the volcanic eruption and its collateral damage. Surface-dwelling elk, deer, black bears…and all other large- to medium-size mammals perished. On the other hand, nearly all the small mammals that lived were burrowing rodents…One of the few non-rodent survivors was the tiny Trowbridge’s shrew (Sorex trowbridgii), which (not coincidentally) is also a burrower.  Pocket gophers are active year round, but many other small-mammal species were both underground and still hibernating when the eruption took place.  The fortuitous timing of this disaster at the transition between winter and spring thus greatly enhanced the chances of these minutest of mammals to emerge and thrive.  Of the rodents that had already come out of hibernation, nocturnal species were doubly lucky to have already retired for the day in their burrows when the blast occurred.  Had the volcano erupted at night, many more would have died.” – page 264, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

For the pocket gopher populations that survived the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, their collective actions were the key to turning a desolate, monochromatic landscape back into a vibrant and verdant one.  From a geological perspective, their effects were astoundingly quick, with partial ecological restoration apparent within just five years of the eruption. Consequently, pocket gophers and other burrowing animals that lived beyond May 18, 1980, send a powerful message about the benefits of burrows for surviving such an ecologically traumatic events, as well as for their role in restoring an ecosystem after it is nearly destroyed.” – pages 266-267, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

 

I want more books like “The Evolution Underground” and “Dinosaurs Without Bones.”  Books that tickle my intellect and my sense of humor.  Books that pull me in with their interesting anecdotes, their engaging playfulness, their sensitivity to all genders (ie: not referring to all humans as “mankind” or simply “man”), and their ability to make me think outside the pages.

When I read a book and am left not only with the satisfaction that comes from something that I’ve enjoyed but also an eagerness for more, I know I’ve found a talented author.

Dr. Anthony Martin is, indeed, a talented author.

 

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A sincere and enthusiastic THANK YOU to Dr. Anthony Martin for his willingness to connect by phone and for his generous responses to my questions!  It was a pleasure and an honor to be able to speak with him, and—like his writing—he made it fun!  I eagerly (if impatiently) await any possible future work.  

FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this blog loved Dr. Martin’s previous book with Pegasus, “Dinosaurs Without Bones,” and thus, jumped at the chance to review his latest work (fully predisposed to embrace it) by requesting a review copy from the publisher.  I am very grateful to Pegasus Books for the opportunity to do so. I am specifically grateful to Deputy Publisher, Jessica Case, with whom it was wonderful to work!

Dinosaurs Without Bones

Fossil Landscape Revealed: Reading the Rocks in New England Summits

It’s remarkable to think that we are discovering ice on a dwarf planet 4.67 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) away from Earth, at a time when we are still unraveling clues to the ice that once shaped this planet.

Two New England geologists have spent years studying the rocks and traces left by ancient glaciers in the White Mountains, the northern stretch of the Appalachian Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. This past October, they co-authored a paper in Geology with 3 other scientists.  And in it, they revealed that the highest summits in New England were covered by solid ice during the Last Glacial Maximum.

 

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View from the summit of Mount Moriah in New Hampshire looking at the White Mountains’ Presidential Range; image by Cappi Thompson at Getty Images.

 

But what does this mean? And why should we care?

“This question about whether or not the New England summits were covered by an ice sheet is long standing, going back over 100 years,” explained Dr. P. Thom Davis by phone.  “And one reason this question is important is because continental ice sheets take a long time to build up, and as they build up, they reduce global sea level.   So ice sheet thickness has implications far beyond just New England.”

Dr. Thom Davis of Bentley University and Dr. Paul Bierman of the University of Vermont actually wrote and presented the paper at the annual Geological Society of America conference in 1999, but they didn’t publish it until 2015.

“We sent a draft around informally to some colleagues,” said Dr. Davis, “and they sort of were giving us a hard time, wanting us to go back and rethink a lot of the implications. And then one thing led to another, and we just kept rethinking and rethinking for the next 15 years.”

“It was a much more radical proposition in 1999 than it is today,” explained Dr. Bierman. “Since then a whole lot of work has come out of the Arctic. So when we finally submitted this now, I guess it was a surprise, but it wasn’t unexpected.”

That ‘radical proposition’ involved whether or not ice covered the mountains, whether it was a certain type of ice, and therefore whether it did or did not preserve “fossil” or “relic” landscapes.   These ideas have been pondered (or dismissed) by various geologists since the mid 1800s.

While the term “fossil landscape” might inspire images of preserved prehistoric environments suffused with traces of ancient life, this is not at all what it means.  Rather, it refers to the geology left behind by cold-based ice–ice frozen all of the way to the ground–that both shielded rocks from the effects of cosmic rays and slowed erosion.

Think of how much impact an enormous sheet of ice can have on an environment.  When ice is not completely frozen to the ground (warm-based ice), water runs through it, pulling dirt, rocks–and the glacier itself!–along with it.  The ground erodes; the debris is carried elsewhere. Remnants can be seen in boulders scattered throughout New England.

Notice the shape of the valley in Crawford Notch, NH.  This valley is a result of glacier ice moving through the environment, albeit at a remarkably slow speed. Image by Mark Zelasko at Getty Images.

Boulder in Salisbury, NH

 

Detail of boulder in Salisbury, NH

Images of a boulder (perhaps a glacial erratic: a rock carried by a glacier and deposited in another location in geologic terms) in Salisbury, NH; photos taken by the author

 

“The word ‘fossil landscape’ sort of worried me from the get-go because of how it might be misconstrued to having more of a biological context, like mammoth bones,” stated Dr. Davis, in reference to the press release describing their work. “We’re looking at the age of exposure, the length of time those surfaces have been exposed to the cosmic ray bombardment.”

Drs Davis and Bierman collected samples near to or on the summits of Mt. Katahdin in Maine and Mt. Washington and Little Haystack Mountain in NH during the 1990s.  Their ‘radical’ suspicion–that these summits were indeed covered by solid ice–could only able be proven recently with advanced technology.

Before that, they–like their peers in the last two centuries–relied on visible clues: the type of rock on summits and in valleys, striations (or grooves) in the rocks that may have been made by  ice, the type of sediment in the valleys and whether this indicated the type of glacier that might have helped create them.  And one of the biggest clues?

Erratics.

“That is,” Dr. Davis explained, “stones that have been transported from another location.”

“Two centuries ago, scientists might have argued [that erratics] were deposited in these high locations by great floods,” he continued. “But that pretty much ended with Agassiz’s glacial theory in the middle of the 1800s.”

He is referring to Louis Agassiz, an eminent Swiss biologist and geologist who taught at Harvard, and perhaps the first to support the idea that these summits were covered by an ice sheet.  It is important to note, however, that he believed that ice sheet was a local glacier rather than a vast continental ice sheet.

Prior to this, geologists such as Charles T. Jackson–the first NH State Geologist–or Edward Hitchcock (of trace fossil fame) believed that a flood complete with icebergs was responsible for misplaced boulders. Striations could be explained by the force of rock against rock from powerful currents within that water.

British citizens Mary Horner Lyell and her husband, Charles–another well-known geologist from the 1800s–explored these mountains in 1845, including a trip up Mt. Washington on horseback. Lyell attributed erratics to melting icebergs.

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Frozen tower and communication equipment at the summit of Mt. Washington; image by Onfokus at Getty Images.  Charles Hitchcock — son of Edward and Orra Hitchcock — helped create this year-round weather station.  He was a NH State Geologist and a Dartmouth professor. 

NH geology took a step forward with James W. Goldthwait and then later his son, Richard, in the 1900s.  They proposed that New England summits were covered by solid ice–not warm-based ice–and by a continental–not a local–ice sheet.

“[James W. and Richard P. Goldthwait] recognized this importance long ago, from the turn of the last century,” said Dr. Davis. ‘They both recognized very fresh looking erratics. The only way erratics can arrive on these summits is by continental ice sheets.”

“They made a really good case that the last ice sheet that dropped these erratics on the summits happened during our last glaciation about 20,000 years ago. [I]f the summits had been nunataks during the last major glaciation about 20,000 years ago, then the erratics should have been more weathered, the soils should have been more developed on the summit areas, and the bedrock should have been more weathered, as well.”

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Baxter Peak of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine. View from Knife Edge Trail; image by Posnov at Getty Images.

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Mount Katahdin is the highest mountain in Maine at 5,268 feet (1,606 m). Katahdin is the centerpiece of Baxter State Park: a steep, tall mountain formed from underground magma; image by Simon Massicotte at Getty Images.

The debate about the type of ancient ice in the White Mountains was dropped for a few decades, slowly regaining interest in the 1970s.  But it wasn’t until the recent paper by Drs. Bierman and Davis that proof lent itself to solving the issue.

“[Our method was to] count the abundance of very, very rare isotopes,” Dr. Bierman explained, “And, by that we mean isotopes of the element beryllium and the element aluminum.”

“The beryllium isotope with a total mass of 9 is the normal stuff that you find in nature. The beryllium isotope with a total mass of 10 per atom is extremely rare. And in order to measure these isotopes, we needed the technical ability to do that, and that didn’t come about until the late 1970s with a device called the accelerator mass spectrometer. These are very large, very expensive, difficult to maintain, and rare beasts. Over the past 30 years, they’ve been used increasingly by geologists to make the kinds of measurements that we did.”

“We also used cosmogenic carbon-14,” he continued, “which is an isotope with a much shorter half-life, about 5,730 years. And what that means is that when a rock is exposed to cosmic rays at the surface and then buried, that carbon 14 disappears much more rapidly than beryllium 10 and aluminum 26 isotopes.

“[Data from the accelerator mass spectrometer] tells us the [exposure] age because we can count the number of carbon-14 atoms, just like we can count the beryllium-10 atoms. We know that these are produced at a certain rate every year. It’s a very low rate.

“For beryllium-10, it’s just a few atoms per year per gram of material that we’re measuring. It’s a little bit more for carbon-14.  And since we know how quickly they’re made and we can count how many atoms there are, we can calculate an age–or a residence time–near the surface.”

“A lot of these ages from our exposure dating,” added Dr. Davis, “were coming out much older than we expected, much older than the last glaciation from the summits of both Katahdin and Mt. Washington.”

 

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A view of Mt Washington and Mt Madison along some farmland in Shelburne, New Hampshire during winter; image by Cappi Thompson at Getty Images.

“I think the Goldthwaits were primarily looking at these kinds of qualitative data, like how fresh the erratics in the bedrock were,” Dr. Davis offered. “And based on that, they probably weren’t exposed very long.  But as it turns out, weathering varies dramatically to different latitudes, so is not a very quantitative method. That’s all we had, though, until these cosmogenic radionuclides became available for measuring.”

“The main point of our geology paper is that, apparently, even at temperate latitudes, the higher elevations may have been overrun by ice sheets that were frozen to the bed, leaving what we call ‘relic landscapes,'” he concluded.

“From a geologic point of view,” Dr. Bierman continued, “it points to the complexity of the evolution of the New England landscape. It’s another piece of the puzzle in how this landscape evolved over time.”

 

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Sunrise clouds above the White Mountains’ Presidential Range in Jefferson, New Hampshire; image by Cappi Thompson at Getty Images.

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Old Man of the Mountain–an iconic NH rock formation, one that seems appropriate to share in a blog post on geology–on April 26, 2003, seven days before the rocks of its face collapsed. A late spring snow fell the night before. Image by Jeffrey Joseph, public domain, Wikipedia.

Dr. P. Thom Davis and Dr. Paul Bierman not only introduced me to a new science, they also piqued my interest in it. Basic geologic vocabulary was foreign to me. I delighted in discovering the meaning behind new words (nunataks, moraines, varve records, basal thermal regime!) in order to better understand their work. Thanks to their time and their research, I now look at the world around me with much more discerning eyes, especially at the many boulders erratics that scatter the landscape.  Fossils in New England may be scarce, but rock formations are not.  I extend a sincere and resounding THANK YOU to both, for their help, their graciousness and the fun three-way conversation we had discussing their paper!

Thank you to Kea Giles at the Geological Society of America for sending me a copy of the paper!

I highly recommend the book “The Geology of New Hampshire’s White Mountains” shown below, co-authored by Dr. P. Thom Davis. It is a fascinating account of NH geology and a great introduction to geology itself.

Woodrow Thompson, another co-author of that book, wrote an engaging account of the history of NH geology (paper is listed below). It was a great help to me in writing this piece, and I encourage anyone interested to read it

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References:

  1. Fossil Landscapes in New England, GSA press release, October 26, 2015
  2. Cold-based Laurentide ice covered New England’s highest summits during the Last Glacial Maximum, Paul R. Bierman, P. Thompson Davis, Lee B. Corbett, Nathaniel A. Lifton, Robert C. Finkel, Geology, October 2015
  3. History of Research on Glaciation in the White Mountains, New Hampshire (U.S.A.), Woodrow B. Thompson, Géographie physique et Quaternaire, Volume 53, 1999
  4. The Geology of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, J. Dykstra Eusden, Woodrow B. Thompson, Brian K. Fowler, P. Thom Davis, Wallace A. Bothner, Richard A. Boisvert, John W. Creasy; Durand Press, 2013

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NH State Fossil? – Part 4: Legislators to Students: “NO.”

“I don’t mean this in any unkind way, but not all bills pass, and that’s part of the lesson associated here.”

Representative John Sytek was discussing the bill to make a mastodon the NH State Fossil (H.B. 113).

“I’ve had my own bills not pass,” he continued. “And, well, that’s life!”

He and 19 other members of the NH House of Representatives were part of the committee responsible for hearing testimony in support of the bill. These representatives would then offer their recommendation to the rest of the 400 members. The full House would then vote on whether to pass the bill.

StateHouselookingup

[image of the NH State House, Concord, NH, taken by the author]

 

In other words, at a time when the House was voting on hundreds of other bills, the recommendation of that specific committee was crucial to this particular bill.

Of the 20 committee members, only four were present for the testimony.

A small group of 4th graders, Thom Smith and two local paleontologists—Dr. Will Clyde, UNH, and Dr. Gary Johnson, Dartmouth—presented their arguments in support of a state fossil late that afternoon on February 3rd.

The recommendation of the committee, voted 11-4 against the bill, was “inexpedient to legislate.”

“Remember, we were listening to a bill having to do with a symbol for the state. An icon,” Rep. Sytek explained by phone.

“This wasn’t a bill about the budget. This wasn’t eminent domain. This wasn’t licensing of doctors.

“All I’m saying is this bill, in and of itself, was interesting, and we’ve respected the efforts that the kids made, but this isn’t amending the constitution.

“So people who had other obligations want to meet their other obligations. And like every legislator, or everyone in life, you’ve got to balance one thing against another.”

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[image of NH State House front stairs and entrance, taken by the author]

 

Representative Greg Smith, one of the committee members not present for the testimony, answered questions later by phone about the bill and the legislative process.

“Basically,” he said, “we’ve got [hundreds of] bills. In a short couple of months, meeting one or two days a week, we’ve got to get through all those bills. And we’re basically volunteers.”

“I think timing-wise, the timing didn’t work out. I think this was intended to be one of the first bills that we saw, and, if you recall, we had such a snowy winter that a lot of the testimony [was] delayed.

“I wonder if things had been different, if this had been one of the very first bills we heard, the House might be more receptive to passing a bill early on like this.

“If we’re only sitting around for 2 hours and then we’re going home, it’s a lot different. Now,” he said, in reference to the number of bills in the House, “you’re in the traffic jam.”

Inclement weather this winter (a season, I might add, that even now, in April, is not yet over) prevented hearings from occurring as scheduled. Hearings were rescheduled to be heard on one long, full day versus over several days or weeks. Time was indeed a factor.

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[Here is where bills are either passed or not passed. Image inside the NH State House, taken by the author]

 

And it’s easy, I think, to scoff at something such as a proposal for a state symbol or dismiss it as inconsequential in relation to issues like the budget.

But isn’t there substantial value in an engaged group of citizens, especially at such a young age? Isn’t this something we want to encourage, in a country where most adults are cynical of and many are ignorant of the political process?

And isn’t there great value to furthering educational and scientific resources, at a time when the country is concerned about both?

This is not to say that I think legislation should be passed simply because a group of young citizens are engaged. And I am also not suggesting that all educational or scientific bills be passed on the premise that they are related to education or science. But it did make me wonder why—beyond time and the subjective determination of importance—so many voted against it.

This is particularly puzzling when Rep. Sytek made a point to explain that the testimony given by the 4th graders was superlative.

“I want to commend [Thom Smith] for the work that he did in instructing and teaching these young citizens how our process works.

“Whether anything came of it or not, it’s virtually a dress rehearsal for their own time in the legislature. Because I think some of them will be there! The kids were remarkable! The passage or non-passage of the bill had nothing to do with the presentation.

“I made a point of telling the rest of the committee that this was one of the best presentations I’d seen,” he explained. “Now, I’m not talking about the Department of Health and Human Services necessarily; I’m talking about when interesting constituencies come: high school kids, maybe grammar school kids, a local organization trying to push something for their town comes in.

“This was really dynamite. I appreciated the effort [they made.]”

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[image inside the NH State House, taken by the author]

 

So what were the reasons?

Would creating a state fossil require funding from the state? Would it involve more work for the legislature? Was the research, reasoning or quality of the testimony lacking? Did the legislators think a different fossil would make a better symbol?

What, outside of personal feelings regarding the symbol, would prompt a representative to vote against it?

Rep. Greg Smith was frank.

“I think it’s a bit subjective. You might get different answers from different people.”

“[T]here seems to be an effort by some fourth grade classes, as part of Civics [class], to try and submit bills for different things. [This] fossil bill is a good example.

“I think these are very worthy lessons. It’s great that the fourth graders are involved. But folks also need to understand that when we vote ‘yes’ on something like this, we’re telling the rest of the House, ‘hey, you guys should take the time and go vote on it and send it to the Senate’ because it’s that valuable.

“I think that’s where a lot of us have a concern: that the time we spend on things like the state raptor or the state fossil takes time away from other subjects that we don’t have as much time to research and debate. [This is] my opinion, but I think I speak for a number of others.

“I didn’t have any objection, you know, mastodon vs. mammoth,” he said in response to whether he disagreed with the choice of fossil proposed. “It was really more around that I didn’t feel that the state needs a state fossil.”

“We had a bill come to committee on a state poem,” he continued. “I was out of town that day, but I would have voted against it. I actually lead the charge against an effort to make Feb. 6 Ronald Reagan Day in NH, because Ronald Reagan never lived here, never grew up here. I’m a Republican, and I still thought that it wasn’t appropriate.

Rep. Sytek offered similar reasoning.

“It is true that it could easily be passed in the sense that it didn’t cost the state any money,” he said. “The question, I think, for some people is the appropriateness of talking about something like this when we’re faced with an enormous budget shortfall.

“It looks inappropriate to be talking about things that are of no fundamental significance to the Republic at a time when [we’re working on] the whole tax structure, spending on worthwhile social projects [such as] mental health issues [or] the condition of our roads and bridges. We can talk about everything. We’ll stay there as long as it takes to get the job done. But it doesn’t seem right to be talking about this.”

 

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[image from Getty Images illustrating some of NH’s State Symbols]

Rep. Greg Smith highlighted the scarcity of fossils in the state as a reason not to have a state fossil.

“[I]f we’re going to do something to make the State of NH Whatever,” he said, “there needs to be a strong and unique connection to NH.

“[L]et’s say, we found the biggest Tyrannosaurus rex fossil in the world and we found it in NH, well, that would be kind of interesting and unique.

“If we found more mammoths or mastodons in NH, [if] we found 100 mastodons, and it was world-famous, well, that would be kind of compelling. Something that makes it a connection to NH, not just a fossil for the sake of having a fossil.”

New Hampshire’s geology, however, makes it exceedingly difficult to find the type of fossils he described. As mentioned in the previous post, the geological components within the state do not preserve fossils as well as that of other states. Does that mean that the state should not celebrate the remarkable fossils it has?

“I feel bad, in a way, for the kids because I know they put a lot of time into it, but I would also say that they’re operating in an adult environment,” Rep. Smith stated. “And I saw a lot of really good bills that representatives put a lot of time into that would have, I believe, positively affected the citizens of NH, but they were voted down or they were killed off by special interests. So, I don’t want [the] fourth graders to be discouraged, but again, they’re being treated as adults. We’re not coddling them just because they’re fourth graders.”

“That may sound mean-spirited. It’s not meant to be, but it’s part of reality.”

The bill, not surprisingly, did not pass the NH House. And it cannot be introduced again for another two years.

“[T]hings don’t necessarily pass the first time around,” Rep. Smith said. “If it’s voted down, you can’t introduce the same bill in the same session. [I]n two years, you’re going to have 20-25% of the House turnover. So maybe they come back in two years and try again.”

“And,” he advised, “if you can get a more senior person or maybe a State Senator to weigh in, that carries weight. And then it becomes more of a personal favor. But you know, the committees, we pay attention to that sort of thing, too.”

Below are emails sent by some members of the committee to Thom Smith, published with permission by those who sent them.

—————

Dear Mr. Smith,

Thank you for writing. In short, I voted against this bill because I believe we have too many state “this or that”, too many special days, and too many special people days that we recognize already. Our committee also killed a day in recognition of Ronald Reagan recently as well as the adoption of a state poem, and last year the House tabled a bill creating state colors. It is also possible the House may table the pending Bobcat bill.

Though I realize your students must be very disappointed in the disposition of this bill, this is a great learning opportunity for them. I have sponsored many bills, most of which, by a huge majority, have failed to become law. No small effort was exerted in an attempt to see these bills pass and yes, I was disappointed.

The House has had well over 800 bills filed this session, can you imagine if even 50% of them had become law? Your students have learned a great lesson from the legislative process they experienced and failure is one of those experiences.

Thank you again for writing,
Steve

Steve Beaudoin
N.H. State Representative
Strafford District 9
Rochester
——————————-

Mr. Smith,

Unfortunately, I was busy at another hearing during the public session and at a work obligation for the executive session, so my comments are only of limited value.

With that said, I would have likely voted against passage as this committee has a significant amount of work and bills like the state poem and this one take us away from oversight of the various boards and the pension system. In general the committee is one of the busier ones and these extra bills do not get the attention they may deserve. One must consider that we are volunteers and in the case of myself, someone who works a full time job outside of Concord, cannot afford to take more than two days off each week to address this legislation.

I would love for a school class to take on a more technical issue, for example do we really need laws about cutting of hair, or what age to go to a tanning salon, or what requirements need to be met to paint someone’s nails……

Having sponsored/co-sponsored the 3rd most bills this year in the house, one gets used to bills not making it through the system. The founders intentionally made it hard to get a bill passed just to minimize how quickly changes to our government can take place. Specifically there are 3 separate gates [ House, Senate and Governor] to get through before a bill becomes law and this adds a significant amount of impedance to the system and this tends to slow down how quickly a statutory change is made.

FWIW, there are bills that I am working this year that are now in their 12th year and we may actually pass both chambers for the first time.

Please share the following quote with the students:
Never, never, never give up.
Winston Churchill
—-

FWIW, I would love to see a public classroom take a stand on drivers ed bill, or finding a solution to the “smarter” “balanced” assessments debacle.. There are some real issues that need to be addressed in the state and it seems our committee is not working on any of the critical issues.

Best regards,
Rep. Hoell
N.H. State Representative
Merrimack District 23
——————————-

Mr. Smith:

Here is the committee report that will appear in the calendar for this bill:

HB-113. This bill would designate the mastodon as the official state fossil (as does Michigan). It is the result of the third (now fourth) grade class project at Bradford elementary school. The Committee was impressed with the quality of the effort. The pupils enlisted the aid of both UNH and Dartmouth professors. Three well-spoken pupils stated their case in testimony before the Committee. However, the Committee felt that New Hampshire has enough cultural and historical artifacts such as our state motto, flower and bird. There was no compelling evidence to indicate that the lack of a state fossil would detract from the imagery of our state nor would adding this designation significantly complement the extant array of our state emblems.

My own personal comments follow.

The members who heard the presentation by your class were genuinely impressed by the obvious work that you as a teacher (I teach at Salem High, BTW) and your pupils did. It is often true that many members (of a citizen legislature) cannot be present for every hearing. However, they are used to reading bills, listening to other members of the Committee and making reasonable judgments on those bases.

However, to varying degrees, the majority of the committee simply did not feel that we need an official state fossil, regardless of the quality of the presentation. One of the professors said that this would raise public awareness of paleontology. I simply do not see that that is true nor do I see that as persuasive even if so.

Many bills are introduced and most of them do not get passed. That is a reality that every legislator understands. Last term, we had a similar presentation by schoolchildren who wanted to see NH adopt orange and red as our official state colors. That bill did not get passed for similar reasons.

Your class should understand that we turn down even requests from the Governor. The legislative process works slowly and persistence (i.e. future efforts) often are successful.

I hope this helps,

John Sytek
N.H. State Representative
Rockingham District 8

Video of a Kearsarge Regional student asking to have a mastodon as state fossil, posted by Rep. David Borden:

——————————————————

I cannot extend a large enough THANK YOU to Thom Smith or his marvelous students.  I am so very impressed and grateful for their efforts, and I am so very sorry that the bill did not pass.

Thank you again to Representatives David Borden, Nancy Stiles, and Tom Sherman.

And thank you so much to Gary Andy.

Thank you to Representatives John Sytek and Greg Smith for their time and their responses to my questions. Thank you to Representatives John Sytek, JR Hoell and Steve Beaudoin for being willing to share their emails and the reasons behind their vote.

While this segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is not about the state fossil bill, it is about the bill to make the red-tailed hawk the state raptor.  This bill was introduced at the same time, and it, too, was voted down.

NH State Fossil? – Part 3: Proposing a Mastodon

I’d forgotten what it is like to be in an elementary school. Stepping into Kearsarge Regional in Bradford, NH, brought it all back: hallways with drawings hung on the wall, classrooms bustling with activity, and a crowded front office where the friendly receptionist—to my delight!—called Thom Smith on an enormous and antiquated buzzer system.

Thom is one of the two third grade teachers, and he’s been there for seven years.  We were meeting that winter day to discuss efforts toward creating a state fossil. He and his now former students had been working on this since October 2013.  It was now 2015; his third graders were currently in the 4th grade.  This had not, apparently, been an easy process.

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[snow in downtown Concord, NH this past winter, picture taken by the author]

 

Ask any elementary child about that state’s symbols, and that child will probably be able to tell you—most likely, with pride–what they are.  Ask an adult, however, and I’d be surprised if they knew more than a few of them.

State symbols, such as an official state bird, an official state fossil, etc., vary from state to state. Generally, they represent a specific flora, fauna or other item found abundantly in that state, so they vary depending upon the environment of the area.  There are no set rules to this, no requirements, no quotas. But a state symbol must be voted upon before it becomes official, so it does require an interested and active group of citizens to propose and see it through.

 

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[image of the NH State House, picture taken by the author]

 

Thom and these students, with help from Lauren Simpson—one of two 4th grade teachers—were trying to make a mastodon (specifically, Mammut americanum) the NH State Fossil.  That type of mastodon was abundant throughout North America, and it is one of the rare fossils found to-date in NH.

I was thrilled to learn of their project and wanted to hear more.

But this project was not without challenges from the start. New Hampshire, unlike many other states in the country, is fossil-poor.

This is not to say that extinct species of any previous time period didn’t exist here.  It simply means that the geological components within the state do not preserve fossils.  Fossils are that much harder to find, which makes the rare mammoth and mastodon tooth discoveries incredibly exciting.

Unfortunately, most people don’t realize this. And when dealing with something such as a state symbol—which generally indicates an abundance of that specific item—the immediate reaction is to assume that NH doesn’t merit a state fossil.

That January, Thom was optimistic.

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[Thom Smith, his marvelous students, and Rep. David Borden, image courtesy of Thom Smith]

 

I was struck by his genuine warmth and graciousness.  He was eager to talk about the project and his students.  He had, he mentioned when I worried about the time, specifically crafted his curriculum for the day so that we could speak uninterrupted for the next 40 minutes.  We sat amid a sea of tiny chairs and desks.  Our conversation may have been adult, but I was acutely aware of how young the students are, marveling as I learned about their enthusiasm for both science and the political process.  These were passionate kids with an equally passionate teacher.

“When you can apply what the kids are learning to current events and what’s going on around them,” Thom explained, “it makes it a lot more meaningful.”

It was his students themselves that prompted the project. They had learned about fossils soon after learning about civics, and they were concerned that, of all New England states, NH alone does not have a state fossil.  They were the reason letters were written to local representatives in the beginning, and it was the students’ consistent interest and follow-up to Thom that prompted him to reach out to representatives in Rye, the town near which mammoth and mastodon fossils were discovered.  (These fossils were found by Captain Mike Anderson and his daughter, Kelsi, fishing off of the NH coast.)

 

 

When two of those representatives expressed an interest, the project started moving.  Congressmen David Borden and Tom Sherman jumped on board, eventually leading to other support within the House of Representatives, including Congresswoman Nancy Stiles, who was the third co-sponsor of the bill.

Representative Borden, however, seems to have taken a particular interest in the students, their teacher and the entire process.  He and his wife met them when the class visited Odiorne Point State Park.  He has visited them in Bradford as well, introducing the students to his dog.

With no little enthusiasm, Thom said of Rep. Borden, “He’s been amazing.”

The class also had the help of Dr. Will Clyde from UNH and Dr. Gary Johnson of Dartmouth, two paleontologists with whom they conferred to determine the best choice for a potential state fossil.  Both men also agreed to testify in support of the bill.

It seemed to me that this bill was in very good hands.  Thom and his students were organized, they had done their research, and they had the help of people in the field to support them.  While Thom expressed a little nervousness about the outcome of the vote, I was confident it would pass.  And why shouldn’t it? It seemed an easy vote: solid research, a unique state symbol, an engaged group of young citizens who were also interested in science, and—at a time when the budget is forefront in everyone’s minds–a bill that didn’t require any financial backing from the state.

How horribly naïve of me to think so.

——————————————–

You can read Thom Smith’s blog here: https://thirdgradesmith.wordpress.com

Next up, last post in this series: the legislators vote and explain their vote.

Dr. Brooke Crowley – Secrets Revealed from Mammoths & Mastodons in the Cincinnati Region

It may seem unlikely to uncover details about what an animal ate thousands of years after its extinction, absent of so much of the flora and fauna that co-existed with that animal.

It might seem even more improbable to illicit that information from fossilized teeth alone.

And yet, this is exactly what Dr. Brooke Crowley and Eric Baumann of the University of Cincinnati have done.

Brooke and Eric Baumann on Kardung La

[image of Eric Baumann and Dr. Brooke Crowley on Khardung La, India; courtesy of Dr. Crowley)

They sampled molars from eight different mammoths and four mastodons, each with a known provenance in the Cincinnati region. Analyzing stable isotopes within each tooth provided information not only about each animal’s diet, but also its habitat.

“Isotopes in our tissues,” Dr. Crowley, Assistant Professor of Quaternary Paleoecology, explained in a phone interview, “are environmental integrators.”

“What we like to say is that isotope values in an animal’s tissues can tell you something about its life. That could be the diet, it could be the environment the animal inhabits, or, in the case of strontium, it could be the actual locality where it lives.”

Over the past 30 years, studying stable isotopes has become an increasingly popular method of understanding both paleontological and archaeological finds in more depth.

These chemical signatures reveal details incorporated within the body over its lifetime and remain in its bones past its death. In other words, what one eats and drinks leave traces of elements that point back to that very same diet and to the region from which one drank water. That organic material has footprints, and scientists—using mass spectrometers and other types of analysis—can read and interpret them.

Remarkably, these chemical footprints remain, even after thousands upon thousands of years. And teeth, with their sturdy crystalline structure, seem to offer reliable stable isotope data.

Dr. Crowley and recent graduate Eric Baumann described their research in a paper to be published in Boreas. Carbon isotopes revealed broad information about what these twelve proboscideans ate; strontium and oxygen isotopes uncovered the region and climate in which these animals lived.

They began their research expecting to uncover that the two species were nomadic, that their teeth were discovered in areas geographically distant from their place of origin. They also expected that mammoths and mastodons ate different types of vegetation.

While their research confirmed the different diet, it provided surprising results for habitat: with the exception of one mastodon, all of these animals actually lived and remained within the Cincinnati region.

In response to why they originally thought these animals might be nomadic, Dr. Crowley pointed to the behavior of existing species.

“Most large animals aren’t sedentary.”

“In general,” she explained, “big creatures move a fair amount; they have large stomachs and they eat a lot of food. And there may be different reasons for moving. It could be a dietary need, it could be there’s some particular nutrient in the soil that they want from time-to-time, or there may be a particular region they like for birthing or mating.”

We see this today in humpback, gray and blue whale populations on either side of the North American continent, migrating from warmer regions in the ocean to colder regions thousands of miles north.

“African elephants, in particular, are typically very destructive by nature. They are what we call ‘environmental engineers.’ Their behavior changes the environment around them.”

Perhaps the most notable affect elephants leave in their wake are the trees they knock down. Consider, too, that elephants eat 160 – 300+ pounds of vegetation a day per elephant.

“[T]hey heavily modify an area. Then they move and modify another area. And they typically have pretty large home ranges. Some populations seasonally migrate from one place to another; others are just more continuously on the move.”

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But, she cautions, “we can’t necessarily use that information to interpret the behavior of extinct species. They’re not necessarily that closely related. But it is something we have to go on.”

In their research, the authors include data from water samples taken from rivers and creeks in Ohio and Kentucky.

What, one might wonder, do modern-day water samples have to do with ancient teeth and their composition?

Strontium within water reflects the geology from which it came. This information is stored within teeth, thereby leaving yet more footprints the scientists can interpret.

Of the types of isotopes analyzed, Dr. Crowley explained that “[a] lot more work has been conducted on carbon and oxygen. So we didn’t really need to establish a local baseline for either of those two isotopes. But strontium’s a little less studied, and we didn’t know what sort of regional variability to expect.

“Without any comparative baseline, it’s hard to interpret what strontium in the animals might mean. We could say, ‘well, they’re all really similar’, but if we didn’t really know what to expect for this region, we wouldn’t know if they’re similar to the region or if all of those animals may have come from somewhere else. So we needed to establish a local baseline.”

In other words, they needed to understand the chemical signatures within local water in order to see if they matched the chemical signatures within these teeth.

“[This is] the first step,” she continued, “in what will hopefully be a long-term research direction: thinking about North American fauna and ecological change over time here on our own continent.”

When asked if this meant she would study other extinct animals or continue researching mammoths and mastodons, her response was “potentially both.”

“Currently I’m [working on a] project using strontium isotopes to look in a little more depth at particular individuals.”

Brooke and a bison scapula

[image of Dr. Brooke Crowley with a bison scapula; courtesy of Dr. Crowley]

She referenced a mastodon from Michigan as an example.

“[W]e’ve sampled little increments of his tusk to see how he moved during his lifetime.”

“One drawback of teeth,” she mentioned, “is that they just give you a relatively brief snapshot in time, whereas a tusk gives you a continuous record of an individual’s life.”

But she is equally interested in what she described as “big-scale patterns” of behavior across various species. And in this research, ‘behavior’ refers to details about their diet, and whether specific species roamed or remained in a specific region.

“If there is any living taxa that we could sample,” she added, “it would be interesting to see how they may have changed, even if they didn’t go extinct.”

“There’s interesting work that’s been done,” she said, referring to research of one of her colleagues, “[regarding the origins of] fossil deposits that indicates mastodons may have retreated to a particular part of the United States just before the Terminal Pleistocene.”

The Pleistocene is a period of time on earth that dates from about 2 million years ago through about 11-10, 000 years ago. The ‘Terminal Pleistocene’ refers to an extinction event within this period.

“Prior to the Terminal Pleistocene, they were found all over the United States. At the Terminal Pleistocene, they’re only found in a little tiny patch of the United States. Something affected their distribution. And I call it ‘retreat’ because it’s a much smaller distribution than they had before.

“By analyzing isotopes in bones and teeth, we would potentially be able to build off of these fossil distributions to paint a more interesting ecological picture of the Terminal Pleistocene.”

Painting more interesting ecological pictures is a strong focus of Dr. Crowley’s work. A scientist who has travelled extensively throughout the world, her research has taken her to the Canary Islands, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Madagascar. Reading her blog and her website, one recognizes a distinct fondness for the aforementioned African country.

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When asked if Madagascar was where her heart was, she responded, “In many ways, yes. Part of that is that I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy into learning a lot about it. So, now I’m invested.”

“There are certainly conservation issues in our own country,” she continued, “but there are other places–and Madagascar is one of them–where there’s a real need to try to make some changes happen now for future conservation and biodiversity management.”

“Up until recently, the recent past of Madagascar was rather understudied. It turns out that there are a lot of interesting questions that are still unanswered.”

Her website, Agoraphotia.com, describes her specific interests:

I investigate ecological interactions among living and recently extinct animals using stable isotope biogeochemistry. My interests include niche partitioning, conservation biology, and paleoecology. I am particularly interested in the causes and consequences of recent extinctions, and the ecological repercussions of habitat fragmentation and degradation.

She has studied fossilized rodents, lemurs and orangutans; she has researched climate change; she has studied plants and soil.

She lists research projects in which she has been involved:

•Assessing the utility of stable oxygen isotopes in distinguishing dietary niches.

•Distinguishing isotopic niches of fossil rodents in the Dominican Republic.

•Establishing the stable isotope ecology of modern and Prehistoric Trinidad.

•Exploring ecological change following human settlement on the Canary Islands.

•Identifying responses of the animal community to climate change and human impacts in Madagascar.

•Quantifying spatial variability in bioavailable strontium and assessing changes in mobility patterns of extinct and extant North American megafauna.

Prior to the University of Cincinnati, she lectured at the University of Toronto and volunteered at the Royal Ontario Museum in the OWLS (Open the World of Learning to Students) program.

She describes herself as “a relatively new professor in Cincinnati”, one who actively works to try and include students into her research projects. In this, she feels she has been successful, as she has had a number of students involved in her postdoctoral and graduate research and currently has students working with her in the lab.

The study of proboscidean teeth that lead to the paper to be published in Boreas was, she said, “originally designed to be a student project.”

Given her vast and varied experience, one might wonder why the focus was extinct North American fauna.

Explaining that most of her students are either from Ohio or the surrounding region, she said, “It’s a little more relevant for them to think about animals that lived in their backyard than animals that lived on the other side of the planet.”

This, too, is why they used teeth from the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, rather than the collections of other neighboring state museums.

Brooke in Madagascar2

[image of Dr. Crowley in Madagascar next to a sign that warns visitors that “Lake Ravelobe is forbidden” and that “Crocodiles attack”; courtesy of Dr. Crowley]

“Many of the reasons that I do what I do and that I am where I am is because of other people who have helped me along the way or inspired me. And really one of the biggest reasons that I wanted to go into academia in the first place was because I feel like I have been empowered in many ways to try to make a difference.

“And I feel like that’s something that I can share with others and then try to make a difference by empowering others and helping them find their way and be compassionate as well.

“So that’s sort of my goal.”

She chuckled. “I don’t know how much I have really met that goal, but I do try, and I’m still pretty new to being a professor. So, I’m finding my way. It’s a challenge, but it’s a good learning experience, and I find it to be pretty rewarding.”

Brooke on a promontory in Tenerife

[image of Dr. Crowley on a promontory in Tenerife, Canary Islands; courtesy of Dr. Crowley]

———————————–

A Mammuthus primigenius-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Brooke Crowley for her generous time, help and fascinating responses to my questions!  What a great honor to connect with her!

You can read the paper in Boreas, Stable isotopes reveal ecological differences amongst now-extinct proboscideans from the Cincinnati region, USA:  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bor.12091/abstract

I had a very difficult time grasping the concept of isotopes. This is due to my struggle with chemistry in general and not a reflection of the gracious people below who took the time to try to help me understand it.  I extend sincere thank you’s to:

  • Dr. Brooke Crowley
  • my dad
  • my sister-in-law who studies science
  • Dr. Suzanne Pilaar Birch (@suzie_birch)
  • Ariel Zych (@Arieloquent) and Science Friday (@scifri)

If you are interested in understanding more, here is further reading:

  1. Dr. Brooke Crowley, Stable Isotope Ecology: http://crowleyteaching.wordpress.com/courses/stable-isotope-ecology/
  2. Stable Isotopes in Zooarchaeology: http://sizwg.wordpress.com/bibliography/
  3. New insight from old bones: stable isotope analysis of fossil mammals, by Mark Clementz: http://www.mammalogy.org/articles/new-insight-old-bones-stable-isotope-analysis-fossil-mammals
  4. Applications of Stable Isotope Analysis, K. Kris Hirst: http://archaeology.about.com/od/stableisotopes/a/si_intro.htm