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.

Rewriting the Story of How They Died – Columbian Mammoths in Waco

[[The following text has been edited from the original post.  Email me for the original post: mostlymammoths (at) gmail.com or read the full scientific paper by the authors here.]]

*****

Sometimes, it just takes a different point of view.

The largest known potential nursery herd of Columbian mammoth fossils in the world exists in Waco, Texas.  Of the 25 mammoth skeletons found to-date, 16-22 of them died at the same time. Something catastrophic occurred to these animals in the Pleistocene, but just what remains inconclusive.

While some speculate death by lightning, disease or miring, the predominant theory maintains that this is a herd of mammoths that died and were buried in the same flash flood.  It’s an idea that has stuck for many years given the existence of aquatic fauna and the evidence of an ancient river upon which many of the fossils have been found.

Female W - Waco Mammoth NM - Larry D. Moore

Image of Female Mammoth “W” at the Waco Mammoth National Monument, photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0, 2013

 

But Logan Wiest, Don Esker and Steven Driese of Baylor University have a different hypothesis, one published this past December in Palaios.  By studying traces on the bones available in situ, as well as those available in the nearby Mayborn Museum, they offer an entirely new idea: water didn’t kill them; its absence did.  Struggling to find water in a drought, these animals may have collapsed and died at a watering hole that could no longer sustain them or anything else.

Columbian mammoths were enormous animals.  In general, they are known to be much larger than woolly mammoths and considerably larger than mastodons, both of which were behemoths in their own right.

The mammoth skeletons at Waco are thought to be a matriarchal herd, consisting mainly of females and youth (no calves).  The evidence suggests a herd, and there is more research to be done to prove it using stable isotopes.  A single bull has been discovered in a different geologic layer.  Separate fossils of other species—none of them complete except for a western camel—have also been found throughout the site.

Don admitted he didn’t have an alternative explanation for the death of so many animals. He invited his colleague, Logan Wiest, to take a closer look at the fossil evidence.

“I’d brought [Logan] in hoping he’d look at the [site’s paleosols],” Don said. “I knew he was a trace fossil expert, so I’d hoped he [might] tell me a little bit about the conditions based on worm burrows, [for example].

“What he found instead was much more interesting! He found that there were all kinds of bite marks on the bones.  We didn’t find those all at once.  It actually took quite a while [before] we recognized what we were seeing as bite marks.  A lot of literature research and a lot of staring at bones.  Those bite marks shouldn’t have been there if the mammoths were immediately buried.

“One of the first things he noticed and was able to identify quickly were dermestid beetle bite marks: pits that the beetles dig in the bones when they’re going to lay eggs.

“I thought that perhaps [evidence of dermestid beetles] might be there, but I didn’t realize the significance of [that evidence].  He’s more of an expert on this than I am.

“And he knew that dermestid beetles don’t eat wet meat.  It actually has to be almost completely dessicated–no moisture left at all, just the fats and proteins–before the dermestid beetles will touch it. And that didn’t fit well with animals that were killed in a flood and rapidly buried.

“Dermestid beetles also don’t burrow. Even a single inch of soil is enough to keep dermestid beetles from digging down to perfectly good meat.  They can’t dig.”

Figure 7 - Palaios

FIG. 7.—Cubiculum isp. on various skeletal elements. A) Slightly elliptical, hemispherical bore on in situ rib of mammoth W. B) Hemispherical boring on mammoth U phalanx (545-BU-MMC). C) Shallow bore on femoral articulation surface 761a-BU-MMC. D) Shallow bore on eroded long bone of mammoth D limb fragment (203-BU-MMC). E) Hemispherical bore in cancellous bone on the surface of a spiral fracture (20-BU-MMC). F) Comparative trace generated by captive hide beetles on a wild-hog skull (Sus scrofa). Note the similarities in size and morphology to Figs. 7A-E.

 

Used with permission, PALAIOS, v. 31, 2016, © SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology 2016.

 

“So, it was Logan looking at this and trying to think about what might be causing this instead of a flood, and he said, ‘Well, how about a drought?’

“I knew about some other evidence that really fit with that. So that clicked with me very quickly, particularly the fact that we’ve got both aquatic and terrestrial animals—a great diversity of them all in the same place.  What that suggested to me was a diminishing watering hole. And I wouldn’t have realized that if Logan hadn’t noticed the dermestids and figured out the drought angle.”

Beyond studying the available literature for trace fossil search images, they tested their ideas on the heads of deceased wild hogs using extant dermestid beetles. In effect: they put the fleshy heads into a contained area and let loose the beetles, who proceeded to consume all of the flesh, leaving clean skulls. It’s an efficient and chemical-free method used by scientists and museums the world over.  But for Logan, Dan and Steven, this provided more data for comparison. Traces left by the beetles on the wild hog skulls are similar to traces on the fossils in Waco.

 

dermestid-beetles-lisa-buckley1

Screenshot of a tweet regarding the use of dermestid beetles from Dr. Lisa Buckley, paleontologist and ichnologist at the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre

 

“Previous studies have attributed trace fossils of this size and morphology to dermestid beetles,” Logan wrote in response to what prompted them–of all insects that might have left traces on fossils–to think of dermestid beetles.  “We simply wanted to test this notion by providing bone to dermestid beetles and seeing if these traces could be duplicated under controlled conditions. The beetles came from a nearby museum, but they are also native to Texas. We used the head from a hog simply because wild hogs are easily accessible in central Texas.”

A true ichnologist, Logan added, “I’ve also spent a great deal of time observing bones of modern cattle that were scavenged upon in pastures near my home.”

They didn’t just find evidence of ancient dermestid beetle traces; they found traces of animals who gnawed at the bones: rodents and carnivores, including a possible saber-toothed cat.  It is important to consider that animals drowned and then rapidly buried in a flash flood would not be accessible to these terrestrial scavengers.  This indicates that these Columbian mammoth carcasses were exposed on land long enough to be at least partially devoured.

That, too, is key. Remember that most of these mammoth fossils are articulated skeletons, complete except for missing tails and parts of their feet.  In an area devastated by drought, even scavengers would lack the energy to completely devour and tear apart a carcass.  All of these clues add more weight to the scenario proposed by these authors.

Figure 5 - Palaios

FIG. 5.—Brutalichnus brutalis on M. columbi skeletal elements. A) Arcuate grooves on femoral head 761a-BU-MMC. B) Relatively deep, arcuate grooves on mammoth Q in situ patella. C) Isolated arcuate groove on proximal radius (40-BU-MMC) of mammoth B. Note the similarity in curvature between the arcuate groove and the saber-toothed cat canine recovered from WMNM. The tooth is 6.4 cm for scale. Also note the faintly colored lines that are parallel to the arc of the groove. Dashed white box highlights the area depicted in D. D) Close-up image of groove depicting the microfractures within the trace on 40-BU-MMC. Notice how the fractures are all open towards the upper-right corner of the image, indicating the trace was generated from a force moving from the upper right towards the lower left. E) In situ femur of bull mammoth at WMNM. F) Arcuate grooves on mammoth Q phalanx 522-BU-MMC.

 

Used with permission, PALAIOS, v. 31, 2016, © SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology 2016.

 

Describing the tools they used to study the fossils in situ, Logan wrote, “The low-angle light creates a shadow which makes the small structures on the bone surface to be easier to see and photograph. We used a Dino-Lite portable microscope to study the fossils mainly because we are unable to transport the mammoth remains from the site to the laboratory. Studying the fossils in place is the best way to ensure preservation of the original positions.”

In other words, because the fossils remain where they were found, they studied those available directly at the site.  Their paper states that the in situ fossils comprise 30% of the available Waco fossils.  The rest reside at the Mayborn Museum, some of which are available in their collections, but most of which remain unopened in their plaster jackets.

“It’s an amazing site,” Don enthused, “and there’s decades and decades of research there, on top of potentially a lot more excavation, too, because they are in NO WAY finished excavating. What they’ve got probably represents a fairly small fraction of the whole deposit.

“One of the things that Logan and I were speculating about [is] if you’ve got a really big regional drought, that should show up in multiple places in the geologic record, especially right in that area.  The bed that we’ve got marking the drought as this depositional hiatus could be covered with bones for acres and acres in every direction.

“And we know that it’s covered in bones at least 80 or 90 feet away from where the known deposits are because we’ve done core sampling that have pulled out large bone fragments.  We only did a couple of them—a couple at random!—and they hit bones both times.”

 

Figure 4 - Palaios

FIG. 4.—Machichnus regularis on various skeletal remains of M. columbi (unless otherwise noted). A) Rodent gnaw marks on rib 764b-BU-MMC. B) Rodent traces on mammoth E limb fragment 203a-BU-MMC. C) Rasps on vertebra of in situ camel. D) Rodent gnaw marks on in situ neural spine of juvenile mammoth T in L1. E) Rodent traces on in situ left scapula of bull mammoth (Q) in L2. F) Close-up image of the same trace depicted in view E.

 

Used with permission, PALAIOS, v. 31, 2016, © SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology 2016.

 

 

The Waco Mammoth site itself has been around for 39 years, but it has only been part of the National Park Service since July 2015, thanks to President Barack Obama and the work of many people years beforehand who helped bring that to fruition.  Don and I discussed this by phone, given the current political climate and the fears that some National Monuments might lose their status.

“That’s really worrisome,” he remarked. “And what really sticks in my craw about the Waco Monument in particular is that it’s costing the Federal Government almost nothing.  The city of Waco is paying for almost all of the upkeep.  The original buildings? That wasn’t tax money. That was done by good old fashioned fund-raising. And the day-to-day operations are almost all city.  There are a couple of rangers there alongside city employees and some signage and brochures. And that’s really all the Federal Government’s paying into it.”

“It’s a really incredible place.  There are not a lot of sites like this anywhere, as far as in situ fossils sites go.”

*****

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Don Esker and Logan Wiest for their remarkable generosity in answering my questions and for sharing their research with me.  It was an enormous pleasure speaking with and communicating through email with them.  I loved reading their research and hearing more of the history behind it!!

You can read the paper here.

A sincere and enthusiastic thank you to Kathleen Huber, Managing Editor at Palaios, for her gracious permission to use the figures contained in this post!

References:

  1. The Waco National Monument may represent a diminished watering-hole scenario based on preliminary evidence of post-mortem scavenging, Wiest, Logan A.; Esker, Don; Driese, Steven G., Palaios, December 2016, DOI: 10.2110/palo.2016.053
  2. Waco National Monument, Waco, TX
  3. City of Waco, TX – Waco Mammoth National Monument, Waco, TX
  4. Mammoth Opportunity, Jeff Hampton, Baylor Arts & Sciences Magazine, Fall 2016
  5. What is Ichnology? from Introduction to Ichnology, Anthony J. Martin, Emory University (This page offers a great explanation of some of the more technical ichnological terms included in the scientific paper referenced for this post. I also recommend Dr. Martin’s book, “Dinosaurs Without Bones” for a more comprehensive look into ichnology.)
  6. Flesh-Eating Beetles Explained, Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato, National Geographic, January 17, 2013

 

waco-mammoths-3-from-city-of-waco-video

Screenshot of the entrance to Waco Mammoth National Monument from a video done by the City of Waco

Dr. Ben Thomas: (Part 1) International Archaeology Day

“I think the main thing about archaeology is that people love the idea of discovery,” Dr. Thomas mused.

“The thrill of discovery,” he amended.

I sat across from him in his corner of the office, an ocean of research and paperwork between us.

Our conversation proceeded to the symphony of phones ringing and professional conversations throughout the room: the soundtrack to daily work in most offices. Traffic—constant and, at times, unruly—was a barely muted cacophony just outside the nearest window.

But all other noise seemed inconsequential when he spoke.  It wasn’t just the content of his words and how quickly they drew me in, it was also the cadence, the honey-soaked lilt, the music of his voice. I didn’t realize English could sound so lovely.  Listening to him brought my favorite language to mind and for one of the very reasons it is a favorite.  In French, the words of a sentence are pronounced fluidly in one beautiful linguistic stream. And this is exactly how he speaks.

We were discussing archaeology in general, his work at the AIA, the ideas behind the annual Archaeology Fair in Boston, and his fieldwork in Belize.

Dr. Ben Thomas - AIA 5.6.15

Image of Dr. Ben Thomas at his desk in the AIA office, Boston; taken by the author

 

It was an absolutely gorgeous Spring day in Boston.  Against a cloudless blue sky, the streets were lined with pink and white cherry blossoms, the kind that dance like confetti whenever a breeze tickles the branches.

Dr. Thomas and I had been trying to connect for quite some time, our schedules finally meeting in the middle of the week.  With the address in my mind, I scanned the brick homes and then the commercial buildings for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), where Dr. Ben Thomas works as Director of Programs.

The AIA may have loomed largely in my mind, but it is housed discreetly on the 6th floor of a building owned by Boston University.  And it was there that I learned how one of the most exciting annual archaeological events came to fruition.

It started with Jane Waldbaum, one of the AIA’s governing board members, later the AIA President, who organized a family-friendly fair at the AIA’s annual meetings.  These meetings—like those of other large scientific organizations—are held at a different location each year, and they are geared toward professionals in the field.  The fair was a way of including the general public.

Dr. Thomas and his staff took that idea several steps further.

They brainstormed how to bring archaeology to more people, how to create a positive event—something that would engage a wider audience, not just the occasional announcement of a huge discovery and not in reaction to negative impacts within the field: looting, theft, vandalism.

“We wanted an event that said: ‘This is something that’s worth celebrating: our past, our culture, our cultural heritage, archaeology itself.’”

So they created National Archaeology Day.  There was no fee attached, there was no agenda. Any group could celebrate it and create its own set of events.  The idea was simply to highlight archaeology in all of its forms.

Meanwhile, he called Mike Adams, Outreach Manager at the Museum of Science Boston, and together they created the Archaeology Fair, now held each October at the museum.

“We wanted to tell people that archaeology can be local,” Dr. Thomas explained. “You don’t have to go to Egypt to experience archaeology; you can experience it in your own community. There’s always something going on.”

And, he continued, “[w]e wanted people to connect with each other, especially professionals and laypeople.”

The fair succeeds on both counts.  Thousands of people attend the event in Boston each year.  Tables of archaeological artifacts and archaeologists are dispersed in multiple areas throughout the museum. The day is filled with panel events and guest speakers, and anyone can ask any archaeologist questions about their work. While archaeologists who work in Egypt are often present, most of the fair consists of New England archaeologists who work in the area.  It is now in its 10th year.

mos - arch - welcome sign

mos - arch - arch tool kit leveillee

mos - arch - native american tools

 

mos - arch - fried mealworm - voelkel

Images of the Archaeology Fair at the Museum of Science Boston in 2013; taken by the author

 

Another goal of the fair is to clarify what archaeology actually entails, a confusion that persists today with paleontology.  Often, the two distinctly different fields are believed to be one and the same, when, in fact, archaeology revolves around ancient people and their artifacts; paleontology studies extinct creatures—those that are not human.

“[The general public appears to have] great enthusiasm for archaeology,” said Dr. Thomas.  “But there’s also a lot of misunderstanding about what archaeology is and what archaeologists do. For a lot of people, [archaeology is] just about finding stuff.

“We try to emphasize the fact that the ‘stuff’ is just the means to an end. I mean, ultimately, what we’re trying to study is human behavior: what these people did, where they lived, how they behaved, what they ate, how they interacted with each other.  And the artifacts are just the clues.

“It’s: Why? Who? When? How? Those are the things that we’re trying to get to.

“Finding things is just the first step. I shouldn’t say the first step; it’s the middle step, because you’ve already done a ton of research, you know why you are looking for something where you’re looking, and then, when you find it, you have to figure out what it means.

“What it means, I think, is the most fascinating, although not the most visibly glamorous, because you’re in a library somewhere doing research and typing up reports on the lab.”

National Archaeology day quickly transformed into International Archaeology Day—a reflection of its popularity well outside US borders.  The number of organizations that supported and celebrated it surprised everyone at the AIA.  Sponsors of the day now include the National Park Service and National Marine Sanctuaries.

International Archaeology Day 2015

International Archaeology Day 2015, screenshot from the AIA website

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

You can find local events for this upcoming International Archaeology Day in October here: https://www.archaeological.org/archaeologyday/events

Previous posts about the Archaeology Fair in Boston:

  1. Caitlin Davis: Mayan epigraphy: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-caitlin-davis/
  2. Archaeology for Kids: Dig Magazine: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/archaeology-for-kids-dig-magazine/
  3. Origin of the Boston Archaeology Fair: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/boston-archeology-fair-its-origins-through-the-archaeological-institute-of-america/
  4. Marine Archaeology: Matthew Lawrence at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-matthew-lawrence/
  5. Dr. George Mutter: Ancient Egypt in 3D Photographs: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-dr-george-mutter-egyptian-images-in-3d/
  6. Alan Leveillee: Cultural Resource Management: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-alan-leveillee/

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.”

 

Embed from Getty Images

——————–

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!

[REPOST] Origins of National Fossil Day – Vince Santucci

NFD_2014_rectangle_96dpi

 

 

Today is the 5th Annual National Fossil Day!  Below is the original post from 2013.  Please be sure to check local museums for events or check this wonderful resource here: http://nature.nps.gov/geology/nationalfossilday/events.cfm

(Per the National Park Service, the gift for President Obama mentioned below will not be given this year.)

——————————–

National Fossil Day—now in its 4th year—may be in its infancy, but it has been 30 years in the making, according to Vince Santucci.

Santucci–Senior Geologist, Paleontologist, and Washington Liaison for the National Park Service (Geologic Resources Division)–discussed the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act and National Fossil Day by phone a week into the current government shutdown.

Paleontology vs Archeology

“Initially in the 70’s,” he explained, “there was an interest in developing protective legislation for both archeological resources and for paleontological resources.”

Many people–including some magazines upon recent review of their websites–confuse paleontology and archeology. While both revolve around ancient remains, they are distinctly different sciences.

Archeology is the study of ancient human remains and artifacts.  The key word here is “human”. Paleontology is the study of fossils—ancient mammals, dinosaurs, fish, bacteria: prehistoric life unrelated to humans.

Santucci credits this confusion as one of the reasons to have separate legislation for the two respective sciences.

The Archeological Resources Protection Act was signed into law in 1979, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the paleontological equivalent became law.

Fossil Theft

“As part of that very long process to establish the new law, we wanted to make sure that it had positive consequences in a wide range of aspects for paleontology. It wasn’t just a law-enforcement law to provide stricter penalties for theft of fossils.”

“What amazed me,” Santucci said, discussing his graduate fieldwork during the mid-1980’s, “as I was out in the field learning the geology of the Badlands, working with visiting geologists, that we were encountering people that were stealing fossils from within Badlands National Park on a regular basis.”

He described one person who had been collecting fossils for 25 years from that very park.

“When he was given a $50 fine for that, I realized that the need for some sort of legislation similar to the Archeological Resources Protection Act was needed by the Federal Government.”

These were but some of the instances that prompted him to obtain law enforcement training.  He explained that he “came on board in 1991 at Petrified Forest National Park as the government’s only ‘pistol-packing paleontologist’.”

Creation of National Fossil Day

The National Forest Service, the Smithsonian and the Department of the Interior worked together on a report to Congress in 2000, according to Santucci.  A lot of the language from this report was used in the legislation that became the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act.

“One of the provisions is one sentence,” he said, “and it basically provides a mandate that the federal agencies shall help to increase public awareness about fossils and paleontology.”

Based on that one sentence, those working to implement the new law decided to “go out and make some partners, do something positive, and establish this National Fossil Day.”

President Obama – Appreciation in a Big Way

Santucci said its popularity was at once a surprise and a success.  It “went viral within the Department of Interior and wound up going to the White House.”

In October 2010—the first National Fossil Day—the National Park Service was presented with a letter from President Obama, the very president who had signed the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act into law the previous year.

“Our Chief Public Information Officer surprised us and showed up on the National Mall in his class-A dress uniform, and he presented to us a letter from President Obama.”

This was, Santucci continued with no small amount of enthusiasm, an important and meaningful gesture to those in the National Park Service (NPS).  The law that brought this event to light took 30 years, and here were wishes for “a wonderful first National Fossil Day” from the President who made it possible.

And the National Park Service is indeed grateful.

Santucci mentioned that the NPS “is working to extend their appreciation in a big way to President Obama.”

(Stay tuned!  While they are not ready to publically announce their plans, you can read more about that exciting news on this blog when the moment arrives.)

Why mid-October?

For the past four years, National Fossil Day has been held on a date in mid-October, and that date is significant.

“The absolute first organization that we reached out to offering the idea for National Fossil Day was an organization called the America Geosciences Institute (AGI). The reason that we targeted AGI is that the National Park Service was already partnering with AGI for Earth Science Week. Earth Science Week is held every year, and it’s been going on for 15 years prior to National Fossil Day. It is an effective outreach program during the second week of October every year promoting earth science.  Through this, AGI reaches between 20-25 million school children and teachers across the country.”

Much of the Fossil Day initiative focuses heavily on activities geared toward children.  Part of that may be deliberate.  When asked about challenges he sees to paleontology in general today, Santucci was quick to point out our country’s struggle with science education in schools.

But he was equally quick to point out that the goal of National Fossil Day is to include people of all ages.

“It’s not just designed for scientists, and it’s not just designed for teachers, and it’s not just designed for kids or federal bureaucrats. It is designed to reach out and touch anybody who’s interested in fossils in any way that they are.”

Interest Grows

With 60 new partners, National Fossil Day now has over 280 partners.  They include scientific organizations, libraries, museums, educational organizations and amateur groups.

The NPS employed two people full-time in order to maintain the National Fossil Day website and update information from their partners.

Santucci mentioned that some partners, for myriad reasons, are unable to celebrate on the actual day designated as National Fossil Day.

“Some of our partners will have their events in the middle of summer because their site might be closed down during the winter months, just because of budget and weather and things like that.”

The NPS response?

“We say ‘absolutely’. It doesn’t have to be on the second Wednesday of October to be National Fossil Day. It’s in the whole spirit of promoting learning and science education.”

“We never envisioned when we sat down with the American Geosciences Institute and said ‘let’s try to establish this National Fossil Day’ that it would have grown as it has. So we have colleagues over in England, Australia, Germany, and China who are saying ‘let’s take this idea and go international and create an International Fossil Day’.  So there’s a whole team that’s plotting out our next undertaking.”

He also described plans to work in more depth with the Children’s Summer Learning Program, linked to libraries throughout the country.

“We’re going to do a whole campaign to help every library across America to establish a reading program called ‘Dig Into Reading’ where it features dinosaurs and fossils.  Libraries will have books available and displays and exhibits to attract kids to come in during the summer and pick up a book or two and read as part of their summer vacations.”

“National Fossil Day has evolved into something far bigger than we had ever anticipated. And the support from our partners has just been tremendous. And we never would have been able to accomplish the things that we have without that very strong National Fossil Day partnership.”

National Fossil Day 2013 – Government Shutdown

When discussing this day and its creation, the government shutdown had already been in place for several days.  The idea that it might stretch through mid-October seemed remote at that time but possible.

In response to questions about it, Santucci was optimistic.

“The National Park Service and the other federal partners like the Smithsonian may not be able to participate on October 16th.  But the vast majority of our 280 partners are non-federal.  And they continue to move forward; they are going to sustain activities. So Congress hasn’t shut them down.”

He finished by saying, “Yes, it’s going to go on. We may not be able to participate on the National Mall as we’d hoped, but we’re happy for all of those events that will occur nationwide.”

———————-

For more information on National Fossil Day, please see this link when the government shutdown is over:  http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/nationalfossilday

To see a picture of Vince Santucci, go to page 32 in this book: Hunting Dinosaurs by Louie Psihoyos and John Knoebber

For more information on Earth Science Week: http://www.earthsciweek.org/

Many, many thanks to Vince Santucci for his time and his valuable insight! 

And a T-Rex-sized thank you to everyone who brought about and continues to work on National Fossil Day!

NFD 2010 - Sketch for logo

(Sketch of the 2010 National Fossil Day logo provided by Vince Santucci)

Origins of National Fossil Day – Vince Santucci

National Fossil Day—now in its 4th year—may be in its infancy, but it has been 30 years in the making, according to Vince Santucci.

Santucci–Senior Geologist, Paleontologist, and Washington Liaison for the National Park Service (Geologic Resources Division)–discussed the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act and National Fossil Day by phone a week into the current government shutdown.

Paleontology vs Archeology

“Initially in the 70’s,” he explained, “there was an interest in developing protective legislation for both archeological resources and for paleontological resources.”

Many people–including some magazines upon recent review of their websites–confuse paleontology and archeology. While both revolve around ancient remains, they are distinctly different sciences.

Archeology is the study of ancient human remains and artifacts.  The key word here is “human”. Paleontology is the study of fossils—ancient mammals, dinosaurs, fish, bacteria: prehistoric life unrelated to humans.

Santucci credits this confusion as one of the reasons to have separate legislation for the two respective sciences.

The Archeological Resources Protection Act was signed into law in 1979, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the paleontological equivalent became law.

Fossil Theft

“As part of that very long process to establish the new law, we wanted to make sure that it had positive consequences in a wide range of aspects for paleontology. It wasn’t just a law-enforcement law to provide stricter penalties for theft of fossils.”

“What amazed me,” Santucci said, discussing his graduate fieldwork during the mid-1980’s, “as I was out in the field learning the geology of the Badlands, working with visiting geologists, that we were encountering people that were stealing fossils from within Badlands National Park on a regular basis.”

He described one person who had been collecting fossils for 25 years from that very park.

“When he was given a $50 fine for that, I realized that the need for some sort of legislation similar to the Archeological Resources Protection Act was needed by the Federal Government.”

These were but some of the instances that prompted him to obtain law enforcement training.  He explained that he “came on board in 1991 at Petrified Forest National Park as the government’s only ‘pistol-packing paleontologist’.”

Creation of National Fossil Day

The National Forest Service, the Smithsonian and the Department of the Interior worked together on a report to Congress in 2000, according to Santucci.  A lot of the language from this report was used in the legislation that became the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act.

“One of the provisions is one sentence,” he said, “and it basically provides a mandate that the federal agencies shall help to increase public awareness about fossils and paleontology.”

Based on that one sentence, those working to implement the new law decided to “go out and make some partners, do something positive, and establish this National Fossil Day.”

President Obama – Appreciation in a Big Way

Santucci said its popularity was at once a surprise and a success.  It “went viral within the Department of Interior and wound up going to the White House.”

In October 2010—the first National Fossil Day—the National Park Service was presented with a letter from President Obama, the very president who had signed the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act into law the previous year.

“Our Chief Public Information Officer surprised us and showed up on the National Mall in his class-A dress uniform, and he presented to us a letter from President Obama.”

This was, Santucci continued with no small amount of enthusiasm, an important and meaningful gesture to those in the National Park Service (NPS).  The law that brought this event to light took 30 years, and here were wishes for “a wonderful first National Fossil Day” from the President who made it possible.

And the National Park Service is indeed grateful.

Santucci mentioned that the NPS “is working to extend their appreciation in a big way to President Obama.”

(Stay tuned!  While they are not ready to publically announce their plans, you can read more about that exciting news on this blog when the moment arrives.)

Why mid-October?

For the past four years, National Fossil Day has been held on a date in mid-October, and that date is significant.

“The absolute first organization that we reached out to offering the idea for National Fossil Day was an organization called the America Geosciences Institute (AGI). The reason that we targeted AGI is that the National Park Service was already partnering with AGI for Earth Science Week. Earth Science Week is held every year, and it’s been going on for 15 years prior to National Fossil Day. It is an effective outreach program during the second week of October every year promoting earth science.  Through this, AGI reaches between 20-25 million school children and teachers across the country.”

Much of the Fossil Day initiative focuses heavily on activities geared toward children.  Part of that may be deliberate.  When asked about challenges he sees to paleontology in general today, Santucci was quick to point out our country’s struggle with science education in schools.

But he was equally quick to point out that the goal of National Fossil Day is to include people of all ages.

“It’s not just designed for scientists, and it’s not just designed for teachers, and it’s not just designed for kids or federal bureaucrats. It is designed to reach out and touch anybody who’s interested in fossils in any way that they are.”

Interest Grows

With 60 new partners, National Fossil Day now has over 280 partners.  They include scientific organizations, libraries, museums, educational organizations and amateur groups.

The NPS employed two people full-time in order to maintain the National Fossil Day website and update information from their partners.

Santucci mentioned that some partners, for myriad reasons, are unable to celebrate on the actual day designated as National Fossil Day.

“Some of our partners will have their events in the middle of summer because their site might be closed down during the winter months, just because of budget and weather and things like that.”

The NPS response?

“We say ‘absolutely’. It doesn’t have to be on the second Wednesday of October to be National Fossil Day. It’s in the whole spirit of promoting learning and science education.”

“We never envisioned when we sat down with the American Geosciences Institute and said ‘let’s try to establish this National Fossil Day’ that it would have grown as it has. So we have colleagues over in England, Australia, Germany, and China who are saying ‘let’s take this idea and go international and create an International Fossil Day’.  So there’s a whole team that’s plotting out our next undertaking.”

He also described plans to work in more depth with the Children’s Summer Learning Program, linked to libraries throughout the country.

“We’re going to do a whole campaign to help every library across America to establish a reading program called ‘Dig Into Reading’ where it features dinosaurs and fossils.  Libraries will have books available and displays and exhibits to attract kids to come in during the summer and pick up a book or two and read as part of their summer vacations.”

“National Fossil Day has evolved into something far bigger than we had ever anticipated. And the support from our partners has just been tremendous. And we never would have been able to accomplish the things that we have without that very strong National Fossil Day partnership.”

National Fossil Day 2013 – Government Shutdown

When discussing this day and its creation, the government shutdown had already been in place for several days.  The idea that it might stretch through mid-October seemed remote at that time but possible.

In response to questions about it, Santucci was optimistic.

“The National Park Service and the other federal partners like the Smithsonian may not be able to participate on October 16th.  But the vast majority of our 280 partners are non-federal.  And they continue to move forward; they are going to sustain activities. So Congress hasn’t shut them down.”

He finished by saying, “Yes, it’s going to go on. We may not be able to participate on the National Mall as we’d hoped, but we’re happy for all of those events that will occur nationwide.”

———————-

For more information on National Fossil Day, please see this link when the government shutdown is over:  http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/nationalfossilday

To see a picture of Vince Santucci, go to page 32 in this book: Hunting Dinosaurs by Louie Psihoyos and John Knoebber

For more information on Earth Science Week: http://www.earthsciweek.org/

Many, many thanks to Vince Santucci for his time and his valuable insight! 

And a T-Rex-sized thank you to everyone who brought about and continues to work on National Fossil Day!

NFD 2010 - Sketch for logo

(Sketch of the 2010 National Fossil Day logo provided by Vince Santucci)