Thursday, December 11, 2014

Tales from the Field: The Early Bird!

One of my favorite parts of paleontology is being able to visit historic locations: the place where the first of something was found, or the museum where a famous figure worked. One of my favorite memories of working on my Coelophysis project for my M.Sc. (now finally published as Bulletin 63 of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History!) was seeing the articulated nesting skeletons of Oviraptor at the American Museum of Natural History.

Type localities are a big deal in vertebrate paleontology. It's the location of first contact with a part of the Earth's history that has never before been seen and recognized for its importance. They are also the place where present and future researchers can visit and continue to collect information using new ideas and techniques. Also, these sites are bloody cool!

I had a great opportunity to visit the type locality of Ignotornis mcconnelli, the very first Mesozoic bird footprint ever named. Ignotornis was named by Maurice Goldsmith Mehl (1887-1966) in 1931 from a locality "one and a half miles northwest of Golden, Colorado". The specimen was found by N. H. McConnell and donated to the University of Colorado at Boulder. This specimen, the holotype specimen, is UCM 17614.
Ignotornis mcconnelli holotype slab, figured in Lockley et al. (2009).

"Hold up, Shaman: what's a holotype?"

A holotype is the one physical example (it can be a picture, if there is no physical specimen) of an organism (or the trace of an organism) that is being given a unique name. The type is also the specimen to which other similar-looking specimens must be compared when you name a completely new specimen. There are many different categories of types, and many, many rules governing how the different types are named and under what circumstances. This is governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. For example: did the original physical specimen go missing and you want to make a different specimen the reference? There's a rule for that!

One of the great things with science is that there is always an opportunity to clear up confusing statements. When Mehl described Ignotornis, he made reference to other track-bearing slabs, but didn't really state how they were related to the type (although they were all originally cataloged under the same number), or make specific mention of which rock layer in the outcrop these slabs came from. Lockley et al. (2009) cleared up this bit of confusion and used these other track-bearing slabs to re-examine Ignotornis mcconnelli (and provided lots of great data and images), and formally name these other slabs as additional reference (type) specimens. Lockley et al. also narrowed down exactly how old Ignotoris is by tracking down (pun completely intended) the discovery site of the original specimen, which is in the Cretaceous Dakota Group, Albian - Cenomanian (approximately 113-94 million years old) in age.

Ignotornis mcconnelli was the first footprint type attributed to a bird by a long lead: Koreanaornis hamanensis was named in 1969, and the Peace Region's own Aquatilavipes swiboldae was named in 1981. The ichnogenus Ignotornis existed for 75 years with only one ichnospecies until 2006 when Ignotornis yangi was named (Kim et al. 2006), and in 2012 Kim et al. named Ignotornis gajinensis, which has a great feeding trace associated with the trackway (both from South Korea)

I visited the rediscovered type locality of Ignotornis mcconnelli in October in the company of Martin Lockley and Rich McCrea. It is not exactly the most obvious of localities: the mountain-building processes of the region have uplifted and shifted the rock layers around quite a bit, and I had a scary moment of having to climb up and over a vertical piece of sandstone and scramble down a steep slope to get to the locality. I don't like heights (which surprises many, given the amount of vertical track work I do), but that was not going to stop me from visiting this site.

This was the easy part of the climb. There are no pics of the scary part: I needed both my hands to keep from dying.
Once I finished my scramble (and vocalizations reminiscent of a cat stuck up a tree), I was there: I was at the discovery site of the first Mesozoic bird footprints! The site did not disappoint.

Ignotornis mcconnelli, in the flesh, er, foot!
See the hallux (otherwise known as digit I) impression? See the wide splay of the digits? These are classic bird footprint identifiers. When dealing with a trackmaker that is small, has a weight-bearing digit I, wide splay, and even impressed webbing, it's pretty easy to say "Yup, that's a bird!" It's when the trackmaker that is larger and with a digit I that does not always impress that people run into the "is it a large bird or a small non-avian theropod?" problem. I'm working hard to help address this issue - stay tuned for papers.

While we were there, we decided to document a large in-place (or in situ) set of Ignotornis trackways with photogrammetry. This way we get to take a 3D digital replica of the tracksite to our home lab with zero impact on the surface.

Martin Lockley (left) and Rich McCrea (right) digitally documenting Ignotornis footprints.
I also got to see how variable the preservation is with Ignotornis prints: not all that tweets leaves a hallux impression.

Footprint #3 in this photo (numbered from left to right) is much more shallow, and only leaves a hint of something that could be a hallux. Prints #1 and #2 have deeply impressed hallices.
One of my favorite photos. See the third print from the left? See how skinny the toes are compared to the other three prints? That's what varying your substrate consistency can do to your footprints. That print likely does not represent a different trackmaker, but is an Ignotornis footprint made at a different time than the other three.
The track surfaces also contain invertebrate burrows, seen here in the upper left and center right of the picture.
Bird traces are not the only ichnofossils to be found at this locality: invertebrate burrows, reptile prints, and large ornithopod footprints are preserved.

Natural cast of a left foot of an ornithopod. The wide foot and rounded toes tell us that it is a plant-eater.
Of course, modern animals were present at the site. One rattlesnake got a bit cranky with us and rattled before scooting off under a rock, and a Red-tailed Hawk flew overhead. The lady beetle was much more willing to pose for photos.


This ends my visit to the Ignotornis type locality! We collected a lot of great images and data, and I hope this will not be my only visit to the site. As the rock layers erode, more tracks will make their appearance after being hidden for 100 million years, waiting to tell us their story.

SAS

Birdy-Type References

Currie PJ. 1981. Bird footprints from the Gething Formation (Aptian, Lower Cretaceous) of northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 1:257-264.

Kim, BK. 1969. A study of several sole marks in the Haman Formation. Journal
of the Geological Society of Korea 5:243-258.

Kim JY, SH Kim, KS Kim, M Lockley. 2006. The oldest record of webbed bird and pterosaur tracks from South Korea (Cretaceous Haman Formation, Changseon and Gansu Islands): more evidence of high avian diversity in East Asia. Cretaceous Research 27:56-69.

Kim JY, MG Lockley, SJ Seo, KS Kim, SH Kim, KS Baek. A paradise of Mesozoic birds: the World's richest and most diverse Cretaceous bird track assemblage from the Early Cretaceous Haman Formation of the Gajin Tracksite, Jinju, Korea. Ichnos 19:28-42.

Lockley MG, K Chin, K Houck, M Matsukawa, R Kukihara. 2009. New interpretations of Ignotornis, the first-reported Mesozoic avian footprints: implications for the paleoecology and behavior of an enigmatic Cretaceous bird. Cretaceous Research 30(4):1041–1061.

Mehl MG. 1931. Additions to the vertebrate record of the Dakota Sandstone. American Journal of Society 21:441-452.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fluffy Feathery Post Filler

Hello Dear Readers!

I've been busy with several papers and thesis-related work, so my posting of late has been sparse and sporadic. Once the New Year rolls around (and once I get these pesky papers submitted), I'll be able to focus on some of the really fun things I want to talk about.

Here is a little teaser of one of my planned posts. It's winter, and all the shorebirds have moved on to more hospitable climes. I had a great deal of fun while collecting my neoichnology (a.k.a. modern tracks) samples this summer, and I'm missing my warmer weather and feathered friends.

One of my targets is the Solitary Sandpiper (or Tringa solitaria for the binomial) These are goofy shorebirds: they regularly sit in trees along swampy and marshy areas. They also nest in trees. When they are not pretending to be passerines (they have a hallux, but not one that is in any way useful for actual perching) they spend their time foraging for invertebrates that live on the water's edge.

What did the traces of these particular sandpipers look like? Stay tuned for next time!
These are two Solitary Sandpipers foraging by bill probing the sediment. I was very excited to see this activity up close: Solitary Sandpipers are very shy, and tend to freak out if you get too close to them.
Bill probes left by a different Solitary Sandpiper. Scale = 10cm.
I must not have seemed threatening to these Solitary Sandpipers: once they completed this particular round of foraging, they decided to have a little nap.

Sleepy sandpipers. Canada Goose tracks in the foreground.
Bird traces aren't the only traces I focus on while frolicking around in the mud (Yes, concerned campers and motorists: I am a grown woman who plays in the mud for science.) Our mammalian fauna is also well represented at these sites.

One of the questions that pops up when seeing a large carnivore print is "Cat or Dog?" Many wolf prints are misidentified as cougar prints. Dog prints all have these things in common: they almost always have exposed claws (see the sharp tips at the ends of the toes?) and the almost always have a bi-lobed metatarsal-phalangeal pad - or "heel", but it's not technically a heel, as it is made up of different bones than what make up our heel. It's more accurate to think of it as a palm or sole pad, rather than a heel pad. Regardless, this is a small wolf print. Cats have three lobes in their palm/foot pad, and almost always sheath their claws when they walk.

Stylized BIG cat prints in the cement at the Page La Brea Tar Pits Museum in LA, showing the tri-lobed pad.
Maia triple-cat-dares you to say that she is neither large nor dangerous enough to have made the prints above.
That's all I have time for at the moment. I will add that I'm finally working on a couple of papers that get to use my neoichnology collection, so I am very excited to see them in print.

Cheers!
S.A.S.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

How To Appreciate Fossils Without Ruining It For Science

[Big thanks to @BlackMudpuppy for both the post and title idea! Go check out his comic!]

I had so many posts planned before this particular topic. Tyrannosaur trackways. North America's earliest known bird footprints. You know, real science-y stuff that I have been directly working on since the start of the summer. Instead, my muse must be directed towards the ever contentious issue of the commercial fossil trade.

I wanted my next post on the commercial fossil trade to focus on the positive role that a fossil shop in France played in reuniting the skull and feet of Deinocheirus (which had been illegally removed, or poached, from Mongolia) with the rest of the specimen. Happy ending stories can and do happen, but unfortunately they are outweighed by the stories of greed and lack of forethought.

ThinkGeek, a popular online store that boasts an impressive array of geek-targeted wares (from home decor to cubicle toys) recently posted a product: people can buy real dinosaur bone. Go see for yourself. This is one of the few times I recommend reading the comments section. I'll wait here with my tea.

As you read in the comments section, a few paleontologists and fossil enthusiasts have voiced their concerns over the ethics of treating fossils, an irreplaceable, non-renewable (in our lifetime) natural history heritage resource, as a "product". In response to a comment left by paleontologist Jim Kirkland, a ThinkGeek representative stated this:


There are issues glaring out at us from this paragraph:
1. Who exactly verified these fossils? Contrary to what this statement would have you believe, there is no third party oversight body or committee that verifies fossils for legal or ethical issues before sale. No paleontologist has come forth to state that they checked over these fossils and that they are OK to sell. There is also no way to know if the dealer/supplier is conducting their work legally or ethically. Unfortunately, ThinkGeek to date has not supplied the information on their dealer, which does not allow the fossil consumer to decide if they are making an ethical purchase.
2. If they are so weathered and out of context, how do they know this is hadrosaur bone? If there are identifying features on these bones that allow us to know they are hadrosaurid, that's science. That material is important to some researcher somewhere. There are a couple of scenarios: that the material is just being guessed at as hadrosaur based on size, or that there is associated material that is complete enough to identify as belonging to a hadrosaur. If the latter is the case, what is the fate of that more complete material?
3. Appeals to emotion as logic. What we see here is a marketing ploy: the way to appreciation and inspiration is direct ownership. There is the appeal to emotion hidden not so subtly in here as well of "Won't someone please think of the children?" These are the tired tactics of commercial fossil supporters, and that is the main point I want this post to address.

Now that the background reading is out of the way, let's focus on ethical fossil love.

How to Ethically Love Fossils

You are a fossil enthusiast, and you want to develop a closer and deeper connection with the life of the past. You also want to make sure that your interests are not directly or inadvertently supporting shady doings (e.g. poaching and illegal fossil export, accidentally removing scientific access by buying a fossil, etc.) You are in luck. There are so many ways in which the Fossil Lover can support science, science education, and a sustainable use of fossil heritage resources!

1. Donate your time to your nearest natural history museum! Museum activities such as educational outreach, fossil archiving, fossil preparation, and even fieldwork thrive when there is a strong, dedicated volunteer base. Volunteers made field discoveries, lab discoveries, and inspire countless children with their enthusiasm and dedication. This is a great way to become part of the story of the fossils you love!

2. (If you are financially able) Donate funds to your nearest museum! In these times of budget cuts and downsizing (particularly focused on research and collections of museums) museums are expected to rely more heavily on external donations. These donations pave the way for renovations and research chairs (guaranteed funding for paleontology research), which are necessary to bring the story of fossils to life. Imagine this: a new dinosaur is discovered because you funded an endowed research chair, or funded an ongoing field project. You have the power to enable these advancements.

3. Support public outreach events: attend talks at your local museum! Fossils are a great gateway to exposing people to science and nature. Fossils are not just a remote part of our past from which we are disconnected: the story of fossils is our story. I recommend checking out the outreach work of Dr. Scott Sampson (yes, Dr. Scott from Dinosaur Train): he makes fantastic connections between fossils and science outreach. The more information you gather, the better you can promote your own love of our past life!

4. Purchase fossil replicas instead of fossil heritage resources! There are several places where museum-quality replicas of your favorite dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures can be purchased. Fossil replicas are great: they are renewable, they are durable, and they are much less expensive than an original fossil. Here is a small (and not complete!) list of companies who sell fossil replicas of dinosaurs, and their replica work can be viewed in natural history museums worldwide. [DISCLOSURE NOTE: some companies also sell original fossil material. I want to encourage and promote the sale of fossil replicas whenever I can.]

Gaston Designs - We have two of their ankylosaur skeletons (Gastonia and Animantarx) in our display gallery.
Triebold Paleontology, Inc. - A large selection of replicas of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, flying reptiles, and more.
Black Hills Institute - A cast of their Acrocanthosaurus is in our display gallery, menacing the Gaston Designs ankylosaurs.

There is also a growing trend of 3D digital sharing, where, if a person has the right equipment, can download a 3D image file and print off their very own fossil replica. As more museums are able to secure the funds to digitize and publicly upload their collections (this takes a great many staff hours and equipment upgrades, and is a slow process - I'm in the process of getting just 2D images of our collections online, and even that takes time), and as the technology becomes more accessible, I see 3D digital fossil replicas being an ethical alternative to purchasing original fossil material. Check out these sites for downloadable 3D digital replicas and information:

africanfossils.org - featuring artifacts and fossils from West Africa
Digital Morphology - information on their scanning work and digital files of several animals
University of Arkansas Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies

5. Are you a private land owner who has fossils on their land? Contact your local schools and work with classrooms to help them create their own teaching collections. Better still, involve a paleontologist from a nearby museum - that K-12 driven display could be a great collaborative project that is displayed in a museum, or become part of a student's museum studies project.

6. For private land owners: if you charge museums to prospect on your land, please be aware that museums cannot afford the same access fees or the "market value" of vertebrate fossils that commercial businesses can afford.

7. Are you a K-12 educator? There are many ways in which to inspire children in paleontology that do not involve the purchase of a single fossil. Contact your local museum, or your closest university: there are many researchers and student-researchers who are passionate about science education, and who would love to work with you to develop a natural history-themed curriculum.

8. Are you a heavy equipment or technology company? You can make a huge impact by donating equipment time and your own expertise to field, display, and archiving projects! Much of our helicopter time and crane operator time has been donated, and we would not have been able to complete many projects without such in-kind donations.

9. Are you often out of doors on public lands? Be aware of what fossil heritage resources are around you, and keep a sharp eye out for poachers and vandals. Report any suspicious activity to the local state/provincial public land authorities. The same goes for fossil discoveries on public lands: report these right away to the land management authorities. Many people make the well-meaning but ill-advised mistake of trying to remove new discoveries to protect them. This ends up damaging the fossils and surrounding data. It's hard to say "I'm sorry" to 110 million year old information.

This is just a small handful of ways in which you can express your appreciation for fossils without having to purchase them. It is my great wish to see appreciation and respect for fossils not expressed in terms of ownership of fossil heritage resources. One does not have to own a thing in order to love it, and the ethical alternatives to fossil ownership have the potential to provide meaningful, lasting connections to the life of the past. How you will influence the future of paleontology remains to be seen, but the best way to start is to get involved. That chapter of Earth's history is waiting to be written.

(This post and the information contained within would not have been possible without great info and links from Andrew Farke, John Steward, and yes, even ThinkGeek. Without their sale of vertebrate fossils online and their tissue paper thin reasoning behind said sales, the inspiration for this post would have come in the unforeseeable future.)

UPDATE 01-11-14:

Lee Hall at the blog Extinct Los Angeles posted his letter to ThinkGeek regarding the subject. Lee details exactly why selling fossils is a dangerous precedent to set for science education, and his post also contains links to other great places to purchase research quality fossil replicas.

Also, my comment on the ThinkGeek site was quoted by The Mary Sue in their coverage of ThinkGeek's fossil faux pas. (As of this update, the comment section is open.)

As of now, ThinkGeek has put the sale of these items on hold. Here is the statement on their website:

"Many of you have concerns about these dinosaur bone fragments and we want to take a moment to address that. We agree that harvesting fossils from federal and public land is not only wrong, it's illegal. The vendor that supplies us with these specimens has confirmed that they have been obtained from privately leased lands and out of situ.

An independent scientist has also examined our specimens, and has determined that there is no scientific value that can be gained from the fossils in their current state, which confirms what a large number of you have also stated.

Here's what is going to happen next: We've put the sale of the fossils on hold for now because next week there is an annual gathering of paleontologists and we are expecting that they will publish a letter on the topic of selling fossils. We will abide by their decision. For now, thank you for your thoughts and passion, and please be sure to respect each other in the comments."


Who is the paleontologist, and is ThinkGeek quoting their assessment accurately? I'll explain why I ask this question. Many paleontologists are shown material once it has been removed from the surrounding rock. If a paleontologist has not had the opportunity to investigate the source locality for this bone, they are missing a great chunk of the information: location, rock formation, the relationship of that fossil to other fossils (other dinosaur bone, plants, pollen, invertebrates). Fossils removed from the rock without having the site examined are therefore considered "less scientifically valuable" than those fossils that are investigated while still in the ground. Note: this is not a loop-hole to start ripping fossils out of the ground in order to sell them. This is a reminder that, by simply removing fossils from their source without a thorough examination of the source is the equivalent of ignoring or destroying data.

ThinkGeek does not have to wait for the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting to know the stance of members of the paleontology community: there are official Society statements that have been made in regards to the sale of high-profile specimens, such as T. rex. The issue with these statements is the "scientifically significant" wording. Scientifically significant does not always mean complete and showy, which is what many people think when they hear "significant". Also, unless the site and the source of the material is assessed by a trained professional (not just the individual pieces), how is anyone to know the significance?

ThinkGeek, you have the opportunity to do the ethically sound thing: sell casts of fossils. I am sure any one of these companies would be happy to work with you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why I Will Always Give New Students Scut-Work

Hello Dear Readers!

This is a brief post, partly to dust some of the cobwebs off of the blog after a hectic summer, partly to post something before I dive into a rather intense period of publishing, and partly because there are just some things that steam my clams, boil my tea, and burn my toast. In other words, welcome to a rant.

This issue keeps popping into my mind, and clearly the only way to exorcise this demon-thought is to write it out. [UPDATE: This issue also came to mind as I spent two days scraping plaster off of a sink and counter, and attempting to peel a latex mold that someone had left a plaster cast in. I have never given birth, but removing a forgotten plaster cast from a latex mold is what I imagine it feels like.] The issue is one of menial tasks, mindless tasks, and those jobs that can be best described as scut-work. You know the jobs: they range from filling out the same words over and over and over again on to the acid-free archiving sheets with a pen tip that is not forgiving to any level of pressure, to mopping the floors and scrubbing plaster off of counter tops and out of sinks. [NOTE: don't wash unhardened plaster down the sink. That stuff hardens under water, and will cost you a heavy plumber's bill and a scolding from said plumber.] These are the jobs that, if they are not done, either progress is inhibited and/or the place turns into a bloody pit of filth (usually both).

We operate in a small, rather remote community, and with small communities the volunteer/student pool on which to draw is understandably small. In general there are two categories of volunteers: the Community Volunteer and the Prospective Student. The Community Volunteer is an interested member of the community who is either retired or has the capability to donate their time. The Community Volunteer tends to be older, experienced in their previous field, and has a great deal of accumulated experiences. The Prospective Student is looking for paleontology/geology/museum studies related experience because they are interested in pursuing paleontology/geology/museum studies as their career.

There is one major difference that I notice right away between the Community Volunteer and the Prospective Student. When the subject of workspace cleanliness is addressed, the Community Volunteer understands immediately, and I never have to remind them about it after that initial orientation. The Prospective Student, in general (doesn't apply to every and all students, but to enough that this post entered my brain), needs to be reminded. Many times.

I used to have serious reservations regarding "ordering" someone to do scut-work. I am not into the  "I did it, so now you have to" or the "That's what students are for!" attitude when assigning work to students. These are future colleagues, not servants. My work philosophy is that I don't assign chores that I wouldn't or haven't done myself, and I lead by example when rolling up my sleeves and participating in said scut-work.

I have to do this because scut-work never ends. Never. It's not just something that you are subjected to by a crusty old lab tech or professor and then, once you have served your time and have proven that you are capable of mopping, you are done with menial tasks forever.

I have tried leading by example. I have explained, multiple times, why we must keep our labs and stations clean. Here are some of my go-to examples:


  • Safety. Clutter hurts. Sloppiness can kill. My favorite real-life example is a student who did not realize they had spilled acetone on themselves, and then decided to use a tiger torch (no one was hurt). 
  • Equipment longevity. Tools that are not properly maintained and stored break down sooner. Tools are more expensive to replace than to maintain. Improperly functioning tools are also dangerous (see previous point).
  • Specimen integrity. Let's say you are prepping a bone, and a piece becomes loose and free. It falls on the work station service. What is easier to find: a bone fragment on a clean surface, or a bone fragment in a pile of refuse?
  • Efficiency. If you spend most of your time sifting through clutter and mess to find what you need to do your job, you are wasting both my time and yours. 


I have now reached the point where scut-work is part of any training program for new students and/or volunteers. Some students do not like this. I had a parent of a prospective student, with student in tow, ask me to detail what the very first tasks were for new students. I had to answer with data entry and collections foam cutting and sorting: those were the tasks I needed done right away, and I would be working directly with the student on this. I explained this was for the ongoing fossil collections reorganization project. The eyes of both student and parent glazed: they wanted to jump into the field and prep dinosaur fossils right away. I explained this is a tricky task that we don't throw immediate recruits into (our rock requires the use of pneumatic tools - we have no simple toothbrush and solvent preparations.) I never heard from them again.

There is another good reason to give everyone a hand in the scut-work: how people approach the "not fun" jobs is a very good indicator of the attitude they will bring to the "fun" jobs. Do you approach cleaning the lab as a chore, with copious amounts of whining, glares, and snide comments? Or do you realize that this is a necessary, if maybe dull, part of the entire experience of working in your field, and roll up the sleeves for the collective good? Our best preparators, tour guides, and gallery hosts have been those who have attended all the tasks, from floor mopping to prepping, with the same thoroughness and thoughfulness.

My advise to students? You are not being punished with scut-work. Whether you are told this or not, you are receiving training in your field, but a part of your field that is not portrayed by the documentaries or other media. Scut-work allows for the exciting discoveries to happen, because the cool science can't happen if the focus is on repairing the plaster-clogged sink or sending the tools away to be refurbished due to neglect.

Now, time to break out my favorite broom and give collections a good sweep. The glue that I peeled from donated archival-quality foam left its-and-bits all over the floor.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Race In Your Head

Hello, Dear Readers!

Today I rewarded myself for finishing a long-suffering paper on Saturday by participating in "That Dam Run" in Hudson's Hope - a 16 km/10 mile jaunt over the promised dam, the sediments exposed by said dam are a hot spot for Early Cretaceous Gething Formation vertebrate traces (yes, I looked for fossils on the way). The run also took us up and down the ski hill and over lovely trails lightly shrouded with yellow autumn foliage.

I am fairly low-key in my approach to running races. First, I don't ever enter a race with the idea of racing against someone. I really couldn't care less if I don't come in first. The only thought I consciously take with me into a race is "I'm going to do this." After that, I can think of whatever my mind free-associates.

Today my mind free-associated its way to life in academia as I have experienced it, and because my brain isn't necessarily creative when it wanders, it kept returning to the idea of academia as a race, and something that one should strive to "win."

I am still a graduate student, and still have another semester or two to go before I finish my research and defend. I took six years to complete my undergraduate degrees in zoology and geology, and had to withdraw from my first masters program for financial reasons. That prompted a year and a half academic hiatus while I recovered, and I resumed my academic career by finishing my masters program in five years. I am in my fifth year of my doctoral program, and for the exception of the times I have had to physically be on campus to fulfill course requirements, I have worked full time in a museum while conducting my graduate research.

If I dwelt on the pace of my academic career, it would be easy for me to focus on my graduate student colleagues who started their programs after I did and now hold PhDs. If I wanted to, I could easily feel that my progress is inferior, and potential future employers and colleagues could judge me unfavorably based on the amount of time it is taking me to finish my degree. I could focus on the faster pace of my student colleagues and think "I'm going to beat so-and-so" and use the motivation of "winning" by competing against a student colleague. I could push to publish more papers than a colleague. I could push to give more talks than a person. I could push to finish my degree before a person.

I could approach my academic career as a race against colleagues, but I won't. I blatantly refuse to compete against any colleague. I openly talk about how long it has taken me to complete my graduate work because I feel no shame or embarrassment in regards to my progress. I do not measure my progress as it relates to the progress of others. I don't need to use someone else to set my pace. I have found a pace that I can maintain in the long run, and by nature and training I am a long-distance runner.

Academia is a long-distance run. You find a pace at which you can work and present your work so that you are functional to complete more work. There are speed-training intervals that consist of mad dashes for deadlines, grants, and time-sensitive publications. Since you are running in the race with others, you'll encounter those who eagerly cheer you on, and those who purposely don't tell you about the detour ahead. If you are a woman or a person of color, you will be made to feel (indirectly or told flat out) that you need to run an extra 10 km of a standard 41 km race just to prove that you weren't specially let in to fulfill a quota, to prove that you belong in the race with everyone else. There are enough challenges in academia without approaching it with the attitude of being "better" than someone, or trying to "win". As long as you keep moving forward.

There are plenty of challenges inherent in trying to exist in academia. We don't need to make up little races against someone as an added challenge. Keep the idea of a racing out of your head. You'll free mind up to focus on why you are in the run to begin with.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Idols and Idolatry

Who is your idol?

I found myself asking this question to myself in the wake of the public scrutiny of the behavior of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (I recommend reading Janet Stemwedel's in-depth examination of the situation). In short, he made important contributions to his field and is considered a brilliant scientist, but his actions towards the women he associated with professionally were extremely disrespectful, and arguably harmful to the goal of inclusion and fair treatment of women in science. Many in the field look to Feynman as a role-model or idol, and have responded harshly to the critiques.

The World English Dictionary defines idol as
"1. a material object, esp a carved image, that is worshipped as a god,
2. Christianity, Judaism any being (other than the one God) to which divine honor is paid,
3. a person who is revered, admired, or highly loved."

Dictionary.com has a different version of definition 3 for idol: "any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration, or devotion. Madame Curie had been her childhood idol."

Both versions of the definition for idol carry with them an unrealistic burden to apply to any one person, and that burden comes with a heavy responsibility. Theoretical physics is not the only academic field in which idols exist. Every field has people who are treated as idols. There are idols in paleontology.

I had a couple of idols growing up, and I was fortunate in that I admired scientists who are also good people before knowing anything about their non-research conduct: they are ethical, fair-minded, and generous people. My early admiration of these scientists stood the test of time and my maturity. I still admire them, even though I have grown enough to realize that, although they are great scientists and great people, they will never be above scrutiny or critique. No one is.

Idols and role-models can be a potentially positive influence for young people looking to enter the sciences. They can inspire the younger generation to study. If their role-models write or appear for the public, they introduce young people to science concepts they might not otherwise encounter until their post-secondary education. Role-models inspire students to explore, to challenge old ways of thinking, and make the sciences so engaging that the students can see themselves participating.

There is a fine, fuzzy line between a role-model and hero worship, between a mentor and an idol. Idolatry can lead to mimicry, and while mimicry is supposedly a type of compliment, there are many examples in nature of toxic organisms being mimicked. It may be a heavy-handed analogy, but in the case of students, they may not immediately realize that the person they model themselves after is displaying behaviors that do more to erode the cooperative and inclusive goals of the scientific community than to uphold them.

I have come to find the idea of promoting someone to idol status disturbing. While we can cite examples of scientists who repeatedly demonstrate positive academic and community ethics, we should not promote the idea that any one should strive to "be like" another researcher. When a person is idolized, it is too easy to dismiss their less than noble actions for fear of tarnishing the shiny image, and those who critique the idol are portrayed as destructive. I have heard many say (and have stated this myself in my naive days) that it doesn't matter who the scientist is as a person as long as their academic work is sound, and that all that matters in the end is the product. I may have believed this once upon a time, but now I firmly believe this statement is a pile of steaming horse-apples.

Stemwedel hits the rock squarely with the Estwing:

'Do we have a scientist who is regularly cruel to his graduate student trainees, or who spreads malicious rumors about his scientific colleagues? That kind of behavior has the potential to damage the networks of trust and cooperation upon which the scientific knowledge-building endeavor depends, which means it probably can’t be dismissed as a mere “foible.”'

I realize that a scientist can be what I would colloquially describe as a jerk, a sleaze, or as dancing down the slippery slope of ethically dubious behavior and have also produced notable work. For example, I can't refuse to cite someone's paper just because I think how they treat their graduate students is despicable. However, their scientific contributions do not excuse or lessen the negative impact of their behavior on their community. They have set the stage for the conduct of future students on a shaky foundation. This should not be ignored.

How a scientist behaves towards their colleagues and subordinates professionally and personally is as important to the science community as their body of work, if for no other reason than they are maintaining the trail that the next academic generation will follow. All of the good within the community that currently exists is because of the attitudes fostered by our predecessors that we, knowingly or unknowingly, have internalized and are projecting as normal. The same applies to the negative actions that happen within our community. Whether we like it or not, whether we want the responsibility or not, our actions in and out of the field/lab are demonstrating what is normal for our field. We are demonstrating what we accept as acceptable behavior. It becomes our responsibility as soon as we start interacting with students.

It is also our duty to publicly criticizing behavior that we would not want to see demonstrated in our future students, regardless of the work conducted by the person/people. We have the responsibility to denounce the behaviors that sow mistrust, uncertainty, and even fear in the scientific community, and work harder to prevent them. If we do not want to see our future students 1) treat their peers or subordinates without personal respect, 2) treat underrepresented groups as inferior, 3) sabotage, undermine, or otherwise inhibit the work of their peers or subordinates, we have to model the type of behaviors that we want to see passed on to the next generation of students. We cannot excuse bad behavior as "part of the package" of doing research just because "it's always been done this way." If we receive criticism for our behavior, we have the responsibility to listen, examine, and change to foster a positive community.

In the end, the only people who are responsible for the climate we foster in our scientific community are ourselves. Sooner or later, someone is going to look up to you: who do you want them to see? More specifically, if you were on the receiving end of your actions towards your peers and subordinates, would you feel welcome in your scientific community?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Tales from the Field: Return (Almost) to Dinosaur Gorge

Hello, Dear Readers!

We've hit July in the Peace Region, and after a month of meetings, paper revisions, paper writing, meetings, delegations, meetings...did I mention we had a lot of meetings in June?...I am pleased to be able to start the 2014 field season. This year we are not focusing on the hadrosaur excavation. Instead, 2014 is going to be the Year of Ichnology. Our focus is on an unnamed creek which we unofficially call "Dinosaur Gorge": a steep-walled canyon with at least two vertical (really it is a 60 degree slope, but anything that requires ropes to document it is vertical enough for me) Early Cretaceous (Valanginian - between 139 and 134 million years old) track surface on which large ornithopod, large-sized theropod, and medium-sized theropod trackways are preserved.

Image of the main track surface of Dinosaur Gorge, taken August 2013. Can you see the trackways? I admit it is difficult, given the "Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" theme of the surface flora. Photo: L. Buckley.
Our goal for the Year of Ichnology is to document this surface using both direct measurements and 3-D photogrammetry, as well as taking latex molds of sections of the trackways. We set a test rope last year and found that we could access most of the track surface safely, so the plan this year is to set at least two ropes: physics starts to interfere with stability when your rope is craned over at 50 degrees.

No matter what your primitive instincts tell you, moss is not a load-bearing surface. Photo: L. Buckley.
The mission for this afternoon was to check out both the access to the site, and to see if the water in the creek was low enough for us to safely walk. We were just about a kilometer from our destination when we encountered this in the road:

Photo: L. Buckley.
We left the truck and walked the rest of the way, scouting out potential campsites along the route. We found that the creek levels were up, but not so much as to bar our access to the track sites. We considered this mission accomplished and turned back to check out a few more vertical surfaces we had spotted on our way to the mouth of the Gorge.

One massive surface was a complete disappointment: coarse, well-sorted sand, massive channel deposits, wood impressions, centimeter diameter silt clasts, but no traces were visible, not even invertebrate traces. Following a drainage channel down to a culvert, we saw material that was more promising: fine, organic rich sand with thin silty beds. The material was out of context, but it was similar in sedimentology to what we see in the Gorge, so we knew that it was local. Sure enough, there were traces!

Paired burrow openings, likely Arenicolites, are common in the sandy shore ichnofacies (the Skolithos Ichnofacies). Photo: L. Buckley.
The coolest traces we saw today were invertebrate traces. I am drawn to the fine-grained surfaces because I am a self-admitted bird track fanatic. When you start looking for small vertebrate traces (bird, amphibian, reptile) you are entering the size range of many invertebrate traces. Not everything that looks like a bird trace is a bird trace. Take this image, for example:

Photo: L. Buckley.
Depending on how you look at it, the structure I am pointing to does superficially resemble a poorly preserved avian trace. However, I have developed a set of criteria that a trace must meet before I will squeal with glee and triumphantly eat the Chocolate Bar of Victory:

1. Is the structure tubular? Some bird prints, depending on the consistency of the sediment, can appear to be ridges, grooves, or even shallow indents, but one thing they rarely preserve as are cylinders

2. Is the structure alone? Until someone discovers the Amazing Cretaceous Unipod Bird (although I did once see a duck with a missing foot - it walked around like a pirate on a peg leg), bird tracks are not going to usually occur alone, or if they do, they are large enough to not be mistaken as an invertebrate trace. Small, Cretaceous-aged avian track-makers behaved in a similar fashion to our extant shorebirds, with one or more individuals foraging back and forth on a wet surface. If that trace is an avian trace, the structure should be repeated somewhere else on the surface, even if it is not part of a trackway.

3. Is the structure connected to an obvious burrow? You would think we shouldn't need to ask this differential, but we do, especially when we have trained our eyes to look at traces with a vertebrate filter. For example, McCrea et al. (2014) addresses an earlier report of Sarjeant and Thulborn (1986) of Duquettichnus kooli, a purported marsupial print from the Early Cretaceous Peace River Canyon. On one surface is preserved what appeared to be a marsupial foot (pes) print. However, when we examined the specimen in 2006, we turned the specimen over: the pes was actually part of an invertebrate burrow that continued on to the other side of the sample. Doctors have the "Zebra Diagnosis", and ichnology isn't immune to supposed zebras trotting around in the Cretaceous when good ol' invertebrates are far more likely. I don't think we've seen the last of invertebrate traces being misinterpreted as the traces of small vertebrates.

I did not see anything today that I would confidently say is a bird track, and although one feature did get me excited for a moment, it was time to get skeptical when you are dealing with an infill surface and the structure is an impression:

Slowly puts away the Chocolate Bar of Victory, and eats the Stale Rice Cake of Defeat. Photo: L. Buckley.
Photo: L. Buckley.
However, my ichnology spirits were refreshed with some of the best Aulichnites-like traces I have seen in this region, along with larger repichnia (crawling traces):


Photo: L. Buckley.
I highly recommend taking a course in invertebrate ichnology. Not only is it fascinating to see how different burrowing, crawling, and feeding invertebrates, for example, alter their behavior based on changing environmental conditions or are restricted to certain environments, invertebrate traces provide vertebrate paleontologists with paleoenvironmental information.

I dedicate this post to our invertebrate track-makers. Proudly line your burrows with fecal pellets, Ophiomorpha trace-maker. Your poopy home is telling us a story!

SAS


References:

McCrea, R. T., L. G. Buckley, A. G. Plint, P. J. Currie, J. W. Haggart, C. W. Helm, S. G. Pemberton. 2014. A review of vertebrate track-bearing formations from the Mesozoic and earliest Cenozoic of western Canada with a description of a new theropod ichnospecies and reassignment of an avian ichnogenus, p. 5-93 in Lockley, M. G. & Lucas, S. G. (eds.), Fossil footprints of western North America. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 62.

Sarjeant, W.A.S., and Thulborn, R.A., 1986, Probable marsupial footprints from the Cretaceous sediments of British Columbia: Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, v. 23, p. 1223-1227.