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." 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!



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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Fossils on Fire: How We Evacuated A Museum.

Hello, Dear Readers!

It's been a busy two weeks for the Shaman: the international assessors from the Global Geoparks Network have completed their on-site visit, and I now have a few spare moments to attend to both personal and professional activities.

It did not really occur to me how closely entwined are my personal and professional lives until this weekend, when I was telling the story of having to evacuate the PRPRC collections facility because of a forest fire that was encroaching on the town of Tumbler Ridge, and how this event will forever be associated with my marriage to my colleague and partner-in-paleo crime.

On a personal note, one of the most frequent questions I receive when I tell people that I work professionally with my husband in the same facility is "I could never do that - my husband would drive me insane! How do you stand it?" It's simple, really: he's my best friend. We think enough alike that we know how each other thinks and automatically have the other's back on important issues, yet have different approaches to these issues to cover multiple bases and explore new ideas together.

Along with celebrating the good times and fantastic results of our joint efforts, we are also there for one another during the soul-suckingly frustrating times. We may get the double hit of a budget cut, but since we know exactly what the other is going through, we can both plan, sympathize, and move forward together out of the fire. No matter what, we always have each other.

Our wedding was on July 1st, and even though it was a small event, there was still enough planning involved that we were quite busy up until the day; however, as the old saying goes, where there's smoke, there's fire. My family had arrived a couple of days before to help with the set-up and, of course, attend, and one of their first comments was that they were very disconcerted by the smoke rising above the ridge roughly north east of town. At the end of June, after a series of dry days and lightning strikes, a wildfire had started on Highway 52, and was growing larger daily. We were growing less concerned about our wedding and more concerned about the fledgling fossil collections of the PRPRC - what would we do if the official order was given to evacuate?

Not one of our choices was logistically simple. Our first option was to leave everything and bolt, taking only our personal belongings. We had had enough warning of the impending fire. However, that would entail leaving behind the fruits of our and those of several volunteers' efforts behind to suffer the whims of the weather and fire: we would be leaving behind the fossils. Rich and I didn't even discuss Option 1: these were some of the first and best representatives of Mesozoic vertebrates from British Columbia, and we both knew that the other felt it was our duty to do whatever we could to protect this part of our fossil heritage. This collection was bigger than ourselves.

Option 2 was to move everything out of the museum to a secure location. Unfortunately, this was logistically impossible. We could not arrange the freight in time, and the cost was more than our fledgling organization could bear (it still is more than we could afford if another evacuation were to happen.) At this point the collections had already accumulated several hundred specimens of Triassic vertebrates, not to mention dinosaur track-bearing rock slabs weighing several hundred kilograms each. The secure location part was not readily available: there was a muster station for evacuees set up in the nearby town of Chetwynd, but we wanted to avoid that area. Stress makes some people to odd things, and we wanted to keep stress as far away from the collections as humanly possible.

Option 3 was really our only option: to perform specimen triage, and identify those specimens that could be safely transported in our truck and educational van. All the computer towers and paper records would also be moved. In the event the evacuation warning became an order, we would load up the vehicles and leave the remaining specimens to chance.

If you work at a museum, imagine going through your collections and performing such a triage. What do you take, if you knew your repository faced destruction? All the electronic and paper records, of course. Any type material would be the first to be packed, and if it were too large, any replicas or molds of said material. Other specimens that had been published would also be a priority. But what of the non-published specimens? What would be your criteria for selection? What becomes important?

Our wedding day was hot, and that is not a bad joke: the temperature was above 25C, and the forest was aromatic with dry needles. Most brides don't want rain on their wedding day, but this bride would have welcomed a torrential downpour if it had meant not having to worry about evacuating BC's fossils. There was no rain. After a small reception at the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery, we spent our wedding night wrapping and tagging specimens for the anticipated move. We were at the museum until 3am.

July 2 we had reserved for showing my family some of the hiking trails in the area, and we were able to visit most of them. My family were very aware of what we were facing in terms of the possible evacuation, and decided to leave a day early on July 3 so that we could focus on the museum. We spent the night of July 2 at the museum, putting the finishing touches on packing.

My family left just after 2pm on July 3, and Rich and I took this opportunity to catch up on some sleep. We were physically and emotionally exhausted. On waking around 7pm, we went outside to see the progress of the smoke over the mountain. I now know how characters in zombie movies feel when they wake from a coma and see the world around them rendered silent and abandoned. We made a couple phone calls and found that the evacuation order had been given not long before we had woken up. It was time.

I dropped Rich off at the museum to begin the official packing while I went back to our apartment for a quick personal pack. The very first item that was packed was my cat Maia: she was none too pleased at being unceremoniously bundled into her carrier and tossed into the cab of the truck. Next I packed our important paper documents (previously secured in one case as soon as we saw the smoke.) Then I packed a change of clothes for both of us, and, because they were still sitting out, our wedding clothes and gifts. I took about 15 minutes.

During the personal packing, I tracked down our Summer Education Coordinator, who was here without a vehicle. I picked her up at her apartment, along with a small, grey and white bob-tailed kitten that had been in the apartment next to hers. The kitten's owners could not get back into town, so we took the kitten with us. I have no idea what the name of the kitten was, but we called him Evac.

We went to the museum and began loading specimens. Both cats shared a space in the truck's cab, much to the endless dismay of a yowling Maia. We spent many hours loading specimens and documents: we had found that we had more room than previously thought for the move, and decided to stay, packing specimens into the vehicles until we were told in no uncertain terms that it was time to go. As we packed between 8pm and 11pm, we were visited a few times by the emergency response team. They were very curious about when we were planning to get out of town, and each time they stopped their insistence increased. We understood: they had a job to do and didn't want to have to worry about our safety while doing it, but I think they also understood that we had a job to do as well. During the loading of the specimens, we received concerned phone calls. The first question was "Are you guys OK?" The next question was "What is going to happen to the fossils?"

The final specimens that would fit - all the track slabs were left behind, but their latex molds were stowed on the top layer of material in the back of the van - were loaded just as fine, while ash particles began to fall around us. We broke out the field walkie-talkies and divided ourselves between the vehicles - Robin (our E. C.) and I were in the truck (with the two rather agitated cats), and Rich was in the van. We drove to our friend's house in Fort St. John via Chetwynd and Hudson's Hope, as the direct route was now inaccessible due to the fires. This white-knuckle drive took about four hours. Four hours of wondering if the remainder of our collections would survive. This fretting was accompanied by yowling from the back seat from Maia, repeated escape attempts from his temporary cardboard box carrier by Evac, and listening to the radio for updates.

Once we arrived in Fort St. John, we relaxed a bit. The fossils were secured, and we had nothing to do but wait. So we waited. We watched local TV to keep abreast of the updates, watched bad movies, played a round or two of golf, and ate pizza. We still jokingly call it the Evacuation Party. Maia was tormented by Evac, who wanted nothing more than to play with this other cat. Maia wanted to play as well, but only on her terms.

We were in Fort St. John until July 7. The evacuation order had been downgraded to an alert on July 6 after 4pm. The winds had shifted so that the town was no longer in danger, and 17mm of rain had fallen. The fossils could go home. Our Evacuation Party/honeymoon was over.

Collections management isn't just about keeping track of the history and location of a specimen: it also involves the health and safety of that collection, and having to consider everything that could possibly threaten that security. I often joke with VIPs that I'm paid to think of the worst things that could possibly happen to the fossils under my care, and to then come up with ways to avoid those scenarios. They laugh and I laugh, but it is a serious matter. Museums in the zone of the Ring of Fire must contend with earthquakes and possible tsunamis. Collections managers secret away valuable specimens in vaults and basement rooms during times of war or political uncertainty. Hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes are a reality for collections managers in tropical and flat locales. In our part of the world there are only three things that threaten the safety of our collections: forest fires, deliberate acts of vandalism, and loss/reduction of funding.

This began as a story about how closely my personal and professional lives are tied, but it really is a story about how seriously all collections managers, archivists, and curators take their duty of caring for our natural heritage. I am not the only curator with a story like this. It's not just a job: it's a mission to do the best we can by our ancient charges. Keeping vigil over The Dead is such a huge responsibility that it becomes an intimate part of all of our lives.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Fossil Commercialism and the Threat to Paleontology, Part 3: The Outreach

I recently did some consulting work on an article with Mika McKinnon entitled "Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones". This is an article that was inspired by a discussion thread of "What Mysterious Creature Left These 190-Million-Year-Old Footprints?" on the issues surrounding the commercial fossil trade and private ownership of fossils among myself, artiofab, and someone who regretted not buying a trilobite trackway.

Please take a moment to read the "Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones" article. It's full of juicy links to other media that highlight the issues with which academic paleontologists are concerned in regards to fossil heritage conservation.

The article does what very few discussion threads (or the media) address when tackling this quagmire of an issue: it suggests possible solutions that are neither "All selling and private ownership is evil!" nor "Have a Fossil Sellapalloza or you hate children's dreams!" It's a middle of the road approach that I think would benefit all parties in the long run (except those parties conducting illegal activities or exploiting impoverished areas by encouraging illegal activities.) I've summarized them below:

1. Develop a system to provide proof of legal collection.
- Did that specimen come from China? Likely illegally collected and exported. Is that tyrannosaur Mongolian in origin? That specimen was poached. Perhaps it is just me, but I can't imagine wanting to own anything that was illegally collected.
2. Have a review body of scientists clear items for sale.
- I like this suggestion, because it has the added benefit of the review body also being able to put sellers in touch with institutions that could archive the specimen, and working with them to develop a fair price or donation.
3. Regulated pricing of heritage items.
- Resources are involved when collecting fossils and preparing them, but having some sort of price cap (cost of collecting and preparing the specimen, plus a percentage?) would not only give museums a chance to realistically purchase a specimen for the public trust, but may help to discourage the illegal trade.
4 & 6. Register fossils in a private archives.
- As I've stated in a previous post, I would love to develop a Citizen Archives Program. The Citizen Archivist would be an official branch of our museum. They would be trained in the proper archiving techniques, and all specimens would officially be part of the museum's archives. Archives would be reviewed regularly to ensure that proper practices (e.g. no selling off or trading archived fossils, etc.), and there would be an agreement as to where the fossils went after the cessation of activity of the Archivist.
5. Remove fossils from the luxury market.
- How the hell did it become the "thing" to have a fossil in your home as a piece of art? I understand that fossils are fantastically fascinating and awe-inspiring, but that doesn't mean that they should be treated like art purchased from a gallery. People once wore dead birds on hats as a fashionable accessory: the "Plume Boom" in the early 1900s saw hundreds of millions of birds killed worldwide for the millinery trade. I would love the idea of owning "rare" fossils (the poor theropods seem to bear the brunt of fashion, extant or extinct) to become as fashionable as me wearing this to my next conference:'am. I hate to intrude, but you have an ex-bird on your head. Image source:
I've also been contributing to the comments section of the article, clarifying issues and, in one case, trying to steer a comment back on track. I'm hoping that people will test-discuss some possible solutions, and I will discuss some of these solutions in future posts. If you have any ideas, please contribute to the discussion!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Setting the Stage: Neoichnology Field Work 2014

Hello, Dear Readers!

The snow is gone, the solar radiation has increased to levels high enough to turn me into a human lobster, and, best of all, the shorebirds are returning to northeastern British Columbia! The return of the shorebirds heralds the beginning of my summer neoichnology field work.

Neoichnology is the study of tracks made by extant animals. One of my research activities involves building a representative collection of shorebird (and other bird) tracks from the region. This year I am able to get an early start (for this region) on collecting data. Yesterday I made my first research foray of the year (as opposed to surveys for the return of shorebirds) into Bullmoose Marshes (thanks to the Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society) to test a prototype of a Super Secret Awesome Track-Collecting Device.

Okay, it's really a piece of foam covered in mud. Super Secret Awesome Track-Collecting Device sounds much more exciting, doesn't it?

In the spring and early summer, when the water levels are still high in the marsh, the shorebirds go about their usual business of foraging and displaying along the submerged shorelines, except that their usual activities tend to not leave tracks. They also enjoy perching on partially submerged logs - again, not a substrate on which tracks usually impress.

The shorebirds that have first returned to the marshes this year are the Solitary Sandpipers.
This is why I need a telephoto lens.
Meet my quarry - the Solitary Sandpipers!
As you can see, they are quite content to hang out on logs, and there is very little shore exposed for these shorebirds to live up to their name. Rather than waiting for the water levels to decrease, I decided to try to bring the shore to the birds. Here is my step-by-step construction of my prototype for a Floating Ichnology Stage.

Step 1 - Gather your equipment:
- One piece of 5cm thick, high density polystyrene foam
- One stick
- A sharp knife
- Nylon rope, at least several meters long (depends on how much free water is available at the study area)
- A five gallon bucket
- A shovel
- At least one field assistant to take photos of their boss flolloping around in the mud (I brought both our field assistant and our summer education coordinator for an afternoon of birding)

All of the gear loaded into the back of Dagon, my trusty steed. There is enough material here for two stages.
We hiked all of the material out to the first viewing platform at the Marshes at the end of the Sora Trail. The next photos are a combination of constructing the two stages.

Step 2 - Attach the mooring rope to the foam stage. Obviously I will want to be able to pull in the stage after (if) I see shorebirds walk on its surface. I cut a hole completely through the foam. I tied one end of the mooring rope on the stick mid-length. (Make sure to clean up all the foam bits, or pre-cut in the lab.)
Step 3 - I then threaded the stick and rope through the hole from what I chose to be the bottom of the stage, so that the stick rests on the top surface of the stage and the rope is attached to the stick from the underside of the stage, as below:
Step 4 - Attach the free end of the mooring rope to a secure anchor point. At the Sora Trail site I attached the rope to a secure clump of willows, while at the Bittern Trail site I anchored the stage to one of the support posts of the dock.
Please, well-meaning tourists. Do not untie my stages. (I camouflaged the rope.) Also, please, well-meaning muskrats. Do not chew through my mooring ropes.
Step 5 - Mud the stage. I always use mud, sand, or silt that is local to the test area. One, I don't want to introduce foreign material to the area that I can't completely remove, and two, I don't want the sandpipers to think the surface is "strange."
It's like icing a swampy-smelling cake. The entire surface is coated with the local substrate.
It's a bit late, but this is my offering to #ManicureMonday.
Step 6 - Undeway!
I double-checked that the mooring rope was firmly attached to the dock, and then sent the stage out for its maiden voyage into the marsh.
It floats!
It's still floating!
Even if the strong winds that day blow the stages over to the shore, they will still provide a bare, soft substrate on which shorebirds can display and forage.

On the way to check the first stage we set afloat for feathered visitors, we found a small exposure of marsh mud. Solitary Sandpiper tracks were preserved! (Note: Solitary Sandpipers are the first shorebirds to return to the marshes this year, and so far there have been no sightings of the Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, or the dowitchers.)
How many prints do you see here?
One way to collect data on shorebird prints is to make a phyical replica using fiberglass-reinforced plaster. I'm working on a step-by-step post that anyone can use to collect their own samples. A new addition to my data collection process is photogrammetry: I take several overlapping photos of the original specimen (prior to replicating) that can be used to reconstruct a 3-D digital model that only takes up hard drive space.
In-progress plaster casts of the Solitary Sandpiper footprints.
The plaster casts were successfully removed (as well as any spare plaster bits) and are now drying in the lab. Once the plaster is fully cured I will remove the extraneous mud from the surface and reveal the prints!

Tomorrow I'll revisit the stages and check them for prints. Hopefully I'll be able to report that the stages were attractive to the birds and well-used!


UPDATE 21-05-2014: Success! The floating stage at the end of the Sora Trail was not only used by at least one Solitary Sandpiper, but it was foraged on! The prints were very shallow, so I opted to take a series of 189 photogrammetry images (which I will begin processing tonight) instead of the replicating the entire surface in plaster.  Stay tuned!
The SS Cthulhu. (Yes, I named my stages using the Lovecraft mythos. It seems fitting, as they are covered with glop.)
Solitary Sandpiper prints on the SS Cthulhu.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fossil Commercialism and the Threat to Paleontology, Part 2: The Rebuttal

Hello, Dear Readers!

A rebuttal commentary to the Shimada et al. (2014) paper in Palaeontologia Electronica entitled "The greatest challenge to 21st century paleontology: When commercialization of fossils threatens the science" has arrived! Larson and Russell (2014) have provided an article in support for commercialism in vertebrate paleontology entitled "The benefits of commercial fossil sales to 21st-century paleontology." Please take a moment to read the article before continuing to read this post.

To start with my comments, I think it is a well crafted rebuttal that goes through the history of commercialism in paleontology, and highlights some of the best-case scenarios where everything worked out in the best interest of the fossil resources and the depository of public knowledge. It (mostly) avoids the more reactionary responses that one usually sees on the paleontology-related list servers, and calls for greater co-operation among all parties involved with the care of fossil heritage resources. That being said, there are a few pits into which the logical framework of this article falls, and they are pitfalls that, in my opinion, do nothing to further the discussion of how to resolve the seemingly diametrically opposed positions of commercialism vs. conservation.

1. The "We've Always Done It This Way" Argument.
The commercial sale of vertebrate fossil heritage items is nothing new to the realm of vertebrate paleontology. Famous fossil collectors such as the Sternbergs were commissioned by museums to collect and prepare fossil specimens. This is well-known paleontology history for North America. While the situation back in the early days of the establishment of vertebrate paleontology collections produced a mutually beneficial relationship between academia and commercialism, it is just that: history. As the science of paleontology has evolved over the last century, so too must the commercial operations evolve. They have, to an extent: some scientifically important specimens do end up in public repositories. However, the day that the icon of the dinosaur world, Tyrannosaurus rex, went for sale at public auction for $8.3 million, was the day that people started associating fossils with swimming pools full of money. Gaining access to private lands in the US became prohibitively expensive for researchers. Poaching on federal lands increased. As quoted from a federal employee in the Washington Post article (link above):

“After Sue sold, it was truly frightening,” said Vincent L. Santucci, a National Park Service geologist who spent years investigating fossil poachers. “You heard people saying, ‘I’m going to give up my blue-collar job and move out West to find my million-dollar dinosaur.’ And it was worth the risk doing it on federal lands because of the economic rewards that might be gained.”

This is the mentality that associating dinosaurs (or any vertebrate fossil) with dollars now engenders: the get rich quick dream, the quest for the quick buck. This was likely the mentality behind the three examples outlined by Larson and Russell of ill-conceived attempts at making money off of fossil heritage resources: the illegally smuggled Tarbosaurus (one of my posts on the subject here, full of great links), the bill “HB 392", and the attempted public auction of the fossils within the Sternberg Collection at the San Diego Natural History Museum (the link provided in Larson and Russell leads to an error page on the museum's website: either the SDNHM removed the page or there is a typo in the link.) An item that was not highlighted by Larson and Russell was the "Dueling Dinosaurs" controversy, where a specimen that was speculated to be of scientific importance (a long read, but worth it) was offered at public auction at the low low estimated price of $7-$9 million (but generously offered to natural history museums before the sale for $15 million).

If the good working relationship envisioned by Larson and Russell involves North American museums spending on one specimen the same amount that could generously fund a multi-year field project, a collections renovation, several student scholarships, or educational initiatives, that vision is unrealistic.

I am still anxiously waiting for a reply on this issue to be made by our European vertebrate paleontology colleagues. As Larson and Russell point out, some governments purchase fossils directly from collectors. While no dollar values are provided, I speculate that the European commercial fossil dealers are not pricing the fossils they sell so high that academic institutions cannot afford this practice.

If commercial paleontology is to have a positive future in North America, there cannot be a "the sky's the limit" mentality to fossil sales. Either attitudes towards the buying and selling of our fossil heritage will have to change, or there will have to be regulated price caps on commercial fossil heritage items. Those items will have to be independently assessed prior to sale for their scientific value. We cannot rely on the dewy-eyed sentiment of "those were the good ol' days" to frame the conversation on the conservation of our fossil heritage.

2. Ad Hominem Strikes Again.

This particular line from Larson and Russell stood out:

"Shimada et al. (2014) stated: “We therefore consider the battle against heightened commercialization of fossils to be the greatest challenge to paleontology of the 21st century.” We believe, on the other hand, that the demonization and marginalization of a specific portion of the paleontological community is the result of misunderstanding, misplaced entitlement and simple intolerance."

Ah, welcome home, Ad Hominem attacks! You must have been homesick for this debate to show up again so soon, but I can honestly say that we did not miss you at all.

Misunderstanding is fine. Misunderstandings happen due to miscommunication, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster knows there has been no end of miscommunication in this debate. However, Larson and Russell attempt to deflect criticism towards commercialism in paleontology by saying the critics are entitled and intolerant. In essence, that commercialized paleontology is being unfairly picked on.

Newflash: science is ALL about the criticism. Science is critical of everything. Science does not wear rose-colored glasses and ignore issues. Scientists spend their entire lives having their work critiqued. Criticism is not the same as "being demonized." When I get a paper back from review, the reviewer was not intolerant and entitled, and my paper was not demonized. All that happens with criticism is that flaws are brought to our attention. Pretending those flaws do not exist, and trying paint criticism of those flaws a personal attack only serves to deflect the path of the constructive dialog that PE is trying to encourage. There are problems. How do we fix them?

3. Stop Lumping Private/Avocational Collectors with Commercial Paleontology.

This happens in every discussion I have seen regarding the flaws with the current way in which commercial paleontology is conducted in North America. Someone inevitably says that those entitled and intolerant academics are trying to kill hobbyist or avocational paleontology.

The issue with private fossil ownership in terms of owning a scientifically valuable specimen that is going to be researched is one of archival continuity. I'm going to pull this directly from one of my previous post on commercialism and private ownership in vertebrate paleontology:

"'What are the issues with scientifically important specimens being in a private collection?'
When you are a museum with a public-trust fossil archive, you are in essence making a pledge that you will do everything in your power to ensure that the fossils under your care will remain in the public trust. Public trust means that anyone who wants to do serious research on these fossils will be able to find those fossils 10, 100, even 1000 years from now. A private person isn’t likely to be around 100 years from now. There is no guarantee their descendants will be as interested in fossils as were Gramps or Gramma. There is no guarantee these fossils will be donated to a museum after the passing (or passing interest) of the initial purchaser. This is one way in which fossils are “lost to science” when they are privately purchased. It’s too easy to lose track of privately purchased fossils because there is no accountability for their whereabouts. There is no tracking system for scientifically important fossils outside of a museum setting."

This, in my opinion, is an easy fix, but it will require new regulations and resources. Create a paper trail for avocational collectors using existing natural history museums. Create a Citizen Repository Network.  This is a system that I one day hope to implement for our natural history repository. It was inspired by the Qualicum Beach Historical and Museum Society paleontology collections created and managed by Graham Beard, one of the shining examples in British Columbia of enthusiasm for and the proper management of fossil heritage resources. I once told our local paper that if everyone had the same mentality towards fossils as Graham, there would be no need for fossil protection laws. Another example are the volunteers of my institution. The bulk of our Triassic marine vertebrate collection would not exist were it not for these volunteers, many of them children. In fact, one of our holotypes, Rebellatrix, the fork-tailed coelacanth, would not have been described were it not for a volunteer collector who was 13 at the time she discovered the specimen.

I want to explicitly state that, as an academic paleontologist, I do not in any way confuse avocational collectors with the multi-million dollar price inflation that is displayed during the auction of a high-profile vertebrate fossil. If the issue of archival discontinuity were resolved, citizen archivists could house scientifically important specimens.

Larson and Russell (2014) provides a useful historical perspective on commercial paleontology in North America, and does briefly describe how commercial paleontology is managed in other parts of the world. However, this opinion piece falls into the previously dug pits of misdirected arguments. It does not offer any solutions to the current flaws in the commercial system they wholeheartedly praise. In fact, they do not directly address the issues of archival discontinuity and over the top prices to which vertebrate fossils and their researchers face in the commercial system.

I hope that more opinion pieces continue to be submitted to Palaeontologia Electronica, because a meaningful dialog has not yet been reached, but maybe this is the very start. I hope we'll get there.