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.

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 i09.com 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:

Umm..ma'am. I hate to intrude, but you have an ex-bird on your head. Image source: www.diaryofavintagegirl.com
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!