Monday, November 16, 2015

Fossils in Disguise

As July progressed into August and we neared the end of our field season, it was time to start hauling blocks back to camp and closing down quarries. This is Suicide Hill, a spot I didn't work at very much but which contains lots of juvenile Eolambia. Lindsay has a great system for bringing large blocks back to camp with people-power only, since we cannot use vehicles at many of our sites. We strap them with ratchet straps to a backboard (or what everyone else was calling a sled, but it's a backboard guys! We were totally prepared for spinal injuries!). This way, 4-8 people can lift large jackets with relative ease and less potential for back injury. I think this jacket was somewhere over 500 pounds.

Closing down quarries also means Khai and Haviv and I got to haul gear back to camp, like pry bars and crack hammers and water jugs and all kinds of other heavy things. WHAT FUN.

We had started a new quarry called Mini Troll relatively late in the season after the sauropod site was largely completed. Lisa had found this spot last year and it looks like it contains a very nice small ornithischian, possibly something a bit like Orodromeus in general shape and size. It's not articulated, but it looks like a lot of it is in this little lens of sandstone.

Also, I found a TOOTH! Maybe from Siats?

Mini Troll kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and we were starting to run out of time.

That meant we had a couple of nights where we ate dinner at the quarry to save time. Did you know that mayonnaise tastes great in leftover chili? (This is probably my favourite photo from the whole field season - what a great moment of collegiality and teamwork and friendship.)

Click to embiggen this sort of ok panorama of Mini Troll at about 9pm at night!

By the final morning, Mini Troll had gotten so big that we felt we couldn't really call it 'mini' anymore, and so while the site is still Mini Troll, the jacket was dubbed Megatron. We were finishing the final layers of plaster at about 8am on the last day.

Megatron weighed over 600 pounds and needed to go up this extremely steep hill without many footholds. I still can't believe we got it up successfully and with, ultimately, minimal hassle or terror. 

And that finishes off my overdue fieldwork posts! If you find yourself in Raleigh, come visit Megatron! He's hanging out in the window of the prep lab and Lindsay and Lisa just started to open it up a week or so ago. I think it's going to be pretty cool!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Fortunate Son

Elsewhere in the Mesozoic, parts of the field crew were working away at Cretaceous dinosaurs in the Mussentuchit Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation. In may we worked at Crystal Geyser Quarry, which is in the Yellow Cat Member of the same formation and is about 125 million years old, in a part of the Cretaceous called the Barremian. In contrast, the Mussentuchit Member is about 98 million years old, or Cenomanian in age. The Cedar Mountain Formation is a giant unit of rock, and the dinosaur faunas changed dramatically throughout!

The dinosaur fauna of the Mussentuchit is still poorly known, and we still don't know very much about the dinosaurs of the 'middle' Cretaceous compared to the Jurassic (like the Morrison Formation) or the Late Cretaceous (like my previous fieldwork in Alberta and Mongolia). There are still many new dinosaurs to be discovered here! This quarry has produced a new small iguanodontian, nicknamed Fortunate Son for the time being while we prepare its bones and until it is formally described.

The views from this quarry are terrible. Just awful.

The Fortunate Son quarry was about a 30-40 minute hike from camp and generally a very pleasant place to work. However, when the weather looks like this, you're probably going to get wet.

This particular thunderstorm was threatening us for a long time, but when the sky opened up it was worse than expected and an almost instantaneous drenching. Here we are hiding from the lightning! For extra bonus fun, we had to walk over the highest hill in the vicinity in order to return to camp, so we had to wait this one out for a long time until we thought it was safe. When we finally tried heading home, the slick wet mud made us very slow, and the lightning started again by the time we got to the top of the hill. GOOD TIMES. Lindsay also posted about our stormy weather at the Expedition Live blog!

Camp wasn't much drier!

Later that day, a second thunderstorm rolled through, throwing hail onto us like I haven't experienced before. Grape-sized hail came down for at least 15 minutes straight, so we figured we may as well try to get some free ice for our drinks.

Haviv made the best of the bad weather with some mud sculpting!

We also spent some time prospecting for new localities, although I didn't find anything particularly exciting. The strata here are much more deformed than what I'm used to, making for some steep hiking! The red rocks towards the bottom are Jurassic Morrison Formation, and the buff coloured rocks above are largely the Ruby Ranch Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation, with Mussentuchit Member rocks closer to the top.

Here's a kind of ok 180-panorama from the highest point I climbed to one day. Click to embiggen!

Next time, we meet a Decepticon.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead.

I can't believe that it's been more than 2 months since we got back from our fieldwork in Utah and I'm only getting around to posting about it now, but I guess that means things have been hopping around here! We had spent a week at the Crystal Geyser Quarry earlier in May, but our main batch of fieldwork lasted for four weeks from mid July to mid August. We drove from North Carolina to near Emery, Utah, to set up camp and work in the Morrison and Cedar Mountain formations.

Camp was comfortable and cozy!

And there were some pretty nice views!

I spent the first few weeks managing a sauropod quarry in the Morrison Formation. Although the Jurassic is not the main focus of our lab's research projects, its a nice addition to the museum's collection, and if I recall correctly this is some of the most western outcrop of Morrison. I was usually joined by an enthusiastic set of students from NCSU's palaeontology field school taught by Lindsay Zanno. Thanks for being cool, students! And thanks for introducing me to Welcome to Night Vale, which is basically the best possible podcast to listen to while digging up a dinosaur in the desert where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.

Most of our sites were within walking distance of camp, but it was a bumpy drive out to the sauropod quarry and back each day!

Here's what some of the block of diplodocid looked like early on - pretty hard to interpret!

And here's how it looked a little while later! Still hard to interpret, but this is probably part of the pelvis, and some sacral and caudal vertebrae. Last year a large block of articulated caudal vertebrae was taken out of the quarry from the area to the right in this picture.

Just when I thought we were mostly finished, I found this nice 'little' caudal vertebra from probably about the midpoint in the series.

Sauropod bones make for some pretty big blocks to collect. Here's Lindsay and the crew getting ready to plaster the top of this block, by stabilizing holes and cracks with some good old fashioned bentonite mud.

This was a new and interesting technique for me - building a ramp to move heavy specimens into the truck! We used dirt from the quarry to build a dirt ramp, then nailed some 1x2s to a piece of heavy duty plywood and set some iron rollers in the middle. Using a winch and some pry bars, we were able to roll the blocks up into the truck. A good method!

We also did some live presentations with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences from this quarry! Here's out little shrine to cellphones - a fortuitous spot with good reception. We rigged up a holder for the phone so that we could Skype with the museum into the Daily Planet theatre. We talked a bit about what we were doing, and the audience could ask us questions! I think about how much I would have loved to be able to talk to a palaeontologist at an actual dinosaur dig when I was little, and I'm continually amazed by what we're able to do with high tech gear and a little bit of ingenuity these days.

Here's what that looked like back in North Carolina! (Thanks Brian Malow for the photo!)

Next time: Cedar Mountain Formation shenanigans! And don't forget to take the blog readers survey, now with the chance to win your very own Galactic Coelacanth mug!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How to look at dinosaurs in a museum

I've been traipsing around North America a lot lately for a fresh burst of museum visits, which got me to thinking about the things I need to do in order to do research in museum collections. I thought I'd share some advice about visiting museum collections – consider this a mix of tips for beginners and experienced collections researchers alike. Obviously this advice is geared towards palaeontological research, but I bet it's applicable to many other fields as well, and it would be interesting to hear about differences! Also beware, this post is more text-heavy than usual for me!

Before going to the museum:
  • Before visiting a collection, you'll need to contact a curator or collections manager to request access to the collections. Write a polite (but brief!) email outlining who you are, what you want to see, and the dates you're interested in visiting.
  • Once you've settled on a visit, you should also ask the collections manager or curator what time you should arrive and if there is a special entrance you should arrive at – sometimes you aren't entering through the regular public entrance but a staff entrance, so make sure you know where to go. If you're visiting a collection located on a university campus, ask if they can point you towards a campus map, since it's often a bit more difficult to navigate around unfamiliar campuses. I rarely rent a car when I'm traveling, but if you are arriving via a car, make sure you check out parking rates and locations ahead of time – university parking lots are notoriously expensive for visitors or have restricted access for non-permit holders.
  • It's also good to ask if the collections are closed during lunch, and what time you need to leave by. I usually also ask (or check the museum's website) to see if there is a cafe or restaurant nearby for lunch – a notable example where there is no food on site is the Canadian Museum of Nature collections: bring your own lunch if you're visiting there, as there isn't any food nearby!

On the plus side, the CMN staff cafeteria looks over a very pleasant pond, and also there is an Amargasaurus to keep you company!

What to bring with you:
  • DSLR camera – although I typically use a point-and-shoot or cellphone camera for fun and casual pictures, for specimen photos I use a DSLR camera. I am by no means an accomplished photographer and I really ought to take some classes or watch some tutorials to get the most out of my camera, but having at least a basic beginner's DSLR is important for getting publication-worthy specimens photos. BUT, in the earliest days of my MSc I got away with a point-and-shoot digital camera because I had a:
  • Tripod – you can get away with a less good camera if you have a tripod. I have a nice Manfrotto tripod that extends out to about as tall as I am and has a pivoting head. It set me back about $100 CAD, but a tripod is really crucial for getting good photos. A tripod and decent lighting will get you 90% of the way to a good photo if you're working with large-ish dinosaur fossils; for small fossils, you probably need some different gear.
  • That being said, keep a backup camera on you in case something happens to your 'good' camera! I also have had pretty good success pointing a regular digital camera down the eyepiece of a microscope to take pictures when I didn't really have a proper setup for doing that kind of work. The DSLR didn't work as well in that instance so I was glad I had my little point-and-shoot camera.
  • Calipers – I have a digital caliper that I love to death because I am a lazy butt and don't want to fuss about with reading the actual numbers on the calipers. Turn it on, zero it, line it up, and bam you're done. They are the best. If you work on very small fossils and/or require a super high degree of accuracy, you might want to invest in fancier calipers, but for me these calipers from Canadian Tire get the job done. Pro tip: avoid packing calipers in your carry-on luggage – I have run into trouble with security thinking they could be used as a weapon, and have almost had them confiscated!

My basic kit! If you've got these, you're 90% of the way there.

  • Measuring tape – some of my fossils are too big for my calipers, so I still rely on measuring tape for the large fossils. Also, soft measuring tape is crucial for taking circumference measurements, say if you want to eventually calculate body mass using limb bones. Don't leave home without measuring tape!
  • Notebook and pencil kit – I am a weirdo who likes to write down my measurements before transferring them to Excel or wherever, so I always keep a lined notebook and a bunch of pens, pencils, pencil crayons, erasers, and pencil sharpeners on hand for museum trips. Secret pro tip: only write on one side of your notebook pages – it seems wasteful, but prevents bleed-through of your notes if you scan your pages later or as ink penetrates the paper, and prevents smudging on opposite pages if you're using pencil.
  • Scale bars – I keep like a billion scale bars on me at all times because I lose them everywhere. You should always keep a scale bar in your photographs! I like to buy the official Society of Vertebrate Paleontology scale bars (although the new ones are not as good, SVP exec! Bring back the old blue ones!), but I have frequently gotten good freebies at conferences, and some cool credit-card sized ones from the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Canadian Museum of Nature that can stay in my wallet! You can get away with just your measuring tape and/or calipers, but scale bars look nicer.
  • Things I don't do yet: Portable lights! Most museums have a variety of desk lamps or photography setups for visiting researchers, but not everywhere. While you can still get pretty ok photographs sometimes without extra lighting, sometimes you might want some low-angle lighting to highlight skin impressions or other subtle features, or you might want light to penetrate more deeply into an object, like the palatal region of a skull. I have sometimes included a small flashlight in my kit, for spotlighting areas on fossils and for peering into dark racks and cabinets. I have been considering purchasing a small desk lamp that could travel in my checked luggage – readers, do you travel with your own lighting?
  • While I don't often use a background cloth, some of my friends travel with either a white or black sheet to lay under fossils. Somewhat counterintuitively, black works well if you have dark fossils, because of the way it makes your camera interpret the light. I don't mind deleting out backgrounds manually from my photos, but a uniform white or black background probably cuts down the processing time for some people.

At the museum:
  • Be gentle with fossils! Make sure you're handling fossils carefully, by lifting them at the most sturdy parts and supporting as much as them as possible. Use carts wherever possible, and keep them on foam – if there isn't foam already on the cart or table, scavenge around the collections until you find some. When photographing specimens in different views, try to keep delicate parts supported on foam or sandbags; if for some reason those things are not readily available, I have occasionally used erasers (white and gum) to provide soft-ish supports for fossils during photography.
  • Be nice to collections managers and curators: put fossils back exactly where you found them, and keep specimen cards with the specimens. If something breaks, tell them!
  • Take more photos than you think you need – make sure you get orthogonal views (top, bottom, sides, etc.), but try varying the angle of your light sources, your zoom, your angle, etc. It's also helpful to have a variety of close-ups for interesting features (braincases, noses, palates), and to have unorthodox views that might jog your memory or reveal proportions or angles that are lost in orthogonal-only views. Sometimes I literally just walk around the specimen snapping photos, such that I could probably make some photogrammetry models from things I photographed 10 years ago before photogrammetry was a thing. I take hundreds of photos each day during a collections visit.
  • When you're photographing a specimen, include a least a few photos where you include the original specimen tag – this helps keep the info with the specimen for years later when you may be revisiting old photos.
  • Lunchtime is a good time to visit the exhibits and snoop on how people are interacting with the museum's interpretive materials, which is one of my favourite creepy pastimes.

Here's me and my inexplicably hidden face (I obviously haven't totally figured out this new 'do yet) working in the Ft Worth collections last week! Working in museum collections is awesome and one of my favourite parts of being a palaeontologist.

After your visit:
  • Download your photos each night and sort them by specimen number. I have a huge folder of all of my specimen photos sorted by museum, visit (when I've been to a collection more than once), date, and specimen number. I'm a weirdo and tend to remember things in time-relative terms, so sorting by date helps me remember specimens and correlate back to my notebook; you might prefer to sort by taxon and then museum, or museum and then taxon, or any way that works for you.
  • Scan/photograph/photocopy your notebook as a backup.
  • Send a thank you email to the people who helped you during your visit! It's just good manners and also it is nice to be nice to other people.

Ok, that's my slightly too long stream-of-consciousness discussion of museum visit tips and tricks! What things do you bring with you or do in order to have a successful research visit in museum collections? What would you recommend to beginners in the field? And don't forget to fill out the research survey about science blogs!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Ankylosaurs all the way down

After the SVP meeting in Dallas, I spent a couple of days working on Texan ankylosaurs at the Ft Worth Museum of Science and History, and at the collections at Southern Methodist University. It was nice to see a bit of Texas outside of downtown Dallas, so here's a few shots from my visit to Ft Worth!

You know it's going to be a pretty good museum visit when you're greeted by Dr. Suess statues on your way in! Especially when it's from your favourite Dr. Suess story, the underappreciated Yertle the Turtle.

This is probably the most interesting office space I have ever worked in. Or at least, the most intimidating. Look closely between the dueling bears and you will see...

...Pawpawsaurus! This is the holotype and only known skull of this beautiful little nodosaur. What a treat to be able to study the original in person.

Just next to me were these very interesting Katsina dolls, including my new favourite character, Squash Man. Apparently he is present in harvest stories and now I want to know all about him because he is the greatest.

The museum has a pretty nice dinosaur exhibit, which I liked a lot because it features local Texas dinosaurs rather than the standard Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops that museums of this size typically have. There was also an outdoor dig site recreating the Jones Ranch quarry that I had visited the previous week on the SVP field trip!

The dinosaur exhibit has these really great gigantic line drawings of Texas dinosaurs, which I liked a lot. They look like somebody roughed in some chalk drawings on the walls, and I find them really appealing and dynamic!

The room is dominated by the skeleton of "Paluxysaurus", more recently considered a junior synonym of Sauroposeidon. Whatever it's called, it's an interesting sauropod, representing one of the last North American sauropods before the lengthy 'sauropod hiatus' from the mid Cretaceous until the Maastrichtian.

Here's something new for me - the foot of Tenontosaurus! A cool original fossil to have on display; behind it there's a reconstructed Tenontosaurus skeleton, and there was also a slightly worse for the wear original Tenontosaurus skull. It's like Tenontosaurus central around here!

Here's a super cool interactive station! Measure the circumference of a femur, put your measurements onto the computer, and see how massive different animals were!

Given the extreme dearth of ankylosaurs in museum exhibits, I was pretty over the moon that Pawpawsaurus featured so prominently! Usually the original skull is on display in the glass case, but today they had taken it off exhibit for me to look at and replaced it with a cast. Now somebody just needs to find the rest of the skeleton so we can have a more complete picture of this important mid Cretaceous ankylosaur!

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

This Way to the Dinosaurs

Welcome to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science! The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting's welcome reception was held here last week. This museum is trying out some interesting and different exhibition ideas that I haven't seen too often elsewhere, so let's take a look at some highlights. One of the most interesting design elements is the visible escalators poking out the side of the building. Back in 2013 at the Korea-Mongolia International Dinosaur Project Symposium, Tony Fiorillo gave a really interesting presentation on the design of this museum, and talked about how a lot of people never make it off the first floor of a museum, which is also usually where the dinosaurs are. So at the Perot Museum, the dinosaurs are on the top floor and you are immediately shuttled upstairs (it's actually kind of hard to *not* go to the top floor first!), and then you work your way down the museum to exit. 

The dinosaur exhibits feature some interesting species that aren't found in a lot of other museums - here's a modern take on Tenontosaurus, and the still unnamed Proctor Lake 'hypsilophodontid' (somebody name that guy, already!).

My favourite exhibit in the whole museum! One of the only places where I've seen the North American-Asian faunal interchange visualized in an exhibit. Tarbosaurus is in Asia, and its close relatives are in North America (I can't remember exactly which taxon is featured here, but perhaps it is Bistahieversor based on its geographic position?). Also whoa, Beringia sure looks strange from this polar vantage point.

Another interesting thing the museum has done is to place modern animals alongside the dinosaurs for comparative purposes. Here we've got predators and prey - a mountain lion and a deer, and Tyrannosaurus and the sauropod Alamosaurus (off to the left of my photo).

A similar approach is taken in the Alaskan dinosaur corner - here's the herbivorous Edmontosaurus Ugruunaluk...

...and its extant analogue the caribou (Rangifer!). I wasn't totally sold on this approach, but I was intrigued by the mixture of extant and extinct, and of modern and ancient ecosystems, so maybe I just need to ruminate on it a little more.

I'm a sucker for Sinclair dinosaurs, what can I say.

Does the mould for the Ankylosaurus exist anywhere still??? DO WANT.

At one end of the dinosaur hall you take a set of stairs up to the bird exhibit! I liked this a lot, both because the bird exhibit had some cool interactive stuff, but also because I like the symbolism and narrative structure to traveling upwards towards birds from dinosaurs - it's like moving up the phylogenetic tree, and gaining flight.

From up in the rafters, you get a nice view of the dinosaur gallery, and a great vantage point for examining the gigantic Alamosaurus (real vertebrae are tucked down at ground level behind the skeleton from this angle). Alamosaurus is a weird and biogeographically interesting creature, representing a re-emergence of sauropods in North America after a lengthy hiatus throughout much of the mid Cretaceous. 


Rocks and minerals! With gigantic mineral shapes! (My favourite is the giant malachite clump in the back.)

Brains! There's a really fun section on medicine and human anatomy.

Phylogenies! Can you find where humans are located on this giant tree of life?

Outside the museum, we were bid farewell by these very fine green leapfrogs, which surely must be great fun to play with if you are smaller than I am.

More Texas adventures forthcoming - stay tuned!

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