Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Book Review - Dinosaur Odyssey

Scott Sampson is one of the most popular and respected palaeontologists’ of the modern era. Major contributions to the science for many years now always demand the highest respect from his peers and graduate students alike. He has also been a familiar face on television and his Dinosaur Train has been very well received stateside where it is aimed at a younger audience, no doubt joined by their equally interested parents!

Meeting Scott was an equally pleasurable experience and I found him to be an extremely pleasant man, easy going and willing to exchange many views and ideas with me. It was equally apparent that he is a driven palaeontologist with an ever increasing thirst for more knowledge. His passion is quite infectious.

Dinosaur Odyssey has been described as the first general-audience book on dinosaurs for many many years. Having said that, I believe it does help to have a general understanding of palaeontology although anybody with an interest in the natural world or earth sciences will enjoy it.

The premise of the book, as opposed to the usual encyclopaedic style of dinosaur books, is to entice the reader and draw them into the bigger picture – the web of life, as mentioned in the title. Instead of concentrating on specific individual genera or species, the reader is invited into this bigger world and specifically how dinosaurs were part of it and especially how they were, in relative terms, a small component in the vast ecological processes that took place throughout the Mesozoic.

This does not mean that dinosaurs are not covered in any detail – they most certainly are – but we are always reminded that they were part of a much bigger picture. I cannot think of another book that brings the world of the dinosaurs to life in so much detail. From sun light and water to microbes and soil formation, right through to the carnivores at the top of the food chain, through to death and back again, we can see how the world of the dinosaurs was formed by the same processes that affect our world of today.

There are up to date details concerning all the major groups of dinosaur whether herbivore or carnivore and there is an excellent chapter concentrating on ornithischians and ceratopsians. The horned dinosaurs are a passion of Scott’s and he describes in detail how horns and frills were almost certainly evolved for sexual selection and both species recognition and interaction.

The physiology of the dinosaurs is discussed – specifically whether they were endothermic, as in birds, or ectothermic like crocodiles. In fact Scott describes them as mesothermic by using a theory he refers to as the Goldilocks hypothesis. In other words, not hot, not cold but rather something in between. His arguments make good reading but, of course, this will need to be backed up in the literature, although this theory is very much in fashion just now. Personally, I like to believe they were fully endothermic animals but this argument could fill volumes on its own and certainly not for this review.

How dinosaurs became masters of the planet is also covered and once again the combination of so many different but interlinked factors describes their rise to prominence. Scott also goes in to great detail to debunk the possibility of there ever being a Jurassic Park and this makes good reading because it takes someone like Scott to highlight the multitude of obstacles that would exist in simply being able to maintain these animals, let alone creating them in the first place!

Dinosaur provincialism has been in the literature over the last few years and again is another subject that Scott has investigated in some detail. Indeed, the North American continent, that was split into two by the Western Interior Seaway during the late Cretaceous, is throwing up so many questions with regards to just how many different species of big animal managed to live at the same time in what appear to be small pockets of land on a relatively small land mass (Laramidia). This is probably a subject worthy of a symposium in its own right.

Other chapters feature the authors work in Madagascar and the other inevitable chapters on dinosaurs becoming birds, and their extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, completing the volume. The book is interspersed with both colour and black and white images and I particularly like the pencil illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.

Dinosaur Odyssey represents a new kind of dinosaur book. It could almost be written for ecologists and naturalists of today, and this is the secret of the book. This is nothing new, and so many people have said it in the past, but to tackle the issues of today we need to refer to the issues of the past and I know of no other book that makes you search for your place in the bigger picture that is today’s web of life. I would urge you to read this volume because it contains so many relevant and important messages. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Return to the Devil's Hole

In June I was able to return to the Devil’s Hole, almost two years since my last visit. Mark couldn’t make this trip but I expected to see plenty of people that I knew from previous. Again the weather conditions were favourable and I was hopeful of a good day.

On arrival at site we had to sign in and also sign a disclaimer. I noted that the security this time was even more intense and we only had a four hour window in which to prospect. We were told that there had been significant working in progress and that there would be plenty of terrain to scour.

They weren’t wrong either. On this occasion, we were allowed to drive almost to quarry side, which helped, and from the cars you could see the vast expanse of excavation that had taken place. Ahead you could see piles of sand and gravel spoil intermingled with exposures of Oxford Clay. Gullies, filled with water, carved channels throughout. There was plenty of room for everyone and we made our way in full of anticipation.

There was so much to look at that it was obvious that it really didn’t matter where to start but a couple of us started parallel to one of the ditches and started to look at some clay exposures. There were already some ammonite partials exposed and it was obvious that there would be some good finds today.

I crossed the ditch where it narrowed and looked among some spoil heaps. I soon found what were obviously a couple of bovine teeth on the surface. I gathered them together with all the loose pieces of enamel and placed them in a specimen bag. Closer examination revealed them to be a couple of woolly rhinoceros teeth - a good find.

I pushed on trying to get a balance between careful prospecting, along with covering as much ground as possible – not easy. Too fast and you risk missing something, too slow and you simply do not cover as much ground as you would like to. I convinced myself not to worry since there was so much ground to cover that it probably didn’t matter.

After a while I spotted one of the others whom I had met before on several occasions. He’s very good at maximising his time in these Pleistocene quarries. I’ve watched him and as soon as you can get in the quarry he moves very quickly and walks on the spoil heaps looking for the big bones that are exposed.

Well he had a red letter day finding a big partial femur which some reckon is mammoth. I don’t – I think it’s too small unless it’s a juvenile but then mammals are not a speciality of mine. He also found a rhino humerus (lovely bone), a wolf bone and some other bone as well.

All of these bones were found in the first hour! I reckon he covered the majority of the site in an hour and a half while the rest of us had worked on just the one side. Fair play to him though – that way of prospecting certainly works for him. But I think he probably misses some important material that way.

I pushed on and decided to take a circular route around the quarry, ending up where I started. This would miss an awful lot of ground out but, as mentioned earlier, that would still leave me plenty of acreage and we were constrained by time. I also decided to vary my search pattern by covering sections of spoil heaps and sections of gullies. This was a lot of leg work but I felt it gave me the best chance of finding more material.

As it turned out, and not for the first time, I was wrong and could not find anything else. As I headed back to my starting point I bumped into one or two others who had also found a rhino tooth, bigger than mine but not as well preserved, and some excellent ammonites. I decided to drop down to the Oxford clay to see if I could find any ammonites for myself.

I actually managed to take myself out onto a peninsula and found myself surrounded by water which meant I had to walk all the way back and circumnavigate that section to get back. I passed Carl along the way, and told him what lay ahead, but he decided to look anyway. Carl had already recovered some bone fragments, nothing brilliant, but nice pieces.

I walked back to the area where I found the rhino teeth and decided to thoroughly scour the area and see if there were any more to be found. There wasn’t and our time was nearly up. I eventually caught up with Carl and was pleased that he had recovered a few nice ammonites, but not so pleased that he had recovered them from the peninsula and that I had obviously missed them. Oh well, such is life.

As we strolled back to the cars it was obvious that most people had some good finds. Apart from the fore mentioned bones there were plenty of ammonites found that were topped by one huge specimen, at least, I6 inches across. All in all it was a pretty good trip but the time constraint was frustrating. But I can’t complain and I can see a time when this quarry will be closed to collectors – I just hope that it won’t be any time soon.

After leaving the quarry Carl and I decided to have a spot of lunch in a lay-by just up the road. I asked Carl what he did for a living – a molecular scientist! I’m impressed – he said that he would have liked to do palaeontology for a career but that there are even less openings in that discipline than the one he eventually chose. I think he made the right choice.

As you may remember from previous entries, the Devil’s Hole remains closed just now but both it and Minnie’s Quarry should reopen next year. Considering that earlier this year the outlook for both quarries was bleak, this is indeed good news and I’ll keep you informed of developments.

The above image shows the recovered rhinoceros teeth after preperation and consolidation. Nice example.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Alan Dawn 1923 - 2010

Coincidence has a strange, and sometimes unfortunate, way of materialising in life. It was only recently that I published a couple of posts as an introduction to the Oxford Clay and it is no surprise that the name of Alan Dawn was mentioned more than a few times. Sadly, if you didn’t know, Alan passed away on October 31st after a short illness. He was 87.

Alan was an amazing man and truly one of the great amateur paleontologists of his or, indeed, any generation. Although he worked on and prepared Pleistocene mammals, his legacy is his work on the marine reptile fauna from the local clay quarries in and around Peterborough.

As an avocational paleontologist and preparator myself I can truly admire his dedication and achievements and his contribution to our understanding and perception of the Oxford Clay fauna simply cannot be underestimated.
I could write a few other things about Alan’s life but his friend Jeff Liston has done a much better job at it than I could and has written a nice tribute page at his website here.

Alan lost his wife Pauline only recently and will be greatly missed by family and friends alike and we all send them our sympathy and condolences.

One of the true greats of recent times in British paleontology and is a sad loss to all of us who knew him.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Getting Closer.....

In May we returned to Quarry 4. Conditions were good and the forecast was for a cloudy day with sunny intervals. Temperatures were in the low teens and we both felt that today would be a good day.

As we walked toward the far side of the quarry it was apparent that enormous amounts of clay had been removed. It never ceases to amaze me that the Bluff remains closed because of the economic climate and yet Quarry 4 continues to be worked hard despite the downturn.

We dropped to the quarry floor and began to prospect. It wasn’t until we got closer to the newly quarried face that we realised the full extent of the clay removal. I was amazed - it must have amounted to hundreds of tons of spoil that had been taken out. Still, it gave us a large area of virgin territory to search for fossils.

Better still, nearly all the flood waters had now receded and so we could search the areas that had been under water for some months. We looked in earnest, keen for success since I think we are both of the opinion that we are not the luckiest prospectors’ and almost resigned to the fact that the next person who follows us in will find the next plesiosaur or ichthyosaur.

Similarly to last time it was hard going. There were some areas that were particularly rich in belemnites and Gryphaea but, as mentioned before, this was zonal. There wasn’t a great deal of wood either and we knew early on that we would struggle. And yet everything felt right and we knew that we were going to persevere and eventually I found a small piece of bone. Not the most impressive piece you will ever see but at least it was a start.

Not too far from the spot where we had started to prospect, I began to look on the quarry floor that ran parallel to a long spoil heap. Where it ended there was a narrow gap before the next spoil heap began. I walked through this and double backed on myself walking on the other side of the spoil.

After a few yards I managed to spot a small piece of bone that was exposed on the surface. A good gust of wind would have probably covered it over with dust again but at last I got lucky. It was very narrow and rib-like and I gently began to uncover it. Slowly but surely, a delightfully preserved rib materialised. It was gently curved and virtually complete although it was fractured in a few spots.

I called Mark over and he recommended that we separate the clay from its surrounding matrix and remove it whole. I cleaned off the exposed bone, stabilised it with consolidant, and slowly began to separate the bone supporting block. After slow but sure progress the support block fractured and the lower part of the rib broke away but this wasn’t a problem and the remainder was removed intact. The two blocks were then carefully wrapped up and packed and I was ready to continue the search.

I searched the immediate area for quite a while to see if the bone was an isolated element or whether there was any more of the animal to be found but this was not to be the case, unless there was more remains under the spoil heap but it seemed unlikely. Satisfied that there was nothing left to find, I moved off in search of other material elsewhere and to join up with Mark who was now a little ahead of me.

Eventually we approached the bed where we spent so much time searching last time and soon my eyes focussed on a very familiar area. Sure enough we came across our rock markers which marked the spot where our tree trunk was located from our previous trip. We were both a little saddened to see that the trunk was still in situ but now much worse for wear and disintegrating.

Although a little aggrieved by this, I suppose it is a little understandable. Where do you store such a trunk as this? And the conserving problems are immense. I suppose in reflection that, although it was impressive, it was not particularly well preserved, there was no bark remaining, and all that was left was this huge chunk of carbonised wood.

Well we did the right thing in reporting the find. Now it will very soon crumble to dust and disappear forever but it was impressive when we found it and I have a good photographic record for posterity. We continued to search and, as mentioned previously, were now able to look in the areas that were now dry but still we could find nothing else.

One thing that we may take next time are yard brooms! When the clay is dry and dusty, the shiny enamel of fossil bone can be hidden and, although half joking about this last time, I am starting to believe that there may be some merit to the idea and that a quick sweep of a broom may help in uncovering bone that may be otherwise missed. We’ll see.

We made our way out of the area, and began to go over old trenches and the gullies that we had scoured previously but, again there was nothing more to be found and we decided to call it a day. As usual, we took the long way back to the cars in the hope of falling onto something, but it wasn’t to be.

Quarry 4 leaves me feeling a sense of inevitability that our time will surely come and that as long as we persist then we will find our skeleton. It’s a different feeling from the Bluff, which is a place that compels me to go regardless. Although skeletons have been removed from the Bluff they are incredibly rare, three that I know of, maybe four, so you know that you would normally be looking for isolated bone elements.

But Quarry 4 and the surrounding area have produced an abundance of skeletons over the years and as long as the clay is here and bricks are required, then there will be many more finds to come. I just hope that we are here for the next few skeletons that are found.


For a look at the prepared rib, see here.

As mentioned in previous posts, Quarry 5 is now being worked quite heavily and, if all goes well, we will have access early next year. Quarry 4 is still down to be flooded very soon but there is no agreed date for this and we continue to have access until January 2011 although there are no new excavations and we are relying on the elements to uncover anything.

A further quarry, not too far away, has also been earmarked for extraction in the future and would be a massive excavation, so the future for more marine reptiles being found appears extremely positive.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Tyrannosaurs + Preparation = Utopia!

When someone blogs about tyrannosaurs, I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Similarly, blogging about prep work, which is another huge interest of mine, has myself reading it so that I can soak up every last morsel of information. When someone blogs about preparing a tyrannosaur I am in heaven!

If you are unaware, let me point you in the direction of Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings. Dave has often run a series of guest posts or interesting interviews with many figures in the world of palaeontology but his latest addition is a real coup, especially for tyrannosaur aficionados’ such as myself.

Darren Tanke is senior technician at the Royal Tyrrel Museum of Palaeontology and, back at the end of the 2008 field season in Dinosaur Provincial Park, located the bones of a juvenile Gorgosaurus. Juvenile dinosaurs are a rare find for any species but especially so in theropods, so this was an important specimen.

The block containing the bones was eventually lifted out earlier this year and Darren is actually preparing the specimen now at time of writing. Darren has agreed to give a series of updates over the upcoming months giving us an inside view into the world of the preparator and, at the same time, uncovering one of the coolest dinosaurs ever to walk the planet!

Not only will you find this amazing story unfolding on the Musings but the Tyrell’s own Facebook page is also covering the story. I implore you to follow this story as it unfolds since this is probably the first time a specimen of this importance has been prepared and uncovered as it happens. Well done Darren for letting us in and to Dave for bringing it to the paleo-blogosphere!