Thursday, 21 April 2011

A New Field Season & Other Snippets

As we went into April this year the weather really took a turn for the better and the unseasonably warm weather heralded in the start of the new field season. The Bluff beckoned and I was soon heading south and back into the Weald.

I was looking forward to seeing how my “cultivated” areas of clays and shales had fared throughout the Winter and to see if my raking up of the sediments had helped to expose any new fossil material. It really was a beautiful morning and, after signing in and talking to a few colleagues, I was soon heading into the quarry.

As I arrived at the top of the Bluff and looked down, the first thing that struck me was how high the water level had risen again – even higher than last Winter. This was disappointing and made travelling around the quarry awkward and long winded and I was surprised that the water had not been maintained at a lower level.

I stepped onto the bone bed on the south east face and began to prospect. Yet again it was obvious how we desperately needed new scrapings to facilitate our search for fossils. Undeterred I began the search in earnest and carefully worked my way to the first of my prepared areas where bone had occasionally cropped out over the last few years.

The first thing that occurred to me was how different the prepared bed looked from before. The raking up and natural erosion of the last seven months had certainly made a difference. But was there any new bone to find? Despite spending a considerable amount of time on the area, I failed to turn up a single fossil. I was quite disappointed.

Still it was worth a go and I then crossed the dirt track and continued the search in the same bed. This was another spot that had turned up crocodile teeth and scutes over the years but there was hardly any difference to the clay and sandstone from last Autumn and, unsurprisingly, nothing was found.

It was time to visit my second prepared area, the fish beds on the western bank. The high water was slapping right in to the base of these shales although it hadn’t actually reached the fossil bearing beds. Despite the previous raking of the shales, I have to say that they did not look all that different and, as I began the search in earnest, I knew in my heart that there would be very little to find. Unfortunately, I was proven right and found nothing.

I have to admit to feeling a little despondent and as I sat down for a bite to eat, I actually wondered, for the first time, if it was worth the trip. But the feeling soon passed and it was time to start the search on the northern face. This too was a struggle but at least I managed to winkle out a partial croc tooth which was something at least.

A little later I was having a chat with one of my colleagues who told me something that may be the turn around in fortune we all need. It seems that one of the maintenance crew has revealed that the owners of the brickworks, at long last, are looking to reopen the site late 2011 or early 2012, provided economic conditions are favourable.

This has still to be confirmed of course but if this turns out to be the case then it will mean much needed employment in the local area and, of course, fresh clay will be needed from the Bluff for the works and thus new exposures for us to explore. I cannot stress enough how much this is needed and I hope to confirm this news later this year.

Quarries 4 &5

Those of you familiar with this blog know that Quarry 4 has featured in many posts over the last couple of years and I have enjoyed sharing the story of my times there. Equally, you will also recall that the quarry is now closed and we were hoping to gain access to Quarry 5.

I can confirm that the contractors have almost finished landscaping Quarry 4 and the site is already being slowly flooded and great parts of it are now under water to some degree. The site is strictly off limits with no exceptions which is a shame since it would have nice to see if there was any more Liopleurodon material weathering out of the clay.

I can also confirm that we have gained extremely limited access to Quarry 5 now and the first field trip has taken place with some good finds. However, I am unable to provide any detail or images just now since I have been made aware that there have been one or two issues at the quarry which will need to be resolved before I am able to resume posting and it is possible that there will be a publicity ban regarding the venue.

This is unfortunate but necessary just now and I hope that I will be able to resume posting again in the near future even if it is in some form of reduced capacity. I will keep you informed of any developments.

More Media Issues

Brian Switek’s excellent article “Everybody Loves Tyrannosaurus highlights an issue that has always aggravated us palaeo-types, namely the constant referral of every new palaeontological vertebrate discovery to Tyrannosaurus in one way or the other. This is always under discussion somewhere in the blogosphere or other palaeo-themed websites and it has become a particularly hot topic this year.

Every prehistoric discovery in the news, it seems, has to relate to Tyrannosaurus in one way or another even if it is clearly unrelated. Even if it is a fascinating mammalian discovery from 125 thousand years ago, the writers would normally say that the animal was “….walking around the landscape some 65 million years before Tyrannosaurus.” Why? Completely unrelated.

Everything is related to the tyrant king. All other discoveries are as big as, as powerful as, lived at the same time as etc etc – the list goes on and on. A combination of not understanding the science, headline grabbing and disrespect for the intelligence of the public in general are the main causes for this proliferation of nonsensical comparison.

Brian's article therefore can be considered very timely. Click on the link and go and check it out.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Wanted: Vertebrate fossils with a full documented history. Scientific value: Excellent.

This pachycephalosaur vertebra is fresh from the field and is a really nice example. But what is its history up to this point? And what will its history be in the future? Will it become a valuable addition that helps in our understanding of these bizarre dinosaurs? Or will it end up as just another bone of no particular scientific consequence?

One of the first things I came to realise when entering the realm of the preparator is that information is king. Years ago, I didn’t always appreciate this but, as I learnt more, the more I realised how essential all data is in the bigger scheme of things, whether you are dealing with a complete skeleton or an individual element.

Data gathering begins the moment a specimen is found in the field. Locality is recorded and GPS makes accurate recording a quantum leap better than it was previously. Recording of stratigraphic and taphonomic detail is essential. At time of collection the specimen acquires an identity and basic details which are more often or not recorded in ones trusty field notebook.

Details such as county, state or province, the locality name or description are added to the notes whilst huge plaster jackets, that contain the bones, may have the information written directly on the plaster and I know other workers who have included an extra label inside the cast for added security. Some jackets have added detail such as a simple sketch demonstrating the position of the bone(s) inside the jacket and also to tip off the preparators that there is also a data label inside.

Sounds fairly elementary but even then questions have to be continually asked. Where are the casts to be stored? Will they get damp? Does the pen used to mark the jackets have waterproof ink? Eventually the specimen arrives at the museum and is stored awaiting preparation and, at this point, the field data is usually recorded into a database where the specimen takes on its new identity which will remain with it for the rest of its curated days.

Here the specimen acquires its institutional identity which usually contains an abbreviation for the institution followed by a series of numbers such as MOR 555 (Museum of the Rockies) or AMNH 5664 (American Museum of Natural History). The numbers may have some other significance such as year of collection and others may be sequential, especially when various elements are associated, but not always. It is also given a specific identity (if possible), and then all of the previously mentioned field data is included, as well as date of collection, what the specimen actually is i.e. vertebra, humerus, etc and any other relevant data that may be of significance for the preparator and/or the researcher.

It is worth pointing out that not all material can be positively identified and, in these instances, there is usually just a brief descriptive phrase pertaining to what the specimen might be. Comments such as “possible hadrosaur quadrate” or even “unknown element” are not unusual.

From this moment on the specimens every movement will be recorded. Its identification number is usually recorded directly onto the bone in a nondescript spot and there is nearly always an ID label with the specimen that accompanies it on its institutional travels.

When the specimen is selected for preparation there is often a release form to be produced to enable preparation to commence and this often doubles up as a record of the preparation process and every detail is recorded accordingly. Everything is and should be recorded and includes details of the processes, the tool used, what consolidants and adhesives were utilised, what repairs were made and anything else involved in the ultimate preparation of the specimen. Even hours spent by the preparator working on a specimen are often recorded.

The above is an extremely simplified description of the recording process that should be attached to any specimen that is recovered by a professional institution. Of course, every institution and prep laboratory will have their own means and methodologies but the essential and fundamental principles are the same no matter where you go.

There are a couple of points here that I’d like to mention. Firstly, every specimen should have a complete recorded detail for it to be of any scientific value. Even if you are an amateur collector and do your own prep work, it is still good practice to record the details. There are many fine collections in private hands that have been collected legally and prepared well but there are a few collections that do not have a single specimen with any historical documentation whatsoever.

This is extremely unfortunate since these same collectors are leaving their collections to museums and other teaching institutions in the belief that they are leaving a legacy to the nation so to speak. Well I suppose they are, in a very limited way, since the specimens may be extremely complete, well preserved and important. But without the proper documentation they are scientifically worthless. Nice to look at perhaps but worthless none the less. So I appeal to all amateur collectors and preparators to at least keep some records, even if it is just for your most important specimens so that at least they will have some scientific value for future generations.

Secondly, whether professional or amateur, it is safe to assume that your database of fossil specimens and their preparatory history, is most likely kept on a computer and rightly so. Computers have revolutionised the documenting of specimen data making it easier to assimilate the detail and be able to present this information in different ways, to make comparisons with other specimens on the database and also with other institutions via a network.

And yet it never ceases to amaze me how so many databases are not backed up in case of computer failure. I’m not suggesting that there are professional institutions out there that don’t have proper back ups but there will be a number of individuals out there, both professional and amateur, who don’t. I implore you now – BACK UP! I do and I’m still a little paranoid even now and I’m now looking at backing up the back ups! The data amassed can take years to gather together so don’t lose it all because you never had the time or couldn’t be bothered. Do it now!

So it can be seen from all this that a properly documented specimen is essential if it is to have any scientific significance and this is all before any researcher gets to study it. But because this work has been done, the researcher’s task becomes a little easier and he is able to put all the clues together from the field and prep lab in conjunction with his own and we should end up with a properly described and scientifically valid specimen.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Book Review - New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs

Time for a book review and this time it’s New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs, which encompasses the proceedings from the Royal Tyrrell Museum Ceratopsian Symposium. I knew that the symposium had been a great success and the news that a volume of papers was being prepared sparked interest from all over the world. Although my primary interests have always resided with theropods, I never the less have considerable interests in all dinosaurs and, as the rumour mill got into overdrive regarding the book, I knew it was a volume I had to have.

 Although the symposium was in 2007, the volume was eventually published during spring last year and the book soon landed on my doorstep. I did well – I received my copy across the pond quicker than some of my colleagues in the US. And what a book it is! It is huge with a massive 624 pages and the dustcover, with a wonderful Chasmosaurus by Donna Sloan , is stunning. Quickly breezing through the book I knew that I held a work of some significance.

 As is generally well known now, ceratopsian research has entered something of a renaissance during the last few years with more students, as well as established researchers, now engaged in significant, sometime state-of-the-art, investigation into all aspects of these fascinating horned dinosaurs. Indeed, as many bloggers have noted, 2010 was widely regarded as the year of the ceratopsia and the momentum shows no sign of abating.

The book itself is very well put together and is broken into five sections. Peter Dodson is generally acknowledged (by most of us!) as the undisputed king of ceratopsian research and, in the opening section, Peter describes the evolution of that research from its initial beginnings through to the hotbed that it is today. Peter’s magnificent enthusiasm reaches out and grabs you and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this volume spawns yet more workers who specialise in ceratopsians.

Section 2 is primarily concerned with introducing ten new taxa and some of these are pretty spectacular animals. Diabloceratops is worthy of mention in this respect and is a magnificent animal. Paul Sereno’s in depth look at Psittacosaurus is admirable work and I found the new chasmosaurine, Medusaceratops, particularly interesting and this taxon now represents the oldest chasmosaurine known, at circa 77.5 million years old.

Section 3 turned out to be my favourite part in the book and there is some seriously good work here dealing with biology, anatomy and behavioural inferences. I like John Happ’s work and his paper looking at the structure and function of the horns of Triceratops is excellent. The paper is based on a specimen (SUP 9713.0) recovered from the Hell Creek Formation in Garfield County, Montana which was a 70% complete skull with some very fine detail preserved.

Using a combination of electron microscopy and computerized tomography revealed that the inner horn core was surrounded by a keratinous sheath and that there was a heavily vascularised bone layer situated between. As there is a similar vascularised area at the base of the horn core, it appears that a network of veins flowed up and around the horns back to the brain cavity and it seems likely that the horns may have been used for thermoregulatory purposes. I would never have suspected that and is extremely interesting.

Other top papers in this section are Nick Longrich’s assertion that Protoceratops was nocturnal (really good work), Ford and Martin’s semi-aquatic psittacosaurs and Tanke and Rothchild’s look at paleopathologies in ceratopsians from Alberta and the implications, therein, for intraspecific behaviour such as head butting and flank butting. In fact this whole section is absolutely brilliant and is required reading.

Section 4 was yet another superb section and featured papers on diversity, distribution and taphonomy. A few papers here focus on ceratopsian bonebeds and reveal some fascinating insights. Hunt and Farke imply that some bonebeds appear to be the result of animals gathering together in a stressed environment as opposed to genuine herding although this is quantified by the fact that other bonebeds provide no clues one way or the other. As with all issues of this kind, intraspecific behaviour, however complex, can only be inferred.

Several bonebeds maybe actually be one mega-sized bone bed containing the remains of Centrosaurus apertus individuals numbering into the low thousands, according to Eberth, Brinkman and Barkas. The authors, this time, do interpret this enormous gathering of centrosaurs as, at the very least, suggestive of large scale migration. Kirkland and Bader’s look at insect trace fossils found in association with Protoceratops remains is also fascinating. I’m a huge admirer of Julia Sankey and her work with microvertebrates and this paper is no exception as she reveals a rich and varied paleocommunity within mixed bonebeds containing fossils of Agujaceratops mariscalensis that are found in Upper Cretaceous deposits of Big Bend National Park, Texas. There are other equally interesting papers in this section in what is yet again a superb section overall.

The final section features a couple of fascinating papers of a historical nature concerning the relocation of a lost Centrosaurus excavated by William Cutler back in 1912 by Darren Tanke and Jack Horner’s take as to why there have been so few juvenile Triceratops recovered over the years – in fact there has been. The accompanying CD- ROM features an astonishing record of ceratopsian discoveries over the years and an incredibly detailed chronological record of ceratopsid discovery from Alberta by Ford and Tanke respectively. An afterword by Phil Currie ends the volume.

A huge well done to all the contributors to this volume, the reviewers and also Patty Ralrick, who was acting editorial assistant. And even bigger congratulations to Michael Ryan, Brenda Chinnery-Allgeier and David Eberth for putting it all together.

In conclusion then, at $110 (£74) retail, this is a lot of money for a book. But you shouldn’t pay that. Indiana University Press (IUP) often runs promotions with various discounts and I bought my copy with a 60% discount. Be patient and you will get it at a reduced price and I cannot emphasise enough that you get a lot of book for your money.

Is it worth it? Absolutely. Remember that this book is extremely technical and should not be considered a book for a general audience. The quality of the work is phenomenal and the book has moved paper presentation in book form to a new level. The Tyrrell hosts a Hadrosaur Symposium later this year and I know that a similar volume is already in the pipeline and I hope that this will be as equally as impressive.

I have seen the future of how palaeontology volumes should be produced in the future and it is, very much, New Perspectives. Get it!