The title of this post means 'Return' in Chinook Jargon, a mix of Native American languages, French, and English that served as the lingua franca of the Northwest from roughly the period of European contact through the end of the 19th Century. As astute as my readership is, I'm sure you've also noticed that the title of the blog is now in Chinook Jargon as well and that the appearance of the whole page has changed. Why these changes and why the use of a somewhat obscure language? Well, just as life, climate, and Earth itself change through time, this blog has evolved since first being founded. Think of its first iteration, The Oregon Trail, as its Paleozoic, a long interval during which it looked fairly different from its current form but that laid the foundation for what has come since. The real Paleozoic, of course, ended with Permian Extinction, in turn ushering in the Mesozoic; the epochal event in this blog's history was my move to Cornell College, marking its change to The Mammoth Prairie. The sudden end of the Mesozoic was marked (and probably caused) by a bolide impact; the similarly unexpected event in my life was a change of scenery from Iowa to Gonzaga University in Spokane. This has ushered in the third stage in the history of my blog, and just as the Cenozoic is the most interesting period of Earth history, I trust the current iteration of my blog will reach new heights over the coming months. So much for all the changes and for my recent hiatus; so why all the Chinook Jargon? In part, because I was returning to the Northwest, I wanted something in keeping with the region's history. While I've lived a good portion of my life west of the Cascades, my research and current job are both centered in the dryer country to the east, so I wanted to pick something with relevance to both the Pacific and Inland Northwest. At its peak, Chinook Jargon was spoken widely from the Rockies to the Pacific and from Alaska to the "State" of Jefferson, nicely approximating the boundaries of the Great Northwest. Beyond simply being locally relevant, though, my choice of a Chinook Jargon name reflects a subtle shift in my goal for this blog. As the insidious spread of climate change denialism and creationism attest, public understanding of natural science are at or near an all time low. I and other paleontologists have long viewed our field as a "gateway science" to biology, geology, and even climatology, but in an age where science - at least in the US - is effectively under attack, our role as scientific ambassadors has become increasingly important. In light of this, my career has drifted more and more towards education and I intend for this blog to follow suit. Just as I still conduct research of my own, I'll still be posting Fossil Vertebrates of the Month and sharing my thoughts on recent publications from time to time, but there are many other blogs out there that do so more frequently, more eloquently, and with more authority than mine. I hope that as a research scientist writing about education and fostering appreciation for the natural sciences I will be filling a niche that is less populated and very important. Just as I hope that this blog will serve as a useful resource for those who want to establish a dialog between scientists and non-scientists, Chinook Jargon was a language that (probably) first developed to facilitate discourse between the multilingual nations of the Northwest and later evolved to allow communication between these nations and European interlopers, making it an appropriate choice for naming this blog.
After all this, though, you may still be wondering what the new title means. As a trade language, words such as 'paleontology' and 'fossil' are unsurprisingly absent from Chinook Jargon. However, there is a word for knowing or understanding (kumtuks) and a word for yesterday (tahlkie); put them together and you get "understanding yesterday" (or, if you want to play fast and loose with translation, "understanding the past"), a phrase that not only sums up the goal of my research, but describes what I aim to foster through education. It's also a nod to a quote from Confucius that's one of my favorites because it so succinctly makes the case for why we should care about paleontology and other historical sciences: "Study the past if you would define the future."
13 March 2015
|Dippy the Diplodocus|
The Natural History Museum
While the winter has been a quiet one in regards to my writing (or at least my writing here; there's been plenty of application and manuscript prep), as per usual paleontology has been making headlines. There's not much in addressing most of these after the fact, but there was one story that hit a nerve both personally and professionally that I felt was worth revisiting. I'm betting that the majority of what's left of my audience knows that back in January London's Natural History Museum announced that Dippy, the Diplodocus skeleton that's been the centerpiece of their main hall for nearly four decades is going to be replaced by a blue whale skeleton as part of the museum's renovation project. I've written before about the personal significance of Dippy to my own development as a paleontologist (the brief synopsis is that he was the key figure in my origin story) and so, like a whole generation of paleontologists, my first reaction was one of dismay. However, approaching things from a museological standpoint, it's not too hard to come up with a whole list of reasons why a blue whale makes for a better centerpiece. It's bigger, first of all; bigger, in fact, than any dinosaur or any other vertebrate that has ever lived (unless you buy the upper limits of the mass estimates for some sauropod species, of which it is wise to be extremely skeptical given the scrappiness of the material and the corresponding degree of extrapolation necessary in most cases). This may sound trivial, but the NHM's central hall was clearly envisioned by its founder Richard Owen and architect Alfred Waterhouse to evoke the style of Europe's great cathedrals, and it has stood the test of time as one of the most spectacular examples of monumental museum architecture in the world. Diplodocus was undeniably a big animal, but was quite svelte for its size, meaning that Dippy has always been dwarfed by his surroundings; architectural sketches seem to suggest that the whale will fill the space better. Also, Dippy hails from Wyoming, while the blue whale was found beached in Ireland, meaning that while the star of the museum's show still won't be English, it will at least be from the British Isles. Dippy, for all his fame, is a cast of a specimen housed in Pittsburgh, while the whale will be the genuine article. Even the argument that Dippy should be retained because he is the museum's traditional centerpiece don't hold water, as a whale skeleton occupied the space well before the dinosaur made its debut. And so, despite my personal attachment to Dippy, from pretty much practical and educational standpoint, the whale makes much more sense.
|Illustration of the NHM Blue Whale|
The Natural History Museum
03 July 2014
|'Giant Kangaroos & Wombats' by Charles R. Knight|
Field Museum of Natural History
15 June 2014
Courtesy International Panorama Council
- Historically interesting - The Laysan Cyclorama really got its start in 1902, when UIMNH director Charles Nutting visited the island. He was enchanted by the nesting birds he saw there and in 1911 he sent taxidermist Homer Dill on an expedition to Laysan (an expedition that was, delightfully, funded in part by proceeds from a skit put on by the football team). When the specimens collected in 1911 were put on display three years later, the cyclorama became the first exhibit in the museum to depict an entire ecosystem. This may not sound terribly remarkable, but given that Carl Akeley had only just introduced the concept of creating dioramas that represented ecological snapshots rather than simply displaying individual animals in glass cases, the Laysan Cyclorama was, in fact, part of the leading edge of a major change in the way natural history exhibits were designed.
- Scientifically important - When the UIMNH expedition visited Laysan in 1911, it was already a dying ecosystem. The introduction of rabbits to the island in 1903 wreaked havoc on the native plant, insect, and bird life. Most severely affected were the endemic species that had depended on the vegetation that was decimated by the rabbits. Three species - the Laysan rail, millerbird, and honeycreeper - went extinct and two - the Laysan finch and duck - survived but remain endangered to the present day. Specimens of these species on display in the cyclorama and preserved in the collections of the UIMNH and a handful of other museums are the last remaining evidence of the extinct birds and a source of valuable information about the surviving taxa.
- Educationally effective - The gorgeous, narrow, wood-panelled passageway that leads into the cyclorama leaves little doubt as to the vintage of the exhibit, but the display was ahead of its time in its efforts to teach visitors about the effects of human activity on island ecosystems. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about about the Laysan Cyclorama is that age has made it an even more valuable educational tool. Over the course of the intervening century, the last remaining rabbits have been extirpated from Laysan, some native species have begun to recover, and the island has become a natural laboratory for studying the ecology of island ecosystems. Instead of a window into a lost world, then, the cyclorama represents a look at the beginning of an ecological epic that continues to unfold today. The modern signage in the exhibit does a nice job showing how this story has developed since 1914 and very effectively demonstrates that ecosystems are not static and that time is an important variable in biology (a lesson near and dear to my heart as a paleontologist).
- Aesthetically pleasing - A trend in modern biodiversity exhibits is to develop large, walk-through environments rather than classic "window on the world" dioramas (and lest you all think I'm being characteristically curmudgeonly, I think this is generally a trend for the better). The cyclorama format of the Laysan exhibit anticipates the immersive exhibits of today, but it also retains the artistry and almost obsessive attention to detail that characterize the great dioramas of the early 20th Century. Dill didn't just bring back bird specimens from his expedition: he brought back sand from Laysan's beaches and rocks, which would literally form the groundwork of the exhibit. The authenticity of the cyclorama is augmented by the background mural by Charles Corwin, who was not only a talented painter but also a member of the 1911 expedition. The end product is not only very authentic, but extremely detailed (if you ever have a chance to visit, see if you can pick out the nesting sea turtle) and beautiful to look at. The intent of the exhibit was to make visitors to feel as though they'd been transported to Laysan, and the fact that it conveys that feeling even today is a testament to how well the designers succeeded.
- Unique - Other museums have dioramas depicting Pacific island rookeries (the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has a particularly impressive example), but both the cyclorama format and Laysan setting of the UIMNH exhibit make it unique. Many natural history exhibits are repeated between museums, the best example being the "African watering hole" diorama pioneered by the aforementioned Carl Akeley in Chicago and New York and then repeated ad nauseum by museums across the globe; each iteration is impressive, but the sheer number of them makes each less remarkable than it would otherwise be. The uniqueness of the Laysan Cyclorama makes it truly stand out. Not only is the exhibit groundbreaking, important, and educational, but it's something that can only be seen in Iowa, and if you're ever in the area you should do yourself a favor and pay it a visit.
As mentioned above, everyone with an opinion on such things probably has a slightly different idea of what constitutes a great natural history exhibit, and I welcome peoples' comments on favorite displays and criteria for evaluating them. However, regardless of how you judge exhibits, it's hard to imagine that anyone would find the Laysan Cyclorama to be anything less than remarkable. So, join me in wishing a Happy 100th Birthday to an exhibit that was ahead of its time, that has told generations of Iowans an important ecological parable, and that looks as good today as it did a century ago!
08 May 2014
By Mauricio Antón
04 May 2014
It's May 5th, or, if you prefer to use Spanish, el Cinco de Mayo, which means it's time for perhaps the stupidest of all "holidays" (Mexico has a cultural and historical legacy that we in the US can only dream of and yet, generally speaking, the only time we celebrate our neighbor to the south is by getting drunk on cheap margaritas, bad tequila, or Corona on what is not even a major holiday in the country the day allegedly honors). That said, there are many aspects of Mexico that deserve to be celebrated: the dazzling scientific achievements of the Maya, the monumental architecture and sculpture of the Aztecs, the stunning Baroque design of Spanish colonial buildings, and the powerful modernist art of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and their contemporaries all spring to mind. However, Mexico has a heritage that predates its oldest archaeological artifacts. I can hardly do justice to the entire Mexican fossil record in one off-the-cuff blog post, but here are some highlights of the country's 200+ million year history of vertebrates :
The oldest vertebrate fossil in Mexico (or at least the oldest that I could find in the Paleobiology Database) is a specimen of the whorl-toothed "shark" Helicoprion. Not only is the age of the specimen noteworthy, but the location from which it was recovered, in the central Mexican state of Puebla, is as far south as this most bizarre of chondrichthyans has ever been found, making it geographically superlative as well.
Puebla is also home to the most spectacularly-preserved fossils in all of Mexico. Tlayúa Quarry near Tepexi de Rodríguez represents a Cretaceous reef and preserves a primarily marine fauna, though a few terrestrial vertebrates have been found there as well. Tlayúa has drawn comparisons to Solnhofen, which is very high praise. While visiting the collections at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to be able to view some of the specimens from this site, and I can vouch for the fact that they are nothing short of spectacular. The bulk of the vertebrate fossils from the site are fish, but several reptiles have been uncovered as well. UNAM has a long-standing research program at the site and has established a museum there as well, making this one of the best-studied localities in the country. The icing on the cake of this spectacular site is that many of the new genera and species from Tlayúa have been named in Nahuatl, giving them marvelous names to match their marvelous preservation; my personal favorite is the early iguana relative Huehuecuetzpalli mixtecus.
The best place to find dinosaurs in Mexico is the north, particularly in Baja California and Coahuila. This dinosaur fauna dates to the latest Cretaceous and is dominated by hadrosaurs, some of which grew extremely large. Incidentally, if this post gets you really excited about Mexican fossils but you lack a passport or the money or time to fly south of the border, you can always check out the Fossil Mysteries exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Cretaceous section of which focuses on fossils from the Two Californias (Alta and Baja) and features an excellent mural of Mexican dinosaurs by William Stout.
Volcaniclastic sediments throughout Mexico preserve a Miocene fauna of which the most impressive and abundant members are horses. When I travelled to UNAM, it was these fossils that I was visiting, as they were part of my dissertation research on body size evolution in mammals. Interestingly, and counter to any predictions that one would make based on modern mammals, horses in central Mexico and Oaxaca were much more similar in size to those from Oregon than to those from California or Nevada (an observation for which I have - as yet - no good explanation, though it is intriguing that both landscapes are highly volcanic). However, my work is just a small, fairly inconsequential drop in the bucket of Miocene mammal studies in Mexico; the one person who has done more to fill the bucket than anyone else is Ismael Ferrusquía-Villafranca, whose lab is responsible for much, if not most, of what we know about the Mexican Neogene (who, besides being a hugely important figure in the field, also happens to be a really nice guy to whom I am still exceedingly grateful for allowing me to work with the collections he has helped amass).
When the Isthmus of Panama closed, Mexico became part of the land bridge connecting North and South America. Much of the wildlife that migrated north colonized Mexico before the rest of the continent, meaning that South American migrants such as sloths and glyptodonts are well-represented in the Mexican Pleistocene, as are native taxa such as mammoths and saber-toothed cats. This Panamerican fauna forms the bulk of the displays in the UNAM's fantastic Museo de Geología, as magnificent an example of a classic academic museum as you will find anywhere (also the home of most of the important works of José María Velasco, who really should be one of your favorite old-school paleoartists). Mexico's Pleistocene fossil record also overlaps with the country's incomparable archaeological record. To cite just two examples, a mammoth skeleton from Santa Isabel Iztapan shows evidence of butchery by humans, while a camel sacrum from Tequixquiac carved to resemble the head of a wolf or coyote represents one of the earliest works of art in Mesoamerica.
|Helicoprion by Ray Troll|
|Huehuecuetzpalli mixtecus from Reynoso 1998|
|Baja California in the Cretaceous, by William Stout|
|Mexican fossil horses, UNAM Museo de Geología|
|Mexican megafauna mural by Iker Larrauri|
Museo Nacional de Antropología
01 May 2014
|Smilodon Mosaic in the Nebraska State Capitol|
- Nebraska professor Jason Head spoke about a subject very near and dear to my heart: how the fossil record can inform models of future ecological change. Ecological niche models take the climatic conditions in which an organism lives today and use these to predict where the range of that animal might shift as climate warms in the future. However, many studies have shown that these models generally fail (sometimes spectacularly) to predict ranges of species during periods of past climate change. Jason Head's study was interesting because he used fossil occurrence data and paleoclimatic reconstructions for boid snakes to augment ecological niche models, and found that the models that included paleoecological data predicted somewhat wider ranges for rubber and rosy boas in the future than did models based purely on modern data.
- Did you know sloths have an especially high rate of dental anomalies (i.e., they frequently have either fewer or extra teeth)? I didn't until I saw Robert McAfee's talk last week. What's more, not only do living tree sloths often have abnormal numbers of teeth, but so did extinct ground sloths. In fact, McAfee suggested that rates of caniniform tooth loss in Paramylodon from Rancho La Brea were so high that the population may represent the beginning of a speciation event that was nipped in the bud by the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction.
- Joseph Peterson spoke about dinosaur paleopathology, and in particular on the use of 3D reconstructions of a hadrosaur vertebra with tooth marks on it (as well as theropod jaws) to determine the identity of the animal that bit the vertebra. Turns out it was most likely a juvenile Tyrannosaurus.
- My old officemate Jonathan Calede spoke about his dissertation work in the Cabbage Patch Beds of Montana. The Cabbage Patch Fauna (named after a bar, not the creepy dolls, to paraphrase Jonathan) has been uncovered from several sites, which Jonathan found to be broadly similar in terms of geology and quality of preservation, suggesting that any trends observed between these sites represent genuine ecological patterns rather than taphonomic bias.
- Nebraska's Shane Tucker discussed one of the coolest fossil sites of which I've ever heard: the Happy Jack Mine in the central part of the state. The tunnels of the mine intersect infilled rodent burrows from the Miocene, allowing the 3D structures of these burrows to be observed. On balance, the burrows most closely match those of ground squirrels, though gophers may have been responsible for some. Shane and George Corner also presented talks about Miocene faunas from elsewhere in the state, underscoring the absurd richness of the Nebraska fossil record.
- Ross Secord and his student Tom Baldvins both spoke about isotopic records across two important intervals of climate change: the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum and the glacial-interglacial cycles of the Pleistocene, respectively. I was particularly interested in Baldvins' talk, which showed that C4 grasses were more abundant in the northern Great Plains during interglacial periods. More intriguingly (to me, at least) his analysis of horse body size from the same sites showed a positive correlation with temperature (i.e., horses were larger in warmer climates). Always nice to see another study that shoots holes in Bergmann's Rule, though I'd be curious to see if the trend would persist with a larger sample size and using tooth-based estimates of body size.
- An entire session was devoted to the White River Group and its fossils, which was not only interesting in and of itself, but gave some great ideas for the design of the Sedimentology & Stratigraphy class I'll be teaching next year. Particularly intriguing to me was Kurt Spearing's talk on the first evidence of inner ear bones in nimravids. Ear morphology is hugely important in carnivore phylogeny, and I have high hopes that more nimravid ear ossicles will turn up in the coming years, which could potentially help determine where in the feliform tree these enigmatic animals belong.
- I also spoke at the conference (on the humerus morphology of felids and whether or not it can be used to identify the huge cat that was present in the Late Miocene of western North America), but perhaps more importantly, for the first time I had a student presenting. Laurel Perper discussed some of the early findings of our project comparing the morphology of the bizarre South American marsupial sabertooth Thylacosmilus, the subject of this month's upcoming Fossil Vertebrate of the Month feature.
|Carnivore reconstructions by Mark Marcuson|