26 June 2009

Paleo Road Trip '09: NAPC & Cincinnati

If I were more on the ball - or had an audience that I didn't think would be bored to tears by it - I would give a blow-by-blow overview of some of the research presented at the North American Paleontology Conference at the University of Cincinnati. There were several noteworthy talks, including a few session related to the public dissemination of paleontology, one of the most neglected and essential topics in any field of science. There were also several talks by friends of mine from Bristol and elsewhere in the world of paleontology, but rather than go into excruciating detail, if you really want to know about the talks at the meeting, I'll refer you to the abstract volume here. In general, it was a good conference, and certainly a change of pace from what I'm used to at the somewhat more formal annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. It was also nice (and cheap!) to be put up in university which, while a bit on the institutional side, at least had an excellent view.Cincinnati was an interesting choice for a host city. I'd only ever been once before and remembered it being fairly unremarkable; that impression was borne out on this trip, but given that most people I know seem to actively dislike Cincinnati, I feel the need to stand up for it. It's true that the city has segregation issues, an apparent total lack of civic planning, and that Skyline Chili is not quite as great as it's made out to be. On the other hand, it has several things going for it. It has some really nice old neighborhoods, some gorgeous parks, a great zoo, and a baseball stadium right on the banks of the Ohio River.
The University of Cincinnati, where I spent most of my time, is one of the odder campuses out there, and like the city itself it inspires ambivalence. Much of the architecture on campus is very recent, and in some cases the results are very nice. However, in many cases the new building were constructed around the shells of older halls, which does nothing to dispel the university's odd vibe. Add to this some of the other unusual landscaping and architectural choices made by UC planners - the location of the football stadium directly in the middle of campus and the presence of dorms in the athletic center, for example - and you can see what I mean when I say it's a somewhat weird place. That said, I thought it was a pretty nice campus all in all; they've got a great music department, and I generally heard students practicing en route to the conference each day. There were lots of restaurants and shops around, as well as a couple of really good bars (one an outdoor beer garden, one an archetypal college pub, complete with shuffleboard). If campus itself got boring, there were some nice old neighborhoods and parks immediately to the north. The point of all this is that Cincinnati and its university probably don't deserve the negative reputation that seems to dog them. Neither may be the most exciting of its kind out there, but there are far worse places to find yourself on a sunny June day.

19 June 2009

Paleo Road Trip '09: Lincoln

I've stopped in Lincoln several times on my road trips across the country, and on my very first trip I realized that it makes an excellent home-away-from-home for two reasons. First, it is the only place in the Northern Plains where you can reliably get dinner after 8:00. In fact, you can get some really good food there, particularly around the Haymarket district. This is a product, of course, of Lincoln being the college town to end all college towns, giving it a cosmopolitan air of a city several times its size. Case in point: Omaha is a much larger city less than an hour down the road, and it is certainly more of an economic powerhouse, but while it's not a bad place, it is something of a cultural wasteland. It is, to be fair, home of the College World Series and one of the nation's best zoos, but force me to choose between the two and I'll choose Lincoln 10 times out of 10. It was, in fact, Lincoln that taught me the valuable lesson that road trips are best broken up as legs between college towns, which has made my many cross-country excursions over the years much more enjoyable.
The other reason I have always had a fondness for Lincoln is what brought me to town this summer: it's home to one of the best - if most overlooked - paleontology museums in the US. As I noted in my last post, Nebraska is probably the best part of the world in which to find Miocene mammals, and the University of Nebraska State Museum reflects this rich fossil record spectacularly. It has case upon case of horse, rhino, and camel skeletons, but somewhat counterintuitively, the real reason paleontologists should take the time to visit Lincoln is their collection of fossil elephants and elephant relatives, which is the largest in the world and includes the largest mammoth I've ever seen (which is, not coincidentally, the state fossil of Nebraska).
Of course, nowhere is perfect, and I happened to arrive in Lincoln at the same time as a fairly formidable storm front with some equally formidable tornadoes in tow. As noted before, I'm not a big fan of thunderstorms, and that goes double when those storms blot out the sun between the Missouri and the Wabash. Still, there are only so many ways of getting to Cincinnati from Lincoln, and the end of the first stage of my trip was destined to be made in the company of lightning, thunder, and blindingly heavy rain.

16 June 2009

Paleo Road Trip '09: The Oregon Trail

This blog didn't get its title because 'The Oregon Trail' was the first name to spring to mind. Or rather, it was the first name to spring to mind for a good reason. When you grow up in the South, I'm told, your history classes revolve around the Civil War. In the Northeast, you get a heavy helping of the American Revolution. Presumably, Californian children are all conversant about the Camino Real and the Gold Rush. In the Northwest, we learn about trails. Two trails, to be precise: the one blazed by Lewis and Clark and the route followed by overland immigrants to the promised land of the Willamette Valley. It's quite a testament to the Northwest that people wanted to get there so badly they were willing to risk life and limb (from bears and Indians in the case of Lewis and Clark, from snakes and dysentery on the part of the settlers) to get there. Of course, both trails were blazed across landscapes far different from the lush river valleys and dense forests of Oregon and Washington. One of the most storied parts of the Oregon Trail lay nearly 2000 miles to the east, in the western half of Nebraska. This is where the emigrants first saw significant topography along the trail. They were still out of sight of the Rocky Mountains, but over millions of years the Platte River has carved the sandstones along its banks into convoluted hills and bluffs that would become among the trail's most recognizable landmarks. The two most famous of these (intimately familiar to anyone who played the Oregon Trail computer game as kids) were Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff. Given that I had a full day to get between Laramie and Lincoln, I couldn't pass up the chance to swing a little bit out of my way and acquaint myself with these monoliths in person. Chimney Rock is a state symbol of Nebraska and certainly the more bizarrely shaped of the two, but if you find yourself in the area and only have time to see one, by all means go to Scott's Bluff. You can drive or hike to the top, and it's well worth the trip, because the views are expansive and absolutely gorgeous. On top of that, the area has some really interesting plant life, with flora that would look more at home somewhere in the Southwest than in the Great Plains.
Of course, there's another reason to make the trip to the Nebraska panhandle, provided at least you have an interest in fossils. I waxed ecstatic in earlier posts about the Eocene fossils of Wyoming, but if you, like me, are more interested in the fauna of the Oligocene and Miocene, there's no place like Nebraska. Every town you pass through seems to have some formation, fauna, age, or at least species named after it: Gering, Scottsbluff, Bridgeport, and so on ad nauseum. People don't tend to think of Nebraska as a paleontological mecca, but it really is. I only regret that time didn't allow for me to visit Agate Fossil Beds up the road, source of copious numbers of fossils of the bizarre perissodactyl Moropus and the gigantic, piglike entelodont Dinohyus. As it was, I had to get back on the road to get to Lincoln, one of my favorite homes-away-from-home.

15 June 2009

Paleo Road Trip '09: Laramie

The state quarter for Wyoming is one of the simpler coins in the series: a bronco-riding cowboy and the motto 'The Equality State.' The slogan is a tip of the hat to Wyoming's status as the first state to allow women the vote, and while that's certainly something to be proud of, the cowboy is really the more accurate symbol of the state. Other states may lay a louder claim to the cowboy mythos, but nowhere in the country is the Wild West still as palpably alive as in Wyoming. It's one of my favorite things about the state; while I may disagree politically with your average Wyomingite (don't forget that this is the state that gave us Dick Cheney), but I appreciate genuineness, and there can be no doubt that the genuine frontier spirit is alive and well here. As one of Wyoming's more prominent cities, you might expect Laramie to be a microcosm of the still-Wild West. However, it's also the site of the state university and as such has a more cosmopolitan atmosphere than even Cheyenne, its much larger neighbor to the east. If I had any doubts that I would enjoy my brief visit to Laramie, they dissipated when I drove into town to find that the university hosts public radio stations playing both jazz and classical music (this puts it one solid step ahead of Eugene which, despite its somewhat pompous claims to cultural prominence, is a wasteland when it comes to jazz on the radio). Besides just having impeccable taste in music, Laramites enjoy one of the nicest and most architecturally unified campuses around, views of some of the more spectacular peaks of the Rockies, and a downtown full of old buildings and good restaurants. One of those restaurants is even vegetarian, but one really has to pity anyone who would voluntarily deprive themselves of some of the world's best beef straight from the source. Say what you will about cowboys, but they certainly know how to do steak right.

Save the UW Geology Museum

It is, of course, stating the obvious to point out that these are economically difficult times. Everyone is feeling the pinch, and universities are no exception. Sadly, I have found myself in Laramie not long after the University of Wyoming has announced several budget cuts and that prominent among them is the closure of the Museum of Geology. This has, not surprisingly, created an uproar in the paleontological community, as the primary focus of the museum is the state's fossil record. Many people have pointed out that the museum's operating costs are small relative to the university's overall budget. They have pointed out that Brent Breithaupt (one of paleontology's true characters, as anyone who has attended an SVP auction can attest) will be out of a job. They have pointed out that the museum is one of the largest and most important in the Mountain West, that it is home of one of only five Apatosaurus skeletons anywhere in the world and of "Big Al," the only Allosaurus ever to get its own program on BBC and one of the most well-known and remarkable dinosaur fossils anywhere. All of these are excellent points, but I'd like to approach the issue from a slightly different angle.
The American West in general is justifiably famous for its paleontological resources, but even by the standards of this mother lode of fossils Wyoming stands alone. It is most famous for its dinosaurs. Ask anyone what their favorite dinosaur was as a child, and it will almost certainly be from Wyoming: Apatosaurus, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and Tyrannosaurus are all local products. The Wyoming record of Cenozoic vertebrates is equally rich. The database I've been compiling as part of my dissertation research is full of specimens from the eastern part of the state, where some of the world's finest Miocene mammal faunas have been uncovered. Spectacular as these faunas are, they pale in comparison to those from a few million years earlier and a few hundred miles to the east in the Bridger Basin, home of what is probably the best sequence of Paleoecene and Eocene beds on the planet. Fossils here are not just plentiful, they are gorgeous. Herring-like fish from the Green River Formation are preserved in the millions and in exquisite detail, along with crocodiles, stingrays, birds, gars, bats, and other Eocene lake dwellers. Go to any of the great museums out east, and you will see fossils from Wyoming. You will see lots of them, because there are few - if any - places on Earth with as rich a paleontological heritage.
By deciding to close down the UW Geology Museum, the university has turned its back on this heritage. Knowing that their state has produced a fossil bestiary more spectacular and more diverse than those of most countries should be a point of pride for Wyomingites. The museum has, until now, done an admirable job inspiring interest in and teaching about the state's fossil record. It has shown generations of visitors that the land on which they live is not only gorgeous and unique now, but has been for millions of years, and that Wyoming's celebrated wildlife is heir to a long and spectacular tradition. If the museum closes, it won't just be the university that feels its loss; a truly important public institution and point of state pride will have disappeared.
The museum has put together a petition, if you're interested in doing something to try to counteract the university's mistake. I particularly urge paleontologists to make their voices heard; even if you have no connection to the UW museum, I know we all care too much about the future of our field to see a precedent like this set.

Paleo Road Trip '09: The Road to Laramie

As many of you know, I left Eugene on Saturday on a 3-week trip to Cincinnati and points between. The main purpose of my trip is to attend (and present at) the North American Paleontological Convention, but I'll be doing dissertation research at points along the way. This old blog has run fallow of late, so I thought that posting about my various stops along the way would be a good way of clearing out the cobwebs (you see, I'm so out of shape writing-wise that I'm using mixed metaphors; dear me...). I'll also be posting photos here. So, stay tuned: it should be an interesting ride.
I'm writing this from my first waypoint, Laramie, Wyoming (more about it in a later post), home of the University of Wyoming's vertebrate fossil collection (more about that later on, too). The drive here was one of the longest I'll be doing this entire trip, and it's a real shame I only had two days to do it. It's also a shame that the Mountain West has been experiencing one of its more protracted periods of thunderstorms in some time. Of course, I'm sure many of you are probably pretty jealous of this, but I was never much of a storm-chaser. To be sure, there is something breathtaking about seeing an impossibly dark cloud looming above the Rocky Mountains and to see the flashes of thunderbolts crashing all around you. Usually, I'm all for experiencing nature at its most sublime (a word that, as always, I use in its original sense, not the watered down version that's bandied about so much these days), and I think it's healthy to be reminded of just how small and insignificant you are from time to time. Thunderstorms, though, tend to impress me more with terror than with awe (other members of the Hopkins Lab will vouch for just how nervous I got when storm clouds hove into view during field work last summer). To me there is just something fundamentally wrong about a weather system that can simultaneously start flash floods and fire. Give me good, old-fashioned grey skies and a persistent drizzle any day.
That whining aside, there is one more thing worth mentioning briefly about my drive to Laramie. On several previous road trips, I've passed near Promontory, Utah, but had never stopped (part of the reason for this is that no one in my family has ever been too keen on spending money in the Beehive State for fear that a good chunk of any taxes you pay here will find their way to the Mormons). Still, as one of those kids who grew up loving all things train-related, Promontory has always had a strong attraction. As I'm sure everyone remembers from their history books, that was where Leland Stanford drove in the "Golden Spike" in 1869, joining his Southern Pacific Railroad to the Union Pacific and creating the first transcontinental railroad line. It's hard to overstate the importance of this event in the history of Westward Expansion: it pretty effectively marks the end of the age of mountain men and emigrant trails and the beginning what people tend to think of as the Wild West. As both a train and Western history buff, the allure proved just too much to ignore this time. I was a little disappointed to learn that the spike itself is back in California, and I also happened to arrive at a time of day during which there were no programs going on, so I'll confess the overall effect was a little underwhelming. Still, if you like your old steam locomotives, the park has two spectacularly restored examples (which I'm told they run a few times each day, sadly none of which was anywhere near the time I was around) and it's always worth seeing the spot where such an epochal event took place. It also gives you a chance to see some of the bird life that shows up this time of year at the north end of the Great Salt Lake (which, incidentally, manages to break several laws of physics by somehow being flatter than other bodies of water).
The thunderstorm-ridden drive across southern was unremarkable, but by way of a segue to my next post, I'd just like to briefly mention that it crosses the Bridger Basin. That name most likely doesn't ring a bell, but it would if you were a paleontologist. One of the great joys of traveling through this part of the country as a paleontologist is that you are continually encountering place names that are very familiar to you and your colleagues, to locals, and to absolutely no one else anywhere in the world. I imagine that if you study the Eocene, going to southeast Wyoming - and in particular, passing through Fort Bridger and Green River - must feel like coming home. Given that I've rambled on longer than I intended too already, I won't go into much detail on the historical and scientific significance of the Eocene beds of the Bridger Basin, but suffice it to say that they account for much of what we know about life on Earth between about 75 and 40 million years ago, and that many of the biggest names in paleontology have worked there. The same could be said for the Jurassic beds to the east or the Miocene beds near the Nebraska border. In short, there are few places on Earth as fossiliferous as Wyoming, a fact that you would think would make anyone proud. Turns out, though, that now is not a great time to be a paleontologist in the Equality State.