October 31, 2008

happy halloween from the Cambrian

Pumpkin courtesy Danielle Long and Anomalocaris.

October 9, 2008

a namesake of sorts

A cranium of Protoceratops andrewsi, collected by the infamous Roy Chapman Andrews during his Mongolian adventure. He went seeking human origins, and instead came back with some of the first evidence of dinosaur nesting behavior.

You might notice something familiar in his name, but look to something even more familiar in his hat. This notorious adventurer, explorer, scientist, soldier, spy, and some would say grave-robber and thief of rare antiquities was one of the inspirations for another adventurer in a beaten fedora hat. You can either read of his excellent adventures in his own hand above, or try Charles Gallenkamp and Mike Novacek's biography of the man, Dragon Hunter.

burgessia etcetera

The Burgess shale occupies a unique location in paleontological history, and has played a significant role in both posing and answering questions for evolutionary biologists. It represents a small snapshot of life on the edge of a coastal shelf in Cambrian seas. Its discovery by Charles Walcott in the early 1900s was significant in that it was one of the first sites to yield up a large number of difficult-to-preserve soft-bodied organisms from a period when life was making the transition from simple to complex multicellular organisms. It has been referred to as a period of "biological experimentation", as evolution tossed up a number of innovative body plans, not all of which were adopted. Many of the critters uncovered are... weird... for lack of a better description. They are difficult to place within context of modern taxonomic groupings, as they are either "failed experiments" that went extinct, or their ancestors are so derived that it is almost impossible to detect the familial relationships.

Of course, many of the hypotheses set forth by the original site have now been supported or expanded by additional finds in the Chengjiang formation in China - and elsewhere around the world, but the wonder of remains are still being excavated from the original Global Heritage site that inspired so much thought.

These two creatures have wandered quite a distance from home to live in the muséum national d’Histoire naturelle:

This is Burgessia, a small and early crustacean from the eponymous shale. They probably lived a life similar to brine shrimp or krill, swimming and filter-feeding in the open ocean.

This is Naraoia, an early soft trilobite. I sometimes wish that these had not gone extinct, as I would like to try eating them. On the other hand, few folks eat horseshoe crabs, so...

It is sad to note the extensive water damage on both of the cards labeling these important fossils. All of these valuable fossils were stored in simple and poorly lit plexiglass cases, and not all of them were labeled. There were no educational or supplemental materials to really place the organisms in their evolutionary or historical context. They were simply objects to be appreciated for their natural beauty, and it was sad to see such an amazing resource callously gathering dust in an empty display case. Even my own personal collection of odds and ends from the natural world is better organized and placed in a more meaningful context.

Maybe I'll open my own museum some day.

paleontology and comparative anatomy

Of course, I ended up at the gallery of paleontology and anatomy. I suppose it says something about my person when I have but a day to explore all of Paris, and the two major sites that I visit are a library and a museum of natural history.

The museum itself is something of a wonder. It has over four hundred years of collections, brought together and studied by some of the best scientists that the world has to offer. These are amazing and historic samples in a sturdy building designed to last for the ages. They are also poorly labeled and displayed behind scratched plexiglass. The roof leaks, and samples and displays all suffer from water damage. This approach pales when compared to the educational presentation of even a modest American museum of natural history.

I suppose my father puts it best:

" As I often preach in my geology lectures, a rock is no more exciting than a page in a book. It's the story that matters, and the challenge for a museum is to tell the story (as well as warehouse data).

We've probably told you this before, but in 1976 we visited the Cairo Museum of Antiquities. It was like the government warehouse scene at the end of the original Indiana Jones -- an immensity of stuff, dimly lit, dust-covered, few labels (fewer in English). There was much of the King Tut material, what you could see of it, and endless mummies and caskets. Years later we saw a a traveling exhibit of Egyptian material including a fraction of the King Tut stuff from Cairo - but viv're la differance! It was a very well-displayed collection that really made an impression. So, there is probably a moral here somewhere, but I will settle for the thought that one good idea - well communicated - is worth more than any old box of rocks."

Emphasis and links are mine.

March 10, 2008

driven to the water's edge

I have long believed that one of the major advantages of being a geek is that it is much easier to come into contact with your heroes. As an example, this Monday, I drove off to Mote Marine to listen to science writer Carl Zimmer speak on recent developments in cetacean evolution. The talk itself was a quick layperson's review of thirty or forty years of work on the evolution of whales. Much of it focused on the developments of the last ten years, and it was well-expressed for a non-technical audience.

Of course, that wasn't really the point.

The point was getting to meet an author whose works I've been reading for a great many years, and who is good at getting his own point across. In this, the talk was another expression of his writing: to take sometimes complex and arcane science, and to boil it down to its most interesting and exciting elements. It has been fun to follow his keystrokes as he moves from subject to subject in science, first exploring evolution at the water's edge, moving on to parasites, then exploring the social history behind the discovery of the brain, and most recently, our relationship with the ubiquitous E. coli. His blog and his science columns and commentary for the New York Times and Wired Magazine are even more diverse summaries describing the state of the art in a number of different fields.

Science needs more folks like this who are capable of expressing such discoveries in a manner that is at once both entertaining and informative. The entertainment is important, for while the thrill of discovery or the intuitive leap that results in new understanding is the real joy of science, much of the everyday work is like any job: dull, repetitive - full of endless monotony as you grind towards results and conclusions that you hope will be revolutionary and new... but will probably do nothing more than continue to support existing data. Science can also be intimidating, with the primary literature full of needlessly specific technical jargon, sometimes requiring much reading through diverse and obscure papers and journals to understand a single subject.

His writing keeps science fresh, cutting through all of the hard work to the conclusions at the end of a long day (or decade) that are what really inspire scientists to keep moving. This kind of writing may go on to inspire another generation of scientists, and to develop an appreciation for and an understanding of science outside of the technical community in the same way that folks appreciate the work of a farmer, or a mechanic, a dot-com tycoon, or even a lowly politician.

That, and as a lark, he now keeps track of all of the really cool science tattoos. How can you get any more awesome than that?

February 12, 2007

know your roots

"My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known."
- attributed to the wife of the Bishop of Worcester, in reaction to the infamous debate between TH Huxley and the Bishop Wilberforce

While I do not subscribe to the "great man" theory of history, there is no question that Charles Darwin happened to be the right scientist in the right place at the right time. Spurred on to publication by Alfred Russel Wallace, the "father of biogeography", his observations from years of collected research led him to conclusions that shook the foundations of biology and the society built atop that platform. His work brought forth a mechanism by which the whole of diversity might be explained within the context of geological history. When linked to the evidence of heredity first explored by Mendel, and then confirmed at the molecular level by Watson and Crick (and Franklin!), it provided the unifying synthesis of modern biology.

As I am dedicating my life to following the science that he helped to establish, it is with some interest that I note that my own life has from time to time, accidentally fallen into Darwin's footsteps. I have touched the same armoured glyptodontids that he helped to unearth in Southern Argentina at the Museo de la Plata. I have stood in the home he kept, and looked through the study to the desk at which he wrote much of his work. Lately, I have seen the villainous vinchuca that was to bring him low in his later years with Chagas disease in a new light, and finally, I have stood atop his grave at Westminster Abbey in London.

Everyone has their heroes.

Happy Darwin Day, everybody.

September 23, 2006

rock of ages

Today was another good day. I spent most of it on a desolate and barren hillside in the middle of a gravel quarry, hunched over a mountain of clay - and armed with only a screwdriver to sift through it - but today was still a good day. I may have burned out my brain in the hot hot sun, but I was searching for buried treasure, and I found it.

We were digging in a two million year-old sinkhole that once lay at the bottom of a Florida lake. The lake acted as a funnel to the sinkhole's drain, and the depth of that hole promoted an anoxic environment, deterring further scavenging and predation. This created conditions favorable to the preservation of a large number of whole and partially articulated skeletons. You might be surprised by the diversity of life represented in this unusual watery grave - any number of things can fall in a lake and drown over a few thousand years.

Continue reading "rock of ages" »

April 4, 2006

Walking fish is harder than walking dogs, but it still beats walking sticks...

From the NYT Science section:

Fossil Called Missing Link From Sea to Land Animals
Scientists found evidence of limbs in the making in the 375-million-year-old fish's forward fins.

The funny thing is that in an interview I listened to on NPR yesterday, one of the scientists mentioned that he hated hearing finds such as this described as "the missing link", because it is merely one missing piece in a long chain of missing pieces, and furthermore, it does not actually represent an ancestral state within a linear progression towards tetrapody and eventually humanity. It is unquestionably a branch that shares ancestors with the line that would lead to amphibians, but its large size, developed neck, and the migration of eyeballs to the top of its head imply that the process towards terrestrialization had already been underway for some evolutionary time.

The other funny bits come later in the article when discussing the relevance of 'transitional forms' to Creation-"Science". There is an argument lifted reducto ad absurdum about how finding this fossil only proves the need to find intermediaries between this 'half-way point' and the next... or to point out that even if amphibians are descended from fish, you still can't demonstrate that fish are descendants of invertebrates, but I suppose that they haven't heard of Pikia...

Last but not least, the idea of giant killer salamanders always brings a smile to my face.
Then I think about the vicious and voracious tiger salamanders I had as a kid, and suddenly I am maybe not smiling so much anymore...

September 9, 2005

Island in the Sky

It was decided that in order to visit the Kenslers again, Island in the Sky would have to be tackled at a dead run, taking the shortest hikes to the best views recommended by the local Park Rangers. This is a shame because there are some truly amazing vistas to be seen, and we would miss some great hikes that lead to a number of native ruins.

We did take the time to stop by a local geological controversy: the infamous "Uplift Dome". One can see from the surface that this strange site contains rock discontinuous with that in the rest of the park: the stone flows have been twisted in concentric rings, and these are the only tilted strata in the area. Geologists disagree whether this appearance was created by a salt dome pushing up from an ancient sea that has since eroded away to reveal only the rising core, or if perhaps these convolutions are the last remains of a heavily eroded meteor crater.

My father, resident geological authority, dismisses the ancient meteor impact-site theory as so much nonsense. Academic controversy thus observed, we continue onwards and spend some time staring over the edges of many sharp cliffs.

It can not be stated enough that this place really is an Island in the Sky - an uplifting of elemental earth into the airy heights - it feels like one is looking down onto the landscape as if from an airplane. Perhaps this was the first chance for many of our pre-flight predecessors to truly feel that they were flying without ever actually leaving the ground.

September 7, 2005

Delicate Arch

The trail to the Delicate Arch is only a mile and a half, which is no distance at all to travel - but much of it runs up a steep slickrock slope with only the occasional stunted juniper tree for cover from the face of the sun.

The trailhead begins at Wolfe Ranch. Old man Wolfe came out here to raise a few cattle and to recover from a leg wound he earned during the Civil War. He wintered with his cattle and his demons beside a small creek for years until his children came to visit him, and found conditions "so hellish and primitive" that they forcibly removed John Wesley Wolfe to Pennsylvannia to live out his remaining days in relative rural comfort. Wolfe had other reasons for staying: a short detour away from the main trail and the tiny ranch lies a rock face with a well-preserved set of petroglyphs estimated to be at least four-hundred years old.

This is a relative estimation based on the appearance of horses (absent in North America until the Spaniards released an invasive population) in the image; glyphs are near-impossible to date accurately by non-correlative means. This is because they are carved into the surface of the rock, etching away the thin layer of desert varnish to reveal the more colorful sandstone below. They use no pigment with organic components whose isotopic content or predictable decay might be used as a sort of clock. Even the varnish itself proves an unpredictable clock, the rate of its glacial and irregular growth dependent upon microenvironmental variation.

The first stretch of the hike up to the arch is a half mile across lowlands, and in spite of the growing heat of the day proves merely invigorating. The occasional boulder or sprawling juniper provides a spot of shade every hundred yards . As the second third of our journey begins, our path starts to get vertical. The grade rises precipitously on bare slickrock, and there is no pity from the merciless sun. Depending on how healthy you are, this stretch can prove from fifteen to thirty minutes in hell, but you do get an excellent view of the surrounding plateau. Looking out over the crumbling fossil sand dunes to the East will provide a direct line of sight to the La Sal range of mountains. Should you ever become lost in the high desert of the arches, this is an important landmark - a line of sight to La Sal means that you may be able to get a signal out with your cell phone to call for help before your water runs out.

We follow a trail up the side of the dune where rain has gradually eroded a channel into the side of the stone. Throughout our ascent, we see patches where these cracks have been filled by lichen who continue to break down the rock, releasing minerals and providing small traps for sand and nutrients - and even a little water. These pockets allow for a sandy soil for a few hardy plants to thrust their roots into, and give the incredibly durable and tough desert juniper a chance to grow - casting a little shade, and trapping just a little more moisture. Soon, small bushes and a few grasses grow, providing more nutrients to small herbivores like rabbits and ground squirrels - who provide further nutrients to those plants in decay, and to higher predators such as coyotes and hawks... creating a complete successional ecology on the side of an otherwise barren stone slope.

I am glad that we are not climbing this hill in the rain - as stated yesterday, wet slickrock deserves its name, and this channel is long and deep and water presumably comes pouring down off this hill in a great rushing torrent. Once you approach the top, a path has been carved into the side of the last sand fin before the monument. This trail should remain shaded for most of the day, and the broad path prevents one from falling more than a hundred feet down the sheer edge of the fin to water the desert below.

As you walk around the edge of this final rock wall, you may turn to your right and see what makes this entire climb worthwhile:

An amazing piece of geology.

Take the time to carefully walk around the bowl of the auditorium, and stand at its base.

Revere the awesome elegance of transient nature, slow sculptor of man and stone.

Then leave the irreverent part of me that plays Halo on some weeknights to wonder: "if I ran to the top, would I still find the rocket launcher?"

September 6, 2005

The Arches

The Arches is but a hop, a skip, and a jump outside of Moab proper.

Before I begin my discussion of the park, perhaps a short lesson in geology is appropriate. All of Utah was once part of a great sweeping desert in the early Jurassic, an series of steadily rolling dunes great enough to bury our own contemporary Sahel. These endless sandy dunes would form the mottled grey sandstone of the Navajo formation that underlies the park and much of the Colorado Plateau. A broad, shallow river would eventually wend its way between the dunes through the heart of this ancient desert, pushing slow rippled layers of yellowed silt into what would become the sandstone of the lower Entrada. It would be followed by the iron-tainted silica that gave the sandstone of the upper Entrada its warm red tint. Collectively, these strata are known as 'slickrock', and it is within these layers that we find the arches of the eponymous park.

I love slickrock. As it is built of fossilized sand-dunes, it has amazing traction, and I could run and jump carefree up and down their weird slopes all day long. That said, when wet, slickrock can truly earn its name - and it also occasionally peels off of the basal strata in small narrow sheets, like subscription cards falling from a magazine. If one is not careful, you might find yourself suddenly slipping down the hillside as your footing dances out from beneath you, and a spill upon slickrock is akin to dragging oneself along five or six feet of low-grade sandpaper. One learns to listen for a hollow drumming sound as you put your foot down, as this indicates a sheet eroding away from the main body... but frequent visitors bear the broad pink scars of their road rash as a masochistic badge of pride.

On our way into the park, we pass a small group of female and juvenile bighorn sheep grazing on the side of the the road. As the road into the park is surprisingly busy, and as I had expected them to be more prevalent within the park, we did not photograph them. I now regret that we did not stop to photograph the small herd, as they are far more uncommon than presumed. They are rare and secretive animals, usually avoiding the bustle of humanity, and this was to be our only encounter with the ungulates for the whole trip.

September 5, 2005


We followed the interstate down the path opened by the Wasatch fault, stopping briefly in Price, Utah to visit two locales of international renoun.

Our first visit was to the emergency room that once cared for myself and three other travelers, seven long years ago. It was during the return leg of our March 1998 Spring Break road trip to the Western Coast that a careless jackrabbit leapt out into our headlights, and into destiny. It left the four of us suspended upside-down in a ditch: Roy Huggins blind in one eye and bleeding, Elizabeth Tweig concussed with a series of scratches on her head that mysteriously parallel my front teeth, myself concussed with shattered sinuses, and Sarah Olivieri... with a broken fingernail. The Castleview Hospital's emergency room is still right where it used to be, and still ready to take in all visitors at all hours, no matter how far away, or how serious the car wreck.

The second locale was of no less significance, but of greater personal interest. Price, Utah also happens to be home to one of the best dinosaur collections in the world. The College of Eastern Utah maintains a Prehistoric Museum sampling the paleontology and archaeology of the area. This tiny museum in this tiny town is home to some of the richest fossil beds in the world, and as a result, the local natural history museum is better stocked than the collections of many larger cities.

It is unusual returning to this place. The last time I was here, I was still somewhat concussed and using an old pair of glasses that my mother had thought to bring to replace the pair I had lost on the roadside. Between the persistent wooziness and a prescription nearly two years out of date, my memories of the time spent there are a little softer around the edges than usual.

The museum does not appear to have changed substantially in the seven years we have been apart, but many things which were once hidden are now visible. The Utahraptor, once trapped within the matrix of rock that held it, was now free to terrorize the coastal plains running along the Western Interior Sea of North America once more. When last I visited, the Utahraptor had just been revealed to the world in a rare example of science following art: until their discovery, the only members of the Dromeosauridae clan known to be that large hailed from the Steven Spielberg cinematic adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel, Jurassic Park.

In another odd twist of fate, and more proof that the world is a smaller place than one might initially suspect, it turns out that Reese Barrick, a paleontologist I had once hoped would be my advisor at NCSU, had also ended up at this spectacular museum as a curator. As we leave, it occurs to me that I too could settle here and be happy.