Monday, October 24, 2016

Field Work Fail: For Want of a Flashlight

Hello Dear Readers!

The Strange Woman has been very busy as of late: collecting additional data for a paper that is the second to last paper to come out of my doctoral thesis. These last two papers are the result of the data at the end of my analyses showing me something cool that I had no time to expand on for the thesis. Sometimes research does that to you: sometimes discoveries have their own schedule. I'm also doing other things that I'll hopefully be able to write about in the future. Right now I'm in finger-cross mode with those things.

This is to say that I am still not ready to post the results of our summer's work at the Six Peaks Dinosaur Track Site. What I can do is show you a video we had done on the site. Here is a teaser for you!



I will share a dinosaur track field work story with you. This one dates back to 2011, and tells the tale of how we spent the night in a pile of leaves at the end of October in northeastern British Columbia.

***

The best laid plans of rodents and researchers...

Fieldwork in the Peace Region of British Columbia is not simple under the best of conditions, with the best conditions being fair weather in mid-summer. There are practical reasons for this. Materials don’t set well in cold or wet conditions. The ground is either too wet (for the spring) or too frozen (for the fall and winter) to safely remove fossils. Many times the weather renders the conditions too dangerous for field crews. This is why the paleontology research field season is short in the North. The PRPRC’s typical field season runs from June-September. If the snow and sub-freezing temperatures permit it, we’ll do short excursions well into the first half of October. It’s an exceptional discovery that will bring us into the field in end October or early November.

This is the story of one such exceptional discovery.

The site was discovered by a regional guide-outfitter, Aaron Fredlund, in 2011. He had come across a small exposure of grey sandstone sticking out from under a hill of Ice Age silt, mud, and boulders. Being an experienced tracker of modern animals, it didn’t take Mr. Fredlund long to notice the large, three-toed footprint and identify it as the track of a large meat-eating dinosaur. It also didn’t take him long to reason that, if he cleared some of the debris off of the rock in front of the footprint, a second footprint could be uncovered. He was correct. The two images were immediately reported to me, Dr. Richard McCrea, and Dr. Charles Helm. A combination of the track type (large theropod) and the age of the rocks (Late Cretaceous, approximately 72 million years old) led us to identify these footprints as those of tyrannosaurs!

Tyrannosaur footprints were not unknown to science: “singleton” footprints have been reported from the Late Cretaceous (Campanian - Maastrichtian) deposits from the US, Canada, and Mongolia. However, what palaeontologists were missing was a trackway: a series of footprints made by one animal. Isolated footprints are like finding an isolated dinosaur bone, while trackways are like finding a complete skeleton. A trackway of a tyrannosaur would provide a tonne (pun completely intended) of information on how this tyrannosaur moved when it was alive. Tyrannosaurs are the best-known dinosaur predator, but their footprints were the least well-known. This site had the potential to change all that.

At the time of reporting, both Rich and I were out of town. Charles made a visit to the site with Mr. Fredlund in our absence so he could report site conditions and access. There was no GPS data taken during the visit (one of those frustrating “I can take you right to the site” situations), Charles reported from the site visit that the locality was both treacherous and tricky to access, and would require an ATV to haul in the research equipment safely. In short, we would need a guide.

Fast forward to October 23, 2011. Charles had a break in his busy schedule to visit the site with us. This was our only opportunity to get the site documented and replicated before the end of 2011. We were starting to head into winter: there was no snow yet, but the daytime temperatures were not above 10°C, and the nighttime temperatures were hovering around and just below 0°C. We could not physically remove the trackway, so we had to make a silicone mould (or peel) that would be used to make an exact replica that could be housed (and studied) inside during the winter. As difficult as fieldwork is, cold exacerbates all difficulties. Since silicone doesn’t set up in cold settings, we had to both mould the trackway and heat the silicone so that it would cure properly. This was a large trackway: the two exposed footprints covered a distance of over 2 meters long, and almost a meter wide. We would need A LOT of silicone. Silicone is an expensive molding material, but this site was worth it.

We spent that week gathering silicone, mixing buckets, brooms, brushes, documenting equipment, and all of the gear we would need to keep the silicone peel warm enough to set: tarps, propane tanks and heaters. Me, Rich, and our field technician Tammy Pigeon had all of the field gear ready to go and loaded into the ATV on Friday. We were scheduled to leave Sunday, so we thought we had a full day (Saturday, October 23) to gather our personal field gear, which had been all packed away for the winter.

We got a call early Saturday morning. Charles’ schedule had changed: could we possibly head to the site that morning? We scrambled to throw together our personal field gear. An hour later we were ready to go...or, at least, we thought we were ready.

Cue ominous music.

We followed Charles out to the “trail head”: a labyrinthine series of decommissioned logging roads long overgrown with dense brush. We scouted the best path for the gear-laden ATV among the bogs, pits, and tumbles of burnt log piles. After a long while we reached the top of the hill: at the bottom of the steep slope was the humble little rock exposure containing the tracks of one of the most famous and charismatic predators ever known.

NOTE: there will be very few pictures of the trail down to the site and of the overall site. This site is still vulnerable to vandalism and general people nastiness that all of our publicly accessible sites have experienced. The selfish actions of a few do ruin things for the many.

Once we uncovered the camouflaging coating of rubble from the track surface, Tammy and I set to readying the track surface for the silicone mould. We were expecting to have to do a bit of digging, brushing, and wiping. What we were not expecting was to have to clean a 30 cm layer of kaolinite (clay) out from the all of the nooks and crannies of the footprints. This clay was stubborn: it required several washes and (soft) scrubbings before all of the clay was removed from the footprints. Removing the clay coating from the surface revealed small skin impressions that we would have never seen (or moulded) had the footprints remained “dirty”.

As frustrating as the clay was to clean out of the skin impressions, it was very exciting to see: this type of clay forms from volcanic ash falling onto the footprints soon after they were made. This told us that the weather patterns were right for a volcanic ash layer to fall on northeastern British Columbia 72 - 74 million years ago. Perhaps our tyrannosaur actually saw the glow of the eruption? We’ll never know, but it is fun to imagine.

The track surface cleaning took a long time. In the meantime, Charles and Rich moved the research and moulding equipment to the site by easing the AVT down the hill. What goes down was not going back up: the hill was too steep for the ATV to make a return trip using that route, but we had planned for this: an alternate route was mapped out using Google Earth for our regress. Rich calculated where the third footprint in the series would be if it were preserved. If you know approximately how long of a step the trackmaker was taking, which we had from Footprint #1 and Footprint #2, you can figure out where Footprint #3 would be, even if it is still covered in rubble. Charles and Rich began excavating at the base of the hill to search for the third footprint, and successfully uncovered it!

The first tyrannosaur trackway. a) The second footprint in the trackway. b) The exposed trackway. You can see, way at the end of the trackway, the pale clay layer that we had to clean out of the footprints. Modified from Figure 2 of McCrea et al. (2014).
While Tammy and I began the detail cleaning of Footprint #3, Rich got to work documenting the exposed trackway. This is when he noticed something odd about this trackway. The Footprint #1 made by the left foot, was a little damaged by weathering. The inner toe (digit II) was not completely preserved: it seemed too short. Footprint #2, from the tyrannosaur’s right foot, was uncovered by Mr. Fredlund, and all of the toes were beautifully preserved. When we finished cleaning out Footprint #3, made again by the left foot of the tyrannosaur, we saw that digit II was too short on this footprint. This was not damage due to weathering: this animal was missing the end of its inner toe! This is called a pathological footprint: check out McCrea et al. (2015) for a detailed description of injuries seen in dinosaur footprints.

Figure 7 of McCrea et al. (2014), photogrammetric rendering of the first tyrannosaur trackway. You can see the consistently missing digit II impression. I might call this specimen "Stumpy".

Charles had to leave the site around 3pm. That was when we were finally ready to start the silicone mould. Silicone is easy to mix by hand in small quantities at room temperature. However, I had to mix large batches at around 5C. Silicone is very, very stiff when it’s cold: it’s like trying to stir molasses or all-natural peanut butter that has been sitting in the fridge. Silicone also doesn’t set properly if the catalyst and reagent aren’t thoroughly mixed: it just stays a gloopy, slimy mess.

There is another drawback to late year fieldwork: the lack of daylight. The light and temperature started to drop as I stirred, and stirred, and stirred. Each batch took about half an hour to properly mix, and then another half an hour to pour. By the time we had mixed and poured four batches of silicone, and had set up the heating tent over the silicone peel, it was 6:30pm and dark. Ice had started to form on standing pools of water. Our breath frosted in the air. It was going to be a cold, clear evening.

This is when we discovered just how rushed we were when packing our personal field gear. We had food, guide tarps, GPS, satellite phone, and warm(ish) clothing, but we had forgotten one crucial piece: The Flashlight. We weren’t initially concerned: Rich had mapped out a seismic cut line that we could use with the ATV (which has headlights) to get back to the field vehicle. It was a slow, bone-jarring trip through the dark wilderness, but we reached the opening to the cutline. We were home free...

...or not. Between Google Maps taking the images of this route and our escape (about two years), a beaver had made a dam, turning what would have been a steep but manageable slope into a large pond abutting a steep grade. There was no way to drive around the pond. After expressing a few non-printable words towards beavers and all of their kin, and finding out that similar access points were also cut off, we made our slow creeping way back to the track site.

Bwaahaahaa! Image link.
We returned to the site around 11:30pm. After checking that the heating system for the silicone peel was still working, we surveyed our possible lighting resources. GPS screens emit light, but not enough light to hike through the woods. Makeshift torches of burlap do not work unless you can soak the ends in pitch. We had gasoline, but that burned too quickly for a consistent light source. None of the screens on our 2011 flip phones gave enough light to safely hike by (this was before phones with flashlight apps). The Moon was not full enough to hike by, and our trail was treacherous even in full daylight. We had no choice: we were stuck for the night at the track site.

I called Charles on the satellite phone to let him know our situation. The phone made an unstable connection, and all I could get out was “Hi Charles, we’re OK, but stuck at the site for the night...” when the connection broke. Satellite phones are great for remote field work, but at that particular time our satellite coverage was poor, and we were in a canyon. What I had wanted to tell Charles was that we were stuck for the night, but could wait until dawn to make our way back to the truck.

We assessed our emergency camping options. We set up our first camp on an open patch of ground, with our backs to the ATV and facing a nice fire. We used our backpacks in place of a ground pad, and huddled under the guide tarp. We were fine here until the winds shifted direction. The ground cooled and sucked the warmth right out of us. We then moved our makeshift camp into the shelter of the woods. While Rich cleared a safe area for a fire, Tammy and I built a huge pile of dried leaves. Once the fire was going we burrowed into the leaf pile and pulled the guide tarp over us.

I actually fell asleep. I can sleep in just about any situation, and after the long day and finally being warm and comfortable, I slept like one of the rotten logs on the ground next to us. All of a sudden my lovely sleep was interrupted by loud crashing down the hill and shouting. It was an unexpected rescue party! When I had called Charles, he interpreted the call as a “please come rescue us” call. After letting people in town know we were safe, he, Thomas Clarke, and Pearl the Helm Dog hiked along that horrendous trail in the dead of night to bring us home. They reached our campsite around 3:30am.

My first emotion? I will admit that it was annoyance at having been woken up (this will be the first time Charles will hear this confession). I was prepared to sleep for another couple of hours. Part of my brain wanted me to grumble “Go away!” I was the only one thinking that: Tammy admitted to feeling quite chilled and uncomfortable. We extinguished our fire, packed up our gear, and followed the lights of our rescuers back to the truck.

There, sitting on the front seat to add insult to injury, was a flashlight that had fallen out of one of our backpacks.

Every field bag and field jacket that I own now sports this teeny little flashlight. Lesson learned.
This trackway was well worth the unexpected overnight camping trip. Later visits to the site in 2012 and 2013 gave us time to clear off more of the track surface, revealing two more tyrannosaur trackways. All three trackways were walking at a leisurely pace (between 6.4 and 8.5 km/h) in the same direction and were spaced evenly apart (about 3 m). We were also able to figure out approximately how old the track-makers’ were when they made their journey from present-day British Columbia to Alberta: the track-makers were between 25 and 29 years old. This may sound young to us, but this is close to the upper age range known for Albertosaurus sarcophagus (Erikson et al. 2010). 

Figure 3 of McCrea et al. (2014). I'm working on cleaning out one of three trackways, and cursing at clay.
This site told us several things: 1) that tyrannosaurs spent time in northeastern British Columbia, 2) how tyrannosaurs walked and moved their feet when they walked, and 3) that adult tyrannosaurs, despite evidence of antagonistic behavior (e.g. fighting and face-biting, Tanke and Currie 1998) did spend time in each other’s company. This track site is also good evidence of group behavior in tyrannosaurs. There were hints before of tyrannosaur group behavior. Currie and Eberth (2010) suggested this from the tyrannosaur bonebed in Alberta, but bodies and bones can be moved after the animals die and deposited in a pile: in situ footprints cannot.


This site has great potential for further excavation: all three tyrannosaur trackways head into the hill. Unfortunately that hill is very high and steep, so any future work will require a lot of resources to move the mountainous amount of silt, sandstone, and mud from over the track surface. We cannot safely tunnel into the hill to expose more tracks: that seems like a plan riddled with Wile E. Coyote kinds of danger. 


Hopefully this tale of working on the terror of tyrannosaurs - and a fairly epic field work fail - will amuse and entertain until I can get to the Early Cretaceous track site work we did this summer. Stay tuned!

References:

Currie PJ, Eberth DA (2010) On gregarious behavior in Albertosaurus. Can J Earth Sci 47: 1277–1289. doi: 10.1139/e10-072  

Erickson GM, Currie PJ, Inouye BD, Winn AA (2010) A revised life table and survivorship curve for Albertosaurus sarcophagus based on the Dry Island mass death assemblage. Can J Earth Sci 47: 1269–1275. doi: 10.1139/e10-051 



McCrea RT, Tanke DH, Buckley LG, Lockley MG, Farlow JO, Xing L, Matthews NA, Helm CW, Pemberton SG (2015) Vertebrate ichnopathology: pathologies inferred from dinosaur tracks and trackways from the Mesozoic. Ichnos 22(3-4):235-260.


Tanke DH, Currie PH (1998) Head-biting behavior in theropod dinosaurs: paleopathological evidence. Gaia 15: 167–184.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Time for Media to Call Birds What They Are...DINOSAURS!

Hello Dear Readers!

I've been playing catch-up after this summer's field work: organizing photos, email, restarting projects that had to be paused for field work, updating the CV, and - when there is time - getting our poor house in order after an almost three month absence!

I always have high hopes for humanity on returning from the field, and one of those hopes is that we'll have seen the last of lazy science communication by the mega-platforms (Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Animal Planet). I always think "Maybe, just maybe, they'll get it. They'll get that conscientious science communication is just as engaging, "grabbing", and simple as the amateur-hour male bovine fecal material we've seen with Shark Week, any monster hunting show, and mermaids.

This time Discovery Channel hit close to home with paleontology, and they did it by just lazily slapping "dinosaur" on a 2013 program focusing on marine reptiles....and they've done it many times. Brian Switek gives a great write up here. Any seven year old could tell you that marine reptiles aren't dinosaurs (and perhaps the large networks should think of consulting with their local primary schools before stamping "dinosaur" on anything that's a fossil), so I am not sure why these highly unprofessional mistakes keep happening.

As frustration is my muse, I decided to have a bit of fun with telling people what they actually can call a dinosaur: BIRDS.

Any and all birds that ever were, that ever are, and ever will be, are dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are not extinct, but visit our feeders and poop on our cars and patios daily.

I had fun with this on Twitter, and thanks to Storify I was able to collect all of the fun I and others had at rebranding birds as modern-day dinosaurs.

Here's the link to "We Don't Have to Call Everything A Dinosaur!"

Enjoy, and feel free to rebrand your favorite feathered friends as the dinosaurs they are! It's fun and scientifically accurate!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

That Field Assistant

I wrote a couple of posts while I was in the field at the Early Cretaceous Dinosaur Track Site. Here is one of them.
***
Fieldwork is a challenging beast: long hours, grueling terrain, black flies, heavy loads to carry, black flies, long distance hikes, black flies...the black flies are particularly bad this year. Yes, Dear Readers, I’m writing a blog post while still in the field.

We’ve just started our field season in earnest. Our goal for this summer is to expose and document as much of a large-scale dinosaur track site as possible. Although a footprint site, our first week has been fairly typical of most dinosaur excavations: we have to remove a lot of overburden in the form of plants, soil, and a few thin sandstone and silt layers. This means digging, sweeping, and bucket carrying. 

This type of work gives my brain a chance to flit around, and my thoughts settled on various field assistants and volunteers we’ve worked with, or have heard tell of from colleagues (many, many stories - field workers talk to one another a great deal). My thoughts particularly settled on the personality traits that keep popping up like that damned poplar growing on our nice Early Cretaceous track surface (sorry - I really hate plants right now). These are the types of behaviors that we really could do without when we’re out in the field. For every crew of really great students, field assistants, and volunteers, there’s the crew that contains...that person.

That person is one who, by their behaviors*, reduces efficiency, increases stress, and trashes the morale of you and the rest of your crew. No amount of correction seems to diminish these behaviors. In fact, it makes it worse. All one can seem to do is to ride out the storm of their negative behavior. Every field season comes to an end.

*NOTE: This list does not include sexual harassment and assault, bullying, intimidation, or abuse. That shit also happens in the field far too often.

The following list is a composite of various stories I have heard or witnessed over the years, or, in one embarrassing instance, remember doing myself (prepare to be shamed, Past Me).

The Lily Dipper
Lily dipping is a canoeing term: that one person who looks like they are paddling for all their worth, but they are really just performing a mime show and not contributing to moving the canoe forward. As a result, the rest of the canoe paddlers have to paddle more to make up for the Lily Dipper.
There are Lily Dippers in field work as well. I remember one year when we had a month’s worth of overburden removal work ahead of us (no mechanical equipment could be used on this particular site). When we interviewed field assistants, we were brutally up front about what was ahead of them: pick axes, shovels, buckets, wheelbarrows, blazing heat, 14 hour long days. They enthusiastically said they were no strangers to this work, and were ready to pitch in.

Perhaps they really, really thought they were ready for this kind of work. Perhaps they really, really thought they could make it work even if they weren’t prepared for it. Perhaps, deep down, they thought they were above this kind of hands-on labor. I do not know. Regardless of their motives and intentions, they simply could not or would not do the work. Breaks were purposely prolonged. Twenty minute hikes to the site were extended to hour long snail crawls. Each shovel full was performed with maudlin drama. Everything...was...just...so...hard. They never complained, but their actions spoke volumes. Thankfully, when we had a chat with them, they admitted that they were not prepared for this work and transferred to other positions.

Lily Dippers are the quiet morale killers. Everyone knows who is working and who is not. Everyone also knows who is consuming resources while not working. Those who are working will resent the Lily Dipper because they now have an increased workload. It’s almost easier for crew morale to have a person leave mid-season than to have one who doesn't work.

The Woe-Is-Me
I’ll be the first one to admit that field work life is difficult, both physically and emotionally. While we are in the field, we are in the field, full stop. The field season doesn’t care if you are having a bad day (especially if your field time/budget is short), and everyone has a bad day from time to time. I get it. However, for some people being in the field is so emotionally challenging that their issues become your issues. Regardless of the reasons for said challenges, the result is a crew member who is visibly and vocally miserable. The Woe-Is-Me can be broken down into sub-categories:

            - The Black Hole of Praise: Remember when you told that crew member that they did a good job on excavating that unicorn saddle? Well, you didn’t praise them enough, you heartless person. In fact, you couldn’t praise them enough, because they need constant praise, day in, day out. A simple “Good job”, “Thanks, it looks great”, or “Excellent work” will go unheard, even if you and everyone around you remembers you praising the Black Hole. The Black Hole will then complain to others that their efforts are ignored or unappreciated. When you finally hear about it (and you will, but likely from a third party), you’ll be confused as hell because you’ll remember telling the Black Hole that you thought they did a good job. As one PI told me “It’s like they expect me to launch a parade every time they do their job.” Unfortunately, if you do launch a Rose Bowl Parade for every action of the Black Hole, the rest of your crew is going to notice. They may know why you’re doing it (because they will have heard the complaining) but hearing the Black Hole suck up exorbitant amounts of praise will wear on them.

            - The Line-Reader: This is the polar opposite of the Black Hole of Praise. Everything that comes out of your mouth will be taken as a slight, insult, or outright declaration of the Line-Reader’s (self-perceived) incompetence. They will read in-between the lines of whatever you say and find meaning that only they can see.
          
Let’s say you’re moving a heavy load, like shifting a big footprint slab onto helicopter webbing so that you can airlift the slab out of a canyon. You’re going to be giving directions to anyone helping you muscle the slab in to place. Those directions will be short and simple: “over there, grab that end, lift it higher, more left”...and, if you need someone out of the way, the all-famous “Move!” You don’t have time to say “Excuse me please, but you are standing in the way of where I need to go, and this slab is awful heavy. Could you please move?” By the time you say that, the slab has slipped and crushed three of your fingers. I’ve been “Move!”d more times than I can count, and have done the same. The joyfulness always returns after the heavy lifting is done. When you’re under a load, it’s all business.

However, the Line-Reader will take your simple “Move!” as a negative comment on their skills and value. The same goes for if you give a new person to your crew a specific job so that they can get experience with said job. Heck, until I learned how to mix plaster properly, that was the only job I was given. Unfortunately, the Line-Reader will interpret it as you getting them out of the way so you can talk about them behind their back (yes, I’ve heard of this specific scenario). The examples are countless. You’ll have your other crew telling you that Line-Reader is saying some rather odd things, and you will be as confused as they. 

            - The Hard-O-Meter: The previous two Woe-Is-Me types are confusing to me. This one, however, chaps my ass. Field work is hard work. It’s not a day at the spa. It’s not a pleasure camping trip where you hike a groomed trail during the day and roast marshmallows at night. It is a steep hiking, pick ax and shovel swinging, bog slogging, dirt scraping, specimen packing, bug swatting hard work day, with marshmallow roasting at night if the mosquitoes and black flies don’t drive you screaming into your tent. 

What I don’t need to hear (and neither does any field PI) is a constant description of exactly how hard the work is. Removing overburden with a pick ax is hard? Shoveling rubble is hard? Clearing dirt, plants, and rock off of a footprint surface is hard? No shit: field work is hard. See everyone else working? They know it’s hard too. See the PI working alongside the crew? Not only do they know how hard the work is, they can compare it to all of the other hard work they have completed during the previous 10+ summers. 

One summer during our dinosaur excavation we had a Hard-O-Meter. It was too hot. The rock was too hard. We were working the crew too hard (this one borders on the Malcontent, see below). We started too early. We worked too late. They were sure the work was so hard and so unfair that legal action could be taken. To spare my sanity (and that of the rest of the crew) I took the Hard-O-Meter off site one day to collect some modern bird footprint samples. Did that stop the Hard-O-Meter from pointing out all of the difficulties? Guess.

            - The Begrudger: I’ll deal with all of the Woe-Is-Me traits at once before I want to deal with The Begrudger. The Begrudger is convinced that they are on the receiving end of Fate’s poopy stick, because they don’t see your success or fortune as a combination of hard work and luck. They see it as you had all of your success handed to you for a myriad of reasons (none of which have anything to do with work and luck, and none of which are complimentary to you). The Begrudger is closely connected to the Insta-Expert (see below), because clearly the Begrudger’s obvious skills and talent were purposely overlooked to give you (or your crew members) the unfair advantage.


Here’s an example that still makes me shake my head. I worked with a Begrudger on an excavation. They were working in their section, and were getting rather despondent that they weren’t finding anything in their grid square. So they complained until they were moved to a new square. Someone had to work that square, so another person moved in. Almost immediately the new person on the square uncovered a theropod tooth. The Begrudger actually had the nerve to be snotty about the find, as though it were some great conspiracy against them that they didn't find the specimen.

Yeah.   

The Insta-Expert
I have a confession, my friends - I once suffered from Insta-Expert Syndrome. The Insta-Expert is usually young, ambitious, and eager to make a good impression. Unfortunately, their actions do the exact opposite. The Insta-Expert knows everything. EVERYTHING. They are a font of information, especially information on how they would do things were they in charge. Some Insta-Experts will actually try to be in charge. In one case I heard of the One Insta-Expert told other crew members that the PI shouldn't be in charge because the PI had "only" just received their doctorate. How could they possibly know anything, amirite?

A sample conversation with the Insta-Expert:

I-E: I see you’re milking the Unicorn X way.

You: Yes I am.
I-E: I think you should try milking the Unicorn Y way. I was talking with Dr. Big Name and that was how he does it.

You: We tried Y, and Y doesn’t work well out here. X is the field tested method.

I-E: You really should give Y a try. I’ll bet you weren’t doing it correctly. I’ll show you.

You: (Trying very hard not to roll eyes)...

All the explaining of your methods in a thorough and complete way eventually runs dry (or you run out of time, or you can’t risk having your data/specimen/fellow crew members damaged.) You have to give the Insta-Expert the command: do it this way. This is bound to cause Insta- Expert to feel quite put out. They do not care that you already have years of experience working in your field. They do not care that you know your field site inside and out. All they care about is letting everyone know that they have all of the answers. Insta-Expert can also be found in combination with The Woe-Is-Me and the Malcontent.

Here’s my story of Insta-Expert shame. I was doing an internship on an excavation, and I was damned sure I was ready for the Big Leagues of excavating. I’d already had a week of experience and I was 19 - of course I was ready to take charge! [If anyone ever builds a time machine, can I rent time on it to go back in time and smack Past Me?] So I loudly (and rather annoyingly) stated (ad nauseum) that I was ready to work on the important part of the quarry. I was a frightful pain. The only way the pit boss could shut me up was to put me in an important part of the quarry (or at least what they told me was important. I would have lied to Past Me to shut Past Me up). 

In a typical 80s movie, I would have entered an excavation montage that ended with me uncovering a tyrannosaur skull. That did not happen. I broke the first piece I worked on. Needless to say, that was an important moment for me. It highlighted exactly how much I didn’t know, and that my job at that time was to listen and learn. Unfortunately, I and many field PIs do not have the time or resources to create teachable moments for Insta-Experts. You can only hope they lose this trait as they get more experience. 

The Volun-Dictator
I will preface this section by saying that 99.99% of the volunteers I’ve had the pleasure to work with are a joy. They are gold. They are happy to be elbow deep in overburden, drenched in freezing alpine rain, and helping us find fossils. I’ve often had to remind volunteers to take regular breaks so they don’t push it too hard. Many volunteers I wish I had the budget to hire. Our invaluable head technician started out as a volunteer. 

Then there is the Volun-Dictator. This individual “helps” by trying to take charge. They will take the initiative on items without first asking what needs to be done (and simultaneously ignoring what they’ve been told are the main tasks). They will issue orders to your staff and students. They may try to “run” your camp. They will rearrange equipment without you knowing, leaving you and your staff having to undo the mess they made. They will try to take fossils home with them. They will give you demands and ultimatums. All of these examples and more I have heard from colleagues (and some I have experienced) regarding that one Volun-Dictator.

Volun-Dictators are especially bad for crew morale because the crew doesn’t feel like they can correct or counter the bad behavior. Why? Because the person is a volunteer, and this particular breed of volunteer will act as though they are the highest authority on a site. The Volun-Dictator has heard everyone say how valuable volunteers are, and takes this praise - earned by the excellent volunteers - as an excuse to throw their weight around. This will cause grumbling, especially if the crew feels like the Volun-Dictator is given leave to do whatever they want. In fact, the Volun-Dictator will complain to you (or your supervisors) that Crew Member is disrespecting ALL of the volunteers if Crew Member disagrees with or corrects the Volun-Dictator, and will usually demand the person be punished. You as Team Leader will also be given the “how dare you disrespect the volunteers” speech if you redirect their actions. Also, Volun-Dictators tend to drive away the good volunteers: no one wants to voluntarily work with a chore of a person. I’ve had several volunteers say they will not come out if they know Person X is going to be there because this is how they feel when working with that person:

 
The Malcontent
This personality type can often be found in tandem with any of the above mentioned traits. I’ve most often seen it/heard of it seen in conjunction with The Insta-Expert, The Woe-Is-Me, or the Volun-Dictator. The Malcontent is not happy unless they are stirring up active discontent among the crew. They will usually pick a seemingly insignificant topic to start their stirring of the poop pot. Here’s a sample conversation:

Mal: You need to go into town for special groceries for me. I can only drink Organic Golden Moose Sweat.

You: I’m sorry, but that’s a 6 hour round trip on crappy roads. We weren’t told ahead of time that you needed golden moose sweat, and our next resupply is in a week. We did tell you to bring in anything special you might need for yourself. Feel free to have as much of Uncle Buck’s Olde Timey Moose Sweat as you like - we have several cans. 

Mal: That is unacceptable. How dare you tell me ahead of time to bring in any personal special items and then refuse to run errands for me during the field season. I AM SPARTICUS!

Replace Golden Moose Sweat with internet/cell phone access, demands to use field vehicles for personal errands, hard work, mosquitoes, sun, rain, wind, bears, no plumbing, no outhouse...you get the idea.

After that, the whisper campaign starts, where the Malcontent will find people on the crew who they think will sympathize with their plight. They try to act as the champions and saviors for the poor, mistreated crew. They act passive-aggressively towards you in relation to their faux cause. They will tell anyone who will listen how poorly you run your field work. Crew who only hear the Malcontent’s side of events (which is usually the case, because PIs usually don’t gossip about conversations they’ve had with other crew members) can also start to grumble on behalf of the Malcontent. When you do squash the Golden Moose Sweat Rebellion, the ire will redirect itself to you, personally.

There is no easy way to remove a Malcontent. The best solution to the Malcontent is prevention: try to work with the person before the field season begins, or check their references thoroughly. Be warned: oftentimes Malcontents receive high praise from former supervisors because the supervisor wants to make damned sure the Malcontent won’t work with them again the following season. This is the field version of Promoting the Problem. Field PIs: don’t do this, please. 

If you do find yourself saddled with a Malcontent mid-season, it’s best to quell their behavior early before it infects the rest of the crew. This may involve ejecting the person from your crew as soon as possible. Be prepared to shoulder the expense of removing the Malcontent. In the words of the famous credit card company: “A Malcontent-free crew is priceless. For everything else, there’s the Credit Card.”


The only way I can think of to deal with these behavioral traits is two-fold: make sure you have the list of activities ready (and in hard copy), as well as a Code of Field Conduct package that crew/volunteers must read and sign before heading out into the field with you. If they develop these traits while in the field, the only way you can find out if they actually want to be there is to ask them. This doesn't guarantee they will be straightforward with you: they may have their own motivation for sticking it out that you might be unaware of. If they insist that they want to be there, yet continue with the negative behavior, you may have to decide whether it is worth waiting it out until the end of their field shift. Each situation is different.

Thanks to interactions with Woe-Is-Mes, Volun-Dictators, and Malcontents, I now have a Volunteer/Staff Expectations Agreement Form that anyone going into the field with us must read and sign before they are field-side. Most people read the list and laugh: they can’t imagine anyone acting in such a way as to make this form a reality.

I understand.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Responsible Fossil Stewardship: You Might Not Get To Do Exactly What You Want With Fossils

One of the mostly pleasurable tasks on returning from a long field expedition away from the Internet is checking out the latest fossil news and posts. I say mostly because every once in a while I am alerted to such posts that reinforce all of the negative attributes that most palaeontologists I know try to remove from fossil heritage conservation: greed, selfishness, and short-sightedness.

I have to thank my husband for this hat tip. He was browsing fossil-related news and said "Oh, you'll love this. Check this out." It is a piece entitled "Exploring Canada's Socialist Dinosaur Paradise." I was immediately skeptical of the "socialist" part of the title. Last time I checked, Canada was a federal parliamentary representative democracy. This alerted me that, somewhere in this article, someone was going to complain that they weren't allowed to do something they wanted to do with fossils. I had hoped to be wrong. What I was not expecting was to read these complaints from the author themselves, especially since they are a science writer and spent time in the field with someone who takes their responsibility as a steward of Canada's fossil heritage seriously.

Please read the article for yourself, but the tl:dr message from the article was this: the author thought that not being able to do what they liked with dinosaur bone from Alberta was "absurdly socialist" and couldn't (or couldn't be bothered) to understand why these laws were in place. Rather than turn this revelation into a teachable moment that could have educated many on why fossils (and other heritage resources) are important to conserve and protect, they did the mature thing and got snarky.

Life is hard when you don't get to do exactly what you want, when you want, especially when you have to consider the long-term well-being of the most non-renewable resource on our planet: our heritage.

Let's hit the "highlights" of the article.

1. Researchers don't want bone fragments, so they little value, so everyone should be able to fill their pockets.

This section from the article made me choke on my tea, because it was clear that, even though the author went into the field with a trained palaeontologist, they didn't actually pay attention to the methods of prospecting.

"Paleontologists have little interest in the scattered fragments at the surface, which retain little information about where they came from and are unlikely to be connected back into a larger skeleton. They focus efforts instead on excavating bones still stuck in place on the hillside, where it might be part of a more complete animal hiding deeper within."

Do you want to know how palaeontologists actually know where to dig up the intact bones? They follow the bone fragments that have already weathered out from the skeleton to their source. Those bone fragments are every bit as important as the skeleton itself. The idea that palaeontology is all about collecting the most complete and eye-catching specimens is a rather Hollywood, Indiana Jones view of how fossil conservation works.

Museums regularly curate what they jokingly refer to as Underwhelming Specimens: those specimens that look kind of blah, but are actually treasure troves of data. Our own research center has its share of Underwhelming Specimens: bone fragments, pieces of leaves, smudges of Triassic fish. We curate them as diligently as we curate the complete specimens. We're not just filling cabinets with pretty fossils: we're collecting data. Heck, I'm not an expert at identifying all fossil bones (no one is): that thing I identified as a bone fragment might turn out to be a skull bone of a previously undescribed fish or reptile. There may be biochemical data that can be extracted from bone fragments. Data about the environment in which the dinosaurs lived. I do not know exactly what data a future researcher or student will be able to collect from bone fragments, but I want them to have that opportunity. If we don't archive these Underwhelming Specimens, those opportunities won't exist. Saying that bone fragments are of little interest to palaeontologists - especially when that person is not an expert in what can be accomplished with bone fragments - is ignoring data, which is bad science and bad science reporting.

2. Canada's Heritage Laws/Policies: They're Speaking for the Fossils

The author states: "It’s nearly impossible to legally pick up a fossil and put it in your pocket in Alberta. The province has among the most restrictive regulations for fossil collecting in the world."

Let's take a closer look at Canada's heritage laws. Canada's fossil heritage laws are governed province by province: each province has jurisdiction over their fossil heritage. One aspect that is common for all the provinces is this: fossils from Crown Land (Canada's version of public land, for my American readers) and/or from provincial and national parks and protected areas are property of the Government of Canada. The government gets to decide the who, what, where, why, and how of fossil conservation and fossil resource management. This is because - and I'm going to say this slowly so that everyone can follow -

FOSSILS
ARE
PART
OF
EVERY
PERSON'S
HERITAGE.

This is a very simple concept. No one person has the right to sell, destroy, or alter a piece of our country's (and our world's) heritage, unless they plan to get permission from each and every person who calls Canada home. There is universally more leeway for fossils found on private land, but even so it is recognized that, on private or public land, the fossils there are part of the country's heritage.

Had the author done their homework, they would have known that Alberta's fossil heritage laws are not even the most restrictive in Canada. This section is basically a "Here, let me Google that for you" for fossil heritage acts in Canada. I found it at 11pm by Googling "fossil collecting laws Canada".

I was going to provide a link to each of the province's relevant heritage acts, but I don't have to. The best resource comes from The Fossil Forum. This post highlights the heritage laws, province by province, and their policies on fossil collection. The link also provides the sources (and links!) for each of the excerpts of the provincial heritage acts. If you, like me, enjoy reading pages of heritage law, you're welcome. It's an interesting read.

Keeping track of provincial fossil heritage regulations is not just a hobby for me: the researcher staff at our facility have long been working with various provincial branches for clear, concise regulations as they relate to managing British Columbia's fossil heritage. Progress is being made. The most helpful statement for British Columbia's fossils that has been clarified is that fossils collected from Crown Lands are property of the Crown. We do not own ANY of the fossils curated in our archives. We do not want to own any fossils.

Fossil Stewardship versus Fossil Ownership

What disappointed me the most in this article seemingly lack of consideration of what it means to be a fossil steward, rather than a fossil owner. A person who owns a fossil has physical possession of that fossil for their lifetime (or as long as their interest and resources last). There is a small pool of people who derive any benefit from that owned fossil: immediate friends and family. There is no demand or expectation that the fossil owner will use their fossil collection for educational outreach. There is little continuity from one fossil-owning generation to the next. There is no guarantee that your children or grandchildren are going to be interested or able to care for your fossil collection once you are unable. There is no expectation that records of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the fossil's past will be meticulously kept. In short, the personal ownership of fossils is finite and fraught with uncertainty.

A steward of fossil heritage knows that their time on this planet is finite and minuscule. You cannot escape the idea of your own mortality and impermanence when you look at a fossil that was a living animal 115 million years ago. That fossil existed long before you, and has the potential to exist long after you die. Caring for fossils is the realization that this collection must outlast not only your generation, but countless future generations. We merely hold vigil over The Dead, over our Past, and will do our very best to pass the source of that knowledge on the future generations. I cannot express both the honor and humbling weight of this responsibility.

Sadly, this responsibility of being a good fossil steward was neglected in the article that chose to complain about "socialism" just because the author could not take a piece of bone home with them.

3. Montana is not absurd because people can make money on dinosaurs.

Another thread I was waiting for when I saw "socialist" in the article title was how the commercial fossil trade system in the United States is better because people can do what they like with fossils found on private lands. The author did not disappoint:

"The rules are almost absurdly socialist, especially when compared to just south of the border in Montana, where commercial fossil hunting is both big money and big controversy. The idea that a chunk of rock in my pocket should still be subject to such intense government regulation seems a little silly."

Big controversy indeed. The issue of resolving commercial fossil collection with responsible and ethical fossil heritage management is ongoing, and frustrating as hell to those of us who are trying to champion for the best practices for managing our fossil heritage. I have written previously on the issues that academic palaeontologists have with the commercial system as it stands. Here are the links where I discuss

- the issue of Propoki case and the illegally exported Tarbosaurus
- the issue of the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs and the importance of fossil archive continutity
- the critique of the commercial fossil system, the predicable rebuttal, and ways I think we could move forward, along with ways to appreciate fossils that do not involve ownership

My personal opinion is that, as it stands, the commercial fossil trade, which promotes not only treating heritage resources as luxury items but the illegal fossil trade plaguing other countries, is broken and needs at complete overhaul. Unfortunately the groups involved are not there yet, or ready to accept critique of the system as anything other than personal attacks. The current incarnation of the commercial fossil trade needs to be overhauled for the sake of not only our own country's fossil heritage, but for the fossil and cultural heritage of all of the other countries that have been negatively impacted. This is not "silly".

4. What the Article Got Right
The article does state why these fossil heritage protection laws are in place: there is a black market for fossils, and people will go to extraordinary means to thwart those laws for selfish financial reasons:

"But paleontologists here...say the law works well to reduce conflict over bones, and to ensure that dinosaurs stay close to home where they can benefit science, public museums, and local tourism."

THIS is why we have these laws. The laws recognize that documenting and conserving our fossil heritage isn't just stamp collecting. It's ensuring that these resources will be present - in their home areas - for science, science education, and public outreach.

Here's an example from my home province of British Columbia. Prior to the overhaul of the previous fossil heritage resource management plans, the best collections and displays of British Columbia's fossils were not within the province. There was a long history of out-of-province and out-of-country institutions traveling to British Columbia, making research-level collections, and then leaving the province with the fossils. Small collections were kept here and there, but the best place for people to see British Columbia fossils was outside of British Columbia.

From a research and fossil conservation stance, this was fine: these institutions had the will to commit resources to British Columbia's fossils. I thank them heartily for this. However, from a science education stance, this fossil drain resulted in a net loss for British Columbia. There was no opportunity for British Columbians to develop a sense of cultural appreciation and pride in British Columbia's fossils because the fossils were not there to appreciate. People need to see to appreciate, and the fossils have to be in British Columbia to be seen by British Columbians. This is what the fossil heritage laws recognize.

This trend is slowly changing. We display fossils that we have collected in British Columbia. We offer fossil-related educational programming for children, as well as do many many public presentations to spread our excitement for British Columbia's fossil heritage to everyone we see. In fact, the next lecture tour we do will be on the work we did this summer on a great 115 million year old dinosaur track site near Hudson's Hope.

We will continue to work with British Columbia to not only establish clear fossil heritage protection laws, but also to enact management strategies that detail not only how to responsibly care for our fossil heritage, but to responsibly monitor its use for private collection, public outreach and education, and research. It's painstakingly long-term work, but British Columbia's fossil heritage is worth the effort and diligence. All of fossil heritage is worth this level of effort. After all, we only get one shot to do this right.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Raven Regurgitates: Strange Woman Now Collects Bird Barf

I'm already the strange woman in the ditch looking at bird tracks, and the strange woman dashing on to the middle of the road to pick up roadkill, so I might as well be that bloody strange woman walking along the bridge on the highway, picking up raven barf.

We all have our hobbies, after all.

Yesterday (Sunday, May 15) our dojo did our annual highway cleanup. Having recently received the renewal for our institution's wildlife salvage permit, I was on the look out for recent roadkill. Birds and small mammals are all my recovering dermestid beetle colonies can handle at this point (thanks, wolf spider), but besides a couple of very flat mice, there was no roadkill to be had.

Wuz in ur coloneez, nomming ur beetlz.
What we did see, when walking over one of the highway bridges close to the local boat launch, was a railing full of raven traces in the form of poop (yes, it's feces, but poop is more fun to write) and regurgitated pellets!

Most people are familiar with owl pellets or regurgitates. Owls tend to swallow their prey whole or in large chunks. Bone, fur, feathers, scales, skin, exoskeletons, and anything that the prey was eating (seeds and vegetation) are all swallowed. The gizzard of the owl compacts all of this hard to digest and indigestible material into a pellet, which the owl later regurgitates.



Owl pellets are fascinating, and form the base of a really fun educational activity: owl pellet dissection! It's a wonderful way to demonstrate the food web and predator-prey interactions, and predator diets. Owl pellets are also an invaluable source of dietary data for ornithologists studying the prey of target owl species. Owl pellets can also provide insight into the preservation of small mammal fauna from Cenozoic sediments: a paper by Terry (2004) examines what happens to the pellets of extant Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) as they break down in a temperate forest environment. This another great example of how studies on modern ichnology (pellets are traces of an organism, so they are 100% in the realm of ichnology!) give us a better understanding of fossil ichnology.

Owls are not the only birds that regurgitate pellets: birds of prey, gulls, herons, cormorants, shorebirds, and corvids. Bird species that consume a great deal of indigestible material with their meal are likely to hack up pellets.

This morning I went to the bridge to see how many raven pellets I could collect for our institution's summer educational activities. We already have a Barn Owl pellet dissection activity, but Barn Owls are not native to northeastern British Columbia. The Common Raven, however, is ubiquitous in our region.

It was easy to see which side of the bridge the ravens preferred to perch on: the side that is closest to the boat launch. Our local ravens figured out that where there are trucks, there are people and the tasty things that people leave behind.

This Common Raven watched me from the boat launch the entire time I was rummaging around their bridge perch.

Clearly ravens spend a great deal of time on this railing.


I set to work choosing my samples. It was clear which deposits were pellets, and which ones were raven poo.


I did not arrange these deposits for the photo. The deposit on the far left has passed through the digestive tract and was deposited via the cloaca: you can see the white material (uric acid) and the small mounds underneath the uric acid. The deposit in the center is a nicely intact pellet. There is white material in the pellet, but it is solid, thin, and fragments of a once larger object. Our working hypothesis is that it is eggshell that this particular raven picked out of the trash. The deposit on the far right is full of fibrous vegetation and uric acid. It may have been a pellet that was later pooped on, or it was fecal in origin and has weathered a lot before I came across it.

I collected two intact pellets, and have passed them on to our Education Coordinator who will now heat sanitize the pellets. This site is easy to access, so we have the opportunity to collect more throughout the year. Once the pellets are sanitized, the kids participating in the Owl Pellet Dissection can compare the diet of a Barn Owl to that of their local Common Raven.

Wish me luck in finding more local bird pellet locations!


References

Terry, R. C. 2004. Owl pellet taphonomy: a preliminary study of the post-regurgitation taphonomic history of pellets in a temperate forest. Palaios 19(5):497-506.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Spring Cleaning for Demestid Beetles

Hello Dear Readers!

Spring is in the air, and with spring comes the traditional Spring Cleaning. Spring Cleaning is not something one thinks about when they think "flesh-eating beetles", but in our case it was high time that the Homeworld Colony received a thorough mucking out.

Dermestid beetles do like to frolic in their own filth, but sometimes that filth (beetle feces, chewed up bits of paper and foam, hair and feathers from specimens they process, shed carapaces/exoskeletons) builds up to the point where either 1) the beetles can reach the top of their enclosure and mount a Great Escape, 2) they become so busy with roaming around the catacombs of their filth that they forget they have a job to do, or 3) their much-loved filth becomes soggy, matted, moldy, or plain unnavigable. At that point, it is time to muck out the colony.

Let's look at the brief history of the Homeworld Colony. This colony used to be home to my colony of Dermestes maculatus, the Hide Beetle. These are the most common dermestid beetles used in laboratories and museums for defleshing skeletal specimens. I have two experimental colonies of Dermestes lardarius, the Larder Beetle or the bacon beetle. These dermestids were wild caught, and by that I mean I collected them from around Maia's (my cat) soft food dish, or they were given to me by very understanding friends. NOTE: you know a person is a really good friend if they don't mind you crawling around their baseboards and kitchen looking for beetles and their larvae.

Two years ago I took both the Hide Beetle and the Larder Beetle colonies outside for an education activity to show kids the difference between the two types of beetles, and to show them the skulls. It was a warm day, and I found out the hard way that our local Larder Beetles fly at a much lower temperature (around 20 Celsius) than the Hide Beetles. Larder Beetles are not the most graceful or speedy fliers, but enough managed to fly from Miranda Colony (yes, I am a Firefly fan) to Homeworld (also a Babylon 5 fan) to form what I can only describe as an invasion colony. The Larder Beetles out-competed the Hide Beetles, and now I have three colonies of Larder Beetles.

Except that Homeworld's processing speed started to lag. No progress was being made on any of the specimens. I could see beetles in the colony, but the colony was not teeming with activity. This past fall we discovered that a Wolf Spider had entered the colony. I have no idea how long it was in there, but I'm sure it had a fine time snacking away on my defenseless beetles.

J'accuse! The offending spider.
There are many reasons a colony can collapse, and sometimes it is necessary to give the colony a "fresh" (if that term may be used for dermestid beetles and dried heads of animals) start. Today our field assistant Linda and I decided to hit the colony's reset button and give it a good cleaning.

Here's what Homeworld looked like when we started.

Dermestid beetles living graciously.
You can see that there are several layers of beetle activity captured in this colony. Foam, cardboard, fur and feather form an organic stratigraphic column that shows when each specimen was processed. This colony had not received a thorough cleaning since it's start date in 2013.

First we brought everything outside, and donned our eye protection, particulate masks (I do not want to breathe in beetle poo), and gloves. Next, we removed all of the in progress specimens from the colony and placed them in the receiving bucket. This included a cougar skull, a wolverine skull, a White-winged Crossbill, a Purple Finch, and a Swainson's Thrush.


Once the specimens were removed, we had to sift through the refuse to salvage as many living beetles as we could. We did a couple of handfuls by hand...

Beetle waste.

...before we said "Hey, we're not just biologists: we're also geologists! We have screens!" and brought out a 2 mm screen. This saved us a lot of time and the lives of many larvae and adults.

Before sifting.

After sifting. It was much easier to see scampering beetles and wriggling larvae with all of the feces removed.
We made sure to save the beetles "apartment buildings", or the foam in which the larvae like to burrow to pupate.

If you store anything precious in polystyrene foam, check on it occasionally: if you have any resident dermestids, they will find the foam.
It was a great day to be outside. We were treated to a serenade by the European Starlings. These starlings had quite the repertoire of songs: we heard mimicry of Red-tailed Hawks, American Robins, and a Western Meadowlark.

We also saw that love was in the air, bird-style. A male and female House Sparrow landed on our garbage bin and proceeded to mate in front of us. Linda took a couple of photos and a video. The video shows the last of five matings.


"Birds do it, bees do it..." Photo and video credits: Linda Amos.

video

After all of that sifting and sorting, we did not find as many beetles in the lower layers of the colony as we had hoped. The colony was slow in its processing speed simply because there are not enough beetles in there for visible progress. All of the newly found beetles will be added to this colony to give it a boost while the survivors slowly rebuild their numbers. Stay tuned for progress reports!

All "clean"! Homeworld 2.0 is ready to process the wolverine (bottom), cougar (left), Purple Finch (top left), Swainson's Thrush (top right), and White-winged Crossbill (right).