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.


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 -


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!


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.


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).

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Fool Me At All, Shame On You Always: How Not To Do April Fools' Day

April Fools' Day is tomorrow, and I am waiting with mild trepedation over what faux science gags I am going to see on the Internet. What I was not prepared for was to have someone actively try to recruit me to deceive the public in a pretty rotten way.

Let's be clear right from the start, Dear Reader: I love a good prank. I've been on the receiving end of many a gag courtesy of my colleagues. The most recent prank was having my office filled with toy spiders - we refer to it as The Spidering...this happened over a year ago, and I'm still finding spiders. We have a rather cute, so obviously over the top so as not to be taken seriously video that we're going to post tomorrow that is 100% fun, and in no way would ever be confused with real science. What we do not do, nay, what we REFUSE to do is to actively deceive the public with regards to fossil discoveries, fossil heritage appreciation, and fossil conservation.

Enter my phone conversation from Tuesday afternoon.

I'm out of town, picking up some supplies for the up-coming field season. My cellphone interrupts my browsing. It's a phone number from British Columbia. NOTE: As technologically slow as I am, I am pretty good at Googling phone numbers - I know exactly which organization made this call.

I will refer to the person on the other end as Skippy. Skippy was all excited to tell me of their great idea. There is a project that is going ahead somewhere in British Columbia (not in my neck of the woods), and those involved thought that a great way to get publicity would be to announce a fake dinosaur skeleton discovery as a result of said project. This plan was considered a good idea because, well, April Fools' Day. Skippy continued: they even wanted to get the public involved in submitting names for their new fake dinosaur find. Skippy was wondering if they could use our institution's name to lend their April Fools' prank credibility.

Dear Readers, guess how I responded. I think I was quite polite under the circumstances.

The first words out of my mouth were "Absolutely not!" I went on to say a version of this:

There is already a culture of mistrust in the general public towards science and scientists. The public is also deeply interested in fossil discoveries and news, and trusts that when such news is announced, it's for real. Faking a fossil discovery in British Columbia, using the name of a well-respected institution such as ours, would only serve to fuel such public distrust of scientists. There is no way that we could in good conscience take part in such a scheme.

I ended the conversation with Skippy by saying "And I had better not see our names anywhere near anything that you publicize." Skippy's response was "You won't be included," wording that makes me think that they are actually still planning to go ahead with this Scicomm Wrong.

Half-assed publicity stunts such as these give me nothing but anger and frustration. This is nothing more than manipulating people's natural curiosity about dinosaurs and fossils for a project that will do absolutely nothing to further their appreciation of their province's fossil heritage. There is no way that this can be spun as a scicomm opportunity: had our name been associated with this scheme, we would have lied to the public - April Fools' Day or no - and given them a reason to get excited about dinosaurs in British Columbia. People trust us, whether they consciously recognize that trust or no, to give them trustworthy and factual information about the fossil heritage in British Columbia.

I will not apologize for this: I respect and greatly appreciate the public's natural interest in their fossil heritage. For as long we are at the helm of our institution, we will never abuse that interest for the sake of tacky publicity.

British Columbia is only just starting to develop a cultural appreciation and respect for the province's fossil heritage. The idea that the public has a sense of ownership and pride over their province's heritage is not yet at the levels we see in Alberta, where fossils have been part of the cultural identity for decades. Being an institution operating in British Columbia and actively promoting a culture of pride and responsibility for fossil heritage resources is a serious business for us. We also rely on the goodwill of the public to be supportive of fossil heritage protection and conservation. We will not lightly throw that hard-earned trust away for the sake of a "joke".

Unfortunately for many of us scientists engaging in science communication about our respective fields, we are bombarded with examples of credible-looking fake-umentaries presented by organizations that are trusted by the public as providers of accurate information, all for the sake of publicity. Pick your favorite cryptozoology hunter show - my favorite examples are anything involving Bigfoot, which I have written about previously. Newsweek recently put out a special issue on Bigfoot. National Geographic has also jumped into the realm of presenting Bigfoot "research"Discovery Channel's Megalodon fakery. Discovery Channel's Mermaids fakery. These are all communication brands that have the trust of the public, and that trust is manipulated each and every time a fake-umentary or sensationalized show is presented as fact.

Public Service Science Announcement (PSScA): there is indeed such as thing as bad publicity, especially when it deliberately exploits people's science curiosity for the sake of clicks or views.

So, Dear Readers, I will be online this April Fools' Day, making sure that I keep track of this newest plan to exploit the public's love of fossils. I hope the group involved has had a sober second thought and will abandon this plan. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Busy Beetles!

Hello Dear Readers!

Get ready to feast your eyes on the results of my newest research tool - a GoPro! We picked up a GoPro Hero4 to try out in the field as part of my neoichnology studies. The best part of any new research technology is getting used to using it, and what would be better than sticking a GoPro in to one of the dermestid colonies and hitting "Record"? You're right - I can't think of anything better.


I call this clip "Beetles and the Wolf", a stirring tale that follows the epic journey of several Larder Beetles around the terrain of a Grey Wolf skull. I challenge you not to watch this and hear Yakety Sax playing in your head. Note: the video has been sped up considerably. The beetles are not this fast.