Saturday, May 24, 2014

Fossil Commercialism and the Threat to Paleontology, Part 3: The Outreach

I recently did some consulting work on an article with Mika McKinnon entitled "Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones". This is an article that was inspired by a discussion thread of "What Mysterious Creature Left These 190-Million-Year-Old Footprints?" on the issues surrounding the commercial fossil trade and private ownership of fossils among myself, artiofab, and someone who regretted not buying a trilobite trackway.

Please take a moment to read the "Fossil Poaching and the Black Market in Dinosaur Bones" article. It's full of juicy links to other media that highlight the issues with which academic paleontologists are concerned in regards to fossil heritage conservation.

The article does what very few discussion threads (or the media) address when tackling this quagmire of an issue: it suggests possible solutions that are neither "All selling and private ownership is evil!" nor "Have a Fossil Sellapalloza or you hate children's dreams!" It's a middle of the road approach that I think would benefit all parties in the long run (except those parties conducting illegal activities or exploiting impoverished areas by encouraging illegal activities.) I've summarized them below:

1. Develop a system to provide proof of legal collection.
- Did that specimen come from China? Likely illegally collected and exported. Is that tyrannosaur Mongolian in origin? That specimen was poached. Perhaps it is just me, but I can't imagine wanting to own anything that was illegally collected.
2. Have a review body of scientists clear items for sale.
- I like this suggestion, because it has the added benefit of the review body also being able to put sellers in touch with institutions that could archive the specimen, and working with them to develop a fair price or donation.
3. Regulated pricing of heritage items.
- Resources are involved when collecting fossils and preparing them, but having some sort of price cap (cost of collecting and preparing the specimen, plus a percentage?) would not only give museums a chance to realistically purchase a specimen for the public trust, but may help to discourage the illegal trade.
4 & 6. Register fossils in a private archives.
- As I've stated in a previous post, I would love to develop a Citizen Archives Program. The Citizen Archivist would be an official branch of our museum. They would be trained in the proper archiving techniques, and all specimens would officially be part of the museum's archives. Archives would be reviewed regularly to ensure that proper practices (e.g. no selling off or trading archived fossils, etc.), and there would be an agreement as to where the fossils went after the cessation of activity of the Archivist.
5. Remove fossils from the luxury market.
- How the hell did it become the "thing" to have a fossil in your home as a piece of art? I understand that fossils are fantastically fascinating and awe-inspiring, but that doesn't mean that they should be treated like art purchased from a gallery. People once wore dead birds on hats as a fashionable accessory: the "Plume Boom" in the early 1900s saw hundreds of millions of birds killed worldwide for the millinery trade. I would love the idea of owning "rare" fossils (the poor theropods seem to bear the brunt of fashion, extant or extinct) to become as fashionable as me wearing this to my next conference:'am. I hate to intrude, but you have an ex-bird on your head. Image source:
I've also been contributing to the comments section of the article, clarifying issues and, in one case, trying to steer a comment back on track. I'm hoping that people will test-discuss some possible solutions, and I will discuss some of these solutions in future posts. If you have any ideas, please contribute to the discussion!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Setting the Stage: Neoichnology Field Work 2014

Hello, Dear Readers!

The snow is gone, the solar radiation has increased to levels high enough to turn me into a human lobster, and, best of all, the shorebirds are returning to northeastern British Columbia! The return of the shorebirds heralds the beginning of my summer neoichnology field work.

Neoichnology is the study of tracks made by extant animals. One of my research activities involves building a representative collection of shorebird (and other bird) tracks from the region. This year I am able to get an early start (for this region) on collecting data. Yesterday I made my first research foray of the year (as opposed to surveys for the return of shorebirds) into Bullmoose Marshes (thanks to the Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society) to test a prototype of a Super Secret Awesome Track-Collecting Device.

Okay, it's really a piece of foam covered in mud. Super Secret Awesome Track-Collecting Device sounds much more exciting, doesn't it?

In the spring and early summer, when the water levels are still high in the marsh, the shorebirds go about their usual business of foraging and displaying along the submerged shorelines, except that their usual activities tend to not leave tracks. They also enjoy perching on partially submerged logs - again, not a substrate on which tracks usually impress.

The shorebirds that have first returned to the marshes this year are the Solitary Sandpipers.
This is why I need a telephoto lens.
Meet my quarry - the Solitary Sandpipers!
As you can see, they are quite content to hang out on logs, and there is very little shore exposed for these shorebirds to live up to their name. Rather than waiting for the water levels to decrease, I decided to try to bring the shore to the birds. Here is my step-by-step construction of my prototype for a Floating Ichnology Stage.

Step 1 - Gather your equipment:
- One piece of 5cm thick, high density polystyrene foam
- One stick
- A sharp knife
- Nylon rope, at least several meters long (depends on how much free water is available at the study area)
- A five gallon bucket
- A shovel
- At least one field assistant to take photos of their boss flolloping around in the mud (I brought both our field assistant and our summer education coordinator for an afternoon of birding)

All of the gear loaded into the back of Dagon, my trusty steed. There is enough material here for two stages.
We hiked all of the material out to the first viewing platform at the Marshes at the end of the Sora Trail. The next photos are a combination of constructing the two stages.

Step 2 - Attach the mooring rope to the foam stage. Obviously I will want to be able to pull in the stage after (if) I see shorebirds walk on its surface. I cut a hole completely through the foam. I tied one end of the mooring rope on the stick mid-length. (Make sure to clean up all the foam bits, or pre-cut in the lab.)
Step 3 - I then threaded the stick and rope through the hole from what I chose to be the bottom of the stage, so that the stick rests on the top surface of the stage and the rope is attached to the stick from the underside of the stage, as below:
Step 4 - Attach the free end of the mooring rope to a secure anchor point. At the Sora Trail site I attached the rope to a secure clump of willows, while at the Bittern Trail site I anchored the stage to one of the support posts of the dock.
Please, well-meaning tourists. Do not untie my stages. (I camouflaged the rope.) Also, please, well-meaning muskrats. Do not chew through my mooring ropes.
Step 5 - Mud the stage. I always use mud, sand, or silt that is local to the test area. One, I don't want to introduce foreign material to the area that I can't completely remove, and two, I don't want the sandpipers to think the surface is "strange."
It's like icing a swampy-smelling cake. The entire surface is coated with the local substrate.
It's a bit late, but this is my offering to #ManicureMonday.
Step 6 - Undeway!
I double-checked that the mooring rope was firmly attached to the dock, and then sent the stage out for its maiden voyage into the marsh.
It floats!
It's still floating!
Even if the strong winds that day blow the stages over to the shore, they will still provide a bare, soft substrate on which shorebirds can display and forage.

On the way to check the first stage we set afloat for feathered visitors, we found a small exposure of marsh mud. Solitary Sandpiper tracks were preserved! (Note: Solitary Sandpipers are the first shorebirds to return to the marshes this year, and so far there have been no sightings of the Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, or the dowitchers.)
How many prints do you see here?
One way to collect data on shorebird prints is to make a phyical replica using fiberglass-reinforced plaster. I'm working on a step-by-step post that anyone can use to collect their own samples. A new addition to my data collection process is photogrammetry: I take several overlapping photos of the original specimen (prior to replicating) that can be used to reconstruct a 3-D digital model that only takes up hard drive space.
In-progress plaster casts of the Solitary Sandpiper footprints.
The plaster casts were successfully removed (as well as any spare plaster bits) and are now drying in the lab. Once the plaster is fully cured I will remove the extraneous mud from the surface and reveal the prints!

Tomorrow I'll revisit the stages and check them for prints. Hopefully I'll be able to report that the stages were attractive to the birds and well-used!


UPDATE 21-05-2014: Success! The floating stage at the end of the Sora Trail was not only used by at least one Solitary Sandpiper, but it was foraged on! The prints were very shallow, so I opted to take a series of 189 photogrammetry images (which I will begin processing tonight) instead of the replicating the entire surface in plaster.  Stay tuned!
The SS Cthulhu. (Yes, I named my stages using the Lovecraft mythos. It seems fitting, as they are covered with glop.)
Solitary Sandpiper prints on the SS Cthulhu.