Saturday, April 25, 2015

We Need Help to Fund Summer Dinosaur Track Research!

Hello Dear Readers!

Regardless of the snow that is on the ground as I type, this is the time of year our planning kicks into high gear for this summer's field season. We have an exciting new dinosaur ichnology project (for new readers, ichnology is tracks, traces, and other "signs" left by dinosaurs other than their body parts), thanks to the sharp-eyed residents of the Peace Region who reported the site to us, and the guarantee that we can operate this year.

"Wait, Strange Woman - didn't you say you were office bound this summer in your last post?"

Indeed I am, friends. However, that doesn't mean I'm not hard at work ensuring the field season can happen for my Research Team. As a Museum Of Unusual Size (MOUS), we struggle every year to not only convince the Powers That Be that our institution (the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre) is a worthy project for conserving, archiving, researching, and interpreting British Columbia's fossil heritage, we have to justify WHY research should be funded. We have no access to research funding through provincial or federal means. We always approach the natural resource companies operating in the region for potential partnerships, and are usually given the same rebuff: "Our head office decides funding levels based on population size. You live in a small population center. You will get a small amount." Trying to convince them that this project is regional and provincial in scale does not make an impression.

This year we're trying something different. Two days ago I launched an Indiegogo campaign to crowd fund the research for our Williston Lake Tracksite (link to the "Research Dinosaur Tracks in Northeast BC, Canada!" campaign site here.)

There's good background information on the campaign page, but I'll also provide a summary here.

The new Williston Lake Tracksite is a large, flat exposure of the Gething Formation (Early Cretaceous, approximately 115 million years old). Dinosaurs in BC - and specifically dinosaur footprints - have a long, but little known history in the province. Tthe cultural history of many British Columbia residents of European descent (there may be First Nations historical recognition for the tracks - still hunting out info) has long assumed that "there are no dinosaurs in BC, they're found in Alberta" - I heard this so often growing up in BC that I wanted to scream. However, dinosaur prints were first found in northeast BC by geologist F. H. McLearn in 1922-23. Paleontologist Charles M. Sternberg led the first paleontology expedition to the Peace Region in 1930.

C. M. Sternberg named many new ichnotaxa (footprint types) from the Peace River Canyon Gething Formation sites in 1932 and on. This was the first extensively published description of Cretaceous tracks as a footprint community (ichnofauna). Several ichnotaxa were named:

Amblydactylus gethingi - here's a footprint and handprint pair from a different tracksite, not the original Sternberg locality.  Amblydactylus is thought to be made by a dinosaur related to Iguanodon.

Medium-sized herbivorous dinosaur print Gypsichnites pacensis (image not Sternberg's original site):

The small theropod footprint Irenichnites gracilis. This specimen is not from the original Sternberg localities:

Medium-sized theropod footprint Columbosauripus ungulatus (image not from Sternberg's sites):

Large-sized (and likely allosaurid) theropod prints Irenesauripus (from Sternberg 1932):

Last, but certainly not least, the ankylosaur footprints of Tetrapodosaurus borealis (image not from the Sternberg localities, but from our Flatbed Creek Trackway Tour site):

Later, Currie (1981) named what was, at the time, the oldest bird footprints known, and the second
bird footprints named from North America: Aquatilavipes swiboldae.
From Currie (1981).

There are two things I'm sure you have noticed by now:
1. The Peace River Canyon tracksites are important. Several type specimens come from there, and they are an important part of not only British Columbia's history, but the history of paleontology. The Province of British Columbia agreed, and in 1930 the Peace River Canyon site was designated as a Provincial Heritage Resource. Cool, right?
2. Most of the images are not from the original Peace River Canyon localities. Why? The Peace River Canyon localities, a Provincial Heritage Resource, are now flooded under the "Dinosaur Lake" reservoir of the Peace Canyon Dam. Despite a huge salvage effort by the Provincial Museum of Alberta (now the Royal Alberta Museum), led by paleontologist Dr. Philip Currie between 1976-1979 that recovered over 90 footprints, mapped 1000 prints, and in total documented 1700 prints, the sites and the in-place tracks were lost to future science, science outreach, and tourism opportunities.

This new site, the Williston Lake Tracksite, is the first large-scale track-bearing surface from the Gething Formation that has been seen since the flooding of the Peace River Canyon. We have this fantastic opportunity to continue Sternberg's and Currie's work.

First, we simply need to documenting the site. It won't really be simple: there's A LOT of site to be cleared (in yellow):

We need to map all of the footprints in place as they appear on the surface. We need to take latex and silicone molds of significant footprints and trackways. We also need to 3D-digitize the ENTIRE site.
We can take an entire tracksite back to the lab with us in 3D-digital replica format. Image from McCrea et al. (2014b).

Why do we need to do this?

We need to know a) what track types are there, b) what proportion each track type is in this slice of the paleo-ecosystem, and c) update or revise Sternberg's footprint identifications (as needed) with our advanced understanding of how footprints work - Sternberg did a great job in 1932, but our understanding of footprints has increased and changed a lot since then, and since the original Sternberg sites are inaccessible, we have this golden opportunity to research a site that is as close to what Sternberg saw as possible.

We can't miss this scientific opportunity. This is why we need your help. Some of the tracks are exposed, and we know from experience that the longer tracks are exposed, the more likely they are to be damaged by weathering (slow) and human selfishness (fast). We need to get in, uncover, document, and securely cover the site this summer. To do this safely and efficiently we need to replace our old equipment (truck, all-terrain vehicle) and pick up a new item: a secure cargo trailer in which we can store gear (we've had all of our sites robbed) and store specimens. We also need to feed our crew of staff and volunteers.

Once this site is documented, we hope that it can one day be used as a science-based tourism initiative. Our research this summer will be the basis for all of the exciting stories we'll discover about Early Cretaceous dinosaurs. We want to bring the Peace River Canyon tracks from their watery obscurity, if only by proxy, and tell their story to the world.

You can help us tell that story. The most important way you can help is to share the "Research Dinosaur Tracks in Northeast BC, Canada!" site with anyone interested in history, heritage, dinosaurs, and science education. If you have the means, we would greatly appreciate any contributions.

I know we can do this.


Currie PJ. 1981. Bird footprints from the Gething Formation (Aptian, Lower Cretaceous) of northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 1(3-4):257-264.

McCrea RT, Buckley LG, Plint AG, Currie PJ, Haggart JW, Helm CW, Pemberton SG. 2014a. A review of vertebrate track-bearing formations from the Mesozoic and earliest Cenozoic of western Canada, with a description of a new theropod ichnospecies and reassignment of an avian ichnospecies. New Mexico Museum of Natural History Bulletin 62: 5-94.

McCrea RT, Buckley LG, Farlow JO, Lockley MG, Currie PJ, et al. 2014b. A ‘Terror of Tyrannosaurs’: The First Trackways of Tyrannosaurids and Evidence of Gregariousness and Pathology in Tyrannosauridae. PLoS ONE 9(7): e103613. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103613

Sternberg CM. 1932. Dinosaur tracks from Peace River, British Columbia. National Museum of Canada Bulletin 68:59-85

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Ultimate Reality TV - Live Nest Cams! (a.k.a. Theropods/Birds Do It, Bees Do It)

Hello Dear Readers!

Excuse me while I clear the digital tumbleweeds from my blog. Strange Woman is in full-tilt writing mode right now: I have two papers with fast-approaching deadlines, and thesis chapters to write. If all goes well, I may be finished my degree by the end of the year.

Be they papers or thesis chapters (also known as future papers), this means I'll be spending a great deal of time at my computer, sitting and writing and drinking more Earl Grey tea than is good for a person. I've mentioned in previous posts that I have a rather distracted part of my brain that insists on being entertained while I'm writing. Since I have neither cable nor satellite (and haven't yet taken the Netflix plunge), and since there are only so many times I can re-watch what I refer to as my writing movies, I have become an unabashed live nest cam addict.

It's not only the up close view of the personal lives of birds, or the rapid transition from a helpless ball of fluff to a fully functioning bird of prey (or of fish, or of flower...) that fascinates me about nest cams: being an unapologetic bird geek, I love being able to spread my love of the avian world around. A peek into the usually secret lives of birds, from egg laying to leaving the nest, and to be able to watch parental care of deadly predators (in the case of our birds of prey), it gives me a sense of connection with nature that I miss when I am office-bound. Teaching, and getting kids interested in the natural world is another interest of mine. Nest cams are great teaching tools, and the Cornell Lab (see link below) provides wonderful tutorials on how to incorporate live nest cams in to biology lessons.

I also have a paleontology interest in the nesting behaviors of birds. Birds are modern-day (or extant, for the technical term) theropod dinosaurs! There is great fossil evidence that theropod dinosaurs also engaged in nest building, active egg incubation, and parental care that is similar to what we see in modern birds. The best example (and best-known science story) of bird-like brooding in theropods is with Oviraptor philoceratops (the egg thief that loves ceratopsians). This story begins with the initial interpretation of thievery to explain its presence on a dinosaur nest full of eggs (thought to be the eggs of Protoceratops), and an associated skeleton of a predatory dinosaur with a toothless beak: both pieces of information led the researchers of the day (Osborn 1924) to suggest that Oviraptor was well-suited - and took advantage of - a diet that included eggs. Norell et al. (1999) examined an oviraptorid skeleton found in a similar position as the original Oviraptor specimen - a skeleton closely associated with a clutch of fossil eggs.

Figure 1 from Norell et al. (1999). Here's a link to the paper. Free to download from the American Museum of Natural History Research Library, along with many others!

The study of eggshell is a sub-discipline within paleontology much like ichnology: by studying the surface and microscopic details of eggshell, researchers can identify which animals laid the eggs. Dr. Darla Zelenitsky is an expert in the study of dinosaur egg shell and reproductive traits in dinosaurs: check out the research page for Evolution of Reproductive Traits in Theropods, and feast your eyes on an image of an oviraptorid skeleton with eggs actually inside the pelvic cavity!

(Note: Unfortunately, there are also many, many theropod eggs for sale online. These mostly come from Mongolia, and they are illegally removed from the country. As I've stated before, buying specimens like these supports fossil poaching and other illegal fossil-related activities. Yes, bad pun alert: the eggs you see for sale online are poached.)

To return to the story of Oviraptor, Norell et al. used the shape and texture of eggs that contained embryonic oviraptorid bone found in different parts of Mongolia and compared those eggs to the eggs found in a nest topped with an Oviraptor skeleton. Sure enough, the morphology of the eggs matched! These Oviraptor specimens did not die in the act of thieving a Protoceratops nest - they were incubating their own eggs. Of course, that does not suggest that Oviraptor didn't ever rob nests of other dinosaurs - modern birds, such as corvids (crows, ravens, magpies, jays), raid the nests of other birds. Food is food. However, what these nests and skeletons do show is that bird-like nest building and brooding are not restricted to our modern theropods - nesting is an old, old behavior for dinosaurs.

There is more evidence of nesting behavior in dinosaurs, but here is a very short list. Varricchio et al (1999) describe a nest attributable to the Late Cretaceous theropod Troodon formosus, and document both the crocodile-like and bird-like traits seen in the nest. The nesting hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs) from the Two Medicine Formation in Montana are another famous example (Horner and Makela 1979). Nests have also been well-documented for titanosaurid sauropods (Chiappe et al. 2004, for just one example).

Because of the increased information we have on the nesting behavior of dinosaurs, paleontologists are able to examine other aspects of dinosaur reproduction, such as when dinosaurs became sexually mature (check out the Erickson et al. 2007 paper here), and how active hatchling dinosaurs may have been based on the microstructure and development of their bones (Horner et al. 2000). There are even data that suggest Cretaceous snakes may have preyed upon hatchling sauropods: check out the paper and images by Wilson et al. (2010) here. Cretaceous nesting biology was just as complex and fascinating as is modern nesting biology!

If you want to see some modern theropods nesting and raising their young, here are the live nest cams I watch. All of the cams listed here have a bird incubating eggs, young in the nest, or are being actively investigated by potential nesters. This list is by no means an exhaustive list of all live nest cams everywhere - there are nest cams up all over the world, and this list is admittedly Canada and United States focused. If you have a favorite nest cam, please share the link in the comments section, and I'll add it to this list!

Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Cams - Here you will find great educational resources for incorporating Bird Cams in to classroom lessons! Their bird cams are:
  • Great Horned Owls, Skidaway Audobon - On air. The owls have fledged, but there are two Osprey that have been visiting the now empty nest. Will the nest be repurposed? Watch and find out!
  • Laysan Albatross, Anonymous - On air! Chick active and growing (with the occasional rooster prancing across the stage). A different kind of nesting strategy - ground-nesting! You also get to see parents feeding the chick, and adults performing display behaviors.

American Kestrel Partnership Bosch KestrelCam - On air, and there may be five eggs in the nest! Kestrels are cavity nesters, and you can find instructions on how to set up a nest box for American Kestrels here.

The Peregrine Fund Peregrine Falcon Nest Cam, Boise, Idaho - On air. Mother is on the nest at this writing. It is not uncommon to find Peregrine Falcons living in urban areas, as these birds of prey are most often seen in a mountain habitat and are cliff-nesters. This is why we find Peregrine Falcons nesting on ledges of tall buildings.

Alessondra's OKC Great Horned Owl-Cam - Great Horned Owls decided that a planter makes a great nest! The nest cam was set up by homeschooling family and used as an educational tool. Off air now that fledging has taken place for the year. Will they return for 2016? [Note: if you watch the farewell video, the starting theme music and sad tones had me worried that the owls had died. Happy Spoiler: they successfully fledged.]

Pennsylvania Bald Eagles, Hanover, Pennsylvania Game Commission - On air, and two chicks (looking quite theropod-y) are in the nest!

Bella Hummingbird's Nest Cam, La Verne, California - On air, and the tiny nest is crammed full of two Allen's Hummingbird chicks!

Happy Nest Viewing!


Chiappe LM, Schmitt JG, Jackson FJ, Garrido A, Dingus L, & Grellet-Tinner G. 2004. Nest structure for sauropods: sedimentary criteria for recognition of dinosaur nesting traces. Palaios 19(1):89-95.

Clark JM, Norell MA, & Chiappe LM. 1999. An oviraptorid skeleton from the Late Cretaceous
of Ukhaa Tolgod, Mongolia, preserved in an avianlike brooding position over an oviraptorid nest. American Museum Novitates 3265:1-36.

Erickson GM, Curry-Rogers K, Varricchio DJ, Norell MA, & Xu X. 2007. Growth patterns in brooding dinosaurs reveals the timing of sexual maturity in non-avian dinosaurs and genesis of the avian conditio. Biology Letters 3(5):558-561.

Horner JR & Makela R. 1979. Nest of juveniles provides evidence of family structure among dinosaurs. Nature 282:296-298.

Horner JR, Padian K, & de Ricqlès A. 2001. Comparative osteohistology of some embryonic and perinatal archosaurs: developmental and behavioral implications for dinosaurs. Paleobiology 27(1):39-58.

Osbom, HF. 1924. Three new Theropoda, Protoceratops zone, central Mongolia. American Museum Novitates 144:1-12.

Varricchio DJ, Jackson F, & Trueman CN. 1999. A nesting trace with eggs for the Cretaceous theropod dinosaur Troodon formosus. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19(1):91-100.

Wilson JA, Mohabey DM, Peters SE, Head JJ. 2010. Predation uponh atchling dinosaurs by a new snake from the Late Cretaceous of India. PLoS Biol 8(3): e1000322. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000322