Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tracking Cretaceous Birds In South Korea, The Introduction

Hello Dear Readers!

It has been a while since I have dusted the cobwebs off of Ye Olde Blog! I will break my blog silence by starting a series of weekly posts on our recent tracking adventure to South Korea!

We were invited by our colleagues Dr. Kim, Kyung-soo and his research group, to visit various Early Cretaceous field sites in South Korea.

NOTE: Ever since this trip was planned, I heard no end of "jokes," half-jokes, and concern about being in a "potentially dangerous part of the world," given the political climate of 2017. While I understand that those who were truly concerned meant well, I was not concerned for two reasons. One, our hosts were not concerned. If anyone was going to know the up-to-date status of the situation, it was going to be our hosts. I trusted their read of the situation. Two, field work is an inherently risky venture. No matter where you conduct field work in the world, there are going to be area-specific risks. The risks we typically face in northern western Canada are helicopter crashes, wild animal attacks, irate and/or intoxicated people, physical injury, and exposure. Some risks you can mitigate. Others you cannot. I'm not naive, but I'm also not going to fret myself to a point where I'm too scared to take a risk. I'm too old for that ****. Your Mileage May Vary.

These track sites preserve an amazingly diverse ichnofauna (ichnofauna = the critters present based on what you can tell from tracks alone) of non-avian and avian dinosaurs...aka BIRDS. And what birds! There are Early Cretaceous bird track types that are found in Korea and no where else (to date.) Since my work largely deals with Early Cretaceous bird tracks, this was an opportunity to see examples of these track types first hand. So far, I have been limited to working with data, images, and the occasional replica of Cretaceous bird tracks from Korea. There is nothing like seeing the original specimen to see first-hand the intricate details.

Not only would we see these great bird track types in person, we would also be able to collect images to create 3D digital models using the technique called photogrammetry, pioneered in vertebrate paleontology by Neffra Matthews and Tom Noble. Being able to "bring" 3D replicas of track specimens back to our lab means that we can spend much more time examining the specimens in detail. Having on-site 3D models also means that we can compare the bird tracks of Korea side-by-side with the Early Cretaceous bird tracks we find in western Canada.

This visit to Korea will allow us to address some important questions we have of birds and their tracks of the Early Cretaceous:

- What bird track types are unique to western Canada and Korea, respectively? What bird track types are shared? This will give us updated information on where different groups of birds were in the Early Cretaceous world.

- How many different ways can one bird track type appear in the fossil record? A large sample size of bird tracks - showing different types of preservation - are needed to make sure that the differences we see among bird tracks are due to actual shape differences in the bird foot. The same bird foot can walk on mucky mud and firm sand and leave two tracks that look different. The sample size of the Korea bird tracks is an ichnologist's dream come true.

- Do bird track types change over time? In both western Canada and Korea we have rock layers that preserve several stages of the Early Cretaceous. Specifically, we're looking at Aptian (113-125 million years ago) and Albian (100.5 - 113 million years ago) age track-bearing layers of the Early Cretaceous. Western Canada also has track-bearing layers that are 145 - 125 million years old. This means we can see what birds were doing in the world (using their tracks) up to the Aptian, and then compare in detail the changes that happen with bird tracks in the Aptian and the Albian stages in both western Canada and Korea.

Our flight out of Fort St. John on September 9 was at 5:45am (meaning a 4:30am check-in) so, in true remote-living style, we drove two hours the night before and got a room. We groggily boarded, and thankfully didn't have to sky-check the camera equipment.

TRAVEL NOTE: When planning an international field expedition that involves air travel, keep in mind the small service or connecting flights. They have much smaller carry-on capacity than the longer/larger flights. You may not want to release your camera gear to the tender (?) mercies of checked luggage.

We flew from Fort St. John to Vancouver, and after a short layover, boarded and settled in for a 10 hr flight across the Pacific Ocean. The flight was good: I even got a bit of writing done. The only questionable moment was self-induced: we watched "Alien: Covenant." Don't get me started on the epic disappointment that are the new Alien movies.

Yeah, Ripley: I know. I know.
We landed at the Incheon International Airport around 1:30pm local time, collected our luggage, and met our host at one of the coffee shops. We then waited for Martin's (Dr. Martin Lockley) to arrive around 4pm. Once we were all herded together, we started the three hour drive to the first destination of our adventure in Korea: the Natural Heritage Center collections facility in Daejeon!

Stay tuned for the next part of the Adventure!


  1. I heard something about Cretaceous zygodactyl tracks somewhere in east Asia once; is that in Korea?

    1. Hi Andrew,
      There is an Early Cretaceous zygodactyl bird track from the Shandong Province of China: Shandongornipes muxiai.
      and this link

      To date this track type hasn't been described in Korea, but there are so many bird tracks there that it wouldn't surprise me if a similar ichnotaxon was eventually found.

  2. Very interesting to learn what you were working on in Korea. Looking forward to the next chapter.