Friday, May 11, 2018

The Ivory Tower of Buying Fossils

It has been a couple of years since I've written about the commercial fossil trade and its erosive impacts (oh yes, I went there) on the science and public access of vertebrate paleontology heritage. Here's the usual scenario that inspires one of these posts:

There is media coverage of the high-profile sale of a dinosaur skeleton, and that skeleton is typically the skeleton of a theropod skeleton. There will be an opening line of "If you have Floppity Million dollars to spare, you could buy a dinosaur skeleton." Someone will be quoted as a paleontology expert. That expert will state that the skeleton is new to science, which justifies the million to multimillion-dollar price tag. There are some hazy references to the sellers and some quotes that portray how they were so excited to find such an amazing find. There is little consideration given to the future of the specimen once it is purchased.

And scene.

I was simultaneously frustrated and amused about The Guardian's "Rare dinosaur skeleton for sale - along with the rights to name species" piece. Amused because not only did it follow the tired formula of reporting on high-profile fossil sales, but it added the twist of buying the naming rights. Frustrated because, no matter how flippantly the naming of a fossil is described in the article, the realities are just not that simple. Let's get to the bones of the issue.

First, there are definite spins being played in this situation to make it appear above controversy. There is mention of charities that will receive a portion of the proceeds of the sale, but what's the amount? What percentage of that sale of 1.2 million euros is going to actually go to charities? 1 percent? 10 percent? 50 percent? Is this going to be a meaningful chunk of change, or is it the least possible buy-in for good optics?

The next spin tactic is the "fingers crossed it goes to a public display" pleading, in this case, quoted by "dinosaur expert" Eric Mickeler:

"Mickeler said he hoped the skeleton’s new owner would put it on public display.

“Dinosaur skeletons used to be bought by museums or collectors but recently there’s interest from a whole range of people. Thankfully in all the sales I have handled there’s never been one where the skeleton has ended up in a private place. Buyers like to share their pleasure, and there’s the size to consider,” he said."

While I'm pleased that every sale this person has handled resulted in the specimen ending up in a public museum, but make no mistake: that is not guaranteed. This is why the commercial fossil trade is fraught with critique: there is no guaranteed stability for fossils that are purchased by private collectors.

Museums, in general, tend to be more stable than one person or a company. Museum archives are held in the public trust: this means that the fossils (or stuffed birds, or pickled spiders, or artifacts) are being cared for by specially-trained people for all of us. Museums and archives are caretakers of our common heritage. The archives are (ideally) a stable home that will care for a fossil specimen indefinitely. Two hundred years from now, we should be able to know exactly where that fossil is stored, and hear about the new discoveries that have been made because of that fossil over the years.

This is the other key part of a museum archive: scientists will be able to see that specimen ten or a hundred years from now to make new discoveries or to update science done by older technology. For example, our head curator, Dr. Richard McCrea, spent time at the Canadian Museum of Nature archives looking at the dinosaur footprint collections made by Charles Mortram Sternberg from the Hudson's Hope. C. M. Sternberg wrote up his finds in 1932. Eighty years later, Rich was able to see the exact footprints that C. M. Sternberg saw and apply new study techniques to those very specimens. That's the kind of stability a museum archive promises.

An individual human, or family, or even a business cannot promise the same long-term stability or access. The buyer - unless it is a museum - is under no obligation or code of ethics to keep the specimen in one place. The buyer could purchase the skeleton, get their name on it (more on that below), and then resell it. The buyer is under no obligation to disclose what they do with the specimen after they buy it. 

The buyer is also under no obligation to open their home/business to scientists wanting to study the specimen. They could deny access for personal or political reasons. For example: what if a scientist thinks "Hey, this newly named Bobosaurus might actually be an Allosaurus after all, so it doesn't need a new name." The buyer, if they have their name attached to the critter, might not want to see their dinosaur name be made defunct.

This brings me to the purchase of specimen naming rights. I'll quote the handler for this situation:

'[Mickeler] added: “The rule for all scientific discoveries that are confirmed to be new, the person who owns it can give it its scientific name. It can be the name of a company or a person. Then they just add an ‘-us’ on the end.”

I do not know Prof. Mickeler: I have not heard their name through any of the other vertebrate paleontologists who I know. However, it's a comment like the one above that causes me to question their familiarity with how new specimens are named. I sincerely hope that Mickeler was misquoted because this statement ignores all of the conditions that must be met to name a new fossil specimen. I also do not know who the "unnamed paleontologists" are. I hope that they have a long, careful read of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's Code of Ethics. If they are members in good standing with the SVP, they should be familiar with Section 6:

Section 6. Commercial sale or trade - The barter, sale or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into, or keeps them within, a public trust. Any other trade or commerce in scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is inconsistent with the foregoing, in that it deprives both the public and professionals of important specimens, which are part of our natural heritage.

First, one does not simply buy a fossil specimen and then announce in a press release "I NAME THEE BOBOSAURUS!" For a name to stick to a fossil (think Tyrannosaurus rex), that fossil first must be compared to all of the similar sized and shaped fossils that are already named. If the bones are indeed different, then you can think about a new name.

Second, all of that comparison work has to be written up in a scientific paper. This paper can't just be published on my blog or in a newspaper. That scientific write-up has to be submitted to a scientific journal. That journal starts the process called peer-review, where the paper is then sent to specialists in that area of study. In this case, the paper would be sent to experts in large carnivorous dinosaurs. It is the job of those experts to pull that paper apart, identifying all of the areas that the paper is weak: faulty reasoning, leaps of logic, and opinion being stated as fact. The reviewers and the editor might agree there's not enough evidence to justify giving the specimen a new name. 

Third, more and more scientific journals are making it a requirement that specimens being published in their journal must be cared for in a public-trust archive, like a museum archive. There's a very good chance that studies of this specimen won't be able to be published unless the specimen finds it's forever home in a museum. 

Fourth, naming new fossils is more than just sticking an "-us" on the end of your name. There is a whole instruction manual for naming new critters called the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature. Names have been made defunct just over not following the naming rules. For example, you can't name your new fossil "Brentisajerkosaurus Iruleyoudroolensis" because there are rules against being a jerk to someone in a fossil name. [Apologies to anyone named Brent. I'm sure you're not a jerk.]

Fifth, there's no guarantee that your named specimen that you spent Floppity Million dollars on isn't going to be renamed on you. As my friend and colleague Dr. Andrew Farke pointed out on Twitter, there's a lot of naming and renaming that is done on theropods (a.k.a. carnivorous dinosaurs) without needing to physically see the specimen. Just because you spent money on that name doesn't mean that name is going to be used forever.

Oh, and a funny bit about the science of naming things: if you give a new name to a specimen, and someone proves that the specimen is something that already has a name, your new name can never be used again. At best, your fancy expensive name will be given the title of "nomen dubium," which means that experts doubt the validity of the name. 

The Ivory Tower and The Dinosaur

One critique I hear, invariably whenever I write or speak about responsible fossil stewardship, is that I'm an Ivory Tower socialist elitist who wants to hoard all of the fossils and make sure that no one else gets to see them because of Reasons. I have an excellent long laugh at comments like these. We are advocating that fossils be kept in the public trust for the benefit of the largest number of people possible. The private sale of fossils, with large price tags, is such a succinct example of exclusion and elitism. Only a select few benefit from the sale of a fossil. You depend on the motives of the buyer as to whether that specimen will be available to the public. If we're going to label those actions that are elitist and exclusionary, that only benefit a select few as Ivory Tower, then I cannot think of a more perfect recipient of that label than the commercial fossil trade. When your actions support turning the specimens that are our common heritage into luxury collectibles, you have abandoned all illusion that the selling of fossils is altruistic, that it is for the common good, if you aim only to benefit the few. "

What are options other than selling a fossil specimen?

Use that money to fund research programs, museum operations, and archives upgrades. A 1.2 million euro donation to a museum's or scientist's work will ensure several years of discoveries are made. Science and discovery is not something that happens without support, and that support means money. Fieldwork to exciting locations costs money. Removing a new fossil from the ground costs money. Cleaning and restoring that fossil costs money. Visiting other museums to see if your fossil is new costs money. Putting that fossil on display costs money. This might sound like justification for selling one fossil for 1.2 million euros, but the difference is that a donation to a museum has the potential to make multiple such discoveries, not just the one. A research lab would be able to train multiple future paleontologists and share the many discoveries that you funded with the world. A donation is a better bang for your buck

Another method to "make money" off of a fossil specimen is to sell replicas. Fossil replicas are wonderful! They are lighter and less fragile than the original fossil. Fossil replicas can be displayed in a variety of ways and under a variety of conditions. Fossil replicas are the same size and shape of the original fossil so they will look just as impressive. The largest benefit is that replicas are replaceable: as long as the original specimen and the molds are being cared for in a long-term archive, you can make replacement replicas. Oh, and fossil replicas are a lot less expensive than the asking price for fossils being sold at auction, so there is more chance that museums - particularly small museums - can afford to put such replicas on display for their public. The revenues of replica sales can be recycled into the mechanisms that make the discovery of fossils possible: research and archives.

I do hope that the specimen ends up in a public collection, but the data to support such a hope is mixed. I do hope that the paleontologists involved have thought past the quick flash of their promotional idea to what such actions mean for the respect of fossil heritage as a whole.

For more of my thoughts on the commercial fossil trade, please see:

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Bird Glamour and Scicomm: The Almost One Year Review

Hello Dear Readers!

I'm not going to try to gloss over the situation, but March and April have been less than glamorous. The District of Tumbler Ridge denied the annual operational funding request of our parent organization, the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation, because...well, I'm not really sure why Dear Readers. The reasons we are given (and that are stated in the media) keep changing in moving goalpost fashion. There's potential for a "because...Reasons" meme here. So, I'm sitting here with a termination notice in my pocket (the TRMF had no choice but to issue all of its employees, including me, the notices.) I'm not done writing about this, but that will be a future post, and one filled with more information than the "because...Reasons" that we have been given. Stay tuned.

This development happened in conjunction with a series of talks me and my colleague Dr. Richard McCrea gave in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island. First, we helped open the Beaty Biodiversity Museum's newest permanent exhibit Footprints In Time (link to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum website here) on the University of British Columbia campus. This was an excellent partnership: we made the trackway replicas, and then worked with their display and scicomm team to create the interpretive text. The displays look spectacular! Below is a picture of one of the trackway replicas, a 130 million-year-old track slab from northeast British Columbia that contains the natural cast (track infills) trackways of a large theropod (likely an allosaurid) and an ornithopod (likely similar in size and shape to Iguanodon.) That evening Rich gave a talk on dinosaur tracks from British Columbia (with a focus on the Six Peaks Dinosaur Track Site, follow the link for our YouTube video) for the Beaty Biodiversity Museum's Nocturnal lecture series.
One of three dinosaur trackway slab replicas (original specimens currently curated at the PRPRC) now on display at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum on the University of British Columbia campus!
I gave four talks over two days at Science World in Vancouver (that may also be the subject of a future post), and then I gave a presentation on what we know about dinosaur behavior from tracks and traces (a.k.a. ichnology) for the Beaty Biodiversity Museum's "Way Cool" series. Then we gave talks on track research in British Columbia in Courtenay for the Vancouver Island Paleontological Society.


I can now talk about the subject of this post, which is my reflections on my almost one year anniversary of when #BirdGlamour took flight! Bird Glamour is a scicomm and sciart project that I developed to introduce people to the wonderful diversity and life history of our present-day theropods, a.k.a. birds, using a rather unconventional medium...COSMETICS!

My most recent #BirdGlamour is the Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)!
Each Bird Glamour post comes with a cool fact about the life history of the subject bird, ranging from migration to food preferences to feather pigments: basically, any tidbit of information that I think people would connect with. I launched Bird Glamour on June 9, 2017, with a very simple post.
To be honest, I had no idea how the linking of ornithology with cosmetics would be received. Some people in science are not exactly open to the idea of Science Selfies; however, read the strong rebuttal to this on the blog From The Lab Bench entitled "Why We Scientists Do Instagram." My concerns were unfounded. Bird Glamour is a hit!

There have been great highlights in the short life of Bird Glamour. One was my first video tutorial, developed with Audubon, for a Halloween-themed Bohemian Waxwing Bird Glamour!

I was also asked to do a promotional Bird Glamour for The Urban Interface, a non-profit wildlife and nature education center. They have lovely wildlife Ambassadors for which they care and train for educational purposes. Their Ambassador Pandora, a Swainson's Hawk, is a lovely Bird Glamour model.
Now that I'm nearing the one-year Glamour-versary (oh yes, I went there) of Bird Glamour, I wanted to fly a few ideas past Twitter to see if some new styles or techniques would ruffle any feathers. I went to the polls!

1. Most respondents were quite eager to see me migrate to other continents to glam it up!
I definitely agree! There are so many exciting birds and cool bird diversity to explore!

2. In addition to my usual style of Bird Glamour, people are interested in seeing me do makeup tutorials while I chirp about the bird being glamoured!
YouTube will be a new adventure for me. I'll admit that I feel nervous on camera. I also recognize that I shouldn't feel this way: I've been interviewed many times for documentaries and media. I'm hoping this nervous feeling will fade with familiarity.

3. There is interest to see how these Bird Glamour looks could be transformed to every day looks, or at least a fun evening look!
I will definitely experiment with everyday Bird Glamour looks. I am not an expert in applying cosmetics, so if you're also new to makeup, we can learn (and possibly laugh) together.

4. This poll on incorporating female coloration into Bird Glamour was almost neck-in-turkey-neck. To date, the looks have focused on male plumage (or those birds that have similar male and female plumage).
I agree with keeping the male and female plumage colors separate. However, I will glamour cases of gynandromorphism, the condition where an animal shows both male and female characteristics. Animals with bilateral gynandromorphism look male on one side and female on the opposite side. A recent case of bilateral gynandromorphism that hit the bird news was the gynandromorph Northern Cardinal.

5. My last question involved beak color. Given the array of lipstick colors available, I think people wouldn't mind part of my makeup bill being used for Bird Glamour lipstick!
You'll be proud of me, Bird Glamour fans: I have started acquiring fun lipstick colors!
I also did my first Bird Glamour post that includes lip color: the Herring Gull.
Gulls are the perfect bird for incorporating lips into the Bird Glamour look. Many species of gull have a fairly standard adult head color - grey-white - but there is color variation in the stripes and spots on their beaks!

Reception of Bird Glamour

Online Reception - The sheer number of positive comments and encouragement online is both staggering and humbling. I am thrilled that Bird Glamour speaks to people. Science art (sciart) is a powerful tool in science communication: there's a reason for the saying "A picture is worth a thousand words." Images are a powerful and effective way to transmit complex ideas. The idea of Sketchnoting relies on the information-delivery power of illustrations to highlight key concepts. Using a different style of illustration - makeup - allows me to highlight birds that people might want to know more about.

Bird Glamour also starts some great conversations about bird lives and biology. The most frequently asked question is "Why do so many birds have a black stripe around their eyes?" That's a good question! There was a study done on what the Masked Shrike uses its bold black eyeliner for. Is it to reduce glare for hunting? Does it make the eyes of the shrike appear bold and scary to deter predators? Does it help the shrike camouflage itself for sneak attacks, or hide the eyes so its prey doesn't know it's being watched? When researchers temporarily painted some Masked Shrike's masks from black to white (they Bird Glamoured an actual bird!) the shrikes with white eye masks had more trouble snagging prey and did most of their hunting facing away from the sun. It turns out black eye masks act as sunglasses for birds, at least for Masked Shrikes.

Public Reception - How do people react when they see me in public all Bird Glamoured up? It depends on the setting. I did a Bird Glamour version of the feathered theropod Anchiornis huxleyi, know for its striking black, white, and rusty red plumage, for attending the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Auction.
I had several people who approached me to say they enjoyed the Anchiornis Bird Glamour. There were also some smiling looks, but perhaps starting the conversation of "Hey, why is your makeup like that?" felt too socially awkward for them. I completely understand. Starting conversations with people I don't know is difficult for me as well. Running up to people, waving my arms and shouting "HEY WANT TO TALK ABOUT MY EYES AND ANCHIORNIS?" seems a bit intense, so I need to work on that approach. There were also some unsmiling stares and quick look-aways. That I also understand: Bird Glamour doesn't have to appeal to everyone. Or perhaps they thought I was unprofessional or strange. Well, as my readers and social media friends know, I am strange, but I am completely comfortable with expressing my interests and passions.

Family audiences are very receptive to Bird Glamour. When I did a presentation for families at the Goseong Public Library on Cretaceous bird track types found in both Canada and South Korea, the public reception was great! I had my picture taken with a lot of families! The people in the makeup department at our closest Shoppers are also interested: more than once I've gone in with a picture of a bird and asked "I'm looking for this color. Do you have anything like this?" On seeing some of my Bird Glamour posts, one commented: "Wow, so you're an artist!" That took me by surprise: I have never identified as an artist before. I can pencil sketch with enough accuracy to satisfy my eye, but art is not something that I have ever done professionally. All I could do was stammer for a bit and then say "Huh. Yeah, I guess I am!"

I am planning something super fun for my official one-year Glamour-versary in terms of setting and the bird, and a great bunch of Bird Glamour pictures to share from our West Coast trip.

What birds would you like to see for future Bird Glamour pictures? Do you have a science specialty that would make a great Glamour? Itati (@itatiVCS) has started #EcoGlam #MachineFacts to share how she uses various equipment to do ecology research! I'm going to enjoy following this hashtag!
Stay tuned for more Bird Glamour!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Tracking Cretaceous Birds in South Korea: Goseong Public Library Talks

Hello, Dear Readers!

We've made it to September 16, 2017, when our Ichnology Heros are scheduled to give talks to the public at the Goseong Public Library! When we go to another country to do research, we always offer to give a local talk on the work we do in Canada, and how the local fossil record fits in with our work on a global scale.

Giving a talk in another country where the language is not your primary language is not that different (in my experience) than tailoring an academic talk to a public audience:

1. Keep the jargon to a minimum. There's always a way to explain even a highly technical test or feature using non-technical language.

2. You may understand your graphs, but remember: you've been staring at them for months or years. No blob of ambiguous data points on a graph with itty-bitty axes, no series of fifty graphs that only have really subtle differences. If you use graphs, make sure the meaning of the graph is crystal clear.

3. Pictures are worth a thousand words. If you can describe it, see if you can also show it. Outline hard to see details for your audience. If you're showing a picture of a single bone or a footprint, also show an image of the animal it came from (or the closest representative).

4. Remember - especially when your audience is in another country - that jokes/witticisms are often colloquial and have local or specialized meaning. it may fall flat. Also, "those jokes" (which are really just methods used to belittle groups who have less representation and/or power) about gender, race, jokes about sex, sexual innuendos, or sexual imagery, or jokes about political situations are in really poor taste, no matter your audience. They have no place in a talk communicating science to any audience. No one wants to see that nonsense.

5. If a translation is necessary, remember that this will (at least) double the time it takes to give your talk. Make sure you are not talking in huge paragraphs: your translator is going to have to remember what you've said and be forced to summarize your long rambling monologue to a more concise sentence or two.

We were told ahead of time that the audience would be a mix of children and adults, so I made sure to travel with my Bird Glamour makeup kit! I don't often have an opportunity to do a Bird Glamour for an extinct species of bird or avian theropod (although I did rock Anchiornis at the 2017 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting during the auction/social event!) I was excited to do an ichnology-themed Bird Glamour.

This ichnology Bird Glamour was inspired by Ignotornis gajinensis, the bird trackways that have spoonbill-like "swooshes" preserved. These "swooshes" are similar in shape to the bill marks made on sediment by present-day spoonbills stirring up the sediment to catch fish and invertebrates.
Spoonbill with its namesake spoon-shaped bill.

I decided to go with the Black-faced Spoonbill for this Bird Glamour. We arrived at the Goseong Public Library after a nice lunch with the Library's curator, public programming coordinator, and some of the Library staff.
The poster advertising our public talks at the Goseong Public Library!
While the rest of the Ichnology Team had coffee and snacks with the curator, I applied my Black-faced Spoonbill look.

These looks can take anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour to create. Once I was done, Sujin asked if I could do her eyes up as an owl. Sujin chose a Long-eared Owl, and I was kindly given the use of the curator's office to apply Sujin's Long-eared Owl look.
Me (left) with Black-faced Spoonbill eyes and Sujin (right) with Long-eared Owl eyes. 
This was the first time I had given a public talk while wearing Bird Glamour. I admit to being a trifle nervous about it: people sometimes have a very specific stereotype image in mind when they think "scientist," and that image does not typically involve makeup, let alone bird-inspired makeup. Nevertheless, I opened my talk by introducing Bird Glamour and used the link between the Black-faced Spoonbill and Korea's fossil bird tracks to talk about the bird tracks of western Canada.
Dr. Martin Lockley talking about his track work in South Korea.
Dr. Richard McCrea talking about dinosaur tracks from western Canada.
The talks were very well-received: there were a lot of interesting questions from both the kids and adults in attendance. We went out for our last dinner in South Korea: bulgogi! After dinner, we went to Dr. Kim's lab for one last push to get as many tracks documented in our time remaining. We were at the lab until at least 11:00 pm local time.

Our flight from the Incheon Airport wasn't until the early afternoon, but we were scheduled to take a bus from Jinju to Incheon. The bus was scheduled to leave Jinju around 5:45 am. We were up, packed, and waiting in the hotel parking garage for our ride to the bus station at 5:10 am.

Things got...interesting. We saw some of the Jinju night-life as young people started returning home from what I assume was a fun Saturday night. Then a young woman staggers down the road. She is still in a partying mood and is very eager to give us cigarettes. She tells us in her limited English that she is from Russia, and that she doesn't speak [insert derogatory term here]. To directly quote my field notes from that morning "Charming that one of the few English words she knows is a slur. :| " While this interaction was taking place, I was scanning down the road to make sure that she was not distracting us so that an unseen companion could rob us. Before long Sujin arrived with an additional cab to take us and our luggage to the bus station. Rich gave his gift of cigarettes to our cab driver.

We arrived with plenty of time to get our boarding passes for the bus. These buses are glorious: truly comfortable seats with nice headrests and copious leg room. We slept until our rest stop about halfway between Jinju and Incheon Airport. We breakfasted on roasted chestnuts purchased at the concession. If you've never had roasted chestnuts, they have a soft texture that is slightly sweet.
Since all of the buses look the same, we made sure to remember in which space our bus was parked. 
We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. This was good because it gave us a chance to repack our bags to make sure we didn't have power sources, like a solar battery charger, in our carry-on luggage. We found this out when Martin (who was flying out of Incheon first) was pulled out of line during his bag scanning to repack his bags. Oops. You can travel a million times and still miss an item or two.

Our flight back to Canada was uneventful, which is the best kind of flight! Usually, on a flight and while waiting in airports I type away on writing projects and papers. Sometimes I try to read if the jetlag isn't too powerful. I felt the jetlag start to hit me hard while we were waiting for our flight from Vancouver to Fort St. John. Jetlag gives me a very disconnected feeling: I feel as though I'm moving at a different tempo than that of the rest of the world. I also tend to feel as though all of my sensations have been muted.

Then, of course, there's the struggle to reclaim your original sleep schedule. This can take anywhere from a couple of days to over a week. My advice: don't try to do a hard reset on your sleep schedule. Day Three after we had arrived home, we forced ourselves into a "normal" day by doing a day trip into another community. We were out of the house at 9:00 am and in bed around 11:30 pm. The next thing we knew, we were waking up the next day at 3:45 pm. Just let the jet lag run its course.

That is the end of our tracking adventure in South Korea! Now we have several scientific papers to write on all of the data we collected! Hopefully, I'll be able to give you updates on those papers soon!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Tracking Cretaceous Birds in South Korea: Goseong Dinosaur Tracks

Hello Dear Readers!

I'm excited to continue with our tale of Cretaceous tracks in South Korea! September 15 was our day to check out the coastal dinosaur track sites in Sangjogam County Park, a heritage site. This was a track site that Dr. Richard McCrea had visited back in 2000 on his first trip to South Korea. He said to me "I did not expect that I would ever get a chance to visit this site again."

A LOT had changed since Rich's visit in 2000. At that time the area was newly discovered and in the process of being documented. Let's just say, the progress made on the site was impressive!

After breakfasting and grabbing some Starbucks (science runs on caffeine all over the world), we drove to the parking area next to the coastline. We were immediately greeted by a great sauropod sculpture surveying the gorgeous shoreline.

"I am Lord/Lady of all I survey!" said every sauropod everywhere.
The entire area around the Goseong Dinosaur Museum was developed to celebrate the dinosaur track sites. The sidewalks also celebrate their fossil heritage.
Getting ready leave the walkway to stroll along the beach to see the sauropod tracks.
Of course, a sandy beach is a glorious place to look for present-day bird tracks. Today was a day for gull tracks.
One of these days, I'll be able to afford a decent lens for photographing birds. September 15 was not that day. Neither is today, actually.
This was the best picture I could get of one of the gulls roaming around the beach that morning. It's carrying a mussel in its beak, so the appearance of a black ring on the bill is artificial. I also didn't pack my binoculars that day, so my identification of this gull is "gull." The gulls did leave some nice trackways.
The sand is damp enough that the webbing impressions are preserved. We can clearly see the claw impressions and occasional toe impressions.
There was also some interesting behavior exhibited by the gull tracks. Check out this landing trace of a gull: you can see the long drag mark left by the hallux (backward-facing toe) running down the middle of the scuffed-looking footprint. I used this image for my weekly Twitter ichnology game #NameThatTrack.

Of course, I couldn't spend all day on the beach taking pictures of modern footprints (although this would be a worthy ichnology project.) We made our way over to the Goseong Track Site.

Goseong Dinosaur Track Site in Sangjogam County Park. Drs. Kim Kyung-soo (left) and Richard McCrea (right) taking initial observation notes.
The most obvious trackways on the site are sauropod trackways.
The circled areas are the sauropod tracks. Scalebar in the picture is 10 cm.
Close-up of the sauropod tracks with a 10 cm scale (and my feet) for scale.
While we were on the site, we found ourselves in the middle of a couple of school groups doing a geology-based field trip assignment and tour on the track site. We ended up being part of the tour, with the students watching us take photos and asking us questions. We also ended up signing autographs on their site brochures! That felt...odd. I mean, I was not involved with finding or developing the site, but I suppose they appreciated the chance to interact with dinosaur track scientists on the site.
Drs. Martin Lockley and Richard McCrea somewhere in the middle of the tour group!
There are several track types on the Goseong Track Site. Here is an ornithopod trackway, with the tracks outlined with dashed lines.

With coastal rock exposures, particularly those that are periodically covered by tides, we don't expect that tracks will "last" that long. Tides are powerful, running sand and shells over track surfaces. They also form tidal ecosystems: it's not uncommon to see dinosaur footprints doubling as tidepools. Given that tidal-influenced areas are generally high-energy, I was not expecting to see bird tracks at this site. I moved a little farther away from the shoreline to check out some fine-grained surfaces. I was not disappointed!
They are shallow, but there are small bird tracks!
It was an overcast day, so the light was fairly dim and there few shadows being cast on the track surface. These were great conditions for getting photogrammetry images of the sauropod and ornithopod trackways, but the dim light made seeing bird difficult. Like I've mentioned before, lighting is everything when it comes to recognizing tracks.

The Goseong Track Site was impressive for another reason: the level of resources and development that went into making the site accessible to the public. When I show these images, remember that only 17 years prior this area didn't have the track sites developed or a dinosaur museum built.

First, there are the extensive walkways built along the coastline so that people can look over the track surface. There are several kilometers of these walkways! At key points along the walkways are informative signs that direct visitors' attention to key geologic and paleontologic views.

Editorial Note: OK, friends, I need to go on a bit of a rant. Look at this sign. It gives out science information without talking down to the reader. Do you see any cheap, lazy Jurassic Park-themed lettering? Any sensationalized attempts to use giant waves in "storytelling"? You do not. I did not see ANY sign of the North American-style insulting "tourism marketing" in South Korea. This is because the organizations that made these signs actually respect the intelligence of the people who are visiting natural history sites. They don't assume that there is "too much science" in the information provided, or that the public needs to be "talked down to."  Each time I see a fossil heritage site that blatantly uses Jurassic Park imagery and/or sensationalized "stories" to interpret a site, I assume the organization that created those signs does not respect their visitors OR the fossil heritage they exploit. Respect for fossil heritage or those interested in natural history isn't even on the radar for those particular organisations: fossils are merely a thing to selfishly use, and the public are just their dupes with wallets. It makes me feel angry and ill. Oh, and the fact that, since Rich's 2000 visit, a museum and outdoor interpretive sites had been fully developed? It is extremely frustrating to see the slow progress of getting similar dinosaur track sites developed in North America. We've been in the Peace Region full-time since 2004 and we still struggle year-to-year to have fossil heritage conservation funded.

We hiked up to another track site that was not yet interpreted: one of the aspects of coastal geology is that it changes a lot, with new rock surfaces constantly being exposed. Rocky cliffs are also a tricky place to do ichnology, mostly because of the ever-present threat of those tracks using gravity to make face-time with you. Here are some bird tracks exposed on the underside of a rock exposure. We couldn't get a close-up view of them, but we could tell they were the ichnogenus Jindongornipes.
The preservation of these large bird tracks (Jindongornipes) is amazing! We can even see webbing impressions!
Rich attempting photogrammetry on the Jindongornipes tracks. It becomes more tricky when you can't get something for scale on to the track surface.
We continued our hike up from the coastline boardwalk to connect with the outdoor trails and displays of the Goseong Dinosaur Museum. Again we were treated to a glorious sight: great outdoor displays that did not shy away from interpreting science.
The boardwalk trail joins up to the Goseong Dinosaur Museum outdoor trails.
Um, friends? There's a Utahraptor watching you!
All of the outdoor dinosaur sculptures were time-appropriate to the age of the tracks exposed at the Goseong Dinosaur Track Site: Early Cretaceous in age, roughly 120-100 million years old. We did not see any Tyrannosaurus rex or Triceratops models, which are 66 million years old. This was another sign (to me) that the Goseong Dinosaur Museum wasn't relying on sensationalism (a.k.a. all cool dinosaurs are T. rex!) to interpret their fossil heritage.

The Goseong Dinosaur Museum also had some fun with their outdoor displays. I love this cartoon bird pointing out the names of the bird tracks.
We stopped for lunch with the Goseong Dinosaur Museum curator at the museum's cafe, and were treated to a wonderful beverage: quince tea that the curator made! We found out the recipe, but darn it! We can't seem to find quince anywhere in grocery stores. The hunt continues!

After lunch we spent some time in the collections facility of the Goseong Dinosaur Museum, collecting data, photogrammetry images, and track slab tracings.
Dr. Martin Lockley making a plastic sheet tracing of a bird track slab.
Sometimes you meet the local fauna when you work on tracks. Here's a wolf spider, who was not impressed when I disturbed its cozy hideout. It was ceremoniously moved outside.
One of the many bird track slabs in the Goseong Dinosaur Museum collections.

Drs. Martin Lockley (left) and Richard McCrea (right). If you like groaner-puns, these are the two to go into the field with.
We worked until evening, and then went out for dinner at a restaurant whose name roughly translates to "The Broken Bone Restaurant." It was a great dish of stewed meat on the bone, served with fried rice.
The Broken Bone Restaurant. 
It's no secret that I like spicy foods. Do you see the green chilis on the dish to the left? Up until this point, I had been munching on these peppers like they were candy. Tonight was the night that I found out there are two types of long green chilis: mild and spicy. I caused a great deal of amusement as I sat there, eyes streaming, face flushed, laughing at my luck of the draw. I found out that the smooth-skinned green chilis are the mild ones, and the green chilis with wrinkled skin near the stem are spicy. Live and learn!

The next day we were scheduled to give public talks on our work in Canada and South Korea at the Goseong Public Library! Tune in next week to find out how our talks went!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Tracking Cretaceous Birds in South Korea: Gajin-ri Site

Hello, Dear Readers! I'm back! Well, sort of back. I have been down and out with that nasty flu that is going around. It's a bad one. Friends, if you happen to catch it, please please please take the time to get the rest you need to recover. I've taken the time off that I need, and darn if I don't feel the least bit guilty about it.

We last left our intrepid ichnology adventurers enjoying a lunch of mul-naengmyeon. Here our party split up. Martin went back to Dr. Kim Kyung-soo's lab at Chinju University with Sujin to continue collecting data, making latex peels, and tracings of track slabs on to plastic sheets. Rich and I accompanied Dr. Kim to the Fossil Heritage Hall of the Gyeongsangnam-do Institute of Science Education. We were here to see the famous Early Cretaceous Gajin-ri track site. This site was written up scientifically by Kim Jeong-yul and coauthors in 2012 (Dr. Kim Kyung-soo was one of the authors), and it is famous for two main reasons. One, there are SO MANY BIRD TRACKS, with an estimated 600 bird tracks per square meter!
Figure 3 from Kim et al. (2012). Each one of those marks is an individual bird footprint. This is glorious.
Second, the Gajin-ri site is where Ignotornis gajinensis was found! This is a bird track type has the classic Ignotornis look - three forward-pointing toes with webbing in-between them, one long reversed toe (hallux) - but it also has bill scrape marks!
Tracks of Ignotornis gajinensis, with the bill scrape marks. I like to call them swooshes!
These bill scrape marks are very close in shape to those of modern-day spoonbills. Spoonbills get their name from their spoon-shaped bill, which they use to search for food by swooshing their bills through the water and the underwater sediment, stirring up fish and invertebrates.

I love this image of a Eurasian Spoonbill for two reasons: a great view of the bill, and its showing off its foot.
This site is one of many sites in the Republic of Korea that has been designated a Natural Monument (No. 395), but an entire center was built over the site to offer top-notch science outreach and education. I need to show you how wonderful this center is: this is what I dream of happening in northeastern British Columbia.

First, here's entrance sign. Do you see the bird tracks on the sign?
There are three different bird track types on this sign, including the iconic Ignotornis gajinensis and the bill swooshes!
 Once we were in the Center, we immediately saw a sign for Ignotornis gajinensis!

We were eager to see the track surface, which the Center set up so that visitors can walk around the entire exposed surface at an upper and a lower level.

The lower level allows visitors to get up close and personal with the track surface.
There are several track types on this surface, displaying a whole track ecosystem from the Early Cretaceous Period. Here is one of the sauropod trackways.
Sauropod trackway walking towards me.
Small (left) and large (right) sauropod trackways.
You'll notice how dark the pictures are. It seems counter-intuitive that a dark room is the best way to see dinosaur and bird footprints, but it really is. Bright, direct lights wash out all of the details, while a dark room with a low angle light shining over the surface makes the details pop.

Here is the trackway of a small non-avian theropod, walking among the trackways of sauropods and birds.
Birds, theropods, and sauropods, oh my!
If you look at the upper left-hand corner of the above picture, you'll see my shoes. We got to crawl all over the track surface, but I sure as heck wasn't going to drag my rough shoes - with abrasive grit and dirt stuck in the treads - over a fine-grained track surface. It was socks for us!

Since some of the tracks on the middle part of the surface are hard to see, a series of cameras that project a close-up image of the Ignotornis gajinensis tracks on a huge projection screen. It also shows a projection of anyone working on the tracks, putting research on display. In this case, people got to see our socked feet.
The socked foot of Dr. Richard McCrea next to the trackway (and bill swooshes!) of Ignotornis gajinensis. Dr. Kim and I had a bit of a chuckle over this picture.
Not only was there was a track surface live cam, there was a gorgeous mural depicting the Early Cretaceous paleoenvironment, showing the shoreline of the lake complete with sauropods and flocks of birds!
Spoonbill and sandpiper-like birds fly over the future Gajin-ri track site 117 million years ago.
I didn't want to see Ignotornis gajinensis just because it is a famous bird track type: I have research reasons for wanting to see the real deal. I had an idea that I wanted to test: if we didn't have the glorious bill swoops, would we be able to tell Ignotornis gajinenesis apart from Ignotornis mcconnelli? Before visiting this site and seeing the tracks firsthand, I had to rely on measurements and photographs from publications. Now, data and pictures are good, but there's a lot of information that gets washed out in two-dimensional photos. It didn't take me long to abandon the idea that Ignotornis gajinensis and Ignotornis mcconnelli were the same track shape: there are just too many small differences that separate them.

The untrained eye might think I'm pointing out sauropod tracks, but we all know I'm pointing out a really long bird trackway!
We also saw lots of tracks of a track type called Koreanaornis. These are small, three-toed tracks that sometimes - but not all the time - have a small reversed digit impression. These tracks show many individuals skittering all over a wet sandy surface, much like we would see sandpipers at the beach doing today.
A flock of Koreanaornis track makers, likely running all over the lakeshore, looking for food.
We also saw the other fossil interpretive displays. My favorite one (of course) was the interpretive display for Ignotornis gajinensis. This is a good time to point out another similarity between the work our colleagues in South Korea and the work we do in the Peace Region: the scientists design the interpretive displays! Dr. Kim designed this awesome display.
Scientists like Dr. Kim Kyung-soo make awesome science interpretive displays.
Scientists are great at communicating their science to the public.
Check out those awesome spoonbills!
From left to right: Drs. Kim Kyung-soo, Lisa Buckley (me), and Richard McCrea. 
After taking many pictures, and many photogrammetry pictures, and seeing many, many specimens, we drove back to Chinju University to pick up Martin for dinner. Of course, I had to take pictures of these lovely shed exoskeletons of cicadas attached to a quince tree.

We went to a restaurant that only serves two dishes: two variations of stewed ribs. Let me tell you: when a restaurant focuses on one specialty, they do it up right. These ribs were delicious!
I cannot begin to describe the mouth-watering aroma that came from this dish. I have not had better ribs.
That was the end of a very busy day! The next day (September 15) we were scheduled to visit the field sites and collections of the Goseong Dinosaur Museum! Stay tuned!


Kim JY, Lockley MG, Seo SJ, Kim KS, Kim SH, Baek KS. 2012.  A paradise of Mesozoic birds: the world's richest and most diverse Cretaceous bird track assemblage from the Early Cretaceous Haman Formation of the Gajin Tracksite, Jinju, Korea. Ichnos 19(1-2): 28-42.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Tracking Cretaceous Birds in South Korea: Chinju Innovation City and Sangcheong-gun

Hello, Dear Readers!

When we last left our heroes, they were finishing up a long day (September 13) of laboratory and field work in Chinju (Jinju) University and Bito Island, respectively. September 14 would also prove to be an exciting field- and museum- day, full of bird tracks! Don't worry: I won't forget the non-avian dinosaur and pterosaur tracks!

Once again I'm forced to break our day into the field component and the museum component because there is just so much to talk about. This week's September 14 post will cover our field activities, and the next post will cover the spectacular Gajin Track Site.

We start off our day with a 7:30am wake-up and met Sujin for breakfast at a local Starbucks around 8:30am. After breakfast, we met Dr. Kim Kyung-soo at the hotel and drove to one of the in-progress construction sites of Jinju Innovation City. Remember in my last post, when I said that one of the similarities between studying tracks in British Columbia and South Korea is that many discoveries were (and continue to be) made as a result of industrial activity? Jinju Innovation City is a perfect example of industry significantly contributing to paleontology discoveries.

Excavations are uncovering track surface after track surface, and with a mandate to preserve national heritage, paleontologists in South Korea have to not only archive these large track-bearing blocks, but they also have to collect them! In the spirit of "necessity is the mother of invention," Dr. Kim designed a novel method for removing and transporting track blocks weighing several hundred one piece. Oh yes: and every picture in which you see a "KS" label on a track specimen? That specimen was collected and documented by Dr. Kim Kyung-soo.
People with visible faces: Drs. Kim Kyung-soo (left), Martin Lockley (center) and Richard McCrea (right) examining one of Dr. Kim's amazing track cradles for a large specimen ready to be removed to collections.
When we have the resources, we are going to bring Dr. Kim and his team over to visit track sites in British Columbia: I would love to see his track slab cradle technique in action!

Not all of the track-bearing surfaces are removed. One of the great approaches we witnessed in South Korea (take note, North America) is that people recognize - and act on - the value of preserving track localities as interpretive sites to educate the public. At this one construction site, two interpretive buildings are under construction for small interpretive centers.

I am just going to add an editorial note: this is the Republic of Korea. The country has a population of in a land area of 51,446,201 (with a density of 507 people per square kilometer) in a 100,210 square kilometers. Land, and space on which to develop, is valuable, and yet the Republic of Korea STILL finds ways to preserve and showcase their fossil heritage with respect. Now look to Canada. We have a population of 35,151,728 people spread over 9,984,670 square kilometers (population density of 3.92 people per square kilometer, albeit concentrated near the border with the United States.) So how come there is so much reticence towards protective buildings such as this one installed over important fossil sites? Take your time.

The track surface is covered to protect it during construction, so we pulled back the layers of tarps and thick felt-like cushioning to visit the surface.
Vertebrate ichnologists LOVE seeing surfaces like this...these are great surfaces for tracks!
We swept off portions of the track site to reveal some tracks with exquisite detail. The track type that has fascinated me (let's be honest: they all fascinate me) are trackways of pterosaurs. Yup: tracks of flying reptiles! When they weren't soaring through the air, pterosaurs walked on surfaces as quadrupeds, leaving wing finger impressions! HOW COOL IS THAT?!?
A pterosaur handprint! Guess what the loooong digit impression is from? (Psst: it's the wing digit!)
Editorial Note: You may want to Google pterosaurs. I don't blame you: they are fascinating archosaurs! However, you may encounter two websites in your search. One is called "" and the other is called "Pterosaur Heresies," both of which are run by the same person. Both of these sites are full of interesting artwork, but the information they provide on "radical" new ideas about pterosaurs is not supported by information from the fossils. Neither site should be a go-to site for accurate, data-supported information. Read the Tetrapod Zoology blog post on the issue.

One part of Dr. Richard McCrea's work is to refine photogrammetry techniques, particularly with small, low-relief tracks. This little pterosaur handprint is a perfect test subject!
Dr. Richard McCrea takes photogrammetry images for creating a 3D digital model of small tracks.
With a surface that preserved detail like pterosaur tracks, I was very hopeful for bird tracks. I was not disappointed! We didn't have a lot of time at the site, so this is the only definite track I could see, but where there's one, there's likely more!
This isn't the best picture (the room was under construction and unlit) but it is very birdie!
We drove to Sangcheong-gun (Sangcheong County) to check out a track site that was relatively close to the highway. It was a HOT day: the track surface was almost burning hot. It was a great contrast to the raindrop impressions we saw.
Oh yes, that's a bird track in the center of all of those rain drop casts.
This was a lovely track surface for fine details. The bird tracks were exquisite. The bird track in the center of the image above has slight digital pads and a lovely hint of a webbing impression!
You know you have a nice track surface when fine soft tissue details, like skin impressions and webbing impressions, are visible!
There's a lot we can tell about this trackmaker by looking at its footprint. One, this is a small bird (footprint length about 2.5 cm). Two, it doesn't have a well-impressed hallux (or reversed toe), so we know it didn't look or behave like a small crane or egret. Three, this bird only has a little bit of webbing between the middle and outer digit: this isn't a webbed bird like a duck. Four, this bird meandered, stopped, and started again, all over the track surface. This bird, if we were to take a time machine back to the Early Cretaceous, would have looked and behaved a lot like one of our present-day sandpipers. This was another track site exposed by industrial activity (construction of a highway), although our time machine shows us a peaceful scene of a very quiet, silty bank next to a small lake or slow-moving stream.

Also, we would have had to watch out for being stepped on by sauropods! Another thing we know from the tracks is that the sauropod came through first, and then the birds walked on the surface. We know this because the bird trackway actually walks around the sauropod track! How cool is that?

We then drove to a small cafe where we would eat what would be my favorite meal in Korea: naengmyeon, cold noodle soup! (Note: this is only one of many recipes I found online.) Most of the soups we tried in Korea had two versions, a regular version and a spicy version (I went spicy!) This is now a soup I make regularly for dinner, or at least the closest version I can make living in a remote area with limited shopping options.

Stay tuned for our visit to the Gajin-ri track!