Wednesday, September 5, 2018

I'm Moving...To a New Website!

Hello Dear Readers!

I have finally created my professional website!

On my site, you will see what is essentially my curriculum vitae, or CV.  I outline my work experience, my and coauthors' publications (I still need to attach downloadable PDFs), and my portfolio of Bird Glamour images and videos.

I am also moving this blog over to my new website! My blog is as much a part of my professional communication activities as is my publication record. I also like having all of my activities under one digital roof, so to speak. This will be my last post for the foreseeable future at this site, but the old posts will still be here!

My Twitter contacts generously shared their experiences and recommendations on their websites of choice for constructing their own professional web pages. Based on their recommendations I chose Wordpress, and so far I am quite pleased with its performance and layout.

If you are thinking of constructing a professional or personal website and are unsure where to start, here's the tweet (and resulting thread) where I received all of my recommendations.

Join me over at my new blog site Birds in Mud! Hope to see you there!

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Favorite Sci-Fi Movies: THEM!

Hello Dear Readers!

I've made it no secret that I watch plenty of movies and TV programs. Familiar movies and TV shows are less distracting for me than listening to music while I am writing. Audiobooks are right out when I'm writing: it feels like the mental equivalent of trying to drink a glass of water and talk at the same time.

I enjoy classic monster and science fiction movies. Thing From Another World (also John Carpenter's The Thing, which is awesome on its own and compliments "Who Goes There?," the novella on which the movies are based), The Day The Earth Stood Still (I have not yet viewed the remake...according to my mom, I need not bother), War of the Worlds (I watched the remake: ten minutes in and I was cheering for the aliens to hurry up and take over humanity), and Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: they are all part of our household's go-to movie selections.

Original monster and science fiction movies (left) and what the remakes show me (right). Image is of "Ecce Homo," by 19th-century painter Elรญas Garcรญa Martรญnez on the walls of the church of Santuario de Misericordia before (left) and after (right) the unsanctioned "restoration" by Cecilia Gimenez.

My all-time favorite classic monster sci-fi movie is THEM!, a black-and-white monster movie released by Warner Bros. Studios in 1954.
Movie poster for THEM! (1954).
My great-aunt Molly (the aunt who got me interested in paleontology) had an extensive movie collection, including science fiction and horror. You would not picture a rather proper, senior British woman who had very definite ideas about what it was to be "lady-like" having the entire run of the Halloween movies. Before I had seen THEM!, Molly regaled Child Me with the more chilling scenes from the movie while I listened with rapt attention.

I'm going to nerd out over all of the ways in which I love THEM! I'll also point out the areas where I think that, if the movie were to be remade, that would make it better (in my not-so-humble opinion).

Without further ado, here are the two main reasons that THEM! is my favorite black-and-white sci-fi monster movie of all time!


Much to my chagrin, it was difficult to find a decent image of the ichnology involved in THEM! online. Oh dear me, I had to actually watch the movie to create this blog post. It was a trial for me, Dear Readers, to watch this movie yet again, but for you I completed this great labor. (Tee with a side of Hee.)

We start THEM! by following two New Mexico State police officers on their route to investigate a patrol plane report of a shocked and non-responsive little girl wandering glaze-eyed through the desert in her pyjamas. On tracing the girl's origins to a camper trailer, we see that it was torn to pieces from the outside-in, no money or valuables were stolen, blood on shredded clothing and her family missing. The officers noticed a strange mark outside of the trailer. They start thinking about what could have made that enigmatic mark in the sand. Was it a bobcat? We don't know! Welcome to ichnology!
Minute 7:20 in to THEM! where we first see the mystery mark. The New Mexico State Patrol is quite right: no bobcat made this mark.
A larger team arrived to investigate the trailer-crime scene. A member of the forensic team is seen dusting sand away from a white substance that was applied to the mystery track in soft sand using...a putty knife. Ideally, they would have gently misted the surface with water, and then poured a very thin consistency plaster into the track. If these tracks can be destroyed by wind, guaranteed that smooshing putty-consistency plaster into the track will do just as much damage.
8:35 mark in THEM!, where the forensic team is smooshing a thick plaster into the very soft sand. This is not the standard operating procedure for making neoichnology casts.
Other than the consistency of the plaster, this is really no different than how I collect neoichnology, a.k.a. present-day track samples...

[WARNING SIRENS SOUNDING] ICHNOLOGIST'S RANT: Do not ever, EVER, pour any kind of plaster into a fossil track. There are likely exceptions to this but those are case-by-case instances, and the action would have to be overseen by an experienced paleontologist. Every year (Every. Dang. Year.) I hear about fossil tracks on public lands that are irreversibly damaged by someone using plaster. Check out this article about the tracks on Scotland's Dinosaur Isle, and a similar case near Moab in Utah. I am going to be uncharacteristically* understanding and think that most people don't really want to damage the track they are trying to copy, but want a memento. I'm also going to give the benefit of the doubt and suggest that the people making these mementos believe that they are going about it the proper way. However, actions outweigh intent, and the result is that irreplaceable heritage is damaged.

*Uncharacteristic in that I've seen too many acts of selfishness regarding fossil tracks and too much lost and damaged heritage that my Benefit of the Doubt Box is empty. It's full of dust bunnies and the echoes of my quiet weeping over lost heritage.

"But Strange Woman, they rubbed Vaseline on the fossil track surface before they poured in the plaster, doesn't that protect..."

No NO NO! First, how are they going to clean the petroleum jelly off of the track when they are finished? Did they pack water? Brushes? Soap? I think not. Second, that jelly is going to catch lots of organic material. That organic material is going to attract other organic material to grow on the surface, which can speed up natural erosion. Third, the track surface is HARD. Plaster sets up HARD. Adding petroleum jelly will not help hard plaster dislodge from under hard rock undercuts, overhangs, and jagged surfaces. Here's what I have seen happen: either the plaster cast gets stuck, breaks, and the broken bits remain inside the track, or the unstable rock surface of the track breaks and pieces of the track are ripped up with the plaster cast. Please please please PLEASE leave track casting to the professionals. Support your local museums and purchase one of the track replicas they provide, which have been made with the respect and skill that our fossil heritage deserves. [END ICHNOLOGIST'S RANT]

...and what you end up with is like a cameo engraving: the replica sticks out at you, whereas the original track that you pour the plaster in to is like an intaglio engraving, where the image is recessed into the surface. The cast is also the mirror image: what looks like a left toe is really the right toe, for example. I've long promised to do a step-by-step post (oh yes, pun completely intended) on how I make neoichnology casts: this may be my summer to finally do that post!
9:48 mark in THEM! What do you think, Dear Readers? Should I wear a fedora whilst making plaster neoichnology replicas?
The finished replica of the mystery track is shown to us when James Arness (character name Special Agent Robert/Bob Graham) is assigned to the case, as the girl's missing (and presumed dead) grandfather was a retired FBI agent. As a bit of monster movie trivia, James Arness played The Thing in "Thing From Another World," which only lost to "THEM!" as the best black-and-white monster movie of all time by an ant's antenna (a non-atomic ant's antenna).
The finished plaster replica of the mystery track at mark 17:50 in THEM! I can't tell from the image if the dark spots are larger grains of sand, or if they are the dreaded air bubbles that plague plaster replicas. Air bubbles are bad because they are areas that are missing surface detail.
When Robert sends the track to the Bureau, and they send it along to the Department of Agriculture, it attracts the attention of two eminent vermicologists, the Doctors Medford. We would likely call the Doctors Medford entomologists nowadays, a.k.a. scientists who study insects like ants. The Doctors Medford are the second reason I consider THEM! as the best old monster sci-fi movie of all time, but we'll get to that later on in Point 2.

Once the Doctors Medford arrived on the scene and interviewed the little girl, they insisted on seeing the original crime scene, where they continued their neoichnology investigation. From the fresh track they found at the scene during a sandstorm, the Doctors Medford determined that the trackmaker was 2.5 meters in length. If you have a rough idea of what the trackmaker is (for example, the track of a theropod) the size of the track will correspond to the size. A rough calculation often used for theropod dinosaurs is that Height at the hip = 4 x Footprint Length. How the proportions would work for giant radiation-mutated ants, I do not know.

Once their hypothesis is confirmed, the Doctors Medford gave the FBI and the New Mexico State Patrol a crash-course in ant nests. Insect nests and burrows also fall into the realm of ichnology. Dr. Pat Medford spotted the nest during the aerial search.
Mark 34:02 in THEM! showing the first aerial view of the giant ant nest.

See the camera with three lenses that Dr. Pat Medford is holding? That's a stereo camera. They produce paired images that can be viewed under a stereo viewer*, which our eyes and brain transform into a three-dimensional image.

*Apologies to my fellow geology majors if my mention of stereo viewers brought back horrible memories of poorly aligned topography photos and eye strain from endless hours of geology labs.
Dr. Medford is about to document the giant ant nest with a stereo camera.
Viewing tracks (and anything, really) in 3D has advanced a great deal since stereo cameras. My colleague Dr. Richard McCrea has two stereo cameras, and used to publish stereo pair images of dinosaur tracks in his scientific papers. Now he uses 3D digital images and a process called photogrammetry, pioneered by Neffra Matthews and Tom Noble. Check out the photogrammetry images in our work on foot injuries preserved in theropod tracks!
None of my 3D photogrammetry images will ever be this exciting. Dr. Pat Medford wins for all time.
Dr. Pat Medford lead the expedition into the nest and discovered that there were two queen ants that flew the before the colony was gassed. It is the team's knowledge of ant ichnology that leads them to direct staff to scour the news for reports of large tunnels and strange flying objects. With that knowledge, they eventually discover the last nest in the drains under Los Angeles. Take home message: ichnology can save the day. If you are facing an attack from a Giant Whatever, get a consulting ichnologist. We'll set you on the right track (still not sorry!)


The Doctors Medford are my favorite characters in the movie (besides the giant ants, of course). The Doctors Medford are a father-daughter team of entomologists: Dr. Harold Medford, played by Edmund Gwenn, and Dr. Pat(ricia) Medford, played by Joan Weldon.
Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), the father of the Doctors Medford in THEM!.
Dr. Pat Medford, the daughter of the Doctors Medford in THEM! James Arness gives us a not-so-subtle example of "The Male Gaze."
I'll deal with the parts that annoy me first. The sexism that Dr. Pat Medford experiences will be tiresomely familiar to my women in STEM readers. When we are first introduced to Dr. Pat Medford, the scene is contrived so that her travel skirt gets caught on the plane ladder. Her leg gets several seconds of screen time before we ever see her face. Welcome to the movie, Male Gaze, where women are introduced to the audience using their parts rather than as people. Unfortunately, recent movies are still using this tired trope: Jurassic World is cringe-worthy for its Male Gaze moments.

Then we get the sexist jokes between the police sergeant and the FBI agent. "If she's the kind of doctor that treats sick people, I think I've got a fever" style of comment is not funny, not witty, and definitely not original. They're tiresome because we hear that kind of nonsense A LOT. If you refer to women in science using sexual tones like this, realize that we're going to call you out, relentlessly mock you, and add you to the list of people not to trust.

The initial conversation between Bob Graham and Dr. Medford is equally annoying. He referred to her as "Miss," then stutters around as though he's unsure of what to call her when he had absolutely no problem calling Dr. Harold Medford "Dr." Dr. Pat Medford lets him off the hook by saying "If the Doctor bothers you, call me Pat." Every time I see this part my brain screams "HECK NO! You tell him the correct name is 'DOCTOR.'"

But hey, this is a monster movie from 1954. Surely no one has a problem calling a scientist who is a woman by her professional title in 2018, right? RIGHT!?!

Sadly, no. It might as well be 1954. Dr. Fern Riddell angered insecure men on Twitter by posting that she wanted to be referred to by her professional title, not Mrs. or Miss. Friends, the replies from the whiny and the insecure were phenomenally pathetic, and those tweeting them should know they were roundly mocked for sniveling excuses for adults that they are. We see you.

It is Dr. Harold Medford that redeems the interactions that Dr. Pat Medford experiences. He often calls her "Doctor" when asking her opinion on the investigation. He also supports her decision to lead the expedition into the giant ant nest. When the FBI agent and the Doctors Medford are giving an Ant 101 seminar to the military personnel, Dr. Harold Medford asks Bob to turn out the lights, not Dr. Pat Medford. Dr. Harold Medford, as the principal investigator, leads most of the presentations, but he does not interrupt, talk over, or dismiss Dr. Pat Medford when she speaks in these meetings. In short, Dr. Harold Medford treats Dr. Pat Medford like a colleague. I know, a radical notion, right?

The way Dr. Harold Medford treats Dr. Pat Medford is pleasantly similar to my introduction to vertebrate ichnology. Dr. Rich McCrea was my first mentor - oh, and he also pointed out that Dr. Pat Medford is the opposite of the typical "damsel in distress" writing that plagues lead women characters in such movies. Rich helped me train my eye to recognize fossil tracks, how to collect data, and what we can do with that data. When I started attending ichnology conferences and being invited on to expeditions, my male colleagues were welcoming AND respectful: I was treated like a colleague. Dr. Martin Lockley, my other ichnology mentor, has published extensively on Cretaceous bird tracks. We often have long discussions on issues surrounding the naming of bird tracks (there are issues, friends) and it is always friendly, fun (the bad puns fly fast and fierce), yet respectful. See? No need for gross jokes to have fun! We have a good ichnology group.

On investigating the initial attack site, Dr. Medford's travel outfit is going to come back to haunt her. I have been known to stalk the occasional bird or two while dressed in a skirt and heels, but it was bloody awkward. Dr. Medford experiences the same awkwardness: walking in soft sand in heels is tricky. Trying to run away from a giant ant that is trying to kill you in heels is darn near impossible.
Yeah, I'd probably trip and fall as well.
In reality, this scene was likely put there to include the classic trope of "woman runs, trips, falls, and screams." It doesn't meld with what we see later of Dr. Medford when she leads the exploration of the giant ant nest. There she is cool-headed and logical. It also doesn't match with what the Doctors Medford already know they are up against: all of the data was pointing towards 2 meter long ants. THEM! could have done with a rewrite of this scene.

When we get to the scene where the team is about to descend into the giant ant nest, Dr. Pat Medford is in her field gear, which prompts all sorts of manly displays by Bob Graham, who tells Dr. Pat Medford, a trained entomologist, that an ant nest is "no place for any woman." Dr. Pat Medford is having none of this. After trying to logically explain to Bob that there needs to be a scientist in the nest to make proper observations, she ends up having to forcefully tells him "There's no time to give you a crash course in insect pathology, so let's stop all the talk and get on with it!" Bob grumps off.
I know that facial expression on Dr. Medford. It says "Oh FFS, here I am justifying my presence on this expedition." Walk off, Bob.
We have a present-day example of this: Laura Dern, a.k.a Dr. Ellie Sattler in "Jurassic Park," has to say to Hammond "Look, we can discuss sexism in survival situations when I get back."
Dr. Sattler's expression says it all.
Dr. Medford also takes charge inside the nest. She tolerates no argument when she tells Bob to burn the still-living larvae in the nursery chamber. "I said burn it! Burn everything!" Thankfully, no one argues further with her. They actually do their job and burn the darn thing.

I am also pleased that the one woman main character in THEM! is not there solely for the character development of the main guy, Bob Graham, nor is there any focus paid to whatever personal relationship that may have developed throughout the movie. The characters are all fairly stable: they do not go through a roller-coaster of emotional development. The only real change in character perspective is "Holy Owls, there REALLY ARE giant ants!" Also, we do see a subtle shift in the non-scientist characters in respect for the Doctors Medford and their expertise. This is all to the movie's credit. In a remake, I would bet my dermestid beetle colonies that Dr. Pat Medford would be reworked as a plot device to 1) be the focus of Bob Graham's overt (and likely annoying) romantic interest, regardless that she is there to do a job; 2) prompt Graham to become a better whatever in order to earn her wuv, and 3) eventually come to see that she was cold and aloof and business-like (because, um, that whole "there on a job" thing) but harrowing danger has revealed twue wuv was there all along!
Wuv...twue wuv...

OK, THEM! is a very white movie. The only time we really see a person of color in the movie is near the end, when Los Angeles is being proclaimed under martial law. We see military vehicles zoom by a shoe-shining stand, and the shoe-shine person is a person of color. So, not a main character. A remake would (hopefully, in the right hands) show that scientists, state troopers, and FBI agents exist who are not white men. If Ava DuVernay (director of "A Wrinkle in Time") ever wants to remake THEM! I would watch the heck out of it.

All in all, THEM! gets 4.75 Giant Ants out of 5. I Googled "five ants" and now I can't get this song out of my head, so enjoy your new Ear, Ear Ant! You're welcome!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Rocking On In Career Transition

Hello Dear Readers!

Whenever I'm asked, "Do you want the good news or the bad news?" I choose to receive the bad news first. There are two reasons for this. One, I want to know the exact nature of the challenge I must face. This appeals to the collections manager in me, as a lot of what I did as a collections manager involved picturing plausible threats to the fossils for which I am a steward, and then doing my best to mitigate those threats. Two, I am pretty good at turning the good news I receive second into an opportunity to mitigate the bad news. So for this particular post about my in-progress transitioning from Collections Manager & Curator to ????, I'm going to start with the "bad news."

There is still no long-term solution for the continuation of the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre since the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation's (our parent non-profit organization) funding for 2018 was denied by the District of Tumbler Ridge in March.

This is the definite low point of the year for paleontology in our part of the world (northeast British Columbia), and this particular low point brought friends. The first Low-Point Tag-Along is the imminent threat to the continuation of the fossil archives (a.k.a. collections) at the PRPRC. Anyone who follows my Twitter account (@Lisavipes) has seen me tweet with some ferocity and vigor on the importance of stable, well-supported natural heritage archives. This isn't for self-serving reasons: museum archives are still poorly understood and little appreciated by the public (although I see this changing) and by the administrators who decide which areas of museum life get support (that I do not see changing as quickly as I would like).

I'll share one of my Twitter threads on the importance of supporting natural heritage archives here.
This tweet and the associated thread describe why the collections are the foundation of a museum's activities: educational outreach, high-profile research, student opportunities, marketing, displays. Sure, you can have an interpretive center that shows some nice displays of, say, birds in your area (also part of our natural heritage), but all of the information that goes along with the visual imagery of the display originates from research and a collections facility.

(Anyone familiar with my Twitter feed also knows that I communicate in gifs. True Story.)
The "who what where when why and how" of those birds was figured out from a bird scientist (a.k.a ornithologist) looking at birds in the wild and in a museum's collections. Collections don't just preserve individual specimens: they preserve patterns. Collections reveal to you what birds were once common in an area, but are no longer common. Collections reveal that what we thought was one bird was actually two really similar-looking species after the genetic information was studied. Collections preserve specimens collected throughout the years so we can see what toxins might be contributing to the decline of a bird species.

What us scientists call research is really just us figuring out the detailed story of the critters that we study. The collections are the library of ideas and information that make the story (scientific papers, displays, educational programming) possible.
We don't really describe the step-by-step detail of how discoveries are made. We usually present the Highlights version of the journey because, let's be brutally honest here, reading about the step-by-step, day-to-day grind of data collection, data analysis, surveying, etc. would be a tedious read. When I was a graduate student, our lab would informally hold a "Tedious-Off" competition. The person doing the most tedious task to tell the story of their fossil research would "win." There were no prizes, but we did get to share with our colleagues some of the slogging that we did to get from idea to science story. Common Tedious-Off entries were editing noise out of 3D model images, finding the one bad data entry in a spreadsheet of 10,000 entries, and counting all of the bumps on the cutting surface of a theropod tooth (that one never won, because we were looking at an actual specimen so that was still cool.) TL:DR is that collecting information and getting the story ready to tell isn't all excitement and surprised gasping at discoveries.
When I document fossil bird footprints on rock slabs, it's a pretty mellow scene.

Take a look at the above picture. This is a small part of the large bird and dinosaur track surface of the Gajin-ri Track Site in South Korea. The paleontologists who study this site made a trackway map (basically a drawing of all of the footprints as they appear on the surface) by spending hundreds of hours crouched on the surface finding and tracing each individual footprint in low-angle light. This is the standard operating procedure for studying small tracks. I've spent many a day in collections, pitch black save for one lamp, lying on foam pads on the concrete floor as I trace out bird tracks and invertebrate burrows on to plastic sheets.

I can't speak for everyone, but for myself, I am not looking for a new discovery when I'm documenting tracks. I'm simply transcribing what I see on to plastic and paper. It's only when I keep seeing the same "different" thing over and over that my brain starts to think "Hey, that's odd. something's going on here." It's not scientific montage process typically shown in movies, where scientists are looking for X, struggle to find X, and then - against all odds - find X. Perhaps this is why collections do not receive the respect they deserve: their use (except for display specimens: those are part of the collections) is behind the scenes and progress is careful and slow.

A curiosity question for me: is there anyone out there that would truly be interested in seeing an unedited video of a researcher like a paleontologist doing the Tedious-Off portion of their work? My working hypothesis is that the answer to that question will be chirping crickets.

When I gave the occasional tour of the collections facility, there are one of two reactions:

"Oh my God this is so important! Look at all of our heritage!"


"So how can we make money off of this?"

Maia demonstrating the Head Blanket, because sometimes Head Desk is too hard.
When I attempt to explain to this type of responder with how collections are the source of the displays and discoveries, I see eyes glaze over. I have not yet found the right combination of words that can break through this attitude.

As a result, I am now faced with the very real scenario of having to find a stable home for the fossil archives. We do not "own" the fossils. The town does not "own" the fossils. They are technically the property of the Province of British Columbia, and my colleague (and fellow termination notice holder) and I are the qualified stewards of the fossils.

The second Bad News Tag-Along is that there will be no paleontology field exploration done this summer. One misconception that I encounter is that field paleontology is cheap/free to do. This might be because the field survey methods are not necessarily high-tech. Fuel to get to field sites costs money. If you find something large, moving that specimen costs money. Also, our time has a cost associated with it. Just as artists can't pay the bills using Exposure Bucks, paleontologists can't pay the bills using Excitement of Discovery Bucks. And no, despite what people believe, making big discoveries does not make it easier to find funding to continue work. Media exposure =/= money in paleontology.

So, those are the Bad News items. Now on to the Good News items.

1. Tomorrow is my one year Bird Glamourversary! To celebrate this milestone in my journey as a science communicator, I will be launching a Bird Glamour YouTube channel that will combine me applying the Bird Glamour looks with cool facts about the featured bird! Once the link is live I will include it in this blog post!

UPDATE: Here is the link to the Bird Glamour YouTube channel!

2. I am working on two non-fiction book proposals! One book is purely in the proposal stage, while the other book has a couple of sample chapters already written. When I feel a bit more certain about the process and the progress, I'll talk about those projects here!

3. I am collecting the information I need for gaining certification as a professional geoscientist in British Columbia. It's a long process, but with the combination of schooling and 15 years of experience as an active paleontologist, I think that I have a great chance at succeeding.

4. I will be working on some post-secondary program development. Once the details of that project are ironed out, I can talk a bit more about the projects.

5. Of course, I am applying for jobs. I'm constantly reminding myself that it is not my job to tell myself I'm not right for a posted position...within reason, of course: I'm not going to apply for a physics or a botany position. I am making a conscious effort not to select myself out of potential opportunities.

That is my life in the sciences at this point in time! I am excited that I have the opportunity to explore options and opportunities within science communication through Bird Glamour and book writing.  Who knows where these opportunities will lead?

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 bare 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.'

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 its 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 Brent. I'm sure you're not a jerk.]

Fifth, there's no guarantee that your named specimen that you spent a floppity jillion 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!