Friday, May 26, 2017

Calling All Shorebirds!

Hello Dear Readers!

We have returned from the Canadian Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology 2017 conference in Dinosaur Provincial Park, and it was a blast! It was great to catch up with our friends and colleagues, and also great to see all of the ground-breaking research being done by early career paleontologists.

There's a lot happening in the next month for me. Tomorrow I grade for my next level in karate - this will be the first exam I've had since my candidacy! On June 3 I'll be leading the annual birding hike to Bullmoose Marshes, hosted by the Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society. June 9 - 11 I am involved with hosting the British Columbia Field Ornithologists meeting, and am giving the afternoon keynote presentation...on Cretaceous birding, of course! I am also working with colleagues to finalize plans for a track site visit - stay tuned!

One aspect of my upcoming summer that is not busy is my field work life. With this year's field budget of a whopping $0.00 (don't spend it all in one place!) we do not have any large field excursions scheduled. That doesn't mean that we don't have plans were funding to materialize. Here's a list of the palaeontology projects we could  be working on this summer:

1. We still have at least four years of work to do on the Six Peaks Dinosaur Track Site near Hudson's Hope, British Columbia. Here's a video showcasing the site,

2. A hadrosaur bonebed (duck-billed dinosaurs), the first dinosaur bonebed for British Columbia. This site was featured in "Dino Hunt Canada," with an airlift of the articulated skeleton of one of the hadrosaurs. We've done as much digging as we can by hand. Watch the video!

3. Uncovering more of the world's first tyrannosaur trackways (described in our paper in PLoS One,) mentioned in this post on field work fails, and in this post on injuries in theropod tracks, and

4. A potential new dinosaur excavation site that needs several test pits dug to determine the extent of the bone-bearing section.

What this summer does is give me an opportunity to spend more time at my neoichnology (modern track) sites. My first step was to see what shorebirds have arrived in the area, so I went out yesterday to spot check my usual sites.

My first trip was to Bullmoose Marshes, about 30 km away from the Research Centre. This site is in important stop-over and summer breeding ground for a fantastic variety of birds. It was a gorgeous day to be outside.
Me, squinting into the sun, which gives me a pensive look. No one can look pensive at this marsh.
While I did hear and see a great variety of birds, including two Trumpeter Swans, I only saw one shorebird: a Solitary Sandpiper.

My submission for Worst Bird Pic. There's a Solitary Sandpiper in here!

Of course, visiting sites always provides reminders of Why We Can't Have Nice Things. These boardwalks were put in by volunteers who had to raise funds for the materials. But I guess that all pales in comparison to twue wuv.

Yes, we're all very impressed that your love for C.C. is so great that vandalism is your answer.
The water levels are very high at the marshes right now, so there was no exposed ground to check for shorebird footprints. In addition to the Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs also frequent this marsh, but perhaps they have not yet set up their breeding territories.

My next stop was to the local dump. I often find myself going to to the dump for bird-related activities. The sewage treatment ponds are full of breeding Canada Goose, and several species of ducks and swallows can also be found. I discovered in 2016, while I was dropping off my recycling, that Killdeer also frequent one of the cleared off, rocky areas.

The dump did not disappoint! Here's a trackway of a Killdeer!

Killdeer trackway. 10 cm from outer dot to outer dot.
This made me a very happy ichnologist! These tracks were made that morning. If they were any more fresh, the Killdeer would still be standing in them.

I also saw some tracks that were made a day to a few days before, meaning that the Killdeer were not just making a one-time stop at the site. I'm hoping this means that they are getting ready to establish their breeding territory, and that I haven't missed all of the fun of them doing their nest scrape displays!

A not-so-fresh Killdeer trackway at the same site. Notice the edges are less clear than the above trackway.
Over the next few days I'll be paying this site early morning visits to see how active these Killdeer are, and where they feel is a good spot to build a nest.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Theropods or Tender-pods? The Softer Side of the "Terrible Lizard."

Nature, red in tooth and claw...

It's the common image associated with theropod dinosaurs: they are either chasing something down to eat it, or they are eating it. Every lazy bit of sad science storytelling depicts theropods consumed with one objective: devouring poor innocent plant-eating prey. From Lex asking "Where's the goat?" in Jurassic Park to Littlefoot's mom being killed by Sharptooth, theropods (and all carnivores, really) get painted with the "evil" brush and brushed off as mindless killers.

It's still too soon for me to post Littlefoot's mom's death.
Logically we know that theropods were more than just heartless (our words and judgement) killing machines. Theropod dinosaurs were and still are animals with a complex suite of behaviors that we would anthropomorphize as "tender" and "gentle."

We know that theropods built nests and incubated their young: research by Tanaka et al. (2015) demonstrated the different nesting strategies that dinosaurs used based on egg shell porosity. Egg shell is not solid: it is full of tiny pores that allow for moisture and gas exchange to happen between the egg and its environment. Based on modern nesting crocodiles and birds, the more porous eggshell is, the more likely it was that the eggs would be completely buried in a nest mound. Less porous eggs would only be partially buried with the upper surfaces of the eggs exposed. Maniraptoran theropods (dromaeosaurs, oviraptors, troodons, and our modern birds) have low porosity eggs, which would be partially exposed in the nest.

Maniraptoran theropods are well-known for another tender-loving trait: incubating eggs. Several fossil nests have been recovered with a maniraptoran caught in the act of brooding. The spectacular specimen of Citipati, an oviraptorosaur, on top of a nest of eggs is on display at the American Museum of Natural History. This is a good example of parental care in theropods.

We know that theropods (at least the maniraptorans) engage(d) in nest building and egg brooding behavior...but what about the pre-nesting activities, like courtship? Our modern theropods are famous for their courtship behaviors. Check out the mating dance of the Flame Bowerbird...

...and now imagine Oviraptor doing this dance.

"Hold up! There should be evidence of male theropods having some skeletal differences that can be used to support possible mating dances, right? Right!?!"

Using the skeleton alone, the best way to tell if a theropod skeleton was male or female is to look for a structure called medullary bone: it's a special deposit in the hollow portion of theropod bones that acts as a calcium reserve for adding shells to eggs. Medullary bone is only going to occur in egg-laying (female) theropods. However, medullary bone is an internal structure: you can't tell by looking at the exterior of a bone whether it contains medullary bone.

While there have been a few - quite a few - papers published that purportedly contain evidence of skeletal sexual dimorphism (anatomical differences in the skeleton) in dinosaurs (the most recent one uses a small sample size of tails of oviraptorosaurs) the numbers simply do not support that the differences seen are the result of sexual differences, as opposed to good ol' natural variation. An excellent study by Dr. Jordan Mallon was recently published that rigorously tests the statistics of all of the proposed cases of sexual dimorphism that involve visual differences in bones...and no evidence of sexual dimorphism was found in any of the cases. Internal eggs, embryos, and medullary bone are still the only way to confidently identify the sex of a dinosaur.

So, are there any fossils that possibly support courtship activities in theropods? We may have fossils in the form of trace fossils...ichnology to the rescue! In 2016 we published on these enigmatic traces from the Early Cretaceous of Colorado. They are paired scrape marks made by the feet of large theropods (likely an allosaur.) No tracks led up to any of the scrape marks, showing us that the theropods dug down through the layer they were walking on.

Figure 1 from Lockley et al. (2016) showing the scrape marks.
Figure 3 from Lockley et al. (2016).

These marks were a puzzle at first. We initially thought that the trackmakers were digging for water, but the geology of the area showed that water was active and abundant. Next we considered that they were digging for food, but the sandy layer the theropods were digging down to was devoid of traces of most burrowing animals. Next we considered nest bowls and/or dust bathing. Both activities, like rooting around for food, tend to wipe out the marks made by digging (based on what we've seen with dust bowls made by Spruce and Ruffed grouse in our area.)

Ruffed Grouse dust bathing, Jose Schell.
Then we considered territory marks. The closest modern example we could find of a convincing territory mark came from mountain lions. Check out this blog for some excellent pictures of the paired scrapes left by mountain lions.

This led us to consider the different reasons a theropod would make a visible territory mark...and then we came across the nest scrape ceremony.

Check out this video of the Piping Plover nest scrape ceremony (and because I love plovers, check out the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Project.)

Also see this video of a Killdeer nest scrape ceremony. I know where Killdeer were nesting locally last year, so I'm hoping to get some of my own footage this spring.

To start the nest scrape ceremony, the male will define and defend their territory. They vocalize to nearby females, and demonstrate to them how good they are at digging out nests. A male may perform and create several nest scrapes during the pre-mating ceremony. If the female is satisfied with his performance, she allows the male to mate. One of the nest scrapes becomes the nest bowl.

There is a good chance that our large theropods were engaging in a courtship ceremony that involved scraping at the ground. It is not uncommon to have multiple males displaying in one location: game birds are a great example with their display arenas or leks, like the Greater Prairie Chicken.

Of course, we had to come up with an Early Cretaceous version of a theropod lek...
Figure 6 of Lockley et al. (2016). Yes, those theropods in the background are doing exactly what you think they are doing.

Recently a paper by Carr et al. (2017) published on the facial scales of the tyrannosaurid Daspletosaurus horneri (a new species) that has skeletal evidence of not just scales on its face, but very sensitive facial scales. How sensitive? These scales were likely more sensitive to touch than human fingertips. Why would a tyrannosaur have such a sensitive snout? I'll let the authors speak to that:

"ISOs [integumentary sensory organs] would have aided adult tyrannosaurids in harmlessly picking up eggs and nestlings and, in courtship, tyrannosaurids might have rubbed their sensitive faces together as a vital part of pre-copulatory play." (Carr et al., 2017)

We now have more than enough evidence to abandon the tired cliche of the one-dimensional killing machine image of theropod dinosaurs. Extinct theropods were just as multifaceted and complex as any of our modern theropods or animals that we see today. A carnivorous animal is not simply a vicious slaughterhouse on legs and wings: they attract mates and care for the young that they produce. The fact that they eat meat to support these tender activities should be free of judgement on our part. We should learn to appreciate all aspects of a carnivore's life and pass that appreciation on to the next generations.

While you are here, I highly recommend peeking into the tender lives of our modern theropods by watching live nest cams! Here are links to the nest cam I frequent. Most are nest cams of birds of prey, so you will see prey either in the nest or being brought to the nest.

Barred Owl:

Savannah Osprey:

Laysan Albatross:

Peregrine Falcon:

Bald Eagle:

Great Blue Heron:

Hummingbirds (there are babies in the nest right now!)



Carr TD, Varricchio DJ, Sedlmayer JC, Roberts EM, Moore JR (2017) A new tyrannosaur with evidence for anagenesis and crocodile-like facial sensory system. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 44942 (2017) doi:10.1038/srep44942

Lockley MG*, McCrea RT, Buckley LG, Lim JD, Matthews NA, Breithaupt BH, Houck KJ, Gierlinski GD, Surmik D, Kim KS, Xing L, Kong D-Y, Cart K, Martin J, Hadden G. 2016. Theropod courtship: large scale physical evidence of display arenas and avian-like scrape ceremony behavior by Cretaceous dinosaurs. Scientific Reports 6:1–10

Mallon JC. 2017. Recognizing sexual dimorphism in the fossil record: lessons from nonavian dinosaurs. Paleobiology, doi: 10.1017/pab.2016.51

Persons SW IV, Funston GF, Currie PJ, Norell MA (2015) A possible instance of sexual dimorphism in the tails of two oviraptorid dinosaurs. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 9472 (2015) doi:10.1038/srep09472

Tanaka K, Zelenitsky DK, Therrien F (2015) Eggshell Porosity Provides Insight on Evolution of Nesting in Dinosaurs. PLoS ONE 10(11): e0142829. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0142829

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Story-telling in Science Doesn't Mean You Make *#%& Up.

Hello Dear Readers!

I have been a busy Strange Woman lately: giving talks, visiting family, writing abstracts, collecting data for know, the usual stuff.

I've also been - rather unsuccessfully, I might add - trying to influence science communication. I was asked to review the text of a tourism information sign. The purpose of the sign was to "engage visitors and get them excited to see the dinosaur track attraction." Now, I've reviewed such signs before - mostly for our local hiking group - and they have been both interesting and factually correct. I was expecting such quality when I opened the document (done by an organization not associated with the hiking group.)

Friends, I had to check my calendar to make sure that I was not in some April Fools' Day prank.
It. Was. Bad. I won't go into all of the details of how bad it was, but here are two examples.

First, it was painfully evident that the author did not actually look into any of the public work that had been done previously on the site in question, as the dinosaurs were misidentified. We're not talking a lower specialist "Oh you're just being picky type of identification." We're talking "saying ankylosaur tracks are duck-billed dinosaur tracks" type of boo-boo. It would be akin to me saying that a cat was a bear.

Getting the visitor interested: 4/10, but only because there are theropods.
Accuracy: 5/10, but only because they got the theropods right. The rest was made-up malarkey.

Now, this site has both theropod tracks (our carnivorous dinosaurs) and ankylosaur tracks (herbivorous armored dinosaurs) preserved on the same surface. One of the first questions people tend to ask is "Were the theropods hunting the ankylosaurs?" The answer is likely not. A dinosaur track surface is like a farmer's field in the winter. You'll see all sorts of tracks: deer, coyote, dog, cat, person, snowmobile, etc., all made at different times. The surface collects these tracks over time like a doodle scratch pad next to the phone. Just because you see snowmobile tracks in the same field as a dog trackway does not mean that they were made at the same time, or that snowmobiles are viciously hunting dogs and people.

That did not stop Skippy (I needed a name for the author, since I have no idea who it is) from pulling the sadly predictable of "the vicious theropods stalking the ankylosaurs."

Getting the visitor interested: 1/10. Who hasn't heard that tired old chestnut trotted out for EVERY site with a theropod involved without any way to back it up? Snooze-ville.
Accuracy: 0/10. With no evidence to support a hunting scenario, they would be essentially lying to the visitors.

I've read and written A LOT of public education materials. I give A LOT of public talks on fossil tracks. I tweet voraciously.  Do you know what I've found out during all of this time?

1. People are interested in the facts! We have not found it that difficult to tell people accurate information about our track sites and our research and to get them excited about it. Heck, that's where most of our research funding comes from: getting non-specialists excited about the projects. We're good at this. There are lots of different groups and media outlets that do ask us to fact check, because they know we aren't going to BS them with fanciful nonsense.

2. People don't like to be patronized to. Infantilizing information, or the infamous "dumbing down," is basically telling people that they are not bright enough to appreciate the facts. Most people really do want facts when they are visiting a science place or going to a science talk - heck, that's why they are there! - and it is a direct insult to the audience if you assume that they are not going to get it unless you add nonsense. Every time we give a talk, we have an audience that is excited about hearing the newest information. They're in the know, and they end up wanting to know more.

My comments on the document were longer than the document itself. The response: "This is a method of storytelling to get people engaged."

According to Skippy, making stuff up about a science site is A-OK as long as people get interested. So Skippy, what happens when the visitors do get interested, and do their own investigations, and find out you fed them the science communication version of used tissues? Is this still engaging storytelling?

In my frustration, I took to Twitter. Here is what I posted:
That post struck a chord with people: I've never had a viral tweet, but a lot of people agreed with this approach. To me it's a sign that people are getting a bit tired of the same old insulting scicomm that marketing types and large-platform media are offering.

I cannot blame them. When a TV program, documentary, billboard, tourism brochure, marketing strategy, etc., presents a cheap and lazy science story to engage their target audience, they are not doing it from a place of respect. They are demonstrating that they do not respect either the science or their audience.

I am angry and frustrated at this lazy, disrespectful approach to science-related engagement. Anyone feeding you a sensationalized story "because it's engaging" is essentially lying to you. They don't want you to know that they think you are too thick to appreciate the facts. People should be insulted when they are presented with sloppy advertising, cringe-worthy network programming, and Barney-fied displays. You're being insulted right to your face, except the people doing the insulting get to hide behind their networks and billboards. For every "Hunting Bigfoot" show and use of Jurassic Park imagery to push dinosaurs, you are being told your interest is worth the minimal effort. They are using their large platforms to decide FOR YOU what you have the smarts to understand. If someone wearing a Big Network badge walked up to you and said "You are too dense to understand the real information," would you accept that? I hope not, and I hope you don't accept it when it's presented to you in the form of a sign, TV show, or tourism campaign.

The people who push these insulting narratives don't actually believe - or want to take the time to find out - that the facts do make a story interesting! People visit historical sites, read non-fiction biographies, and watch documentaries: they want to know what happened. People also want to know how and why we know it happened. This is no different when applied to promoting dinosaur sites and museums. We don't have to "trick" people into being excited about science, and we shouldn't ever be approaching this from a "tricking" or "sneaking in the science" perspective. Again, that doesn't come from a position of respect.

I'm in the process of collecting #SadSciPromo examples: the signs, promotions, and shows that are supposedly science-based but make you do the eternal head desk.

Do you have any examples of #SadSciPromo that you have encountered? Please let me know. The more of these that I collect - and the more people who indicate that they are fed up with this type of insulting media - the more background information I'll have to demonstrate when needed that we need to respect our audiences more than those who call marine reptiles dinosaurs, or those who think fake documentaries on mermaids are good for public science literacy. We all deserve much, much better, and should demand it.

Until next time,
Strange Woman.

Friday, January 6, 2017

SCIENCE TRACKS: Scicomm Pamphlets to Spread the Science Fun

Happy 2017, Dear Readers!

Over the holidays I was at home, minding my own business - drinking tea, working on retooling the last publishable chapter from my dissertation, watching bad paranormal TV, and acting as a heated mattress for the kitty - when there's a knock on my front door.

Lo and behold, it was a door-to-door religious solicitor. Nowadays they are fairly high-tech: rather than try to hand me a pamphlet, his opening line was presenting his tablet/iPad and saying "Now watch this video and I'm sure it will help you answer some of Life's questions." My grandparents had a sign taped to their door that read "No solicitors, religious or otherwise. We have no time, patience, or money." Needless to say, they taught me well.

My response to these types of solicitations is polite but direct: I'm an evolutionary biologist, and my questions are already answered. I caught a very brief change flicker over the guy's face - something akin to a flare of anger - but he wisely turned around and left.

Naturally, I shared my experience with my Twitter friends.

I let my mind free-associate a bit after that. I briefly thought about how funny it would be if - rather than having religious solicitors - we had science solicitors, going door-to-door spreading the Science. Of course my brain immediately jumped to "Science doesn't preach: science provides learning opportunities."

The more my brain played with the idea, the more my brain liked it.

I have completed one pamphlet for what I'm calling Science Tracks: purely scicomm pamphlets that can be used for any opportunity that arises for spreading the good word about all the awesome science that's out there. I may have been a little optimistic on getting more than one completed over the holidays. One big reason is that I don't want to use other people's photos for this without permission, and the only pamphlet I could complete using my own photos was OMFG* BIRDS! (no one who follows me is surprised), but it is a start of something that I hope to continue.
*Oh My Feathery Goodness

Here is the link to the first Science Tracks PDF, OMFG BIRDS! Hope you enjoy!

Here is a screenshot of the outside of the pamphlet:

Here's a screenshot of the inside of the pamphlet:

Monday, December 12, 2016

Name That Track! Ichnology Fun For All!

Hello Dear Readers!

The end of the year rush to get things wrapped up for 2016 has hit, and I am a busy ichnologist! The data collection is nearing the end, and once that end is nigh I can move on to analyzing all of that data. We'll see if the hypothesis I'm testing will be supported (yay!) or if the data don't support the hypothesis (huh, well that's interesting, what else could it mean?)

Note: don't get too attached to your hypotheses. If your data end up saying "Hold up: your hypothesis doesn't really describe me all that well. Can you try again?" listen to the data and rethink your approach. Maybe you need a different way to test your data. Maybe you need a different hypothesis.

One thing that I am quite pleased to talk about is a new ichnology-based game I've started on Twitter called Name That Track. It was an idea that I've had for a while now, but the implementation was inspired by Dr. Michelle LaRue's very popular Twitter game "Cougar Or Not." Tweeters look at a picture of a critter, and they have to guess if that critter is indeed a cougar. It's not as easy as it sounds! Depending on the picture, house cats, bobcats, and even deer can take on a cougar-ish look.

Name That Track is similar, but with pictures of footprints instead of animals. Every Tuesday morning I post one of the modern footprint pictures from my collection (I take a lot of pictures of footprints from modern animals) and people tweet me their guesses.

I started the game with everyone's favorite floofs: footprints of cats and dogs. I did a test run in January by posting a picture of a cat footprint and asked Twitter "Cat or Dog". People jumped in with both feet and made great observations.

Here are the images I've used to date.

A cat track in cement (please don't let your furry friends walk in cement: it's bad for the skin on their paws),

Our favorite Common Raven,

A festive Wild Turkey for the American Thanksgiving,

And, most recently, a Canada Goose track.

The most recent Name That Track - the Canada Goose - was a real eye-opener for me on how people see tracks. About half of the people who responded looked at the footprint and didn't see three pointy bird toes: they saw the curved outline of the sides of the footprint and the spaces in-between the toes and saw a large ungulate track (elk or moose). The other half of the respondents saw a the track of a large bird.

I'll admit: it took me reading several of the moose guesses for me to see why people were guessing moose in the first place. Then I switched gears and thought to myself "OK, let me see this as a moose track." Then the two hoof-like shapes popped out at me and the rounded side edges of the track came into focus, and I had the "Aha!" moment. This is valuable information for an ichnologist who likes to teach people about tracks and what tracks can tell us:

1. Differences in depth are difficult thing to convey in 2D photographs. Ins look like outs. Highs can look like lows. Non-specialists are used to seeing footprints that are innies, or impressions in the ground. Showing someone an infill of a footprint, or the positive relief version of a footprint can be confusing. Being clear about whether the image I'm showing is an impression versus a plaster infill of a track is very important for people wanting to understand the track.

2. Edges are important. Our eyes are drawn to edges that define spaces. A track with poorly defined edges is going to result in a poorly viewed track. This particular Canada Goose track did not have very clear webbing impressions. Were the webbing visible, people would have made the goose connection based on that. It's also important to note that footprints oftentimes don't preserve the features we think we need to identify them...or if they are preserved, they lead to an inaccurate identification. That was revealed to me with the Wild Turkey track. The detail on the footprint is gorgeous, but I overlooked the small amount of webbing that was clearly preserved. Most people don't associate webbed feet with non-aquatic birds (why would they?), so it turned out the Wild Turkey received a few duck and goose identifications. Both the goose and the turkey print provided an opportunity to nerd out about cool features on bird feet, and the explanations were well-received. No harm, no fowl.

3. Scale matters. One of the things we are trained to do as paleoichnologists is not focus on the size of the track. We have to focus on its shape, because it's hard to tell if a size difference between two tracks is because they come from different species of track-makers, or if the small track is simply the young version of the large track. When we're showing certain modern tracks to non-specialists - particularly ungulate and bird tracks - scale does matter because there are closely related species coexisting whose feet differ only (in a general sense) in scale. Think of the footprints of an American Crow versus a Common Raven. They are both tracks made by corvids, and those tracks are really only different in size (in general). Knowing the scale helps people narrow down the list of potential track-makers because they are familiar with the sizes of modern-day animals. Size can be a useful diagnostic tool for modern tracking.

One exception I make for the "scale matters" rule is when using images of the footprints of domesticated dogs and cats. There are so many different sizes of dogs - and so many different sizes of dog feet - that there are footprints of small dogs the same size as the footprints of house cats. The reverse is true for large dogs and our large wild cats: the footprint of a large breed of dog can overlap in size with the footprints of bobcats, lynx, and cougars. That's when footprint shape and proportions become important. The exercise in trying to tell dog tracks from cat tracks is very similar to what we do to tell apart the different types of dinosaur footprints.

4. No trying to trip people. I might inadvertently stump people (like with the above mentioned Canada Goose footprint), but I have no intention of posting an ambiguous tracks and laughing evilly to myself in my secret lair (well, not any more evilly than I already laugh.) Being able to tell dog, cat, bird, ungulate, etc. is a great first step if you're not familiar with tracks. As you get more experience, the identifications can get more specific. All of the footprint pictures I'm going to post early on for Name That Track are of single clear (relatively) footprints. I've also seen who has made the footprints while the footprints were being made (particularly for the bird footprints - it's part of my research), so I'm not guessing at the identity of the track-maker. I do have some doozies that make my eyes cross, and those won't make an appearance until well in the future...or unless people cry out "Enough dogs and cats! Give us a toughie!"

Name That Track is not only a fun educational game, but it's also teaching me how non-specialists see tracks and how to talk about tracks the way that non-specialists see them. So, to all the people who play Name That Track with me: THANK YOU! I'm hoping I'll be able to keep Name That Track running for a long time. So, join me on Twitter every Tuesday and play Name That Track and let your inner ichnology nerd shine!

What will it be this week?

Monday, October 24, 2016

Field Work Fail: For Want of a Flashlight

Hello Dear Readers!

The Strange Woman has been very busy as of late: collecting additional data for a paper that is the second to last paper to come out of my doctoral thesis. These last two papers are the result of the data at the end of my analyses showing me something cool that I had no time to expand on for the thesis. Sometimes research does that to you: sometimes discoveries have their own schedule. I'm also doing other things that I'll hopefully be able to write about in the future. Right now I'm in finger-cross mode with those things.

This is to say that I am still not ready to post the results of our summer's work at the Six Peaks Dinosaur Track Site. What I can do is show you a video we had done on the site. Here is a teaser for you!

I will share a dinosaur track field work story with you. This one dates back to 2011, and tells the tale of how we spent the night in a pile of leaves at the end of October in northeastern British Columbia.


The best laid plans of rodents and researchers...

Fieldwork in the Peace Region of British Columbia is not simple under the best of conditions, with the best conditions being fair weather in mid-summer. There are practical reasons for this. Materials don’t set well in cold or wet conditions. The ground is either too wet (for the spring) or too frozen (for the fall and winter) to safely remove fossils. Many times the weather renders the conditions too dangerous for field crews. This is why the paleontology research field season is short in the North. The PRPRC’s typical field season runs from June-September. If the snow and sub-freezing temperatures permit it, we’ll do short excursions well into the first half of October. It’s an exceptional discovery that will bring us into the field in end October or early November.

This is the story of one such exceptional discovery.

The site was discovered by a regional guide-outfitter, Aaron Fredlund, in 2011. He had come across a small exposure of grey sandstone sticking out from under a hill of Ice Age silt, mud, and boulders. Being an experienced tracker of modern animals, it didn’t take Mr. Fredlund long to notice the large, three-toed footprint and identify it as the track of a large meat-eating dinosaur. It also didn’t take him long to reason that, if he cleared some of the debris off of the rock in front of the footprint, a second footprint could be uncovered. He was correct. The two images were immediately reported to me, Dr. Richard McCrea, and Dr. Charles Helm. A combination of the track type (large theropod) and the age of the rocks (Late Cretaceous, approximately 72 million years old) led us to identify these footprints as those of tyrannosaurs!

Tyrannosaur footprints were not unknown to science: “singleton” footprints have been reported from the Late Cretaceous (Campanian - Maastrichtian) deposits from the US, Canada, and Mongolia. However, what palaeontologists were missing was a trackway: a series of footprints made by one animal. Isolated footprints are like finding an isolated dinosaur bone, while trackways are like finding a complete skeleton. A trackway of a tyrannosaur would provide a tonne (pun completely intended) of information on how this tyrannosaur moved when it was alive. Tyrannosaurs are the best-known dinosaur predator, but their footprints were the least well-known. This site had the potential to change all that.

At the time of reporting, both Rich and I were out of town. Charles made a visit to the site with Mr. Fredlund in our absence so he could report site conditions and access. There was no GPS data taken during the visit (one of those frustrating “I can take you right to the site” situations), Charles reported from the site visit that the locality was both treacherous and tricky to access, and would require an ATV to haul in the research equipment safely. In short, we would need a guide.

Fast forward to October 23, 2011. Charles had a break in his busy schedule to visit the site with us. This was our only opportunity to get the site documented and replicated before the end of 2011. We were starting to head into winter: there was no snow yet, but the daytime temperatures were not above 10°C, and the nighttime temperatures were hovering around and just below 0°C. We could not physically remove the trackway, so we had to make a silicone mould (or peel) that would be used to make an exact replica that could be housed (and studied) inside during the winter. As difficult as fieldwork is, cold exacerbates all difficulties. Since silicone doesn’t set up in cold settings, we had to both mould the trackway and heat the silicone so that it would cure properly. This was a large trackway: the two exposed footprints covered a distance of over 2 meters long, and almost a meter wide. We would need A LOT of silicone. Silicone is an expensive molding material, but this site was worth it.

We spent that week gathering silicone, mixing buckets, brooms, brushes, documenting equipment, and all of the gear we would need to keep the silicone peel warm enough to set: tarps, propane tanks and heaters. Me, Rich, and our field technician Tammy Pigeon had all of the field gear ready to go and loaded into the ATV on Friday. We were scheduled to leave Sunday, so we thought we had a full day (Saturday, October 23) to gather our personal field gear, which had been all packed away for the winter.

We got a call early Saturday morning. Charles’ schedule had changed: could we possibly head to the site that morning? We scrambled to throw together our personal field gear. An hour later we were ready to go...or, at least, we thought we were ready.

Cue ominous music.

We followed Charles out to the “trail head”: a labyrinthine series of decommissioned logging roads long overgrown with dense brush. We scouted the best path for the gear-laden ATV among the bogs, pits, and tumbles of burnt log piles. After a long while we reached the top of the hill: at the bottom of the steep slope was the humble little rock exposure containing the tracks of one of the most famous and charismatic predators ever known.

NOTE: there will be very few pictures of the trail down to the site and of the overall site. This site is still vulnerable to vandalism and general people nastiness that all of our publicly accessible sites have experienced. The selfish actions of a few do ruin things for the many.

Once we uncovered the camouflaging coating of rubble from the track surface, Tammy and I set to readying the track surface for the silicone mould. We were expecting to have to do a bit of digging, brushing, and wiping. What we were not expecting was to have to clean a 30 cm layer of kaolinite (clay) out from the all of the nooks and crannies of the footprints. This clay was stubborn: it required several washes and (soft) scrubbings before all of the clay was removed from the footprints. Removing the clay coating from the surface revealed small skin impressions that we would have never seen (or moulded) had the footprints remained “dirty”.

As frustrating as the clay was to clean out of the skin impressions, it was very exciting to see: this type of clay forms from volcanic ash falling onto the footprints soon after they were made. This told us that the weather patterns were right for a volcanic ash layer to fall on northeastern British Columbia 72 - 74 million years ago. Perhaps our tyrannosaur actually saw the glow of the eruption? We’ll never know, but it is fun to imagine.

The track surface cleaning took a long time. In the meantime, Charles and Rich moved the research and moulding equipment to the site by easing the AVT down the hill. What goes down was not going back up: the hill was too steep for the ATV to make a return trip using that route, but we had planned for this: an alternate route was mapped out using Google Earth for our regress. Rich calculated where the third footprint in the series would be if it were preserved. If you know approximately how long of a step the trackmaker was taking, which we had from Footprint #1 and Footprint #2, you can figure out where Footprint #3 would be, even if it is still covered in rubble. Charles and Rich began excavating at the base of the hill to search for the third footprint, and successfully uncovered it!

The first tyrannosaur trackway. a) The second footprint in the trackway. b) The exposed trackway. You can see, way at the end of the trackway, the pale clay layer that we had to clean out of the footprints. Modified from Figure 2 of McCrea et al. (2014).
While Tammy and I began the detail cleaning of Footprint #3, Rich got to work documenting the exposed trackway. This is when he noticed something odd about this trackway. The Footprint #1 made by the left foot, was a little damaged by weathering. The inner toe (digit II) was not completely preserved: it seemed too short. Footprint #2, from the tyrannosaur’s right foot, was uncovered by Mr. Fredlund, and all of the toes were beautifully preserved. When we finished cleaning out Footprint #3, made again by the left foot of the tyrannosaur, we saw that digit II was too short on this footprint. This was not damage due to weathering: this animal was missing the end of its inner toe! This is called a pathological footprint: check out McCrea et al. (2015) for a detailed description of injuries seen in dinosaur footprints.

Figure 7 of McCrea et al. (2014), photogrammetric rendering of the first tyrannosaur trackway. You can see the consistently missing digit II impression. I might call this specimen "Stumpy".

Charles had to leave the site around 3pm. That was when we were finally ready to start the silicone mould. Silicone is easy to mix by hand in small quantities at room temperature. However, I had to mix large batches at around 5C. Silicone is very, very stiff when it’s cold: it’s like trying to stir molasses or all-natural peanut butter that has been sitting in the fridge. Silicone also doesn’t set properly if the catalyst and reagent aren’t thoroughly mixed: it just stays a gloopy, slimy mess.

There is another drawback to late year fieldwork: the lack of daylight. The light and temperature started to drop as I stirred, and stirred, and stirred. Each batch took about half an hour to properly mix, and then another half an hour to pour. By the time we had mixed and poured four batches of silicone, and had set up the heating tent over the silicone peel, it was 6:30pm and dark. Ice had started to form on standing pools of water. Our breath frosted in the air. It was going to be a cold, clear evening.

This is when we discovered just how rushed we were when packing our personal field gear. We had food, guide tarps, GPS, satellite phone, and warm(ish) clothing, but we had forgotten one crucial piece: The Flashlight. We weren’t initially concerned: Rich had mapped out a seismic cut line that we could use with the ATV (which has headlights) to get back to the field vehicle. It was a slow, bone-jarring trip through the dark wilderness, but we reached the opening to the cutline. We were home free...

...or not. Between Google Maps taking the images of this route and our escape (about two years), a beaver had made a dam, turning what would have been a steep but manageable slope into a large pond abutting a steep grade. There was no way to drive around the pond. After expressing a few non-printable words towards beavers and all of their kin, and finding out that similar access points were also cut off, we made our slow creeping way back to the track site.

Bwaahaahaa! Image link.
We returned to the site around 11:30pm. After checking that the heating system for the silicone peel was still working, we surveyed our possible lighting resources. GPS screens emit light, but not enough light to hike through the woods. Makeshift torches of burlap do not work unless you can soak the ends in pitch. We had gasoline, but that burned too quickly for a consistent light source. None of the screens on our 2011 flip phones gave enough light to safely hike by (this was before phones with flashlight apps). The Moon was not full enough to hike by, and our trail was treacherous even in full daylight. We had no choice: we were stuck for the night at the track site.

I called Charles on the satellite phone to let him know our situation. The phone made an unstable connection, and all I could get out was “Hi Charles, we’re OK, but stuck at the site for the night...” when the connection broke. Satellite phones are great for remote field work, but at that particular time our satellite coverage was poor, and we were in a canyon. What I had wanted to tell Charles was that we were stuck for the night, but could wait until dawn to make our way back to the truck.

We assessed our emergency camping options. We set up our first camp on an open patch of ground, with our backs to the ATV and facing a nice fire. We used our backpacks in place of a ground pad, and huddled under the guide tarp. We were fine here until the winds shifted direction. The ground cooled and sucked the warmth right out of us. We then moved our makeshift camp into the shelter of the woods. While Rich cleared a safe area for a fire, Tammy and I built a huge pile of dried leaves. Once the fire was going we burrowed into the leaf pile and pulled the guide tarp over us.

I actually fell asleep. I can sleep in just about any situation, and after the long day and finally being warm and comfortable, I slept like one of the rotten logs on the ground next to us. All of a sudden my lovely sleep was interrupted by loud crashing down the hill and shouting. It was an unexpected rescue party! When I had called Charles, he interpreted the call as a “please come rescue us” call. After letting people in town know we were safe, he, Thomas Clarke, and Pearl the Helm Dog hiked along that horrendous trail in the dead of night to bring us home. They reached our campsite around 3:30am.

My first emotion? I will admit that it was annoyance at having been woken up (this will be the first time Charles will hear this confession). I was prepared to sleep for another couple of hours. Part of my brain wanted me to grumble “Go away!” I was the only one thinking that: Tammy admitted to feeling quite chilled and uncomfortable. We extinguished our fire, packed up our gear, and followed the lights of our rescuers back to the truck.

There, sitting on the front seat to add insult to injury, was a flashlight that had fallen out of one of our backpacks.

Every field bag and field jacket that I own now sports this teeny little flashlight. Lesson learned.
This trackway was well worth the unexpected overnight camping trip. Later visits to the site in 2012 and 2013 gave us time to clear off more of the track surface, revealing two more tyrannosaur trackways. All three trackways were walking at a leisurely pace (between 6.4 and 8.5 km/h) in the same direction and were spaced evenly apart (about 3 m). We were also able to figure out approximately how old the track-makers’ were when they made their journey from present-day British Columbia to Alberta: the track-makers were between 25 and 29 years old. This may sound young to us, but this is close to the upper age range known for Albertosaurus sarcophagus (Erikson et al. 2010). 

Figure 3 of McCrea et al. (2014). I'm working on cleaning out one of three trackways, and cursing at clay.
This site told us several things: 1) that tyrannosaurs spent time in northeastern British Columbia, 2) how tyrannosaurs walked and moved their feet when they walked, and 3) that adult tyrannosaurs, despite evidence of antagonistic behavior (e.g. fighting and face-biting, Tanke and Currie 1998) did spend time in each other’s company. This track site is also good evidence of group behavior in tyrannosaurs. There were hints before of tyrannosaur group behavior. Currie and Eberth (2010) suggested this from the tyrannosaur bonebed in Alberta, but bodies and bones can be moved after the animals die and deposited in a pile: in situ footprints cannot.

This site has great potential for further excavation: all three tyrannosaur trackways head into the hill. Unfortunately that hill is very high and steep, so any future work will require a lot of resources to move the mountainous amount of silt, sandstone, and mud from over the track surface. We cannot safely tunnel into the hill to expose more tracks: that seems like a plan riddled with Wile E. Coyote kinds of danger. 

Hopefully this tale of working on the terror of tyrannosaurs - and a fairly epic field work fail - will amuse and entertain until I can get to the Early Cretaceous track site work we did this summer. Stay tuned!


Currie PJ, Eberth DA (2010) On gregarious behavior in Albertosaurus. Can J Earth Sci 47: 1277–1289. doi: 10.1139/e10-072  

Erickson GM, Currie PJ, Inouye BD, Winn AA (2010) A revised life table and survivorship curve for Albertosaurus sarcophagus based on the Dry Island mass death assemblage. Can J Earth Sci 47: 1269–1275. doi: 10.1139/e10-051 

McCrea RT, Tanke DH, Buckley LG, Lockley MG, Farlow JO, Xing L, Matthews NA, Helm CW, Pemberton SG (2015) Vertebrate ichnopathology: pathologies inferred from dinosaur tracks and trackways from the Mesozoic. Ichnos 22(3-4):235-260.

Tanke DH, Currie PH (1998) Head-biting behavior in theropod dinosaurs: paleopathological evidence. Gaia 15: 167–184.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Time for Media to Call Birds What They Are...DINOSAURS!

Hello Dear Readers!

I've been playing catch-up after this summer's field work: organizing photos, email, restarting projects that had to be paused for field work, updating the CV, and - when there is time - getting our poor house in order after an almost three month absence!

I always have high hopes for humanity on returning from the field, and one of those hopes is that we'll have seen the last of lazy science communication by the mega-platforms (Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Animal Planet). I always think "Maybe, just maybe, they'll get it. They'll get that conscientious science communication is just as engaging, "grabbing", and simple as the amateur-hour male bovine fecal material we've seen with Shark Week, any monster hunting show, and mermaids.

This time Discovery Channel hit close to home with paleontology, and they did it by just lazily slapping "dinosaur" on a 2013 program focusing on marine reptiles....and they've done it many times. Brian Switek gives a great write up here. Any seven year old could tell you that marine reptiles aren't dinosaurs (and perhaps the large networks should think of consulting with their local primary schools before stamping "dinosaur" on anything that's a fossil), so I am not sure why these highly unprofessional mistakes keep happening.

As frustration is my muse, I decided to have a bit of fun with telling people what they actually can call a dinosaur: BIRDS.

Any and all birds that ever were, that ever are, and ever will be, are dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are not extinct, but visit our feeders and poop on our cars and patios daily.

I had fun with this on Twitter, and thanks to Storify I was able to collect all of the fun I and others had at rebranding birds as modern-day dinosaurs.

Here's the link to "We Don't Have to Call Everything A Dinosaur!"

Enjoy, and feel free to rebrand your favorite feathered friends as the dinosaurs they are! It's fun and scientifically accurate!