Friday, May 24, 2013

Strange Woman Abroad: Turkmenistan - Koytendag Track Site

[Continued from Grotto of Forty Girls]

After our return from the Grotto and a refreshment break we board the PaintMixer and head to the Koytendag Track Site. The prospector in me could not help but assess the logistics for extended field activities in the region. The valley we drive into is comparatively lush and green, with a readily available water source of a small creek. It is also home to a small village, complete with livestock. Throw in an army tent as a base camp stocked with supplies, the use of a reliable 4WD (or pack animals for a lowered carbon footprint), a local guide and/or interpreter, and add a band of Turkmenistan geology-biology university researchers and students to the palaeontologists and geologists and we would have a fully functioning field expedition. While I appreciate a hot shower and a mattress, give me a tent, a functioning Coleman stove, and a supply of Earl Grey tea and I'll function pretty much anywhere.
A nice vertical surface, just waiting to have dinosaur tracks found on it!
We are greeted by another traditional dance performance. Each performance we've seen has been slightly different. Some focus on interactions between young men and women, some focus on young people learning skills from their elders, and some praise the resources of the region and resulting products: rugs, food, and clothing. 
The young ladies' part of the dance...
...the young men...
...and the married women providing advice.
We are led to the cement stairway constructed for the visit of the country's President to the track site in 2011. After the stairs we hiked a gorgeous trail lined with natural craggy limestone slabs.

Stairway and interpretive signage for the Koytendag Track Site.

The trail up to the Koytendag Track Site. Gorgeous!
The track site is a large exposure: over 25000m2 of a calcareous bedding surface dotted here and there with silty clasts contains long trackways of two ichnogenera of large and medium theropods (Megalosauripus and Therangospodus, respectively.)

Possible tracks of Therangospodus.
Possible track of Megalosauripus.
I tried to find out the names of these three gentlemen, but the language barrier got in the way. They took great effort to show me all the tracks on the surface.
Trackways are always worth getting excited over: trackways are much better than individual footprints because the information needed for describing dinosaur footprint and locomotion features comes from trackways. Individual tracks are only used if that's all you can get.
NOTE: What is an ichnotaxon? Ichnotaxonomy (the study of naming traces) is functionally the same as naming any new fossil. If you find a trackway that looks different than any other tracks described in scientific journals (the journal Ichnos is dedicated to publishing research on traces of anything and everything, from worms to humans), it can be given a unique name. To distinguish a trace name from a physical organism name, the prefix “ichno” is used. So, a new species of dinosaur footprint is not a species but an ichnospecies. New ichnogeneric and ichnospecific names have to be erected following the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Describing a new ichnotaxon from a single footprint is the equivalent of trying to describe a completely new dinosaur from a single bone: it can be done, but you would never stop hoping for the recovery of the rest of the skeleton, and you have to be VERY careful that you’ve examined all other possible explanations for that funky new shape (preservation, age of the animal, ground consistency, non-biologic sources, invertebrate sources, etc.). Back to the journal entry.

The track site was mostly exposed (also for the President's visit), and Federico, the lead researcher on the recent Koytendag palaeontology research, had noticed significant surface erosion even in the short time the new tracks had been exposed. [NOTE: Erosion is the only constant when working with outdoor tracks. You can do a great deal to slow down the rate of erosion of exposed surfaces, but eventually their detail will fade. That’s why detailed documentation of track sites is so important: you can’t save everything.] There is a strip of track site that is still covered with debris, and here is where we find the most pristine of the trackways of Megalosauripus.

Nicely impressed track of ?Megalosauripus from the covered portion of the track surface.
Natural erosion has not been the only enemy of the track site: anthropogenic signs of degradation are scrawled on several areas and even within the margins of a few tracks. No country is immune to this phenomenon. So-and-so loves some person, Buddy was here, and political statements usually make up the bulk of the graffiti: much like erosion, peoples' ignorance will always be a constant on which you can rely. The same degradation defaces track sites in northeast BC, and I’m sure my American and European colleagues can cite similar examples.

A great effort was taken to remove the spray paint from the Koytendag track surface.
Track surface in northeast British Columbia. The message here is quite obvious.
The track site is where interviews start in earnest. The interview style is different from that to which I am familiar. Rather than provide sound bites to a series of questions, I deliver a monologue-style statement on what I feel is the significance of the track site. This is likely due to the need for translation. I am also reminded that I should thank the President and the government for the opportunity to visit the site. I learn through the week this is policy for anyone doing government-related work. I would have done this anyway, as government support for research is something I can get behind.

We spend a few hours at the track site. The site is interesting in of itself, but it also represents the potential for new track site discoveries in the region. Any exposure of this Upper Jurassic deposit should be explored. The rate at which the surface is naturally eroding begs that new sites be found and documented.

All the Expedition members eventually drift down to the reception area at the base of the stairs to the waiting yurt-style tents where lunch was served. This is where my mental capacity begins to drift. I am decidedly not feeling well at this point. I stare at a pear I attempting to eat as though it is the most riveting object on the planet. Don't get me wrong: it was a nice juicy pear, but no piece of fruit should be more interesting than conversations with people who have done international field work. Chris from RSPB is telling a fascinating story about their society’s work in public education on poaching, and he notices my attention wandering to my pear. He jokes about how interesting the local fruits are, and I have to laugh and confess my internal unease. He understands: I’m sure I’m not the first or the last to fall victim to a traveler’s bug.

OK, Dear Readers: this is where you have input on the content of the next post in this series. I promised in my first post that I would keep the TMI content to a bare minimum, and that is a promise I intend to honor. However, the humor potential for the next series of events is high due to shall I say this...embarrassing nature of my developing ailments at this point in the story. Your choice is this:

A) Oh Strange Woman, we don’t need to know that your insides were struck with the majestic force of a foreign unicellular invader. Just skip that part and go on to describing the cool sites!

B) If you can tell it without graphic clinical details, fire away! Thinly veiled hints are more amusing than spelling it out for us. The best humor is subtle.

Which will it be? Cast your votes in the comments section!

Until next time!
Strange Woman.

UPDATE 24-05-2013: Fixed some formatting issues. Oh, and given that the "Privy Bush" turned out to be one of the most viewed posts (#4 of all time to date), I have to say that knowing readers enjoy this brand of what could be considered off-key humor warms my heart. You're all awesome! I drink a toast of Earl Grey to you!

On a serious science note, Federico Fanti and his colleagues have a paper out in the latest issue of the journal Ichnos entitled "Data on two large dinosaur tracksites from the Upper Jurassic of Eastern Turkmenistan (Central Asia). The citation is below, and follow the link here to the page that has a preview of the article (pay-walled, unfortunately.)

Fanti, Contessi, Nigarov, Esenov, 2013. Data on Two Large Dinosaur Tracksites from the Upper Jurassic of Eastern Turkmenistan (Central Asia). Ichnos 20, 54-71.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Oh, The Things You Hear and See!

When Past Rich suggested to Past Lisa "Hey! Let's put together a small book for the upcoming Geopark Symposium!", Past Lisa should have sprayed him with a plant mister with the stern rebuke of "No!" Instead, Past Lisa was all excited about the idea. Past Rich and Past Lisa are great at coming up with grand ideas, but they always leave it up to Future Rich and Future Lisa to implement them. Meanwhile, those Past slackers get all the credit. Past Rich and Past Lisa have no thought for the time commitments and workload of Present Rich and Present Lisa, and have been officially censured for their inconsiderate actions. Now Present Lisa is reading over what we hope is the final draft of the project. We will toss it at our layout and printer source this afternoon. I can't grouse too loudly - I think the final product will look great.

While Present Lisa waits for her tea to brew, a couple of amusing incidents came to mind: one fairly recent and one that happened a few years ago. The present incident reminded me of the some of the odd conversations one overhears when one offers services to the general public, or are out and about among the general public.

I'll set the scene for Incident 2013. We had a lot of visitors to the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery over the Victoria Day long weekend, even though (in this region) the tradition is to muck out the campers and trailers and head out to the nearest campground. May in the Peace Region is usually the time when the snowpack from the surrounding mountains starts to melt and add those waters to the lower elevation rivers and streams. This year is no exception: we had an uncharacteristically late snowfall in April of some accumulation (about 15cm in some areas), so the region is just starting to experience Spring. All the rivers and streams are full to the brim and quite vigorous. How does this tie into the Museum? Our popular Dinosaur Trackway Tours take visitors to two tracksites, the Cabin Pool-Flatbed Creek site and the Wolverine River site, which (as you can likely guess from the names) are exposed along the banks of Flatbed Creek and the Wolverine River, respectively. May and June are lousy times to see these sites because they are underwater. We don't offer tours to these sites until the end of June (water levels permitting).

Over the Victoria Day weekend, our Gallery Host had a visitor yell at her because they had gone to one of the tracksites on their own accord (the trails are open for public use any time) and was shocked - just completely flabbergasted - that the tracksites were underwater. Here's the punchline of this joke: this particular person lives in the region. They not only know that the rivers and creeks flood every spring, but they can step outside and see it happening. And, apparently, it was our fault that the sites were underwater, because we magically control when and where the annual spring flood occurs. [SAS NOTE: I'm interjecting my own interpretation of the reason for this behavior, because it seems the only logical reason a person would yell at another person over a natural event.] Needless to say, I have now written on our Gallery Host's "To-Do" list "Do something about that pesky spring flooding".

You hear (and see) all sorts of odd things when you have a public interpretive program. We've had people try to ride the ankylosaur mounts. We've had people try to break off pieces of the mounts as souvenirs (they are resin replica skeletons). We have proselytizers who visit for the sole purpose of trying to save our front end staff. Compared to the stories I've heard from other natural history museums, these incidents are mild. There is a quality about a public-accessible display that makes some visitors want to be the reason museums put up a sign that reads "No using the sauropod leg as a stripper pole."

As I was relating this story to my mom last night, my sister chimed in and demanded I tell Mom the "Jesus Hates Zombies" story. This one happened back in 2009, but it has everything: zombies, children, logic, pseudoreasoning, and graphic novels. Alas, there is no love story, unless you love irony.

Rich and I were killing time at a bookstore in one of the cities in the Peace Region. We were perusing books on gardening and homemade, environmentally safe cleaners. In walks a young boy (around 10 years old) and his father, who gravitate to the comics section. One graphic novel in particular catches the boy's eye: Jesus Hates Zombies, by Stephen Lindsay.

This graphic novel did not catch the boy's attention for the typical reasons (zombies = gory and awesome). This family was Christian, and it was the Jesus part that caught the attention.

This is the conversation that I overheard. (Let me be honest here: I lurked. As soon as I heard the boy's second question, I knew it would be worth listening to the conversation in its entirety.)

Boy: "Dad, what's this one about?"

Dad: "It's about Jesus coming back to earth to kill zombies."

Boy: "Dad, how come Jesus hates zombies?"

Dad: "I don't know, Son. It's part of the story."

Boy: "But Dad, doesn't Jesus love everyone?"

Dad: "Yes he does. He loves you very much."

Boy: "But Dad, if Jesus loves everyone, doesn't he love zombies too?"

Dad: "Zombies aren't people."

Boy: "But zombies were people. They're just dead people. Why doesn't Jesus love dead people?"

Dad (quite uncomfortable at this point): "Jesus loves good dead people that don't walk around."

Boy (clearly getting frustrated): "But DAD, Jesus loves everyone. And since zombies were people, Jesus should love them too. If I was a zombie would Jesus hate me, too?"

Dad (at his own frustration tipping point): "It's just make up. It's not real."

Dad then puts an end to the conversation. I had to leave the store so I could sit in my car and howl with laughter without anyone hearing me.

I loved the hypocrisy of this conversation. Zombies coming back from the dead are make-believe, yet a character in a religious text who dies and is brought back to life is treated as reality. Dad effectively put an end to the conversation before his son could make the next mental step of asking the question "Is Jesus a zombie because he came back to life too?" 

You can make up zombies, but you can't make up these conversations.

Share with me the weirdest, zaniest, most bizarre museum-related visitor incident (as long as there is nothing legal preventing you from doing so - no need to get in trouble) your local museum has witnessed!

SAS out.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Strange Woman Interviews: Lida Xing

Lida Xing at a track site in China.
Hello, Dear Readers!

Welcome to what I hope will be the first installment of a series of interviews with fellow paleontologists, technicians, paleo artists, and anyone who is passionate about working with fossils. If you have any ideas of themes and/or people from whom you would like to hear, please send me a comment! I'll see what sorts of bribes I will have to offer to get interviews (I am joking, of course: we're all a fairly easy-going bunch.)

My premiere interview is with friend and fellow ichnology worker Lida Xing. Lida's focus is not only tracks, but the fascinating fauna of the Mesozoic of China. He is currently doing fieldwork in China, so I conducted this interview via email. I definitely have follow-up questions to his responses, but field work takes people away for multiple days from both technology and civilization. I will update this version of the interview as soon as possible.

SAS: First, introduce yourself to the readers. Who are you, and what is your position? 

LX: My name is Lida Xing. My family name, Xing, can be traced back to the descendant of the Duck of Zhou, who established the ritual music system in A.D. 3000. The first name, Lida, is derived from the Confucian Analects, meaning “the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others”. Since I’m the oldest son of my clan, I’ve been counted on by family to succeed. However, I have not engaged in the career of finance, or become a lawyer or doctor as they wished, but I’ve chosen paleontology, which was unheard of to them.

SAS: How long have you been interested in paleontology? When did you decide that would be your choice of career? 

LX: Paleontology is really attractive. When I was three or four years old, my grandmother told me the stories from the popular science books. The huge brontosaurus roaming in the water appealed to me then. I began to adore such huge animals. My family supported my hobby. However, they also told me that “the hobby is the hobby.” My career was arranged to be a journalist, a lawyer or to get into the finance field. In my spare time, I kept my hobby. Dong Zhiming, my tutor (then at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology), also told me that one cannot visit the fossil sites everywhere if one lacks a sufficient budget. First I took those suggestions. After my graduation from the finance college, I became a journalist focused at economic field. However, when I started working for the job, two months later I had realized that I had not enough time to pay attention to my beloved dinosaurs at all! Thus, after a fierce argument with my family, I quit my job and started my paleontology career.

SAS: Describe your job and academic position right now. What does Lida Xing do during a regular non-field day? 

LX: I don’t think I’ve had too many great achievements. [SAS NOTE: I beg to differ.] But I’m proud that, since 2007, my efforts have facilitated two results. One is that the massive attention in China towards dinosaurs have been greatly enhanced. I’ve poured great energy in to the popularization of paleontology, and that includes composing abundant articles. Some have been published as books. Another one is that my work has protected some dinosaur tracksites against being destroyed, to keep them preserved, or at least the models [of these tracks] are fully saved. During the non-field days, I travel with my wife. We have been to Egypt and many Chinese tourist attractions.

SAS: You do a great deal of field work around China. Where have been your favorite field sites to work? 

LX: To be honest, I love every field site. But the most impressive site is the site where I first encountered dinosaur tracks. That is in Qijiang, Chongqing. The site was even full of garbage. Earth filled in the footprints. We even saw bats and owls hanging on the cliff. Nowadays, a national geopark with perfect facilities is emerging there. I have been witness to the changes in Qijiang every year, and that is interesting to me.

SAS: What are the challenges you face doing field work? Where has been the most difficult area in which to do fieldwork? 

LX: The greatest challenge is doubtlessly the financing. In the early years, I had to raise funds for myself. It always takes a long while to get the government to financially support a project. When you’ve done, the fossil site has probably been destroyed. I still remember that: we were searching for the dinosaur tracks, while the nearby mine was blown up. It’s the most dangerous situation we experienced. We had no protection then.

SAS: You have been first author on many exciting dinosaur papers. The two that pop to mind for me are the swimming dinosaur tracks and the fish-eating

Let's first talk about the swimming dinosaur tracks.

LX: The dinosaur tracks in the Cretaceous Sichuan Basin are more important than others. That’s because the Sichuan Basin has produced some famous Jurassic dinosaurs, like Mamenchisaurus, but is lacking for the Cretaceous [body] fossil record. Thus, the local Cretaceous dinosaur tracks may tell us what kinds of dinosaurs lived in the Cretaceous Sichuan. Actually they are still there!

SAS: Do you remember your first thoughts when you encountered the specimen? 

LX: When I encountered the specimen, I felt like [they resembled] the terrible claw marks on the prey. But soon I realized “These are the swimming tracks!” Since I had read many times the papers documenting the dinosaur swimming tracks in Utah, I could immediately recognized it. Now it’s here! Soon after I found the second one, the third one…

SAS: Swimming behavior in dinosaurs is not a commonly preserved behavior. What other hypotheses did you have to rule out before you were comfortable with the swimming dinosaur interpretation? 

LX: Indeed. I’ve studied many track specimens, and the effects of sediments on tracks have far exceeded what I thought. Actually these parallel tracks are possible the slipping traces left on the muddy sediment, which we even found in Xinjiang. Both are similar. Only the slipping traces on the muddy base left by the toes are much wider.

SAS: How does this change our prior understanding of theropod dinosaur behavior?

LX: I think the theropod dinosaur swimming behavior should be more common than we expected. The fossil record [of these specimens] has been increasing.

SAS: How did you become interested in vertebrate traces? Was there a particular specimen or project that spurred your interest? 

LX: First I was not as interested in dinosaur tracks as in dinosaur skeletons. But I’ve found that few Chinese scholars pay attention to this field, so that I could gather a great deal of specimens to study them in just a few years. During the course I’ve been fond of dinosaur tracks. They are amazing. Those better-preserved specimens are always impressive, such as the interesting small tracks of Minisauripus.

SAS: Now, tell me about the fish-eating Microraptor. 

LX: This is an interesting theropod dinosaur with two-paired wings, which represents a link of the ancestors of the modern birds. What I’d like to express is, Microraptor fossils are good-sellers at Chinese black market. I will keep the price as secret. [SAS NOTE: Paleontologists do not commonly discuss the “market value” of dinosaur material. We believe this material to be a priceless part of our natural heritage. However, less scrupulous people disregard a country’s fossil legislation and participate in the illegal fossil trade.] What I would like to tell you is, it is said that there are more than 200 specimens being kept by individuals, among which some have been smuggled out of China. That is miserable. I hope the government will take emergent action to stop this.

SAS: How does this new study change how we see
Microraptor? What can we add to the complex picture of Microraptor? 

LX: This is the first time we’ve found that Microraptor fed on non-arboreal animals. It makes us firmly believe that Microraptor is totally an opportunist. They ate anything they could catch. Dr. Currie also told us, Microraptor ate everything!

SAS: Do the stomach contents of Microraptor give us any clues to the behavior of other small, feathered theropods? 

LX: I’ve carefully studied the stomach contents of Microraptor and Sinocalliopteryx. Recently I have been searching for more stomach contents of feathered dinosaurs. The discovery has indicated that these feathered predators were more active than we had expected. Their menu exceeds the common variety. That is probably the reason why they successfully evolved.

SAS: You work on both dinosaur body fossils and their traces. Do these two research paths ever overlap? 

LX: Yes they partially do, but not too much. The best path is to further understand the bone structure of the feet: that would be favorable for my further research on the tracks.

SAS: You are a talented artist! (Check out this image of Yutyrannus huali by Xing and Liu. Damn!). How often does your research influence your art?

LX: My picture work mostly stays in draft and the last final modification, while the middle link is finished by my assistants. That’s because I have no time to illustrate the details. Since I am engaged in paleontology, I can better grasp the features and gestures of a particular dinosaur. That makes our artistic team different from other artists. A work named “Tyrannosaurus Family”, which was made for National Geographic will soon be published. It is the first work we’ve made for overseas press. I’m proud of it.

SAS: Can you tell us a little about future projects? 

LX: We have many other interesting discoveries as well. That includes the nests left by social insects on some Lufengosaurus skeletons. They may similar to termites. Just image the scene, mass ancient termites foraging, nesting on the dinosaur corpse. Isn`t that exciting?

Hecks yes, exciting! Now that I am developing a small, yet thriving, dermestid beetle colony, I can picture this partially decomposed prosauropod just teeming with the Cretaceous sarcophagous insect fauna. Creepy-cool!

Do owls and bats still frequent the Chonquing track site? What about Minisauripus? Are there other dinosaur sites with which Lida is involved that are destined to become geoparks? These and other questions will be answered in a follow-up interview with Lida Xing! Keep an eye peeled for his artwork to appear in National Geographic!