I first met Ewan in 2005 at the SVP meeting in Arizona, and I vividly remember watching him discuss how to excavate fossil whales with a chainsaw, of all things; I immediately thought it was too extreme of an excavation method for me, but after I saw it in action last monday in the field (ironically, at the same quarry the photographs from the 2005 presentation), I immediately decided I would bring this method back to the United States. In fact, it was quite funny after watching him rev up the chainsaw - an adrenaline-inducing activity in and of itself - and afterwards stating in a polite Kiwi accent "that should clean up quite nicely".
But I digress - prior to graduation from Montana State University last spring, I contacted Ewan about a Ph.D. project, and he suggested studying the large collection of eomysticetid baleen whales from the Kokoamu Greensand and Otekaike Limestone that he had established. I remembered his talk from the 2006 SVP meeting in Ottawa, part of which included a slideshow of beautiful new fossil eomysticetids. I was pretty shocked to have been offered such a beautiful (and large!) collection of fossils to study. The family Eomysticetidae was named by Al Sanders and Larry Barnes in 2002 to accommodate the new taxon Eomysticetus, which is the most primitive described toothless baleen whale (i.e. baleen-bearing baleen whale, if that makes any sense, as opposed to a toothed baleen whale). Previously, the most primitive toothless mysticetes were some of the "cetothere" whales described by Remington Kellogg from the Chesapeake Group on the east coast, AKA "Kelloggitheres"; these however were much younger than any toothed mysticete (such as aetiocetids), and there was an apparently substantial morphological gap between toothed mysticetes and Kelloggitheres. My job is to fill a bit more of this gap in with more eomysticetids from the southern hemisphere- and so far, none of them seem to be identifiable as Eomysticetus, and there are probably several new genera and species represented.
Ewan Fordyce also took on another student recently, which was a total surprise for me. Even when I first got here, it sound like it would be several months away; instead, the new student arrived only two weeks after I did, and even stayed in the same temporary apartment my wife and I stayed in the first week we were here. Cheng-Hsiu Tsai, who goes by just 'Tsai', will be studying the other big group of fossil mysticetes from the Oligocene of New Zealand: Mauicetus and Mauicetus-like mysticetes, which may be the earliest Kelloggitheres. Tsai can be seen inspecting the ventral side of one of the eomysticetid skulls in the above photo.
This specimen, for example, is one of my dissertation specimens: a new taxon, with an extremely narrow rostrum, elongate dentaries, enormous temporal fossae with a long intertemporal region, and really weird squamosals.
Yours truly, examining the extraordinarily freaky squamosals of the specimen.
Yours truly, demonstrating how to use yourself as a scale bar. I am 5'8" tall.
The beautiful skull in oblique view.Tsai examining the skull. The brass seam on the floor is actually a joint where the floor opens for a small elevator used to bring large fossils up from the basement. On thursday, I spent most of the afternoon lifting a really really heavy plaster jacket a total of about eight feet - this ordeal took about an hour and a half, three other students, Ewan, and our preparator, Sophie. Fortunately, when the jacket is prepared, it will hopefully be a lot lighter when it goes back downstairs.