Monday, August 19, 2013

Farewell to Morgan Churchill (EAPSI), and welcome to our newest labmate

July and most of August have come and gone, and along with them so has Morgan Churchill's EAPSI (East Asia Pacific Summer Institute) visit to Dunedin. Morgan visited to study the fossil sea lion Neophoca palatina, originally described by Judith King in the early 1980's from the Pleistocene of Ohope on the North Island. Morgan's project, to which I am attached as a coauthor, is threefold: 1) reevaluate and rediagnose the fossil species (e.g. does it really represent a distinct or extinct species within Neophoca? Neophoca today only lives in Australia), 2) collect a large volume of measurements for morphometric analyses of skull shape in otariids to quantitatively evaluate where Neophoca palatina belongs, and 3) get the holotype on loan so we can reassemble it and study it directly, rather than just a cast (the holotype was significantly damaged when it was transported back to New Zealand).

Morgan Churchill examines fragments of the Neophoca palatina holotype as we begin to reassemble it in the OU paleontology lab.

Morgan flew out about two weeks ago, and successfully completed all of the goals of his visit - he spent about tree weeks out of the trip in Australia and north island collections, measuring modern otariids. He was rather surprised at the rarity of NZ sea lion specimens in NZ museum collections; in the US we have programs where virtually every reported pinniped and cetacean stranding is collected for osteological collections, as a direct consequence of taking necropsies. My impression is that such a comprehensive system is not in place here. Regardless of a small sample size for Phocarctos (NZ sea lion), Morgan's data set already has some intriguing results.

About a week before Morgan flew back to the US, our newest member of the lab flew to Dunedin to begin his Ph.D. with Ewan. Josh is a former student of Robin O'Keefe, who works predominantly on marine reptiles at Marshall University in West Virginia; Josh is an Illinois native, and did his master's thesis at Marshall on functional morphology and locomotion in basilosaurids and other cetaceans. He's the second student to have started after me (Tsai being the first). Josh's dissertation will focus on describing numerous new kekenodontid fossils from the Kokoamu Greensand and Otekaike Limestone - possible Oligocene relict archaeocetes (which previously includes only two described fossil from New Zealand, Kekenodon onamata, and "Squalodon" gambierensis). So, welcome Josh! It is damned nice to have another American in the office, and it's nice to have a drinking buddy now.

A terrible photo of Josh Corrie at Sandfly Bay, taking photos of NZ sea lions (just out of camera shot). It's actually a fine photo (my wife took it), but none of the photos from the Otago Peninsula (or from fieldwork last week) show anything but his back, since I was typically hiking slow and taking too many photos.

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