Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New updates, soon!

Hey Folks,Sorry for the delay - just to show you that I have actually been busy and not just lazy, is a picture taken during fieldwork over the Thanksgiving holiday. This was actually taken on Black Friday. More on this story in a few days, after I finish (and hand in) a draft of my thesis (which I have been working diligently on).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

At long last: a new skull of Herpetocetus bramblei

A while ago I posted about some fieldwork I did over the summer regarding a brand new skull of Herpetocetus bramblei. For those of you cetaceophiles, I'm posting pictures of the partially prepared new specimen. As previously mentioned, I suspected the rostrum was offset by quite a bit. Turns out I was right, and it is really offset.
This is after approximately forty hours of preparation, over about two months. I've been really busy working on all sorts of things, including my thesis, and preparation has been going slow. Also, preparation is slightly more difficult due to the much finer sediment - its sandy siltstone - which is hard when dry and easily scraped when damp, although it dries out really, really quickly.

You'll notice a bunch of other offset portions - alas, the skull is a bit more chopped up than I would prefer. That being said, it does look pretty damn cool. All the small fractures and microfaults are left-lateral (sinistral).
The fractures and their relative movement.

I decided to palinspastically restore the rostrum of this skull using photoshop; in addition to left-lateral movement, there's some vertical axis rotation in some of the blocks, so I had to play around with that a bit. Anyway, here's what the complete thing should look like.

And here it is for comparison with my other skull, which is quite a bit larger; I think this new one is from a juvenile. They are reduced to roughly the same size here. In fact, it looks like I could have made the new specimen a bit larger. Herpetocetus has a pretty long schnoz, that's for sure. That's not terribly surprising, given what we know about Piscobalaena.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Shark-bitten dolphin skull

In 2008 I spent the day before Christmas Eve shivered on a cold, wind-blasted California beach prospecting for vertebrate fossils in the Purisima Formation. I was home on winter break, and although it is far more cold where I go to graduate school in Montana (as I write this I'm looking out at the results of our first winter snow), nothing is worse than being wet and miserably cold out on the foggy, windy coast of the golden state (except perhaps being wet and miserable on the Oregon coast, which I've done).

The thrill (or promise) of discovery is more than enough to keep me fueled in the field during the winter. Indeed, when the birds start singing and the snow melts in the spring, most paleontologists start to get field fever - the field season for most vertebrate paleontologists is during the summer months. Anyone who's ever tried to do coastal fieldwork during the summer, on the other hand, is in for a rude awakening. No erosion takes place during the summer, and many of the outcrops are totally buried. The exposures that are above the beach sand level (which is higher during the summer) are typically covered with dust, sand, and grime, which obscures fossils. The storms in the winter months clean this nasty coating off, and transport beach sand into offshore bars, often exposing strata below the beach (I see new fossil localities every winter this way). Winter is my field season.

Historically, I've had really good luck the day before Christmas Eve. It's my last day before Christmas to make it out in the field. The prior year, I found a humongous Carcharocles megalodon tooth (the only specimen known from the Purisima Formation), and discovered a partially articulated fur seal skeleton.

The Christmas Eve dolphin.

At 4pm, the tide was beginning to come back in, and with little over an hour of daylight, it was looking like I was going to come home empty-handed. I went to one last cove before I turned around to head back to the beach. I walked for a few minutes and spotted something in a boulder I had not seen on my way out: a pair of flat bones joined along an articulation that looked suspiciously (even from 20 feet away) like the palate of a dolphin skull. Upon closer examination, yes indeed! It was a dolphin skull in a mollusk shell bed; the width and flatness of the palate suggested it was not Parapontoporia, the most common odontocete in the Purisima Formation. I set about chopping into the boulder; fortunately, most of it was relatively soft. However, an extremely hard calcium-carbonate cemented concretion the size of a basketball had formed over the dorsal surface of the braincase and rostrum, and this slowed digging down. By dusk, the concretion didn't budge. After another half hour, it finally popped out of the boulder, and I lugged the 45 pound block back to my car. Exhausted, I drove home, drank a couple of hard-earned beers with dinner, and passed out.

View of the facial region of the skull.

When it came time to go back to Montana, I decided I would rather take the fossil as a carry-on than risk checking it and picking up a broken fossil that I had paid 25 bucks for thanks to baggage fees. After arriving in Bozeman (with a very sore back and neck from lugging 65 pounds
of luggage through the Denver airport), I almost immediately began preparation (starting, of course, with acetic acid baths for several weeks to soften the concretionary matrix). It took about two months to prepare, and as you can see from the above photos, it is damn beautiful. I initally identified it as something like Haborophocoena - it bears numerous similarities. However, after showing them photos of the specimen at SVP 2009 in Bristol, UK, Olivier Lambert and Giovanni Bianucci both think this represents a basal delphinid rather than a basal phocoenid. I'm inclined to agree with them, although part of my original ID was based on the presence of premaxillary eminences, which this specimen has (a phocoenid character). However, the ascending process of the right premaxilla is in contact with the nasals while the left is not (a delphinid character). Whatever it is, it will require preparation of the ventral aspect, and more careful analysis of the morphology than what I've been able to do thus far. Whatever it is, it appears to represent a new genus and species, and will make a beautiful holotype specimen in the future. During preparation, one curious thing I noticed was a notch in one of the premaxillary eminences (the large pads/bumps in front of the bony nares). I initially dismissed it as a pathology.

The left premaxillary eminence showing linear gouges (red lines) and missing bone.

Upon closer examination (which admittedly did not occur until yesterday, almost two years after collection) it became apparent that the abnormal area had two distinct, paralell linear gouges, and a short, less distinct third one in the middle (this one is still partly filled with matrix). Around these gouges is an area of exposed cancellous bone, where the bone has been removed.

Additional gouges present near the base of the rostrum.

I also found four more gouges present: two long ones, and two short ones; all but one are parallel. In fact, aside from the one gouge seen above trending towards the upper left corner of the photo, all the gouges are parallel. This is a textbook set of shark-inflicted bite marks. There are a lot of papers on this in the literature, documenting shark bites on dolphins, baleen whales, pinnipeds, sea turtles, other shark teeth, mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, dinosaur bones, sea stars, and probably other marine critters as well.

In fact, the first record of these types of trace fossils were actually first documented in the modern environment: on predated and scavenged sea-otter carcasses from Monterey Bay, and reported by Ames and Morejohn (1980). The reported linear gouges, subparallel wavy small gouges, and a specimen including a shark tooth embedded in a sea otter skull. The morphology of the traces along with the tooth identified the culprit as the Great White Shark, Carcharodon carcharias. Two years later, these exact types of traces were identified by Tom Demere and Richard Cerutti (1982) on a baleen whale dentary (of my favorite whale, Herpetocetus!), and identified as "Carcharodon sulcidens" (a taxon now just considered to be fossil Carcharodon carcharias).

It's not clear what type of shark fed on my poor little dolphin, or if it was a case of predation or scavening; from what I've read, the majority of carcasses that exhibit bites have bite marks on the posterior portion of the body, which is just about as far as you can get from the face. This makes total sense, given how a shark would have to bite into a fleeing dolphin during pursuit. Furthermore, it's interesting to note that this bite would have had to go clean through the dolphin's melon (if it had not already decomposed). Anyway, I interpret these traces as drag marks from the apices of the shark's teeth; I suppose later on I can figure out the relative motion of the shark's mouth during the bite (most likely lateral shake feeding). It'll make for a nice short paper some day...

Ames, J. A., and Morejohn, G.V., 1980, Evidence of white shark, Carcharodon carcharius, attacks on sea otters, Enhydra lutris: California Fish and Game, v. 66, p. 196-209.

Deméré, T.A., and Cerutti, R.A., 1982, A Pliocene shark attack on a cetotheriid whale: Journal of Paleontology, v. 56, p. 1480-1482

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Marcus Ross and young earth creationism at the GSA 2010 meeting

Just within the last couple hours an email went out on the VertPaleo listserv, which was copied directly from Joe Meerts' blog, "Science, AntiScience, and Geology", and can be seen here.

Joe Meert reports on an incident at GSA, where Marcus Ross (well known to be a young earth creationist) was presenting non-creationist paleontological research. At the end of Ross' talk, Meert challenged him to explain how it fit into the context of young-earth creationist flood geological nonsense (my paraphrasing).

I'm rather surprised that there were so many people criticizing Meert for giving Ross a hard time or having any sympathy toward Ross at all. I feel a bit sympathetic towards Ross, simply because he does appear to have a genuine case of "scientific schizophrenia", and it must be quite difficult to remember every morning which pair of shoes to put on (functioning academic versus crazy-time fairy tale).

Meert understandably gave Ross a hard time, and for primarily one reason: Ross et al. go back to their creationist audience and say "look, we're real scientists! Our research is valid." And then say the same thing to the Texas board of education (which already has enough medieval loonies on it).

I completely agree with Meert on this: Marcus Ross et al. represent everything we as scientists and educators stand against. I know there's this whole thing called freedom of religion. But, if outside of the sphere of academia you tell people "I'm a real scientist, so you can believe everything I say, including that the flood killed all the dinosaurs" - that's a really, really malicious ethics violation, let alone a conflict of interest. I'm not advocating blacklisting and witch-hunting - but it is safe to say that the way things work currently just isn't good enough.

Granted, I understand GSA must not have any sort of abstract reviewing process - all you need to know is if "Geology of Star Wars" made it into a GSA poster session, young-earth lunacy can as well.

Unfortunately for my field, there seems to be a lot of interest by young-earth creationists in whale taphonomy; that will be covered in upcoming posts. And what happens with regarding citations of this work? Can their work be considered reliable? It certainly cannot be considered objective by any stretch of the imagination. Do we ignore it and not cite it? Do we call B.S.? This is a real problem.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A bizarre new pilot-whale relative from the Pliocene of the North Sea

This morning when I woke up I had a nice message on facebook from a friend of mine - a link to a press release on a new fossil dolphin from the North Sea. To be honest (I had just woken up and was still fairly groggy when I first read it) I first saw this beautiful painting below, and not quite realizing it was a painting, the first thing I thought was "whoa, another extant cetacean???"

I then thought, "whoa, that reconstruction looks really weird."

Reconstruction of Platalearostrum hoekmani from Post and Kompanje (2010) by Remie Bakker.

Fortunately, I was easily able to find a link to the pdf for the article (which came out today in the European journal Deinsea) and see why the beast in the painting looks so strange. Post and Kompanje (2010) report on a fragmentary cranium of a bizarre new odontocete. While very incomplete, the preserved portion of the rostrum (="snout") does exhibit some strange features - a very low tooth count (6 sockets/alveoli), a laterally convex toothrow, and an insanely wide lateral 'wing' of the premaxilla, which makes the rostrum wider towards the anterior tip. The maxilla is also not the lateral most portion of the rostrum towards the front - another weird feature (which is shared in the pilot whales, Globicephala, and the extinct Protoglobicephala). The lateral 'wing' of the premaxilla is also pointed 'upwards' (dorsally) a bit, to make the dorsal rostrum surface concave, like a giant spoon. Although totally weird, the rostrum shares a number of features with the pilot whale Globicephala - anteriorly widening premaxillae, rugose bone surface on the premax, a short laterally convex toothrow, and a rostrum that is pretty short and blunt in general. Globicephala in general is already a very strange critter, and Platalearostrum makes it look sober in comparison.

The holotype fossil of Platalearostrum hoekmani (modified from Post and Kompanje, 2010)

Other features (aside from its close affinity with Globicephala) indicate its inclusion within the clade Globicephalinae. The authors curiously chose to use the clade Orcininae - in the usage of Bianucci (2005). Recent molecular analyses have shown the Globicephalinae paraphyletic in the sense that Orcinus is usually not included - and everything else (Globicephala, Feresa, Grampus, Pseudorca, Orcaella) make a monophyletic group. Without Orcinus, it just isn't the Orcininae anymore. Orcininae may be a valid term if fossil taxa like Hemisyntrachelus and Arimidelphis are shown to be sister taxa of Orcinus orca and the extinct Orcinus citoniensis. That being said, Globicephala is not in that group. Which is all the more interesting, suggesting two different clades of delphinids trending toward (relative) gigantism during the Pliocene.

Comparison of Globicephala macrorhynchus and Platalearostrum hoekmani (from Post and Kompanje, 2010)

This article made me pretty happy because I've worked a little on fossil globicephalines from the Pliocene of California. There aren't that many - bona fide delphinid fossils are generally quite rare in the Mio-Pliocene record in California, as opposed to the obscenely delphinid rich (and diverse!) Pliocene fossil record of Italy. Things like Orcinus, Globicephala, Protoglobicephala, Arimidelphis, and Hemisyntrachelus are all already living (not necessarily coexisting) in the world's oceans in the Pliocene, and now we have another weird one on top of this. Certainly it can be said that during the Pliocene, delphinids were experimenting with new "body plans" (loosely using the term) and rapidly diversifying. The Pliocene was a weird time, and boasted a combination of many strange marine mammals which were more derived than extant relatives often with novel anatomical features and adaptations, relatives of modern taxa with wider geographic distributions, and holdovers of archaic taxa which had not yet kicked the proverbial bucket.

Klaas Post, Erwin J.O. Kompanje, 2010. A new dolphin (Cetacea, Delphinidae) from the Plio-Pleistocene of the North Sea. Deinsea 14:1-14

Bianucci, G., 2005. Armidelphis sorbinii a new small killer whale-like dolphin from the Pliocene of the Marecchia river (central eastern Italy) and a phylogenetic analysis of the Orcininae (Cetacea: Odontoceti) - Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia et Stratigrafia 111: 329-344

Sunday, October 31, 2010

New artwork for Fall 2010

Hey Folks,

I'll have some more on taphonomy in the next few days, but before I get to that, I've got some new artwork to post instead. As I've previously alluded to, this has been an absolute heinous semester, even though I've only taken 1 credit in courses. I've spent the entire semester working on several manuscript projects (at least one of which is about to come to fruition; more on that in the coming weeks). Just over this weekend alone, I've received page proofs for my first paper, received final acceptance for another paper, and submitted the revisions for a third paper. Life is good.From left to right: Agujaceratops, Pentaceratops, Anchiceratops, Arrhinoceratops, and adult Triceratops (="Torosaurus").

In addition to all these, I've been busy with several art projects. The longest project (and still incomplete) is a series of cranial drawings of chasmosaurine dinosaurs for Denver Fowler, for his research he presented earlier this month at SVP for his Romer prize presentation.
Agujaceratops mariscalensis for Denver Fowler's Romer presentation.Subadult Triceratops for John Scannella's Romer presentation.

John Scannella, another Ph.D. student here at MSU/MOR, has recently earned some time in the limelight for killing "Torosaurus" (now known to be just the adult form of Triceratops) - although many people over the summer misinterpreted his study as somehow killing Triceratops instead. John asked me back in September to redraw one of Hatcher's beautiful plates of Triceratops for his Romer presentation. Unfortunately, the skull that Hatcher figured lacked a nasal horn, and he needed it to have one... so I drew it with one, and I can only hope that my drawing doesn't make Hatcher roll over in his grave.

Here's the paleontological 800-lb gorilla in the room: formerly Torosaurus, but what has convincingly shown by Scannella and Horner (2010) to simply the adult form of Triceratops, although many unfortunately still cling to the olde wayes of palaeontological research. This was actually for Denver Fowler's talk rather than John's, and is based on a rather complete "Torosaurus" skull here at Museum of the Rockies.
This I just did for fun over the summer - I actually did this up at Lake Tahoe (and only took about 3 hours, even though it's about two feet wide) while I was on vacation there over the summer. This I believe is some kind of Diplodocus. Some dinosaurs are pretty, although in many cases I could care less which one it actually is. Drawing sauropod dinosaurs is OK, because they're almost as big and almost as cool as a baleen whale. Sorry dinosaur fans, they just never quite made it, but they get an A for effort.Lastly, this is one of my most recent drawings - this is part of a big bird bone. But that's all I'll say for now; I only put this up here because its a good example of a specimen drawing I've done. This one only took about 4 hours.

Anyway, time for shameless self promotion: I auctioned a bunch of prints off at the SVP benefit auction earlier this month, and made a total of ~350$ for the auction, which, according to Denver F., is something like 1.7% of the entire proceeds from the auction. That feels pretty damn good on multiple levels- for one, just knowing that I helped raise that much money (and it only cost me about six bucks to print all that stuff out, including the plastic sleeves) and two, that it was because people liked my artwork and were willing to bid anywhere from 30-80 bucks for prints. Unframed, unmatted prints in a plastic bag.

Anyway, due to the overwhelmingly positive reaction I got for my artwork at the auction, I recently started an account on ETSY.com so that I can try and sell some prints of this stuff, and be able to afford food, and gas, and things that are usually denied to graduate students. I'm just kidding about that, but being able to make a few bucks off doing what I love would be pretty fulfilling. Anyway, if you're interested, go ahead and take a look at my Etsy account.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

SVP 2010: barnacle and sea lion taphonomy

Hey Folks, I know it's been a while (I feel like I say this a lot...), but I've been really, really busy. The semester has been really busy - I've been working on four different papers since I got back to school - but postings will be much more frequent for the remainder of fall. The entire month of September was spent writing a new manuscript, and getting revisions done for a manuscript that is most likely accepted for publication in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The last week of September and first week of October were spent coding characters for a poster I had with my good buddy Morgan Churchill and his advisor Mark Clementz (on pinniped phylogeny), my own poster, and two art projects I was involved with for two of the Romer Prize Presentations at SVP (by MOR/MSU students Denver Fowler and John Scannella, who between the two of them requested 9 or 10 drawings of ceratopsid skulls).Barnacles!!! (not that you've actually read about them yet). Isn't that cool?!

Six days before SVP started, I finally got the chance to work on my own poster, titled "Barnacle colonization of Middle Pleistocene Sea Lion (Carnivora:Pinnipedia) bones elucidate the biostratinomy of a fossil marine mammal". And no.... this is still not part of my thesis, although it is very similar to what I am doing. And actually, getting the poster done and now recapping on it have really helped me get reinvigorated about my thesis; I consider any time spent thinking about taphonomy is more or less time spent toward my thesis. Because this week I am starting to devote 100% of my research time to my thesis, more of my future posts this fall will be taphonomy related (and specifically marine vertebrate taphonomy, one of the most understudied and underpublished aspects of taphonomy).
But enough about my thesis. It's time for barnacle-on-bone action.

My poster from SVP (locality information is blocked out).

I had my poster presentation on Monday, day two of SVP, which was comforting because marine mammal talks and posters are usually the very last day of SVP, and during the afternoon at that (late afternoon/evening if you give a poster!). Anyway, a couple of years ago (June 2008) I was prospecting a marine Pleistocene locality in Oregon and found a couple of bones in concretions - no big whoop. Because of that, I didn't do anything with the bones for about two months, until I set 'em down in my parent's driveway and sprayed them down with a garden hose. As the soft outer rind of sediment began to wash away, I saw little white things I quickly identified as minuscule barnacles. Due to the library of papers on marine vertebrate taphonomy I've amassed for my thesis, I did a quick mental search, and quickly realized that these had never been reported as encrusting bone before. This made me really excited.

A beautiful sea lion femur with barnacles only encrusting one side.

A less cursory glance at the literature shows that these associations have indeed been recorded before in the literature, but never figured. Two examples have been figured, but either the photos are so god-awful or the item in question probably isn't even a barnacle. Otherwise, it's been mentioned as a sentence (or a part of one) before here and there. There are plenty of examples of modern barnacles encrusting old bones: I see that almost on a daily basis in the intertidal zone in Santa Cruz. To clarify, these are fossil barnacles.

The specimen where I first saw the barnacles.

So, into the nitty gritty. There are 1400+ barnacles distributed over three ones (the femur had ~200, and one of the two vertebrae is hogging 700+ to itself). They appear to be of two size classes: big ones (4-7mm with a few outliers) and small ones (~1-2mm). The big ones do not occur on any articular surfaces or in the neural canal, and predominantly only on the neural arch (i.e. few on the centra). The small ones occur pretty much everywhere, and in many cases are growing on the bigger ones. This indicates at least two colonization events. Dr. R. Van Syoc at California Academy of Sciences was gracious enough to identify the barnacles for me over the summer; they appear to be cf. Hesperibalanus hesperius. It is a species that is still extant, and is a prolific fouler of shells.

Closeup of the neural arch (left) and transverse process of the vertebrae (right).

Another interesting tidbit is the presence of barnacle attachment scars: here they are on the bone as oval-polygonal shaped traces, that are only excavated along the periphery. This has been reported before for rocks and invertebrate shells, but not bone.

So, what else can we infer? Because we know the ontogeny of modern Hesperibalanus hesperius, we can reasonably infer a gross estimation of minimum time averaging (i.e exposure time on the seafloor), given the barnacle size (basal plate diameter). The modern species only has a lifespan of 7 months, and seeing as none of these are full grown, they probably only represent 2-4 months. This is, however, assuming that barnacle basal plate diameter is constant: it is well documented that crowded barnacles only achieve a certain diameter until their basal plates are all touching and cramped (such as many on these specimens). So, it is possible that some of these were full grown, and so a time of ~ 2-7 months or so, ballpark.

The lack of any barnacles on some surfaces suggest that the surface was uninhabitable due to being smothered in sediment, or by the adherance of tissue. The femur lacks barnacles on the distal condyles, strongly suggesting the retention of articular cartilage there. Also, the femur only has barnacles on its posterior side, suggesting that the anterior side lay in the substrate and was never flipped. On the contrary, the vertebrae have barnacles more evenly distributed, so that it would be difficult not to smother barnacles at any position the bone was situated at. This suggests that the fossil was rolled around on the seafloor frequently enough to keep individual barnacles from smothering, very similar to the balanulith concept recently published in Palaios and Palaeontology. Anyway, there's much more to type about, but you'll have to wait for the paper, lest I retype everything on here.

On another note, I just got a paper on taphonomy (unrelated to this, but slightly related to my thesis) accepted in publication for Palaios, so you may be able to hear about that sometime early next year, perhaps.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Herpetocetus skull #3, part 3 - Excavation, Day 2

The next day I returned to the locality, and with the help of my buddy Chris Pirrone, we finished undercutting the pedestal; due to the extreme cohesiveness of the sediment, we were able to undercut the pedestal by 3 inches on all sides - which is generally a rare opportunity; with many other fossiliferous units I've worked in, the side of the pedestal would collapse or calve off into the trench.
Within two hours of arriving, we were ready to begin the jacketing process. Above, you can see the top jacket.

Here's a view from the top of the cliff of the plaster jacket and the hole. You can definitely see that with the size of the hole, I was prepared for something sticking further into the cliff.
Soon after, we flipped the jacket over and I began removing excess rock from the base of the pedestal. After removing several inches, I used a jigsaw to cut off the plaster 'lip' that was left from the base of the pedestal.
Chris Pirrone, with the jacket.
And finally, myself with said jacket. I have more pictures of the completed jacket, but they would give away the location, which I'm not terribly keen on doing. All in all, this excavation totaled about 8 hours. By comparison, the well preserved Herpetocetus bramblei skull I collected nearby in 2007 took about 12 hours of excavation, and four hours of jacket transport. Thanks to the much more convenient location of this fossil, jacket removal and transport took a total of two and a half minutes; the tide was way out, so we were able to walk (comfortably) with the jacket to a conveniently placed set of stairs, and then up. The battle Chris and I waged in July 2007 to get the other Herpetocetus skull off the beach is quite a story, and one that I don't think I've detailed here previously.

Anyway, as I probably already mentioned, this specimen includes the first complete rostrum of
a Herpetocetus ever collected, and will feature prominently in my future studies of this enigmatic fossil mysticete.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Herpetocetus skull #3, part 2 - Excavation Day 1

Unfortunately, when I discovered this fossil in its mutilated state, it was two days before I planned on driving back to MSU at the end of the summer, and my last scheduled day of fieldwork for summer 2009, so it was absolutely out of the question to excavate the fossil then. So, I had to return sometime to excavate it. I didn't have the option of doing so over Thanksgiving, Winter, or Spring Break, so I waited a whole year. As it turned out, not much erosion had occurred locally over since initial discovery; just to make sure, I'd visit the fossil every couple of weeks.

I finally had the time to excavate it in mid August; I had some ambitious plans for my last week of summer in California: Saturday and Sunday up at Lake Tahoe, monday and tuesday excavating the fossil, wednesday at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, Thursday at California Academy of Sciences, Friday at University of California Museum of Paleontology, packing up my car on Saturday, and Sunday thru Tuesday on the road.I found out a couple days before hand I would be able to enable to enlist the help of my longtime friend and avocational paleontologist, Chris Pirrone, a local attorney in the San Jose area. Chris helped me excavate the first Herpetocetus skull (which, if you attended my SVP talk in 2008, was the focal point of that research), and has helped me with a few other excavations in the Santa Cruz area.On Monday I was all by myself removing overburden. Surprisingly, after only about four hours of chopping at the cliff face with a railroad pick, all the overburden was gone. So, I started to carefully remove rock an inch at a time by tapping my clam knife with a rock hammer. Eventually, I found the premaxillae, and was able to determine the angle the rostrum went into the cliff (and, more importantly, the fact that the rostrum did in fact exist). If the rostrum paralleled the cliff face, then it would make for an easier excavation, as I would not need to dig as large a hole. Unfortunately, the rostrum dove in there pretty steeply. Here's what it looked like after the first day of the excavation: admittedly there's not much there - and that's exactly the way I prefer it for an excavation. The more fossil bone you expose during the excavation, the higher the chances of damaging that bone. So it's important to figure out during an excavation what the fossil is, which way it's oriented, and roughly where each feature should be; surprises during excavations are usually made by damaging bone.

I've outlined in red the anterior portion of the rostrum (premaxillae are the skinny medial elements, while the maxillae are the wide lateral elements). I exposed some bits of the premaxillae here and there, but just enough to know 1) the angle of the skull going into the cliff and 2) the tip of the rostrum. Oddly enough, the midline of the rostrum didn't match up with the midline of the skull exposed in the cliff. As it turns out, there was a fracture running obliquely through the rostrum - you can see it, near where the red lines end. It's actually offset by about five or six inches.

To be continued...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Herpetocetus skull #3, part 1 - tragedy and mutilation

Hey folks,
Sorry for being absent over the last month or so; I've spent an inordinate amount of time up at Lake Tahoe with my family (i.e. ~5 trips totaling over 1 month) and the rest of the time I spent collecting thesis data and fossils in Santa Cruz, and working on manuscripts. With regards to the latter, I received preliminary acceptance of two different manuscripts in the space of one week; you'll hear more about these papers later. In mid-July, I wrapped up a manuscript I've been working on for 5 years; I decided I was finished with it, and submitted the damn thing. Within the same day, I re-submitted a manuscript for Palaios that was returned for major revisions. And about a week later, I received preliminary acceptance of a paper for JVP on Plio-Pleistocene fur seals (which had only been in review for a month and a half, and another month for the editorial decision, which must be some sort of world record for JVP).

One of my many projects this summer was to collect and excavate a small mysticete skull I had discovered on my last day of fieldwork last summer (2009). Here's what I saw in the field:
Difficult to make out what it is? Well, I had seen this before, but it was covered up with algae, and I just thought it was a concretion. I want you to look at this picture again, and look for all the broken, mutilated bone in the "trench". Done? Now, I've labeled relevant anatomical structures on the same photo, below.
1= Left zygomatic process of squamosal; 2= foramen magnum; 3= right occipital condyle; 4= supraoccipital shield; 5= left supraorbital process of frontal. Yes, that was a complete mysticete skull, keyword: was. I cannot begin to explain how pissed off I was when I saw this. Even worse, then I realized that I recognized that morphology from somewhere:Yes, it was a complete skull of Herpetocetus bramblei. Here's my beautiful specimen from nearby (which was actually collected properly).

So, I don't know who committed this crime, and I don't want to know who it was. I know who it wasn't - I know a half dozen very experienced, extremely competent amateur collectors in the Santa Cruz area who would have never done something this awful to a fossil. I'm not going to use this as an opportunity to scold, though it would be completely warranted. Instead, if you're reading this - let this serve as a plea:

Please don't do this. There are people who can help. I would love to teach you correct excavation methods. This fossil is now mutilated, and the braincase is completely destroyed, and those features and anatomical data are now lost forever. You can still get help. Please, if you find something like this in the future, just ask someone - I'm perfectly happy to help collect it without destroying the fossil or parts thereof.

Additionally, other collectors who do not know me, or if you don't even do collecting in California, it doesn't matter where you are or the color of your fossil: please avoid this at all costs. There are plenty of people willing to help you. Just please, please back away from the edge. I mean fossil.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Beach panorama

Beautiful sunsets can often be seen along the California coast, especially during the winter. This is about eight photos spliced together; although some weirdness happened due to the waves, it looks alright.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Scotts Valley whale excavation, part 2

Before I continue, I need to give a shout out to Nick Pyenson - Nick initially forwarded Dr. Smith's emails to me, and this project has wasted a third of my summer. No, but seriously, thanks.

After putting the top jacket on, then came the problem of how exactly I was going to A) undercut it and B) actually flip it over. Normally, a trench is cut and then the pedestal is undercut from all sides leaving a pillar of rock underneath, which you can subsequently eliminate and then flip the jacket over. However, this jacket was far too large to do conventionally. And I couldn't really fit tools in all the way around the jacket to really undercut it from all sides.

So, in cases like this, go tunneling! I started two holes and dug and dug until they connected, and then widened them into a larve cavern underneath, and then added a hole on the other side. Problem was, this jacket was so large, I eventually couldn't reach the back wall with my rock hammer, and had to use my large estwing pick to scrape away underneath. Tunneling, by the way, is a good recipe for bloody knuckles.

Here you can see more of the tunnel. Aside from these two small columns, the back part remained as a large pedestal in back; the jacket stuck out from this like a surfboard with two pillars. Once I cut the pillars, I figured it would break the pedestal, and tilt forward.
The moment of truth! This was on the heavy side. Well, nothing happened - the left pillar remained still, but I figured it would fail if given this much weight. Apparently not, however - it just hung like this for several minutes.

When I cut through the other pillar, it shifted almost imperceptibly forward, but I knew at that instant that I had been successful. Then, I found one of the construction workers to help me flip it over and complete the jacket.Here's what it looked like - you can see the overhanging plaster; that's where the crack formed, leaving a little bit of the pedestal back in the hole, which I'll excavate in a separate jacket.

Voila! Here's the completed plaster jacket. It's pretty heavy.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Coastal Paleontologist returns: Scotts Valley whale excavation, part 1

Hey folks, a lot has been going on recently. First and foremost, I've been busy dividing my time between collecting the last remaining data for my master's thesis, vacationing up at lake Tahoe (very difficult), and editing manuscripts. I hit a milestone yesterday - I submitted two manuscripts in the same day. I've been working like a hound the last few days to wrap up the first manuscript I ever started: a paper on the sharks, rays, fish, and birds from a new vertebrate assemblage in the Purisima Formation, titled: "Non-mammalian vertebrate remains from a new marine assemblage near Halfmoon Bay, California: Implications for the age of the Neogene Purisima Formation west of the San Gregorio fault", which I submitted to the PalArch Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, an open access journal based in the Netherlands. I've heard they could use some more submissions, so be sure to read Andy Farke's interview with the PAJVP editor Brian Beatty, linked above. If you've got an article ~75% finished, put in a long weekend and submit that beast! The other article, "Mammalian bite marks on juvenile fur seal bones from the late Neogene Purisima Formation of Central California", was originally submitted to Palaios in march, and returned for major revisions, and apparently all I needed were three hours of work to finish it and resubmit it.
One of the first projects I started this summer was to excavate some sort of a whale fossil at a construction site in Scotts Valley. I was contacted early on in the spring by Dr. Roberta Smith, the project's consultant geologist. Oddly enough, Roberta had been in grad school at UC Berkeley in the mid 1960's when folks like Malcom McKenna and Ed Mitchell were there. To make matters stranger, she had also taught at Howard University and worked at the USNM in Washington D.C., where she knew other well known fossil marine mammal workers Clayton Ray and Frank Whitmore (but stopped teaching there long before Daryl Domning started). Anyway, I'm getting off track. The photo above shows the fossil after a day or so of digging. The exposed bones were not ribs or vertebrae, and I didn't care to expose enough of them for a proper ID due to their relative 'softness'. "What are those cinderblocks doing there?", you ask? Read on...

After about a week of day trips and short visits, the trench is nearly completed around the fossil. Bones continue into the back wall, but were too difficult to continue to excavate; I decided that during jacketing, I would try to form a crack across, collect most of it in one jacket, and return to make a second jacket for the rest.

Here you can see why there were cinderblocks in the first couple pictures. They had already put up a retaining wall, and when they found bones, they marked it off and left the retaining wall unfinished. I was able to park only about 8 feet away. This was the weirdest excavation I've ever done.

And here is the top jacket finished! Note that the hammer is way in the foreground; the jacket is much larger than it appears, and is nearly 4' by 4', and weighs between 300 and 400 lbs.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Coastal Paleontologist will return!

Hey Folks - sorry for the hiatus; I've been rather busy dividing my time between excavating a whale from the Santa Margarita Sandstone, collecting thesis data on the coast, and spending the rest of my time on a beach at 6,000 feet - Lake Tahoe, of course. Sufficiently sunburned (not that bad) and with some neat fossils under my belt, I'll resume quasi-regular posting for the rest of the summer. Sorry for the break; next up - excavating a mysticete braincase from a construction site in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Guest post featured on the UCMP Blog

Recently Mark Goodwin at UCMP (University of California Musuem of Paleontology) at Berkeley (aka Bezerkeley) invited me to write up a short post for the UCMP Blog detailing my undergraduate field research. After five years of preparation, the material is finally ready for curation. Actually, most of the material was prepared several years ago, and the one remaining specimen was the balaenopterid cranium that took ~5 years to prepare.

Anyway, you can read the post here on the UCMP blog.

I apologize for being relatively unproductive on here recently; I've been pretty busy since the end of the semester, trying to get preparation projects wrapped up, and sleeping in, now that I can. Soon I'll do some posts about a new Herpetocetus skull I've been preparing for the last couple months - in fact, I'll have it completely finished on Monday, and boy is it pretty.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

New Purisima Fm. mysticete skull

As promised, here are some photos of the skull that was discovered on thursday and excavated by the following monday. I apologize for the lack of posts lately; I've been damn busy the last few weeks, wrapping up my first semester of teaching, finishing classes and finals, and getting a lot of typing done; over the weekend I submitted a manuscript (my third now) to the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology on some fur seal fossils from Humboldt County, California.

Anyway, Karl Heiman took all these photos and graciously let me pirate them and put them up here. Thanks Karl!

The skull is somewhere down in that trench the excavator dug. I imagine that's Dave Maloney up front, I can see one of the two lead engineers (both pretty cool guys). You can see that this fossil was only about a foot or so down below the wave cut platform; I must have walked right above this thing hundreds of times.

Here's all the bone that was poking out initially. Pretty ugly if you ask me. This is what you have to start with from heavy machinery - it often fractures a small zone of the bone. Waves and the fiercest winter storms are decidedly more gentle, and can expose bones that look nice enough to warrant collection. Nevertheless...

Hey, there's something there, all right! This is one of the first photos I saw of the thing, and I got pretty excited, and nervous; it looked like the trench had cut obliquely across the rostrum.

And further posterior at this stage of the excavation. You can see the occipital condyles to the left; a bit of the right side is gone, and it isn't clear what angle the cut goes to - obliquely to the left across the entire skull, it would seem.

Wow, I'm impressed - the left side of the skull looks beautiful. You can see much of the left maxilla, left frontal, and left squamosal here.

Holy cow! Here's the money shot. This thing is just beautiful! Fortunately, the trench went exactly parallel to the long axis of the skull, and didn't even cut across the rostrum; the anterior tip of the rostrum is intact, and aside from some minor damage to the left maxilla, is more or less complete (on the left side).

Here Dave Maloney (left) and Karl Heiman (right) pose while excavating Karl's beautiful new discovery.

At last, the plaster jacket is on the fossil. Apparently not two minutes after 5:00 Karl and Dave got the jacket on, a large wave came in and filled in the hole, which is now the size of a swimming pool. The specimen is probably now on its way (or already) to the prep facility. Luckily for these guys, the sediment is really soft and separates from the bone easily, and should make for a really easy prep job.