Saturday, August 27, 2011

In Which there are Whales

One more post from my trip to Vancouver last weekend, which upon reflection definitely had a whaley theme to it. What can I say, I have a soft spot for cetaceans.

On Sunday I went whale watching with the aptly named Prince of Whales company. We almost didn't see any, but the boat went further than usual on its route after reports that a pod had been spotted. And sure enough, there was a pod of 20 - 30 orcas from the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale community! My only regret is that we didn't have longer to watch them.

At the time our on-board naturalists thought this was L-pod, but after checking some of the photos they took (which were much better than mine), I think that K-pod may have been hanging out here, too. How can you tell one orca from another? Orcas have distinctive grey splotches on their backs just behind their dorsal fins, called saddle patches. Because the fin and back are exposed when they surface, scientists have been able to catalogue who's who in each pod, and each orca has a letter and number designation. Based on the naturalist's photos, we saw K21 (a male born in 1986) and L47 (a female born in 1974). I might have caught K16 and K12 in some of my photos. The Southern Residents were featured in the movie Free Willy (although Keiko himself was from the area around Iceland), and Luna, a famous orphaned orca who made friends with people, was from L pod.

Tuesday I had the chance to visit the wonderful Vancouver Aquarium again. I like a lot of things about this aquarium, such as its focus on the organisms found around Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and Haida Gwaii. There's a big emphasis on active research: during the dolphin 'show' (and I use the term show very loosely here, as it is not the dramatized muscial adventure you will see at Sea World but more of a casual talk about the animals) there was a demonstration of how scientists at the aquarium are investigating why cetaceans become entangled in fishing gear. There's no shying away from evolution, either.

Highlights this time included baby wolf eels, comb jellies, and of course the dolphins.

And here is a sea pen! They look kind of like Ediacaran fossils!

All in all, it's a great place and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Vancouver. And that wraps up my trip to the Canadian Paleontology Conference, and now I begin my planning for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Las Vegas...

...oh, what the heck:

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Beaty Biodiversity Museum

The Canadian Paleontology Conference I attended over the weekend was held at the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver, and the public lecture, talks, posters, and banquet were all held in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum.

The museum is actually mostly underground, but the ground-level glass atrium is definitely eye-catching! Inside is a suspended skeleton of a 150-foot blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus. It's particularly striking at night.

Once inside, you can view the skeleton from pretty much every angle except dorsally; a ramp runs on the right lateral side down to the galleries. At the end of the talks, we dined on salmon at tables under the whale!

UBC is doing some really innovative things with regards to museums and collections. The Museum of Anthropology, which I visited last year, was the first to renovate its gallery space to include the entire collection. The Biodiversity Museum has followed suit, and the exhibits sit within the collections! It's a pretty good way to kill two birds with one stone, and is a space-efficient (and I'm assuming cost-efficient) way to display specimens. Every few feet one of the storage cabinets has been converted into a display case, and there are a few strategically-placed gaps in the rows to allow for some different display cases. The cases in the middle of this photo had displays about how specimens are collected, and you could pull out the drawers to see more specimens. There were also a couple of interactive kiosks, my favourite being the display about algae. The table had two shopping baskets and a variety of packaged food products; the goal was to separate out the food that had algae in it and the food that didn't (spoiler alert: all but one product had some sort of algae in it!). It was a cool way to teach people about these unappreciated organisms!

What's also great about the museum is that it features all kinds of interesting organisms. The displays include mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, lots of different invertebrates, plants, fungi, and fossils. I really liked the way fossils were incorporated into the exhibits - in the appropriate region of the collection, glass floor panels showed the fossils 'in the ground', like this school of fish from the Green River Formation.

I'm cheating here because this photo is not from the biodiversity museum, but from the Pacific Museum of the Earth (in the Department of Earth & Ocean Sciences) across the street. I had to put it in, because it reminds me how Alberta dinosaurs wind up everywhere. This Lambeosaurus was collected from Dinosaur Provincial Park by the Sternbergs in the 1920s, and is on permanent loan from the Canadian Museum of Nature (and yes, it's real, not a cast).

Nanaimo Group Field Trip

I've just returned from the Canadian Paleontology Conference, which was held at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. I participated in the field trip to Vancouver Island, where we explored Nanaimo Group outcrops. Gwawinapterus was collected from Nanaimo Group rocks on Hornby Island, and although we didn't get out to Hornby, we did check out several other formations and localities. Here's a few highlights from the trip!

After taking one of the ferries from Vancouver to Nanaimo, we stopped at Departure Bay. During the day we'd be working our way up through the Nanaimo Group and therefore into deeper water environments. The Haslam Formation outcrops here and represents a shallow marine environment.

We saw some really great inoceramid clams at Departure Bay.

Next stop was Englishman River Falls Provincial Park, a beautiful spot. Didn't find many fossils, but I enjoyed the waterfall very much!

We also enjoyed the lushness of the temperate rainforest.

We next headed out to Trent River, a popular place for amateur collectors. Here the Pender Formation crops out, as well as the Comox and Haslam Formations. Abundant nodules contain ammonites, bivalves, and other invertebrates. Elasmosaurs, mosasaurs, and turtles have also been found near this locality! (See more about the Puntledge River elasmosaur at the Courtenay Museum.) These outcrops represent deeper water facies including turbidites.

Pete tries his hand at cracking open a nodule.

We finished the day off with a stop at the Qualicum Beach Museum, which features a nice display of fossils collected in the area as well as casts of specimens from all over the world. A cast of the Gwawinapterus holotype is also on display here!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dino Gangs

I’m late to the party again with the recent spate of dino documentaries, but I thought I’d review a couple here on the blog over the next few weeks. Today I wanted to take a look at Dino Gangs, a documentary featuring my PhD supervisor Dr. Phil Currie as well as several scientists from the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

Dino Gangs explores the idea of gregariousness in tyrannosaurs, and especially the idea that some tyrannosaurs may have engaged in cooperative pack hunting. There are two versions out there, the one shown in the UK and the shorter one aired in the US, and I think I have watched the UK version.

Whether or not you agree with the gregariousness hypothesis, I think Dino Gangs does a bang-up job of showing the process of the science of palaeontology. It introduces a fairly contentious topic (gregariousness in dinosaurs) and the reasons why this idea exists, and then shows the various lines of evidence used to support this idea. We see palaeontologists working in two different field localities (Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park in Alberta, and Bugin Tsav in Mongolia). We see the prep lab in Hwaseong-si, South Korea, where I spent much of last summer. We see Dr. Larry Witmer’s lab in Ohio, and how we use CT scanners and 3D visualization software to learn more about the anatomy of dinosaurs. We see great footage of komodo dragons in Indonesia and lions and ostriches in South Africa, showing how we use extant animals as analogues for behaviour in extinct ones. We even get to see an ostrich leg dissected to examine the muscles. There’s discussion of ontogeny and allometry, taphonomy, and the great variety of social behaviours in extant animals. We also see dissenting opinions from scientists like Dr. David Eberth and Dr. Don Henderson, both from the Tyrrell. That’s a lot of fairly sophisticated concepts to deliver in a Discovery Channel special.

Brian Switek of Dinosaur Tracking has criticized the documentary for making overly bombastic claims that are as yet unsupported in the scientific literature. I think part of this stems from the fact that most people do not know that tyrannosaur is not synonymous with Tyrannosaurus, and unfortunately the documentary does not do a great job explaining that there are several species of tyrannosaurs presented in the film. In addition, I see some problems with the emphasis on the Mongolian finds. The documentary discusses at great length the large number of Tarbosaurus skeletons that have been found, and although they discuss the taphonomy of the Nemegt Formation at Bugin Tsav, there does seem to be some conflation with the Albertosaurus bonebed at Dry Island. The Albertosaurus bonebed is a true bonebed, containing more than 20 individuals in a relatively small area. In contrast, the Tarbosaurus skeletons at Bugin Tsav are generally separated from each other by some distance and do not really form any bonebeds (unless there have been some recent finds which I have not heard about). I was actually kind of disappointed that there was not more evidence on the Dry Island bonebed, which has been excavated extensively by Dr. Currie and formed the basis of a special volume in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences last fall. There are certainly a great number of Tarbosaurus known from Mongolia, and the unusually high ratio of Tarbosaurus to other dinosaurs in the Nemegt Formation is an area of active research. But to me, there is less evidence for sociality preserved in the Nemegt specimens than at the Dry Island bonebed. I suspect the emphasis on Mongolia over Alberta in the documentary is because of the more exotic setting offered by the Gobi Desert.

And that brings me to perhaps a less obvious but equally frustrating aspect of the documentary. I have written before about the absence of female palaeontologists in the popular media (and sadly, Dino Gangs is no exception to this), but also true is the absence of non-Caucasians in many documentaries. All of the Mongolian footage was shot during the Korea-Mongolia International Dinosaur Project’s recent expeditions, but Dr. Yuong-Nam Lee, the leader of the expedition, does not receive any name credit even though he appears on screen frequently. Nor is he featured in any of the interviews. I was particularly surprised by the description of the Gobi Desert, which is apparently “completely isolated from the outside world” and is “such a hostile environment that not even the local tribespeople can survive there”. The Gobi is rugged and relatively unpopulated, but to say these things overly romanticizes Mongolia. The Mongolians who continue to live the nomadic lifestyle certainly live very different daily lives than those of us in North America, but to use the word ‘tribespeople’ makes them sound primitive. Nearly every traditional ger that we passed had several dirtbikes, a satellite dish, and solar panels in addition to the horses, goats, and camels hanging around.

A final quibble: there was far too much reusing of animation from Clash of the Dinosaurs, Dinosaur Planet, and even When Dinosaurs Roamed America. Two abelisaurs, which are NOT known from Mongolia, were featured during a discussion of Tarbosaurus, Triceratops was presented as Protoceratops, and Parasaurolophus and ?Maiasaura stood in for Mongolian hadrosaurs. I know animation is expensive, but perhaps a nice illustration would do instead? For people interested in dinosaurs, it’s really, really jarring to see Triceratops, the last of the ceratopsians, presented as Protoceratops, one of the earliest.

In the end though, I liked Dino Gangs. I think the focus on the single question “were tyrannosaurs pack hunters?” was a real strong point for the documentary, since in essence this is what we do in science. We ask a question and then try to answer it. It was really nice to see this question explored in depth using many different lines of evidence, including counter arguments from dissenting voices. The Gobi desert looked great on film, and it was awesome to see Brian Cooley’s sculptures of Albertosaurus in the Cretaceous Alberta gallery at the Tyrrell get so much screen time. I would definitely be interested in hearing what non-palaeontologists took away from Dino Gangs.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hugo's Boss

I almost forgot to mention a fun bit of news coverage that happened during our Grande Prairie fieldwork. The first Pachyrhinosaurus skull to be prepared from the Wapiti River bonebed was nicknamed Hugo (for I hope obvious reasons...). It is on loan to the Grande Prairie Regional College for the next few months and is on display in a case beside their bookstore. The Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Tribune did a nice little piece on the new display and features a completely awesome photo of Phil Currie and prep technician Susan Kagan.

Susan has been pummeling her way through the hard ironstone nodules that enclose the Wapiti River skulls - here is a photo from last fall of progress on the next skull to be prepared. It's come a long way since then, but it takes a long time to get these guys ready.

Grande Prairie Regional College also has a full skeletal mount of Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai, the species known from the Pipestone Creek bonebed.

Ok, that should actually be the end of Pachyrhinosaurus updates for the next little while...

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pipestone Creek Bonebed

The area around Grande Prairie is rich with dinosaur fossils, although the setting is somewhat different than you might expect if you're used to working in badlands like Dinosaur Provincial Park. In Grande Prairie, the only badlands outcrops are the Kleskun Hills, and most other sites are found along creeks and river valleys. I spent the bulk of my time at the Wapiti River bonebed, but helped out a little bit at the concurrent excavation at Pipestone Creek.

The Wapiti River bonebed has yet to be described, but Pipestone Creek is a fairly famous locality because of the huge numbers of Pachyrhinosaurus that were collected there during the late 80s by the Royal Tyrrell Museum and featured in the touring exhibition Dinosaur World Tour: The Greatest Show Unearthed. This bonebed was reopened last year as plans for the new museum to be built in the area began to solidify. In 2008 the animals in this quarry were separated from Pachyrhinosaurus canadensis (found in southern Alberta), and named Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai after Al Lakusta who discovered the bonebed.

Although material from the Wapiti River and Pipestone Creek bonebeds are currently accessioned at the University of Alberta, we've had a lot of help from the Grande Prairie Regional College, who have helped with many of the logistics of working in the area and allow us to stay at their dorms (it sure is nice to have kitchens, showers, and proper beds).  Here's a few photos from the last days of this year's fieldwork at Pipestone Creek.


The Pipestone Creek bonebed is incredibly dense, and I've been told that upwards of 100 bones have been found in a single square meter here. We were particularly excited this year because a very fine P. lakustai skull was uncovered, which you can see here as the large jacket. We had to jacket a bunch of smaller bones along with it because they sit partially underneath the skull and could not be removed. They'll be extracted back at the lab.

Here the skull has been flipped and the crew jackets the underside in preparation for transport. Pipestone Creek is a much easier site to access than Wapiti River. As you can see, the bonebed is not far above the creek, and a road has been constructed to allow visitors an easy walk to the site.

Helicopters are essential for getting large-ish jackets out of the Wapiti River bonebed, since the hill is too steep and high to easily get large jackets up to the edge and into the truck, or down to the river and into jetboats. This year, the helicopter was also a much needed tool for getting the large skull jacket out of Pipestone Creek. Here it sits in a field at the campground after three successful lifts.

We were a little apprehensive about getting the large skull into the truck, but luckily a crane was in the area and happy to help us out. The driver weighed the jacket - it came out at a whopping 1200 lbs! Too bad we didn't have a crane for getting it out of the truck once we were back at the university...

I'll probably have more updates as some of this material is prepared at the U of A, but that concludes my Grande Prairie fieldwork for this year. You can keep up to date with the goings on up there by keeping an eye on the museum project, formerly called the River of Death and Discovery Dinosaur Museum and recently been renamed the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum. They have a pretty nifty new website (and blog, which you can find on the blogroll here).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Wapiti River Fieldwork, part 2

Here's a few more shots from the University of Alberta's fieldwork at the Wapiti River bonebed near Grande Prairie. Fieldwork wrapped up on Friday and the fossils are now at the U of A awaiting preparation.

It continues to amaze me just how much we have cleared out of this ledge over the last five years - when we started, the ledge did not exist.

I've learned that different field crews use different methods for mapping quarries. At the U of A, we use a baseline, grid square, plumb-bob and gridded paper to mark the location and orientation of bones in the quarry. (Sometimes it gets a little crowded, but people's heads make good supports for the grid square.) The grid square is a square meter, divided into 10x10 cm quadrants. The baseline is marked at 1 m increments along its length, and the grid square is lined up at the relevant marks. If the grid square is very high above the elements you want to map, a plumb-bob is useful for reducing parallax error. Each bone is marked with quarry coordinates, and eventually all of the map sheets are combined in photoshop or illustrator. The maps will help us to understand the taphonomy of the site.

We almost never find teeth at this site, but this year we recovered 2 or 3 ceratopsian teeth and 2 or 3 tyrannosaurid teeth. Here's one of the ceratopsian teeth, which you can see as a small triangle in the middle of the orange splotch.

Here's a Pachyrhinosaurus skull we helicoptered out on the second last day. It may not look like much, but I think this is one of the nicer ones we've gotten out of this quarry. You can see a large circle to the left that is probably the orbit. Because the block is already broken into smaller nodules, we jacketed the skull as multiple blocks to make arranging for the helicopter nets a little bit easier. The edges of all of the separate nodules were marked before jacketing so we can piece everything back together in the lab.