Sunday, December 8, 2013

Back to Hwaseong

This week I've been in Hwaseong city, Korea for the HwaseongInternational Dinosaurs Expedition Symposium. I started this blog back in 2010 as a way to document my experiences working in the dino lab in Hwaseong, and so it was wonderful to be able to return more than three years later and see what's new. The symposium highlights research following the conclusion of the five-year Korea-Mongolia International Dinosaur Project. Many thanks to Dr. Yuong-Nam Lee, the city of Hwaseong, and all of the other organizers and staff who invited us to present our work at this excellent conference!

It was a special treat to see the new ankylosaur skeleton prepared and mounted in the lobby of our hotel! Watch out Tarbosaurus, you're about to get a face full of tail club.

Outside the main event room, the city had set up the winning entries from a local crafts contest themed around Koreaceratops. There were some awesome items on display!

It was also wonderful to eat real Korean food again! So tasty.

Hwaseong is home to dinosaur nesting sites as well as the holotype of Koreaceratops. There's a new observation tower on the hill above the reclaimed salt marsh which gives an excellent view of the area. The islands in the midground are Cretaceous egg-bearing rocks, but apparently the hill we're on in this photo, and the hills in the distances, are Precambrian basement.

Heading on out to see some of the nests!

The outside of the visitor centre has undergone a dramatic transformation, and now hosts a gigantic bas relief of Julius Csotonyi's Koreaceratops illustration.

Koreaceratops has also replaced the old Protoceratops model inside the centre. We also had a chance to check out some really special specimens collected during the expeditions that have now been prepared, but they are secret until published, so I can't share photos here! Needless to say, there are some wonderful papers coming down the pipeline resulting from these expeditions. On to the next adventure!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Paleo201 comes to an end

The first offering of Paleo201, Dinosaurs in the Fossil Record, essentially comes to an end today with the final field trip of the semester. The students will have their exam later in December.

Even though it is a lot of work to be involved in the creation of a new course, I think Paleo201 is a great addition to the University of Alberta's paleontology offerings. Using the Dino101 content on Coursera, and pitched at an essentially first-year level (despite its 200 designation) for students from all faculties, Paleo201 is what's called a blended learning course. We rely on the Dino101 course videos to deliver the base lecture content for the course, which means we typically only meet once per week for an in-class lesson. These lessons have included research talks by grad students in our labs on topics relevant to each week's lesson. However, we also tried to break away from the lecture format for at least some of the in class lessons, to take advantage of some of the resources available on campus. One week we learned the basics of the rock cycle and general Canadian geology using the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Geoscience Garden, an installation of rocks from around Canada arranged in a particular fashion for students to learn basic mapping skills. And last week we did tours of the Paleontology Museum and our prep labs, including sneak peeks of some cool up and coming research projects. FUN FACT: Our Dunkleosteus skull cast was ranked higher than the dinosaur specimens in my highly scientific 'what did you find most interesting' poll. Blindingly obvious take-home message for instructors: Students like new things and surprises, and dinosaurs are not necessarily the be-all and end-all!

But the highlights, in my opinion, are the three field trips to Jurassic Forest, Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park, and the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

Jurassic Forest is a tourist attraction outside of Edmonton that features animatronic dinosaurs set outside in a forest. Although I had some comments that this was an odd place to take students on a university field trip, I actually think it worked really well as a way to ease students into some of the topics covered in the first couple of lessons – basic dinosaur anatomy, diversity, diet, etc. And because a lot of the signage and interpretive material at the forest has been put together by graduates of the UofA's BSc program in Paleontology, the educational content is accurate, up to date, and nicely presented.

Many of the students told me that our trip to Dry Island was the first time they had really gone hiking, so I think that speaks to the value of having a course like this one. We hiked the students around the badlands and out to the Albertosaurus bonebed, stopping to discuss  geology, look for fossils (but not collect any, as we didn't have permits this time), and talk about how we interpret bonebeds and make inferences about dinosaur behaviour. Everyone was SO EXCITED to find little bits and fragments of bones. A couple of the students told me they returned the next weekend with their families because they had enjoyed the field trip so much! Blindingly obvious take-home message for instructors: Students like to go outside! And while videos and online stuff and lectures are perfectly fine, doing 'real' things with real fossils and real locations etc. etc. can never fully replace the online experience. Also I got artists and history students and linguistics majors and such to like rocks, so there.

And today we headed down to the Tyrrell Museum, which is a bit of a long day trip from Edmonton, since Drumheller is a little more than 3 hours away – but we were helped along by some dino documentaries. As always, the museum is an amazing resource, and it was super fun to see the students putting together many of the different concepts learned this semester. There were many good questions and enthusiastic discussions about the things we were seeing. And of course, having Phil there to talk to the students about the history of the museum and some of his personal experiences in collecting many of the fossils on display is pretty cool!

Because this is partly an online course, one of the things I've tried to incorporate into the field trips is discussion of the field trip in the course discussion forums. Each time the students have had to take a picture of themselves with a backdrop of choice (favourite dinosaur at Jurassic Forest, favourite scenic view at Dry Island, favourite display at the Tyrrell) and tell us something about it. This worked really well and it is also a fun way to get some feedback about what people are twigging onto as interesting in the course. Fun fact: Not everyone's favourite dinosaur/etc. was T. rex! There is hope for the world!

This is the last course for which I will ever be a teaching assistant, as my grad school days are wrapping up in a few weeks. This course was lots of fun to teach, hopefully has been fun to take, and I hope future students and instructors have as much fun as I did!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

SVP Report 3: the Page Museum

For the final entry in this year's SVP recap, let's head over to the Page Museum, which showcases specimens collected right outside its front doors in the La Brea tar seeps.

So many specimens have been collected from the tar seeps that the museum has over 400 dire wolf skulls on display - out of more than 1500 in their collections! It makes for an impressive Wall of Stuff. I am envious of their actual non-negligible sample size!

A dire wolf skeleton with a baculum! Now there's something you don't see every day!

I love surprises in museums! I'm used to seeing Panthera atrox, the large cat skeleton in this photo, labeled as the American lion, but here it was called Naegele's giant jaguar! Turns out there's been some back-and-forth about whether or not Panthera atrox is more lion-like or more jaguar-like; recent research seems to put it in the lion lineage. Whether or not the cat is a lion or a jaguar has some interesting biogeographical implications! P. atrox is a relatively rare component of the La Brea deposits compared to dire wolves and sabercats.

Giant not-condor says hi! HI TERATORNIS!

I'm sure I'm not the first to say this, but man, ground sloth feet are weird.

In addition to all of the lovely large skeletal mounts, there's a very nice wall showcasing some of the smaller fossils, and things like taphonomy and pathology. Here's a cool example of rodent gnaw marks on a bone!

And here are the fused foot bones of a Smilodon! Ouch! 

There's a really excellent fishbowl lab - nobody working there when I visited, since it was a Sunday, but it looks like a pretty busy place with lots on the go!

I also liked how they made it so you could see into the collections area!

Finally, I'll end with this adorably retro display on the process of cataloguing and curating fossils (which I am totally happy to see in a museum exhibit)...featuring punch cards.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

SVP Report 2: La Brea Tar Pits

Next up in the post-SVP report: the La Brea Tar Pits! This is one of those classic localities that I'm sure is on many a palaeo must-see list. I didn't get a chance to see this on the pre-conference field trip, but a couple of us from the UofA made time to head over before our flights home.

Several of the excavations have viewing stations where you can watch palaeontologists and volunteers hard at work. Pit 91 is the largest of the excavations, but digging is on hiatus while they work on another project.

It is both so similar and so different compared to my experiences digging dinosaurs. The tar pits, or tar seeps as I think they are more accurately called, are kind of a sandy, semi-consolidated sediment with Ice Age vertebrates and asphalt. Excavators lie on the boards across the surface, and work in marked out grid squares.

Here's another shot of the quarry to give a sense of how deep they have gone. Pit 91 has been excavated almost continuously since the 1970s.

Work halted at Pit 91 a few years ago for a new dig, called Project 21. A construction project (for a parking structure, I think) down the road encountered several tar seep deposits with fossils. Instead of holding up construction for years and years, the team at the Page Museum simply scooped up the entire seep deposit and brought it over to the park to work on. The result was 21 large crates which are 'excavated' above ground. Apparently this is much nicer for the diggers since it isn't quite as wet and sticky, as the tar can drain out the bottom of the crates. 

Another, slightly smaller crate waiting to be worked on.

The sediment is saved in large barrels, so that technicians can look for microvertebrates - things like birds, snakes, lizards, small mammals, etc. 

Smilodon wheelbarrow!

Just outside the entrance to the museum is the largest of the pits, the Lake Pit. There wasn't originally a pond here - rainwater has filled in an old pit mined for asphalt. The pit bubbles and gurgles away, which is quite amusing.

Next time: the Page Museum!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

SVP Report 1: Natural History Museum of LA County

The Natural History Museum of LA County is excellent! I had a chance to visit it during the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting in Los Angeles the week before last. A great museum with some wonderful dinosaur exhibits. Here's a sampling!

Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops face off in the eternal battle of good vs. evil...

Triceratops puts its best foot forward.

Wall of Stuff! Can you identify all of the bones here?

Fruitadens protests the fact that it stands no taller than the hand of a sauropod. Always nice to see heterodontosaurids on display!

Thescelosaurus looks majestic, for once! (I kid, I kid, I love Thescelosaurus. But this is a particularly nice skeletal mount.)

I thought this was a pretty neat display of tracks and their trackmakers! Here's a hadrosaur foot and a hadrosaur footprint.

The centrepiece of the dinosaur galleries must be the Tyrannosaurus trio - juvenile, subadult, and adult - feeding on a carcass. There's a nice display to the side (but behind this photo) showing the preserved elements used to reconstruct the three skulls.

The dinosaurs are split into two galleries, and each has an upper level, allowing for multiple angles of specimen viewing. In this shot you can see Carnotaurus in the foreground, the three tyrannosaurs in the middle, and towards the back are Allosaurus and Stegosaurus.

Juvenile Edmontosaurus skeleton! So cool!

A display case discussing the origin of birds has this Velociraptor skeletal mount...

And a 3D reconstruction of Archaeopteryx! Stripped of its feathers, it really does show off its dinosaurian features.

And a non-dinosaur to wrap things up: I really enjoyed seeing this life-size reconstruction of the Mesozoic marsupial Didelphodon. It really emphasizes just how big some of the Mesozoic mammals could get - the skull is about the size of a opossum or skunk skull.

Next time: The Page Museum and the La Brea Tar Pits!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Too many things!

Things have been quiet around this blog as of late because there have been TOO MANY THINGS. There are still too many things, but I figured I'd do a quick update as to the goings-on around these parts over the summer.


Jasper! I finally had a chance to visit during the summer. No dinosaurs, but lots of rocks and charismatic megafauna, so I was happy.

Another presentation for the Jurassic Forest! I talked about the ankylosaurs of Alberta. Thanks to everyone who came out to hear about the ugliest dinosaurs in our backyards.

Jurassic Forest has also opened some trail extensions discussing the evolution of mammals, and the evolution of birds. Kudos to the team at Jurassic Forest for tackling these subjects, which are super interesting and don't always get the attention they deserve (especially the origin of mammals!).

(And I like their dinosaur wrangler, too!)


Dino101! This project has occupied a lot of my time since January. Filming was in full swing over the summer, including some scenes in our labs and museums on campus.

Body Worlds, at Telus World of Science - Edmonton! Sadly, no photos of the exhibit were allowed. I had seen the original Body Worlds exhibition in 2007, and this included largely the same plastinates and information, but presented in the context of growth and aging. However, a surprise bonus plastinate at the end tickled my fancy - they had an ostrich (presumably from Animal Inside Out?) on display!

It had been a while since I was last at TWOSE, and I found the renovated earth and environment gallery to be excellent and full of science. Make sure to check out the Science on a Sphere!

The body gallery always cracks me up.


Canadian Paleontology Conference! and University of Alberta Laboratory for Vertebrate Paleontology 50th Anniversary Symposium! I was on the organizing committee, which kept me hopping for a lot of August. Thanks to everyone who came out last weekend. You can read more about the conference at our website.

THE FUTURE: I'm finishing my thesis this fall. My plate is pretty full with writing, job applications, and teaching (Dino101, and its sister-courses PALEO 200 and PALEO 201 at the UofA). I've got a couple of manuscripts that should be online pretty soon. Things will probably continue to be fairly quiet here, but hopefully I'll have some time to blog a little bit about research and SVP along the way. After December...well, who knows where I'll be then. Finishing things is always a little bit sad. But, onwards and upwards! Until next time!