Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Hunting Dinosaurs on the American Prairie Reserve

With the critical details finalized and signed, I can finally reveal what my crew and I will be doing for this summer's fieldwork.

Starting July 1st, we will be prospecting for dinosaur fossils on the American Prairie Reserve: an enormous expanse of land in northeastern Montana, dedicated to restoring the prairie ecosystem to as close to its original condition as possible. The reserve stretches over approximately 305,000 acres of deeded and BLM- or state-leased land, sandwiched between Fort Peck Lake and the town of Malta, and is teeming with familiar inhabitants of the great American west, boasting herds of bison, elk, and antelope, accompanied by many of the smaller species such as prairie dogs, sharp-tailed grouse, and everyone's favorite: burrowing owls!

Icon of the great plains, the American Bison.
Image from APR

The burrowing owl Athene cunicularia looks slightly goofy with its long legs, but they are one of my favourite inhabitants of the prairie. In my previous fieldwork I was lucky enough to drive by a nest of these cute little guys every day. I hope we see some more this summer!
Image from APR, photo by Ellen Anderson

American Prairie Reserve is keen to see scientific studies conducted on the land and so invited us to set up a new paleontological initiative, surveying the reserve for research-significant fossils. Donors have generously provided funds for me to lead a team out on to the reserve for an initial two field seasons, adding an exciting new (and prehistoric!) dimension to our understanding of North America's continental ecosystems.

As you might imagine, American Prairie Reserve is mostly a vast expanse of prairie habitat dominated by sweeping grassy plains and lazy rounded hills, not the rocky badlands where we would typically look for dinosaur fossils. However, craggy outcrops of the Hell Creek Formation poke up through the prairie in places, and it is in these areas that my crew and I will be prospecting for new fossil localities.

Much of the APR is covered by prairie, some of which is populated by herds of American Bison.
Image from APR

Rocky outcrop on the APR, possibly not of the Hell Creek Formation, but you get the idea.
Image from APR, photo by Gib Myers

Hell Creek Formation - end of the dinosaurs

The Hell Creek Formation should be familiar to anyone interested in dinosaurs, as it is from the Hell Creek that famous species such as the horned dinosaur Triceratops and the enormous carnivore Tyrannosaurus have been found. Most famously the upper boundary of the Hell Creek Formation records the K-T mass extinction that saw the end of the age of dinosaurs. The fossils and geology surrounding the extinction horizon have been well-studied by teams of researchers over the past half-century or so, and continue to this day. However, we are going to be building on some recent fieldwork and research that focuses on the lower part of the Hell Creek Formation, which is most of what is exposed on the American Prairie Reserve. A paper that I recently coauthored with John Scannella, Mark Goodwin, and my PhD supervisor Jack Horner (Scannella et al., 2014; PNAS), showed that Triceratops evolves over the ~1.5 million years represented by the Hell Creek Formation. In the lower part of the Hell Creek Formation  we find Triceratops horridus, which possesses a small nose horn. In our paper we hypothesize that Triceratops horridus later evolved into Triceratops prorsus, which is only found in the upper part of the formation and possesses a large nose horn (with other more subtle differences). I would like to investigate further these kinds of changes between the lower and upper Hell Creek faunas. The first step is to get out and gather some data: finding new fossils.

Triceratops in the lower part of the Hell Creek Formation (bottom) have small nose horns, which evolved into large nose horns (top) shortly before the K-T boundary extinction.
Image from the scientific paper Scannella et al. 2014 (see below for full reference).

I can't begin to tell you how excited we are by all of this. Finding dinosaurs is pretty amazing anyway, but to do so surrounded by rich prairie teeming with wildlife is going to be something very special indeed. We are going to be reporting from the field to document this initial phase of scientific research, looking at all aspects of fieldwork such as finding and identifying fossils and camp life. We are hoping that the fossils we find can be exhibited locally at Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta (website, facebook), although Carter County Museum in Ekalaka (website, facebook) has kindly offered to be the official federal repository.

Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta has some incredible dinosaur fossils on display, especially of the duckbill Brachylophosaurus, which are found in the Judith River Formation exposed north of town.
Photograph by Sarah Boessenecker.

Curator Nate Carroll talks about the duckbilled dinosaur Edmontosaurus to  a group of children at Carter County Museum, Ekalaka (the federal repository for the fossils that we find).
Check out their annual public festival: the DINO SHINDIG!
Photo from Carter County Museum on Facebook.


Finally, I would like to explicitly (and implicitly) thank everyone who has been involved in setting up this new initiative. Myself and my crew unreservedly appreciate the efforts and support provided by American Prairie Reserve and many other people who have made this possible. Thank you! We hope that we can return this faith with exciting new fossils and research!

Now, in the meantime I must get back to writing up my dissertation...

Some links related to this article:

Carter County Museum, Ekalaka
Website: http://cartercountymuseum.org/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CarterCountyMuseum

Bureau of Land Management -Paleontology page

Really nice documentary by PBS on the high-plains prairie habitat. Still streamable (in USA at least)



This fieldwork is being undertaken by the independent company "Fowler Paleontology and Geology" newly registered in the state of Montana. All opinions, facts, and / or errors in this blog are those of Denver Fowler (i.e. me), and not any other person, company, or organisation who might be mentioned here in any capacity.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Open Access, tired reviewers, and the free market: time for reviewer credit?

There is an editorial in Nature this week which has attracted a lot of criticism on the internet. "Open access is tiring out peer reviewers" by Dr. Martijn Arns suggests that a rise in scientific publications is due to increased numbers of manuscript submissions to open-access journals, and that this is placing increased pressure on peer-reviewers.

Whether or not Dr. Arns is correct about open access, it is fair to say that the number of publications is increasing. Welcome to the world of 'publish-or-perish', where even undergraduates are pressured to have maybe one paper under their belt in order to be competitive for grad school places. An increase in submissions is inevitable under these conditions. But this is not what I am writing about here.

Dr Arns complains that reviewers are "overworked and fatigued" and suggests that "quality will suffer — across the board — unless something is done". Under the free market system, this translates to increased demand for the commodity that is academic reviewers. This should consequently be reflected by an increase in price for that commodity, leading us to the question:

Would reviewers be less "tired" if journals started properly compensating them?

The subject of paid reviewers is controversial, and I will not go over the pros and cons here. Personally, I believe that academia is best served by a spirit of collegiality where review is freely provided to fellow researchers. At the same time, in a world where academics are being financially squeezed from all sides, it is immoral (not to mention poor business practice) to simply give away one of our most marketable skills to massive-profit-making multinational publishing houses.

Some researchers have said that they will simply refuse to perform free reviews for profit-making journals, but this is not an option for early-career scientists, who need to publish and review for these "prestigious" journals as they are held in higher esteem by employers and tenure boards.

Still, in this world of corporate universities, I wonder how long it will be before college CEOs stop allowing their paid professors to simply give their time away in free consultancy for multinational publishing corporations. If this was to happen, I am not sure how much of a backlash there would be from already overworked professors.

But how could reviewers be compensated for their work? Direct financial compensation comes with its own problems, and is never going to happen anyway; however, I think that "journal credit" for reviews is a good compromise. I have received this kind of compensation for two of the reviews that I have conducted, in the form of 12 months free online access to an otherwise subscription-based journal.

I suggest that a widening of this system to the university level would be a fair form of reviewer compensation: for each review, the reviewer's institutional library would receive one credit point from the publishing house, which could then be used to offset journal subscription costs. This would incentivize peer review for the reviewer and parent institution, and would cost little for the publishers. Universities with large research programs would probably attract more peer review "business" and could then either keep library costs down, or subscribe to more journals. An increase in journal subscriptions would benefit publishers, and authors whose work is published in journals with increased readership. Reviewers would at least feel like they got something back for their labor, and maybe would be held in greater esteem by their institutions.

I have not seen this idea suggested elsewhere, so I decided to throw it out here. My 2 cents.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Another Morrison mystery: vintage photos of dinosaur digs from ~1912

Okay, so I haven't got around to making a post on fieldwork yet, but I thought I would put together a quick post about some additional vintage Morrison Formation fieldwork images from ~1912. Pictures with a story to tell...

These five Real Photo Postcards (RPPCs) recently sold on Ebay (I didn't bid on them). I had not seen any of these images before, so maybe they are each truly one-of-a-kind RPPCs; if this is the case then they may be unique records of collecting during this era.

Fortunately, the seller included high-resolution photos of the cards, which depict some intriguing details. Here is the full set, and a view of the reverse sides (see later for closeups):

The set of recently sold RPPCs: mass produced or unique amateur photographs?
(image from Ebay)

Reverse side. The writing reads "Hunting for bones of ancient Mammals in the Uinta Deposits" (sic).
(image from Ebay)

Unique images?

You might remember from my previous blog post that earlier this year I purchased some RPPCs showing early 20th century dinosaur excavations in the Morrison Formation.  I was excited as many RPPCs are unique, created by amateur photographers using a special Kodak camera with which you could print your own photos as postcards. However, I concluded that my postcards were not unique as they had text added to the front, making them look semi-professional at least, and I had found another example of one RPPC for sale elsewhere. My cards were from c.1903-30, and quite rare, but they were part of a larger print run. Darn.

I am not so sure that all of the cards in this new set were similarly mass-produced. The bottom left and bottom centre RPPCs are full-frame prints, and the bottom left RPPC has some handwritten text added to a dark area of the image. I suspect that these two might be part of a larger print run. However, the three photos with white borders are poorly framed, differing sizes, and one is slightly out of focus. Not very professional. These are also the more interesting cards.

Let's take a closer look.

PC1. A view of outcrop, presumably where the photographer was searching for fossils.
Full-frame RPPC, (image cropped from Ebay photo)


The first image shows some badlands in the distance, and some barrels (maybe field equipment, or watering for cows). It's pretty unexciting stuff, but it contains the handwritten caption "Feb 13, 1912 Looking North", providing us with an age consistent with the time when RPPCs were available (1903-30), and when there were significant excavations in the Morrison Formation, and surrounding areas.

PC2. Pack mules moving boxes of fossils?
White-border RPPC, (image cropped from Ebay photo)


This second photo depicts a series of boxes at the end of a trail. In the distance, some animals (pack mules?) can be seen moving toward the boxes. There are not many other clues in this image to inform us of what is going on, unless someone recognizes the trail. Are there fossils in those boxes?

PC3. A man searching among blocks of sandstone exposed in some badlands.
Full-frame RPPC, (image cropped from Ebay photo)


This RPPC shows a man investigating what appears to be blocks of sandstone exposed in badlands topography. If the Ebay seller arranged the postcard reverse sides the same as the front (see above photos), then this is the card that has "Hunting for bones of ancient Mammals in the Uinta Deposits" (sic) written on the reverse. Were the fossil hunters looking for ancient mammals? There are certainly many large extinct mammals known from the Uinta basin and Uinta mountains of Utah, including the bizarre-looking Uintatherium: an enormous herbivorous mammal that lived during the Eocene (~45-50 Mya), and whose remains are well-known from the Bridger and Wakashie Formations of Wyoming and Utah.

The dinoceratan mammal, Uintatherium.
Is the man photographed in PC3 looking for remains of giant Eocene mammals?
(image from Wikipedia, originally from Scott, 1913)

It's possible that the field crew were in the Uinta deposits searching for a range of different fossils, so maybe they really were looking for mammals. I am not familiar with the Eocene exposures in this area, so I cannot say whether or not the outcrop patterns of the cliffs look Eocene, or whether they look more like the much older Jurassic Morrison Formation (~150 Mya). However, the following photos definitely look Morrison to me.

PC4. Two men digging into a steeply inclined cliff with what is probably a long plaster jacket.
White-border RPPC, (original blurred image cropped from Ebay seller image)

The fourth photo (unfortunately blurred) appears to show a near vertical cliff face with a long thin plaster jacket adhered to it. You can just about make out the shape of some large bones at the far end of the jacket. The uplifted rocks and size of the bones suggest to me that this is an excavation into the Late Jurassic Morrison Fm (maybe even Dinosaur National Monument itself), and that the long thin jacket is a sauropod dinosaur tail.

PC5. Is this a photo of the jackets from PC4?
The fifth photo possibly shows the long narrow jacket from PC4 being prepared in the lab. In the foreground is an opened jacket containing what appears to be an articulated series of elongated vertebrae from the end of a diplodocid sauropod tail (see below). In the background is another part of the jacket, next to what looks like a sauropod neck vertebra, with more vertebrae in the sandbox (back left).

Vertebrae from the end of a Diplodocus tail,as figured in Holland, 1906;
The vertebrae in the jacket in PC5 look almost identical to the lower two rows.

The tail of Diplodocus had a long thin whiplash-like end. (image source: Columbia.edu)

Are these postcards unique images of an important fossil expedition? The nature of RPPCs makes this a possibility, but I do not know. However, there cannot be many historically collected diplodocid tails, so perhaps someone with better knowledge of the subject can shed some light on this little mystery. Either way, I enjoy seeing these old-timer field photos. I hope you do too!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Old Morrison Formation sauropod quarry postcards

Ok, so I'm starting up the blog again. I will post some Wealden and New Mexico field stories in the near future, but will start with a quick post about some interesting vintage postcards.

I recently purchased two vintage Real Photo Postcards (RPPCs) of dinosaur quarries:

The postcard caption reads "Fosil Quary - Jensen - In the Uintah Basin"

With more gracious spelling, this postcard reads "Fossil Quarry Vernal, Utah"
The postcards were part of a small collection of RPPCs mounted on brown card, all depicting various scenes from north east Utah in the early 20th century; including Native Americans on horseback, the big Mormon temple at Manti, Utah, and a "Rangely gasser on fire" (which looks like a slightly-out-of-control gas flare to me).

RPPCs were produced by the 3A folding pocket camera introduced by Kodak in 1902. Despite its small-sounding name, the 3A produced large 3.25 x 5.5 inch negatives that could be printed directly on to postcard stock. As such, many RPPCs are unique images taken by amateur photographers, rather than mass produced.

RPPCs were popular from 1903 through to the 1930's. Around this time, major excavations of dinosaur fossils were being undertaken in the Morrison Formation of Utah and Colorado. I hadn't seen either of these dinosaur quarry photos before, so I was intrigued at the possibility that they might be unique images.

Alas, with a little searching I found another example of the second photo for sale online, so it is not unique. Given the writing in the photographs, it was probably too much to hope that they would be one-of-a-kind. Still, I would be interested to know which dinosaur specimens are featured in the photos. They are clearly large sauropods, probably Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, or Apatosaurus. Does anyone have any ideas or leads as to which specimens might be in the photos?