Saturday, October 10, 2015

Paleontological research tips I: field notes for amateurs and professionals alike

I'm starting off a new series of posts that will cover various aspects of paleontological research. When I started doing paleo research I was a bit lost when it came to organizing my thoughts. After all, there's a lot of work involved in taking fossils and squeezing information out of them and arriving at a published article. Following the underpants gnomes meme from South Park:

Step 1: fossils
Step 2: ??
Step 3: paper (profit)

This new series will cover everything in step 2. It's "easy" to go out and find a fossil, but much more difficult to distil that into a publication. I'll be giving plenty of examples of dos and don'ts, personal anecdotes, ideas, and personal preferences. There are some very basic rules, but most of these are going to be recommendations - it's all about finding the perfect balance. With a few exceptions, there are no absolutes or strict rules; it really does boil down to preferences. Also, if any colleagues or readers have bright ideas, comment away!

Field notes! Everybody hates them but you need to do them. For starters, this post is directed just as much at my amateur colleagues as it is for professionals and students alike. Good - or at least satisfactory - field notes are an absolute must. This is one of the few examples of things that absolutely must be done if you want to do field paleontology well; almost everything else will be up to personal taste, but there must absolutely be a chain of evidence for fossils and paleontological data. Here's a series of real world examples:

Scenario 1: Joe Blow is a shark tooth collector in Florida, and typically finds over a hundred shark teeth a day when he goes out digging. Occasionally rarer finds are made; on one particular day he comes across a Pleistocene horse skull sticking out of the gravel at the top of the quarry. He knows its important, digs it out, sets it in a box in the back of his pickup, and drives home. Joe doesn't have a particularly sharp long term memory, and five years later can't remember what quarry or what unit the fossil was collected. When Joe offers to donate the fossil to a museum, an interested paleontologist questions him on its provenance but is disappointed at the lack of detail.

Scenario 2: John Doe is an avid master's student prospecting for trilobites for his thesis on trilobite paleoecology. It's been a long, hard day in the horrendously hot Marble Mountains of Southern California; he's got a bad headache, sunburned, and is thinking longingly of sweet, cold beer back at camp - there's only one day left on his Marble Mountain trip. He's spent all week collecting hundreds of samples, bagging them, labelling them, and cross-referencing these field numbers in his notebook. At the end of the day he finds fragments of a very large invertebrate - perhaps it's something like Anomalocaris! He quickly chisels out a slab, but is quickly getting tired and the prospect of beer is more and more attractive. It's not a locality he's collected from before that he could quickly write "refer to locality X on page X"; he doesn't have time to turn on his GPS, so he marks a cairn and will write everything down the next day. The following day, a flash flood washes out a bridge on the way there, and John returns to school to begin his horrendous advanced stratigraphy class. Months later he takes everything out, but finds that no information is associated with the anomalocarid and he's not even certain what formation it came from.

Scenario 3: Jane Doe (no relation) is a diligent student collecting stratigraphic data along the coast, and has been collecting fossils as she goes, though it's not necessarily for her thesis research. She takes the fossils and shoves them into a plastic bag with the date written on it in permanent ink. She takes fossils from several different layers and puts them in the same bag; her notes are perhaps just as well curated as the rest of John's notes.

Scenario 4: Dave Mould is collecting (with permission) from the Hell Creek Formation for a well known museum within a few hundred meters of a property line; they do NOT have permission to dig up anything from the other side of the fence. He spies a bed of sandstone riddled with dinosaur bones, and the fossiliferous bed continues past the fenceline. He doesn't cross it, but within a stone's throw finds an adorable little ceratopsian skeleton - perhaps it's a Leptoceratops. He spends his time with his volunteers diligently excavating the delicate bones, and as the thought of beer, dinner, and a campfire comes he hastily writes down some notes, but cuts corners and gives a somewhat lacklustre description. Years later he's affiliated with a different institution, but finds out the rancher from the other side of the fence is accusing his museum of theft as he remembers seeing a similar looking skeleton on his property. Now, he's in deep shit because his notes are wholly inadequate towards proving that they collected the fossil legally.

Scenario 5: John Doe returns to the Marble Mountains the following summer, and miraculously his cairn is still up! He remembers, and after getting chewed out by his adviser, seizes the opportunity at redemption and records everything he can. He proceeds to collect quite a few more specimens and other samples. Upon returning to campus the week later, he realizes that on one of his days he wrote all the notes down, but forgot to write his sample/field numbers on the plastic bags, and now he's got a pile of trilobites he cannot precisely match with his notes. Poor John.

Scenario 6: Curator emeritus Raymond Scott is a well-respected leader in the study of Cretaceous mammals, and is getting rather messy and forgetful; his younger coworkers are too timid to remind him that he needs to clean his office, and attempts to nag him to find and send back 20+ year loans have gone unheeded. Dr. Scott falls ill, and for the sake of argument, dies. Younger coworkers find specimens without notes, but probably collected locally; also specimens with an unfamiliar institution acronym but no loan documentation.

Every single one of these scenarios share two things in common: 1) in every case, somebody did something wrong, and 2) all of these have happened, and happen more often than you would think. Laziness, or ignorance, will get the better of you. I don't mean to sound preachy - but maintaining good field notes is important, and it's good to be proactive about it. Now what happened in each? Joe didn't know any better, and that's fine. Non-scientists are often perplexed with how anal-retentive academics are, and that's OK. But in order for specimens to be of real use, we need to know some basics (more on that later). What about John? In #2 he was lazy - and I've painted him in a sympathetic light, because this temptation happens to everyone. In #5 he was both lucky and forgetful. What about Jane? Jane, despite her attention to stratigraphic detail, didn't really think about where the fossils were coming from - after all, her thesis is about geochemistry and she collected the fossils for fun, but decided to give them to her institution. Nobody realized they come from different layers, despite being separated by perhaps millions of years, and are now in a museum collection and mistakenly labeled as being from the same layer & locality. David is thinking he may need to hire an attorney, as the rancher is threatening to sue the museum, and the museum is denying responsibility. Dr. Scott has never had somebody challenge him on the way he conducts his office, and his death means that if lucky it might take his successors years to figure out the provenance of various specimens hidden in nooks and crannies.

The common theme here is that yes, notes are important - and it's not only important to have some notes, but it's also very, very important to have the right notes. The right notes are the ones that allow you to clearly say when, where, and how a particular fossil (or bit of data) was collected. So what are the right notes? And first off, why bother? What importance could it possibly have?

The chain of evidence - geographic, geologic, and stratigraphic - linking fossil morphology to a position and place in time, eloquently illustrated by Parham et al. (2012).

Why bother?

I'll try and succinctly answer the question of why. Basically, paleontologists are modern extensions of 19th century style naturalists - at our core we go out into nature, record observations, and take little pieces of nature home to study. Yes, many paleontologists make use of expensive laboratory equipment like scanning electron microscopes and X-ray diffractors, the bulk of paleontological data is collected by somebody armed with a rock hammer and a notebook. Our notes are the initial framework for which fossils or other specimens can be understood in the context of that nebulous idea called "information". We can't ask Joe's horse fossil how old it is, or where it came from. Details about the geographic locality are necessary to not only show where you found it in order to 1) give a researcher an idea of where it is on a geologic map and 2) how to find the locality again, but also 3) demonstrate that the fossil was collected legally. On a day to day basis, points 1 and 2 are far, far more common. Geologic data is crucial towards establishing geologic context: what lithology, layer, formation, etc. The goal is to write this stuff down, and tie it in with the fossils based on something other than your memory. Remember, useful data and specimens will be utilized by paleontologists long after you're dead. To paraphrase this in a way that should be universally understandable amongst science: recording notes in sufficient detail ensures that your research is repeatable.

How, part I: connecting notes to specimens

There's several ways to do it. First, you could scribble everything down in permanent ink on the outside of your ziplock bag. That's fine for short term, but after 1-2 years it can rub off. Some folks use a pre-printed standardized specimen card: all of the information is written on that. Others will write directly onto a tag with a string that you physically tie around the specimen. These work for a lot of people, but I like to have all the data written down in a central location, like a ledger. Problem is, it's separate from the fossil and its field packaging. So, in the field, I write an entry in my notebook with my initials RWB followed by the field number. My very first entry was RWB-1; I wrote on the ziplock bag the same number in a sharpie and voila, that problem is fixed. Numbers are entered in chronologically, as you find new fossils. Now there's a sample number on the fossil, and if you look it up in the notebook, you can see all the necessary data. This system is generally called the Grinnell System. As the fossils are prepared, I paint a little white swatch of acrylic paint and write the field number on with an archival pen. Many marine mammal fossils at UCMP still bear the field numbers of the people who collected them - including LGB (Larry Barnes), DPD (Daryl Domning), CAR (Charles Repenning), FAP (Frank Perry), RHT (Richard Tedford), and of course the highly prolific JHH (J. Howard Hutchison). If you really want to include more information with the actual specimen, go ahead - try both. You can try any of these methods - but the take home message is to tie the information physically to the specimen (somehow!) to maintain a hopefully unbreakable chain of data.

Here's an example: above is a photograph of UCMP 219261 from UCMP locality V99869. You can see my RWB field number - RWB-82 - clearly on the specimen. If you look it up in my field notes, you'll see this entry on p. 35:

RWB-82. 1/4/2009. Capitola, Concretionary Bed. ~400' west of Saxon Ave. Carcharodon tooth, ?odontocete scapula, bone frags, big fish vert.

In this case, the notes indicate 1) what was found, 2) when it was found, 3) what layer it was found in (the Concretionary Bed is a specific, ~15-40 cm thick horizon), and 4) roughly where it was found. For coastal exposures like this where I know the stratigraphy well, I'm more particular about where stratigraphically a specimen was collected and give a general estimate of the locality relative to nearby landmarks. Saxon Avenue is a street that dead-ends at the top of the cliffs near here, and though it's not very visible from the beach, I'm familiar enough with the locality (from 2005 to 2011 I visited this spot at least 10 days a year) to know where each street is based upon the houses atop the cliffs. Further to the point, UCMP locality V99869 is a locality I established to contain only material from the "Concretionary bed".

How, part II: geographic data

Recording geographic data can use some creativity. There are many ways to skin a cat - it's probably best not to write down "about 100 paces past the old oak tree, and a bit left." For starters, the oak tree is probably not permanent, paces are a measureless unit, and god knows what way is left. Fortunately for you, we now live in the days of cheap, accurate handheld GPS units; so, go ahead and just write down the coordinates once the accuracy is reasonable. Give a brief description of the location. I typically work in linear cliff outcrops, which makes life very easy because all I need to do is estimate how far from the end of the cliff I am (e.g., 200 meters south of Herpetocetus creek). And use official names given to places on USGS maps; some local nickname for a location might die out, or heaven forbid it's your own nickname you haven't bothered telling anyone about, in which case your description is useless. An example is Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz: the actual name is Soquel Point, but locals call it the former. Another tip: If I collect at a locality I'm absolutely certain I remember collecting from before, a detailed description is a waste of time - I'll write in my notebook "same locality as RWB-64, see page #".

Better yet, use photos - or Google earth! Every time I make a new locality in my notebook I add a pin with my locality notes to Google earth. You can also print off a map, airphoto, or other imagery with you (maybe it's just a panorama you took on an earlier visit), put a pinhole at the spot where your fossil site is, and on the back draw a circle and mark the field number there. This can be done in the field, and is the preferred method of record strikes and dips by geologic mappers. If you go into geology, you'll do a lot of this for field camp (and yes, it's fun as hell). Most of my fieldwork consists of day trips, so I usually have time that night (or the following morning if I'm really exhausted) to add in all the new localities.

Make a sketch! Locality sketches, regardless of your artistic abilities, are of immense utility. A picture is literally worth a thousand words. Speaking of...

Take pictures! A camera is your best friend in the field. You don't want a fancy camera in the field - they're expensive and easy to damage. Take a little digital point and shoot. My undergraduate adviser Dave Varricchio used a polaroid camera until 2009 when Kodak stopped making the film - he'd take the picture in the field, let it develop, tape it directly into his field notebook and annotate the photo more or less immediately. I watched him use his very last polaroid picture (he may have found more, though, as another company, or maybe Kodak, announced that they were going to re-release polaroid film). If you have access to a computer shortly after fieldwork, upload all your pictures and make a word file in that notebook stating what's being depicted in each and where each was taken. Nowadays many cameras have a built in GPS that takes coordinates when you take a picture. Another fascinating strategy is used by MSU/MOR Ph.D. student Denver Fowler, who records short videos where he narrates what fossil was found, pans around, and gives a short description of the location - in addition to field notes. Denver may love the sound of his own voice (only kidding a little bit) but it's an effective strategy to supplement your notes with a redundancy. I tend to organize photos on my computer by the date and general location of the field trip so that I can refer back to them easily if necessary.

Lastly, maps are great. If you can manage, bring one with you into the field in some sort of waterproof map case. If you can get photocopies made, stick a pinhole through the paper at the spot your locality is, draw a circle around it on the backside and write your field number.

How, part III: geologic data

This part is a bit trickier because it relies upon the collector having a basic knowledge of geology in the field - so I'll reiterate a few of the basic premises:

Fossils are of course buried in rock. Mappable units of sedimentary rock of a given type are named formations. Geologic maps use formations (and occasionally smaller units within a formation called members) to color in the outcrop pattern onto a topographic map. Most (for all intents and purposes) sedimentary rocks are deposited in nearly flatlying layers. How do you find out what formation your fossil is in? In most cases, you've followed somebody else's directions to the locality and already know what to look for, but otherwise that is what the geologic map is for - whatever color is present at the place you're standing can be matched with the map's key. Ok, great, we know the formation at a new locality, so we're done, right? Not even close.

We need to record the position of the fossil within the formation - usually to the nearest meter is fine. Not all formations are created equally: some are nicely separated into clear sections with distinctive key horizons within - but many are internally boring and thick, with few distinctive horizons. Other formations are so poorly exposed that perhaps detailed internal stratigraphy has not yet been worked out within the formation. So, in some cases, short of recording your own stratigraphic column, it may not be possible to record what level within a formation a particular fossil came from. Stratigraphic position is key because often available dates will 1) not be from the same position as your fossil and 2) will not be from the very top or the very bottom of the formation. Here's a brief scenario:

Scenario 7: Jane Doe (no relation) is reading some horrendous notes provided by a former student who collected a fossil dolphin from some cliffs on the shoreline. The former student prepared away all the matrix and fossil shells associated with the skull, but did not keep them. The cliffs are a few miles long, and about halfway down the cliffs an early Pliocene index fossil clam was found indicating an age of 3-4 Ma; the rocks are dipping, and may be as old as 6 Ma at one end and 1 Ma at the other. The student's notes state that the dolphin was collected "about a mile down the cliffs", but in no further detail.

Jane should be either a bit pissed off or disappointed (perhaps both), because this level of detail is insufficient to tell whether or not the dolphin was collected from the same horizon, above, or below the clam; more precise data would have helped. How do we determine the stratigraphic position of a fossil? We use distinctive layers and define them as a "datum plane" - individual fossils can be collected and their position recorded however many meters above/below the datum. The datum might be an ash bed, a sandstone bed with pebbles, or a layer of resistant limestone amongst calcareous shale - anything that easily stands out.

This is all rather simple if we're just talking about a few specimens. But what about this scenario:

Scenario 8: Jane Doe has been gently encouraged by her adviser to be more judicious in her collecting to record the exact geographic and stratigraphic position instead of tossing fossils from multiple sites and levels into the same ziplock bag. She finds a bonebed along the cliffs with bones along a 200 meter section of beach, where bones are spaced about 20-30 cm apart, and she takes about 1 in 5 promising looking bones and teeth. She finds a tiny ray tooth, and compelled to look more carefully, finds another bonebed two meters below. She knows assigning a single field number to everything is going to get her a lecture from her adviser. She is torn between assigning unique numbers for every single specimen, or assigning a single number for all the material in each bonebed, or some sort of a compromise.

This one comes down to personal preferences. My perspective is that if a single horizon is continually fossiliferous along a stretch of cliff or other outcrop - especially if it's a nice linear outcrop - it's preferable to reduce the number of localities entered into a museum collection database and define the locality as being between two GPS coordinates. There's simply no need to enter in 30 different localities if all are reasonably close and within the same layer. More specific information from your notes can be written down on a sheet of paper and given to the museum along with your fossil. Usually museums hire people capable enough to not throw that piece of paper away once it comes into the museum (but hey, it happens occasionally). Real life example: fossils that Frank Perry (Santa Cruz Museum Nat. Hist.) collected in the 1970s and donated to UC Berkeley from UCMP locality V6875 all within a single bonebed exposed along nearly 2 miles of cliffs all have very detailed notes written on index cards indicating exactly, to within ~10 meters, where every single specimen was collected. These notecards are still stored with the fossils, and I utilized all of that data for my master's thesis research - and followed Frank's example with my own collecting (more on that below). So if it were up to me, Jane would use two localities, defined more on stratigraphic position than geographic location. Put it this way: in some parts of the world, 2 meters of sediment between two fossiliferous horizons can mark more than 10 million years. Simply marking the geographic location alone (i.e. without taking notes about stratigraphic position) is just not enough at some localities.

The next basic aspect of geology a field worker must be familiar with is lithology - rock type:

Scenario 9: Our dear friend Joe Blow has made another discovery - this time, it's a short faced bear or something similar, only he thinks it's from Pliocene marine limestones, and tells the same museum curator about the find. The curator is ecstatic, because that would mean the age of short faced bear in Florida would be extended back quite a ways. He gets in his car and meets Joe, but is again disappointed when he sees that the bear jaw is in fact covered in white sand, not limestone; he doesn't know a tactful way of breaking it to Joe that the fossil is not quite as spectacular as initially thought.

This also applies to being able to read the rock record: if you're not familiar with identifying rocks, it will be difficult to tell A) which formation a fossil is from and B) how far it is down from the bed of glauconitic sand in the quarry wall. Fortunately, identifying rocks is easy with enough practice. If you can identify all sorts of weird fossils, identifying rocks in the field based upon carbonate content, clastic grain size, texture, and sedimentary structures is relatively straightforward. Moral of the story: invest some time in identifying sedimentary rocks in the field and it will really pay off.

How, part IV: taphonomic data

Occasionally, you might be interested in recording some basic taphonomic data in the field. I won't get into it too much, because taphonomic data recording in the field quickly becomes very nuanced if not outright complicated - and involves all sorts of activities that generally will be beyond the scope of fieldwork being undertaken by a student or an amateur collector, such as carefully excavating a skeleton and making a bonebed map. Most taphonomic data regarding the surface preservation of a fossil won't be knowable until the fossil is completely prepared - for example, if it's got tooth marks, borings, or attached epifauna. Occasionally, you might see some of this evidence on the bone exposed in the field - in which case, photograph it! Then make sure you are careful during excavation, and if fragile then use a bit of extra padding or consolidant. Most taphonomic data being recorded in the field will instead be related to fossil orientation, association, and distribution. Association/articulation is the easy one: is the bone/tooth isolated? If not, are the other elements simply next to it (disarticulated) or are they still "put together" in life position (articulated)? You may not be able to tell until it's partially excavated, and occasionally not even until you've opened up a plaster jacket in the lab. Draw a sketch if you think it's necessary. 

Basic terms for fossil orientation, from Kidwell et al. (1986).

Orientation data is next, and this is primarily going to fall into two categories: fossils with an actual long axis, and fossils that sort of don't but are "kind of" flat. In the first category, you can use a brunton compass to take a trend/plunge measurement: the compass direction the bone or elongate shell or tree trunk points (trend), and then a measurement of the angle that it deviates from horizontal (plunge). This is very similar to taking strike and dip if you're familiar with that, but less abstract of a concept. Back at home your data can be entered into a program and generate a "rose diagram" to tell if there is a preferred orientation (e.g. most of the bones point northeast/southwest - perhaps they're aligned with water currents). For fossils without a clear long axis, but are not exactly spherical, you can give a quick visual estimate of orientation in two perspectives: cross section (e.g. a cliff) and map view (e.g. an exposed bedding plane). In cross section, you can simply denote whether fossils (e.g. clams, sand dollars) are parallel with bedding (concordant), at a high angle with bedding, say anywhere from 20-70 degrees (discordant), or perpendicular (edgewise) - each of these will tell you something about taphonomy. 

Fossil assemblage geometry - from Kidwell et al. (1986).

Lastly, there's distribution, and this generally refers to the proportion of 1) fossils to sediment and 2) how close the fossils are to one another. There's a lot more than just this, and rather than give you way more to read, I'll include a couple of self-explanatory figures from Kidwell et al. (1986) to give you an idea of what sort of data you can reasonably collect.

How, part V: stratigraphic (and biostratigraphic) data

In addition to preservational data, many paleontologists will be interested in the stratigraphy of the rocks a particular fossil is entombed within. There are many reasons for this, but could include important information like 1) stratigraphic position relative to other fossil occurrences, 2) position relative to a dated horizon, or 3) the depositional environment of the host sediment. Measuring thickness involves using a jacob's staff and a Brunton compass, and is fairly straightforward. "Measuring a section" is a bit different, and is shorthand for measuring and describing sedimentary rocks. There's a ton of information needed for this, but at it's most basic, for each layer, information including 1) lithology (e.g. grain size, sorting, rounding, composition, color, grading, rock name), 2) sedimentary structures (e.g. cross bedding, varves), thickness (in centimeters or meters), 3) geometry (tabular, wedge, lens, etc.), 4) nature of upper/lower contact (sharp or gradational), 5) lateral extent of bed (can be estimate), 6) body fossils (which is covered in part IV - generally this will consist of taphonomic data, and listing which species are present based on field IDs), and 7) trace fossil content (similar to above - listing which ichnotaxa and any vertical/lateral changes in traces/bioturbation). You can assign numbers to each column the way you assign field numbers to fossils. Want to collect rock samples? Same thing!

Example of a stratigraphic log sheet you can fill in (left; from and a stratigraphic column with lateral thickness based upon weathering profile (right, from

This is best done graphically, rather than relying completely upon written notes. There are two ways to do this: use a stratigraphic log, which you can design yourself (a bit advanced) or use somebody else's (see above). This is fine but often doesn't allow you to scale the width of our stratigraphic column/section to either grain size (my preference) or weathering profile (more relevant in interior continental settings). My personal preference is to draw the column yourself and have a checklist for which types of data to collect - this permits a bit more freedom, and also allows you to write everything down on waterproof paper like a Rite in the Rain notebook, the golden standard for geological field studies. Waterproof notebooks are also necessary for doing fieldwork on the California coastline - for obvious reasons.

A page out of my master's thesis field notebook showing my hand-drawn column and some of the written notes.

Amateurs and professionals alike are already quite capable of collecting biostratigraphic data associated with the "more important" fossil in question - it involves taking similar notes as above for fossils, or just collecting a bunch of other fossils from the same stratum in the vicinity of your locality. Let's say you're digging out a fossil dolphin from Pliocene sediments of the Yorktown Formation in a clay pit in North Carolina: simply bag & number any fossil invertebrates or other fossil vertebrates. If you really want to be useful, keep a small sample of matrix (sediment) that can be sampled for microfossils. That sediment sample can also be useful in case somebody comes along later and is skeptical about where you collected a fossil; the associated lithology can help a researcher prove/disprove what locality/stratum a particular fossil is "supposed" to be from. There's obviously a lot more involved in recording stratigraphic data, but that's a whole other ballgame and this more or less covers the basics.

Because there's a crapload of information to write down, and I'm not smart enough to remember it all, I printed off this checklist, laminated it (waterproof) and then taped it into the front page of my notebook.

How, part VI: some additional tips

Some researchers prefer to have entries set up by the day and start with a short description of what the goals for the day are, where you are, the weather, and additional details. In the long run, these are not intended to be useful in terms of data, but more so act as "memory anchors" - if you forgot to write down field numbers on a fossil, but remember that it was the afternoon where it rained a lot and you were particularly cold, wet, and miserable - this information is a good failsafe. One of the professors at U. Otago, Andrew Gorman, has his students draw a couple of symbols for the weather and your mood - when grading field notebooks as a TA in New Zealand I typically saw happy faces coinciding with little sun drawings denoting sunny weather, and rain clouds associated with unhappy faces; I also saw a lot of bored faces in notebook entries from the afternoons of fieldtrips.

How, part VII: A note for amateur paleontologists

Hopefully some of you reading this are amateur or avocational paleontologists. Collecting scientific data is essential if fossils are going to be meaningful other than just a pretty curio or a paperweight. Some amateurs are not interested in donating fossils - others are. For those with the interest, it's imperative that at least some data is collected. At the minimum, either take some notes in the field, or write something down as soon as you get home - and either write the field numbers onto the fossil, or store the information with the fossil. What if you collect hundreds of shark teeth? Is it reasonable to expect somebody to do all of this for every single specimen? It is, up to a point; after a point it's impractical. So, you can always assign a field number and a few sentences of notes to a collection of fossils that all came from one spot. At the very minimum, please write down something about 1) geographic location, 2) which specimen it is, 3) the date, and 4) the formation (and position within the formation, if possible!).

What if you don't want to give up your secret fossil site? Every collector has one, and it is a legitimate concern. If you give up your locality, the unwashed hordes may come in and ransack the site. Despite being a legitimate concern, it is not a legitimate reason for not taking notes or giving those notes associated with the fossil to the museum when it is donated. Why? Because in most cases, paleontologists don't publish exact locality details in the peer reviewed literature - for that exact same reason. We're just as concerned with keeping fossil sites secret. Why invite competition? In fact, many museums (UCMP) and land management organizations (Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, National Forest Service) expressly prohibit exact locality information to be published in order to prevent fossil poaching. I've also never heard of a museum openly sharing locality data online. Detailed locality data is generally only shared in an academic fashion, when a researcher needs to see all the field/locality notes associated with a particular fossil. So rest assured, your locality information is safe in the museum.

How, part VIII: fossils collected ex situ as float and reworked fossils
What if a fossil is clearly reworked (eroded from an older unit into a younger unit)? Simple: record the final stratum, note that it is likely reworked, and speculate what the original unit was. What about a fossil found on a beach or riverbank? There's essentially little contextual information left. In cases like this, you will be limited to the geographic position and the geologic data will be limited entirely to any matrix still stuck on the fossil itself - it's imperative to keep associated matrix in these cases.

 The ideal situation - being able to reconstruct all of this from the notes of a paleontologist no longer with us. The geographic, stratigraphic, geochronologic, and environmental context of UCMP 86060, a periotic of Parapontoporia. From Boessenecker and Poust (2015).

Conclusion - or, the triumph of accurate field notes

As should be obvious by now, fossils are not simply anatomical data points without context - matter of fact, the entire point of this post is to ensure that fossils are properly collected with necessary data. If that data doesn't exist, a fossil becomes exactly that: an context-less anatomical data point. In other words, all we know of is the anatomy. To conclude all this with a stellar example of why good field notes are important, consider the case of UCMP 86060, a periotic of the "river" dolphin Parapontoporia. We already have tons of periotics (earbones) of Parapontoporia from elsewhere in California, so finding another one is not groundbreaking. All fossils are curiously from marine rocks, despite Parapontoporia being closely related to the recently extinct Chinese river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer). This fossil, however, was recorded as being collected from the Tulare Formation of central California, which is a nonmarine unit predominantly reflecting lacustrine and fluvial deposition. I asked my buddy (and eventual coauthor on project) Ashley Poust, a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, to look up the field notes. As it happens, it was collected by former UCMP director J.T. Gregory, who collected it on October 3, 1963. His notes are very detailed, and accurate to within a hundred meters or better - which was critical in trying to figure out if this specimen actually was collected from nearby marine rocks and misattributed to the Tulare. Gregory's field notes were accurate and specific enough to exclude this and other possibilities that the earbone was not from the Tulare Formation - which led us to conclude the specimen, and its important sedimentary context, actually reflected a dolphin inhabiting or at least dying in nonmarine rocks. We were able to publish this fascinating little bone in the journal Palaeontology earlier this year. Despite being collected over fifty years ago by a paleontologist we couldn't talk to anymore, the notes associated with this fossil were more than sufficient to permit publishing a marginally provocative hypothesis that Parapontoporia - at least on occasion - was not a strictly marine dolphin.

Lastly, I want to emphasize that these methods outlined above may not work to everyone's preferences - and so I humbly request readers to suggest their own tips. Any suggestions good enough will warrant inclusion as additional text. I'm looking forward to hearing tips!


Boessenecker, R.W. and Poust, A.W. 2015. Freshwater occurrence of the extinct dolphin Parapontoporia (Cetacea: Lipotidae) from the upper Pliocene nonmarine Tulare Formation of California. Palaeontology 58:3:489-496.

Kidwell, S.M., Fursich, F.T., and Aigner, T. 1986. Conceptual framework for the analysis and classification of fossil concentrations. Palaios 1:228-238.

Parham, J.F. et al. 2012. Best practices for justifying fossil calibrations. Systematic Biology 61:346-359.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Summer adventures, part 4: Montana trip II

 More from the Montana segment of the trip!

On our way back from Cooke City MT we got this fabulous red exposure which I'm guessing can only be the Triassic Chugwater Formation.

On our way to Yellowstone, we passed by this famous outcrop on the way to the Mammoth/Gardiner entrance to the Park. The red stripe is called Devil's Slide, and is an exposure of vertically oriented Chugwater Formation. This exposure shows nearly the entire Mesozoic-upper Paleozoic section of southwestern MT, starting with the Madison Group to the right (Mississippian), potentially the Permian Phosphoria (can't remember if that's exposed around Bozeman/Yellowstone), overlain by the Triassic Chugwater, Triassic Dinwoody Limestone, Morrison Formation, all four members of the Kootenai/Cloverly Formation (KK1 - very prominent sandstone ledge; KK2, less prominent limestone; KK3, non-prominent mudstone; KK 4, limestone) and then a bunch of other Cretaceous rocks I'm not sure of but probably belonging to the very thick Bridger Group to the left.

 I hadn't been to the lip of Yellowstone Falls since I was a young child - so Sarah and I made the walk down. Hearing people bitching and moaning about how far the walk was was our first experience remembering how lazy other Americans can be since getting back into the US. Also, I politely asked some guy to not cut corners on the trail... then he tried to fight me. He wouldn't stop yelling. He really wanted to beat me up over his right to mess up nature. So yeah, true story.

No trip to the park is complete without watching Old Faithful with 5,000 of your closest friends. Most of the time we went in the off season as students and usually had this view to ourselves, so sharing it like people at a baseball game was a bit weird.

Grand prismatic spring, one of my favorite parts of the park.

A panoramic of Grand Prismatic with bonus wife sighting.

Some tourist who didn't speak any english lost his hat, and then tried to go after it - which simultaneously risked 1) ruining the fragile sinter deposits around the spring by leaving footprints and 2) his life. The trail here is raised on a boardwalk because sinter deposits are like swiss cheese - and the voids are filled with boiling water, or worse - steam which can cause severe, life-threatening burns. There's no way to know if a steam conduit is just inches below the surface, and all over the place you can see where bison hoof prints have collapsed the surface into steam vents. Several park visitors have died by stepping off trail and causing the roofs of these steam filled cavities to collapse, resulting in extensive third degree steam burns followed shortly by death. This was one of like three or four people we almost watched die in a 30 hour period in the park. It's not a complete Yellowstone trip unless you almost see somebody die.

Nearby is Excelsior Geyser, which exploded in the 1980's and is now a huge crater with a beautiful gigantic blue hot spring. We saw somebody else's hat lost down here.

After leaving the park, we drove west across Idaho to another volcano - here's Craters of the Moon National Monument in eastern Idaho.

Coming soon: Photos from Oregon, thoughts on my new digs in South Carolina, and some actual content-rich posts reviewing tips on research - everything from field notes, maintaining a research notebook, to photography and figure construction.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Summer adventures, part 4: Montana trip I

Okay, some time to blog again. This is a picture heavy, text-light post with some pretty fossils, wildlife, and aurorae. After being in New Zealand for almost four years, we made a trip to Billings, Montana, to hang out with Sarah's half of the family. We spent about two weeks there, and got to visit Beartooth Pass, Cooke City, and our eternal buddies Liz Freedman and Denver Fowler while they spent the summer at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta on the high line. First I'll post pics I took with my actual camera; I've got all of my phone pics online still, so the next post will have some of the goofier stuff (and some panoramics).

We hadn't visited Museum of the Rockies in years - in the intervening time, friends of ours had completed their theses and moved on to new institutions. Our friend Jade Simon had finished her master's thesis on giant oviraptorid eggs - Macroelongatoolithus - from the Wayan Formation of eastern Idaho/western Wyoming, and now her key specimen was on display at MOR, shown here. Those are some enormous eggs; Jade was just beginning preparation of them before I graduated from MSU in spring 2011. Jade is now an adjunct (like me!) at Boise State U. in Idaho.

There's now a mounted skeleton of the burrowing ornithopod dinosaur Oryctodromeus cubicularis - described by our undergrad adviser Dave Varricchio in 2007, and studied as part of Jamie Fearon's master's thesis on forelimb digging adaptations. Jamie did some teaching at Luther College and is now looking to start a Ph.D. program.

An oldie but a goodie: the skull and neck of Edgarosaurus, described by former MSU master's student and current curator of the Museum of the North at U Alaska-Fairbanks Patrick Druckenmiller; this is a short necked plesiosaur from the Thermopolis shale of south central Montana.

Another new specimen on display: this is a marine crocodile, Terminonaris, also from the Thermopolis shale near the Pryor Mountains of Montana. I helped dig this specimen up, along with Lee Hall, Mike Knell, Dave Varricchio, Bob Harmon, and of course, the discoverer - Cathy Lash. It's an articulated anterior skeleton, and a total beaut; we nicknamed this "Cathysuchus".

Seen on the beartooth highway - adorable, but this is how you get bubonic plague. And encourage bad behavior.

A trip to Montana always means the possibility of seeing the aurora borealis. Sarah and I were sicker than shit, but we decided to brave a drive up to the rimrocks northwest of Billings to see if we could see anything... and man, was it gorgeous.

We were particularly happy, because we had a solar maximum while living in NZ, but were too poor to have a car, and we lived in an area with 1) a big hill to the south and 2) too much light pollution. So, pretty much everybody else got to see the aurora australis aside from us.

Which is fine, because the aurora borealis is way better. Also, there's just something uniquely montanan about watching the northern lights in a cow pasture.

A toad! This adorable little guy was discovered by Liz Freedman while digging a hole to bury a few bone fragments for a kids dig; she was horrified and thought she had killed it.

A pretty thistle flower.

Once in Malta, the four of us decided to try and do some birding at the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. In the 1980's Jack Horner wrote about trying to study pelican nesting grounds as a modern analog of fossil Maiasaura nesting grounds. We couldn't get anywhere close to the pelican island nesting ground, but it was a nice place to visit. Here's an avocet.

And another.

And the closely related black necked stilt.

Both of 'em!

And again.

I couldn't believe I spent 8 years in Montana without seeing laughing gulls, or even knowing they were even around! They're all over the place here in South Carolina, and they do sound hilarious. I love their penguin-like faces.

Can't remember if this is a willet or a godwit, but it's something like that.

We also saw a mother pheasant...

...who thought we were going to murder all of her babies.

How could you murder one of these adorable little guys?

A northern shoveler drake!

And his hen!


An osprey flying over the Yellowstone river near Billings - you can make out the tail of a small fish it caught. It was about 108 degrees out, 4pm in the afternoon, and both Sarah and I had mild fevers. That sucked.


Still majestic.

A black bear and cubs! Eventually we had to say goodbye to Billings and so we took a side trip through Yellowstone on our way out to Idaho and Oregon, and eventually California and a 4th of July celebration at Lake Tahoe.

Some younguns.

 Playful sparring between a calf and a yearling.

A Montana traffic jam.

They're like north american oxpeckers!

Closeup of a bison calf grazing on the side of the road.