Meet the Museum: The Paleontological Research Institution and Museum of the Earth

Whitney here – 

Here I am posing with Cecil, the Coelophysis, and the Museum of the Earth’s Mascot! The silhouette of a Coelophysis can be seen in the PRI and Museum of the Earth’s logo.

During the summer of 2017, I was an intern at the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca, NY. The PRI works in conjunction with the Museum of the Earth and neighboring Cayuga Nature Center. You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram where they share updates on exhibits and virtual events like Science in the Virtual Pub. The Museum of the Earth’s social media also features takeovers from guest scientists and live updates from the prep lab. The museum is currently on a modified schedule during the Covid-19 Pandemic, but you can check their updated hours here. Additionally, the Museum of the Earth has recently started a new initiative in an effort to increase the accessibility of their museum to the community. During Pay-What-You-Wish Weekends, which take place during the first weekend of each month, guests may choose from a range for their admissions cost in place of traditional ticket costs. 

The PRI and Museum of the Earth typically host one or two Saturday day trips each summer to local outcrops where the public can participate in the fossil hunting experience.

As an intern at the PRI, my time in the museum was limited, however, I was sure to take a self guided tour through their exhibits before I was to start next door in the research labs at the PRI. Since that summer, the Museum of the Earth has expanded its collection of in person and online exhibits which you can see the availability of here. These online exhibits and videos are great educational tools while remaining remote. There are many exhibits currently on display at the Museum of the Earth, so I will do my best to highlight a few of my favorites!

During the field trips, you are almost guaranteed to see some great fossils and maybe even find a few of your own!

The museum as a whole is set up so that the guest experiences a Journey Through Time – an exhibit which comprises the majority of the museum displays. The Museum of the Earth displays fossils ranging from microfossils to the Hyde Park mastodon and those from early life on Earth to present day organisms. These exhibits include the 1.5 meter heteromorph ammonite, Diplomoceras maximum, which was discovered on Seymour Island, Antarctica, and the North Atlantic Right Whale skeleton. Upon entering the museum, guests are greeted by a 44 ft long whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling between the two floors of the museum. North Atlantic Right Whale #2030 passed away in Cape May, New Jersey in 1999 and PRI employees assisted in recovering and cleaning the skeleton, where it was added to the museum in 2002. The skeleton was so big that during construction of the museum, part of the building was left open so that the whale could be brought in via a crane. Guests wrap up their journey through time with the coral reef exhibit, where they can learn about reef ecosystems and discover the importance of the diversity of fish and invertebrates that live within them, and the glaciers exhibit, where they can explore the history of glaciers in the Finger Lakes region.

Daring to Dig: Women in American Paleontology is the most recent exhibit at the Museum of the Earth and is permanently available online!

The Museum of the Earth has a new exhibit that opened in late March – Daring to Dig: Women in American Paleontology. Not only is this an in-person exhibit on display at the museum until Fall 2021, but it has become permanently available online for those unable to visit Ithaca. This exhibit works to both highlight the achievements and discoveries made by women in paleontology as well as introduce the public to trailblazers and modern voices. This exhibit works in tandem with the recently published children’s book, Daring to Dig: Adventures of Women in American Paleontology, to demonstrate to children and students that science is for everyone. You can learn more about the Daring to Dig Project here

During non-pandemic times, the museum and PRI host the occasional field trip to local outcrops in upstate New York. As an intern at the PRI, I was able to tag along on these great opportunities. These field trips are open to the public for a fee which provides access to basic supplies that you may need while out at the site as well as the educational experience provided by local experts at the PRI. Be sure to keep an eye on their events page where you can be kept up to date on both virtual and in-person events and activities going on!

 

Nicole Torres-Tamayo, Biologist, Open Science Advocate

Nicole Torres-Tamayo focuses her research on reconstructing the paleobiology of our ancestors through the study of their anatomies.

I am a biologist currently doing my PhD in the field of Paleoanthropology and I am interested in the application of innovative methods to reconstruct key fossils in human evolution. I started my PhD program in Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity in 2016 and the focus of my research is the origin and evolution of the body shape in the genus Homo, which emerged in Africa around 2 million years ago. In particular, I use quantitative methods to reconstruct missing fossil elements of the torso of extinct hominins to shed light on their lives in the past: behavior, locomotion, diet, etc. and their relationship with the environment (paleobiology).

Fossils are priceless, scarce and unique, and they are what paleoanthropologists have to infer the morphology and function of extinct species. Fossil specimens are usually confined to institutions located in the country where they were excavated, and because of their fragility, they are rarely transported out of these places. For this reason, the emergence of virtual techniques in the last decades has been crucial to expand the work with fossil specimens worldwide: they allow for doing research in a virtual environment, avoiding fossil manipulation and damage, while working thousands of kilometers far from where the specimen is hosted.

Among these virtual techniques,  3D scanning is one of the most widely used data collection methods in Paleontology. The morphology of a bone is captured by means of a 3D surface scanner, and the resulting 3D scans are fused to generate a 3D virtual model of the original bone. In my Ph.D. research, I measure these 3D models using 3D geometric morphometrics to quantify the size and shape variation of different anatomical traits through points called landmarks and semilandmarks. The Cartesian coordinates collected by these points reflect the morphology of the bones and can be analyzed using multivariate statistics.

Original fossil hipbone KNM-ER 3228 (~1.9 m.a, putative Homo erectus) hosted at the National Museum of Nairobi (Kenya).

My Ph.D. research has been funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and by several supporting travel grants (Synthesys program, AMNH collection study grant, Erasmus +, etc.). Thanks to this funding I have travelled to many places to scan skeletal and fossil collections hosted in different institutions. However, I am very aware that this is not the rule in science, at least in Spain, the country where I was born, grew up and started my research career. There are many young researchers across the world who do not have funding to cover their living expenses during the Ph.D. and who need to combine their Ph.D. research with a part-time job out of academy (e.g. coffee shops, restaurants, etc.). It is not surprising that these people cannot afford the expenses to collect data for their own research. I have heard many stories about truncated Ph.D. projects from people who had not access to the data necessary for their own research and who sometimes lack support from their own laboratories. The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting how necessary research data sharing is for the progress of science, as many people who have not had access to data hosted in their labs or in foreign institutions have suffered a great impact in their investigations as a consequence of mobility restrictions. All these stories have been a turning point in my career and because of them, today I am a huge advocate of open science and research data sharing, which defines my interests and concerns above any discipline.

3D surface scanning is a widely used data collection method and allows for the digitization and virtual conservation of valuable fossil specimens.

One of the greatest advantages of the virtual techniques that I use is the production of virtual models that become part of the virtual collections of the institutions where the original specimens are hosted, contributing to the digital conservation of the specimens in a virtual archive. But also, the virtual nature of these models make them suitable for being shared within the scientific community and the derived datasets (3D coordinates, raw measurements, methodological protocols, etc.) can be hosted in open online repositories (e.g. GitHub, Open Science Framework, Morphosource, etc.) to be available for the scientific community. Sometimes these data are subjected to strict ethical protocols (e.g. clinical data that come from medical institutions) and cannot be shared, but once again, this is not the rule: the majority of the research data that Palaeontologists use can be (and should be) shared with the scientific community, and researchers, especially the young ones, are increasingly willing to do it. But unfortunately, an important part of the Paleo-community is still reluctant to share their research data, something that in my opinion hinders the progress of science and makes it more opaque and inaccessible. For this reason, my Ph.D. research has been bolstered by two incentives. Firstly, I encourage young students to learn why transparency and reproducibility are important beyond any field of research and the role data sharing plays on this. And secondly, I contribute by making my research data and code freely available in open online repositories for researchers who experience restrictions in data collection.

These good scientific practices are not only applicable to Palaeontology; they are valid in all scientific disciplines. Sadly, I encountered many difficulties when promoting research data sharing, most of them under the argument of “we are not going to do this because we have never done it before”. The pioneering computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992) once said: “The hardest thing in the world is to change the minds of people who keep saying, ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’ These are days of fast changes and if we don’t change with them, we can get hurt or lost.” My advice for aspiring scientists is to keep Dr. Hopper’s words in their minds during their entire scientific career.

 

 

Paleobiological analysis of the first record of redfieldiiform fish found in Korea from the Late Triassic

The first record of redfieldiiform fish (Actinopterygii) from the Upper Triassic of Korea: Implications for paleobiology and paleobiogeography of Redfieldiiformes

By: Su-Hwan Kim, Yuong-Nam Lee, Jin-Young Park, Sungjin Lee, Hang-Jae Lee

Summarized by: Jonathan Weimar

Jonathan Weimar is a geology major at the University of South Florida. Currently he is a senior and is very interested in space and natural hazards. After he obtains his degree, he plans to research the possible careers that coexist with his interests. Aside from geology, he loves making music and has a dream of becoming a professional music artist. 

What data were used? A new well-preserved fossil of redfieldiiform , a type of ray-finned fish, has been discovered from the Triassic Amisan Formation in South Korea. The fossil slightly differs from the regular morphology of redfieldiiform taxa and therefore, represent a new taxon called Hiascoactinus boryeongensis. 

Methods: The Amisan Formation reaches depths of up to 1000m thick and is broken up into three different sections: the lower member, the middle member, and the upper member. By looking at the floral assemblage of the Amisan Formation, scientists were able to date the depositional age of these fossils to be of the Late Triassic (about 237 million years ago). 

Results: The redfieldiiform fish belongs to the larger group called the ray-finned fishes, which make up the majority of fish in today’s oceans. While there have been many discoveries of the redfieldiiform fish in various continents such as North America and Australia, this is the first valid record of the ray-finned fish in Asia. Even though there have been previous records of the redfieldiiform fish in China, Siberia, and Russia, they have been inaccurate, and therefore the specimen in this article found in Korea is notably the first valid record of redfieldiiform fish in Asia. The redfieldiiform fish has many distinguishable characteristics that include: anal and dorsal fins with membranes between the rays,positioning of the anal and dorsal fins, a single-plated ray, and a spindle shaped body covered with scales. The official name given to the discovered fossil is Hiascoactinus boryeongensis. The genus name“Hiascoactinus” is Greek and Latin- based and refers to the unique dorsal and anal fins, while the species name “boryeongensis” refers to the city of Korea, Boryeong. The fossil has a length of 138mm and a width of 38mm. Almost all of the fossil is intact, except some parts of the caudal fin, furthest from the head, as well as parts of the skull and stomach region. Morphologically, there are differences between the new taxon Hiascoactinus boryeongensis and the redfieldiiform fish that have been scientifically researched. For example, there is a difference that focuses on the dorsal and anal fins of the fish. These fins are what help the fish directionally and are very important. A lot of ray-finned fish erect their fins to quickly get away from predators and go after prey as it helps with turning maneuvers. The dorsal and anal fins of the Hiascoactinus boryeongensis, however, are not fully connected between rays, unlike other closely related fish. This would have made it harder for them to complete turning maneuvers. Because of this, it is suggested that the species was slow swimming predators and went after prey that was inactive.

This figure shows us the specimen of the Hiascoactinus boryeongensis and a recreation of the fossil providing more detail of the structures. Parts of the caudal fin furthest from the head, parts of the skull, and parts of the abdomen are missing. That is an artistic representation of what the specimen could of looked like.

Why is this study important? This study is important for many reasons. Firstly, this fossil is well-preserved, which means that it has the greatest potential of revealing information about its physiology, morphology, and taxonomy. It allows for the study of the redfieldiiform group and provides information about how this species may have lived million years ago (e.g., the structures of the fins could indicate its swimming capabilities). Lastly, it shows that global sampling of fossils can reveal new evolutionary adaptations and biogeographic patterns of different species.   

The big picture: This study provides insight on the redfieldiiform fish and shows us how we can use morphological differences to define a new species. This article also shows us the importance of reevaluation of scientific evidence. The previous records of the ray-finned fish found in Russia and China were inaccurate and provided inaccurate biogeographic information on the redfieldiiform fish record. It was with this study and the well-preserved fossil founded in Korea that shows us the first true record of one of these fish in Asia.  

Citation: Kim, S., Park, J., Lee, S., & Lee, H. (2019). The first record of redfieldiiform fish (Actinopterygii) from the Upper Triassic of Korea: Implications for paleobiology and paleobiogeography of Redfieldiiformes. In 1011400475 778507242 Y. Lee (Ed.), Gondwana Research (Vol. 80, pp. 275-284). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier. doi:https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1342937X19303211

Malique Bowen, Graduate Researcher

scientist hiking a horseshoe crab at seaWhat is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? My favorite part about being a scientist is that it is always changing. I always get to build on what we already know, and the possibilities are endless. As a kid, my mom would buy me science kits that grew crystals, allowed me to build microscopes, and insect collection kits that all made me fall in love with the how and why behind environmental science. Since my childhood I simply remember asking why/how that works and now I have the capabilities to ask questions and do the science to figure it out.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? I consider myself a microbial ecologist, so I essentially work to identify how microbes control the surrounding environment. I’ve worked with microbes that eat oil, microbes that live on monkeys, microbes in the water, and microbes in the ground. I try to understand how the little things make the world go ‘round.

For my master’s I am using microbes to better assess water pollution in Delaware waterways.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? A lot of research I have done is applicable to water quality management. We can use oil degrading microbes to mitigate oil pollution or tracking microbial pollution through waterways can help better assess management policies.

If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do you obtain your data? With the help of the Department of Natural Resources, we have actually been collecting all of our data ourselves. We have collected a lot of animal, water, and sediment samples to analyze for microbes.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? My advice to aspiring scientists would be to never be afraid to ask for help and learn. There are many other scientists that were in the same position you may be in, and many are willing to help and see you through it. The best science is collaborative science but you must ask for help first.

Follow Malique’s updates on Twitter!

Building Canada’s Ocean Acidification Community

Kristina here–

When you think of carbon dioxide emissions, what comes to mind? For most people, that is probably something along the lines of fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, and global warming. But for me, I think about ocean acidification. Often referred to as “the other carbon dioxide problem”, ocean acidification, or OA for short, is a lesser-known by-product of excess carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. Between 25 – 30 % of the carbon dioxide produced since the Industrial Revolution has been absorbed by our oceans. This buffering capacity of the ocean has actually helped reduce some impacts of global warming and greenhouse gases, but, as we’ve discovered in the last decade or two, it has come at a great cost to our oceans.

Figure 1. Schematic diagram of ocean acidification. Image credit: Kristina Barclay
Figure 2. Sustainable Development Goal 14.3 – Reduce Ocean Acidification. Image Credit: United Nations

When carbon dioxide (CO2) enters the ocean, it reacts with seawater to form excess hydrogen (H+) and bicarbonate ions (HCO3). Increases in hydrogen ions are what makes liquids more acidic and reduces their pH, hence the term “ocean acidification”. But the main consequence of increases in hydrogen ions in seawater is that hydrogen ions bond readily with the carbonate ions (CO32-). Carbonate is naturally occurring in seawater, and it is a crucial building block for organisms that build calcium carbonate hard parts, like clams, oysters, lobsters, corals, and even the tiny plankton that serve as the base of the ocean’s food chain. The less carbonate ions available in seawater, the harder it is for organisms to make their hard parts. In the past 15 years or so, there has been considerable research demonstrating the negative effects of OA on calcifying organisms. These calcified structures can take more energy for organisms to form, grow smaller, slower, and/or weaker, or even start to dissolve! Increased seawater acidity can also affect organism survival, particularly in early life stages. On the west coast of the U.S., there have already been several seasonal mass die-offs events of oyster crops that have caused significant and repeated financial losses to the aquaculture industry, most likely attributed to OA.

As most societies, particularly coastal communities, depend on the oceans for both food and livelihoods, monitoring and mitigating OA has become a global priority. The UN has declared the next decade (2021 – 2030) the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Many countries, including Canada, have committed to the Ocean Decade and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). OA is directly addressed in the Ocean Decade plan under SDG 14.3 – to “minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels”. To this end, the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) has created a database where researchers can make sure their data adheres to SDG 14.3.1 methodologies and then contribute their data to this global OA database. There are also many other national and international OA groups that have been created in recent years to help create and share OA knowledge and research.

Canada and Ocean Acidification

Figure 3. Sustainable Development Goal 14 – Life Below Water. Image Credit: United Nations

Canada faces several unique challenges with respect to OA. First, we have the largest coastline of any country in the world. Second, Canada is more vulnerable to OA given our latitude and colder ocean temperatures, as carbonates are naturally more soluble in colder waters. Thirdly, Canada is surrounded by three connected ocean basins, each with unique properties that make them vulnerable to the effects of OA. In the Pacific, OA is exacerbated by seasonal upwelling, where deep, naturally acidic ocean waters are forced to the surface by wind patterns. The Arctic is vulnerable due to rapidly increasing freshwater input from melting sea ice and glaciers from warming temperatures (freshwater is more acidic than seawater). In the Atlantic, OA is exacerbated by ocean mixing patterns and freshwater input from the Arctic. Finally, Canada’s coastal communities, of which there are many given our extensive coastline, are socioeconomically vulnerable to OA.

As a country, Canada is contributing to regional, national, and global OA research efforts through several means, such as independent research projects, local community action plans, and through our federal Fisheries and Oceans department (DFO), just to name a few. But Canada is a big country, and it can be hard to connect across such a wide geographical area. This is where our Ocean Acidification Community of Practice (OA CoP) comes into play. Funded by Canada’s Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response network (MEOPAR), the OA CoP is one of several MEOPAR Communities of Practice. The goal of MEOPAR CoPs is to facilitate knowledge mobilization and integration by uniting groups with shared concerns on particular topics (in our case, OA).

Figure 4. Canada’s Ocean Acidification Community of Practice Logo

Our community was initiated in 2018, and is comprised of two Co-Leads from academia and government science, a coordinator (me), and an interdisciplinary Steering Committee consisting of experts from industry (aquaculture and fisheries), academia, DFO, and NGOs at all career stages (student representative to senior-level management) and from all across the country. Our goals as Canada’s OA community are to coordinate across all sectors and disciplines to share OA expertise and data (particularly to end-users), identify pressing needs for OA research/knowledge in Canada, and foster a collaborative and supportive environment for groups affected by OA. We also act as the Canadian leads for international collaborations and OA research efforts, such as GOA-ON, the OA Alliance, and the OA Information Exchange.

Anyone who is interested in or affected by OA in Canada is welcome to join our community. We currently have over 170 members, including individuals from aquaculture, fisheries, and NGOs, academics, federal and provincial government scientists, Indigenous community leaders, graduate students, and members of other international OA organizations. Members receive our quarterly newsletters, and updates on any upcoming events that might be of interest. We also encourage our members to join Team Canada and participate in the OA Info Exchange, an international forum that is a great place to discuss and share new ideas, research, and see what experts from around the world are doing to address and learn about OA.

What do we do?

Figure 5. A graphic I made (using Canva) to advertise our new Map of Canada’s OA Resources

As the OA CoP Coordinator, my job is to keep growing our community, seek new research and community-building opportunities, facilitate our involvement in the broader global OA community, provide, maintain, and create new resources for our members, and stay updated on the latest OA research and news. Here are some of the things I’ve been working on for Canada’s OA Community.

Canada’s OA Website

One of our biggest activities has been to create a website that acts as a central hub for all of the resources we’ve gathered for Canada’s OA community. The website, oceanacidification.ca, is always growing, and we regularly add new OA resources and materials. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all the importance of online resources, so a large part of my focus over the past year has been to develop new online content for our community that will allow us to connect, even if we are unable to gather in person for regional workshops. The goals of these new resources are to help increase awareness and engagement with our community, and further our CoP objectives.

Our Map of Canada’s OA Resources

On the International OA Day of Action (January 8, or 8.1, the current pH of our oceans) this year, we launched an exciting new resource, an interactive map of Canada’s OA Resources, where visitors can search for OA projects, experts, and resources from across Canada, or browse the resources available in their area. We update the map regularly to make sure our community has all the latest information.

Our New Blog Series

Figure 6. Examples of our social media posts. Made by Kristina using Canva.

In December, we launched four new blog series aimed to increase engagement and awareness, and provide new resources for our community. The first blog series, OA News (You Could Use), is a weekly snapshot of OA news and activities happening around the world. Posts contain 3 – 5 OA-related news items, including upcoming events, news stories, recent publications, and new resources. The second series is called Research Recaps, where we interview researchers, particularly early career researchers, to get an inside perspective on their recent publications. The posts are written in accessible language, allowing a wide audience to get a glimpse of how the scientific process works, and how researchers create new OA knowledge. The third blog series is called Scientist Spotlights, where we interview individuals to learn more about their research backgrounds and interests in OA. These posts allow the average person to learn more about why researchers are interested or motivated to study OA-related subjects. Our fourth series, Meet the CoP, is similar to our Scientist Spotlight series, but we interview our leadership team to learn more about why they are motivated to lead Canada’s OA community. The goal of the Meet the CoP series is to inspire and help us understand why the OA research and our community matters to Canada. A lot of my inspiration in creating these four blog series came from working with Time Scavengers.

Social Media

I’ve been working to increase our online social media presence since October, 2020, posting at least 3 – 4 times a week on Twitter, and 1 – 2 times a week on Facebook and Instagram. Using some of the things I’ve learned volunteering with Time Scavengers, I’ve started to try out different visual graphics to go along with our posts to see what is appealing to viewers. An interesting trend I’ve noticed so far is that while we get the most engagement on our Instagram posts (likes), Twitter is the predominant source of our social media web traffic, and is our third most common source of web traffic (behind direct visits and google searches).

Figure 7. Growth in our social media followers since October, 2020. Twitter appears to be our most useful platform.

Ongoing and Future Projects

One of our biggest projects that we are hoping to start working on this summer (funding and COVID dependent) is our Critical Ocean Acidification Sensor Technologies for Coastal Industries and Communities (COAST to Coast) OA sensor package. The plan is to partner with aquaculture operators to deploy OA sensors that will not only allow us to contribute to larger OA monitoring efforts, but might also allow operators to determine and predict OA events. Another goal of the sensor package is to assess the viability of newer, lower cost sensors, as most of the well-established OA sensors are very expensive, which is cost-prohibitive for individual aquaculture operators. We are also working on a couple of research papers, including meta-data analyses of OA research in Canada, and regional OA vulnerability assessments in partnership with both DFO and NOAA’s joint OA Working Groups, that will include biological, physical, and socio-economic data. I’ve been collecting and using the meta-data I gather to make a database of Canada’s OA publications as well that we hope to release in the coming months.

What I’ve Learned

It has been a great experience getting to work with such an interdisciplinary group to learn more about the many disciplines involved in OA research. While a lot of my Ph.D. research involved the effects of ocean acidification on molluscs and their shells, as a palaeontologist, I typically think about OA from a deep-time, biological perspective. In this role, I’ve thrown myself into the modern world of OA, and learned about everything from government and interagency science, to policy, oceanography, chemistry, aquaculture, fisheries, social science, and more. I’ve been able to meet and listen to OA experts from around the world, including and Mexico and the U.S., as well as countries in Europe, Africa, South America, and Central America. The international OA community is really welcoming and collaborative. I’ve also learned a lot about chemical oceanography and carbon cycles in the Arctic from the lab where I am a postdoc.

I’ve been able to apply and grow my skills in science communication by getting to interview and interact with so many people who all think about OA so differently. I’ve had a lot of fun interviewing researchers and writing blog pieces, as well as facilitating conversations with groups from all different sectors. It has helped me become a more well-rounded scientist and science communicator. As someone who is interested in conservation palaeobiology and the implications of the fossil record for modern conservation and climate change issues, being able to “speak the language” of a wide range of modern scientists and stakeholders is also a valuable skill when trying to identify research priorities, build collaborations, or seek funding opportunities. My experiences working with Time Scavengers have also helped me think of new and creative ways to help grow our OA Community in Canada.

If you are interested in learning more about Canada’s Ocean Acidification Community of Practice, please visit our website, and consider becoming a member.

To learn more about the science of OA and ocean chemistry, Check out this Time Scavengers webpage.

Acknowledgements:
Thank you to OA CoP Co-leads, Dr. Helen Gurney-Smith and Dr. Brent Else for reviewing this blog post.

Allison Nelson, Vertebrate Paleontology Master’s Student

Allison ready for field work in Montana. Photo from “Learning From the Ground Up”, University of Washington.

Hello, my name is Allison, and I’m a master’s student at Indiana University. I have a bachelor’s degree in Earth and Space Science from the University of Washington. For a few years, I worked across the western US on public lands as a park ranger and field technician. Now that I’m back in school, I’m researching wolves.

What do you do? The main question I’m trying to answer is are red and grey wolves one or two species? This is a complicated question, as red wolves have historically interbred with coyotes. The interbreeding means that they may have been a group of grey wolves that mated with coyotes and now seem different enough to be called red wolves. I use measurements of wolf skulls to see if I can find a difference (size or proportions) between grey and red wolves. Currently, I’m using pre-existing datasets, but if Covid-19 allows, I hope to visit museums and measure more skulls. 

This is an important question for conservation efforts that focus on wolves. Conservation efforts typically focus on one species, and the ambiguity makes this difficult. 

Allison digging a soil pit to assess landscape change in Eastern Nevada. Photo by Eli Rolapp.

How did you get interested in paleontology, and what’s your favorite part of being a paleontologist? During the second year of my bachelor’s degree, I took a class on volcanoes. After that class, I declared a geology major and my sedimentary geology classes talked about fossils. In class, I got to see and touch fossils, and I was hooked. 

As for my favorite part of being a paleontologist, I have two parts. The first is the field work! I love hiking with a backpack full of gear looking for fossils. The second part is the outreach. I enjoy talking to people about what has been found, what sort of creatures they were when alive, and in what kind of environment they lived.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Keep asking questions! Questions and curiosity are what push science forward. 

Follow Allison’s updates on her LinkedIn!

Spinosaurus Teeth Open A New Window into the Lifestyle of This Unique Creature

Taphonomic evidence supports an aquatic lifestyle for Spinosaurus

By: Thomas Beevora, Aaron Quigleya, Roy E. Smith, Robert S.H. Smyth, Nizar Ibrahim, Samir Zouhric, and David M. Martill

Summarized by Jerold Ramos  

Jerold Ramos is a senior at The University of South Florida studying geology. Once he graduates, he hopes to develop experience working in a museum environment to one day become a museum educator. Captivated by the beauty and mystery of dinosaurs from a young age, he hopes that as a museum educator he can share the excitement and wonder that Earth’s history has to offer with people from around the world. In his free time, he enjoys hosting game nights with his friends and creating poorly photoshopped projects.

What data were used? Two collections of fossilized teeth found in separate riverbed deposits within South Eastern Morocco were used for this study. In total, 1,245 teeth were collected and sorted into appropriate groups based on their taxonomic order or genus.

Methods: Fossils were collected at two different sites in Morocco. Site One excavated fossils from an exposed bed, while the fossils from Site Two were bought from a mining group that had discovered them previously. Beevora and their team chose to focus on teeth, as they could assign these teeth to a taxonomic order (e.g., Carnivora [dogs and cats], Primates [including chimps and humans], and Saurischia [theropod and sauropod dinosaurs]) or even more specifically to a family or genus level. In this case, Beevora and their team were able to assign many of the teeth to the genus Spinosaurus.

Figure 1. Left: Pie chart displaying the distribution of fossils within Sites One and Two. Charts A and C represent all fossils at Sites One and Two respectively, while charts B and D represent the collection of fossilized teeth. The images to the right represent teeth from Site Two belonging to Spinosaurus (Scale bar- 10mm).

Results: After analyzing the fossils collected from both sites, this study found that the amount of Spinosaurus teeth at each site was abnormally high when compared to the teeth of other creatures found in the area. At Site One, 921 fossils were uncovered and of these 921, a total of 317 of these were teeth. From these teeth, about 47.9% (152) of these teeth were Spinosaurus teeth. The only creature to have a similar count in teeth was Onchopristis, an ancient sawfish from the Cretaceous Period, with 50.2% (159) of the teeth belonging to this fish. At Site Two, 1261 fossils were purchased from a miner and of these 1261 fossils, a total of 928 of these fossils were teeth.  At this location, a greater assemblage of Spinosaurus teeth were identified. Here Spinosaurus teeth made up about 43.9% (407) of the teeth found, making it the most abundant species represented at this site. Once again, the only other creature to have a similar representation at the site is Onchopristis, with 40.4% (375) of its teeth making up the collection found at Site Two. The rich supply of Spinosaurus teeth found at both sites suggest a more aquatic lifestyle for Spinosaurus. From the data collected in both sites, these sites likely represented aquatic environments due to the high presence of teeth from Onchopristis, an entirely aquatic animal, making up about half of the teeth found at each site. A creature that does not live an aquatic lifestyle, or spend a significant time in the water, would not leave as many remains in the environment. As an example, Site One discovered a single tooth from Carcharodontosaurus, another large therapod dinosaur that is thought to be strictly land-dwelling. This single tooth is more in line with what would be expected from a creature with a terrestrial lifestyle as it would only approach the water to drink or feed on a creature nearby. If Spinosaurus was terrestrial like Carcharodontosaurus, then it would not have such a prominent representation at these sites. Rather than wading by the water’s edge like a heron or flamingo, Spinosaurus may have spent much of its time in the water actively swimming to catch prey. This collection of teeth in aquatic deposits and Spinosaurus’ established morphology, including reduced hind legs, elongated skull, and paddle-like tail structure, further support the hypothesis that Spinosaurus lived an aquatic lifestyle.

Why is this study important? The findings from this study change what we know about both Spinosaurus and how we define dinosaurs today. Like other non-avian (i.e., non-bird) dinosaurs, Spinosaurus was often pictured to be a terrestrial creature, only visiting aquatic areas when it needed water. However, thanks to recent discoveries in the last five years, we now know that it likely lived a more aquatic lifestyle. This lifestyle is something that is not seen with any other known non-avian dinosaur so far. Dinosaurs are often defined as exclusively terrestrial creatures, a definition that no longer applies to the Spinosaurus. With the recent discoveries involving Spinosaurus, it may be worth reevaluating the lifestyles of other members of the family Spinosauridae, as it is possible that other Spinosauridae adopted an aquatic lifestyle long before Spinosaurus.   

The big picture: Spinosaurus has been an enigmatic fossil ever since it was discovered in 1915. After its remains were destroyed during World War II, the image and lifestyle of Spinosaurus remained a mystery to paleontologists for several years. Now that more of its fossils are being unearthed, paleontologists can reconstruct this unique creature and illustrate the environment it inhabited. From these recent discoveries, we now know that Spinosaurus lived a life unlike any other dinosaur recorded in the fossil record. As there are numerous dinosaurs missing from the fossil record, whether it be through failed preservation or destruction by plate tectonics, it is possible that there are others that share this aquatic lifestyle.

Citation: Beevor, T., Quigley, A., Smith, R. E., Smyth, R. S. H., Ibrahim, N., Zouhri, S., & Martill, D. M. (2021). Taphonomic evidence supports an aquatic lifestyle for Spinosaurus. Cretaceous Research, 117. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/10.1016/j.cretres.2020.104627  

Scott Xavi Gudrich, Marine Environmental Scientist and Science Communicator

 

Conducting fieldwork

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? I remember long visits to the Berlin zoo with my father where we spent hours nurturing our shared passion for the natural world and fulfilling our curiosity. When I was seven years old, I asked for an encyclopaedia for Christmas and I recall the absolute joy I felt when I was presented with a huge book full of knowledge. I read it front to back. My second huge passion is music, and I diverted my attention away from science towards hard rock for a number of years before going back to my roots and returning to university at 37 to study first Environmental and Sustainability Sciences (BSc) and then Marine Environmental Protection (MSc). My favourite part of being a scientist is that the learning never stops, the exploring, re-thinking, questioning and boundary-pushing. I love meeting all the inspiring colleagues and I love being able to pass my knowledge on to others and trade it in for theirs. This is why I am especially interested in transdisciplinary work and science communication. 

Plover Rovers Shirt

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? Currently, I mainly run The Plover Rovers, a marine science communication charity which I founded last year when I was put on furlough from my job as a benthic taxonomist – benthic taxonomists spend most of their time staring down microscopes, identifying tiny marine invertebrates. I’m loving all the outreach and communication I get to do with the charity and meeting all the wonderful colleagues who want to get out there and talk about their passion.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? With the Plover Rovers we want to enable knowledge exchange between science and local communities. We want to bridge the gap between science and society – we believe science can play an important part in empowering communities by giving them the broader knowledge to understand what is happening locally, what affects them in their day-to-day life, like flooding, collapsing fish stocks, pollution, or offshore energy installations; to put it all into a bigger context. At the same time, we believe that scientists need to regularly talk to people outside of academia, people who deal with the effects of the issues the scientists are researching. With the “Talking the Coast” project, we hope to help establish lasting direct links between marine scientists and local communities and help make marine science accessible for a broad demographic. Our events will not just be pure science. We want to collaborate with local partners to provide some hands-on outdoor activities, with artists and sustainable businesses, for example, local micro-breweries or small-scale fisherfolk, to design events which appeal to a wide audience. By improving the ocean literacy of coastal communities, we are adding our little grain of sea salt to the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science? We strongly believe in the power of positive messaging, of giving people a sense of empowerment and purpose rather than scaring them stiff with doom and gloom messages. Communicating about the ocean in ways that enhances and increases awareness, concern, connection and positive behaviours, requires an understanding of how different people and communities think about, and value, the ocean. Crucially, we want to focus on understanding where people are, what their values are currently, and exploring how these can be used to develop effective communication around the ocean and ocean literacy. In order to achieve this, we use a four-tiered approach: 1. Present relevant science with a focus on dialogue rather than top-down knowledge transfer 2. Collaborate with artists to provide an additional more emotive access to the topic 3. Collaborate with local organisations to provide people with the possibility of local engagement 4. Heritage & storytelling: We collect stories from local people to explore and understand their connection to the sea, their concerns, hopes and visions.

 What advice do you have for aspiring scientists? Follow your dreams, don’t stress, accept that life is never a straight line (and who’d want that anyway– a cardiac flatline means you’re dead!) and free yourself from concepts like “making a career”, “rising up through the ranks”, “competition” and “better salaries with a PhD” – all of these concepts are rooted in a capitalist system focused more on competition and hierarchies than on knowledge gain and collaboration. Build a good support network, seek out the out-of-the-box thinkers, act on crazy ideas, be bold, explore, change the world.

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Imaging Technology and its Effect on Interpersonal Relationships in the Paleontology Lab

Trust in Technicians in Paleontology Laboratories. A look into the growing use of computed tomography (CT) imaging and its legitimacy among professional researchers in the lab.

by Caitlin Donahue Wylie

Summarized by Cresencia del Pino 

Cresencia del Pino is an undergraduate geology student at the University of South Florida. After receiving her degree, she intends to join the professional workforce and attain her Professional Geologist title. When she is not studying geology, she enjoys mountain biking, camping and hiking with her pup, Zion. 

What data was used? The author used data from semi-structured qualitative interviews (a set list of questions, but researchers can deviate from them) conducted by researchers, lab technicians, and others in several universities across the United States, Germany, and The United Kingdom from 2009 to 2013. 

Methods: The author created a semi-structured interview to understand professional opinions on CT imaging, fossil preparators, and their role in maintaining a social hierarchy within a scientific research community. 

Results: This study gathered qualitative data on how the emergence of digital imaging techniques has affected the social structures within the lab. The author states a resounding skepticism towards the use of CT scans and images as a proxy for physical fossil specimens. Researchers rely on the trust forged between fossil preparators [people who clean and prepare fossil specimens by chipping away at surrounding rock], over the imaging captured by CT technology. They [professionals in the field] claim that CT imaging is not detailed enough, and subject to too much human error when calibrating the bounds that are used to capture fossil within rock. Therefore, CT imaging should be used as a tool to support fossil discovery along-side true hand samples in a “mixed-method” approach. However, the author notes that this skepticism may stem from innate bias to hold the social structure of the lab constant, where researchers are explicitly or implicitly ranked above lab technicians. 

Synchrotron [a type of digital imaging like CT, where X-rays are used to measure density] image of a burrow that contains two fossils. This image introduces an advantage of digital imaging, where scientists can see inside a rock. This is a faster method than traditional fossil preparation which also preserves the trace fossil of the burrow, as well as the skeletons inside. Source: Fernandez et al. (2013).
Why is this study important? This study elucidates, through interviews, the motives of research professionals being skeptical of digital imaging technology. Although critiques of the technique are valid, it omits otherwise greater advantages, such as being able to see fossil in rock, without the need for skilled, time-consuming preparation. These advantages are overlooked, because the growing acceptance of CT imaging would mean more specialized technicians would be required to combine and create images, leading to a decline in skilled fossil preparators, ultimately upsetting the social structure of the lab. From the interviews, the author notes that there is also an included scapegoat when using digital imaging, that allows disagreements between colleagues to “blame the technology”, instead of the interpretation of their cohort, which ultimately can affect trust between members of the lab. 

The big picture: Technology is advancing at a rapid pace in today’s modern scientific society. In a world where pandemics are a reality, and the need for social distancing and remote learning is a necessity, the demand for digital formats has increased exponentially. Digitized fossil scans can ultimately increase the accessibility of fossils, therefore allowing specimens to be studied remotely from researchers who may not have the privilege, or ability, to travel. There may no longer be room for the stigmatization of digital fossils against traditional hand samples. While technology is still advancing, there needs to be an acceptance for change within the community, and flexibility when it comes to the shifting positions and ranks within the lab. 

Citation: Wylie, Caitlin Donahue. “Trust in technicians in paleontology laboratories.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 43.2 (2018): 324-348.

Agathe Toumoulin, PhD, Paleoclimatoecologist

Me, animating a climate modeling workshop with middle school students for a Science day in the lab (CEREGE, Aix-en-Provence, France).

How did you get interested in science in general? To some degree, my family probably played a role by cultivating my curiosity. My dad, by making some electricity home experiments from time to time (I think his favorite, and more impressive to us was: putting a light on from a potato!), my mom by loving plants and growing flowers everywhere, my aunts by occasionally brining my sister and I to zoos and museums. However, I don’t think any of my family and friends would have predict I would work in the science field. Until my 20’s I was more on the road to become stage director, art or theater critic, or even visual artist. After studying theater, languages, philosophy and literature in high school, I decided to start medical studies with the motivation to learn about the human machine functioning. After a few months, I realized it was hard but not exciting at all. Therefore, I decided to move to another discipline and while I was hesitating between art history and biology, I choose the second option. And this was the good one. I will always remember how my BSc botany and zoology classes were captivating. It was like learning about so many aspects of our world I never questioned before: what muscles make an earthworm move? How does a clam breath? What processes enable plants to move? How many lichens are there on the trees around? Without mentioning field trip on country side identifying plants and fungi, or on an island, collecting algae for herbarium… All these experiences really change the way you apprehend your environment! A tipping point in my formation was my first research internship in paleontology, during this experience I measured a hundred of belemnites (an extinct group of marine cephalopods) but more importantly, I realized I wanted to become a researcher. Of course, I feel really lucky that our public education system is (for the moment) not expensive, as compared to most other countries’. This enabled me to test for different branches and find my own. 

Late Eocene Eotrigonobalanus furcinervis fossil leaf (Museum für Mineralogie und Geologie, Dresden, Germany).

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? My work aims at reconstructing deep-time (i.e., millions of years old) environment and climate characteristics using fossil plants (wood and leaves) and Earth System Models. 

An Earth System Model is a numerical tool that calculates the earth’s climate according to a number of parameters. It is often used to predict how the climate will be in the future. It allows us, for example, to estimate how much the earth should warm up for a given increase in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere. For the past, climate models allow us to assess the effects on paleoclimates of big changes, often suggested by fossils, such as changes in continent position, relief, volcanic activity, sea-level, or greenhouse gases concentration.

Fossil plants enable the reconstruction of past local to regional environment conditions. We can use fossil plants in different ways: (1) by identifying them and looking for their current closest cousins (called nearest living relatives). As we know in what conditions these live, we can then hypothesize the related fossil species had close preferences (in terms of temperature, need for water, nutrients); (2) – this is what I prefer by far – by looking at the size and shape (called physiognomy) of the fossil leaves. We know, thanks to numerous measurements of global modern vegetation, that leaf size and shape change according to the conditions in which the plant develops. For example, leaf size changes with the amount of rainfall: leaves are larger in wet areas, where plants are not likely to dry out. 

Examples of results from different climate simulations made with the French Earth System Model (IPSL-CM5A2). Hundreds of parameters can be analyzed! Our experiments use a middle Eocene paleogeography, which explains some differences in continent location!

Here is an example of my work to better illustrate the use of these tools. My MSc internship and PhD were focused on the Eocene climate (between ~56 and 34 Myr ago). We know from several indicators, notably because fossil plants close to extant tropical vegetation and crocodilian bones were found at very high latitudes, near the Arctic Ocean, that this period was globally warmer. Despite on average higher temperatures, this period is particularly known for a long-term climate cooling, responsible for the Antarctic ice-sheet growth! By studying the evolution of leaf shape of a fossil beech leaf assemblage, I tried to see if this cooling was visible in Germany. Then, using climate models, I tried to understand which parameters were responsible for this change. In the different modelling experiments, we tried to understand how the major changes described at that time: changes in paleogeography (more precisely, the Drake Passage opening), drop atmospheric concentration in CO2, Antarctic ice-sheet expansion, and the associated drop in sea level (the growth of continental ice-sheet result in sea-level lowering), may have affected the Eocene climate and if some of these parameters could explain the global cooling!

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? My research aim at better reconstructing the evolution of Earth climate and environment through life history, but we always learn from knowing our past. Eocene temperatures correspond to those predicted for 2300 following the worst climate change scenario (RCP8.5). Studying this period of time may provide some information on the manner a globally warmer climate works. It also constitute the opportunity to test the validity of climate model predictions for the future: paleoclimate modeled can be compared to climate estimates obtained from proxy-data. However, Eocene and modern world aren’t fully comparable, there are important differences, notably in the continent location (ex. North and South America were not connected during the Eocene). This means that we cannot necessarily apply our knowledge of the Eocene to the future. For my part, I find that my research is important for its historical significance, to understand how global biodiversity got here. 

Jurassic coniferous fossil wood from Antarctica, University of Kansas, Paleobotany Collection

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science?  During my BSc I get a half time job, as a guide at the Museum of Natural History of Toulouse. It was a great experience that really made me want to connect people to science. Since then, I designed and animated some workshops around biodiversity and climate for children. I am not a professional in Sci Comm, but for me, communicating science starts by establishing an equal relationship between researchers and the general public. We all know things. I like to instill confidence in people, by making them participate, and then share original anecdotes on a given topic. These anecdotes are not necessary complex mechanisms, nor the most recent scientific discoveries, but stimulate curiosity and raise interest, and I think it’s the first step for people to get into science. 

Me, looking for Permian fossil plants in the Lodève Basin (France) during a field trip organized by the association Agora Paleobotanica.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist ? There are different aspect of working in science I really like: 

To marvel and play – To me being a scientist in paleo- is like a game, there are some clues around (and not always your favorite) and you must get some information from that to picture how the environment was millions of years ago. For now, I’ve been working on 35 to 180 Myr old periods which differs through many aspects of our everyday life context. To me working on these ancient landscapes is somehow like traveling (I guess that fiction authors may also feel this way). 

Being part of something bigger – Although, we sometime feel like being in a very specific research niche, there are at least dozens of people working on similar/complementary questions around: you are part of one community! This network structure really opens up research questions that can be addressed. I like contacting people from other country asking for their expertise and exchange.  

Being free – One of the big advantages of research is also that you are relatively free in the work you do and the way you do it. It certainly depends on the labs and teams you’re part of, but in general you manage your time and projects, being your own boss in a way and this is something I really like. I’m currently writing my first postdoctoral research project and I really feel like I can build something that fits me 100%.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

  • Do as many internships as you can: these experiences will help you define your interests and what you want to do, and meet inspiring people.   
  • Do not hesitate to contact / talk to people! Although everybody is busy, people generally like you being interested in their work and may provide you help (e.g. on special methods) or advice (including for your career!). 
  • Do not censor / limit yourself: just because you never worked in a given field/with some methods doesn’t mean you won’t be able to succeed. Believe in yourself and work hard enough to explore research areas that interest you.

Follow Agathe’s updates on her website and Twitter!