Thursday, January 29, 2009

Squalodon Premolar -- A Life Fossil

Terminology looms large for me and that’s where this post started, with the question: What do I call the first fossil of a species or genus in my personal collection? Through a wonderful confluence of events, this post really has to start elsewhere, in the world of birding and birders.

I am reading Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman, an engrossing and wild book published in 1997. I came upon it only because someone quoted it about what constitutes a species, something I want to write about later, but it turns out to be wonderful for many other reasons. Subtitling his book The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand, Kaufman chronicles his frenetic effort in 1973 to break the standing record for the number of bird species seen (or heard) in North America by a person in a single year – the so-called Big Year record of 626 that had been set in 1971 by Ted Parker.

The world of birding and birders is one that has always intrigued and attracted me, but remains, as of yet, pretty alien. With any new territory, language is a critical hurdle to those who venture into it. And I tripped almost immediately. What are the proper terms – birding and birders, or birdwatching and birdwatchers? I didn’t realize it when I asked it that this isn’t just a prosaic opening question. It turns out to be at the heart of what I took away from this foray to birdland. I consulted with my ambassador from this world about these terms and she told me that she prefers the former to describe what she and others do. On these terms, Kaufman writes,

People always called us “birdwatchers.” But if we had been, there would no story to tell. . . . [I]n the early 1970s, we were not birdwatching. We were birding, and that made all the difference. We were out to seek, to discover, to chase, to learn, to find as many different kinds of birds as possible – and, in friendly competition, to try to find more of them than the next birder.

At its core, Kaufman describes birding as the compilation of lists of bird species seen (or heard), perhaps in different geographical areas, but clearly in many different fragments of time – a day, a month, a year, a lifetime, or even a lunch hour. In this competitive approach to what they are doing, birders are no different from anyone else who focuses on keeping score (though the drive of someone like Kaufman may be pushing the boundaries a bit, no, a whole lot).

We keep score on everything from sports to relationships to political contests. To the issue at hand, I am keeping score on different aspects of my fossil hunting and collecting, including my firsts. For me, coming recently to fossil collecting in a serious way, a new fossil find or acquisition very often constitutes the first example I have from a particular species or genus. If there is specific terminology for such a fossil in a personal collection (other “this is my first [fill in the blank]”), I haven’t discovered it.

Someone suggested to me that the term holotype would apply, but I think not. Holotype is the specimen “which stands alone as name bearer” for a species in the scientific world (Moore et al, Invertebrate Fossils (1952)). I’ll draw the line – the term shouldn't be diminished and applied to something as mundane as a first in my little collection.

So, in my ignorance, I fashioned an idiosyncratic answer to the question that I asked at the outset: What do I call that first fossil of a genus or species in my personal collection? I appropriated and partly modified a couple of terms that birders use in their list making. They often keep meticulous records of where and when they first sight different bird species. These birds are their life birds and they make up a life list. Great terms and I’ve made them mine. I now have life fossils and a life list. To me, life fossil is a double-barreled term, applying not only to a specific fossil, but also to the species or genus it represents.

The picture below captures my first fossil from a Squalodon (a kind of toothed whale) that I found last fall at the Lee Creek Mine (North Carolina) on the last day of a very truncated hunting season. I found the tooth fully exposed, lying on the surface of the gray black phosphate-rich soil that is dredged up in the mining process. Its glossy crown is seemingly still as smooth to the touch as when it was lost some 15 to 20 million years ago. One veteran collector at this site described this premolar with its damaged root as “very pretty.” It is also, using my terminology, my Squalodon life fossil.

Sure, I recognize that this specific terminology doesn’t translate seamlessly to the world of fossil collecting. For one thing, bird and fossil are fundamentally different concepts. Further, the objective of the hunt is very different – birders are collecting the initial sighting of a whole, living creature; in contrast, I’m collecting my initial transformed piece (or trace) of a once living creature and I don’t stop with that initial piece. Despite these differences, I like the idea of a life fossil and, in my book, that means that Squalodon is now on my life list.

And, even if there are terms already established in the fossil collecting lexicon for these things (what are they?), indulge me as I use mine.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


As winter has laid siege to my area in the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures have fallen and stayed low long enough to freeze the edges of the rivers and creeks. In many places, a thin skin of ice stretches across the top of the dark water. The beaches that easily yielded fossil treasures just a few months ago are now covered with an icy mantle of stiff seaweed; the sand itself resists my hands and my shovel. The end of a day spent outside in pursuit of fossils finds me sitting in the car, as the afternoon shadows lengthen, trying with aching unresponsive fingers to grasp the car key. It takes both stiff hands in a claw-like embrace to hold the key, insert it in the ignition switch, and slowly turn it. So little between me and blasting warmth from my car heater; so hard to do.

Despite the passage weeks ago of the winter solstice, this hemisphere is still losing more heat than it is gaining from the lengthening of these gray days. It grows ever colder outside.

This is the time of year to enjoy the warm comforts of the great indoors. I sit at my dining room table, my hands cradling a bowl of . . . gray black material from the Pungo River Formation. I bask in the imagined heat of the waters in which this material was laid down some 15 to 20 million years ago during the Miocene epoch. Yes, winter is the time to explore the world of very small fossils.

My quarry is not actually the “micro” fossil, if one means those fossils seen only under a microscope. Armed on this hunt with small maglite and tweezers, I am in pursuit of tiny fossils that are easily visible to the naked eye, as long as that eye is very, very close to the surface of this world.

I gather the material in the warmer months of the year from the “reject” piles in front of the Aurora Fossil Museum in Aurora, North Carolina – a marvelous museum dedicated primarily to the marine fossils found in abundance at nearby Lee Creek Mine. Over the years, the finds that have been made at the mine have been spectacular; recent ones can still be very good. The reject material (which has gone through the mining process to extract the phosphate) is a salt and pepper accumulation of mostly phosphate sand and small pieces of shells and barnacles. Though the mining experience and casual surface collecting has removed or broken all of the large, easily spotted fossils, what remains includes myriad shells, shark and other fish teeth, tiny fish vertebrae, and echinoid (sea urchin) spines. Riches on a very small scale.

The terrain

In this picture, I've circled the easily spotted (i.e., not so small) prey. From left to right: piece of an Eagle Ray (Myliobatis sp.*) mouthplate; echninoid (sea urchin) spine (to give a sense of size, this is 1 cm in length); and a tooth from a Requiem or Gray shark (Carcharhinus sp.*).

As the wind blows outside and the gray day fades to black, slow exploration of the world in this bowl exposes tiny jewels.

Stingray teeth (probably Dasyatis sp.); male in the middle

Catshark tooth (Scyliorhinus sp.*)

Does this satisfy the fossil hunting urge as I wait for the spring thaw? Not on your life.

*The sp. denotes uncertainty on my part as to the species. I didn't even try to identify genus, much less species, for the sea urchin that lost the spine.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Name Game Revisited

I am fascinated by the process through which fossils, including tracks and other traces, are named and, often, renamed. I wrote on this previously in a couple of posts (What's in a Name? Part Un, and What's in a Name? Part Deux), but, as a paleontology newbie, I keep encountering other aspects of the process that intrigue and challenge me. Forgive me in advance if I’m wrong about something below (a gentle comment to that effect is welcome).

Duplicate Names Forbidden

Raymond C. Moore and his colleagues in their classic volume entitled Invertebrate Fossils (1952) described some of the basic rules that apply to the naming of fossils. Among those rules is the following:

“An important requisite of the scientific names of animals, whether of genera or of species, is that none shall duplicate another. Obviously, confusion and error are unavoidable if identical names may refer to different kinds of animals. . . . Homonyms (identical names applied to different things) are not allowed, and if, as has happened frequently, such names for genera or species appear in print, the later-published name is invalid.”

Duplicate names are forbidden – supremely logical.

A series of recent posts in a great blog – Dinochick Blogs – illustrates this rule at work. In this instance, at issue is the name to be applied to the dinosaur that for over 100 years was known as Diceratops. Seems that an inhabitant of the insect world already had legitimate claim to that name – the name was “preoccupied” (wonderful use of the word). So, apply the rule and come up with a new name.

Two researchers, independent of each other, each recently applied a new name to the Diceratops: (1) Diceratus – this name, derived from Greek, means “two-horned” or (2) Nedoceratops – the apparent derivation of the name is from “nedo,” a Russian prefix meaning “insufficient” or “incomplete” or “not quite” (well, that’s what my reading on the Web turned up for “nedo”), and from “ceratops,” from Greek for “horned face.” Nedoceratops was proposed in a publication that came out before Diceratus. Because prior publication prevails, Nedoceratops it is.

Logical rule, but, in this case, not a pleasing result for many. There are those who find Nedoceratops an insulting name for the dinosaur. Though one may acknowledge that, over all of these years, this dinosaur has been identified on the basis of a single specimen (not unprecedented), the name earns low marks in the politic or tact category. It’s almost as though the prevailing researcher (reportedly an entomologist) deliberately snubbed the dinosaur itself. A variant of paleontological one-upsmanship (see earlier post) at work? “I picked an irritating name because I can.” I don’t know, but the thought occurred to me.

Ichnotaxon, Ichnogenus

There’s another bit of impressive logic in the naming process. After a recent visit to a collection of dinosaur tracks outside of Hartford, Connecticut (Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill), I registered the facts, without really thinking about them, that the tracks had a genus name, Eubrontes, but no bones had been found to identify the animal that might have made them.

The speculation is that the tracks recorded passages of a kind of dinosaur similar to the carnivorous Dilophosaurus, whose fossilized remains have been found in Arizona.

Later, in a moment of mental clarity (rare for me, though I don’t think this quite qualifies as an epiphany), I saw the compelling logic of naming tracks or other “trace fossils” (see below) separately from the animal making them. I know this must fall into the “so what” category for those who have lived paleontology. What follows is this neophyte’s take on it.

A track or group of similar tracks may well be the sum of what we have; and, there is no certainty about what made those tracks. So, the tracks, independent of their creator, may be named. After all, we want to be able to talk about the tracks and, at a minimum, a name certainly simplifies things. Such a name is being applied to an “ichnotaxon,” a classification unit “based on the fossilized work of an organism, including fossilized trails, tracks or burrows (trace fossils) made by an animal.” (International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, see Glossary) In the case of the tracks at Dinosaur State Park, Eubrontes is the “ichnogenus” for these tracks, a name that lives independently of the still unknown creatures that made them.

It doesn’t take much to impress me, I guess.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Update on Paleontological Resources Preservation

The Senate passed S. 22 earlier today. See previous posts on the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act for background on this legislation.

In the future, rather than clutter my posts with little squibs about the status of this legislation, I will be tracking its status in the sidebar column to the right. Of course, really important developments (well, any that get my blood pressure up) will still prompt a separate post.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Update on Paleontological Resources Preservation

This morning (Wednesday, January 14), the Senate voted to invoke cloture on debate over S. 22, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. This means that, in the next day or so (possibly as soon as Thursday), the Senate may vote on passage of the legislation. As I have noted, among the myriad provisions of this bill is the language of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act considered last Congress (S. 320 and H.R. 554). The opposition continues to mischaracterize the impact of the legislation on amateur fossil collecting on federal land -- we have very limited access now which is unlikely to change under the legislation. Rather, the legislation will give teeth to provisions prohibiting the taking of fossils from federal land for commercial purposes. This a good step and should be supported.

Background on the controversy is covered in prior posts.

Fossil Collecting as a Competitive Sport

“The instinct to collect, like the process of fermentation, cannot be put out of existence by legislation nor can it be deprived of its vitality by the frowns of those who are insensitive to its urge.”

Lawrence C. Wroth, librarian of the John Carter Brown Library, speaking of book collecting, as quoted by Nicholas A. Basbanes, in A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (1995).

The Impulse to Collect

In thinking about what I view as a competitive aspect of fossil collecting, I read a little bit of the stuff floating around the web that purports to explain why people collect in the first place. Many of the explanations offered are disquieting and often seem to be “reaching for it,” to say the least. They range from the simplistic and useless – such as, we do it because it’s fun – to the psychological and truly disturbing – such as, collectors are more comfortable with “things” than with people, and we do it to make up for the “losses” we experienced during toilet training (don’t ask). Not much fun in these latter explanations.

The idea that collecting is an attempt at mastery over an unruly world is sometimes ascribed to children and their myriad collections of things. I like that. Maybe, after all, collectors simply have never grown up. That explanation is different from the one that says collectors are trying to impose order on a disorderly world, an explanation that depends on what we do with what we’ve collected. (Imposing order is a losing battle for me; each collecting trip just puts me that much farther behind.) Finally, collecting as a way to define one’s self and display expertise about some aspect of the world is an explanation that resonates with me; it’s certainly an aspect of the desire for mastery and extended childhood.

Not Always a Good Thing

This is really an extended aside. Clearly, some people collect to the verge of self destruction or beyond. We have the over-the-top book collector stereotype in mind when we think of the recluse living in rooms that are stacked high with books, narrow passage ways snaking through the mounds of books. The stereotype is all too true. The sheer weight of such a collection can be staggering. Nicholas Basbanes in A Gentle Madness cites Thomas Jefferson Fitzpatrick who taught botany at the University of Nebraska in the first half of the 20th century. His book collection, which he stored in his home, was so enormous that he was cited for violating the city code that imposed a load limit in a house of 40 pounds per square foot. It was estimated that the load on the floors in Fitzpatrick’s house was over 320 pounds per square foot; he was storing 90 tons of prized collection in his house!!

Okay, books may be one thing, but surely fossils are something else. Not so. As a resident of the D.C. area, I was very interested in an Associated Press article by Sarah Karush, entitled “Self-taught tracker finds trove of dino prints in D.C. suburbs.” (link) The piece was accompanied by pictures of said tracker Ray Stanford, including one in which he was shown crouched on a narrow path of carpet in his living room amid myriad slabs of rock with dinosaur prints. The caption noted in passing that the floors of his house had to be reinforced because of the weight of all of his dinosaur tracks.


The competitive urge doesn’t figure prominently in the literature on collecting that I turned up (admittedly, the product of a desultory search of the web). Yet, I think it’s a very real and robust part of the collecting world in general, and the fossil collecting world in particular.

A major coin of the realm in the fossil collecting world appears to be the degree of success one has had in his or her latest collecting foray. The number of specimens found, their size, their rarity, their beauty, as well as the difficulty of the hunt – these constitute the metric to gauge the success of the outing. The same goes for a collector’s overall collection of fossils. Fair enough. But, sometimes this seems to be very competitive one-upsmanship, perhaps intended to foster collection envy. Pictures posted on the web by collectors of their latest haul are often populated with dozens and dozens of redundant specimens. The more, the merrier. (Often it’s “the more, the blurrier” – but that’s a different story about collectors and digital cameras.) This is particularly true of those in pursuit of fossil teeth. I confess, I’ve been guilty of this piling on and felt put down by it as well.

A competitive drive is, I am sure, innate in human beings; certainly, it has an evolutionary basis. So, the competitive aspects of the fossil collecting impulse may be natural, but, I would suppose, they’ve long since shed their evolutionary value. (I certainly hope so.) Is there a gender aspect to this in the fossil collecting world? Fossil one-upsmanship on the web seems generally to be a male phenomenon, but gender is elusive on the web, for sure. I’m familiar with the doings of amateur paleontologists and collectors. At first, I wondered whether professional paleontologists exhibited the same behavior regarding their collecting and collections, but I suspect they do, in possibly more subtle and vicious ways as befit their advanced academic training.

The other morning, in the midst of a run, I crossed a small bridge. There, in the creek below, mallard after mallard rode on the surface of the bitterly cold water. I paused to catch my breath and counted – 30 males (wearing their flashy feathers so well) and 21 females (blending into the woodsy background). Now, that’s competition with real meaning and consequence.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Update on Paleontological Resources Preservation

Today, January 11, the Senate invoked cloture on moving to consideration of S. 22, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. This is part of the byzantine process by which legislation is often considered in the United States Senate. This cloture vote means that the Senate has cut off debate over being able to even consider the bill. As a result, it can now begin debate on the legislation itself during the coming days.

As noted in a prior post, the Paleontological Resources Preservation legislation is just a part of this bill, a very small part. This over 1,000 page bill contains myriad provisions addressing such things as extensions of the U.S. wilderness system, establishment and expansion of federal parks, water use issues, etc. Lots in there to generate support for the overall bill, as well as opposition.

Background on the controversy over the Paleontological Resources Preservation provisions included in S. 22 is covered in prior posts.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Update on Paleontological Resources Legislation

Well, the effort has resumed to enact a uniform policy governing the collecting of fossils on federal land. The United States Senate is scheduled to consider legislation as soon as Sunday, January 11 (I'm impressed -- apparently, the Senate will be in session on Sunday).

On January 7, 2009, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced S. 22, Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which contains language nearly identical to the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act as considered in the Senate during the previous Congress (see S. 320 and S. 3123, 110th Congress -- see previous posts on this legislation). Bingaman is chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. This legislation appears to be on a fast track, since it has been placed on the Senate calendar and, on January 9, a motion was filed to proceed to full Senate consideration. A cloture motion on the motion to proceed was also filed that day in an effort to end any debate on the motion to proceed. A vote is scheduled for Sunday, January 11th, on the cloture motion.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Double Dose of Darwin in 2009

This is a banner year and I’m up for a year-long bash in honor of Charles Darwin. Both the bicentennial anniversary of his birth and the sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection will be celebrated in 2009. Here’s to learning more about the man, his book, and the theory. Cheers!

Still, I know there will be at least one local school board somewhere in the United States that will try to add alternatives to evolution, such as “Intelligent Design,” to its biology curriculum and to inform students that evolution is “just” a theory.

I suspect that Darwin would be surprised that his now time-tested theory is still generating controversy over its general validity. True, he certainly experienced criticism and vilification in his lifetime, and not always from his enemies. In one letter, asking for an opinion on the Origin of Species, he wrote: “Pray do not suppose that I expect to convert or pervert you; if I could stagger you in ever so slight a degree I should be satisfied; do not fear to annoy me by severe criticisms, for I have had some hearty kicks from some of my best friends.” (Letter to Joseph Prestwich, a professor of geology, March 12, 1860, emphasis in original)

But, later, he did see his theory take root in scientific circles despite continuing controversy, and he expected a popular consensus in support to follow. “To the present day I am continually abused or treated with contempt by writers of my own country; but the younger naturalists are almost all on my side, and sooner or later the public must follow those who make the subject their special study. The abuse and contempt of ignorant writers hurts me very little.” (Letter to W. Preyer, a professor of physiology, March 31, 1868, emphasis added)

I’m not surprised that it’s now “later” and a substantial portion of the U.S. public doesn’t follow the overwhelming majority of scientists on this issue. This is partly explained by the strength of religious belief in this country and, as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found (link), many here trump science with faith when they feel the two conflict. I co-teach a course on church-state issues in the U.S., focusing on clashes over religion in public education, including the ongoing legal battles surrounding the teaching of evolution. Though I don’t agree with them, the depth of feeling of evolution’s opponents doesn’t baffle me, because, after all, religion and children are involved.

At the same time, I am bemused by the heated exchanges about the reality of evolution and the role of natural selection that can erupt in online discussion groups of fossil collectors. Fossil collectors? Haven’t they listened to what their fossils are actually saying to them?

Note: The quotations come from The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by Francis Darwin (1887) (link).

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Paleontological Resources Preservation Act -- Another Round?

Well, the 110th Congress has come and gone, and the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act never made it through either chamber. Too bad. I certainly hope there will be another push by the U.S. Congress during the upcoming session. For almost a full decade now, members have been trying to implement legislation to create a uniform policy protecting fossils on federal land. The fragmentation and ineffectiveness of current policies were identified by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2000. My sense is that opposition has been coming primarily from commercial fossil collecting interests.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


Paleontology is an avocation to me, with a particular focus on Elasmobranchii, the subclass of cartilaginous fishes that includes sharks and rays. At this stage, it’s a fairly consuming one. Having just emerged from this holiday season, I recognize that an avocation is a gift to those who searching for presents. What better connection to the gift receiver.

I have spread out before me, a t-shirt awash with images of vicious sharks, a package of wild cherry Gummy Sharks (delicious? . . . you first), a Shark Jacks game (the jacks in the shape of circling sharks), and a packet labeled “Grow Your Own Dinosaurs” (just drop the little rubbery creatures into water and they expand to 6 times their initial size – the packet goes for the more impressive “600%” increase in size). All fun things prompting lots of smiles and laughter. Missing is the wide-brimmed hat intended to protect fair skin from sun. This great gift had to be returned – curse of a big head.

Then there is the packet of small animal fossils. Mostly from Millard County, Utah, none is Elasmobranchii, so they aren’t what I have spent much time collecting, not that the giver of the gift should have known that. Still, the new paths these fossils offer me are what make them a special gift.

Among them is this small piece of Wheeler Shale from Millard County, Utah, dotted with very small Peronopsis interstrictus trilobites, well, mostly pieces or impressions. Still a piece of the middle Cambrian given as a gift. Pretty amazing when you think about it.

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