Monday, March 30, 2009

It's Now Law

The Paleontological Resources Preservation legislation is now law, signed by President Obama today (March 30, 2009). Next step is implementation.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

FINALLY!! – The Paleontological Resources Preservation Legislation Has Cleared the Congress

On Wednesday, March 25, 2009, by a vote of 285 to 140, the House passed H.R. 146, which includes the Paleontological Resources Preservation legislation. It now goes on to the President for his signature. It was a long struggle, providing new insight into the amazing labyrinth that is the legislative process, and into the willingness of partisans in political battles to stretch the truth and stoke fears.

Background on this legislation is provided in previous posts on this blog. Recent legislative action is highlighted in the column on the right.

This process will not be over when the President signs the bill. The provisions will go into an implementation stage. I hope that, when the Executive Branch writes regulations or develops policies to implement the legislation, substantial attention will be paid to ensuring that anyone coming onto Federal land is fully informed about what he or she may and may not do with fossils on that public land.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fossils -- Out of This World

Science is awash with fascinating ideas and questions, so much so that I find it hard to keep any focus at all. My most recent tangent draws its momentum from recognition that the fossil record is a record of some of the life that has existed on Earth, with an emphasis on Earth. But, the actual igniting spark for this tangent was provided by an amateur astronomer when he introduced me to the Drake Equation. This opened up an exciting literature of stimulating and competing logical propositions and arguments.

Astronomer Frank Drake proposed his formula as a way of estimating the extent of the presence of intelligent life in the galaxy. Its proximate genesis was a meeting he convened in 1960 at Green Bank, West Virginia, to explore the issue of detecting intelligent life across the vast distances of the galaxy.

I realized a few day[s] ahead of time we needed an agenda. And so I wrote down all the things you needed to know to predict how hard it’s going to be to detect extraterrestrial life. And looking at them it became pretty evident that if you multiplied all these together, you got a number, N, which is the number of detectable civilizations in our galaxy. This, of course, was aimed at the radio search, and not to search for primordial or primitive life forms. [Link here]

In the almost 50 years since, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and the debate over the likelihood of its success has waxed and waned. Of particular interest to me is that paleontology has been involved in this effort, used by some as a brake on expansive claims about a profusion of intelligent life spread throughout the galaxy. The paleontological history of the Earth is one punctuated by mass extinctions, leading some to argue that the rise of intelligent life here wasn’t inevitable, just extremely fortunate. As a result, in their view, the chances of intelligent life elsewhere are mighty slim. [Link here]

But, even some in that camp see the odds of there being primitive life in the galaxy as something else altogether – pretty good, as a matter of fact.

I’m slow on the uptake, so, I came late to the realization that the search for extraterrestrial life (intelligent or not) includes the pursuit of fossil evidence of that life. What a prospect! And what a daunting challenge given the difficulties of identifying fossils from our own planet, much less finding them here in the first place! Still, it seems compelling to make the search and it’s probably not a pipedream. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson writes:

The discovery of simple, unintelligent life forms elsewhere in the universe (or evidence that they once existed) would be far more likely and, for me, only slightly less exciting than the discovery of intelligent life. Two excellent nearby places to look are the dried riverbeds of Mars, [where] there may be fossil evidence of life from when water once flowed, and the subsurface oceans that are theorized to exist under the frozen ice layers of Jupiter’s moon Europa. [Link here]

A little more than two weeks ago, on March 6, 2009, the search for life elsewhere in the galaxy took a significant step forward with the launch of the Kepler spacecraft. Kepler will function, according to NASA, as a “giant camcorder” staring at the same 100,000 stars for at least three and a half years, seeking subtle traces of planets up to the size of the Earth in the so-called habitable zone around those stars. [Link here] (Crudely, the habitable zone is the area around a star in which a planet might have the conditions supportive of life such as that found on Earth.)

But Kepler’s launch is not really action on the fossil front. The Mars rovers are currently where any possible exo-Earth fossil action might be, however unlikely. The rovers were not designed to search out fossil evidence of life, yet, hope springs eternal. David Morrison, senior scientist at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, wrote early in the Mars rovers’ mission,

With their excellent camera systems, the rovers might indeed see a large fossil of a multicelled creature, if one should happen to be there, but this is extremely unlikely – think how difficult it is to find macroscopic fossils [on] Earth, a planet where multicellular life has been abundant for hundreds of millions of years. [Link here]

That improbability hasn’t stopped some segment of the general public from thinking it sees fossils in images beamed back by the hardy rovers – yes, their claims have a tabloid feel to them. Nevertheless, it’s an exciting pursuit and I’m rooting for the rovers on Mars today. I’m also rooting for a future Mars rover mission to have some element designed specifically for that kind of exploration.

Microscopic look at Mars soil aboard Mars Rover Opportunity.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

Friday, March 20, 2009

Paleontological Resources Preservation Legislation Passes the Senate -- Again

What a twisted and beautiful creature is the legislative process. On March 19, 2009, the Paleontological Resources Preservation legislation was, once again, passed by the Senate. It now goes back to the House where, finally, it may be approved and sent on to the President for enactment into law.

This time, the Paleontological Resources Preservation legislation and the rest of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (S. 22), were added by the Senate to H.R. 146, a bill previously passed by the House. (H.R. 146 was originally titled the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 Battlefield Protection Act.) The whole package now returns to the House.

Before it was passed, the Senate approved an amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R., Oklahoma) that modified the provisions of the Paleontological Resources Preservation legislation. The legislation now requires (“shall allow”) the administering federal Secretary to allow casual collecting on public land; previously, the language was permissive (“may allow”).

Please note, the definition of casual collecting (i.e., collecting without a permit) is NOT changed. It is still limited to “common invertebrate and plant paleontological resources for non-commercial personal use.”

The Coburn amendment also modified the civil penalties, and rewards and forfeiture provisions of the legislation. Among other changes, it removed language that previously would have subjected to forfeiture a person’s vehicles and equipment used in violating the legislation.

Have to love it. The stated purpose of the Coburn amendment was: “To protect scientists and visitors to federal lands from unfair penalties for collecting insignificant rocks.” Right. As Senator Coburn said, in somewhat twisted syntax, “All it does is lighten up on the inadvertent and the non-inappropriate looking for small fossils and small rocks that may not even contain fossils.”

Curiously, his floor statement only described the change of “may” to “shall,” with no references to the other changes on the penalty and forfeiture side. I wonder if those changes are more significant than I realize. [Later edit: Senator Bingaman (D., New Mexico), floor manager for the bill, spoke in favor of all of the changes that the Coburn amendment included, so I guess the conclusion is that the penalty and forfeiture modifications were de minimis.]

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Journey Across Disciplines – Fossils Become Archaeological

Short of breath after the climb from the river shore line, the preacher slowly walks toward his two story house, barely visible in the clammy gray fog. Robins, welcome signs of the coming spring, signal his passage. One hand, in the pocket of his waistcoat, fiddles with the objects he had found earlier that morning in the dross that marked the high tide on the river. His daughter Ida would add these gifts to her collection arranged along the mantle piece over the deep fireplace.

A biting wind comes off the distant river and through the woods, stirring up the leaves that are falling in profusion. The young woman has her shoulders slightly hunched as she works with gloved hands through the soil that lines the bottom of her screen. Beside her, a rectangular section of ground lies bare – the early stages of test unit 4. Her hands pause and then she carefully picks out a narrowing spiral of rock, an internal mold of a 60 million year old gastropod, a Turritella. Behind her, leaves blow across the brick foundation of a house, vines encircle the remnants of a double chimney in which wood from the mantle piece is still embedded.

Archaeological Resources Protection Act
Nonfossilized and fossilized paleontological specimens, or any portion or piece thereof, shall not be considered archaeological resources, under the regulations under this paragraph, unless found in an archaeological context. (emphasis added)


This post is inspired by the website about the Chiles Homesite on the Potomac River (link here).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Taphonomy -- It's Difficult to Survive the End

. . . the report of my death was an exaggeration.

~Mark Twain, note written May 31, 1897
[for the story behind this quip see Lighting Out for the Territory by Shelley Fisher Fishkin (1998)]

On Wednesday, March 11, 2009, the House of Representatives failed to pass S. 22, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, under suspension of the rules (requiring a 2/3rds vote in favor). This is disappointing because I favor the Paleontological Resources Preservation provisions that are a very small part of this complex, massive bill. (Background on the Paleontological Resources Preservation provisions can be found in previous posts in this blog, and recent action on the legislation is described in the column on the right.)

This legislative comment is not really what I intended to start this post with, but it will certainly do as a segue. Some folks who have engaged in debate over provisions appear to consider them dead as a result of this vote. Wait, I say, “The report of its death is an exaggeration" (slightly misquoting Twain, but not nearly as greatly as others have). There were 282 members of the House who voted in favor of the omnibus bill, much more than enough to pass the whole bill under normal procedures. So, I anticipate that these provisions will survive their "death" and come back before the House later. (Until then, a less-than-productive debate will continue.)

Death and what survives death are in fact what I was intending to write about. I went on a hunt earlier this week for fossilized teeth from two sharks, the Otodus obliquus and the Palaeocarcharodon orientalis, teeth from the latter seemingly so rare as to have attained near mythic status in these parts. The venue was a Paleocene formation that sheds its fossils onto the shore and into the murky waters of the Potomac River.

It was one of those early Spring days after a front has passed through and we’re treated to deep blue skies and a good wind.

As I walked north, I experienced that curious phenomenon in which some things in my environment suddenly stand out in stark relief. It’s not a matter of being present in the moment which implies being sharply aware of all that is transpiring around me. No, it’s a very selective awareness, it’s the donning of 3-D glasses causing a blurry red-cyan picture to suddenly shoot objects toward my face. In this case, what came rushing toward me out of the background of the river, shore, cliffs, and woods was the mortality of living creatures.

I have to blame it on Donald Prothero’s engaging textbook Bringing Fossils to Life: An Introduction to Paleobiology (1998). The night before, I read the first chapter about taphonomy, the study of the processes by which organisms become fossils. In essence, it’s the study of what happens to organisms after death, revealing the incredibly long odds against the creation of fossils from any assembly of living entities, odds that are even longer for some creatures, such as those with only soft body parts, than for others. So much happens to breakup and destroy the once living being. These processes impose harsh, effective filters that militate against fossil creation – there isn’t much, if anything, left to fossilize. The agents of this destruction include, among others, predators, scavengers, bacteria, and the weather. In this environment, wave action works a great power.

There I was, scanning the shore line for fossilized teeth, while evidence of the breakup of the once living began standing out against the background – a dead fish in the early stages of decay and one scavenged to its bare essence; the ravaged pelt and hooves of a dead deer, its bones long destroyed or scattered. The message was clear, these were not fossils in the making. Most death is not. Fossilization, as Prothero describes, entails some very special circumstances.

Still, despite the unlikelihood of fossilization and subsequent discovery, abundant fossilized shark teeth did roll in the surf, being briefly exposed and then covered, while others lay baking in the sun where waves had left or revealed them. I spotted part of a tooth root in the wet sand and made my day when I pulled out a nice Otodus obliquus (1 ¼ inches on the slant) with possibly a pathological kink up near the tip.

Later, it occurred to me, as I considered the juxtaposition of the decayed and scattered bodies of fish and deer with the fossilized teeth that littered the beach that day, that shark teeth may constitute some sort of special case in taphonomy because it’s highly unlikely that the tooth I found came from a dead O. obliquus. No, sharks lose teeth repeatedly throughout their lives, in the tens of thousands over the course of a lifetime. So, nearly all of the fossilized shark teeth found by collectors are those lost by sharks living at the time the teeth separated from the jaw. Ironically, while alive, sharks shed abundantly the one component of their anatomy that is most likely to fossilize – their enameloid-covered teeth. Sharks are cartilaginous creatures after all. And these teeth are lost in bodies of water where they fall to the bottom and may potentially encounter an environment that nurtures their fossilization. From the perspective of this collector, it’s a most excellent process that may better the odds of survival as a fossil.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Wimping Out in the Face of the Fossil Demigods?

Saturday, Feb. 28

1:15 p.m.

At what point did my scales tip toward caution and safety, and away from adventure and discovery? Did this come about simply with age or accumulating experiences, or, in fact, is it one of those illusions of memory that anything has actually changed?

I had the opportunity to explore a well known fossil site tomorrow, but, instead, I’ve just chosen to forego the privilege. I phoned the friend who was to join me on the hunt and wished him good luck, knowing full well that the fossil demigods would ensure that the hunt would go on as scheduled, but without me. So, at this moment, burdened with a heavy load of remorse, I sit at my computer composing this lament.

Assert that discretion is the better part of valor and raise up for everyone to see the challenging promise of a drive there of more than 300 miles in heavy rain, the possibility that the site might be closed tomorrow anyway due to the brutish weather, and the probability of a forlorn drive home in sleet and snow. Also blame it on the fossil demigods who used their power to play with the weather (creating the following weather map, kindly run a bit later by the National Weather Service):

My east coast destination was in the Carolinas, a bit northwest of the stationary front just off the coast, inside that area of rain demarked by the tannish dashes.

But, wait. "Discretion is the better part of valor” is one of Falstaff’s aphorisms and no fit cover for my decision. Depressing is the thought that perhaps neither the opportunity of getting out of my rut nor the thrill of the fossil hunt was enough to add the necessary weight to the adventurous side of the balance. I would like to believe that at one time I was other than a Caspar Milquetoast, though, apparently, I am one now.

[An aside: Caspar Milquetoast, cartoonist H.T. Webster’s creation, “graced” comic panels in New York City newspapers for several decades in the first half of the 20th century. This was a character who in a dream ran fleeing from the leaning Tower of Pisa (the anxious persona), and who stood in the pouring rain, completely drenched, and thought to himself that he’d wait only an hour more for the guy who wanted to borrow money from him (the doormat persona). It’s the former aspect of Milquetoast’s character that I feel I’ve laid claim to, not the latter. Clearly, I wouldn’t have stood out in the rain.]

4:01 p.m.

Just listened to a voice mail message announcing that the collecting site would indeed be closed tomorrow due to the weather. A feeling of elation swept over me. By not leaving at 1 p.m. as planned, I had averted driving three hours south and three more hours retracing my steps, and I wouldn't be left out. I called my friend to see what he’d heard. He offered an expression of true graciousness, “I can’t wait to see what the ones who went in today found.” Sigh. That’s the true spirit, maybe it will rub off on me.


The tooth (2 ½” on the slant) from an Otodus obliquus that sits atop this post is a gift from my wife, presented to me at 1:35 p.m. with the words, “You were hoping to find something big this weekend. And, by the way, it’s not wimping out, it’s being responsible.” [Later addendum: Now, I'm not so sure about the ID on this tooth. It's my typical rush to judgment.]

Additional Afterthought

There is a danger with a blog that there is no unpublished draft. Hell, that there are no drafts at all. I suppose that’s the point of a blog, though I’m uneasy with that, aspiring to write essays, not record rushing streams of consciousness. With that in mind, I suspect this post should have remained on my computer. Novelist Ian McEwan has commented, “I’m quite good at not writing. . . . I’m a hesitater.” (The New Yorker, February 23, 2009) Hesitation as good thing . . . a novel idea for the blogging world.
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