Friday, July 23, 2010

It's Alive

In which the blogger considers movement and being alive while biking in the park, hiking in the Wissahickon Valley, and missing an earthquake.

In these dog days of summer, I retreat into air conditioned isolation, cursing the heat and the Dog Star for bringing it. The other morning, though, I broke free, taking a bike ride for many miles through a local park. In an AC cocoon it’s easy to lose contact with the natural world, but the park was awash in meandering butterflies – mostly Eastern tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails, often settling foolishly on the asphalt in front of me. Birds darted across the path into and out of the woods. At one juncture, two goldfinches exploded into flight from the grass to one side of the path, flashes of brilliant yellow. Two males, I have to assume. Many cardinals swept from bush to bush. Given their dull coats, they all seemed to be females. Perhaps, the males among them were masked by the wear and tear of a long spring and summer. Despite the oppressive heat, there was movement everywhere. I was surrounded by movement. Life continues, and continues with vigor.

Movement is an attribute we ascribe to the living. If it moves, we often say that it’s alive, whether or not the object under observation is animate, sentient, or in any other way really living.

Earlier this year, I hiked through the Wissahickon Valley with my sister and her husband. We had in hand a printout of James Alcock’s The Virtual Geologic Tour of Wissahickon Creek, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Alcock, a professor of environmental sciences at Penn State Abington College, studies metamorphic rock, using them as a Rosetta Stone to geological history. No better place for that than the Wissahickon. There, memorialized in the stone, is a geological history of millions of years of powerful movement, metamorphosing sedimentary rock into the schist and quartzite of the Wissahickon Formation. During a history of mountain building episodes and clashing continental masses that reaches back perhaps 500 million years, the rock here was folded, folded again, bent back on itself, twisted, thrust skyward, fractured, . . . . The pictures below do not do justice to the geological wonders that mark every turn on hiking paths in the Wissahickon. These show some of the upwardly thrusted layers, the interleaved layers of schist and granitic material, and the sculptured contortions of the rock.

On the microscale, the scene is just as awesome. Peeking out of the rocks and often weathering out and collecting on the ground, are minerals that were caught up and baked in the schist – garnet, staurolite, and kyanite – among others. The picture below is of a very small portion of a slab of schist embedded in the ground and was shot through a 20X power hand lens. Not very high tech, hence the poor quality of the photo. A garnet glitters to the right in the blurry foreground. The elongated dark blue crystals are kyanite, I believe.

Though the rocks around us in the Wissahickon had been in violent motion, now everything, fixed in the act of moving, seemed so geologically stable, so dead. That’s the way it is on the East Coast of the U.S. The earth doesn’t move . . . . Hmm, actually, it does, and just last week it moved to the tune of a magnitude 3.6 earthquake centered several miles from my home in suburban D.C. My only regret is that I wasn’t home at the time, being sequestered in air conditioning on Long Island. To be honest, this earthquake may not have had a tune at all. The tune of the one major, devastating earthquake I’ve experienced (in Lima, Peru) was perhaps not a tune either, though it was sound – the coming and going roar of a locomotive.

Last week's quake reportedly originated in the Pleasant Grove fault zone, some 4 miles down in billion year old rock. There are competing explanations for the quake. One centers on movement sparked by stresses and strains associated with plate tectonics; the other posits that it’s part of a continuing rebound after the massive weight of mountains and perhaps glaciers have been removed (the former by erosion, the latter by melting).

My favorite statement about this quake came from Scott Southworth, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, as quoted in a Washington Post article:

Nothing to worry about but nice to know the Earth is alive and kicking.

Other Online Resources on the Geology of the Wissahickon

Friends of the Wissahickon website – Geology

Sarah West’s Gems of the Wissahickon

Colleen Gasiorowski’s Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley: Its Geology and Geography, Middle States Geographer, 1997

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Collecting Words

I don’t know if the English language lends itself in particular to what I’d describe as word and phrase collecting, but the many mental and marginal notes I’ve made over the years suggest it is. Mojo is one that has been in the jumble of my word collection for several decades, but I’d never really focused on its meaning. That changed last week. And there are three others that have newly entered the collection: fossick, pater noster lakes, and fat quarters. Only the last, I guess, has no possible paleontological connection.


For an amateur at paleontology, the naming of a hitherto unknown genus and species from a fossil seems like an opportunity to brush up against immortality. The decision about a name carries great weight, the naming of a child comes to mind. Clearly, an action not to be taken lightly. I had assumed that professional paleontologists approached this with the same gravitas, though, I suppose it’s possible for someone who has done this several times to become blasé about it all. Actually, I don’t just suppose, I now know.

Nicholas Longrich, a postdoctoral associate at Yale, seems to have made career of uncovering new dinosaur genera from misidentified and improperly restored dinosaur fossil remains. Until last week, he had three genera to his credit. This past week he published on his latest find, a plant-eating dinosaur at the American Museum of Natural History that had been misidentified as a Chasmosaurus and restored to look like one. As the New York Times described the process of naming his latest find:

[O]ver a round of drinks with fellow paleontologists, Mr. Longrich struck upon, almost out of thin air, a name that would end up bringing him more publicity than any of this other discoveries: Mojoceratops.
(Yeganeh June Torbati, From Museum Basement, a ‘New’ Dinosaur, New York Times, July 9, 2010, italics added)

Excuse me if I’m amused but not impressed. After the fact, Longrich argued that it’s an appropriate name since mojo means a magical power, charm, or amulet typically used by men to attract and acquire power over women. Mojoceratops had a prominent “heart-shaped” frill on its head among other features which Longrich suggested were used in sexual displays.

Yes, mojo is a great word with connotations of voodoo, spells, and primal religion. In this case, though, Longrich demeaned the naming process. “Got my mojo working” sang Muddy Waters, “but it just wont work on you.”


In my previous posting, I wrote about Joan Wiffen, an inspiring amateur paleontologist from New Zealand. Her autobiography, Valley of the Dragons, had a strong touch of the exotic, partly because the flora, fauna, and geography of the islands are so alien to me. Here’s a bit of the flavor:

I recall a flowering grove of kowhai, alive with tuis, that attracted our attention, and as we watched we were astounded by the rustling flight and approach of a large old kaka, screeching as it flew in. (p. 60-61)

Fossick is a word she used (in various forms) that has stuck with me, even though, despite appearances, it’s not primarily about fossil hunting at all. For instance, when describing her family’s gem collecting phase, Wiffen wrote that they paid “to fossick for agates in ploughed farm paddocks.” That use of the word as it relates to gems seems to fit most closely to the standard definition of the word in its area of origin – Australia and New Zealand. To fossick is to search for gold or gems in already worked or abandoned areas. There seems to be a sense of looking through the leavings and, among its other accepted meanings, it can be used simply to mean “to rummage.” Still, given that its etymology is the same as that of fossil with both words derived from the Latin fossilis (found by digging) and, ultimately, from fodere (to dig), I think it’s easily and appropriately applied to people like me who do hunt for fossils. From this intransitive verb there is a wonderful noun form – fossicker. Yes, I am a fossicker and proud of it.

(By the way, Wiffen’s use of the word paddock in the quote about fossicking for agates is one typical in Australia and New Zealand, where the word applies to a fenced or enclosed field. Elsewhere, a paddock is an area near a stable where animals are saddled and exercised, and, in particular, it’s where race horses are saddled. Also, I enjoyed her use of ploughed, the British spelling variant of plowed.)

Pater Noster Lakes

There are moments when I am struck by the creativity and imagination behind some scientific words and terms, as I was in my initial encounter with the geological term pater noster lakes. I knew that pater noster is Latin for “our father” and often refers to the Lord’s Prayer. But lakes?

Geologist Les Sirkin in his book Eastern Long Island Geology With Field Trips (1995) explained. First, he described the process through which depressions, known as kettles (another great word) form on glaciated ground. Ice blocks left behind by a retreating glacier can be covered by outwash (sediment) from the glacier. When these blocks melt, kettles are formed. On permeable surfaces, the kettles are dry, on impermeable surfaces we end up with wet kettles and often wetlands. Sometimes the kettles form in a line paralleling the edge of the receding glacier. As Sirkin put it describing a particular collection of wet kettles on Long Island,

Chains of ponds like the Scuttlehole group have been likened to rosary beads and are known as pater noster lakes. (p. 40)

Rosary beads lying on the land. A poetic image.

Fat Quarters

This past week I came across another intriguing phrase. My wife set out from our summer cottage in pursuit of fat quarters. What a lovely phrase – fat quarters.

The reality behind this phrase is fairly prosaic. A standard bolt of cloth is 44" wide, and a quarter yard of that is 9" (a fourth of 36") by 44" (the standard width). That’s an awkwardly long and skinny strip for quilters, like my wife, who work with squares. A fat quarter is the same amount of material but in a much more useful configuration – the quarter yard is doubled to 18" and the standard width is halved to 22".

But, to my ear a fat quarter brings to mind all of the excess, celebration, and religious underpinnings of Mardi Gras – a combination of Fat Tuesday and the French Quarter. I was even willing to go in pursuit of fat quarters until I learned what they were.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Populating Islands with Dinosaurs ~ Thoughts of Joan Wiffen

Joan showed that the interested, logical and critical mind is the single most important factor in success.
~ Comment by vertebrate paleontologist Ralph E. Molnar about Joan Wiffen 
This is the time of the year when my center of activity mostly moves north to a small community on the east end of Long Island, New York. No, not the southern fork at the end of the island whose claim to fame is the Hamptons and the setting of a vapid TV show. Rather, the other fork, the northern one without the fame and whose northern shore is on Long Island Sound. Here, amid farmland which is converting, seemingly overnight, into vineyards, stands my summer residence, a decrepit cottage, the ugly duckling in a collection of year-round and summer homes. Many trace their roots to a Methodist campground beginning in the late 1800s.

I’ve posted previously about the dilemma of a fossil lover spending time on Long Island which is the product of glacier action during the Pleistocene (which ended about 10,000 years ago). Though, on rare occasion, a fossil turns up in material that rode the glaciers from Connecticut, this is a fossil-barren island, scraped clean or buried by the glaciers. The geological history of Long Island precludes true fossil hunting. Even Joan Wiffen couldn’t change this island’s history.

June 30th was the first year anniversary of the death at 87 of amateur paleontologist Joan Wiffen, truly an indomitable spirit worthy of celebration. Beginning in the 1970s, Wiffen, with no higher education degree (postsecondary education was considered by her father to be a waste of time for women), but with a brilliant and tenacious mind, and a passion for fossils, upended conventional scientific thinking about the possibility that dinosaurs had ever inhabited the islands of her New Zealand homeland.

Most scientists had summarily rejected the idea that New Zealand had been home to dinosaurs. Their rationales were several. New Zealand’s separation perhaps some 80 to 85 million years ago (mya) from Gondwana, that megacontinent comprised of today’s Antarctica, Africa, South America, India, and Australia, occurred before dinosaurs had spread far enough to reach the land that became New Zealand. Or the climate had turned too cold for these land animals. Further, it was assumed that, even if dinosaurs had reached New Zealand before it was untethered from Gondwana, the available dry land was too small an area to support a dinosaur population.

Then there was the fossil record. Though it showed that New Zealand had supported terrestrial plant life as far back as the Jurassic (~200 to 146 mya), there was no fossil evidence of ancient terrestrial animal life. Ergo, scientific orthodoxy held that there had been no dinosaurs here. A few lone scientific voices had tried unsuccessfully to counter the prevailing wisdom.

Wiffen, who lived on New Zealand’s North Island, raised a family with her husband Pont. It was a marriage of shared passions (mostly beginning with her, perhaps). When Pont became was too sick to continue attending a night course on geology, Joan took his place, sparking an interest in geology, gems, and fossils. After Pont recovered, the family went in pursuit of gems, relocating for several months to Australia in the effort. Then the acquisition of a trilobite and an ammonite shifted Wiffen’s focus. As she wrote in her autobiography Valley of the Dragons: The Story of New Zealand’s Dinosaur Woman (1991):

These were priceless treasures from the past – and, suddenly, I was hooked. I knew what I wanted – to collect fossils. The family expressed surprise, but Pont said, “If that’s what you want to do, get on with it.”

Wiffen and family traipsed across New Zealand to its known fossil sites. But she was unsatisfied. Wanting more and expecting more from fossiling, she began searching for new sites with dinosaurs on her mind. A geological map produced in the late 1950s for an oil survey became her treasure map. Finding the color on the map that marked the geological age in which she was interested – the Late Cretaceous (~ 65 mya), she was startled to read in the legend for that color:

Reptilian bones in beds of brackish water in the Te Hoe Valley.

As she recounted, “The words made my spine tingle, with their visions of dinosaurs and prehistoric monsters.” She was now on a mission, one she pursued relentlessly, eventually discovering who owned the land in question and securing permission to hunt along the Mangahouanga Stream. The 90 kilometer trip inland into this forested mountainous area became a regular part of the family’s weekends. The many trips to Mangahouanga can be explained by their first sight of the stream in December 1972:

So, it was out of the car and a hurried clamber down the steep bank, and there they were – fossils in profusion. Every one of the cold grey stones in the water seemed to sprout fossils . . . . True, there were no dinosaur skeletons lying around in the boulders or in the crumbling shale bank, where the bridge was bedded, or any bones at all for that matter, but all this was forgotten in the excitement at what we saw. There were rocks encrusted with fish teeth, shark teeth, fish scales and vertebrae, gleaming on the surface where the rock had been worn away in the swift-flowing water, leaving these harder, dark, shining remains etched out.

Perhaps it was the innocence of the neophyte that led Wiffen in pursuit of dinosaur fossils in New Zealand. Didn’t she know the fossil record proved there weren’t any? Perhaps, she was actually knowledgeable enough to be suspicious of using the always incomplete fossil record to prove the negative.

Lest one think that the Wiffens and their friends had an easy time of it at Mangahouanga, the source of fossils after the early hunts was primarily calcareous sandstone concretions, those round or oblong boulders of varying size that were created when the rock material grew around pieces of organic material, fossilizing it in the process. Suggestive of how difficult the concretion were to split, the Wiffens early on resorted to explosives to break open some of them, often to the serious detriment of the interred fossils. More often the big concretions had to be cut with a rock saw into pieces that could be hauled out of the stream and to transportation.

As she admitted, she was naive in expecting to find dinosaur fossils at her site of Mangahouanga because, during the Late Cretaceous, it was an offshore marine location. Logically, land animal fossils are most likely to be found in areas that had been terrestrial at the time the animals lived, not in what were formerly marine environments where the chances of land animal remains washing into the water and being fossilized were so very limited. Over time, the Wiffens and their colleagues did find many marine fossils, including some from those impressive marine reptiles of the period – plesiosaurs and mosasaurs. But, no dinosaurs, though a few bones and vertebras from unknown animals had started to turn up beginning in 1974. A particularly distinct vertebra surfaced in 1975, one not clearly from a marine animal.

A trip in 1979 to Australia included a visit to the Queensland Museum in Brisbane where Wiffen encountered American paleontologist Ralph Molnar, a newly appointed curator. Seated in Molnar’s office, she spotted two fossil vertebrae on his desk. Amazed, she said she had found one like those and asked what they were. Molnar said they were from an ankylosaurus, a land dinosaur living near water. Though he later concluded Wiffen’s find was not from an ankylosaurus, but was in all likelihood from a theropod, a carnivorous dinosaur, it mattered not. Wiffen had begun to populate ancient New Zealand with dinosaurs.

A carnivorous dinosaur and no evidence of possible dinosaur prey in the food chain? More than a decade later, Wiffen found a fossil from a plant-eating dinosaur. Others followed. Now the fossil record proved that New Zealand was home to a panoply of dinosaurs.

The personal consequences for Wiffen of her success in finding fossils differed markedly from those experienced by another amateur paleontologist, Mary Anning, in early 19th century England (Anning was the subject of an earlier posting). Unlike Anning, whose contributions to paleontology were largely unrecognized or usurped by the male scientific establishment in her own time, Wiffen received full credit for her finds. In time, she authored or co-authored over a dozen scientific papers, received an honorary doctorate, was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE), and was awarded the Morris Skinner Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Joan Wiffen was a character, no question about it. Her autobiography is a delight, but the autobiographical sections are joyfully joined to a very matter-of-fact analysis of the geology and paleontology of New Zealand and a fascinating how-to guide to collecting and preparing fossils at her site.

The sharpness and rigor of her mind is evident throughout. She peppers the book with questions that emerge from her work, questions that only on occasion are answered by subsequent finds. Answers beget more questions. She read everything she could find, from textbooks to scientific papers. She opened communication to experts outside of New Zealand, after all no one else in New Zealand was studying dinosaur fossils on those islands. Wiffen was meticulous in curating her finds. There was nothing amateurish about the process she followed for extracting the fossils from the hard matrix and preserving them.

She was a wit, particularly when skewering society’s expectations concerning male and female roles, and not just in her autobiography. In an article in Discover (Jack McClintock, Romancing the Bone, June, 2000), she commented on the lack of response from the scientific community to the publication of the first paper on her New Zealand dinosaur find, “When an elderly housewife does things, well, some – particularly men – find it hard to take.”

There is no mistaking the sarcasm on the opening page of her autobiography when, after the old geological map was opened for the first time and the decision was made to go in pursuit of dinosaurs, the men left her house for a local road cut to look for fossils of forams, tiny marine creatures, “I, as all good housewives should, retired to the kitchen, cleared the table and washed the dishes.”

She was adept at blending sarcasm and wit on sexual roles. For example, in her autobiography, she discussed the tools used at the site, noting that she was not “allowed” to use the rock saw:

This expensive new toy was powered by a 2-stroke motor and was extremely temperamental. The men considered I had insufficient command of the type of language essential to operate it.


Good reading for fossil-less Long Island.
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