Friday, September 30, 2011

I Really Should Be Fascinated By Dinosaurs

In which the blogger confesses to being amazed, but not fascinated, by dinosaurs, describes two recent dinosaur fossil finds in Maryland, and identifies the most fascinating theme running through both stories.
I really should be fascinated (with all of that word's meaning of spell-casting) by dinosaurs and dinosaur fossils.  I know they are a common gateway drug to a paleontology addiction, though they weren't for me (I fell for fossil shark teeth).  The Natural History Museum of London’s The Book of Dinosaurs (2001) asks, regarding dinosaurs, “Why are they so fascinating?” and answers that the public’s fascination with dinosaurs probably arises because these terrestrial reptiles
seem so amazingly different from the animals we know – bus-sized plant-eaters, hunters with 20 centimetre-long serrated teeth, strange creatures with outlandish names.  (p. 7)

Photo above taken in Dinosaur Hall at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

Ironically, that quote captures one of the reasons that, though I am truly amazed by the creatures, I am not fascinated by them, having never been drawn to them, even as a child.  To me, dinosaurs were so fundamentally and dramatically unlike anything alive today that they were truly alien in their terrible otherness, to be considered with caution and not to be embraced lest they come to populate nightmares . . . or give rise to movie scenes such as the one in the movie Jurassic Park in which the Park’s lawyer, cowering on a toilet, is eaten by a T. rex (a scene ranked by some as among the best movie deaths of all time).

The basic theme of the Natural History Museum of London’s treatise – that dinosaurs were, in many essential ways, including social organization, feeding, movement, much like extant reptiles and mammals – might have made the creatures more appealing to me had that message had been known, accepted, and promoted years ago.

As a Marylander, living in a dinosaur hotspot, I really should be a dinosaur aficionado.  A recent article in Smithsonian Magazine asserts, “Today Maryland is one of the richest fossil-hunting sites east of the Mississippi.”  (Abby Callard, A Dinosaur Graveyard in the Smithsonian's Backyard, Smithsonian Magazine, February, 2010.)  And Prince George’s County, just down the road, is the destination for dinosaur fossils within Maryland.  Recognized dinosaur finds in this area date back to the mid-1800s with the discovery of a tooth from a huge herbivorous dinosaur that came to be named Astrodon johnstoni, now the Maryland state dinosaur.  A bit later, during the winter of 1887-8, fossil hunter John Bell Hatcher, at the behest of his teacher, Yale University’s O.C. Marsh (who vied with E.D. Cope in the “Dinosaur Wars”) searched for dinosaur fossils in Maryland and located
what would become the richest dinosaur fossil site ever found in the Lower Cretaceous of the East Coast – the Arundel Clay in the area between Beltsville and Muirkirk in Prince George's County. The outcrop belt of the Arundel Clay between Washington and Baltimore became known as "dinosaur alley."  (Maryland Geological Survey, Astrodon johnstoni: the Maryland State Dinosaur, FactSheet 12)
Last week, the local media bubbled with stories about two dinosaur fossils finds in Maryland.  Both fossils were discovered in Prince George’s County and both are now ensconced in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The first of these stories recounts the scientific culmination of a process begun in 1997 when local amateur paleontologist and dinosaur fossil hunter Ray Stanford found a rock in a stream bed near his home in Prince George’s County.  Stanford initially believed he had found a dinosaur footprint, but, as he describes it, when he took it home
We put it up above the stove where the sun hit it and we got some unusual shadows. . . . And here I saw ribs sticking out. I took a brush and brushed it out. I said, “We’ve got a small dinosaur here.”
After some research on his own, he took the chunk of rock with its five inch-long imprinted pattern of shapes and designs to renowned dinosaur expert David Weishampel of the Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine.  Stanford and Weishampel then collaborated on an article just published in the Journal of Paleontology formally identifying what Stanford found – a mixture of molds and casts of a 110 million year old dinosaur hatchling, a new species named by Stanford Propanoplosaurus marylandicus, one of the armored herbivorous nodosaurid dinosaurs, a family within the Ankylosauria group.  (Ray Stanford, et al., The First Hatchling Dinosaur Reported from the Eastern United States: Propanoplosaurus marylandicus (Dinosauria: Ankylosauria) from the Early Cretaceous of Maryland, U.S.A., Journal of Paleontology, September 2011, abstract; see also, Brian Vastag, College Park Resident Finds a Fossil First: a Hatchling Armored Dinosaur, Washington Post, September 13, 2011; Propanoplosaurus Marylandicus: A Win For Open (And Citizen) Science, Science 2.0, September 14, 2011)

Here’s the fossil as it is currently displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

This fossil remains a puzzle to me, even with the explanation that it is the imprint of “a hatchling nodosaur on its back, much of its body imprinted along with the top of its skull" (Science 2.0).  I liken it to the Magic Eye 3-D images of the 1990s which could be seen only if you tried to look through the picture.  (For what it’s worth, Weishampel consulted with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park – don’t know whether he had any input in the T. rex toilet scene.)

The second find was made on September 10th at a small Cretaceous site called Dinosaur Park.  Situated in “dinosaur alley,” Dinosaur Park is owned and operated by Prince George’s County, offering the general public opportunities each month to do some collecting with all finds going to the Smithsonian.  The County pronounces Dinosaur Park, “one of the most important dinosaur sites east of the Mississippi River.”

Amateur paleontologist and local fossil hunter, David Hacker, discovered this fossil when he checked out Dinosaur Park one day to see what recent heavy rains might have exposed.  Here’s how he described the discovery in a video appearing on the Baltimore Sun’s website:
[I came to the park to] see what the rain from Tropical Storm Lee washed out.  And I was just about to leave when I noticed a small portion of a larger bone exposed on the ground.  What I didn’t do was I didn’t dig it out immediately because if I had I might have damaged it and had it fall apart, and it would have been less useful to science and harder to figure out what it is.
Smithsonian experts were called in and, when they carefully uncovered it, discovered the specimen was fractured into two pieces.  They jacketed the material and took it back to the Natural History Museum for preparation and conservation.  (Frank D. Roylance, Dinosaur Bone Found in Laurel, Baltimore Sun, September 21, 2011.)  The find, approximately 6 inches long, is pictured below following initial preparation at the Smithsonian.

So, what is this nondescript two-part hunk of stone?  It’s early yet.  “Dinosaur bone” seems to be the most definitive statement offered to this point, although Smithsonian fossil preparator Steve Jabo hazarded the opinion that it was a sauropod bone (Baltimore Sun video).

There we have it, the two most recent Maryland finds to garner attention.  I hate to admit it but these fossils haven’t done much to generate new interest on my part in dinosaurs.  Perhaps it’s the bizarre nature of the first one or the unremarkable appearance of the second.

Actually, though these finds may be of importance for research on dinosaurs, their true significance for me comes from the fact that citizen scientists made the finds and then worked with the professionals.  Now, that's really fascinating.

[Full disclosure:  I played with the title and first sentence of this posting after it initially went up.]

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Using the Museum's Staff-Only Entrance

At the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (pictured above), the staff-only entrances are also the exits for everyone leaving the building.  Entering staffers who successfully avoid being trampled by the flow of exiting tourists are spared the museum police force’s inspection of bags.  In fact, despite the moments when it’s like the running of the bulls, using the staff-only entrance is a welcome perquisite and it is one that the Smithsonian extends to its volunteers.  That small gesture speaks volumes about the Smithsonian’s long-standing embrace of volunteers.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of volunteers for museums, particularly natural history museums.  For many of these institutions, such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) or Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences (ANS), volunteers are clearly an important element in each entity's lifeblood.  I don’t say that just because I recently began volunteering at the NMNH.  For all of the various museums that comprise the Smithsonian Institution (not just the NMNH), the number of volunteers in service – over 6,500 – exceeds the total number of paid staff – more than 6,000 (including some 500 scientists).  (Smithsonian Institution, FY2012 Budget Request.)  The ANS has 273 employees, supported by 508 volunteers.  (IRS Form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax) for 2009 filed by ANS.)

I recognize that the range of services provided by volunteers is very broad, many perhaps requiring little scientific knowledge.  Still, it’s hard to gainsay the contribution that volunteers make to these institutions.  Importantly, the relationship between museum and volunteer is mutually beneficial.  While the museum often plays an educational role for its volunteers, providing training and other opportunities, this is all in the institution’s best interest because, for many visitors, some volunteers constitute the face of the institution while other volunteers are providing support to scientists behind the scenes.

And if there is a pantheon of volunteer heroes at natural history museums, Patricia Kane-Vanni is certainly enshrined in it.  I never met Patti Kane-Vanni, who passed away June 11, 2011, at age 57.  Parenthetically, I have to admit that I’m at that stage when a person’s age in an obituary delivers either a bit of reassurance (“yes, that was wonderfully long life”) or brings on a sudden chill (“damn, that’s much too young”).  The obituary in the Delaware Valley Paleontological Society’s September newsletter brought a chill, one, thankfully, soon dispelled.  After reading the story and doing what felt a bit disrespectful – googling her name – I learned that her far too brief life was remarkably full and well led.

A graduate of Chestnut Hill College with a BA in sociology and studio art, she earned her law degree from Temple University and practiced law in Philadelphia (link here to this background information).  At some juncture her then-young son fell for dinosaurs and she supported him in his infatuation – a fateful decision to be sure because, even as he moved on to other interests, her paleontological passion flowered.

In a moving piece, written months before her death, University of Pennsylvania paleontologist Peter Dodson described how she followed this road, even as she continued her career in law.  An initial stage was volunteering.
She became more and more involved with fossils, working as a volunteer preparator and sometime weekend lab manager in the fossil prep lab and in the fossil dig in dinosaur hall, all at the Academy of Natural Sciences. She gives exhibit tours. . . .  Her volunteer services to the Academy number hundreds of hours per year. Patti cannot stand to sit idly by. She joined the Delaware Valley Paleontological Society and quickly became vice president and program chair.
(Dodson’s account of Patti Kane-Vanni is actually a comment he posted on WGBH’s American Experience website for the TV documentary Dinosaur Wars.  He was responding to an invitation to post comments on the topic:  “Do you have a thing for dinosaurs?”  It was posted January 19, 2011.)

Coursework complemented volunteering – she took geology and paleontology courses at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, and graduate-level vertebrate paleontology courses from Dodson at the University Pennsylvania, and began a part-time MA program in Environmental Sciences focusing on paleontology and environmental law.

Fieldwork marked her love affair with paleontology, including University of Pennsylvania digs in Montana and Egypt.  Publications from these efforts explicitly acknowledged her contribution – see, for example, A Giant Sauropod Dinosaur from an Upper Cretaceous Mangrove Deposit in Egypt (Joshua B. Smith, et al., Science, June 1, 2001); and A New Diplodocoid Sauropod Dinosaur from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Montana, USA (Jerald D. Harris and Peter Dodson, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica , volume 49 (2), 2004).

Perhaps not surprisingly, she cast her paleontological reach widely and embraced paleoart.  Her illustrations grace several publications, including two beautiful drawings in Fossil Legends of the First Americans by Adrienne Mayor (2005).  (I have only “looked inside” this book on Amazon.)

She apparently sought a different balance in her life as her law work became part-time, freeing her up for more paleontology.  As she told Peter Dodson, “I want a life, not a living.”

Such an inspiring life, so much accomplished.  Clearly, she deserved to enter any natural history museum using its staff-only entrance.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Trivial Mistakes and Taxonomic Super Glue

I’ve been in pursuit of trivial mistakes or, more accurately, they’ve been pursuing me.  Sure I dread big mistakes, but I reserve particular anger for my embarrassing little ones, the ones seemingly easy to avoid and which crop up everywhere, including in this blog.  I help edit a newsletter for a fossil club, and perhaps the most demanding aspect of each issue’s production is the final proofing, the checking of that last firewall between me and the ire of the members.  Just when I think no one is reading the rag, a trivial mistake in an issue sparks voices from the void.  Misspelling a club member’s name seems to be at the top of the list of cardinal sins of newsletter editing; for a fossil club, right up there is messing up a scientific name.

Although our latest issue proved unexceptional in this regard (having the usual complement of little errors), its production came in the midst of my protracted efforts to identify a fossil shell I found in material from the Lee Creek Mine in North Carolina.  I believe this fossil is from the Pungo River Formation, an early Miocene formation (laid down some 20 to 15 million years ago).  But given that the mining operation mixes up material, this shell may actually have originated in some other formation present at the site.

The juxtaposition of newsletter editing and fossil identification offered me a new perspective on the making of trivial mistakes – I've come to appreciate that at least the public airing of mine is fleeting.

Here are several views of the specimen whose identity still escapes me.  It’s 27 mm long (a bit more than 1 inch).  This shell is a rich dessert among the other gastropod shells that I’ve found in the same area.  The shell looks for all the world to me like a phyllo pastry, its varices (the raised ridges along its whorls) made of delicately stacked, wavy layers of pastry.

At this stage, I don’t remember the sequence of steps that led me to the general vicinity of an initial possible identification of this shell.  Perhaps I saw the imprecise drawing of Pterorhytis conradi that appears in the North Carolina Fossil Club’s Neogene Fossils of North Carolina:  A Field Guide (1997).  Regardless, the process took me once again to the descriptions and drawings of fossil shells in paleontologist William Healey Dall’s Tertiary Fauna of Florida, with Especial Reference to the Miocene Silex-Beds of Tampa and the Pliocene Beds of the Caloosahatchie River (Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia, Volume 3, August 1890)  (My initial encounter with Dall came while preparing a previous posting – A Boatload About Eupleura caudata (Say, 1822))  In this article, Dall described Murex (Pterorhytis) conradi Dall, and offered two fine drawings of the shell – a view of the aperture side of the shell and a "head-on" view of the apex (in the living organism, the apex points toward the rear).  (Buried in the opening text is his acknowledgement of the artist contributions of J.C. McConnell and J.H. Ridgway.  This seems like meager reward for an essential component of the work.)

There are at least a couple of key differences suggesting that what I have may not be P. conradi – in the drawings, the anterior canal of the P. conradi is covered or closed and its varices are more prominent than those of my shell.  With a careful look at the drawing of the aperture view in Dall’s work, one might pick up on another difference.  In the drawing, there appear to be little protrusions or “teeth” coming from the lip of the outer edge of the shell aperture.  Granted that my specimen may have been damaged over the years, uncovering the canal and breaking off the teeth, but, after careful examination of the shell, I really don't think so.

Though I like this artwork, others do not.  Their criticism is leveled at the purported untethering of the drawings from reality.  The authors of a chapter on mollusca that appears in the Lee Creek series published by the Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology asserted that the drawings in Dall’s work were “somewhat artistically tailored to a more regular, smooth-looking form, whereas in reality the sculpture is somewhat rougher and shaggier, and a good deal of the fine detail shown by Dall is obscure.”  (Lauck W.Ward and Blake W. Blackwelder, Late Pliocene and Early Pleistocene Mollusca From the James City and Chowan River Formations at the Lee Creek Mine, Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, Volume II, 1987, p. 174)

Here are the photographs these authors use to illustrate Pterorhytis conradi (numbers 7 and 8).

Certainly, a wilder architecture in this specimen than that presented by Dall.

But there are variations within species.  Might variations in P. conradi embrace my specimen?  In an entry in her blog (The Fossil Murex Blog), Greta Polites considered the variations among her many Pterorytis specimens from Florida and from North Carolina’s Lee Creek, and raised the question of whether and when those variations actually distinguish among valid species.  Amid the pictures of Pterorytis are two of the aperture of a single P. conradi specimen from Lee Creek; these clearly show several teeth extending from that outer lip.  They also show a closed anterior canal.  So, mine is probably not P. conradi.

No, Polites' spelling of the genus name is not one of my "trivial" mistakes - no "h" in the name.  More on that in a moment.

In a separate posting titled “Toothless Pterorytis – They’re Not All P. roxaneae!”, Polites offered a photograph of the apertures of three Pterorytis roxaneae shells – no teeth on any of them, and variation in the anterior canals, with one specimen sporting a canal fully uncovered as in my specimen.  Do I perhaps have P. roxaneae?  Sigh, probably not.  For what it’s worth, the Paleobiology Database entry for Pterorytis roxaneae suggests the shell may be known from Florida and the Late Pliocene.

Nevertheless, my operating assumption for the time being is that my shell is at least from the genus Pterorytis (and spelled this way).  I make this choice as to genus despite conchologist William K. Emerson’s review of the genus in the article titled The Gastropod Genus Pterorytis, appearing in American Museum Novitates, (Number 1974, November 14, 1959).  In a terse bit of description, he wrote:  “Siphonal [anterior] canal short, closed.”  (p. 2)  Though his description is of the type species of the genus, Pterorytis umbrifer, in none of the illustrations and photos of the other species he placed in this genus is the canal open.

Guess I’m left rooting for natural variation.

Amid this rummaging around in the taxonomic attic, I suddenly felt plagued by one of my usual trivial mistakes.  I initially wrote the genus name as Pterorhytis but I decided that was in error when I noticed that later I was finding the genus spelled Pterorytis.  I started changing the names of files and folders only to realize finally that the genus name was spelled two different ways in the literature.

Scientists take great pride in the self-correcting nature of science, grounded in the scientific method.  Errors or, indeed, outright lies and fabrications in research will eventually be discovered and corrected as other scientists attempt to reproduce findings, mount challenges to theories, and advance new hypotheses.  In an essay titled Falsity and Failure, writer and physician Lewis Thomas argued that, in the 1970s, a seeming rash of deliberate scientific malfeasance, such as data doctoring or plagiarizing, was less a rash than a single blemish, but it was significant because of its threat to public confidence in science.  As for discovering and correcting the mistakes, Thomas wrote
It is an impossibility for a scientist to fake his results and get away with it, unless he is lucky enough to have the faked data conform, in every fine detail, to a guessed-at truth about nature (the probability of this kind of luck is exceedingly small), or unless the work he describes is too trivial to be of interest to other investigators.  Either way, he cannot win.  If he reports something of genuine significance, he knows for a certainty that other workers will repeat his experiments, or try to, and if he has cooked his data the word will soon be out, to the ruin of his career.  (Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, 1983, p. 111)
That takes care of the big mistakes and probably most of the little ones.  Still I find it somewhat ironic that, in one area, the rules of science may end up enshrining mistakes, protecting them from subsequent efforts to correct them.  Pterorhytis and Pterorytis are an instance of just that.

To understand that, I turn to Timothy Abbot Conrad (1803 – 1887) who named this particular genus.  Conrad, though apparently lacking any college education, did important work in paleontology and geology.  He was employed as a paleontologist and geologist for the New York Geological Survey from the late 1830s to 1841, for several years in the 1850s he had a part time position at the Smithsonian, and later in life he worked for the North Carolina Geological Survey.  At age 28, he was elected to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.  Over the course of his working life, Conrad identified and named myriad fossils.

What kind of standing in the scientific community does Conrad have?  According to paleontologist Ellen James Moore,
Conrad was a perceptive paleontologist who was the first to attempt to describe and date, on the basis of fossils, the Tertiary formations of North America. . . .   His discrimination of genera was outstanding, and by far the majority of generic names he proposed still stand as valid today.  (Conrad’s Cenozoic Fossil Marine Mollusk Type Specimens at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, volume 114, 1962, p. 26)
There was another, somewhat darker side to the man.  It's a more complex portrait we need to paint, one colored by years of ill health, apparently both mental and physical, financial insecurity, deep shyness, and, surprisingly, given Moore’s assessment of his prowess as a paleontologist, a degree of carelessness.  Moore wrote:
Conrad was an absent-minded, moody, somewhat careless man whose life was fraught with pecuniary difficulties and poor health. . . .  Conrad was prone to introduce the same specific name as new more than once within one genus, because of absent-mindedness, and his descriptions are sometimes very brief and occasionally illustrated by unclear drawings. . . . Conrad’s desk was usually piled high with fossils, shells, books, papers, etc., and had to be periodically sorted to save collections not already hopelessly mixed or separated from labels.  (p. 26-27)
Ah, therein lies the source of my struggle with Pterorhytis/Pterorytis.  In 1862, Conrad introduced the genus name, Pterorytis, in Catalogue of the Miocene Shells of the Atlantic Slope which appeared in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (volume 14, p. 560).  Then, in 1868, he wrote about the same fauna and this time used the genus name Pterorhytis (Descriptions of Miocene Shells of the Atlantic Slope, American Journal of Conchology, 1868, volume IV, p. 64).

In his 1959 article, Emerson explained that Conrad was attempting in this second publication to correct a mistake he’d made in constructing the genus name he published in 1862.  But the effort was doomed to fail (or should have been).
Although Conrad (1868) eventually emended Pterorytis to the etymologically more correct Pterorhytis, the rules of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature require that the original spelling be retained.  (p. 3)
The etymological mistake?  Conrad nailed the Ptero part of the name which is Greek for “wing,” “feather,” or “fin.”  But in his initial effort he misspelled the Greek root for "wrinkled."  It's rhytis.  (Donald J. Borror, Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms (1988))  Given the early history of taxonomy when names were changed on the merest whim, thereby undermining the naming enterprise, rules that serve to lock in a name make sense.  Though etymologically flawed, Pterorytis violates no ICZN naming rules and so is a valid name.  The taxonomic super glue takes hold.

Yet . . . as the previous discussion of relatively recent literature on Pterorytis shows, scientists who probably should know better have breathed life, knowingly or unknowingly, into Conrad's attempted correction.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins recently commented in a footnote about a different scientific naming gaffe that “the rules of zoological nomenclature are strict, and even obvious mistakes can’t be changed, once they are enshrined in a naming publication.”  (The Greatest Show on Earth:  The Evidence for Evolution, note on p. 177)  He added (proving, once again, that Dawkins’ notes should never be skipped),
The taxonomy is littered with such fossilized mistakes.  My favourite is Khaya, African mahogany.  Legend (which I long to believe) has it that in a local language it means "I don’t know", with the presumed subtext, "And I don’t care and why don’t you stop asking stupid questions about plant names."
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