Thursday, June 28, 2012

Home Ec. 101 Revisted ~ Trumping A Lousy Report Card

My previous post on this blog described steps I took to prepare some sediment from a middle Miocene site for exploration under the microscope.  I am pursuing microfossils, particularly the shells from ostracodes (tiny crustaceans with a hoary fossil record and the temerity to still be around today).  Ostracodes are complex animals on an incredibly small scale, which explains part of my interest.  I'd also like to have some concrete evidence to back up the assertion I'm prone to make about them - "They're likely to be found in almost any sedimentary rock."  But, as of that previous post, I’d failed to turn up an ostracode in this Miocene material though, as recounted previously, I did stumble upon several fossils shells from foraminifera (single celled organisms that either secrete or build their shells, appear to have an even longer history than ostracodes, and remain in today’s fauna).  The process I went through to wash, screen, and dry the sedimentary material for analysis had all the elements of a high school Home Economics class.

When I considered how I performed in that ersatz Home Ec. class, I decided a report card was in order.




Teacher’s Comments:

Tony has been an enthusiastic student in this class, but, unfortunately, he seems unwilling or, perhaps, unable to take direction.  Though I have advised him to slow down, to think before acting, and to study the recipes and follow them closely, he has failed to heed my advice.  His recent work on the sedimentary material cooking project is a case in point.  He read descriptions of several different methods for preparing the material and then proceeded to pick and choose from among them, almost at random. It was particularly disheartening that he initially reported having followed one set of steps when, in retrospect, that turned out not to be the case.  When I asked him why he did that, he mumbled, “I don’t know.  Too much going on, maybe?”

Though many of the sources he consulted mentioned the use of a mixture of water and Calgon water softener (I would note that he was singularly intrigued by the Calgon), none specified what concentration would be appropriate.  Out of thin air he used a solution with a concentration of approximately 0.5% Calgon.  Though several of the sources he consulted gave times for soaking the material (typically “over night”), he bathed his material in this solution for a full 48 hours.  Of all aspects of this project, the one he seemed to grasp the best, and the one with probably the least consequence, was the time needed to dry the material.

In light of the shortcomings of his work on the recent project, I have given Tony an additional assignment:  read the article titled Microfossil Processing:  A Damage Report, by R. Hodgkinson (Micropaleontology, 1991) and prepare an essay reflecting on the implications of this article for preparing material for microfossil exploration.


The most damning thing about Hodgkinson’s article is that I had actually read it at some point in the process of preparing my material.  Why didn’t the post reflect that?  “I don’t know.  Too much going on, maybe?”

Hodgkinson's piece is for micropaleontology students, drawing from a manual used in the Micropalaeontology Section of the Natural History Museum, London.  His focus is on the negative outcomes possible from the various methods in use to separate microfossils from their matrix and clean them.  He notes that many of these techniques arise from two sets of competing interests involved in collecting microfossils – those of commercial enterprises, such as oil companies, that want to extract microfossils quickly, and those of academic institutions seeking complete and undamaged specimens.

Frankly, after reading the article, I’ve reached the conclusion there’s very little in these various techniques that does not pose a risk to the integrity of the fossils, regardless of whether commercial or academic objectives are being served.  Granted, Hodgkinson is focused on the damage done, so he’s clearly striking a very strong cautionary note.

First lesson learned from the review – BE CAREFUL.

Hodgkinson reviews a number of mechanical methods which, upon reflection, may in some indirect ways challenge my blithe statement in the previous post that there are no hand tools for extracting individual microfossils from matrix.  Anyway, among the methods he considered are abrasion, centrifuging, crushing, and applying ultrasound.  Of these, two actually have some relevance to my sedimentary material.  This material was collected in the so-called reject pile outside of the Aurora Fossil Museum, in Aurora, North Carolina.  This material, from the Pungo River Formation, is dumped outside the museum by the corporation running the Lee Creek Mine and it has, in fact, gone through processing at the phosphate mine.  So, without a doubt, abrasion and crushing have been in the cards for any microfossils I turn up.

Hodgkinson’s review of the chemical methods should clearly have informed my work with my Miocene material.  The chemicals considered here are intended to do one of two things – either dissolve the matrix, thereby releasing the fossils, or disaggregate particles in the sediment, allowing collection of the fossils.  Frankly, it’s amazing that any paleontologist, professional or amateur, ever successfully prepared microfossils with these chemicals given how brutally most of them can treat the fossils.

The damage that these chemicals can do to the microfossils includes cracking, coating (covering up details), etching (eating into the fossils), thinning (making the fossils more fragile), dissolving, changing color, and exploding (yes, indeed).

The last of these evils is laid at the doorstep of sodium hypochlorite (i.e., bleach) along with other sins.  Hodgkinson writes that one report on the use of this chemical to prepare scolecodonts (the jaws of a segmented worm), noted that “it rendered the specimens translucent, and also digested denticles, fangs, tips and other un-named parts.”  Further, the sodium hypochlorite made the specimens “very fragile and light-sensitive and that, any evaporation of the solution allowed crystal growth, which exerted a bursting pressure from within.”  Pretty nasty stuff.

The range of chemicals reviewed here is broad, including acetic acid, carbonic acid, formaldehyde, formic acid, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide, and sodium hexametaphosphate.  Certain brand names are mentioned, including Clorox, Decon (a cleaning product used in labs), Extran (commercial name for another cleaning agent), and Calgon (my favorite and what I have used).

So, on to Calgon.  Hodgkinson’s review, dated 1991, identifies Calgon as containing the chemical compound sodium hexametaphosphate.  The risks to microfossils included “dissolution” (clearly “end times” for the micros), etching, and coating.  Critical to the well-being of fossils soaked in a Calgon solution is the concentration of the chemical and the length of time they are exposed.  Apparently, 0.01% is considered a safe concentration, though etching reportedly has occurred even at that level.  The review actually says very little about the most appropriate length of time.

But perhaps there isn’t much specific to learn about Calgon from Hodgkinson after all.  According to the manufacturer, sodium hexametaphosphate is no longer an ingredient.  Today’s Calgon is made up of carbonic acid, sodium salt, sodium citrate, and sodium sulfate.  One of the sodium compounds, sodium citrate, is described as an organic deflocculant which serves to break up sedimentary particles in a solution, presumably releasing the microfossils and cleaning them of any matrix.  So, Calgon in its current configuration may be useful, but I don't have any specific guidance as to concentration or soaking time.

In fact, the review overall is often short on specifics, regardless of method or chemical used, but rich in examples of getting it wrong.  There’s method to that madness I think, which leads to another conclusion.

Second lesson learned from the review:  Experiment, experiment, experiment, until you stumble on a method that works.


The method I described in my previous posting was the one I used to prepare the sample that yielded some foraminifera shells.  Did my heavy concentration of Calgon and my 48 hours of soaking destroy much of the microfossil fauna I might have discovered in this material?  I don’t know.  But while preparing that particular sample, I was actually following the second lesson learned from Hodgkinson’s review – experiment, experiment, experiment.  I applied parallel cleaning processes to the Miocene material.  In one, I followed the advice on the Hull Geological Society’s website and boiled (yikes) a mixture of Calgon/water/matrix, trying to achieve the custardy consistency described in this piece . . . I failed, but still washed, screened, and dried the material.  I have not yet explored it under the microscope, but I have to wonder about the impact of boiling on fragile fossil shells.

In another, more sane process, I simply soaked the material for 48 hours in plain water, no chemicals added, then washed and screened it (the stocking method – see previous post), and finally dried it in the oven at 170º F for 2 hours.  It was to this latter sample that I turned when I began to think there was more madness than method to my Calgon processing.

A mere 15 minutes after I began my search, there it was, sitting in my field of view, a glorious ostracode.  (As for the size of this fossil, I think it may be as much as one millimeter in length.  Given how hesitant I am to play around with a microfossil, I've yet to figure out a way to measure one with any precision.)

To me, this is a dramatic first find because this ostracode fossil consists of two articulated shells.  That is, the two shells the animal was sporting in life have remained together as a fossil.

A bit of background on the shell structure of ostracodes may be appropriate.  The animals live inside two shells or tests, a right one and a left one hinged at the top.  In the Podocopida, the class of ostracode most common in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic (from 250 million years ago to the present), one shell is generally slightly larger than the other, creating a lip that runs along the outside edge of the larger shell when the two are closed.  That lip is strikingly evident in the first photo below.  The dorsal (top) side of this specimen, where the tests are hinged, is straight, while the ventral side is convex.  The articulation of the two shells shows clearly in the second photo.

Without much doubt, the beastie inside has long since decayed away, but, for some 15 million years or so, its two shells have stayed closed, one nestled inside the other.  An amazing feat given the rigors of the fossilization process and the terrors of phosphate strip mining, not to say the extreme hazards of my treatment of the material (Calgon or not).

Now, I have only vague clues as to the identity of this particular fossil.  Unfortunately, my summer vacation has intruded, so I am stranded some 300 miles away from a couple of my sources that might provide guidance.  Further, the web is actually largely destitute when it comes to ostracode identification.  Though the Microfossil Image Recovery and Circulation for Learning and Education (MIRACLE) of the University College London gives a good introduction to ostracodes (or ostracods, the British spelling), its images of different genera and species are too few to be of much use with the one at hand.  The closest I can come in the several volumes produced on the Lee Creek fauna under the auspices of the Smithsonian is an article on the stratigraphy of younger formations at Lee Creek which does focus on ostracodes.  These formations are younger than that which yielded my find (Pungo River Formation).  (Joseph E. Hazel, Age and Correlation of the Yorktown (Pliocene) and Croatan (Pliocene and Pleistocene) Formations at the Lee Creek Mine, in Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, Volume I, edited by Clayton E. Ray (1983).)  But it’s only suggestive.

Heeding the advice of my Home Ec. teacher, I think I will take my time and ponder, withholding an identification for the time being . . . though . . . if pressed . . . I’d put Cytheridea as a genus into the mix.

So, is that it for the ostracodes in this sample?  Does that render a verdict on the presence or absence of these microfossils in this Lee Creek material of mine?  On the methods of preparing the material?  At this stage, none of the above is the correct answer.  Even as the car was being packed up for the trip north to the fossil-barren landscape of Long Island, I took a few minutes to scan some more of this material (the sample soaked in plain water).  A single ostracode shell showed itself (same genus as the first, I have to assume).  Disappointing?  Hardly.  Just whetted my appetite.

For a fine overview of ostracode fossils, I recommend the relevant chapter in Microfossils, by Howard A. Armstrong and Martin D. Brasier (2005, Second Edition).  Being British, they do insist on ostracod.  I discovered that they also have an appendix on methods for preparing material - they title it "Extraction Methods."  No need to get into that, though they do feature some fairly dramatic methods.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Home Ec. 101 ~ The Hunt for Microfossils

As I delve deeper into micropaleontology, that study of the smallest of fossils, I feel like I’m in a high school Home Ec. class.  This post is mostly about that Home Ec. process with some asides for what continues to intrigue me – the etymological history of some of the words that crop up, some from the world of paleontology, others not.

The sedimentary material I recently prepared for microscopic study came from North Carolina’s Lee Creek Mine, specifically the Pungo River Formation, a mid-Miocene Epoch rock formation, some 20.5 to 14.8 million years old.  It’s not unusual for this amateur paleontologist to futz around in the basement and in the laundry room.  Shark teeth, whale bones, and shells often bathe in pans of water sitting on the washing machine or are strewn about drying.  But my pursuit of the microfossils hiding in this sedimentary material has decidedly more domestic trappings than that.

I cannot resist this first etymological aside.  Futz is such an expressive word for describing the idle fiddling away or squandering of time.  According to The New Oxford American Dictionary, it may have originated with the Yiddish word arumfartzen which means to “fart around.”  Ah, yes.

Anyway, the sediment preparation began with a laundry room phase involving Calgon Water Softener (“Add to your wash for whiter and brighter clothes.”).  I poured the sedimentary material into a solution of Calgon and water, and let the whole thing steep for 48 hours.

Calgon.  Though it may not have been necessary for this sediment, it certainly deserves a bit of explanation.  In this, my use of Calgon was prompted by various sources describing preparation of microfossils, including the steps briefly described by geologist T. Markham Puckett in his monumental study of Alabama ostracode fossils (Ecological Atlas of Upper Cretaceous Ostracodes of Alabama, Geological Survey of Alabama, Monograph 14, 1996.).  [I edited this previous sentence which originally stated that I followed Puckett's steps as best I could.  Clearly, not true.  For instance, he used a solution of Calgon and hydrogen peroxide (concentrations unstated), and the soaking lasted only over night.  In contrast, my material soaked for 48 hours in a roughly 0.5% Calgon solution.]  In a previous post, I briefly discussed ostracodes which are ubiquitous, microscopic crustaceans living within two tests (shells); the tests are what fossilize, though, on rare occasion, the delicate animal within is preserved.  I am really hoping that, at some point, my efforts with this Miocene material will turn up ostracodes.  No such luck to date, but fossil shells of foraminifera have graced the field of my microscope.  More on those microfossils below.

Because there are no hand tools to safely extract fragile microfossil shells from, say, a clot of clay, the addition of chemical agents to the bath is called for, in an effort to break up the sedimentary material.  Calgon, at least in its earlier formulations, acted to deflocculate particles in liquid solution.  In essence, a deflocculant chemically neutralizes the charges on the particles in a solution and, so, keeps them from aggregating.  By exposing this sediment to deflocculants, the microfossils will be separated from the other particles in the sediment.  Alkaline salts, such as sodium, act to deflocculate soil.  Calgon no longer has phosphates which, according to some websites, has robbed it of its value as a deflocculant.  I’m not so sure of that, because, based on the manufacturer’s description of its chemical composition, the ingredients in the current incarnation of Calgon sitting in my laundry room include salts that are known deflocculants.  (I didn’t explore this chemical process as much as I should have.  Nevertheless, of some use was Deflocculants: A Detailed Overview by Dr. Nilo Tozzi.  The definition of flocculation in The Facts on File Dictionary of Earth Science by John O.E. Clark and Stella Stiegeler (2000) was also helpful.)

After that digression on Calgon and its role as a deflocculant, I may as well wander even farther from my path and explore the field I find myself in, an etymological field full of . . . sheep.  All of these variations of the words deflocculate and flocculate have everything to do with floccules – that’s what a deflocculant seeks to break up and a flocculant to create.  The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a floccule (noun) as “a small clump of material that resembles a tuft of wool.”  Hiking still deeper into this field takes me to the Latin word flocc meaning “a lock of wool, flake.”  (Donald J. Borror, Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms (1988).)  But it gets better.  Flocc leads ultimately to the word flock.

After two days, I did the poor man’s trick of screening my material in clean water by using pieces of a pair of woman’s stockings.  I have not taken the plunge and invested in a scientific sieve with mesh openings of the recommended size.  In a nicely done piece for K-12 educators titled Preparation Techniques for Use of Foraminifera in the Classroom, geologist Scott W. Snyder and paleobiologist Brian T. Huber note that the purchase of such a sieve is “probably the single most expensive item needed to properly prepare samples” which explains why I don’t yet have one.  Let’s see what turns up with my crude methods, first.

With my now cleaned, screened, disaggregated sediment, I crossed a critical line by taking it into . . . the kitchen.

In my household the kitchen is mostly my domain, so this shift in “culinary” activity didn’t generate much pushback from my significant other (perhaps she was still wondering what happened to that pair of stockings).  I lined several cookie sheets with aluminum foil and then covered them with a thin layer of wet sedimentary material.  I baked those sheets for two hours in an oven set at 170º F (its lowest setting – Puckett used a still lower temperature) and waited, not for rising, but for drying.  A slightly acrid, earthy smell filled the kitchen.  (Nothing to excite the salivary glands.)  Then the trays were set out to cool.

To be honest I’ve just begun the process of scanning the material under the microscope.  The results so far have been mixed.  As I noted earlier, ostracodes are my primary target and have eluded me so far.  Not so the shells of foraminifera, or forams as they are commonly called.  To date a few forams have been “captured” under the scope, using a very fine paint brush dipped in water to lift my quarry out of the sample and onto a slide for safekeeping.

Forams are amazing creatures given that they, like amoebas, consist of a single nucleated cell.  Their fossil record is long and they’re still with us.  The tests of these protists are usually made of calcite or aragonite, typically contain several chambers, and come in myriad shapes – some dramatic spirals, others seem to be random aggregations of little balls, still others complex braids like loaves of bread.  The shells for some taxa are secreted, while, for others, the animal builds them from available particles in its surroundings.  A single cell that builds structures from grains of sand and other particles simply beggars the imagination.

I was puzzled by paleontologist Donald Prothero’s description of the shells as being “internal” until I realized that a foram’s shell is pockmarked with many pores through which the foram extends “pseudopods” – long filaments of its cytoplasm by means of which it feeds and moves.  (Bringing Fossils to Life:  An Introduction to Paleobiology, 1998, p. 191).  So, when a foram is active, the shell is, for all intents and purposes, internal.  Prothero wryly notes,
Active foraminiferans are difficult to keep track of in a Petri dish, since they have the annoying habit of creeping up and out of the dish before the investigator is aware of it.  (p. 191.)
[Later edit:  I thought I'd understood the "internal" nature of the foraminifera's shell or test, but now I think I was wrong.  According to Howard A. Armstrong and Martin D. Brasier, in Microfossils (2nd edition, 2005), the test really is internal because the organism's cytoplasm is divided into (1) endoplasm which is found inside the test and contains the nucleus and organelles (mitochondria, etc.), and (2) clear ectoplasm which covers the outside of the test in a thin layer and is connected to the endoplasm through an aperture in the test.  They describe the pseudopods as extending from the ectoplasm.]

I like Prothero’s explication of the origin of the name for these protists.  He states that foramina means “windows” and ferre is “to bear.”  Yes, this animal, all of one cell large, carries many windows in its shell out which it may pour and through which it may retreat.

The photograph below shows a live foram, an Ammonia tepida, with pseudopods aflutter.  The image was taken by Scott Fay, UC Berkeley, 2005.  It is used in this blog under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Foraminifera date from the early Cambrian, giving them “a fossil record as old as any other phylum of eukaryotic organism.”  (Prothero, p. 195; eukaryotes have DNA enclosed in a nucleus.)  Given their presence in nearly all marine environments, their fossils are widely used to identify marine strata and explore paleoclimates, as well as to aid in the search for oil.  In fact, “[t]he sand of many tropical beaches is composed entirely of the skeletons of benthic [bottom dwelling] foraminifera.”  (Prothero, p. 190.)

Microfossil Image Recovery and Circulation for Learning and Education (MIRACLE) of the University College London provides an excellent online introduction of foraminifera with some good images of fossil forams from different environments and time periods.

So, what did my Home Ec. class lead to?  For the moment I’m focusing on two different kinds of foram that have appeared in this Miocene sediment.  My primary source for identifications is the chapter titled Key Foraminifera From Upper Oligocene to Lower Pleistocene Strata of the Central Atlantic Coast Plain, by Thomas G. Gibson, which appears in Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, Volume I, edited by Clayton E. Ray (1983).  Gibson notes that material from Lee Creek’s Pungo River Formation is “highly phosphatized” which is not surprising given that this is a phosphate mine.  (p. 359.)  But, I’m not certain what the implications of that condition are for my efforts, though my early finds are very mineralized and lack details.  Perhaps that's part of it.

I believe the specimen that appears below is from the foram genus Bolivina and may be a B. pungoensis, a new species identified by Gibson in 1983.  It’s less than half a millimeter big.  The faint lines mark the individual chambers this creature made many millions of years ago.  This image and the second one below were captured by a small camera fit into one of the scope’s tubes.  The objective lens is a 3X power and the camera multiplies that image by some factor I have yet to figure out.

The second type is, I believe, from the genus Globorotalia, though, of course, it may not be.  Again, it’s smaller than half a millimeter.

I think I just heard a timer go off.  Time to take some cookie sheets out of the oven.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Ancient Marine Reptiles ~ Family Redux

I did not set out to fashion a post that carried on the theme from the last one – fossil hunting families – but that’s what I appear to have done, though it has an added twist – a fossil family.

I wonder if visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History were aware of the recent, rare privilege they had of seeing a marvelous fossil being worked on.  Well, to be honest, it wasn’t much to look at, initially rather more puzzling than breathtaking.  But if you had an idea what it was (that is, were willing to read the brief explanation placed near it), you learned that its looks were deceiving.  This specimen, formally described in a 2009 publication, was undergoing some additional preparation in the FossiLab, the Museum’s paleontological preparatory lab situated on the exhibit floor, just down from the dinosaurs.  Visitors had a view of this fossil through the lab’s large glass windows.  (Though the fossil is still on display as of the date of this post, I’ve written this in the past tense for reasons that will be obvious at the conclusion.)

A stack of thin, black disks, like miniature poker chips, rises from the small block of gray matrix found in the Sundance Formation, Wyoming.  This material is 161.2 to 155.6 million years old (Oxfordian Age of the Upper Jurassic).  In a 2009 article, biologist F. Robin O’Keefe and his co-authors posited that these disks (12 – 15 mm wide and 2 – 3 mm thick) are embryonic ichthyosaur vertebrae.  These vertebrae were found encased in matrix lying amid the ribs and gastralia (the “belly ribs”) of the fossilized remains of an adult plesiosaur, a different kind of animal.  O’Keefe, et al., described the ichthyosaur as “a voided embryo rather than a neonate,” and its presence in the plesiosaur as evidence of scavenging.  (Viviparity or live birth is an attribute of ichthyosaurs.)   (F. Robin O’Keefe, et al., A Plesiosaur Containing an Ichthyosaur Embryo as Stomach Contents From the Sundance Formation of the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, December 2009.)

I hope visitors who saw the ichthyosaur embryo were inclined to take the few steps necessary to see the adult ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons on display nearby. These ancient marine reptiles were indeed monstrous denizens of the Mesozoic seas, nothing soft and cuddly about them (though O’Keefe may beg to differ regarding the plesiosaur – see below).  Ichthyosaurs went extinct in the Early Cretaceous, while the plesiosaurs, in a diminished capacity, outlasted them, but ended their run presumably with the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous.  One of the Early Jurassic ichthyosaurs (species unknown) on display at the NMNH is shown below.

When I first saw the ichthyosaur embryo fossil being prepped, a tiny bell rang in the recesses of my memory, and, eventually, the connection was made.  It’s what brings a fossil hunting family and a fossil family into this posting.

In 2011, O’Keefe and paleontologist L.M. Chiappe posited that, along with ichthyosaurs and some other ancient marine reptile taxa during the Mesozoic Era (251.0 to 65.5 million years ago), plesiosaurs also gave birth to live young.  They based their hypothesis on the fossil skeleton of a Late Cretaceous short-necked plesiosaur skeleton which, within its body cavity, contains what appear to be the fossil remains of a plesiosaur fetus.  O’Keefe and Chiappe reached their conclusion from the position of the plesiosaur juvenile within the adult skeleton, the fact that both individuals are members of the same species, the limited ossification of the juvenile skeleton, and that the juvenile remains are unmarked by stomach acid.  This would be the first evidence of viviparity for plesiosaurs.  (Viviparity and K-Selected Life History in a Mesozoic Marine Plesiosaur (Reptilia, Sauropterygia), Science, August 12, 2011.)  (Warning:  paywall at the Science site.)

O’Keefe and Chiappe pushed the envelope a bit when they went on to suggest that, given the reproductive strategy they attribute to the plesiosaur (giving birth to a single, live offspring) is the same as that of odontocete cetaceans (toothed whales), the plesiosaurs may have exhibited social behavior similar to those marine mammals.  This would have included extensive parental attention to newborns and membership in larger social networks.  Though they acknowledged that additional evidence must be marshaled, they asserted, “it is certain that plesiosaur life history differed markedly from that of other Mesozoic marine reptiles.”  In the photograph below, a Cretaceous plesiosaur swims on display at the NMNH.

And it’s here that a fossil hunting family enters the picture.  Well, actually, the family entered the picture long before O’Keefe and Chiappe published their findings.  In 1987, nearly a quarter of a century earlier, Charles Bonner and his father Marion had came upon these plesiosaur fossils while hiking on their ranch in Logan County, Kansas.  Suspecting they were something special, the Bonners excavated the fossil remains and shipped them to the Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County.  Only recently, as these fossils were brought out for display was their import realized.  (Daniela Hernandez, Plesiosaurs Carried Young Like a Mammal, Study Finds, Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2011.)  This is another of those stories of fossils coming into their own only after lingering in storage-induced obscurity.

Bonner.  It’s a family name with cachet among fossil collectors.  Marion, the patriarch of the family, was a renowned amateur fossil collector.  He and his wife Margaret raised a fossil collecting family of eight children.  Among the children, Orville went on to become the head preparator at the University of Kansas’ Museum of Natural History.  In 2010, scientists named a new genus of huge plankton-eating Cretaceous fish Bonnerichthys in honor of the Bonner family.  Ah, one more tale of delayed understanding of a fossil’s significance.  In 1971, son Charles discovered the fossil which was the basis of the identification of the new species nearly 40 years later, and Marion invested many months in 1971 and 1972 excavating the remains which were then shipped to the museum at the University of Kansas.  (Kathy Hanks, Man, His Fossil Finds Were In A Class By Themselves, The Hutchinson News, February 22, 2010.)

Fossils and families, fossil families – endlessly fascinating, as is time in paleontology.  I don’t mean the creation of fossils, but what happens subsequently.  Fossils produced over millions of years may be discovered only to then languish decades, even centuries, on a shelf (often literally), or not.  Case in point, the ichthyosaur embryo fossil.  The large plesiosaur fossil which encased it was discovered in 2004, extracted and prepped in 2005.  The initial paper describing the ichthyosaur embryo within the plesiosaur came out just four years later.

And now, in the past several days, the embryo material was being prepped still further for analysis.  The various stages of paleontological prepping can take a protracted period of time, or not.  I took the photographs shown at the beginning of this posting about five days ago.  Here’s the most important of the small chunks I saw today upon another visit.  Blink and you may miss it.

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