Central Coast Critters: Gomphotherium

Hey there every peoples!

What do you say we follow up my last post with something a little more positive, eh?

Paleontology is full of familiar faces. Dinosaurs have what I call the “Main Four”: Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus), and Triceratops. I call them such because they are the four most recognized and well known dinosaurs to the world. And there are still a few very well known dinosaurs, like Allosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Velociraptor, and Brachiosaurus. Mammals have a few too, namely the woolly mammoth, the saber-tooth cat, and the cave bear. But to paleontologists there are many more animals with which they easily recognize and are very familiar with. One such animal is Gomphotherium.

Skeleton of Gomphotherium at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (from flickr user LLudo)

Gomphotherium has been known to the paleontological community for over 170 years and has been found in Europe, Asia, and North America. It is perhaps the best known of the shovel-tuskers, an extinct but diverse group who added many branches to the proboscidean family tree (Proboscideans are elephants and their extinct relatives). Gomphotherium evolved in the proboscidean homeland of Africa and then spread throughout the world. It first entered North America 15 million years ago where it ranged from California and Oregon to Florida and Maryland.

Gomphotherium’s long lower jaw has puzzled scientists since the first one was found. What was it used for? How did a trunk fit over it? Originally it was thought that such jaws were used to dig up roots. Other interpretations said that the jaw was used to dredge water plants. Still some others think it was for stripping bark from trees. For all we know, it could have been all three. Modern elephants use their tusks for a variety of purposes. One population in Africa actually goes into underground caves and mines for salt, using their tusks as picks. The shovel-tusker jaw may have been a Swiss army knife, useful for a variety of purposes depending on the situation. And as for the trunk? That’s a little harder to pin down. Soft tissue is very rarely fossilized. But by looking at the bones of the skull we might be able to get an idea. Considering that this animal was a browser and likely doing all kinds of scooping type actions with its jaw, a long trunk is unlikely as it could have gotten in the way.

fleshed-out reconstruction of Gomphotherium (from the book Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids)

And as luck would have it, this marvelous beast roamed the Central Coast. It is known from at least the middle Miocene Caliente formation, which is 14 to 12 million years old. According to a few entries in UCMP’s online collections database, a dentary (lower jaw), astragalus (ankle bone), and a partial humerous (upper armbone) are know from the Caliente. I don’t know if there are more specimens from this formation or others, but the few above are good enough for me. As with many Central Coast fossils, they are hidden away in UCMP’s vast collections. I would love to be able to secure them for our museum so that they may help tell the story of the Central Coast, but Berkeley is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Why would they let go (even if it’s a simple loan) some of their legendary collections for a little guy like me? I had written a few letters to them in years past about some ice age fossils on behalf of a couple local museums. They never wrote back. Besides, you don’t get to brag that you have the largest fossil collection of any university in the world by loaning or selling or donating any of your specimens.

Jaw of Gomphotherium from the Mascal formation of Oregon

Sorry for the tangent. There are some complex feelings stirring there. But I hope I have illuminated a little more of the blogosphere by talking about another home of one of the most familiar faces in paleontology. Gomphotherium, I salute thee!

Till next time!

Paleontology and Depression

Hey there every peoples!

I wanted to post this sooner but I’ve been this week running the dog to the vet and getting a mole removed. Now that that’s out of the way, I have some free time.

Last weekend I had an exchange with a paleontologist in Santa Ana that had some unexpected ramifications. I was referred to said paleontologist by my geology teacher. So I emailed him to start chatting and he referred me to a paper on entelodonts. I had also hinted at maybe seeking his help and he said he didn’t know how he could help. I offered a couple of examples, namely that he could perhaps help me figure out where to look for fossils. He may have misunderstood what I said (likely due to the context of our conversation) and wrote back with what was simply advice. But my depression decided to read into something that wasn’t there. Luckily Alton helped sort things out.

He suggested doing background research into what I was interested in and that collecting should be secondary. See, he probably thought I was referring to entelodonts when I sent my email (let that be a lesson: don’t be ambiguous. Be clear!). But when he said that maybe I should study at a university or college with entelodonts in its collections, I think that when my depression kicked in.

What seems to have happened is my depression zeroed in on that one word: university. Why would an institution of higher education have such negative connotations for me? It has to do with the fact that I’m a terrible student. I have spent the last 4 years at a community college trying to get enough credits to transfer to an actual college (because with my high school record I had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting into a university). And I have to tell you it has been like wading through a quagmire. I am not very good at math or English which unfortunately our schools tend to focus on the most (actually I should say that I suck at fictional analysis. I’m apparently not half bad at writing essays). While I inched ever closer to getting my associates degree, the requirements to get into a paleontology program was a different matter.

Basically any school that would take my credits and had a geology program (geology… paleontology… they all had the same requirements) required a bunch of sciences: biology, chemistry, and physics. Ok, I thought, I can tough it out a little longer while I tough those out. And then I found out that I would need to take calculus. Any hope I had sank like the Lusitania. I had just failed intermediate algebra and I was supposed to work my way up to calculus?

My depression hasn’t helped any of this. Among the many problems it has blessed me with are a lack of confidence and a massive inferiority complex. Combine that with a failing struggle with math and you have a recipe for disaster. Back in the spring semester, I was doing my math homework and it took me 45 minutes to do 10 problems. 10 problems! Needless to say it spawned my worst episode in months.

School caused me so much anguish and despair that I took this semester off to focus on finding a job (something else that was causing me anguish). We’ll have to see how that turns out. As you the reader knows I have very very ambitious plans for the future. But it has been beaten so much into my head that I need a big college degree to get anywhere, forcing me to keep going back to community college to just fail again which just fueled my depression more. And that made me feel utterly hopeless about the future, feeding the depression even more.

I tell you, there needs to be trade schools for science. You know, places for people like me who are very passionate about a certain science but have major trouble with the other academic stuff or even some of the harder to learn aspects of  the science they wish to study. But that’s wishful thinking at best. Given our country’s disdain for science and the growing disconnect from the natural world in the general populace, such an institution would go under in its first few years. And that leaves me with even less hope. Because I learn by doing. I learn by immersing myself in the real time activities of what I’m studying. I do better when I take in bits of information at a time and repeating them (as opposed to the schools I’ve been to, where they just try to cram in as much as possible). I feel like what I need is not so much a teacher but a mentor. Someone who I work under who can just randomly quiz me on stuff as he walks by (barely five minutes would do). One of the reasons I’m doing that trip to Red Rock Canyon with the LA Museum not just to go look for fossils. I am hoping (very foolishly) that I perhaps may get chummy with the scientists leading it, maybe even getting a foot in to perhaps one day get that mentorship. But I probably have a better chance of winning the lottery…

All I have ever wanted to do was look for and study fossils. In recent years that desired has been refined to looking for fossils to tell their story and use them to teach people. I still want to study them, but in the vein of studying what I find (plus some other ideas I’d wish to pursue). I have been trying desperately to find places to prospect for fossils (even asking Bobby where he looks for the marine fossils he blogs about. He hasn’t responded) so that I might be able to start such an endeavor but to no avail. And considering my inability to cope with even community college and the fact that everyone hammers into my mind the importance of having a master’s degree, perhaps fate has decided I’m not fit to be a paleontologist.

Till next time…

Just a Thought

Hey there every peoples!

Just wanted to chime in on some random thought i have had as i sit here looking up random stuff. As you may or may not know, in the last 20 years there has been an explosion in specimens of Tyrannosaurus rex. One of the most famous of these specimens is Jane. Jane was discovered by the Burpee Museum in the Hellcreek formation of Montana. She helped launch the Burpee Museum to stardom and launch their now blossoming paleontology program ( that such a small museum could have such success has been a big inspiration for me). Jane is important because she is a juvenile. Standing 7.5 feet at the hips, stretching 20 feet long, and weighing 1500 pounds, she would have been quite the bully at the playground. Estimated to be 11 years old, she is an important part in our understanding of T. rex growth.

Cast of Jane's skeleton at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Ohio (photo from flickr user statePaige)

But wait a minute. We have all heard this stuff time and time again. You’re probably wondering why I’m babbling about her. Well the answer has to do with another T. rex. His name is Thomas. Like Jane he was discovered in the badlands of Montana but by the Natural History Museum of  Los Angeles County. Thomas is a juvenile like Jane but estimated to be 13 years old. Thomas is set to appear as part of a T. rex growth series in the LA Museum’s new Dinosaur Mysteries hall which opens next year. He was quite hefty for a teenager standing 10 feet at the hips, 30 feet from nose to tail, and weighing in at 8,000 pounds.

Reconstruction of Thomas' skeleton with body outline

That’s all well and good, but what do these two have to do with each other and why are they getting a post? Here’s a hint: look at their sizes. It strikes me as odd that these two members of the same species who are only a couple years have such a huge gap in their size. Now I have often read that T. rex went through a freakish growth spurt when growing up: almost 5 pounds a day! Now if Jane was growing at that rate, she would have weighed 5,150 pounds when she reached Thomas’ age. That’s more than half of Thomas’ weight but almost 1 and a half tons short. Now I’m no expert (in dinosaurs or math) but that sounds like such an incredible disparity in size. Was Thomas eating something that helped him put on weight faster? Was Jane simply a runt? Was T. rex like some modern raptors where the female is larger than the male, making Thomas “Tanya” and Jane “Joe”? Or most provocatively, was one a different species than the other? Only time, more fossils, and more research will tell. Just thought I’d share that with all of you.

Till next time!

Better Know a Museum: Los Angeles Part 4

Hey there every peoples!

Welcome to the final segment of the first installment of my new series, Better Know a Museum. Now there is much more to the LA Museum than what I have showed you, but it would take me another month to cover it all. They have probably the biggest display of gems and minerals I have ever seen, a detailed hall of California History, and truly superb wildlife halls. But in the interests of time and relevancy, I just stuck with the fossils and artifacts. But before I move on to posts about shovel-tuskers and ancient cults, I want to talk about a particular display in the Age of Mammals hall.

I was pleased to find an abundance of raw fossil material in the hall, half of which was used to explain how fossils teach us about ancient life. But the other half was used for something different. About half the raw fossil material was used to tell the story of Los Angeles through the ages. Well, only two of the four sections contained fossils from the LA area proper while the other two had fossils from farther away but still in the general region. But it was the first section that really spoke to me.

The first section was on Los Angeles during the Eocene epoch, 40 million years ago. To show this, it used fossils from the Sespe formation in Ventura County. As someone who wants to build a museum to in part tell the story of fossils on the Central Coast, you can’t imagine how enthused I was to see the fossils in this display. Having never been able to find photos or information on such fossils, I went trigger happy with my camera. I photographed every fossil in that display. Here are a few:

Crocodile femur which indicates a warm and wet climate

Jaw of the Miacid Tapocyon, named after Tapo Canyon where the first fossils were found

Jaw of Dyseolemur, a primitive primate

They also had a slab  from the late Oligocene member of the Sespe Formation containing the skulls, jaws, and bones of two rhinos and the shell of a tortoise:

Subhyracodon and tortoise remains from the Kew Quarry outside Camarillo, Ventura County

The next display featured marine fossils from the LA area. They were from the middle Miocene, around 15 million years ago. The fossils of sea cows, dolphins, fish, and mollusks provided a stark contrast to the steamy Louisiana-style swamps of the Eocene. One spectacular specimen was the skeleton of a sea turtle hatchling:

Sea turtle hatchling

The next display provided yet another dramatic change. It featured fossils from Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave Desert of Kern County. Walking down the mezzanine visitors are transported from swamps to shallow seas to open grasslands with patches of woodland. This was another display that I really enjoyed since Red Rock Canyon is one of the places I want to go search for fossils (actually I signed up for a field trip with the LA Museum that goes looking for fossils out there).  This display, like every other one in the series, used the fossils to show how the environment change, like the preponderance of grazers:

Jaw of a three-toed grazing horse, Pliohippus

Jaw of a marmot-sized grazing rodent

And the presence of grass:

Fossil grass stems

The final display was about Rancho La Brea (yeah, I didn’t see that coming either). It featured mostly plant and invertebrate fossils since many other animals from the tar pits are on display elsewhere in the hall:

Redwood branch dredged from the asphalt

So what does this mean for me? This display effectively achieved my dream. It told the story of lesser known fossils from unexpected locations. Should I just quit now since it’s already done? Am I just going to say “yay, someone finally did it” and pursue a conventional career in paleontology since I couldn’t possibly compete with institutions of this magnitude?

The answer is a resounding HELL NO!!!  There are so many more fossils out there that need to be brought into the spotlight. I have often felt discouraged by reports of fossils collections that make me think there are no fossils left to find. But I remain optimistic. I will try to make this museum work one way or another. I would be out looking for fossils right now but just finding where to look has proven difficult. I actually do have a few maps that show the locations of Sespe outcrops but they are very tough to read (the color variations make it very difficult to tell what’s what). I am even thinking of asking the Coastal Paleontologist where he looks for fossils so that maybe when I get a job I can take weekend forays up to Santa Cruz. And for the last month and a half I have been composing a proposal letter to the San Luis Obispo City Council. And I don’t see the LA Museum as competition. It is my hope ( whether or not it’s a fools hope is yet to be seen) that my little museum could work with the LA Museum, maybe displaying fossils they could not fit into their new hall. I have a lot of work to do. But I will do my best to make my dream a reality. Because I love fossils. I love the Central Coast. I’m just having a little trouble getting started.

So if anyone out there knows where I can find geologic maps or simply point me to a good spot here or there or anywhere (particuallry the Sespe, Caliente, Pismo, and maybe Round Mountain Silt, Horned Toad,  and Dove Spring Formations) I would be eternally grateful.

Till next time!

Better Know a Museum: Los Angeles Part 3

Hey there every peoples!

Time for part three of my of the first part of my new series Better Know a Musem! This week we look at what might be the most popular exhibit at the museum: The dinosaur hall! Except there is really no hall to speak off. It was closed a couple years ago so that it may be reborn in a new part of the museum.

None too soon I would say. The old dinosaur hall wasn’t that much better than the old Cenozoic hall. There were a few mounts that were in life like poses, but most of them were just sitting there. The halls were mostly dark and not much information was to be found. There were few fossils on display in cases. Really the only thing the hall had going for it was the various skeletons on display, from the small Dimetrodon to the gargantuan Mamenchisaurus. However Mamenchisaurus, the centerpiece of the the old hall, had problems: it had the wrong skull. It’s skull looked much more like that of a diplodocid rather than a euhelopid. While the biggest dipslay of dinosaurs on the west coast, it was in dire need of an overhaul.

So in 2008 the dinosaur hall was closed for good. For the museum’s centenial a new dinosaur hall, consisting of two halls (where the Latin America and Native american halls used to be), was to be built. This new hall would be brightly lit with natural light like the Age of Mammals hall. The hall would look like a museum for the 21st century. It will be called Dinosaur Mysteries and will open summer next year. Such specimens to be included in the hall are the plesiosaur Morenosaurus, a partial Triceratops from Montana, a new Corythosaurus mount, a T. rex growth series, and Mamenchisaurus (but with a new skull). Here is a rendering of what one of the halls may look like:

The dinosaur halls reborn!

But while these epic halls are a year away, the museum has created a couple smaller displays to sate the public’s hunger for dinosaurs. First is a small platform in the upstairs North American Mammal hall containing a skeleton and two skulls. Very basic and generic as far as materials go; they have a T. rex skull and a Triceratops skull accompanied by the skeleton of Carnotaurus (only museum I have been to that features this animal). This small display is actually much better, in my opinion, than the whole of the old halls. The Carntotaurus skeleton seems to change modes depending on the angle you are looking at him. If you are looking at him from the front, it looks like he is either chasing after prey or moving in for the kill. If viewed from behind, he looks like he is stalking his prey. The wood railings and rock floor really add some nice naturalistic feel to the display and the lighting is dramatic and moody. See for yourself:

The temporary display of Mesozoic beasts in the North American mammal hall

The other dinosaur display is a thoroughly modern preparation lab:

The Los Angeles Museum's dino lab

This lab was created in 2008 to prep the museum’s teenage T. rex Thomas. Thomas is going to be one of the specimens in the upcoming T. rex growth series. Thomas was 13 when he died and was already a hefty 8,000 pounds and ten feet tall at the hips. But as time went by and significant progress was made on Thomas, the lab has been used to prep other specimens for the new halls and the museum’s collection. Lots of stuff going on in there. Here are some specimens:

What appears to be a hadrosaur sacrum

A block of red sandstone containing the jumbled remains of Coelophysis

A skeletal sketch of some unkown theropod. If anyone can tell me what it is, you get a gold star!

So while the old dinosaur halls left much to be desired, the new halls look to fulfill the museums wish of becoming a dinosaur hub for the West Coast (even if I can get my museum built, they will be able to keep that title at the rate they are going). The temporary displays knock the socks off the old halls and effectively keep the public’s hunger for dinosaurs in check. When the halls are finally finished next year, expect a report and review from me!

Till next time!

Better Know a Museum: Los Angeles Part 2

Hey there every peoples!

Welcome to part 2 of our journey through the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Last week we saw their new Cenozoic and how well done it was. But how does the museum fair in other areas. This time we are looking at the museum’s archaeology collection.  I said collection instead of exhibit because that is what the museum was going for in their display Visible Vault: Archaeological Treasures from Ancient Latin America.

I’m currently depressed and lazy so I will let KT Hajeian, Collections Manager of Anthropology at the museum, laid it out:

“Our Latin American collection (much of which is on display in the Visible Vault) was a mix of purchases and donations (and a few long term loans that eventually became donations). When one of our previous Curators, Charles Rozaire was first hired, his primary responsibility was to create and the old Ancient Latin American Hall which opened in 1966. Coincidentally, during the 1950’s and early 1960’s it was “trendy” to have Latin American art in your home so many of the wealthier Hollywood homes had small collections. Luckily for us, the trend went out of fashion and we received many donations in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s. Charles Rozaire was then able to use these donations to cover the bulk of the items that would be needed for the exhibit and purchased others to fill the gaps where we didn’t have many items. There are different laws for different parts of the world regarding the transport of antiquities but this site, http://exchanges.state.gov/heritage/index.html describes the one that is most important to us, the UNESCO law of 1970 that prevents the illicit transport of cultural property. Basically, since the objects were acquired before 1970, they are legally part of our collection. Any archaeological excavations that have taken place since 1970 require the permission of the country where the excavation takes place. Any excavation of Native American cultural property requires a Native American representative to be present at all times.”

With that out of the way, let’s look at the exhibit itself. Visible Vault opened in 2009 after the old Latin American hall was closed to make way for the Dinosaur Mysteries exhibit set to open next year. The hall was kinda old and outdated, mainly just bland display cases filled with ancient relics. Really the only highlights were a stunning mural of a Mayan pyramid and a life-sized replica of the Aztec Calendar Stone. But when the hall was closed the museum decided to cast the artifacts in a new light.

Unless you an intern, a volunteer, on a special tour, or just really damn lucky, people never get to see a museum’s collections. So for Visible Vault, the idea was to arrange the items as if they were sitting in the storeroom. Well, at least on side. The other side has the usual display case set up. But that doesn’t really matter when you take lighting into effect. The specimens have been set in a dark environment with dynamic lighting. It almost created a sense of mystery. More importantly, it fit with the museum’s goal of showing how the museum works and their aesthetic of a 21st century museum. Here are some specimens:

Mayan insence burner

A Peruvian water vessel depicting... a scorpion... man... or something...

Aztec feathered serpent effigy

But like anything in this universe, it wasn’t without flaws. Most of the specimens aren’t labeled. Instead of going through the tedious task of creating tags and signs for everything, the museum employed large touch-screen computers:

The moderately decent touch screen

I actually found this to be a hindrance. It was difficult to find the artifact you wanted to identify and the wands didn’t always work. Of course this was a year before the Age of Mammals hall with its much better computer screens, so obviously there were some kinks to work out.

All said and done, it’s really quite a display, if not for its innovations then just for the sheer quantity of quality artifacts on display. I do not know if they will occupy a new, grander hall in the future. Perhaps this will be their home for years to come. If my museum ever makes it past a small building, I hope to create archaeology exhibits that immerse people in the experience of the worlds these artifacts came from.

Till next time!