Central Coast Critters: Osteodontornis

Hey there everypeoples!

I had originally reserved this post for a very special gal, but given the recent buzz about the new species of Pelagornis I thought I’d give the slot to one of the more bizarre denizens of the Central Coast.

A long time in a quarry outside Santa Maria, workers found the skeleton of a strange creature. It looked like a bird, but was far bigger than any bird that plies the coast today. That and it looked like this thing had teeth! So the specimen was taken to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History where it can still be seen today. The creature was identified as a new type of sea bird by then curator of Anthropology Phil Orr (he also dabbled in paleontology). It was thus named Osteodontorniss orri, the giant “bone-toothed bird”.

Part (original fossil) of Osteondornis orri at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Counterpart (mirrior imprint of fossil) of Osteodonornis

This bird had a wingspan of 14 feet and would have stood over 3 feet tall. Given the size and shape of the wings, it is likely that Osteodontornis flew like a modern albatross, using long slender wings to soar over long distances in search of food. But being a bird it would still need to come to shore to roost and breed.  Osteodontornis would have picked off fish and squid that strayed too close to the surface. And that’s where the bird’s namesake comes in. The bird’s name derives from several tooth-like structures in the beak that would have proved very useful for snagging slippery prey. But these structures were actually bony extensions of the jawbone rather than true teeth. Nonetheless it probably made it look like dinosaurs had come back to life!

Osteodontornis may have been found here first but he has been found further afield. The bird appears to have occupied both sides of the North Pacific. Many fragmentary specimens have been found at Sharktooth Hill in Kern County. A couple fossils have been found across the ocean in Japan. Also an obscure bone was found on Vancouver Island. It is an abraded part of the tarsometatarsus found in what is thought to be the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. This would make it much older that Osteodontornis (indeed the bone has been given its own genus: Cyphornis). Many think the rocks in which the bone was found may actually be early Miocene in age, which would mean this could be an early species of Osteodontornis. But other pseudotooth bird bones from Oregon that date from the Eocene-Oligocene boundary are thought to possibly be from the same animal. This is possible, if the rocks in Vancouver are in fact that old. But being bird bones, they are hollow, thin walled, and very fragile. The few bits that do survive don’t offer much information on who is who.

Osteodontornis jaw fragments from Sharktooth Hill, Kern County

And this fragmentary nature makes it difficult to discern which bird group Osteodontornis and his kin are related to. While we are able to group pseudotooth birds together (Pelagornithidae), their broader relationships are harder to be certain of. At first they were grouped with the Pelecaniformes, which includes pelicans and gannets. But a later study found that they may be more closely related to waterfowl. The pseudotooth birds’ relationships to other birds may be difficult to ascertain since we have trouble just trying to figure out how many species and genera of pseudotooth birds there actually is. As noted above, their fossils are rarely preserved beyond partial bones.

All that aside Osteodontornis is the biggest seabird ever to call the Central Coast its home. It must have been even more spectacular in flight than the pelicans I see at the beach. While you can get up close and personal with the original specimen, the closest people can get to seeing the splendor of this great bird is a life size cutout above the skeleton. I had once suggested to the Santa Barbara Museum that when the day comes to renovate their paleontology hall (and trust me, it really needs it), they should try to recapture this ancient bird’s glory. I suggested having a reconstructed skeleton (or better yet a fleshed out model) perched on a rocky outcrop with its wings outspread is if it’s preparing for takeoff. The original specimen would be mounted inside the wall of the outcrop. Whether this will be or not is uncertain. The museum turns 100 in 2016 and has accordingly plotted out a master plan to revive the museum for its centennial. I hope my suggestions to the museum at least inspire ideas about what to do. And frankly, if they only listen to one of them, I hope it is my idea for Osteodontornis. He’s been at that museum for a long time. It is only fitting that he gets a grand re-envisioning.

Osteodontornis soaring over the shores of Miocene California (crappy image due to it being scanned in from an archaic 1960's field guide)

Till next time!

Addendum: The Coastal Paleontologist informs me that recent study has shown that there is insufficient evidence for differentiating between pelfronids. As such, Osteodontornis orri is now Pleagornis orri.

Sources of Inspiration

Hey there every peoples!

I thought I would follow up my last post with something a little more upbeat. I have laid out a few of the things that bring me down. So I thought I’d balance it out with a post about the few things that keep me plugging along in my insurmountable goal. In what seems like a bottomless abyss of depressive feelings these are the shining lights that give me hope and keep me in the fight.

Burpee Museum of Natural History

The Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Illinois has been around for a long time but I only found it a few years ago in one of my random google searches. I thought it was odd that they had an exhibit based on a single dinosaur specimen (Jane) from Montana when they were a local museum. No worries, though, for I later realized what a big screaming deal Jane was. But since I found the Burpee Museum they have been developing a paleontology program focused on dinosaurs. Since then they have found another juvenile T. rex (named Petey), the first known Triceratops bonebed, and the most productive Jurassic fossil quarry since the Cleveland-Lloyd. I have always admired the museum for this success. That a small museum such as the Burpee could be doing so well helps me remember that even if my museum idea gets off the ground, its initial small size might not be as much of an obstacle as one might think. You just need hard work and a dedicated crew. Thank you, Burpee Museum, for being a candle in the dark.

Scott Wiliams, the Burpee Museum's Collections and Exhibits Manager, with field jackets containing dinosaur bones from Utah and Montana. Lucky son of a...

Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology

Another museum that has been around for a long time but I didn’t discover until a few years ago. But this time I found it in an old fossil field guide from the 1960’s! But unlike the Burpee Museum, I have actually been to this one. Hell, since I first visited the place in 2007 I have been making a yearly pilgrimage to there. The Alf Museum has been a source of inspiration similar to the Burpee Museum in the sense that a small museum can do so much. Their curator, Andrew Farke, has made the news recently for his part in the naming of two new ceratopsians from Utah (as well as that paper a while back that found out that Triceratops did indeed fight with its horns). But the Ray Alf Museum has done a little more for me. It has shown me that there are still mammal fossils to be found. As you know I am quite easily discouraged. I have always had this creeping feeling that there may not be very many fossils out there left to find (a stupid notion, but what can I say). I think of the big museums like American Museum, the Smithsonian, and Los Angeles and can’t help but feel like they got all the best stuff and todays deposits are thoroughly picked over. But Ray Alf has helped shake that notion. For example, looking at an old map of the Rainbow Basin near Barstow, it is just riddled with dots of where the Frick Laboratory (who ended up giving all their stuff to the American Museum) excavated fossils. And yet Ray Alf continues to find stuff there year after year. Hell, in 2007 they found the nearly complete articulated skeleton of a camel after all this time. Plus they continue to find Cenozoic fossils in other places. Ray Alf gives me hope yet that my museum full of fossil mammals just might be doable. Good ol’ Ray Alf Museum. Thank you for showing me the way.

The nearly complete articulated camel from Barstow, discovered by the Ray Alf Museum

The Coastal Paleontologist

A paleontology blogger from Santa Cruz or Montana (depending on the time of year), Bobby Boessenecker explores the California coast looking for the critters that used to swim through the state’s ancient seas. I almost got to prospect for fossils with him once in Avila but unforeseen circumstances meant that he wasn’t able to come down here. Nonetheless, he has shown me well that a college student can find fossils on his own (even though I am not in college at the moment). Keep up the good work Bobby.

Bobby, the Coastal Paleontologist, posing with a newly jacketed whale skull (photo jacked from his blog. Litigation imminent)

Bob Ernst

Like Bobby, Bob Ernst inspires me because he demonstrates that an individual can become a great fossil hunter. But Bob does it in a different way. He was a private citizen with no training in paleontology. But through hard work and perseverance, he became one of the greatest amateur collectors I have ever read about. Bob was dismayed that the rich fossil history of Kern County (the county right next door to mine) was being shipped off to far away destinations (does his sentiment sound familiar? Substitute Central Coast for Kern County and that’s exactly how I feel). He wanted these fossils to be seen in their homeland. So he started selling family land in San Luis Obispo County to purchase land in Kern County. The land he bought contained exposures of the legendary Sharktooth Hill bonebed. With little more than basic tools and what little techniques he could learn about from books, Bob set out in the badlands of Kern County and spent 3 decades digging up tens of thousands of fossils ranging from small fish bones and shark teeth to sea lions and whales. He opened up the Buena Vista Museum in downtown Bakersfield to display his bounty of marine fossils. By doing so, he showed me that a private citizen with no formal training can make such a magnificent contribution. Sadly, he passed away at the age of 70 in April, 2007. But he leaves behind a great legacy. And more importantly, he stands as a shining example that amateur paleontologists are valuable assets to the field, helping to find fossils that professionals either can’t look for or can’t get to. People think professional paleontologists look down on amateurs, despising them because they represent competition. Well certain ones might be worthy of such ire *cough* commercial collectors *cough* creationists *cough*. But Bob is the amateur that paleontologists wish there were more of. He was passionate, dedicated, and brought fossils to a place where scientists and the public can see them. For the time being, I would do anything to be like Bob. If my museum ever gets big enough for that hall of fossil marine mammals I want (or even an exhibit on Sharktooth Hill, one of the principle places I want to search), I guarantee that Bob Ernst will get a small display of his own. For that man was a hero to people like me. Rest well, Bob Ernst. You will greatly be missed.

King of the amateurs himself, Bob Ernst


While not exactly a source of inspiration, I wanted to give a shout out to Alton Dooley (aka “Butch) of the Virginia Museum of Natural History. I stumbled upon Alton’s blog a couple years ago when poking around the Museum’s site. Since then I have gained great insight into the inner workings of a paleontologist that no book or tv special could ever hope to accomplish. Not only has his blog been a gold mine of information, he has also been a great source of support. Even though we live on opposite ends of the continent and have never met, he has always been someone I could go to for advice. He always answers my silly little inquiries and even let me interview him for a career counseling class I took a year ago. He even went out of his way and emailed me to see how I was doing after I wrote that post a month or so ago. I have sent so many inquiries to paleontologists and such and always very few write back. But Alton has always answers my questions, no matter how trivial or how complex they may be. I think that willingness to help those who wish to get into an area of science, not just the people in their current class, is something that all paleontologists (and indeed scientists in general) should aspire to. Thanks Alton. It’s good to know there’s at least one paleontologist I can always count on.

Alton is the one on the right, standing with the Boxley Stromatolite (photo jacked from his blog. Litigation imminent)

So there you have it folks. These are the people and places that help me stay on course. They have shown me that small institutions and even individuals can make it in the competitive and criminally underfunded world of paleontology. I too often despair about how I am going to get to my destination in the future, whether it’s about logistics or if there are any fossils to be collected. But these guys keep me from jumping overboard and inspire me to keep trudging on. In my fool hardy quest to start my own museum, they help light my way and show me that no task is too great or too small. Thank you, all of you. I don’t know what I do without you.

Till next time.

The Tragedy of Lone Star

Hey there every peoples…

Today I would like to tell you a story. A story of sorrow and stupidity. As such, expect no happy ending. I wish this story never had to be told. But it happened and I want to make sure it is never forgotten. It is a stern warning of what happens when our past is taken for granted and usurped by fools in service of ancient myths.

Our tale begins in February 2004 in the town of San Antonio, Texas. The owner of a gravel pit rented out a garage to store an enormous skull found in his quarry. The skull belonged to an American mastodon, a beast that roamed the American countryside just over 10,000 years ago. The owner didn’t know that at the time so he just kept it safe in the garage for a while until a local photographer learned of it. So the photographer contacted his buddy Joe Taylor. Joe is very interested in fossils and even has his own museum in Crosbyton, Texas. Joe was very excited about the find and went to San Antonio to investigate. He was very impressed by the skull, not just because of how big it was, but also because it had the rarest feature imaginable: a pair of lower tusks (I myself know of only 3 specimens with lower tusks). Joe was able to acquire the skull and some other fossils that had been found along with it. He named the skull “Lone Star” after the state he was found in (Texas= Lone Star State). After carefully loading the skull into a truck he took it back to his museum for preparation and restoration.

Lone Star's skull when he was kept in a garage in San Antonio

There’s just one problem: Joe Taylor isn’t a paleontologist. Hell, he’s not even an amateur paleontologist (a term that has gained unfair stigma in recent times). Joe is what is known as a young-earth creationist. Creationists believe that the bible is a history book telling us that their god created the earth 6,000 years, all fossils are the result of Noah’s flood, man lived with dinosaurs, and lots of other wacky stuff. They believe that evolution is wrong and resort to lying, manipulation of facts, personal incredulity, and emotional appeal to try and disprove it (they have yet to even make a dent). Indeed, Joe’s Mt. Blanco Fossil “museum” is dedicated to the pursuit of using fossils to prop up their Bronze Age dogma. Hence the quotation marks. A museum is a library of nature, where scientists can study and regular people can learn; not a place to whore out nature in the name of Jesus.

This is where Lone Star’s tragedy comes into play. He wasn’t picked up by an amateur who then took it to an actual museum. It was snatched by a religious extremist who fancies himself a scientist (even though he denounces much of science). Lone Star should have gone to an actual museum where he would have been a powerful education tool. Joe quotes it as being the biggest ever found. People love stuff like that. Furthermore, Lone Star’s lower tusks would have proven useful for teaching people about the evolutionary anomaly know as an atavism (an atavism is a trait that was present in the ancestors of the species but not in the present species. But because the genes are still there for making that trait, it may occasionally pop up in certain individuals). But it wasn’t to be.

The roots of Lone Star's lower tusks, a rare feature in mastodons

Anyway, on with the story. With his newfound prize Joe set about preparing it and restoring it. Way back in 2003 I visited the exhibit “Fossil Hunters San Diego” at the San Diego Natural History Museum. It was a very well done exhibit explaining how paleontology works. One display talked about how restore a fossil. It described a Pliocene walrus skull that was uncovered at a construction site. Unfortunately, the dozer’s blade took away half the skull. The case then went on to describe how fossil restoration works. There was enough of the left side of the skull to rebuild the right side. A paleontologist used clay (which is pliable so it won’t damage the fossil) to sculpt the missing parts. Then a mold was made of the half real/half reconstructed skull. This mold could them be made to make casts of the now whole skull for display. The clay was then easily removed so the fossil could be placed in the museum’s collection. That’s how it’s done. When doing something like this you don’t want to ruin the integrity of the original fossil. If only Joe had seen that display…

Once Lone Star was free of his rocky prison, Joe set about “restoring” him. Joe had an artist paint the reconstructed parts of the skull. Apparently Joe approved of his work (“It is hard to tell where the bone stops and Joel’s art begins.”). I think that when you do something like that, the restored parts should be obvious so people can really get an idea of how much of the actual fossil was found. But as we will learn later this would be counterproductive to Joe’s plans. Lone Star’s tusks were largely worn away so Joe made him new ones ( Max’s skull looked great without his tusks, and his were wonderfully preserved. Again, we will find out that this was for a rather sinister purpose). But that is light stuff compared to what Joe would do next. In order for people to see up into the hollowed out tusk cavity and brain case, he installed LED lights inside the skull. Hey Joe, it’s a prehistoric fossil, not a Christmas tree! Next he proceeded to mutilate those rare and valuable lower tusks. All that was left were the roots so Joe made a cast of the tips of another specimen and fitted them to Lone Star’s. Except that he magnetized them, so that people could take them on and off. He constantly used the phrase “this has never been done before”. Yeah that’s because it’s idiotic. Installing lights in fossil bone? Magnetizing a relic older than civilization? WHY? Wasn’t the fossil impressive enough on its own? Apparently not. Look at Lone Star. I know that’s his nasal opening, but it gives his face a rather mournful expression. I can almost hear him pleading for help:

"Please.. help me... Save me... from this lunatic..."

I feel that if you can’t appreciate the raw beauty of an original fossil, you have no business working with them. But Joe had a reason for all this dolling up of Lone Star: he was planning to sell him. That’s right. Lone Star had to look his best because he was going off to auction. Unfortunately Joe or any prospective buyers didn’t think the original fossil was Lone Star’s best. But why go through all the trouble of “restoring” it and then sell it? Wouldn’t he want it for his little “museum”? You see, while he was out in the field clawing other fossils out of the ground for his creationist “museum”, he got into an ownership dispute with another creationist over an Allosaurus skeleton. Heaps of legal fees left Joe in a serious pickle. If he couldn’t pay off his debts, his “museum” would be seized and used to cover the costs. So then Joe got an idea: auction off Lone Star in the hopes that it’ll make enough money to cover his ass. And indeed his plan worked. At Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas, Lone Star was sold for $190,000. Joe paid off his debts, got to keep his “museum”, and Lone Star was shuffled off to some private residence.

Since then Joe has tried to defend his stunt with Lone Star along with his other deplorable antics. When Smithsonian Magazine published an article about the battle over fossils between professional and amateur paleontologists and commercial collectors, it ignited a contentious debate in the article’s online counterpart. One of the comments was left by Hoe Joe himself:

Triebold is exactly right. 90% of all fossils are destroyed because they are not collected. Almost all of the fossils I have restored would never have been seen, privately or publicly, had someone not paid to acquire them from gravle pit operators or Esqimaux. All the stupid hate-mail I get because I have made a living by rescueing another fossil from becoming part of a road will not make me quit rescuing them. The world’s largest 4-tusked mastodon skull is one of them. Thanks to me and the inital investors, it is now in a museum for all to see. It was very well restored, recorded and studied. The information is available to all. Elitists like Padian ought to make a few such contributions. Joe Taylor

“Rescuing” fossils? Please tell me how selling fossils or parading them as evidence of your inbred pseudoscience is “rescuing” them? And he’s lying about Lone Star. I did a follow up a while later where I contacted both Joe and that auction house. Both told me that they couldn’t disclose certain information but to the best of their knowledge Lone Star ended up in a  private “museum” in New Mexico (off limits to the public, of course). How the fuck is that putting it somewhere for “all to see”? Joe, thanks to you, the largest mastodon skull known (though I’m not sure that’s a valid claim since he didn’t compare it to Max ) is locked away in some rich dick’s lounge where neither scientists nor eager school children can see it. Hey Joe, I think you get all that hate mail because you’re a dishonest hack who sells fossils to private collectors and then uses the ones you don’t sell in a desperate attempt to legitimize your biblical fantasies.

[As a side note, he was referring to Michael Triebold, President of Triebold Paleontology, Inc. and Founder of the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park, Colorado. He too chimed in on the article, where he viciously attacked the comments and character of two scientists (one of whom I know and have met) who also commented on the article. I honestly did not see that coming. I mean, when I stumbled upon the center in one of my random google searches, it had all the trappings of an actual museum: public displays, public programs, a preparation lab, and collecting excursions. I would read about fossils they went and found that they would either store in their collection or put on display. How was I supposed to know it was founded by a commercial outfit? Despite his venomous words in that comment he left, I can’t get too steamed at him, since he did found a functioning public museum. After all, that’s what I hope to do someday…]

Lone Star is touted by Taylor as the largest mastodon ever found. Here he is compared with the Burning Tree Mastodon and the American Museum's Warren Mastodon

Lone Star’s story is a heartbreaking one but is only the tip of the ice berg. Creationists are getting more active in their efforts to dig up fossils in their efforts to tear science down. I once foolishly ordered something from the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis (it was a museum guide. I was curious to see what it said). Do they sound familiar? You probably know that name because they’re the ones who built that $27 million monument to stupidity known as the Creation “Museum”. Well, much to my dismay they put me on their mailing list so every month I get their insipid “Answers” magazine. It’s always full of usual creationist shtick with some occasional whining and crying. But this month’s issue… this month’s issue really struck a nerve. It talked about a trip the “museum” took to Montana to excavate dinosaur bones. They briefly described the finds and then said to check their website for the next trip. They are actively taking people out to collect precious fossils so that they can slap it with the label “buried in the great flood, 2300 BC”. And they aren’t the only ones doing this. Jerry Fallwell’s Liberty University apparently collected some dinosaur bones which they slapped with creationist labels. And there is a creation “museum” in Glendive, Montana that goes out and collects fossils. And of course, there’s Joe Taylor and his Mt. Blanco Fossil “Museum”.

As you learned in a previous post, I have depression. That makes it very hard to cope with certain things. It is hard enough reading about paleontologists going out and digging up fossils and then preparing them and studying them. That is what I have wanted to do my entire life (I got a taste of it when I volunteered at the Santa Barbara Museum when I helped them prep their mammoth) and normally these stories of paleontologists doing their job would get people more motivated because they can’t wait to do it themselves. But with me, it would just send me into a spiral. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to go out with the big dogs and start making my own contributions to paleontology. But then I’d read about commercial collectors and that would make it worse. But most of all, I’d read about creationists and how they collect fossils because they think it can prove their fairy tales true. Folks, I’ll level with you. I have often had thoughts of killing myself. And a chief factor in those thoughts would be what I just described above. I would obsess over the fact that creationists, people who do nothing more than pervert science to conform to their toxic ideology, get to collect fossils and I didn’t. I struggle with school to try and get my degree (as if I’m making progress. I’m still in community college), I try to find maps of where to prospect and all to no avail. And then I find out that these people, people who would fail a high school science class, people who denounce science but then claim that it supports their dogma, get to go look for and collect fossils. And I didn’t. They did, and I didn’t. When I was feeling really crummy, that simple fact would cause me to feel that I was not fit for this world and start to contemplate going into the dark abyss (luckily I lack the means and the will to actually carry it out. Don’t worry; my therapist and I are working on it).

If you made it this far, thank you. This has dwarfed the Bison post as my longest one ever. But as you can tell, it’s something I feel very strongly about. Joe and Triebold have a point though: innumerable fossils are being eroded away before paleontologists (both professional and amateur) can get to them. And that is one of the principle reasons why I want to build a museum. I want to create another institution that can get more people out there to continue looking for fossils. Fossils represent our natural heritage. Yours, mine, everyone’s. Lone Star is a tragic example of what happens when fossils are taken for granted and treated as cash cows. They need to be where everyone can appreciate them and learn from them. They belong in museums, not private residences or churches masquerading as museums. Sure, not all fossils can be on display at once. That is why my museum will have a bunch of open houses each year so that people can come in the back and see the fossils we couldn’t display. Because it’s their ancient heritage and they deserve to see it.

Till next time…

The Schnoz of the Brontothere

Hey there every peoples!

Ever been to a museum and seen a big skeleton and thought it was some kind of rhino? So it goes with brontotheres. While I’m sure you read the sign and found out you were wrong, I can’t really blame you. With their bulky bodies, pillar-like legs, and massive heads adorned with long (or short) horns, it’s easy to see why people think they are rhinos. While distantly related to rhinos, brontotheres are a more ancient group and were the largest land animals for at least 10 million years. While they are best known from North America, they have been found extensively in Eurasia as well. And one of those asian brontotheres is the subject of this post (but more importantly, something I recently found out about it).

The animal is known as Embolotherium andrewsi, which translates as “Andrew’s battering ram beast”. You may remember this animal (though not by name) from the BBC special Walking with Prehistoric Beasts. And this post is concerned with a claim made by that show and a recent revelation of mine. In the show the animals was shown with a great rhino-like horn (as it has always been). The show explained that the horn was made of bone, not hair. Rhino horns are made of keratin, the same material as your finger nails, which consists of thousands of tightly backed hairs. And this is true, brontothere horns were made of bone. The show claimed that these structures were too brittle to be used in combat (which the show later contradicted by showing a female brontothere ramming a carnivore full force with her horn). Was this really the case? Well as I found out a few weeks ago, perhaps not.

Embolotherium as it appeared in the BBC special "Walking with Prehistoric Beasts"

About a month ago I visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco for the exhibit Extreme Mammals. The exhibit discussed the incredible abilities and adaptations of mammals throughout their evolution. Early on the exhibit discusses the many elaborate forms mammalian headgear has taken. Sure enough there was a brontothere skull in the mix and it happened to be Embolotherium.

Skull of Embolotherium andrewsi at the California Academy of Sciences exhibit Extreme Mammals

What struck me though was the new hypothesis for the purpose of the animal’s horn. Unlike other brontotheres who had horns on their noses or snouts, new research (as explained by the exhibit plaque) found that Embolotherium’s horn was actually a hyper extended nasal bone. Here, compare Embolotherium’s nose with that of another brontothere:

Skull of Brontops robustus (from Wikipedia)

As you can see, the brontothere above has a nasal bone separate of the horns. But on the Embolotherium skull, there is no separate nasal bone. The nasal bone itself is forming the horn. According to the exhibit, this radically alters the look and behavior of the beast. The exhibit said that the new research found that this hyper extended nasal bone would have created a very tall nasal cavity. The conclusion was that instead of being a ram made of bare bone, the horn instead supported a large fleshy structure:

The new look of Embolotherium

The huge nasal cavity may have acted as a resonating chamber, allowing the animals to make loud booming calls. The exhibit also said males may have fought with them now that we think they were covered in flesh. I imagine these fights may have resembled those of modern pigs where they used their extraordinary structures to push and shove in an up close tussle as opposed to the more violent fights seen amongst bovids (but then again I’m no expert). This doesn’t mean that all brontotheres are going to undergo makeovers. Brontotheres were very diverse with a wide variety of headgear. As the picture further up the post demonstrates, other brontotheres had independent nasal bones and horns. But as I was searching for pictures to use, I came across a rather intriguing one:

Skull of Megacerops coloradensis with a hypothosized reconstruction (from Wikipedia)

I noticed that the horn resembles that of Embolotherium where there doesn’t appear to be a separate nasal bone. Did this species of Megacerops have a nasal chamber like Embolotherium? If so, what does it mean for brontothere taxonomy? Was this a feature of a specific clade or did it independently evolve in different members of the group?

The media is dominated by discoveries of new species (almost overwhelmingly dinosaurs) and breakthroughs in the study of dinosaurs. But as Embolotherium’s massive nose reveals, there is still much to learn about the mammals of earth’s past. Ancient mammals were as diverse and as magnificent as the dinosaurs that over shadow them. Brontotheres in particular have a quality about them that is a little hard to pin down. Needless to say they are among the tops reasons I want to scour the Eocene and Oligocene beds of western North America.

Till next time!

Bison: Harbingers of Doom?

Hey there every peoples!

The Pleistocene extinction has rightly been dubbed by some as the Olympics of paleontology. Except that the actual Olympics can decide a winner. For decades scientists have been embroiled in a raging debate about what killed off North America’s megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene epoch over 11,000 years ago. Just so you know scientists define megafauna as animals weighing 100 pounds or more (though when you look at the beasts of the ice age, 100 pounds is puny. I say you have to weigh at least 600 pounds to be considered megafauna).There are currently three competing hypotheses as to why such beasts as mammoths, mastodons, horses, camels, ground sloths, sabertooth cats, giant jaguars, and dire wolves vanished from the face of the earth … Well, technically there are four but that hyperdisease hypothesis is so ridiculous I don’t know why it keeps getting brought up in discussions on this subject. The first hypothesis posits that rapid and unstable climate change at the end of the Pleistocene wreaked havoc on the animal’s habitat, driving them to extinction. Critics state that the animals survived similar climate events in the past, bringing up the question “Why did these mega mammals survive so many climate fluctuations only to succumb to this one?” Others claim that overhunting by the continent’s first humans is to blame. Based on kill sites such as Dent, Colorado;  Kimmswick, Missouri; and Colby, Wyoming, some paleontologists think that animals who never encountered humans would have made for easy targets and as humans spread across the continent they left a trail of exterminated beasts in their wake. But this hypothesis has problems of its own, namely that early humans lacked the means to cause such widespread damage to animal populations and evidence is mounting that hunting megafauna wasn’t as common as previously thought. A third and more recent hypothesis is that a comet entered the atmosphere and exploded somewhere over Canada, triggering a repeat of the Cretaceous extinction. But… Paleoindians didn’t decline at the time this comet supposedly hit. And such an event would have triggered extinctions across the globe but the fossil record shows that different continent’s megafauna died at different times. Many suggest that it may have been a combination of factors (quite likely, as things in nature are never simple), but others cling to single cause scenarios and the debate continues.

Enter another contender. He be Eric Scott, curator of paleontology at the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands, California (you may remember him from earlier posts, like the Lake Manix post). He posits a different hypothesis. In a paper published a couple years ago (only recently obtained because he sent me a copy) he points out that the climate, overkill, comet, and even hyperdisease ideas all have something in common: they all assume that the fauna itself remained the same and that only external forces could have driven the extinction. But animals are never static. They are always changing, constantly in flux based on a wide variety of factors. And because of this, Eric has put forward a hypothesis unlike all the others: bison may have had a hand in the Pleistocene extinction.

"Repent all sinners, for the end is near. A horde of brown woolly beasts will flood in from the Northern Lands. They will descend upon our venerable ecosystem and devour all in their path like the locusts of Egypt. Repent sinners!"

How is that possible? Well that’s what this paper is hoping to find out (this is my first time blogging about a technical paper, so all I request is a little slack. If you would like a copy of the paper, just email me and I’ll send you one). Scott begins the paper by discussing the various scenarios I explained above. Then he moves on to when bison entered midcontinent North America. Just when bison entered the continental United States (midcontinent North America) has not been established with any certainty. Since the appearance of bison heralds the beginning of the Ranchelabrean NALMA (North American Land Mammal Age), determining just when they came onto the scene is important. A bison ankle bone found in the 240k to 220k year old Ten Mile Hill Beds in South Carolina was used to set the beginning of the Rancholabrean but this interpretation has not been widely accepted. Scott goes on to explain why this time frame may be a little more solid:

Bell et al. (2004) defined the beginning of the Rancholabrean by
the first unequivocal appearance of Bison in North America south of
55N. A minimum arrival time of 160 kawas provided by the record
of the genus from Jones Spring, Missouri (after Haynes, 1985;
Saunders, 1988). Further, because fossils of Bison are common from
the American Falls Formation in Idaho, which dates between
210  60 ka and 72  14 ka (Scott et al., 1982), Bell et al. (2004)
employed this time span to bracket the beginning of the Rancholabrean
NALMA. The date of approximately 240 ka for the beginning
of this age proposed by Sanders (2002) and Sanders et al.
(2009) does fall within the confidence interval provided by the
older date for the fauna from American Falls (Scott and Cox, 2008).

Skull of Bison antiquus from the Diamond Valley Lake local fauna

Older dates for bison have been proposed but none have withstood rigorous examination. For example a supposed Bison fossil from Lake Manix in the Mojave Desert was thought to be 290k years old. This fossil later turned out to be the sacral vertebra of a camel. Perhaps the most freakish outlier would be alleged horn core fragments of bison from the Macasphalt Shell Pit and Inlgis 1A sites in Florida. The pit is late Pliocene in age, around 2.6 million to 2.2 million years old while Inglis 1A is between 2.2 million and 1.8 million years old. If these finds were confirmed to be bison, it would force a redefinition of the Rancholabrean NALMA. But these fossils suffer from dubious identification (horn core fragments, mind you) and hail from uncertain stratigraphic positions. Scott further explains that given the lack of Bison from other Irvingtonian sites, these Florida specimens, if genuine, would represent “an early immigration pulse for the genus that eventually perished.”

So using the time frame of 240k to 220k years ago, the next challenge is to figure out the abundance of bison through time. This is far easier said than done because fossils sites can be biased. Furthermore, there were at least 2 species of bison in the midcontinent North America: Bison latifrons, a large long-horned species and Bison antiquus, a species larger than it’s descendant but still smaller than B. latifrons. But most importantly, many sites containing bison cannot be reliably dated either because they extend beyond the reach of carbon dating or lack datable materials. But these are nonetheless obstacles, not road blocks. One method Scott discusses to assess the abundance of bison is “… to review the relative abundance of fossil remains of this genus from paleontological localities where multiple individuals of multiple taxa are preserved.” Sites on the southern Great Plains hint that bison had become more numerous at the end of the Pleistocene: Bison were abundant in localities less than 20k years old. But in sites before that time, bison are outnumbered by horses, camels, and mammoths. But these finds were not quantified, and only 16 of the sites in the survey had dates considered to have been obtained from reliable materials.

Luckily bison ranged over the whole of midcontinent North America. But even this can be troublesome. For example, in the southwest, it is difficult to assess the abundance of bison because many faunas are represented by small fragmentary found in caves where they were accumulated by rodents, raptors, and carnivorans. The exception to this is the Las Vegas Valley, which includes Tule Springs, a site rich in ice age fossils (I’d like to congratulate Eric Scott and the other geology staff at the San Bernardino County Museum for somehow accumulating $1.4 million to survey and excavate fossils at Tule Springs). Bison fossils are relatively abundant here, and seem to span from 144k years ago to the end of the Pleistocene. Bison appear to make up a larger part of the fauna in younger strata, but the data is weak (hopefully as more work is conducted in the area the answer will become more clear). As for the rest of the Mojave Desert, bison is rare. But while these fossils are rare, and represent two species of Bison, they are suggestive: the smaller shorter horned species is more common in later to latest Pleistocene localities. Scott notes “This smaller, shorter-horned bison also appears to have been more common in the latest Pleistocene than earlier in the epoch in this region (Scott and Cox, 2008), although clearly more fossils and localities are necessary to confirm or refute this interpretation.”

We get the same from fossil sites on the Pacific coast. Only a few localities consisted of whole faunas rather than isolated animal remains. The largest is the Costau Pit. Based on similarities with a couple of quarries in Kansas, the Costau Pit is thought to be at least 40k years old and likely older. Of the fossils recovered, horses are the dominant component of the fauna, making up 48% of large mammals (while the two species of Bison make up only 10%). This could hardly be anymore different from the younger (38k to 12k years ago) La Brea Tar Pits, where Bison antiquus comprises 43% of the large mammals found. But given the bias of Rancho La Brea this sample may be null and void in determining the abundance of bison. Not to worry though; another site can provide a clue. The site is called Diamond Valley Lake, near the town of Hemet. When the reservoir now known as Diamond Valley Lake was being constructed, thousands of fossils from the late Pleistocene (69k to 11k years ago) were found. And the most common large mammal was, you guessed it, bison! Take it away Eric:

The fact that the Diamond Valley Lake local fauna, which was
recovered from an open-environment setting rather than from
asphalt seeps, exhibit a similar representation among its large
herbivores to that shown at Rancho La Brea is significant. The
taphonomic factors operating at these two sites are very different,
so the congruity of representation of Bison at these sites indicates
that the observed distribution likely reflects the actual relative
abundance of these large mammals in the living population. The fact
that both the Diamond Valley Lake and the Rancho La Brea local
faunas show a strong preponderance of Bison antiquus in MIS 3 and 2, while the Costeau Pit fauna (considered to date to MIS 4) has abundant B. latifrons but very limited B. antiquus, indicates that B.
antiquus increased in abundance with the onset and subsequent
waning of the Wisconsin glaciation in southwestern North America.

So now that we have explored how to determine when Bison came to midcontinent America and how we might figure out when they became more abundant, one more piece of the puzzle remains: how does this suggest bison may have been a factor in the Pleistocene extinction? First off, the obvious: modern bison are bloody big animals, often standing 6 feet at the shoulder and weighing up to 2000 pounds. Now imagine one of those but bigger. A modern bison individual can consume around 28 pounds of food and 8 to 10 gallons of water a day, and since its ancestors were bigger they conceivably would have consumed more. And when you take into consideration that bison form large herds, you can easily see how these animals can have an effect on an ecosystem. I’m sure you’re asking “But Doug, bison are grazers which means they eat grass. Wouldn’t that mean that just mammoths, horses, and that one grazing sloth would have died out while browsers like mastodons, camels, those other sloths, and giant peccaries would have survived?” Oh nice try but no prize. Based on plant fragments recovered from the teeth of Rancho La Brea specimens, bison in the Los Angeles Basin (and presumably throughout southern California and the Southwest) weren’t munching on as much grass as their descendants. This is backed up by isotope studies of said Rancho La Brea specimens that showed that the majority of their diet consisted of browse such as trees, shrubs, and cool-growing-season grasses, plus some of the usual grass. And this isn’t unique to Rancho La Brea: mammoths, horses, and bison over in Florida were all eating the same things as each other. Now it is becoming clear. Bison in the latest Pleistocene were competing for resources with the other large animals. As stated above, since these animals formed herds, they would have required a lot of food, water, and space to sustain them. Plus all those big animals (and Eric mentioned this in his paper) would have been urinating and defecating all over the place (to use the technical terms). As bison became more numerous, so did their piles of crap. Westward expansion would have taken so much longer if pioneers had to slog through the mess these things were leaving behind. Competition may have put a strain on the ecosystem, but it may have created a delicate balance. However, once you introduce climate change which could have strained resources, competition would have become much more intense. With dwindling resources, bison had a competitive edge that made them the last meagbeast standing with the others being lost to the annals of time.

Yeah sure he looks all majestic and grand. But mark my words, he will be the Bane of the Ice Age! (from flickr user D200-Paul - Off to China)

But this doesn’t mean that Bison are evil. They have no control over what they do. They are just another species trying to survive. And as the paper suggests, they were merely a factor in a combination of events that wiped out North America’s megafauna. Eric Scott’s paper, like any radical new idea, is far from conclusive. It has put forward a new hypothesis based on current evidence. Remember that word: current. Scientists simply don’t come up with an idea and stick with it (that’s religions department). They constantly search for new evidence to test whether their hypothesis was right or wrong. Eric’s Doom Bison Hypothesis seems to explain some of the thing observed in the fossils record, but even he admits throughout his paper that several aspects of his data need expansion and improvement. It’s science in action.

God damn that was an epic post! How did I do? I hope I didn’t butcher Eric’s paper too badly. If I did, he could probably beat the crap out of me on the next field trip. And I imagine Kathleen would be more than willing to hold me down while he works my gut! I’m just joking (at least I hope I am)!

Till next time!

Peru’s Temple of Doom

Hey there every peoples!

If you’re like me, you grew up with one of the greatest film sagas of all time: Indiana Jones. I mean, who doesn’t know who he is? The rough and tumble archaeologist has spawned 4 movies, a terrible tv show, comics, and theme park attractions. Granted loads of people didn’t like the newest installment, but being an Indy fan, I’ll take what I can get (queue trolls to come swarming in and ravaging me for… gasp… enjoying Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). My favorite was even against the main stream: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I guess people didn’t like the idea:  an ancient cult worshiping a god of death with human sacrifice. But such an idea is pure fantasy. Right?

In the highlands of Peru, near the town of Chavin, lie the ruins of an enigmatic temple. It is dotted with plazas and criss-crossed with water canals. Its walls are decorated with bizarre reliefs. One wall is lined with psychotic half-human effigies. It houses an underground labyrinth with no evidence that fire was used to light it. And most bizarre of all, this site has no fortifications. There are no signs of defensive walls. No signs of a barracks. No weapons or other material signs of a military have been found. What was this place? And how did it survive 800 years without martial might?

This temple complex is known as Chavin de Huantar. This ritual site was the center of a culture known as the Chavin, after the town where the first ruins (the temple) were found. The Chavin culture flourished from 1000 BC to 200 BC. The culture extended across the north and central coasts of Peru. The mystery began in 1919 when the first great Peruvian archaeologist, Julio C. Tello, discovered a circular plaza with an exquisitely carved granite obelisk in its center. Known as the Tello Obelisk, it depicts plants and animals such as snakes, a jaguar, chile peppers, peanuts, and manioc, with a caiman (a South American cousin of alligators) as the central figure. Future excavations revealed that this plaza was at the heart of a ceremonial complex. The Tello Obelisk proved frustrating. It was clearly given a place of high importance, making its ritual significance very obvious. Why would people worship plants and animals who live hundreds of miles away in the lowland rainforests? There are two competing theories. One is that people migrated up from the Amazon basin and created Chavin. A competing theory says that it was ideas, not people, who migrated. The plants and animals would have so impressed a people who had never seen them that they would have revered them. The debate remains unresolved.

A view of the main plaza where the Tello Obelisk once stood

But this is just the beginning. As the site was expanded archaeologists found that something a little more sinister was going on at Chavin. The temple walls are decorated with artwork that looks like it was spawned from Dr. Seuss’ worst nightmare. One prominent relief features a man with long claws and fangs clutching a cactus. Another wall was lined with stone heads featuring snarling visages of fanged men with mucus streaming out of their noses. They look more like the product of an acid trip than religious artwork. But artifacts as well as the artwork itself from the site provide clues. Bird bone snuff tubes, some beautifully carved, have been found all over the site. Snuff tubes have been used by various cultures to ingest drugs, particularly hallucinogens. That could explain why the stone heads have mucus pouring out their nostrils: when something is huffed up through the nose, the body will often attempt to flush it out with mucus to prevent harm. And the cactus in the relief? Studies have found that it is a san pedro cactus, a plant known to be hallucinogenic. Other hallucinogenic plants, like seeds of the yopo and the resin of the verolla tree, were also used. But why? Again, look to the artwork. They depict figures as half human, half animal. Ancient art is full of such figures, like centaurs, sphinxes, and mermaids to name a few. How do we know these people weren’t simply being artistic? Ancient cultures have always sought ways to commune and connect with the supernatural. The most common method to do that was by ingesting plants believed to have magical properties (but in reality they just made you trip balls). These images depict a transition into the divine world, a journey into realm of the gods. But Chavin has one more surprise in store. It is far more than simply going on a vision quest. Chavin hosted a ritual that brought the divine world to ours and would bring people face to face with a god itself.

The only stone head still left in place on the temple wall (from flickr user Dick Dangerous)

Canals winding through the heart of the complex channeled water from a nearby river. When water flowed through these canals, the sound would reverberate off the temple walls, creating haunting and eerie sound effects. And beneath these canals was an underground network of tunnels. The tunnels are pitch black and yet there is no evidence that fire was ever used to light it. How were they able to see in total darkness? One effect of the san pedro cactus is dilated pupils; the more dilated your pupils, the more light they can collect. So the practitioners of this ritual were able to see in the dark, but they were also under the effects of a hallucinogen. After a disorienting trek through these underground tunnels, the practitioners would come face to face with the supreme deity of Chavin: El Lanzon.

El Lanzon, the Supreme Deity of Chavin (from Picasaweb user Jose)

So called because of its shape (the moniker is Spanish for “The Lance”), El Lanzon is a god like no other. It has snakes in its hair, long claws, a headdress made of the heads of vicious reptiles, and its fanged lips are curled back in a perpetual snarl. El Lanzon sits in a small chamber illuminated by a single beam of light from a narrow shaft. And in this chamber, the water rushing through the canals above would have sounded like thunder. This was no accident. This is why El Lanzon was so feared and revered: the god was speaking to them. This stormy sound that they were hearing was their god reaching out to them. It is difficult to imagine what the initiates were going through. They were given a drug that made them hyper aware to their surroundings. Then they were led down a maze of darks tunnels only to be brought face to face with a very psychotic looking god who seemed to be speaking to them.

And with that said it becomes clear why Chavin had no military and no fortifications: it was sacred ground. The priests of Chavin were the heads of a cult that ruled through the power of its ideas. The priests wowed people with elaborate rituals as well as using mind altering substances to brainwash initiates. After all, who would attack the home of a living god? This system must have worked since the cult was in power for 800 years. But it wasn’t to last forever. About 200 BC the cult had dissolved. We still haven’t figured out why yet. Perhaps an outside body over came them. Or maybe when the priests couldn’t make good on their promises their followers became disillusioned and revolted.

With a repertoire like that, it is easy to see why this place is often referred to as the real Temple of Doom (hell, even I did). But it differs greatly from the film’s cult in one significant way: no human sacrifice was performed at Chavin. If that were the definition of a “Temple of Doom”, then a much more deserving site is Huaca cao Viejo, a ceremonial monument built by the Moche, a people who ruled the north coast of Peru 300 years after the fall of the Cult of Chavin. The main building, known as El Brujo, was the site of grizzly rituals. The entrance to the temple is decorated with the grim visage of a god clutching a severed head. The plaza was lined with a frieze depicting prisoners, bound and defeated being lead to an executioner. Over 1500 years ago, priests would sacrifice prisoners of war by slitting their throats and collecting their blood that the priests would later drink. If ever there was a Temple of Doom like the movie, you couldn’t do much better than El Brujo. But I think the reason the Cult of Chavin is given the title is because of how it psychologically manipulated its congregants, using elaborate art and rituals to make them believe that the priests could commune and even transport them to the world of the gods. It is certainly a potent reminder of the power of belief. Today archaeologists are still excavating Chavin de Huantar and all that was under its spell. With every new artifact uncovered we learn a little more about this real life Temple of Doom.

Till next time!

Huaca cao Viejo