Proposal Submitted

Hey there every peoples!

Just a quick update. Yesterday i mailed out my proposal letter to the San Luis Obispo City Counsel. I have been working on it since last July. Basically it’s asking the city counsel for aid in getting my museum off the ground. I talked about the benefits it would provide to the community, how it was economically feasible, and i even included photos of fossils to show them what we could be out finding. I tried to go into with the mentality of “nothing to lose, but everything to gain”. I know it has a snowball’s chance in hell of actually happening, but it’s worth a shot, right?

Till next time!

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A Formal Retraction

Hey there every peoples.

I have had something gnawing at the back of my mind for the last couple days. you may recall from a couple posts ago i went on a pathetic diatribe against the University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley. Well luckily Boesse showed me the error of my ways:

I suspect the reason why UCMP doesn’t have a large exhibit hall is largely twofold:

1) The UC system is too busy paying out huge salaries and bonuses to already overpaid higher-up staff to afford giving exhibit space away.

2) The Valley Life Sciences building does house UCMP, and a lot of offices, but a lot of other departments have labs and lecture halls there (in addition to the life sciences library, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology). UCMP has not occupied its current facility forever, and in all likelihood was not granted sufficient space for exhibits by the UC administration in the first place.

In other words – don’t blame UCMP or its personnel. It certainly won’t help the situation, anyway. I have a great amount of respect for the folks at UCMP, and have had the benefit of visiting collections there quite a few times. Unfortunately, many of their marine mammal specimens have been out on loan to LACM for several decades.

Those are two very valid and likely reasons. We all know how universities have screwed up priorities when it comes to money distribution. Remember how the University of Wyoming almost lost it’s geology museum because of a lack of funding while the football stadium was getting a several million dollar update? Yeah, i can understand if UCMP is having a similar problem. And that should not be held against them.

UCMP is a very important institution and i should not have gone off on them like i did. So if any Berkeley staff come across my piddly little cyber rag, i hereby issue a formal apology for my petulant ranting against your fine establishment. It was asinine and ill informed.

I’m depressed, what more can be said? See, the movie”Inception” is right when they say an idea is the most resilient form of parasite. “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” Combine this fact with depression and you have the mental equivalent of cancer. Any negative thought, no matter how small or trivial, can quickly take hold and spread. Depression is just this malignant, infectious thought process… you dwell on something and it effects everything else.

I have depression and the reason i took issue with UCMP hit particularly close to home. NHMLAC has also received a great amount of such undue angst. Knowing the fossils of my home region are locked up in far flung places is constantly plaguing my mind. But what can be done about it? They got to the fossils first, en of story. Which then metastasizes into another depressive thought: I know it may sound stupid, but i feel like there are no more fossils left to be found in these small coastal localities. Even if i find something, the greatest specimens have already been found and are out of reach. But what can be done about it? Nothing i can think of.

Till next time…

Some Further Thoughts on Arctodus

Hey there every peoples!

As you may remember from a little while ago i didn’t have the best outlook on everyone’s favorite ice age bruin Arctodus. The loss of what may have been one of the most fascinating carnivores of the Pleistocene is probably easier to bear (no pun intended) than i made it out to be. i have tried to make it clear that i have a mental illness that severely affects my outlook and disposition. However, looking back  i now realize that Arctodus may be down, but he  may not be out just yet.

A jawbone of Arctodus from Labor of Love Cave, Nevada

I talked about Arctodus being shrunk down from the giant it is often portrayed as. Well being the numb-nuts that i am, i had forgotten that the paper that stripped Arctodus of most of it’s unique characteristics actually argues that Arctodus may have been bigger than what some have argued:

According to our estimates,
the heaviest specimens of A. simus are UVP 015 from Utah and F:AM 25535 from Nebraska, with body masses calculated as ca. 957 and 863 kg, respectively (Table 3). In contrast, the smallest
specimens are LACM 122434 from Rancho La Brea and UM25611 from Kansas, with figures of ca. 317 and 388 kg, respectively (Table 3). The fact that one third of the specimens analyzed approached a ton suggests that individuals of this size were more common than previously suspected.

They go on to mention that the largest specimens come from colder climates (at least back then). This is consistent with what is observed in other mammals, in that cold climates favor larger body size. Also Arctodus appears to exhibit sexual dimorphism like modern bears, meaning that smaller specimens are most likely females. Another interesting note about the size of Arctodus comes from Riverbluff Cave in Missouri. Preserved on the walls of the cave are many parallel gouges consistent with claw marks. Based on the size and spacing of the marks they are thought to have been made by Arctodus. Another they think it’s Arctodus is that these claw marks are 12 feet up the cave wall! Finally, Eric Scott of the San Bernardino County Museum has offered to help quell my doubts by showing me an Arctodus astragalus from Murrieta and comparing it with other bears. There’s a field trip in May so I’ll try to to it then (Thanks Eric!).

And as for meat consumption… Well, the isotope analysis was performed on specimens from Alaska and hence can’t be used to generalize the species. But just like we can’t generalize from a few specimens, can we really generalize based on one paper? They have put forward the argument that Arctodus was an omnivore, but it should not be accepted as gospel truth. People argued for Arctodus being herbivorous based on anatomy, and look what happened: specimens were found that demonstrated a diet almost entirely of meat. It’s clear that Arctodus’ diet is a bit more complicated. Who knows, maybe Arctodus was an omnivore but was more carnivorous than modern bears (like, say, 30% meat 70% plants, or maybe 40%/60%). Arctodus being a primarily vegetarian animal like modern bears raises a question: if it was a generalist, why did it die out? Surely it could have adapted like it’s grizzly cousins. One of the reasons the scavenging hypothesis made sense to me was it could at least in part explain why Arctodus died out: If all the large animals that Arctodus relied on for carrion died out, then it too would die out from lack of food. Just an observation.

In short, we still have much to learn about this animal. The dearth of fossils discovered so far should make it obvious that this bear isn’t giving up it’s secrets easily. To give you an idea of how rare it’s fossils are, consider diamond Valley. Tens of thousands of fossils were found there during construction of a reservoir. Now predators make up as small part of the ecosystem, so they are less likely to be fossilized. But still, paleontologists in Diamond Valley found: a saber-toothed cat mandible and foot bone, a vertebra and pelvis of the American lion, and a cranium fragment, a foot bone, and tooth fragments of a dire wolf. What did they find of Arctodus? A single incisor! Of all the fossils found, the mighty Arctodus is represented by a single front tooth. Even in a predator trap like the La Brea Tar Pits, it’s a rare beats. Compare 30 bears to 3200 dire wolves, 2000 saber-toothed cats, and over 120 American lions. Not a whole lot to go on. I think we need to try and get a better idea of this bear’s biomechanics: how strong was it’s bite, how did move, how did its limbs function? Also i think we need to try and do isotope studies on fossils besides one found in the north. Perhaps diet may also explain why larger specimens are found in places like Utah and Nebraska. But we won’t know for sure until we focus on trying to figure this animal out rather than trying to bust popular myths.

Incisor of Arctodus from Diamond Valley, California

Till next time!

Better Know a Museum: Lawrence Hall of Science

Hey there every peoples!

I meant to write this post back in November! Sheesh, how did all that time get away from me? Whatever the reasons may be, let’s talk about Berkeley’s public display!

Last summer on our trip to San Francisco (the deepest circle of hell for conservatives) we visited the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley. It’s a small museum meant to create a public display for the people of the bay area and abroad. The museum was created in 1968 after the death of Ernest Orlando Lawrence in memory of his contributions to science. Lawrence invented the cyclotron, a device that paved the way for atomic energy. He later won the Nobel prize for physics in 1939 for his work on the cyclotron and it’s applications. So how does the museum fair today?

Well it’s not terribly big but it did have some interesting science exhibits. They had a sheet of cloth hanging from the ceiling of the entrance foyer that i thought was just for decoration. Well on the floor about 15 feet from it was a large hollow tube with a piece of rubber pulled taut over one end. There was a mallet tied to it and in the spirit of just messing around i banged the rubber like a drum. Well a second after i did that the sheet hanging from the ceiling waved like it was hit with a gust of wind. Turns out the drum was a cannon meant to illustrate air displacement or something like that. Whatever it was, it was pretty interesting and cool (i must played with it for 5 minutes!).

They had a special exhibit on the science of amusement park rides, particularly the physics of roller coasters. It was decent, obviously meant to cater to younger visitors. Outside was a set of displays about the formation of San Francisco bay as well as some hands on water activities. It was a nice sunny day so this is where i spent a lot of time. I messed around with an artificial creek meant to illustrate the flow of water and how human activity influences it. Also present was an erosion table which i also spent a good deal of time messing round with. All this took me back to when i was a kid and would go to the children’s museum here in SLO. But it’s time get to the meat of the matter: what kind of fossil displays did this place have? The University of California Museum of Paleontology brags that it has the largest fossil collection of any university in the world. When i heard they had a public display, i was stoked! God knows what they would have!

 

My dad (an engineer) having fun tinkering with water flow

Their paleontology display was… pathetic. Seriously? This was the best they could come up with? I know it’s a small museum but when it’s Berkeley, your expectations are through the roof. Basically the fossils occupied a small section of space on the lower level. The highlights were a gomphothere skeleton and a recreated field tent. The tent wasn’t bad, looking like the ones we see in old photos. There was a triceratops skull and a badly preserved sauropod femur (and some unprepared specimen tucked under the stairs). Easily the best part IMHO was the gomphothere skeleton. The skeleton is a composite cast of gomphothere fossils found at the Blackhawk Ranch Quarry in nearby Contra Costa County, which dates to around 10 million years ago. Seeing this local fossil on display is great, but i feel like it’s only there because they made the cast for a temporary exhibit a few years back and didn’t know what to do with it afterward. Finally there was a T. rex skull cast but it was nothing special. Everything in the tent was unlabeled, the stuff about the T. rex skull was standard, and only the gomphothere had any real description (again, probably because it was left over). While the rest of the Lawrence Hall of Science was a good way to spend the day, the paleontology section was utterly pitiful.

You should be a highlight, not the whole exhibit!

This is perhaps one of my biggest beefs with Berkeley. As noted above they claim to have the largest paleontology collection of any university in the world. And yet they have no real public museum. I went by UCMP while up in San Francisco in 2007 to check it out. All i found were a couple Triceratops skull casts, a T. rex cast, and a Pteranodon cast. In a wall case were also casts of a baby Maiasaura, Heterodontosaurus, and a Parasaurolophus skull. You know, stuff I’ve seen plenty of times before, and will see in  a much better presentation when LA opens it’s new dinosaur hall this summer. I have read that they have little temporary displays now and then, and they sometimes loan stuff to other museums (probably half the specimens on display at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument have “UCMP” in their collection number) but no substantial displays of their own. Combined, the displays in the life science building and the Lawrence Hall of Science looked like something a museum with little knowledge or funding would throw together.

“But Doug,” you say, “You can’t be too harsh on them. Sure they don’t have anything substantial in the way of public display, but they do loads of important research and have some decent public programs. So why the hate?” Well, for starters, the fact that they have the largest collection and have no significant museum. Just from the stuff i have found in their online collections database, plus their renowned research, they could put on one hell of a museum. I mean, exhibit A:

The UCMP collection includes vertebrate fossils from the Devonian to the Recent and from localities around the globe. Unique aspects of the collection are holdings of Triassic vertebrates from western North America, Cretaceous dinosaurs and mammals from Montana and Wyoming, Paleocene through Pleistocene mammals from the western US, the original material from the Rancho La Brea tar pits, Tertiary Australian marsupials, Miocene faunas of Colombia, and Pleistocene cave faunas of South Africa.
– from UCMP’s vertebrate paleontology collection page

Does that not sound like a recipe for the greatest museum in the west? Why haven’t they ever pursued something like that? Miocene faunas of Columbia? That would be frickin awesome! South America has such a weird and wonderful Cenozoic record and they have a piece of the pie? That combined with Miocene material from the States would make an excellent display on biogeography and convergent evolution! same goes for the Pleistocene faunas from Australia and South Africa. Ready for more? Exhibit B:

A decade later, in 1899, John C. Merriam proposed the first University of California expedition. Collections of the John Day fossils graced the major Eastern universities and had found their way abroad, yet aside from some of Condon’s specimens in Eugene, none existed in museums of the West. The administration at Berkeley agreed that a collection was needed, and Merriam’s expedition was launched.
-from “Finding Fossils on the Frontier”, a flier i got at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Yeah you got your collection, too bad it would remain out of sight, save for the stuff you loaned the Monument for it’s displays. The John Day Fossil Beds are perhaps the greatest sequence of Cenozoic fossil bearing rocks in the world. It’s an incredible story. And right now, so far as i know, the only place you can hear that story is at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, the Monument’s on site museum. Also a small display exists at OMSI (Oregon Museum of Nature and Science), but it can’t compare to the Monument’s displays. This is one of the reasons i want to build my own collection of fossils from the John Day Beds: because so few make this fascinating place known.

But perhaps the biggest cause of my resentment stems from the fact that a significant collection of fossils from the Central Coast is locked up there. I have a printed list of specimens i have found in their online database and there are quite a few. But i know there’s more there, based on a couple sources citing fossils i have not found in the database. I have no cultural heritage: I’m a random mix of Portuguese, German, Welsh, English, and Swedish. I was born and raised in California and lets face it American “culture” is nothing to be proud of. These fossils represent my heritage. They are part of the Central Coast, the place that has been my home all my life and what i hope will be my home until the end of my days. I can’t help but feel like a piece of myself, as well as the people of the Central Coast, is hidden away where we can never know what else called this wonderful place home. It is one of the major components fueling my mental illness.

This has also caused me to do something that i am definitely not proud of. I have heard paleontologists say that a fossil going to a museum means it is entering the public trust. But i have also heard people question the public trust argument. And to be honest… i kinda sympathize with them. It’s a little hard to swallow when your local fossils are in the public trust of a museum that’s far from home, lost within the vast collections where no one would ever see them. Because it’s not just Berkeley: La is guilty of it too. Granted, LA has some of their Central Coast fossils on display, but it’s only because it can be related to LA’s story. Furthermore, since only a small amount of fossils can be on display, god knows what else is locked away. But what’s the point? These museums were established long ago. They got to the fossils first, plain and simple. Why should they care about what one community college level pissant thinks? And as i read about now and then these large museums still go out and find the fossils that compose my heritage. They have the knowledge, the interest, and the funding to do so. I can’t help but feel cheated a bit because there is nothing i can do about it. I can never win against these places. All i  have is the interest; the knowledge and funding is squarely theirs. And if i ever get my museum off the ground, their continued efforts in the field would mean that i have to compete with them, and for the reason stated prior, i simply could not. Considering this is a significant part of my depression, i may have to live with this burden for the rest of my life.

Well what was supposed to be a simple review of a small museum turned into a long windless rant. But what can i do other than let it out? Because i obviously can’t do anything else despite my best efforts. Anyway, if you’re ever in the bay area, i would recommend a visit to the Lawrence Hall of Science to check out some interesting science exhibits. I just wish i could recommend it to see some of Berkeley’s fabulous fossils.

Till next time!

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Adendum: i have written a follow up post

The Sea Cow

Hey there every peoples!

I failed to notice it a couple weeks ago but on February 19th my blog turned 1 year old! Woohoo! So far my cyber rag has garnered more than 6000 views. You know what’s coming next: thanks guys, I couldn’t have done it without you! So what do I do for this momentous occasion? What subject could possibly befit the birthday of a publication such as this? Hmmmm… I know! I’ll talk about the thing that got me on the road to writing this blog as well as my fool hardy quest to found my own museum.

It all began in high school. I was pretty miserable then and was always looking for things to take my mind off how much things sucked (in hind sight, it was most likely my depression). I was riding my bike along San Luis Bay drive in Avila Beach when I saw something poking out of a sandstone bluff. Back in 6th grade I had gone on a little “fossil walk” out in Avila where a paleontologist showed us some marine fossils. But all the ones he showed us were down on seaside ledges, not up on a bluff. So I climbed up to get a better look and couldn’t believe what I saw:

I hadn't realised it et, but everything in my life had lead up to this moment

It was a series of large fossilized ribs poking out of 3.5 million year old sediments. My heart just about stopped. I never thought that I would find fossils at this point in my life, let alone fossils right in my own backyard. I was ecstatic! But since I wasn’t too bright back then (not like I’m much better now) I didn’t think too much of it (namely reporting it to a scientist or anything). Over the years I kept watch over the bones, still in disbelief that they were real. At first I thought they were whale ribs but a couple of marine mammal guys told me they may very well be sea cow ribs based on their shape and apparent density. This made quite a bit of sense actually because if you recall Avila Beach is the type locality for Hydrodamalis cuestae, just about the biggest sea cow ever. So that time forward I came to call it my sea cow.

But as time wore on, so did my sea cow:

December, 2005

September, 2008

March, 2011

Fossils are fragile. Once exposed to the elements, they have little time before they are ground to dust. Unfortunately it takes time and money to dig up fossils and no professionals I talked to seemed interested in investigating a giant sea cow. I tried in vain for 2 years to try and find who owned the bluffs so that maybe I could at least stabilize the bones so they might last until I could figure out the next step. Eventually I did find that it belonged to the harbor district but they have only given me the cold shoulder. And so it appears that my sea cow will be lost to time, the only record of its existence being a few photos and some fragments I salvaged in high school.

This is what truly started me on my quest to found a museum here on the Central Coast. There needs to be someone who will look into and deal with fossils that no one else seems interested in. Just because there are other giant sea cow specimens in museums doesn’t mean this one or any others should be left to rot. And that goes for all the other fossils out there. And with all sorts of development going on, would it not be sensible to have a local museum on hand to monitor the sites? I mean look at this new road cut in Avila, just down the road from my sea cow:

Who knows what may lie beneath, waiting to be uncovered

Also, Pismo Beach is looking to double in size with a gargantuan construction project. Who knows what they might uncover during development. But most importantly, we need a museum to collect the fossils that pop up here and there in our region, fossils that appear to emerge and fade away without anyone noticing. And this sea cow is part of the reason I hope to have a hall devoted to fossil marine mammals. Ultimately, if I can ever get this foolhardy idea of mine off the ground, you can bet the farm its logo will be a giant sea cow. A logo that would not just represent the museum, but will stand as a reminder that we need to do all we can to save the record of life on earth for future generations. My one regret is that one of them had to be sentenced to oblivion for this vision to be realized.

Till next time!