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Colorado mountain memories

Steven Wade Veatch (USA) While headed for the California Gold Rush of 1849, George Giggey (who was my great-great-grandfather) first made his way through the mountainous and untamed wilderness of what would later become Colorado. He was among a group of young men, who were determined to make a new life, fortune and future in the American West. After working in the Californian goldfields, he turned his attention to Colorado, where he prospected for gold for a while and then returned to the East. In 1865, George Giggey returned to Colorado with his family of ten children and built a homestead in the wilderness near what would become, in just a few years, the town of Caribou. The town developed around the Caribou silver mine that was discovered by Sam Conger in 1868. George Lytle, one of Conger’s partners, was from British Columbia and named the mine after his caribou hunting trips in Canada. By 1870, the Caribou Mine was in full production and was shipping ore down Coon Trail, to the nearby settlement of Nederland for processing. By 1872, the frontier town of Caribou built a much needed schoolhouse. Three of George Giggey’s boys attended Caribou’s first school session. They were: George Leon (my great-grandfather), who was 14 years old; Adelbert, age 7; and Charley, who was only 6 years old. I can feel the boy’s excitement when they took their seats in the one-room schoolhouse, with new furniture, blackboards, maps, globes and a new teacher – Miss Hannah … Read More

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Volancoes of Big Island, Hawaii (Part 3)

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) This is the last of a three part article about the volcanoes of Big Island, Hawaii. In the first part, I discussed their background and explained some of the terms used to describe the lava that can been seen there. In the second, I discussed some of the highlights that my wife and I saw during our several trips to the island, including in October 2014. And in this part, I will continue to describe what we saw. Fig. 1. One of the kipukas (that is, untouchedby- lava areas of forest). The abandoned lava cliff at Kalapana This is a stretch of old cliff face that is now several hundred metres from the sea. It is located among the flows of February 1992 to October 2003, but the area was re-flooded with lava between 2007 and November 2013, when the ocean entry hereabouts was blocked. The site is just under 5km southwest of present-day Kalapana near Poupou, where the Royal Gardens lava flow reached the coast. The walk is well worth the effort for the variety of lava formations, the many tumuli or blisters of lava, and the coastal scenery along the present cliffs. We were guided here by Gary Sleik, who lives on the lava at Kalapana. Fig. 2. The first section of cliff face, with the lens-shaped tube blocked by cindery flow. The cliffs are backed up by a small kipuka, which is an area that was left untouched, as the lava flowed around … Read More

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Volancoes of Big Island, Hawaii (Part 2)

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) This is the second of a three part article about the volcanoes of Big Island, Hawaii. In the first, I discussed their background and explained some of the terms used to describe the lava that can been seen there. In this part, I will discuss some of the highlights that my wife and I saw during our several trips to the island, including in October 2014. A night walk to the flowing lava from Kalapana This was one of the major highlights of our previous trip in 2013. Several local guides conduct walks across the old lava (mostly 1981 to 2013 flows) to wherever the current flow is best viewed. Our lead guide was Dave Ewing (postewing@gmail.com or (808) 315-2256) and our group met up at his house, located on private properties beyond the “End of the road” signs at Kalapana. This house is one of the very few to survive the 2010 flow, which came through the Royal Gardens subdivision and into Kalapana. Fig. 1. A going away party to mark the long-expected event of the house burning at Kalapana on the night of 25 July 2010. My thanks to Darlene Cripps and Gary Sleik for this picture. We began in late afternoon, with around a dozen people in the group. The walk initially passed the remnants of some of the other homes – a corrugated roof, a fridge, some pilings, and so on, before getting onto the fresh lava. It was almost five kilometres … Read More

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Volancoes of Big Island, Hawaii (Part 1)

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) We (my wife Chris and I) enjoyed our fourth visit to Big Island Hawaii in May 2013 so much that we decided to return to the same places in October 2014. We were hoping to see similar events and activities, which we had found particularly interesting and accessible over the years. Every time we visit, something changes or isn’t possible, but this time was a little more changeable than most. The intervention of three ladies altered a few of our plans – Iselle, the hurricane that visited the southeast of Big Island two months before we arrived; Madame Pele, the Hawaiian Goddess of the Volcano; and Ana, the hurricane that hit the area during our stay. The three interventions illustrate the simple fact that we and our little plans have to be adaptable and show that some of the great locations will be discussed in these articles and will be missed if you only make one visit. This is the first of three articles on Big Island in Hawaii. In them, I will talk about the major highlights of our visit in connection with the volcanic activity of this wonderful island. This first part will mostly illustrate the different volcanic concepts that need to be understood to appreciate what can be seen, and will also provide a general background to the location and the significant summer 2014 flow towards Pahoa. About lava Traditionally, lava is described as pahoehoe or a’a. These are taken to mean ropey … Read More

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Great Plains geology: A personal journey

Professor Emeritus Robert F Diffendal, Jr (USA) I grew up in the 1940s and 50s in the eastern US state of Maryland and went to cinemas on my own from the age of six, mostly to see what were then to me exciting western movies. In 1962, I was off to graduate school in the Great Plains state of Nebraska, a place that I pictured in my mind as it had been depicted in some of those films. Imagine my surprise when it looked nothing like the outdoor scenes in most of those films. Silly me, to have thought that films were made as closely as possible to the real subject area. From graduate school in 1962 to now, I achieved my goals and became a geologist and professor, travelling and doing research in the Great Plains and western Central Lowland physiographic provinces, and looking at geology in exotic places like the UK, China, Australia and New Zealand. Fast forward to 2013. I had enough experience and expertise on Great Plains geology by then that I was asked to write a short book of about 35,000 words on the geology of the Great Plains by the director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska, Dr Richard Edwards. After visiting and studying sites in Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada, and in south-western Texas that I had not previously studied, I started working on the book now titled Great Plains Geology that is reviewed in this issue … Read More

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Fulgurites: With the look and shape of lightning bolts

Deborah Painter (USA) If the characteristics referred to in the title were their only quality, fulgurites would be fascinating. However, they have other unusual qualities that make them even more amazing. For example, some hold ancient air within that can offer a window into palaeo-environments. Fulgurites are natural tubes or, in the case of rock fulgurites, crusts of glass formed by the fusion of silica (quartz) from a lightning strike. They are categorised in four main types: clay, sand, caliche and rock fulgurites. In the case of the sand or clay fulgurites, the shape mimics the path of the lightning bolt as it enters the ground. All lightning strikes hitting the ground are capable of forming fulgurites, but not all lightning strikes will do so. A temperature of 1,800oC is required to melt sand and form a fulgurite, but this is not usually an impediment, since most lightning strikes have a temperature of 2,500oC. Fig. 1. North Carolina’s sand dunes are a popular place to find sand fulgurites. (Photo by D M Maxos.) In addition to the four main types mentioned above, there are the droplet fulgurites, which obviously resemble droplets, but, in composition, are similar to the clay and caliche fulgurites. Sand fulgurites tend to have rather fragile glass walls. Rock fulgurites are found not as discrete structures, but as veins or branching channels on a rock surface, or as a lining of fractures, which existed before the lightning strike. Fig. 2. A large (9cm) specimen. (Photo by Mark … Read More

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Worm monstrosity: A giant extinct worm

Mats E Eriksson (Sweden) In a new study published in Scientific Reports (Earth’s oldest ‘Bobbit worm’ – gigantism in a Devonian eunicidan polychaete) by Luke A Parry of Bristol University in the UK, David M Rudkin of the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada and me (Mats E Eriksson of Lund University in Sweden), an extraordinary new species of polychaetes (that is, bristle worms – the marine relatives of earthworms and leeches) is described. The new species, Websteroprion armstrongi, is unique among fossil worms and possessed the largest jaws recorded from all of earth history, reaching over one centimetre in length and thus easily visible to the naked eye. Typically, such fossil jaws are only a few millimetres in size and must be studied using microscopes. Despite being only knows from the jaws, comparison of Websteroprion armstrongi with living species suggests that this animal achieved a body length in excess of a metre. This is comparable to that of ‘giant eunicid’ species, colloquially referred to as ‘Bobbit worms’, a name that is bizarrely enough derived from the infamous story of eye-watering amateur surgery involving Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt. Living ‘Bobbit worms’ are fearsome and opportunistic ambush predators, using their powerful jaws to capture prey, such as fish and cephalopods (squids and octopuses), and drag them into their burrows. Fig. 1. A photograph showing the holotype of Websteroprion armstrongi. (Photo by Luke Parry.) Gigantism in animals is an alluring and ecologically important trait, usually associated with advantages and competitive dominance. It … Read More

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Geoscience highlights from the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Ruel A Macaraeg (USA) Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is among the world’s leading academic institutions and natural science is one of its most celebrated programs. Since its founding in the seventeenth century, the university has been a repository for specimens of scientific curiosity. Over time, these grew into three comprehensive reference collections – the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria and the Harvard Mineralogical Museum. Selections from these were eventually gathered into the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which, in 1998, opened to the public alongside the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology with which it shares a building. Though retaining separate names and administration, the HMNH and PMAE are physically connected, and visitors to either gain entry to both with a single ticket. As one of these more recent visitors, I will share some brief impressions of the major palaeo and geoscience exhibits below. Mineralogical and geological gallery Geology displays worldwide tend to look the same – rows of labelled rocks grouped into categories in ascending shelves. Harvard’s geological gallery follows this pattern, but is distinguished by the inclusion of several large and notable mounts. Chief among these are two very large rocks, a gypsum crystal (Fig. 1) and an amethyst (Fig. 2). Fig. 1. Gypsum. Fig. 2. Amethyst. There are also several, well-preserved meteorites from locations across North America, some of which are shown in Fig. 3. Fig. 3. Meteorites. Fossil mammals A narrow, winding hallway somehow manages to display quite a few large Cainozoic … Read More

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New look for Utahraptor

Kenneth Carpenter (USA) One hundred and twenty eight million years ago, a killer stalked eastern Utah. Known as Utahraptor, this distant relative of Velociraptor of Jurassic Park fame was also equipped with a sickle-claw on its hind feet. The name means “Utah’s raptor” with “raptor” being the informal name commonly (but incorrectly) used for the sickle-clawed dromaeosaurid theropods. Utahraptor was named in 1993 by Dr James Kirkland for bones from the Gaston Quarry (also known as Yellow Cat Quarry), north of Arches National Park. The Gaston Quarry occurs in the lower part of the Yellow Cat Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation. The presence of an ankylosaur related to Polacanthus at the Gaston Quarry suggests that the Yellow Cat Member is the same age as the Wealden Formation on the Isle of Wight, in other words, it lived 125 to 130mya. A radiometric date of 126 +2.5mya was obtained from the Yellow Cat Member which supports the dinosaur evidence for the age. Utahraptor has been found at several other sites in the Yellow Cat Member, so must have been relatively widespread in the region. Nevertheless, most of this material remains undescribed. Fig. 1. Some of the bones used in the original description of Utahraptor (scale is 10cm). Casts of these and other bones were used to make a new reconstruction. Until recently, what Utahraptor looked like relied a great deal on imagination. Several recent scientific studies have shown that Utahraptor is related to Achillobator, a dromaeosaurid from the middle of … Read More

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Dinosaur track investigation

Jack Shimon (USA) My “Fossil Grandpa” took me to visit this neat site when I was in Texas last summer (2013). We drove to a small rural community, where it seemed there wasn’t anything to find. However, my Grandpa pointed out me to a small trail, full of flowers that Jane (my sister) had stopped to admire, which eventually led down a steep trail into the riverbed. This was definitely not a popular hiking trail and I doubt many people (except geologists) have been to this spot. The site is an ‘Earthcache’, which, in the USA, is a type of geological site that teaches you about a unique geoscience feature. I have been to several Earthcaches in Texas and to at least four in other states (Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina and Florida); and have learned some interesting lessons. Here, our job was to study the dinosaur tracks and answer some questions. Fig. 1. Jane and me at the dinosaur tracks. We are each standing by a footprint. (Photo by Julie Shimon.) What type of dinosaur made these tracks? A theropod like Velociraptor or T-rex, or maybe even the recently discovered Lythronax argestes? It must have been some type of carnivorous predator; and to think I was standing right where it walked so long ago. It was a little frightening to imagine one coming along and what that would be like in real life. Fig. 2. Dinosaur track. (Photo by Julie Shimon.) The first task was to measure the stride. The … Read More

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Nebraska, USA: Wonderful fossils, natural history museums and public art depicting fossils

Robert F Diffendal, Jr (USA) Nebraska is known by vertebrate palaeontologists as the place in North America where there is a very complete Cenozoic geologic record of mammalian evolution over the last thirty-five million years or so. All you have to do is visit any of the many major natural history museums in the USA and in many countries around the world, including the UK, to see fossil skulls, articulated skeletons and large slabs of rock containing bones of fossil mammals from Nebraska to verify this assertion. Nebraska is also the site of Cretaceous rocks containing the oldest known Cretaceous fossil flower and many other parts from fossil plants. It also contains dinosaur footprints and trackways, and skeletons of marine plesiosaurs, mosasaurs and large marine fish, as well as terrestrial and marine invertebrate fossils and marine microfossils. Upper Carboniferous rocks exposed at the surface in parts of south-eastern Nebraska have yielded fossil terrestrial plant fossils, marine stromatolites and other marine plant fossils, marine invertebrates, fish and even some fossil bones of amphibians and early reptiles. All in all, Nebraska is a vast storehouse of wonderful fossils that continues today to yield them up to collectors, both professional and amateur. These fossils can be found on both private and public lands, and in state and federal parks and museums. To match this geological heritage, Nebraska (a large state in area with a small population) has a wonderful natural history museum – the University of Nebraska State Museum (UNSM) – on the … Read More

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Ute arrow straightener made of Jurassic dinosaur bone

Gavin Noller (USA) I am currently studying an arrow straightening tool left behind by the Ute Indians of the Northern Colorado Plateau long ago. The artefact is made of an unusual material – a Jurassic dinosaur bone. As I work with this object (which is more than 13 decades old), I imagine a scene when it was used: A group of Ute braves are sitting on a forested mountain slope that overlooks the plains where the braves and their families have camped. They are manufacturing arrowheads and straightening the shafts of their arrows for hunting. The day is quite peaceful. The sun is shining – showering the landscape with its blissful, gratifying warmth and light. In the distance, the dark silhouette of a herd of grazing bison is visible. One brave – Leaf Who Rides on the Wind – has a tool for straightening the shafts of arrows. It is made of a peculiar material that is like bone, but is as hard as rock, and all the other braves believe it contains great medicine. The arrow straightener that Leaf Who Rides on the Wind uses is part of a large dinosaur bone. The bone was smoothed, so it could fit into his hand. A single long groove was put in to the bone to straighten the shafts of arrows, so they would hit their intended target, straight and true. Fig. 1. View of arrow shaft straightener made of dinosaur bone from a Jurassic bone bed. (From the G Noller … Read More

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Florissant fossil spider discovery

Zachary J Sepulveda (USA) and Steven Wade Veatch (USA) The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is known worldwide for its late Eocene (34Ma) fossil plants and insects. Recently, a fossil spider was discovered at the commercial quarry, which is near the fossil beds (Fig. 1). Due to the condition of the fossil, it can only be assigned to the family Lycosidae (see table) (Rasnitsyn, 2012). If correct, this classification would make it a wolf spider. This fossil wolf spider lived 34Ma under Florissant rocks, within the forest litter or on short herbaceous plants (Meyer, 2003). Based on its modern relatives, it would have had colours that helped camouflage it, allowing it to hide from its prey (Meyer, 2003). According to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument fossil database, only one other member of the family Lycosidae (from the Greek word for ‘wolf’) has been discovered there. Petrunkevitch (1922) described this fossil and assigned it to the species Lycosa florissanti, from a well-preserved fossil specimen. Spiders belong to the class Arachnida. Unlike insects, arachnids have eight legs instead of six, have two body sections instead of three, and do not have antennae or wings. Taxonomy of wolf spider from the Florissant Fossil QuarryKingdom:AnimaliaPhylum:ArthropodaSubphylum:ChelicerataClass:ArachnidaOrder:AraneaeSuborder:LabidognathidaeFamily:LycosidaeThese spiders are incredibly successful – with a lineage stretching back millions of years. With over 100 genera and 2,300 species, they are capable predators spread throughout the entire globe and can inhabit almost every type of environment. From shrub lands to coastal forests, from gardens to alpine meadows, … Read More

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Geology of East Greenland

James Cresswell (UK) Eighty percent of Greenland is covered by ice and, in places, this is up to 3.4km thick. So, Greenland might not immediately spring to mind as a place to go to observe rocks. However, it is a huge country and the ice-free area, at 410,000km2, is nearly twice the size of the UK. This is generally sparsely vegetated, leaving the rocks beautifully exposed and the geology incredibly easy to see. The area of East Greenland around Scoresby Sund, Kong Oscar and Kejser Franz Joseph Fjords is the largest ice-free area in Greenland. It also has incredible geodiversity, with basement rocks as old as three billion years, an almost complete sedimentary record of the last 1.6byrs and huge volumes of flood basalts from the splitting of the Atlantic. If you were an alien and wanted to try to piece together the geological story of Planet Earth – but could only visit one area – East Greenland would be the place to go. Fig 1. A simplified geological map of East Greenland. The geological history of Greenland is vastly long and spans 3.8byrs. Its oldest rocks are the 3.8byr-old Isua Complex, situated in West Greenland, near the capital Nuuk. These rocks are the Earth’s oldest, most well-preserved sedimentary and volcanic rocks, and they contain carbon particles that most likely originate from the oldest known life on the planet. To put into perspective just how old these rocks are, try to imagine that the planet is only one year old. … Read More

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Utah: A geologist’s wonderland

Chetan Patel (USA) Often referred to as the Red Rock Country, the state of Utah boasts some of the most breathtaking landscapes formed from years of erosional artistry. Dominating this impressive landscape is the Colorado Plateau that spans the four states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Adjacent to the Colorado Plateau, separated by the Wasatch Fault Zone, is the Basin and Range Province, another expanse of geological wonder formed during the Laramide Orogeny. These spectacular landscapes, dominated by the eponymous red rock, offers geologists a great opportunity to study both modern and ancient processes in great detail. With favourable weather and easily accessible outcrops, Utah serves up an exciting geological journey. Fig. 1. Map showing extent of the Colorado Plateau. Within Utah, resides what is commonly referred to as the mecca of sequence stratigraphy, the Book Cliffs. These offer a wonderland of stratigraphic sequences to the travelling geologist. In fact, hosting a wide variety of easily-accessible outcrops, Utah has become a premier location for the study of sequence stratigraphy, specifically in the oil and gas industry. The well-exposed outcrops offer a detailed look into facies relationships providing the perfect outcrop analogues to subsurface exploration. The name “Book Cliffs” was coined by the early settlers of the region to which the alternating layers of shale and sandstone resembled the pages of a book on its side. Fig. 2. The Book Cliffs in the foreground. The Book Cliffs lay within the Colorado Plateau, with the escarpment spanning over 250km and … Read More

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Book reviews: Fossils on the floor in the Nebraska State Capitol

Nebraska has an excellent geology record, which is celebrated by some fine mosaics at the Nebraska State Capitol. When the building was being constructed, and at the request of Prof Hartley Burr Alexander of the University of Nebraska Philosophy Department and from drawings by his colleague Dr Erwin H Barbour (former director of the University of Nebraska State Museum), the artist, Hildreth Meière, was asked to create a series of mosaics.

Diadematoid echinoids: A cryptic part of the tropical fossil record

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) The writers of holiday brochures invariably fail to mention, let alone emphasise, the bad points of a location. For example, I’ve lived in both Jamaica and the Netherlands, and, for me, the thing that unites these two countries is the number of mosquitoes. However, as mosquitoes aren’t a good sales point with tourists, they are carefully ignored in holiday brochures and advertisements. Another Caribbean critter that doesn’t get mentioned until you actually arrive and want to go for a dip in the sea is the sea urchin, known in Jamaica as a sea egg. In truth, any danger to the unwary swimmer comes from the few species of regular echinoid that have long, pointed spines. These are found in many shallow water habitats, but are best concealed (and, therefore, most dangerous to the swimmer) in seagrass beds. The best protection from these echinoids is to wear an old pair of training shoes that you’d be happy to dispose of at the end of the vacation. However, without prior knowledge, who would take such a thing on holiday with them? Among these echinoids, the one most likely to ruin your holiday is the black, long-spined urchin, Diadema antillarum (Phillipi) in the Caribbean; which is broadly similar in morphology to the figured specimen, Diadema setosum (Leske) from Indonesia (Fig. 1). These echinoids have relatively small bodies, but numerous long, needle-like spines. These are, essentially, single calcite crystals. The unsuspecting swimmer treading on such an urchin will have … Read More

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Thomas Jefferson’s mammoth problem

James Smith (USA) Author of the Declaration of Independence, creator of the University of Virginia, a Founding Father and third president of the USA, Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer. Of this, you are undoubtedly aware. And, like most pioneers, Jefferson fostered an interest in virtually every aspect of science. This appetite for knowledge propelled him to organise the Lewis and Clark Expedition into the then-uncharted western area of the continent, brought under American governance by the Louisiana Purchase, which took place during his presidency. Considered an expert in civil engineering, anatomy, architecture, anthropology, physics, mechanics, meteorology, navigation, ethnology, botany and geography, it is not surprising that Jefferson was also a pioneer in our own field – palaeontology. “Science is my passion,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “politics is my duty”. It could almost be said that he was as much of a pioneer in science as in law and politics – indeed, although we may remember his political pursuits as his most historically-resonant, his scientific achievements were pretty admirable. “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science,” he wrote, “rendering them my supreme delight.” Christopher Hitchens thought that, were Jefferson born a decade later, he would have been one of the finest palaeontologists in history. However, as it was, Jefferson was still looking at mountains and asking how shells got so high up on the mountaintop. The side project of many an eighteenth century American scientist was the study of mysterious teeth, bones and seven-foot tusks yielded by swamps and riverbeds. … Read More

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Jamaican fossil crabs

Stephen K Donovan (The Netherlands) and Joe SH Collins (UK) Decapod crustaceans (crabs) are among the most attractive of fossils. Yet, the beautifully preserved specimens seen in museum displays and dealers’ catalogues are in stark contrast with the usual haul of the collector, that is, scraps, commonly claws or (more rarely) bits of carapace, which we all find in (mainly) Cretaceous and Cenozoic sedimentary rocks. However, these bits and pieces represent most of the fossil record of crabs and, as such, are of importance to the systematist and anyone with an interest in aspects such as taphonomy and palaeoecology. Just as it is possible to identify a shark from a tooth or a cidaroid echinoid from a spine, so a crab claw can commonly provide data that permits its identification to the level of genus or species (Collins, 1999). The present authors, in collaboration with Roger Portell of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville, have been collecting and studying the fossil crabs of Jamaica (and the wider Antilles) for over 20 years. Until the 1990s, reports of fossil crabs from the island were limited to a few fragmented specimens and rare, well-preserved carapaces (some retaining claws) or the isolated claws of mud shrimps (=Callianassa sensu lato), which were collected mainly from the Upper Cretaceous and Eocene by visiting geologists as an aside to their own research. They were sent to the British Museum (Natural History) for description. These early records were reviewed and … Read More

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Flexomornis howei: A tale of amateur and professional cooperation

Kris Howe (USA) When you think of Texas, what comes to mind? It may be wide open spaces, longhorn cattle, cowboys and ten gallon hats. Now, there’s something else to add to the list – the oldest, definitive bird fossil in North America. That bird is Flexomornis howei, from the Woodbine Formation (lower Middle Cenomanian) near Grapevine, Texas. I first encountered the bones while prospecting potential fossil sites around Grapevine Lake. This is located just north of Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport, in north-eastern Tarrant County. One exposure near the lake soon produced a large number of fossils eroding out on the surface. They included petrified and carbonised wood, amber, at least two types of turtle, two types of crocodile, numerous remains of bony fish, shark teeth and vertebrae, parts of an ornithopod, a nodosaur, ostedeoderms, and a few scraps of small theropods. Fig. 1. Howe, Florillo and Tykoski presenting the Flexomornis howei remains at a press conference. In addition, there was also a cluster of delicate and unusual bones that looked like nothing I had ever seen before. I contacted Dr Ron Tykoski, at the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, for help with the identification. Dr Tykoski had been very helpful in the past with tough identifications, so I knew he could help. He inspected the bones and said that they looked like they were from a bird, but he was hesitant to get too excited – there were no known birds from the Woodbine Formation. Dr Tykoski … Read More

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Fleshing-out a dinosaur-eating snake

Tyler Keillor (USA) In the March 2010 issue of the open-access journal, PLoS Biology, palaeontologist Jeff Wilson and colleagues give an account of a truly unique and amazing fossil discovery. In their article entitled Predation upon Hatchling Dinosaurs by a New Snake from the Late Cretaceous of India, the snake Sanajeh indicus is described, based upon multiple specimens. In particular, one snake fossil was found in a nest of sauropod eggs, looped around a crushed egg, with hatchling sauropod bones next to the broken egg. The very moment of predation seems to have been preserved in rock, as a sudden plug of sand from a flash flood smothered the animals, preserving them for millions of years. Fig. 1. Small-scale maquette to help visualise and plan reconstructing the scene at full scale. The sediment analysis hadn’t been completed at this stage, so vegetation tentatively filled the nest in early mock-ups. Jeff contacted me about creating a reconstruction of this fossilised scene ‘in the flesh’ as a display. I had previously collaborated with him while he and Paul Sereno were studying the bizarre African sauropod, Nigersaurus taqueti, at the University of Chicago’s Fossil Laboratory. For that project, I created a restored skull model of the dinosaur for its unveiling, as well as a life-sized flesh model of the head and neck. These models are an extremely effective, visual means of conveying new discoveries to the public. The value of a model is underscored when a fossil isn’t very photogenic or might otherwise … Read More

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Mammoths in the freezer

Adrian Lister (UK) As palaeontologists, we are used to relying on the preserved hard parts of extinct organisms – shells, bones, teeth and so on – to reconstruct their appearance and adaptations in life. The reconstruction of soft tissue relies upon our knowledge of related living forms, plus clues such as the scars of muscle attachments on bones or shells. Exceptions include body outlines preserved in the fine-grained sediments of Lagerstätte, such as in the Eocene of Messel (Germany) or the Cambrian Burgess Shale (Canada); or, even more rarely, organisms preserved in 3D, of which the most familiar source is Tertiary amber. Among mammals, the most celebrated case of exceptional preservation is provided by the carcasses preserved in permafrost in Siberia (Russia), Alaska (USA) and the Yukon (Canada), at localities lying almost exclusively north of the Arctic Circle (Lister and Bahn, 2007). Almost all date to the last glaciation, with radiocarbon dates typically in the range 50 to 10,000 years ago. Species from which partial or whole carcasses have been recovered include bison, horse, wolverine, woolly rhinoceros and, above all, the woolly mammoth. The reason for the preponderance of these is unclear, although it may partly be a matter of reporting bias, other species being considered less interesting or less valuable when discovered by local people. Even so, not more than a dozen or so complete or largely complete mammoth carcasses have been recovered to date. While Siberian natives have doubtless been finding these remains for millennia, the first carcass … Read More

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Preliminary study on a large scraper from Central Wyoming

Luke Sattler (USA) This paper is about an unusual artefact from Wyoming that may have been used by prehistoric people. It has now been studied and the preliminary research results are complete. This ancient scraper is a bifacial, thinned, cortical flaked tool, which means that its flakes were struck from the exterior of a chert nodule (hence the remaining cortex, or rough surface, visible on one face, Fig. 1). To make it bifacial, the edges were then flaked on both sides to form a cutting or scraping edge used for working with things like meat and hide, among others possibilities (Walker, Danny, Personal communication 2012). Fig. 1. Front and back view of bifacial scraper, showing flaking by ancient people in Wyoming. Rough surface of a chert nodule is revealed on the surface. (Photo by S Veatch.) The scraper is made out of chert, which is a sedimentary microcrystalline variety of quartz that forms when microcrystals of silicon dioxide grow within sediments. The microcrystals grow into irregularly shaped nodules or concretions, as dissolved silica is transported to the formation site by the movement of ground water or the sea. When there is more than one nodule or concretion forming at the same time and near to each other, they can join together and form large masses or layers of bedded chert. Some of the silicon dioxide in chert is thought to have a biological origin. In some oceans and shallow seas, large numbers of organisms have a silica-rich skeleton (for example, … Read More

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Triassic fossils of West Texas

Rick Day (USA) I found my first Triassic fossil when I was about 15 years old on a backpacking trip in Tule Canyon, Briscoe County in Texas. After setting up camp, I walked over to a small, red-coloured hill. On its slope, I found a small, unusual bone fragment approximately 5cm by 5cm by 1cm and I remember being really excited. It was the first petrified bone I had ever found and it seemed strange to me. The bone fragment was flat on one side and had dimples and pits on the other side. It just didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before. Fig. 1. My first phytosaur skull. All the teeth and part of the rostrum is restored. Leptosuchus? I carried this unusual bone fragment in the glove compartment of my car for years, hoping to find someone who could identify it. However, I was never able to find anyone who knew anything about the fossil. Eventually, I became interested in geology and learned for myself the geology and paleontology of the region where I live. This eventually led to my becoming a science teacher. In time, I was able to identify my strange little fossil bone as being a scute fragment from the back armour of a Thecodont Reptile called an Ateosaur. (A “scute” is thickened, horny or bony plate that can be seen today on the shells of turtles or on the backs of crocodiles.) For those unfamiliar with Ateosaurs, these were the heavily armored … Read More

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Lavas from Hawaiian volcano contain fingerprint of planetary formation

Dr Steve Koppes (USA) Hikers visiting the Kilauea Iki crater in Hawaii today walk along a mostly flat surface of sparsely vegetated basalt. It looks like parking lot asphalt, but, in November and December 1959, it emitted the orange glow of newly erupted lava. Now, a precision analysis of lava samples taken from the crater is giving scientists a new tool for reconstructing planetary origins. The results of the analysis, by the University of Chicago’s Nicolas Dauphas and his associates, were published in the 20 June 2008 issue of the journal Science. Fig. 1. Eruption Hill in Kilauea Iki crater on the Big Island of Hawaii. In December 1959, lava spurted 580m feet high from this location. Working with lava samples from the crater, scientists at the University of Chicago and elsewhere have devised a new tool for reconstructing planetary origins. (Photo: Steve Koppes.) The researchers selected Kilauea Iki for their study because scientists have drilled it for samples many times over the years as it cooled. This sequence of samples makes the lava lake a perfect site for studying differentiation – the separation of minerals and elements as magma cools and hardens. In particular, a close examination of iron isotopes – the slight variations the element displays at the subatomic level – can tell planetary scientists more about the formation of crust than they previously thought, according to Dauphas and co-authors, Fang-Zhen Teng of the University of Arkansas and Rosalind T Helz of the US Geological Survey. Dauphas informed … Read More

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Geology of Grandfather Mountain

Landis Wofford (USA) Like all mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee are the result of the action of plate tectonics. The crust of our planet is composed of five primary plates, or huge pieces of rock that move very slowly over deeper layers of hot, pliable rock. Some of the plates are composed of heavy oceanic crust, while others are made of lighter continental crust. At the middle of each oceanic plate, a large crack pours lava out onto the ocean floor. This causes oceanic plates to expand by an inch or two every year. When oceanic crust is forced against continental crust, the oceanic crust is pushed underneath the continental crust. When continental crust is forced against continental crust, huge mountains usually are formed. Fig. 1. View from the top of Grandfather Mountain. The Appalachian Mountains were formed in the remote past, some 200Ma, by collision of two continental crusts. During such mountain building, huge sheets of rock are pushed over each other. A rock layer called the Blue Ridge Thrust Sheet was moved over 60 miles to cover what is now Grandfather Mountain. These mountains were once ten times higher than they are today. Over hundreds of millions of years, erosion has carried away most of the rocks to form thick layers of sediment across the Piedmont, Coastal Plain, and in the Atlantic Ocean. Grandfather Mountain is the tallest mountain in the Blue Ridge and is now a popular tourist destination resort. … Read More

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Collecting fossils in Florida

Niels Laurids Viby (Denmark) I didn’t go to Florida especially to look for fossils, but I am always looking for opportunities when I am abroad. Being an architect, I actually went there to study houses, in particular, the Art Deco district at Ocean Drive in Miami. However, it seems that every museum in the State (other than art museums) has a fossil exhibition: the Science museum in Miami was showing Chinese dinosaurs, the Orlando Science Centre had displays of Upper Cretaceous dinosaurs and the Natural History Museum in Gainesville had the very best – complete skeletons of mammals from Florida. Fig. 1. Fossil exhibition with complete skeletons of mammals from Florida, at the Natural History Museum in Gainesville. The result was that I spent a lot of time looking at things (including buildings) rather than finding fossils. In fact, out of thirteen days in Florida, I spent three in or waiting for planes, four driving long distances (but with some stops checking out potential fossil sites), four looking at houses, one on paperwork for a report on buildings and only one full day looking for fossils. The time spent driving was a big surprise. Florida looks small on a map of USA, but all of Denmark (my home country) could fit into the area south of Gainesville and the Danish population is probably equal in number to half of the people living in Greater Miami. However, I saw this trip as an expedition into unknown territory – a future trip … Read More

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Coping with coprolites

Carl Mehling (USA) Generally, we have no use for it, or at least we convince ourselves we don’t, conveniently ignoring the fact that faeces of one kind or another (even our own) have fertilised our food for millennia. Organic waste products are an integral part of the living system and don’t tend to sit around for long. And it’s a good thing too, because, without the recycling of waste in Nature, we’d certainly be swamped by the stuff. Fig. 1. Ammonnite chamber steinkern composed of tiny invertebrate coprolites (Carl Mehling). Fig. 2. A probable Cretaceous crocodililian coprolites Fig. 3. The real thing? (Carl Mehling). Alas, this is a problem for students of coprolites – those droppings from Deep Time – as it reduces the probability of good coprolite fossils. However, everything in Nature has a story to tell, and there’s usually someone eager to listen, whomever or whatever that storyteller might be. I am one of those palaeontologists drawn to make order out of ordure and, thanks to the whims of the fossil record, enough of these now-inoffensive offerings have fortunately survived to the present. Fig. 4. A Triassic coprolite filled with fish bones (Carl Mehling). My first coprolite emerged from the Late Cretaceous marine sediments of Big Brook, New Jersey. It was a coprolite of spiral morphology – surprisingly common, once one’s search image is tuned – which my mentors credited to a shark. All ‘experts’, both amateur and academic, reflexively parroted this identification. Later, I learned that other … Read More

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