Friday, October 22, 2010

Paleo-Knowledge Bowl

How do you get kids excited about science and involve them even more in current research and museum activities? A Paleo-Knowledge Bowl! Here at the Peabody, our fabulous public education and outreach program has held such an event for the last thirteen years. Kids from 4th-6th grades form teams of three. After brushing up on general paleontology trivia (always a valuable skill) and learning the year's latest paleo-news, these teams descend on the Peabody Museum for an all-day event which culminates in a final round held underneath our dinosaurs in the Great Hall. You can learn more about our event (or register a team) here.
Even smaller-scale versions of an event like this can be a great learning experience for students of any age. This is the time to let your paleo-geekiness shine through!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Happy National Fossil Day!

I love holidays in general, but this one has to hold a special place. It's National Fossil Day! The National Park Service has decided that today, October 13, 2010, will be our country's first annual holiday to celebrate our prehistoric past. They even made a song and a video. They held an art contest (you can see the winners here). The drawing here is my favorite of the batch - drawn by an 8 year old named Lily from Gettysburg, PA.
I am one of those scientists who studies animals that are dead (although mine are all invertebrates). 
This day really helps to highlight the importance of preserving our planet's past. Museums around the country are hosting special activities today. If you're in the New Haven area, check out the Yale Peabody Museum. We've got all kinds of special activities planned that you can find out about here. If you live somewhere else, check out your local museum to see if they've got any special plans to celebrate today!

And just so you know, my love of paleontology began with rugose corals. How about you? What's your favorite fossil?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fossil Cycad National Monument

I consider myself fairly well-versed in the National Parks and Monuments of this country, but I'll admit this was one I'd never heard of before. A bit of research led me to write this post both about the history of this forgotten Monument. This commemorative image for the Fossil Cycad National Monument comes from the NPS website.

The story of this monument begins with the discovery of fossilized cycadeoids in 1892 by F. H. Cole. He sent photographs to Henry Newton, a geologist at the Smithsonian. Interest in the site began to pick up among paleobotanists. Ultimately, George Wieland (a paleobotanist from Yale University) secured the land under the Homestead Act "in order that the cycads might not fall into unworthy hands" (Hot Springs Weekly Star, 1938). I'll return to this particular statement later in the post.

Two years later, Wieland turned the land over to the government so that the land could become a National Monument. President Harding signed the Fossil Cycad National Monument into being on October 21, 1922. Not much was done to develop the site for the next decade. In 1935 Wieland supervised a group of CCC workers who excavated a number of test pits. Over a ton of uneroded cycadeoid specimens were removed during these excavations. Wieland was keen on developing this site as an in situ site for the public to see fossils. In a 1937 Science discussion Wieland writes, "Fossil Cycad Monument more than all others of its series is as we now see dependent on an absolutely in situ development and display. Without this it can mean but little, as a mere blurred shadow, all but lost again in the shuffle of time." However, accusations were made against Wieland that he removed all surficial cycadeoid specimens prior to turning the land over to the federal government. Also, that all cycadeoid specimens that had been unearthed ended up in museum collections including the Smithsonian and the Peabody. By 1956 no cycadeoids could be found at the surface anywhere in the 320 acre Monument. The Monument was abolished on September 1, 1957, and on December 6, 1957 the land was turned over to the BLM.

The story of this National Monument has a couple of important lessons for us. First, many areas of our country hold specimens from the planet's history, and without our stewardship they will never be protected. Second, if a particular parcel of land does not have some kind of impressive scenery or value to wildlife, then its desirability is limited. A visitor center describing a fossil forest buried under the ground is not nearly as impressive as a visitor center located near an exposed fossil forest. As Harry Slattery, personal assistant to Secretary of the Interior Ickes wrote in 1937, "It is realized that the area is of outstanding paleobotanical interest . But it is also realized that the subject of fossil cycads does not have a broad appeal and, therefore, extensive development of the monument would benefit only a limited group of people. This is particularly true since the area does not possess other outstanding attractions. The scenery is neither impressive nor is it unusual; the geological interest, other than its paleobotanic relations, is not phenomenal; the area is too small for wildlife preservation; the terrain does not lend itself well to recreational development, and there is little historic interest."

A more in depth history can be found here.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A heads up for National Fossil Day!

As I'm sure you are all aware, October 13, 2010 marks America's first National Fossil Day! You can learn all about it at the National Parks website. This is a day to celebrate our prehistoric heritage. I'll have a more complete post about this closer to the big day.

In honor of this upcoming holiday, I will write today about one of my favorite fossils. Yes folks, it is the Ohio state fossil Isotelus. First, what isn't there to love about a large trilobite? Second, the history of Isotelus in Ohio goes back a long way.

Isotelus specimens from Ohio were first described by John Locke in the late 1830s under the guise of the first Geological Survey of Ohio. Much of southwestern Ohio is underlain by Late Ordovician rocks. These rocks were deposited as part of a shallow epicontinental sea. They are full of fossils of brachiopods, bryozoans, bivalves, gastropods, trilobites, and many other critters. These rocks are now exposed in streambeds and roadcuts around Cincinnati and the surrounding area.

Huffman Dam Isotelus
Two elementary school groups had been to the Dayton Museum of Natural History (now the Boonschoft Museum of Discovery) and seen a cast of one of the largest whole trilobites found in Ohio - the Huffman Dam specimen. The children wrote letters to their representatives and the issue received widespread publicity. On June 20, 1985, Isotelus became the state fossil of Ohio.

*Much of this information comes from the Ohio DNR's  GeoFacts #6, available here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The problem with caves

Caves pose specific problems to many forms of life. Caves are dark, and animals must develop their non-optic senses to survive. Many cave organisms have no pigment - what's the point of a pretty color pattern if no one can see it? On the right is a photo of a blind cave fish from the National Park Service's Ozark Riverways page. As you can see, it has no pigment and no eyes. Over time this group of fish has evolved inside caves and lost many of the features that would be beneficial in a normal stream habitat.

Now, you may be wondering why I'm talking about living things. I just felt it was a nice lead-in to my cave discussion. Here's my cave discussion: Caves are really hard to georeference. The Best Practices for Georeferencing tell us to georeference the mouth of a cave for a specimen that was collected within the cave system. But what do you do when a cave system has multiple entrances? Take Mammoth Cave in Kentucky for instance. There are presently over 30 entrances (not all natural) known for this cave system. If we had a fossil collected from within Mammoth Cave, we may be able to pick an appropriate entrance based on locality data.
Historical entrance to Mammoth Cave (photo)
If the specimen was collected prior to 1921, then the most logical choice would be the "Historical Entrance." This was the only entrance known until 1921.

The cave was initially one among many caves in the area. If locality data named one of the other caves which has since been connected to the Mammoth Cave system, it would be logical to georeference an entrance to that portion of the cave system.
As for determining the extent of error on that point, the Best Practices suggest using the surface extent of the cave. For Mammoth Cave, there are over 365 miles of the system that have been explored. Could historical data be helpful here as well? If the specimen was collected early in the cave's explored history, could a map of the cave system at that time be used to determine a lesser extent of error?
Mammoth Cave provides an extreme example of potential problems one encounters when trying to georeference cave specimens. And, until GPS units can get signals underground, these problems will continue to pester us. The Best Practices guide provides a method to consistently georeference caves even when they are very extensive.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Paleoentomology is a subject about which I know very little. That disclaimer aside, I am now going to talk about it, but not in any in depth manner. This subject comes up because yesterday I was pulling some type specimens. During this process I probably looked through a few hundred Permian fossil insects. Today I share with you one of these specimens: Dunbaria fasciipennis. This specimen is especially relevant to me and the Peabody collection for two reasons. First, it is from the Early Permian Elmo Limestone of Kansas (this is the formation I was looking through yesterday to find the type specimens). Second, it is named for one of our famous curators here in IP, Carl Dunbar.

For those of you who are curious, Dunbaria is a genus belonging to the Permian Palaeodictyoptera. This particular species has a wingspan of 3-4 cm. The pictured specimen above is the part of YPM 1002. Here is the counterpart of the same individual: 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Charles Emerson Beecher

This post is devoted one of the Peabody Museum's illustrious progenitors, Charles Emerson Beecher. He was born in Dunkirk, NY in 1856. While the geographic setting of one's hometown does not always destine one to a particular career path, it may well have affected Charles Beecher's future.

For those of you not familiar with Dunkirk, NY I will provide this brief introduction. Dunkirk (located in SW NY) is the type locality for the Dunkirk Shale Member of the Perrysburg Formation, Canadaway Group. Still not ringing any bells? Conoodonts? Oil shales? Arthrodires? Anyways, the Dunkirk is one of New York states many Devonian formations. While not as fossiliferous as some of the others, it still may have been enough to start Beecher down the path that would lead him to paleontological greatness.

Beecher began collecting fossils as a youth and had amassed quite a collection by the time he headed off to college at the University of Michigan. After getting his B.S. in 1878 he began working for James Hall at the New York State Museum in Albany. During his time in Albany, Beecher began studying and publishing on a number of different groups including recent molluscs, early spiders and shrimp.  Shortly before leaving Albany he donated his collection (which had by then grown to about twenty thousand specimens) to the NYSM.

Othniel Marsh persuaded Beecher to come down to New Haven and oversee the Peabody Museum's invertebrate collection in 1888. He continued his studies here and was awarded a Ph.D. after his extensive work with the brachiospongiids. He proceeded to conduct extensive research and teach classes at the Sheffield Scientific School and Yale University until Marsh's death in 1899. At this point, he took over as the curator for the geological collections. It was Charles Beecher who helped arrange the mounting of the Brontosaurus that currently resides in our great hall.

It was also in 1899 that Beecher donated his collection of fossils (all amassed after his previous donation to the NYSM) to the Peabody Museum, "in grateful recognition of the honors and favors conferred upon [him] during [his] connection with the University." This particular collection contained over one hundred thousand specimens, and it included several hundred types. (I'll discuss the philosophy of types in a later post).

It wasn't until 1893, however, that an event occurred for which Beecher is still well known. W. S. Valiant discovered a very thin layer of rock in the Utica Formation in which trilobites and their soft parts (legs, antennae, etc) were preserved in pyrite. He invited Beecher to have a look. Beecher studied these pyritized trilobites extensively, and he wrote fifteen papers on trilobite classification, morphologies and diversity following this discovery. He was working on an extensive treatise of trilobite classification when he was unexpectedly killed by "an affection of the heart."

His tragically early death cut short a promising career and a brilliant intellect.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The importance of localities

Fossils have little scientific meaning if they arrive in a collection with no information. Identifications can be made at any point in time. Photographs can be taken, accession lots can be assigned. If no locality information has been gathered or retained, then the fossil is often nothing more than a pretty specimen. If there are any fossil collectors out there reading this, I beg you - please note where your specimen is from stratigraphically and geographically. Even if you are not sure of the exact unit, note the lithology. Is the rock grey, black or brown? Is it hard like a limestone or does it break apart more easily like a shale? Where in the world is your rock from? A city or town is a good place to start, but try to be more specific. If you have a GPS unit, use it (but be sure to note the datum and uncertainty contained within your unit). If you don't have a GPS unit, don't despair! Try marking out your fossil locality on a USGS 7.5" topographic map. You can download them here. Using businesses as landmarks can get complicated because businesses come and go. If you want to use buildings as landmarks, use buildings that will be around for some time (and will be plotted on maps) like the courthouse or town hall. Note when the specimens were collected as well. Town hall may be in a different place fifty years from now, but if the specimen was collected on a known date, the location of the town hall at that time can be determined.
Having delivered my collecting tips for the week, I leave you with some photos of specimens with some (although definitely not the best) locality information.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Clionid sponges

A number of modern and fossil sponges made their homes inside the shells of other organisms. Rather than taking an empty gastropod (snail) shell like a hermit crab, these sponges literally move into a shell. Clionid sponges use a combination of physical and chemical abrasion to create openings in shells. They then spread out throughout the internal structure of the shell to create an extended home for themselves. I often imagined these sponges waiting until an organism dies to create the network of galleries, but it seems this isn't always the case. A detailed study published in 2005 by Stefaniak et al. in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology examined the effects of clionid borings on living Littorina snails. They found that the snails reacted to the invading sponges by thickening the interior lining of their shell (thus reducing their living space). In addition, the shells were much weaker structurally after the sponges bored out their galleries.

YPM 11323
To get an idea of what these sponges do, here's a pectinid bivalve that has been extensively bored by clionid sponges. Since these borings occur on both the interior and the exterior of the valve, this pectinid was likely dead prior to the borings (at least on the inside).

While this may not seem particularly damaging at a glance, a look at the cross-section of another bored shell shows what is really going on. Much of the structural integrity has been worn away by the sponges relentless chemical and physical attack. On the plus side, though, the sponges get a safe home in a nice hard substrate.

YPM 11324

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A prominent early dealer

August Krantz began his fossil shop in Freiburg, Germany in 1833. Through personal relationships with important scientists and collectors of the day, August Krantz amassed a sizable and diverse collection of fossils. 

Friedrich Krantz (pictured - photo from the Krantz website) was well-known to fossil collectors and museums alike throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He took over as head of the Krantz fossil and mineral firm in 1891. He sold specimens to many institutions including the Yale Peabody Museum, Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian).

Dr. Krantz developed numerous special collections of fossils that were used around the world as teaching aids. Dr. Krantz and his employees traveled the world scouting out interesting localities and collecting fossils to replenish the firm's stores.
Many of the specimens in the Peabody's collection where obtained by Charles Schuchert (an early curator who I will discuss in detail in another post). The "Krantz" specimens are all marked with a small green sticker bearing a handwritten number. This number corresponds to a catalog that was included in the shipment.

The Krantz mineral and fossil firm is still in business and can be found here. Today the firm carries a wide array of fossil material and fossil casts, and it is still used by personal collectors and large institutions.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

More about labels

One of the best things about working with a collection that has such a historic past is getting to know the people who have worked on it in the past. Many of our early collectors and curators have taken on personalities to me even though they've been dead for one hundred years. My main link to these pioneers of American geology and paleontology comes through their fossils.

Our first curator in Invertebrate Paleontology here at the Yale Peabody Museum was Charles Beecher. He had an extensive personal collection of fossils, but all were carefully labeled with a little dab of blue paint and a specimen number written in red. We have his original catalog, so whenever I come across one of his specimens i can flip through the pages (from the 1880s) and find exactly where he collected this fossil. Just in case you're wondering, this is a specimen of Megakozlowskiella perlamellosa (revised from Beecher's original designation of Spirifera perlamellosa) collected in Clarksville, New York from the lower Helderberg Group.

I'll have more from our early collectors and some early dealers in future posts.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Tracking Information

One thing I never fully appreciated before this job was the way specimens are labeled. Specimens may become dissociated from their original field labels; paper labels can be eaten by silverfish and bookworms; floods can make ink run; fires can destroy everything. I have become accustomed to a variety of different labeling techniques over the last four years, and today I want to share some of these.

Some times localities are written directly on specimens. A great thing about this method is that the locality information is retained even if the paper label is lost. One problem is that these types of things are often not very specific.
Take this coral for example. It is from Gothland (or Gotland). Gotland is an island off the coast of Sweden. It is particularly well known for its Silurian fossils. It is also over 3000 square kilometers.

Some times extensive information is inscribed directly on the fossil. This bivalve has been inscribed with its name, locality and provenance. All of this information is still legible too (which doesn't always happen when things are written in pencil).

Lesson to be learned to today: take copious notes. You may think it is too much information, but any clue can be helpful in determining where a fossil came from, and how it arrived at the museum. While writing on a specimen is often impossible, adding at least a town name (or an island) can be helpful in narrowing down the original locality. Write everything down in a notebook as well. When you donate your collection to the museum, give them your notebook too. We'll promise to keep it away from the book lice!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Strophalosia tenuispina, my first photograph

I thought it fitting to begin this blog with one of my earliest specimens here at the Peabody Museum. This is the very first photograph of a brachiopod that I took. It was part of a three year NSF-funded project to digitize many of our specimens. This is a Strophalosia tenuispina from the Baral Nala, SW of Amb in the Salt Range Mountains of Pakistan. It is Permian in age. The strophalosiids were commonly attached to hard substrates, either by cementing one valve directly to the substrate or wrapping their spines around it.

Who I am and what I do

Following the lead of several colleagues here, the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology is starting a blog. Much like the Division of Vertebrate Zoology's fabulous blog (The Life You (And I) Never Knew) this blog will present a glimpse into the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology here at the Yale Peabody Museum. Our specimens are spread across three buildings and are categorized into three different collections. This blog will focus on our Systematic Collection with which I work most closely.