Category Archives: Palaeontology

On Dreams Made Real

[SPOILER ALERT – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED]

When I was four years old a film was released that has since been a wonder for millions all over the globe, it had some of the most innovative special effects in film history, and did more to update the public perception of palaeontology than any museum or university field program could ever hope to achieve.

(if my memory serves me correctly) I first saw Jurassic Park in 1995, when I was six, when it first aired on the TV here in England. Besides knowing that I hid behind our family sofa from the T-Rex when it was gorging on lawyers and smashing up cars on that magically appearing concrete cliff, the one emotion that abides with me even now is one of childlike wonder and excitement at the creatures on the screen. They were so real, so present that I could not believe they were anything but extant, living beings. No longer extinct creatures confined to the rocks in Montana and the Isle of Wight.

My Old Dinosaur VHS tapes

My Old Dinosaur VHS tapes

I’d loved dinosaurs for as long as I could remember at that point, in no small part thanks to the VHS tapes that my parents bought for me (speaking of which, I must convert those to DVD soon). But as I grew older I learned about acting, CGI became so common in movies that you aren’t even sure the actors are real any more, and I watched as science enhanced our knowledge of the dinosauria beyond anything we could have dreamed of in 1993. We now have theropod dinosaurs – incuding some pretty big ones – with fillamentous integument (proto-feathers), we even know what colour archaeopteryx’ feathers would be. We’ve seen palaeoecology take off wildly, and study of the dinosaurs in relation to their environment as well as just their bones. And we’ve even managed to find out the colours of the insects that they shared their world with.

And over time, the magic dulled.

It’s never gone away  of course, I can still feel it whenever I watch the original film, and even to an extent when I watch Jurassic Park; The Lost World (I won’t speak much of JP3). But as I’m sure you may imagine, when I heard about Jurassic World I had some very high hopes… the question is, would it deliver.

Let’s just stop and talk about some of the inaccuracies though, before we get onto whether or not my expectations were met. Darren Naish published a very good (and frankly spot on) criticism of Jurassic World last week on the CNN website which captures my biggest problem with the backpeddalling from feathered raptors in JP3.

What John Hammond and InGen did at Jurassic Park is create genetically engineered theme park monsters – Dr. Alan Grant, JP3

Yes, Yes they did, they’re not “real” dinosaurs so we (presumably the palaeontological community) should shut up about it. This is the line that the film takes when it comes to the accuracy of Jurassic World’s creations, incidentally it’s also the line that TellTale’s Jurassic Park PC game took (don’t play it, the control scheme is awful) which is fair enough, the film-makers may be able to shut the scientists up but they can’t ignore them.

However, for a film series whose legacy to the world was bringing the public’s perceptions of dinosaur science out of the 18th century and into the 20th, it has, through a desire to make money/maintain continuity (or something like that) kept the public’s perception very much in the 1990’s as far as the look of the dinosaurs goes. I suppose we can all be thankful that the BBC’s excellent “Walking with” series’ picked up the baton and ran with it long before JP3 ever entered production, let alone Jurassic World.You might be able to say that they up-played the raptor’s intelligence, or that they got better at the herd behaviour. but that’s not what people will remember, they’ll remember trikes dragging their tails, pterosaurs flying off with people, and a mosasaur that is at least twice the size of any known mosasaur.

Add to all this the attempts the film makes to shoehorn in some “comedy gold” cliche – the cinema did erupt into laughter at it but it was terribly immersion breaking – and the at times strained nature of the militarisation of raptors story line, and it could have ruined the film completely.

So why didn’t it?

In a word; Magic.

I’m probably not going to be able to put this very well, but I spent the first half of the film trying to be cynical and watch the film objectively. But at some time around the half-way point Zach and Gray – this film’s Lex and Tim – are stumbling through the forest after escaping the Indominus rex and they come across an old, overgrown door; Instantly recognisable to anyone who saw the first film.

And suddenly it’s as if I am six years old again, I felt all the same emotions and feelings as I did watching Jurassic Park for the first time. The magic was back, If I hadn’t read somwhere that the original visitors centre from the first film was destroyed by a Hurricane after the first film’s release, I would swear the film crew had just walked in after the forests of Kauaʻi had reclaimed it. Anyway, the inaccuracies didn’t matter so much any more.

There were other redeeming features to this film as well, the eccentric CEO, Simon Masrani, brings many of the endearing characteristics of Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond to mind, while obviously having a similar vision for the park, and his own foibles… Who else would fly a helicopter into a combat situation without being able to autorotate? The fact that the man dies due to the actions of his creations was a lovely nod to the books and the people who actually read them as well (wherin Hammond is killed by the compsognathus’).

The character of Lowery also harkens back to characters from the previous movies, Ray Arnold and Ian Malcolm, and his workstation reminded me of the character Wash from Firefly… He’s probably my favourite of the film’s main characters, in no small part for the way he’s clearly a convert to Hammond’s initial vision.

So yes, the film has more than it’s fair share of errors in the science department, and it’s quite possible that my fanboy-ism and nostalgia are holding more sway than four years of a geology degree and three and a half as a “professional” palaeontologist. But you know what. I don’t care; nobody in palaeontology ever took me seriously anyway.

“What they did, it was real…” – Lowery, Jurassic World

If only it were.

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Museum Lecture: “The Beast in the Cellar”

The 17th of May was the height of an event called ‘Museums at Night‘, a UK wide festival that bills itself as seeking to “encourage visitors into museums, galleries and heritage sites by throwing their doors open after hours and putting on special evening events.” As luck would have it this festival coincided with Lyme Regis Museum‘s celebration of the life of one very important palaeontologist, and I was invited to give a talk for the festival, but more about the talk later.

1840’s portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Trey on the beaches around Lyme Regis

The name of that important palaeontologist was Mary Anning, and if you’ve looked into the early years of palaeontology for more than about twenty minutes then you’ll have come across her name. Or perhaps you know the tongue twister that she reportedly inspired…

“She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.”

On the nearest weekend to her birthday every year, Lyme Regis Museum celebrates her life with free entry, family events and talks about topics ranging from her life and the early palaeontologists, to the geology of the Lyme Regis area and the animals that she sought in the cliffs and limestone ledges along the coast.

It was into this last category that my talk fell. Earlier this year, Phil Davidson from the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre and I spent some time looking over one of the Museum’s specimens; a large Ichthyosaur measuring four and a half metres long and stored in pieces in the museum cellar. Our task was to document the current state of the specimen and make sure it was all where it ought to be. This creature has been off of public display since the mid-eighties when a cast was made and hung on the wall of the museum to save on exhibition space. In the end my talk for the Museums at Night festival was much more general than our work on the specimen, and I chose to spend a lot of my time talking about convergent evolution between Ichthyosaurs and modern creatures.

Anywho, Here’s the talk in full, the audio is a bit hard to follow at the start but it improves as the talk goes on, and if you’re interested in the assessment Phil and I made earlier this year it can be seen here. I’d really appreciate any comments, suggestions and observations, as they will help me improve my presentation style, my content and its delivery!

Some Museum-ey Stuff and The PodQuest

Hullo everybody,

My last post was somewhat negative, as indeed was the one before; but this time it’s all flowers and sunshine… well, mostly.

The first thing to say is that I’m going to be a student again… and no, I don’t mean the loaf around a campus being either very lazy or over-distracted by clubs and societies type of student. I’ve done that (well the latter at least) and now I’ve landed a place on the Leicester University Museum Studies Masters by distance learning!

That means I’m going to be spending the next two years working on essays about plastazote, the ethics of taxidermy collections and the various merits of museum accreditation, funding applications and humidity guidelines. Among a million other things. It’ll also allow me to apply for all the (5 or so) geological curator’s posts that come up  every year without feeling like I’m wasting my time because the person specification says “Museum Studies Qualification” in the essential column!

N.B.: I took and stitched the photos together, labelled and scaled the image; so I think this isn't copyright infringement.

Lyme Regis Museum’s Hidden Gem – a Temnodontosaurus sp. Ichthyosaur.

In other museum-based news, I and Phil Davidson – the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre’s palaeontologist – recently did some work for Lyme Regis Museum assessing the state of one of the museum’s more spectacular specimens. The saddest thing about the specimen is that the museum cannot display it for a lack of space, and the cast they do have on their wall doesn’t show any of the more exciting bits (like a fragmentary fish preserved in the body cavity for example). If you’re interested in seeing the various parts of that beautiful creature, you can find it all here – I wouldn’t have called this a research paper, more like a detailed inventory, but that’s the way they roll.

That's Right, I can do graphics when I need to!I’ve something else to tell you all about, one of my year’s side projects that I muted in my last post. If you’re in to table-top role playing (if you’re not, think dungeons and dragons and you’ll get the picture) then hopefully you’ll love it. It’s called The PodQuest and it’s going to be a podcasted role-playing campaign set in a world of my own creation – Vilyalad – and with a suite of characters who will cause all sorts of merry hell around this once peaceful world. One of the players, my good friend Thomas is doing the majority of the podcasts’ artwork, so if you want to see what he’s up to I’ll give you a link to his art portfolio here.

Of course, if you’re into gaming then you’ll know I’m making a rod for my own back by being the games master of a world of my own creation… it means everything… background scenery, town plans, cults, religions, histories, NPC’s, creatures… EVERYTHING has to come out of my own head, often on the spot.

I reckon it’ll be a laugh none-the-less. The game system we will be using is RuneQuest Six (published in 2012), which is a re-write of one of the original big three role-playing systems. We’ve played the Avalon Hill version (RuneQuest III) with our usual games master so the system isn’t wholly new.

Anyway, enough of me blabbering about it, the website is here, though there’s not a great deal online yet, but with a launch date of 30th March (brought forward thanks to the fabulous enactment of Geek and Sundry‘s International Table Top Day) we’re pushing ahead with it as fast as can be! We hope you’ll join us for the ride; or at least the first podcast. 🙂

Anyway, as per usual I’ve rambled on about a very small amount of stuff, so I’ll leave it there for now and come back another day to talk about some other things, but I hope I’ve not bored anyone!

Until next time

Ben Brooks
15/03/2013

Home Again – Dispatches from Montana 3 (The Photo Edition)

Missed the previous Dispatches from Montana? see them here and here.

Well I’m back in jolly ol’ England and as promised here’s the photographic edition of the Dispatches from Montana. I’ll try to explain all the photographs as and where they need it.

click for big!

First off here’s the field crew as a group, Liz was the crew chief (the dig boss if you will) with Cary as second in command, Denver was the only other member of MOR staff with us. Danny, Will, Nick, Tom, Dana and Bobby were all undergraduates of various universities and Cracker is the Redding family’s dog.

Click for big!

On my first night in Montana we had a fabulous thunderstorm which provided ample opportunities to get frustrated by human/camera reaction times, the above and below pictures being the best results I could get that night!

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Before the storm hit however I was just able to snap this shot of the Redding Field Station’s camp, you can just make out the storm-clouds to the left (south-west) and our flimsy patch of tents to the left of the quansit hut (the grey WWII hangar style building). The practically-bomb-proof ranch house is out of shot on the right.

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The next photograph was taken from behind the afore-mentioned quansit hut, and shows a small section of Kennedy Coulee, the river valley to the north of the Redding Field Station, where all the dinosaurs can be found…Click for Big!

Here’s another panorama showing a small finger of Kennedy Coulee, including the “Rocky” dig site in which I was to spend the last three weeks digging. To give some idea of the scale of the operation, this site has been excavated for only the last 3 years, and at the start of that time, the left of this photograph would have looked pretty much just like the right hand side…

Click for Big!And here’s a view from inside the quarry itself, to give some more perspective on it and also to show you how much of the overburden mentioned in “The Adventure Begins” we had to remove… at the start of the field season, ground level was at the level of the white-grey sandstone layer!

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This photograph zooms in on the area that I and two of my compatriots were working (on the right of the previous picture). I myself was working the middle section with the chisel, brush and oyster-knife. It is a surprisingly slow process because you never know when you will hit another fragment of bone (as Nick, working to my left, was finding out. every piece of tin-foil represents another bone uncovered).

Click for Big!Another panoramic photograph for you now, this one again showing Kennedy Coulee, but also some lovely Virga – that is to say rain that evaporates before it touches the ground – to the north of the site.

Click for BigHere’s another photo of Cracker – affectionately known as the Cracker-the-quarry-dog, enjoying the sun and generally getting in the way!

Click for BigSo moving on to more palaeontological topics, here’s a field jacket… It’s what you do to the finds before they get transported to a museum or prep-lab. The first step is to cover all the bones in a consolidant (Vinac in this case) then a layer of wet tissue (to act as a buffer and a barrier to the next layer. Finally a mixture of plaster of paris is concocted and infused into burlap (hessian for us UK people) sacking. This was the first field jacket of this year’s season to be excavated.

Click for Big!A couple of days after the jacket was made it was dry and ready to flip (in order to remove excess rock and jacket the bottom). Here’s a photo of Dana with the flipped jacket. You can also see where it stood before it was flipped!

Click for Big!The strata in which the bone-bed is found is a mudstone approximately a metre thick, capped by a shelly sandstone layer containing bivalves up to 20cm across and many varieties of gastropod. This cap-rock can be seen below:

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Here’s another panoramic shot, this one taken at lunch time (hence all the sleeping dino-nerds) from above the working face of the quarry on the penultimate day of my short stay at the Redding Field Station.

Click for Big!And finally… The night before I was due to fly out of Great Falls we had a rather close call with a thunderstorm that passed within a couple of miles of camp – all we had was a slight drizzle – but I had the chance to take this gorgeous photograph at about midnight…

Click for Big!

I hope you enjoyed the post.

Ben D. Brooks

28.06.2012

Hadrosaur! – Dispatches from Montana 2.

We’ve reached the bone bed! It took over two and a half weeks of digging (one and a half on my part) but we’re finally there. Before reaching the bone bed however I managed to find a few other odds and ends within the overburden, including the following:

Another Hadrosaur tooth,
One small Crocodile tooth,
1 Tyrannosaurid Tooth (possibly Daspletosaurus),
Small fragments of ossified tendons,

After digging away the overburden and flattening out the top of the bone bed, we began to prospect within the quarry for dinosaur remains and very rapidly the first bone was discovered, though accidentally and unfortunately with a jack-hammer… with predictable results. This bone was a humerus of a fairly large individual hadrosaur. Within ten minutes of this find the second bone was discovered – this time by more mild means – and turned out to be a toe-bone, though don’t let that fool you into thinking it small, this one individual phalanx measured in the region of fifteen centimetres in length and a good ten in diameter!

I myself managed to uncover my first bone this afternoon after a slow but steady removal of the bone layer. The technique used by the MOR team is that once the overburden is removed, each digger chooses a section of the quarry wall measuring approximately two feet. The digger then proceeds to remove rock steadily decreasing the height of a flat plane with hand awls, chisel, hammer and brushes. Yes; that’s right, every palaeontologist that points to Jurassic Park and say’s “you can’t use a brush to uncover a fossil” is wrong, dead wrong* – at least in this case!

The only time digging is stopped is when high noon is reached and luncheon begins – consisting mainly of whatever you remember to scrounge from the kitchen supplies in the morning! After the first half an hour or so of lunch most people are fast asleep, taking the opportunity to make up for the early start. I on the other hand take the opportunity to rifle through the ever building spoil heap for small fossil remains that were inevitably missed during the overburden removal. The last two days have been moderately productive in this vein, with several pieces of turtle – including shell, a tyrannosaurid pre-maxillary tooth and a ceratopsian tooth.

The whole experience here at the MOR dig is a very different one to the excavations I’ve been privy to on the landslips and beaches of Dorset and Devon, for one thing everything is more considered and slow owing to the fact that there is no tide to keep a look out for and also that no-one would dare walk onto a museum-run site and remove material that had not been collected. As a result the excavations are both more comprehensive and far more scientific. This is not to cast detriment on my experiences at home as each site must be treated differently, but this approach is far more in keeping with the principles of scientific discovery. Every bone is mapped, numbered, catalogued and carefully consolidated long before there is any thought of removing the bone from its tomb.

Anywho, tomorrow is our town day, the one day off we get each week, so I’m now going to disappear and take some time out. Here’s hoping you’ve enjoyed this post, and as with my last I’ll add pictures upon my return to the UK.

Ben D. Brooks
17.6.2012.

*This group used to include me.

Diggin’ up Dino’s

Poster for the talk: 400 Million Years in 30 MinutesOnce again it’s been a while since I last posted, the talk that was the subject of my last post went very well, even if the staff only talk only had one attendee – the Chief Executive of the Craven District Council. The public talk fared much better with most of the volunteers turning up and one or two members of the public as well. Everyone seemed to enjoy the talk and the handling session held afterwards, though I don’t know that for certain!

I haven’t yet uploaded any video of the talk, mainly because the video is awful and I haven’t had time or a good enough computer recently (sadly my top spec’ laptop died a death out of warranty). However just as soon as I can I’ll get it on YouTube.

Moving on however, the three months I spent at Craven Museum were fantastic, I learned (and re-learned) a great deal and even got to handle some Geological enquiries. Museum Curation is definitely a career path for me to head down and I know I’ll enjoy it.

The Museum of the Rockies, Boozeman, Montana

The Museum of the Rockies, Boozeman, Montana. (c) Wayne Hsieh, 2010

Before I chase down a new job and the start of a new career, I’m heading stateside for three weeks. I’ve been lucky enough to be offered the chance to join the Museum of the Rockies field crew digging up Hadrosaur remains from the Cretaceous rocks near Rudyard, Montana! Which is what I’ll be doing for the first three weeks of June!

This should be an awesome experience, I’ll get to take part in a full-on palaeontological excavation (think the opening scenes of Jurassic Park – for all the errors it’ll still give you the idea). I’ll also have the chance to see part of the USA properly – albeit a very limited part – and meet some very clever people who’ll no doubt be far more awesome than me… shouldn’t be that hard to be fair.

I’ll also be taking my cameras and will be writing a diary while I’m out there, so I’ll be able to give you all a lovely looooong post about it all when I return at the end of June – possibly even while I’m out there?!

Ben D. Brooks

24.05.2012

Dig scene at "Snakewater, Montana" from Jurassic Park

Dig scene at “Snakewater, Montana” from Jurassic Park (c) Universal Studios, 1993

A rare summer find in Lyme Regis

About two weeks ago, after the Lyme Regis Museum‘s fossil walk on the 27th August, there was an interesting find on the Church Cliffs landslip east of Lyme Regis.

Paddy Howe, fossil walk leader and the museum’s resident geologist was walking back from the end of the walk with myself and Chris Andrew (the museum’s education officer) when he spotted something in the shales of the landslip…

Line of ribs visible in the shale

Rib cross sections visible in the shales of the church cliff landslip.

…There were only three small (approximately 5mm in diameter) cross sections of ichthyosaur rib bone that could be seen in the shale layer he had spotted. When some of the shale was removed however there could be seen a small number of holes in the shale where other ribs had been. This immediately caught Paddy’s attention as it meant that there could be a significant portion of an animal fossilised in this spot, but with the tide rapidly approaching it was necessary to return the next day, so the find was carefully covered to prevent further erosion and we burned the location in our minds, determined to return on the Sunday.

Paddy Howe Digging out the Ichthyosaur

Paddy Howe digging out the Shale Slab.

Had the fossil survived the night? Had another fossil collector discovered and excavated it? or worst of all, had it been destroyed by the tide?

After some not inconsiderable trepidation during the Sunday mornings fossil walk, we three returned to excavate the slab containing the ribs that had been spotted the day before. To my amazement – and I am sure; Paddy’s relief – the slab had survived relatively undamaged and so the excavations began.

The first task was to remove as much of the surrounding material as was possible, and this was done through the liberal use of a hammer, chisel and shovel… and took about 30 minutes to complete. This done, a more careful investigation of the slab could be made, which raised far more questions than answers because at first inspection there appeared to be no further bones in the rock! Had we wasted our time digging around this slab when all we would find were a few rib fragments?

Thankfully not, more bones were eventually seen, after some mud and shale was washed off of the newly exposed surfaces, so now the task was to remove the block – preferably  in one piece – for preparation and exposure of the whole fossil.

Ichthyosaur Slabs on the Stretcher

Slabs of rock collected together on Paddy's stretcher. (this is only half of them!)

Disaster – or near disaster at any rate – struck a few minutes later when the slab split, not once, but many times, leaving us with a large number of small blocks and a jumble of loose bones at the bottom of the hole. This was a mixed blessing in that it made the fossil easier to get onto the stretcher (the only method of transporting the remains) but as the hole was rapidly filling with water and all of the bones of the skull (the lower-most bones in the slab) had been disarticulated. Sifting them from the mud may have resulted in some being lost lost in the pool of muddy water. Sadly we will never know.

The final task now facing us was to get the remains of the slab off of the beach, which was to take an inordinately long time thanks to both the weight of the slabs, and the ungainly and distinctly uncomfortable nature of the ex-army stretcher we were using. This process took approximately an hour and a half, and yet we only travelled about half a mile along the coast back to Lyme Regis. Including some impromptu outreach along the way to interested tourists!

Paddy and the Fossil talking to Tourists

Paddy undertaking some impromptu outreach with holiday-makers and the Ichthyosaur fossil.

The slabs have now been passed to a local fossil preparator, who will work hard for a couple of months to release the fossil from it’s muddy tomb and carefully piece the jigsaw back together. Unfortunately we won’t be able to identify the animal to a species level until this work is completed, and even then only if all the diagnostic features are available… only time will tell if that’s possible.

Ben Brooks

07/09/2011

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