Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Stones of Summer (and some garbage)

This summer has turned into a season of paleontology. I've been volunteering at the Arlington Archosaur Site most weekends, where lots of activity has been taking place. Around mid-July, it was decided to try some Texas-style research; Tractor Prospecting! They had just begun at the base of the hill not far from the main quarry when bones were exposed. A team of volunteers worked long hours uncovering the preserved remains of several animals, most notable being a large crocodile. It was a major find, and a major effort to extract it, in some majorly hot weather. All the local TV networks came out for the story, and the major newspapers. It was nice to realize how interesting this work is to the public, especially since this media blitz occurred right after the sad closing of the Laramie Geological Museum. (how can a university close a historic & scientifically important museum, but still spend 20 times more on recreational sports?!)

At least science museums in Dallas seem to be doing well. I was lucky enough to be invited along on a tour with some paleontologists who volunteered and worked with the Dallas Museum of Natural History. We also stopped by SMU's collection, where I saw some amazing turtle fossils and get to touch a protohadros! Another volunteer invited me to work on preparing fossils from a mosasaur found not too far from my house, and now being housed at the Heard Museum. In the photo above, the plaster jacket is being removed. Plaster jackets are used to protect and move fossils found in the field by covering the matrix containing the fossils with paper, burlap, plaster, and battens. Once the jacket is removed, air-scribes and other tools are used to delicately remove stone around the fossils. Sometimes, the fossils are treated with resins to help hold them together. It's very loud and dusty work! (check out the huge tooth sockets in the jawbone at the bottom of this photo by Roger Fry).

After all this hard work, I was ready for a vacation. My brother, a friend, and I went hiking around the Rockies. Our first stop was the the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. We found an excellent campsite in a copse of trees, with the meadow having a stunning view of the Three Apostles, Mt. Huron, and Granite Peak. We did a short dayhike up to Lake Ann, which passed a small waterfall and the lost townsite of Hamilton. It's always a thrill for a Texan to put his hand in snow in late July, it seemed unreal after digging fossils in 104 degree heat. We also attempted to summit Huron, but a thunderstorm made us turn around after getting very close to the summit. On the hike out, we explored some of the ruins of Banker Mine and the ghost towns of Vicksburg and Winfield.

We then took a raft ride down the Arkansas river, through a fun section called The Numbers. To dry out, we headed west to the Big Cimarron area. This is my brother's favorite spot, and now I understand why. There are giant mountains, rivers, and most of the ridges are made from a pyroclastic tuff that erodes into all kinds of fantastic hoodoos. We climbed up Courthouse Mountain and bushwhacked up a ridge near our campsite to some neat formations we called The Pie Crust. After camping, we showered up at Ouray's hot springs and visited my bro's in-laws at Montrose, where I saw two lifelist birds: pinyon jays and a chukar. On the return drive, we stopped by the Black Canyon for a short visit to ponder the vastness of time for rocks, but lament the brief time of our short trip.

My worms, however, did not take a vacation. We've been dumping garbage on their heads since March, and they're finally getting the upper hand. My hometown offered a free class on how to create a worm bin, and even gave me a few tiny red wigglers to get started. At first, things progressed slowly, and I'd rarely see the worms around. I had to watch to be sure I wasn't smothering them with garbage. But either they've been growing, or maybe the warmer weather, or maybe my delicious coffee grounds has spurred them into a feeding frenzy. My bin is now half full and they are eating about half of our kitchen plant waste, soon it should be running at full capacity and I'll have to start sharing my worms. I dunno what the microbes in my compost pile will think when they're cut off from everything but leaves and the occassional weeds. After learning about the Medea Hypothesis, I'm very concerned about spurring a slime revolt!

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Archosaurs of Arlington

When dinosaur digs come to mind, the Dallas-Fort Wort metroplex isn't an area most folks would consider. But geologically speaking, there are some interesting things taking place, and I'm not just talking about the 2 earthquakes we've had in less than 12 months...

Yet the past several weeks, I've been volunteering with the Dallas Paleontological Society and the University of Texas at Arlington to search for fossils from the mid-Cretaceous era. The most interesting find at this dig has been many large fossil ornithopod bones that are from a duck-billed dinosaur, likely a new species discovered just 10 years ago in nearby Flower Mound, just across the international airport. This species is called Protohadros, since it is considered an early ancestor to hadrosaurs. Since the type-specimen is so far the only described find for Protohadros, it does not have a strong body of evidence. Therefore, finding a second specimen will really enhance what is known about this species.
Ironically, at the first site in Flower Mound (a road-construction zone), only the skull was well preserved. At the Arlington site, most bones have been recovered except for the skull. This makes matching the two incomplete specimens more difficult, so finding the skull at our site is the most pressing priority. As with anything inside city limits, it's only a matter of time before this dig site is buried under concrete in the name of Progress (the current landowner has been very gracious in allowing the university access to the site). Therefore, 2009 is the last chance research can be done at this site. A new museum, the Scotese Museum, will open up at the university (the photo above and below are from the collection), and Roger from the Dallas Paleo club taught a fossil prep session last saturday.

I've only found a few fossils: fragments from a turtle carapace, a small oyster, and a tiny gastropod. These finds are still very important, because they help characterize the environment that Protohadros lived, and helps paint the picture of the ancient coastal plain that was once north Texas. Near my house near Garland, several Mosasaurus skeletons have been found. One recent find is currently being prepared by volunteers at the Heard Nature Museum.

If you're bemoaning your lack of fortune for not living in Dallas around such wonderful geology, don't feel too bad. Chances are there are very interesting fossils near your house. South of Tyler, sharks teeth can be found along roadsides. West of Austin, there are all kinds of late Cretaceous sea shells. One of the more impressive sites is Dinosaur Valley state park near Glen Rose. Petrified wood can be found in some creeks near Giddings.

On another topic: I'd really like to thank all the volunteers and workers at wildlife clinics and rehab centers! I hope Gimpy the Grackle is doing fine.

Friday, May 15, 2009


I once had a conversation with someone whom lamented how dull the world seemed now that everything had been discovered. I understood the sentiment from a perspective in the spirit of Aldo Leopold's rhetorical question: "of what avail are the forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?". (Leopold was more referring to the sense of Wilderness, as opposed to geography). Even from this perspective, and the fact that this sentiment was echoed by many famous scientists in the 19th century, I still find this attitude very surprising.

If The Map is limited to Earth, I'd agree that most of the low-hanging fruit has been mapped, yet that still leaves most of the ocean floor as nearly a complete mystery. Satellites & depth sounders have made some rough topographical sketches, but as to the nature of what lies beneath is still mostly undiscovered. Amazingly, the most active research vessel, Alvin, predates the Apollo mission, and has yet to effectively be replaced. With the exception of petroleum surveys and military vessels, most of the abyss remains literally in the dark. We have better maps of Luna and Mars than the Atlantic!

And that's just on our own planet. The surface of Venus is another extrapolation by radar (most detailed resolution is 150km), with the sole exception of a few photos from the surface. Similarly, Titan is currently being mapped (next flyby May 21st!), but with mostly a rougher resolution and short swaths during flybys (despite 5 years in orbit, only 38% is mapped). We have nice photos from Europa, but only of the surface ice layer; what lies beneath the ice is still conjecture, although evidence is consistent with a global ocean! We only have educated guesses as to what Pluto and Ceres look like (stay tuned for New Horizons and Dawn). And this is just our backyard! We have just begun detecting planets (biased towards top-heavy), and it will be a long time before we can infer the actual surface of extra-solar terrestrial planets... and to actually explore one, even as fuzzy as a fast Pluto flyby, is only a crazy dream.

But that's only geographical unknowns. More fundamental is our lack of understanding, well, practically everything. Pick any discipline; biology, physics, psychology and ask some naively simple questions;
"how did life begin?"
"what is the universe mostly made from?"
"what is consciousness?"

Despite having 6.5 billion people roaming the surface like so many ants, and whizzing satellites, we still have only discovered about 10% of the living species (likely even less than that) -- and that's only counting those species that someone made a few sketches and published a quick paper. The number of species we have more than superficial descriptions are about 1%. It's likely a scoop of dirt from your backyard contains species of protists & fungi that are completely new to science. Now imagine how little we know of extinct species only preserved helter-skelter in the fossil record...

As Bryson noted in 'A Short History of Nearly Everything', "we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don't truly understand."

A few questions I'd like answers to are:

1. Was there a Cambrian Explosion, or simply a fossilized manifestation of an existing progression? If the Explosion resulted in many new phyla, by what mechanism is DNA currently restricted to its form (or to rephrase this question, how rigid is DNA to evolving from any existing gene pool of a species?)

2. What are the causes of mass extinctions? For instance, what the K-T event caused solely by meteor impact, or was it a combination of impact that led to other calamities such as increased volcanism -> climate change -> sea level rise -> hypercanes -> ozone depletion & unstable climate regimes?

Why did some orders, such as turtles and crocodiles survive mostly intact, and other orders (mammals, birds) go through intact, but then radiated into many new species?

3. What is the climatic history of Mars and Venus? Why does only Earth exhibit Plate Tectonics?

4. How did life arise? Do other planets have complex organics (Mars, Europa, Titan, Triton, Ceres, Ganymede, Venus) that hint at events critical to prebiotic chemisty?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wishes for a New Year

A wise man once said, “You can't cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water. Don't let yourself indulge in vain wishes.” Then instead of wishing, I'll call these Resolutions for a New Planet, and all we need is the will to make them reality.

1. Peace. Many fiction books I've read recently have dealt with the theme of violence at the core of humanity: Ender's Game, Chasm City, and to a lesser extent, Deception Point & The Gunslinger. It's depressing to think we're nothing more than tribes of baboons battling other tribes and each other for the same ol' reasons. So get over it and be sapient.

Currently, the USA spends over $500 billion each year on military defense, with the world total around $1,500,000,000,000. Each year. That's just the money... but the true cost in deaths, lost property, or just misdirecting talents is harder to quantify.

I realize that it's naive to think we can just hold hands and then *poof* global harmony appears, but it's time to figure out how to work towards that goal.

2. Vanquish violence. I do not understand the causes of violent crime and how they relate to poverty, education, culture, or mental health. It does seem that violence does tend to feed off itself like a cancer; revenge killings, acceptance or resignation to death, loss of empathy, psychological damage. If we could stop this tragic waste, both in terms of lost lives and lost money on police & justice, we could take yet another step towards ensuring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

3. Happiness is a full stomach. I'd like to think that by turning swords into plowshares, we could easily end world hunger. Just converting the mess halls and medical facilities to mobile facilities that could relief natural & economic disasters would make a huge contribution. There are roughly 15 million active duty soldiers each year, not including resources spent on reserve and paramilitary forces. It turns out that is roughly the same number of people that starve to death each year.

4. Enlightenment. Access to education and opportunities are what make people grow. Not just formal education & economic opportunity, but cultural exchanges of ideas and chances to find your calling. Dispelling poverty and ignorance would strengthen and unite the planet, and providing opportunity would end the cycle of desperation that leads to overpopulation coupled with overexploitation. Self actualization enables each of us to live full lives and find value in experiences instead of hollow luxuries.

Imagine; no wars, no fear, no desperate poverty. Overpopulation pressures begin to fade as the biosphere we depend on and the richness of biodiversity is restored and maintained. Teamwork on a global scale to solve our problems and achieve goals. Billions of people living toward full potential with nothing wasted on war.

Well, what are we waiting for? After solving world strife, hunger, and the ecological crises we can really get cranking. "The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but we cannot live forever in a cradle".

Here's my wish list for a self-actualized planet (keep in mind that the entire cost of all of it is less than what we spend each year on military budgets -- imagine projects of this scale being done annually!).

1. Zero Extinctions! Full funding for all institutions and projects identified by this report.

2. Accelerated funding for ITER and other fusion research projects, such as polywell; complete ahead of schedule and results are quickly used the design the next generation. The economic and environmental gains are potentially huge.

3. Terrestrial Planet Finder; Understanding solar systems is key to understanding our own. Finding a living planet would be such a fundamental discovery it would spur much excitement in biology, philosophy, and perhaps even instill a manifest destiny of epic proportions.

4. Accelerated funding for Constellation, Mars Exploration, Jovian Orbiter, and others. MSL & MAVEN are on the way, but recent confirmation of methane on Mars should ramp up design of the Field Lab & Sample Return. Europa and Ganymede both likely have subsurface oceans that are begging to be explored. The question of life on mars needs to be researched very throughly before humans add to possible confusion, and certainly need to be completed by 2050 because according to my plan, the first impacts of TNOs will be arriving!

5. Terraform Mars. Mars is so close to being a viable planet with it's own unique future. Understanding the past biology of Mars, if it existed, would help plan any new direction. If some microbes still exist under ice sheets or near geothermal vents, they should be collected and grown in special "ecological reserves" to protect them during terraforming. Collecting a few dozen TNOs to restore the atmosphere is both technological feasible and not prohibitively expensive, likely less than $10 billion per 'roid. Now just add a few orbiting mirrors to help compensate the seasonal freezing at the poles and voila: an entire new planet for much less money than the Department of Defense plans to spend in 2009. Now seed the biosphere with stuff that likes to breathe CO2 and adding O2, and eventually recreate a unique fauna... perhaps something not too different than the Pleistocene megafauna, which would be well adapted to cold and sparse vegetation, and the lower gravity would allow for even larger forms.