On the Importance of Outreach

As a researcher in a natural history museum, I have a couple main ways of sharing my work with others. The first is, naturally, by writing and publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals. The second is through formal or informal events at the museum. And, as rewarding as it is to see your hard work in print, interactions like one I had yesterday at Carnegie Museum of Natural History are truly special. 

Getting ready for Meet-A-Paleontologist, with some Antarctic plesiosaur specimens to share

Matt Lamanna and I were participating in an event at CMNH called Super Science Saturdays. We sat at a table in one corner of the dinosaur hall, behind a sign reading “Meet A Paleontologist” and about a dozen fossils for people to pick up and ask questions about. The main demographic of visitors was elementary schoolers, often wearing dinosaur-themed t-shirts, always keen to pick up and wave around our fossil examples. Matt and I were glad we had chosen robust specimens. There were also plenty of older kids, a few teenagers on dates, and grown-ups. 

As the afternoon wound down and the steady stream of visitors slowed to a more manageable level, a teenager and her mom approached me at the table. The mom spoke first, because the girl was quietly struggling to choke back tears. 
“She wants to be a paleontologist, and she’s just very emotional to meet one in person.” She turned and spoke to her daughter– “Go ahead, talk to her! Ask her all your questions!”
I tried to put on my least intimidating expression, and after a minute the girl and I were chatting about my career path and her plans to go to college next year and study biology and geology. (“I knew it! I told you I should do biology and geology, mom.”) At the end of our conversation, she was once more a little emotional. Her mom handed me the museum guide and map, and whispered, “can we get your autograph, please?” I’m not used to being asked that, but I obliged, and wrote the daughter a note with how to keep in touch. 

This might sound like an exaggerated, ego-padding story from my telling of it. And it did make me feel somewhat proud of my own accomplishments. Beyond that, though, I think it highlights a responsibility that modern scientists have: to connect with students, share advice and empathy, and give effort and personal time to make our work, and our lives, accessible. And it demonstrates that this effort (which sometimes feels exhausting) can be not only rewarding, but also really impactful for the next generation of scientists. 


[P.S. My main piece of advice for prospective students is to get involved in scientific research– as an intern or a volunteer, during summers and weekends. The lab you work in doesn’t have to be exactly the area you’re most interested in– it’s to get experience in any kind of science research setting, to build your CV, and to connect with potential mentors. I literally walked in to biology, geology, and anthropology departments as a high schooler and between college semesters, and asked if anyone needed an intern– the answer was often yes, and occasionally there was even grant money to pay that intern. (My advice for people who are already scientists is to remember how intimidating it was to be on the other side of that interaction. We’ve all been there, and have all benefitted from that kindness and mentoring.)]


Extreme weather on Vega Island

This week’s post is about one instance of challenging weather conditions faced by the AP3 team. Written by Dr. Eric Gorscak, AP3 team member and titanosaur specialist at the Field Museum of Natural History.

One morning, Chris Torres, Steve Salisbury, Matt Lamanna, and I made the lengthy hike to Sandwich Bluff, only to find our prospecting sites to be covered in snow. The snow coverage prevented us from doing any meaningful prospecting work for the day but we had to make the trek to be sure… we only had so much time during the trip to maximize our exploration.

Image: Two views of the Antarctic Peninsula in radically different conditions. Top: A weather front moving in over the Antarctic Peninsula, as seen from Vega Island on the day of the trek. The peninsula is visible as dark mountains across the channel, with an ominous bank of white snow clouds above. Icebergs are gathering near the shore of the island, pushed there by the wind. Bottom: A view of the peninsula from Sandwich Bluff on a clear, relatively calm, day. Photos copyright Eric Gorscak, 2016.

The weather report had informed us of an incoming front from the west that would last from the afternoon well into the night; it was already gloomy with sporadic winds during our morning trek out but nothing could prepare us for the trip back. This was when the winds really picked up, much earlier than we anticipated given the weather report. Honestly, the winds never stopped… and blowing directly at us the entire way back… on top of a 2-hour hike across harsh terrains (hills, rubble, snow, angry skuas). The winds were strong enough to hold me up as I leaned into them. If I didn’t have my beard, my face would have frozen off.

I guess you could say we walked up hills both ways in the snow and into the wind to and from Sandwich Bluff that day…

A fresh pair of socks and hot cocoa never felt so good afterward.

Image: Scenes from the return trek to camp from Sandwich Bluff. Top, example of the wind affecting the snow, driving it across the ground. Bottom, example of the wind affecting standing water. Normally walking by this 'pond', the water would have been quite still. As you can see, there was plenty of wave action.

Image: Scenes from the return trek to camp from Sandwich Bluff. Top, example of the wind affecting the snow, driving it across the ground. Bottom, example of the wind affecting standing water. Normally walking by this ‘pond’, the water would have been quite still. As you can see, there was plenty of wave action. Photos copyright Eric Gorscak, 2016.

Where is Kerin Claeson now?

AP3 co-PI Kerin Claeson reminisces, comparing this week of 2017 with the same week exactly one year ago, when we set off for Antarctica aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer. 

One year plus one week ago: I was stuffing an excessive amount of long underwear and socks into my luggage. I managed to fit my Sorels and Carharts next to my rock hammer, maul, and chisels. I was equipped with enough Scopolamine to minimize my seasickness for two months straight and I guarded them like my life depended on it. My new ski mask with the built in camera was finally going to get used and i found a freeze proof, waterproof, sand proof point-and-shoot to take photos too. My GPS was charged and the maps were loaded. I packed extra hand warmers, good coffee, and chocolate. I pocketed the chapstick and hand cream my students bought me and Bob-the-Minion was tucked safely in my carryon at the request of my 3 year old nephew. The next morning, I was flying to Chile, to meet an international crew of scientists, some of whom I’d had the fortune to work with for years, others whom I’d meet for the first time. The AP3 was finally commencing, and I was ready. So much has happened since then, I can hardly believe it’s only been a year, but in truth it feels like yesterday. I’d forgotten about some of it until today, and I’m glad I stopped to remember.

One year plus six days ago: I called my credit card and phone companies from the airport to let them know I would be traveling. I called family to say goodbye and remind them to check the website for updates. I set up my away message for email which told people to write back in April after I returned from Antarctica. (I might still need to respond to some of those messages – yikes!) On the plane, I flipped through my conversational Spanish book and listened to some music. When I woke up, I’d be in South America again, so much closer to our target.

One year plus four days ago: I awoke to the phone ringing and answered in Spanish. I’m glad I recognized the voice, because I confused the caller. “Um, hello. Is Kerin in there?” said Pat. “Hi Pat, how are you?” “Good. Are you coming with us to the helicopter dunk training?” said Pat. “Yes, Abby and I set the alarm for 7. What time is it?” “7:45 – you’re late.” Abby and I brushed our teeth and got downstairs in time to grab some breakfast before hustling to the warehouses. I really wished I thought to wear layers that morning because the room we did our training in was COLD and it was the coldest I felt the entire trip.

Image: Dr. Kerin Claeson stands on the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer, next to an orange life preserver ring. She is wearing a camping backpack and smiling broadly.

Image: Dr. Kerin Claeson stands on the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer on February 6th, 2016.

Exactly one year ago: over the next few days we learned each other’s names, packed our sleep kits, divvied up so much candy, cereal, and hot sauce, built so many tents, and participated in a few ‘trust building’ exercises too. We sampled the local food and walked around Punta Arenas in our time off. Then the big day arrived, that’s right… the SUPERBOWL… also the day we actually moved on to the Nathaniel B. Palmer. And, exactly one year ago, I was a lone crazy soul standing on the bridge watching the plank be drawn in at 5AM. The departure was smooth and before I realized it, the NBP pushed off of the dock and we were off. Me, my Scopolamine, my AP3 colleagues and a couple dozen other people I would come to call my friends over the next six weeks.

Today: My life this week is distinctly different than the same week of last year. I have been working on a few collaborative projects on fossil fishes from Laurasia (e.g., USA, UK, and Italy) rather than Gondwana. I made plans to travel to Pittsburg to begin the next phase of the AP3. I met with my graduate student about her thesis project checking that she has more than enough data to analyze. I taught masters students about the gastrointestinal tract of humans, establishing a search image for pathology that will help them as they become allied health professionals. I met with the student president of the Wilderness Medicine Club and talked about how wilderness survival is not only for scientists in places like Antarctica, but also the homeless on the streets of Philadelphia. This week I walked those streets with my dog and we ran in the parks and played with puppies and decided to adopt one. Yes, this week has been distinctly different from the same week of last year, but just as busy and just as fulfilling.

Image: Dr. Claeson at her home institution, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, with a drawer containing some of the specimens collected on the 2016 expedition.

Image: Dr. Claeson this week at her home institution, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, sitting next to a cabinet containing some of the specimens collected on the 2016 expedition.

Lab Report: “where are they now?”

This post is an update on one of the fossil specimens collected during the AP3 2016 field season. Check back again next week for more updates on 2016 results & ongoing research! 

Nearly one year after the AP3 team left Antarctica, at the end of our 2016 field season, the fossils we collected have made it back to Carnegie Museum of Natural History to be studied. Prep work on the plesiosaur shoulder girdle has begun, and our hard work at stabilizing and securing this beautiful fossil seems to be paying off!

In case you’ve forgotten: the last time most of the team saw this specimen was mid-flight, during its dramatic removal from Sandwich Bluff. We spent several days at work chiseling away the surrounding frozen rock and soil, stabilizing any crumbly bits of fossil bone with consolidant (special reversible glue), padding the surface with a layer of toilet paper and paper towels, and finally slathering the whole thing in plaster of paris and burlap. This cast would keep the shoulder girdle safe on its journey from the Antarctic Peninsula to Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here’s the view of the jacket being lifted by helicopter from Sandwich Bluff, captured by AP3 team member Steve Salisbury:

photo by Steve Salisbury

[Image: fossil in plaster jacket is suspended beneath a helicopter, being lifted from the site where it was found on a snowy mountaintop. Two people in helmets and orange survival suits are standing below the helicopter.]

And here’s a picture taken this week by AP3 principal investigator Matt Lamanna, in the prep lab at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The jacket has been cut open to reveal the precious fossil cargo within:


[Image: the fossil in its plaster jacket, in the CMNH prep lab. Part of the fossil is now exposed and being prepared for study. A scale bar indicates that the length of the jacket is approximately 140 cm (55 inches).]


Visual diary: the view from Sandwich Bluff

From the creative mind of AP3 team member Abby West.


Feb. 28: This drawing shows the view looking east from atop Sandwich Bluff towards Seymour Island, the site of our second camp. Sandwich Bluff is the main fossil site for AP3 on Vega Island. It’s very high in elevation and difficult to reach except by helicopter. Fossil penguins, in addition to some really remarkable fossil fish material, are the highlights of the Seymour Camp so far. The middle ground shows parts of James Ross Island (Ula Point, the Naze, the Dagger), and the island of Humps, separated by narrow channels choc-a-bloc with sea ice.

In the lowland joining Naze to Dagger some of our team encountered a single juvenile Adelie penguin who seemed fascinated to watch their work (from a cautious distance). Up front we see the edge of Sandwich Bluff’s southeastern flank, bearing the plesiosaur quarry site, and above, pilot Jim and the beautiful blue bird Raptor 5 appearing out of a warm, sunny blue sky. Raptor 5 is one of the two helicopters supporting our expedition. It’s pretty cool that helicopters named “Raptor” are supporting a dinosaur hunt. Very Jurassic Park!

What are AP3’s biggest, weirdest and favorite dinos? And other questions asked.

We have received many questions from our younger followers and those who are young at heart. Here’s a collection of some of the more common questions that have been asked.

Q: Which dinosaurs do you hope to find?
A: We hope to find an Abelisaurid theropod, a horned/ornamented predatory dinosaur or a titanosaurian sauropod, a large herbivorous dinosaur. Dinosaurs are rare in the rocks we plan to explore. The most likely kind of dinosaur we may find would be an ornithopod, a small-bodied herbivorous dinosaur.

Q: How do you know what color the dinosaurs were?
A: We don’t for sure! We compare the dinos with living animals from similar habitats to estimate what color they might have been.

Q: What would you do if you found a real living dinosaur? Would you be scared?
A: Because birds are living dinosaurs, we would not be at all surprised! I hope we see some penguins and albatross. (If we found a living non-avian dinosaur, we would be VERY SURPRISED!!)

Q: What does it feel like to find a dinosaur bone? Is it exciting?
A: It is exciting! When you find a fossil, you are the first living creature to see it since it died! A couple of things that never fail to inspire awe: Remembering that the fossil you’re holding used to be part of a living creature. Thinking about/trying to conceptualize the VAST timescales we study. 70 MILLION YEARS! And that’s not even super long, in the context of the history of the earth!

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment in your scientific fields?
A: Matt here: My proudest accomplishment is the co-discovery of humongous new dino in Egypt back when I was in grad school, that we named Paralititan stromeri.

Abby here: I suppose my proudest accomplishment so far is having very-nearly-finished a PhD. With any luck, that’ll soon be much less important compared to my future major accomplishments!

Q: What is your favorite discovery?
A: Abby here: My favorite discovery was a fossil mammal skull, in Wyoming. We can figure out how old a fossil is by studying the rocks it’s found in– we can compare the layers of rock (stratigraphy) to figure out which one is oldest, or use methods similar to carbon dating to get a numerical age.

Matt here — my favorite discovery that I was a part of was in Egypt in 2000, when some grad school buds and I found a new species of dino that’s one of the largest ever discovered, Paralititan stromeri.

Q: What are non-avian dinosaurs ?
A: Literally, any dinosaur that is not a bird. Birds are a living lineage of dinosaurs that survived the mass extinction that happened 66 million years ago. This a handy phrase to provide a distinction between what people normally think of as dinosaurs (those that are extinct) versus birds, which are the surviving group of dinosaurs.

Q: What is the weirdest animal you’ve found?
A: Matt here: To me, the weirdest animal that has been found here is, ironically, the one that would be the most familiar to us today: the duck-like bird Vegavis. It’s weird because birds living at the same time elsewhere in the world are only distantly related to modern birds (they had teeth, may have been fairly poor fliers, etc). Also the plesiosaur Morturneria is thought by some to have been a filter-feeder, which would be pretty weird. Imagine a marine reptile trying to be a humpback whale!

Q: Why did you choose this as your career?
A: Matt here. I went into paleontology because I told my parents I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was four, and never really thought of doing anything else. What made me a paleontologist? Hard work, persistence, patience, and a whole lot of luck.

Q: What’s the largest fossil you’ve seen unearthed? And what was it?
A: Matt here: I’ve had the good fortune to have helped discover two of the world’s largest dinosaurs: Paralititan in Egypt in 2000 and Dreadnoughtus in Argentina in 2005. The limb bones of those things are almost as tall (or in a couple cases, taller) than I am, and I’m 5′ 11″.

Q: Have any of your fossil ended up in museums we could visit?
A: Yes, many of us have discovered fossils that are currently on display in museums, though many of these are overseas in the countries in which they were found. For example, the bones of Paralititan are in the Egyptian Geological Museum in Cairo and those of Dreadnoughtus are in the Museo Padre Molina in Rio Gallegos, Argentina.

Q: How are you preserving/transporting the samples you collect?
A: All fossils are wrapped and padded for transport back to the States. Ultimately, they will become part of a museum collection.

Q: Where do you stay and sleep for the trip?
A: Our permanent base is aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer, a NSF science research ship. From there, different groups from our team will be going ashore to camp at various localities that we get to from zodiac boats and/or helicopters. We will not be going into or be based out of any of the permanent camps/bases on Antarctica.

Q: How possible is it to reconstruct dinosaurs from the DNA found in bones and insects in amber?
A: Abby here: there is a growing field of study that aims to extract and sequence DNA and protein molecules from fossils. In some of my own research, I have sequenced genes from the bones of wooly mammoths and ancient bison. Unfortunately, the maximum lifespan of DNA (before it has all decayed away) seems to be only a few hundred thousand years, so we probably won’t be able to get any DNA from the Age of Dinosaurs.

Q: What do paleontologists do when they aren’t digging?
A: When we aren’t digging, we are studying what we dug up! We compare it to what we already know, like other fossils and living animals, and we write papers to report what we found. Then we write grants to get funds to do more digging! Those of us who are students take classes and do our own research. Those of us who are professors teach classes and advise our students. Those of us who work at museums make sure our fossils find safe, happy homes where scientists like us and the public like you can see them anytime they like.

Q: Were all the major dinosaur groups on Antarctica?
A: Nope! There have been reports of hadrosaurs, ankylosaurs, ornithopods, theropods (like dromaeosaurs and several early birds) and sauropods (like titanosaurs). So far, we haven’t found any large-bodied theropods (like abelisaurs), which we might expect based on what we know about their distribution in the Late Cretaceous. We don’t expect to find some more famous Cretaceous dinosaurs like Triceratops, tyrannosaurids and pachycephalosaurs, which are known only from the Northern Hemisphere.



AP3 Visual Diary: A colorful, whimsical look at the expedition

In the evenings, some of the AP3 team camping on Vega Island have been making drawings meant to summarize the day’s activities in a fun and often whimsical way. Over the next few blogs, we will post these visual diaries along with some notes. Below is the first installment featuring the art of APE team member Abby West.


Feb 26: This is an interpretive map of Vega Island, as seen from the west, marked with some of the localities we have discovered and the names we gave them, as well as some of the interesting fossils found there.


Feb 27: This is a more emotional piece, featuring two creatures entwined in a mid-air battle. The combatants are Caped Lamb (a metaphor for Cape Lamb, the location of our camp) and a hapless plesiosaur (a metaphor for the 3 or 4 plesiosaur partial skeletons we have so far uncovered). Plesiosaurs are long-necked, extinct marine reptile skuas. On Caped Lamb’s cape is a typical Vega Island scene, with a carpet of moss on the valley floor between dusty brown bluffs and ever-watchful skuas circling overhead. The lower quarter of this picture portrays a more serene moment of the day, when the Vega team dined al fresco: we lined up a single row of chairs facing the ocean and watched a magnificent sunset while eating chicken pad thai.

Have questions about the expedition? Here are some answers.

Thank you to the many people who have been following our expedition on this website and our Twitter account. We’ve been getting lots of questions about the trip and our work. During a recent Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, we received more than 400 questions that were fielded by the team. Over the next several blog posts, we will share our responses to many of the questions people want to know.

Q: Where was the Antarctica located during the period you are studying?
A: Antarctica, more or less, is still in the same location as it was during the Late Cretaceous. But at the time the Antarctic Peninsula was still connected to the southernmost tip of South America as well as Australia on the other end. The final break-up between Antarctica and South America was around 34 million years ago.

Q: Will you be digging under deep layers of ice?
A: We will not be digging through ice for our expedition. Our expedition is timed for the end of the Austral summer, when most rock along the northernmost tip of the peninsula is readily available. There will be glaciers where we will be working but they will not be covering all of the islands where we will be working. Unfortunately, the possibility of a snow storm can still limit the amount of exposed rock with fossils.

Q: How will your tools and equipment differ compared to projects in warmer climates?
A: The tools we will be bringing will be similar to what we normally bring on our expeditions. The exception would be the plaster which may have some difficulty setting in the colder environment. We will also be wearing more clothes and layers than normal.

Q: Will you be near penguin colonies?
A: Thankfully, our sites of interest are far from any penguin colonies, so we won’t be disturbing our little feathered friends.

Q: What is the biggest anticipated challenge facing the expedition?
A: The thing that concerns us most are the weather and climate conditions in our study area. If it’s super-windy or foggy, our helicopters can’t fly, and if there’s fast ice stuck to the islands we want to visit, our small boats (i.e., landing craft) can’t reach them. If it snows, the rocks are covered, and so we can’t find the fossils in them. Lots of different environmental factors could pose problems for us. Other potential hazards include injuries, exhaustion, frostbite, inability to find fossils in some places, and problems with helicopters.

Q: How do you find fossils?
A: In brief, there are basically two ways by which one can determine where to look for fossils. The first has to do with the fact that most of the Earth’s surface has been mapped from a geological standpoint. Geologic maps show what rocks are exposed at the surface. Fossils are found almost exclusively in sedimentary rocks (e.g., shale, mudstone, sandstone) as opposed to igneous and metamorphic rocks. So the first step would be to examine the map for those. Next, for those interested in dinosaurs, scour the map for sedimentary rocks that were deposited during the Mesozoic Era or Age of Dinosaurs ( we know that dinos evolved more-or-less 235 million years ago and died out (except for their descendants, birds) 66 million years ago). So search the map for sedimentary rocks that were deposited during that time. Lastly, dinos were almost exclusively land-dwelling animals, so look for Mesozoic sedimentary rocks that were deposited in bodies of water that were near land (i.e., rivers, ponds, lakes, ocean coastlines). If all three criteria are met, and you can get to the place, you might have a fighting chance of finding dino fossils there.

The second way is simpler — you just go where people have found fossils before.

Field Report: An abundance of fossils

oconnorReport from the field:

Feb. 15–18 saw continued work on Sandwich Bluff and two helicopter-supported day trips to Seymour Island. Both of these areas produced an abundance of well-preserved Late Cretaceous and Eocene-aged fossils, including those of birds, plesiosaurs (long-necked marine reptiles; numerous isolated bones and at least one partial skeleton), bony fishes (including several skulls and partial skeletons), sharks, whales, unidentified vertebrates, and a variety of beautifully-preserved invertebrates (e.g., ammonites, nautiloids, gastropods, bivalves, crustaceans).

Geological investigations of the uppermost levels of the Sandwich Bluff Member of the López de Bertodano Formation on Vega Island were also initiated. The purpose of these studies is to test the hypothesis, advanced by our working group in a 2014 paper, that the uppermost levels of this Member are early Paleogene in age.

Reconnaissance teams also visited several additional localities, such as Blancmange Hill and The Naze of James Ross Island and the Devil Island area, the north coast, and False Island Point of Vega Island. Of particular note was the discovery of (seemingly) previously unrecognized exposures of the Upper Cretaceous Cape Lamb Member of the Snow Hill Island Formation north of False Island Point on the western shore of Pastorizo Bay. These deposits were intensively prospected on Feb. 19, yielding (among other specimens) a complete hexanchid shark (Notidanodon sp.) tooth, an unidentified vertebrate element that may be a lower jaw, and a wealth of extremely well-preserved invertebrate material. Additional reconnaissance of Blancmange Hill, northeastern James Ross Island, and southeastern Vega Island is scheduled for Feb. 20.


Field Report: Helicopter recon

chopper_reconReport from the field:

Installation of the Cape Lamb camp was completed on the morning of February 14. That same day, a four-person team conducted a helicopter-supported reconnaissance of Cape Marsh, on the southeastern margin of remote Robertson Island in the Seal Nunataks, some ~120 km south of the James Ross Island Group. Though no vertebrate fossils were discovered, the team did collect abundant and well-preserved Cretaceous invertebrates (e.g., ammonites, gastropods, bivalves), fossil wood, and geological samples. The geology and paleontology of Robertson Island have been only briefly described (more than three decades ago).

Cape Marsh recon