Sunday, September 27, 2015

Summer adventures, part 4: Montana trip I

Okay, some time to blog again. This is a picture heavy, text-light post with some pretty fossils, wildlife, and aurorae. After being in New Zealand for almost four years, we made a trip to Billings, Montana, to hang out with Sarah's half of the family. We spent about two weeks there, and got to visit Beartooth Pass, Cooke City, and our eternal buddies Liz Freedman and Denver Fowler while they spent the summer at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta on the high line. First I'll post pics I took with my actual camera; I've got all of my phone pics online still, so the next post will have some of the goofier stuff (and some panoramics).

We hadn't visited Museum of the Rockies in years - in the intervening time, friends of ours had completed their theses and moved on to new institutions. Our friend Jade Simon had finished her master's thesis on giant oviraptorid eggs - Macroelongatoolithus - from the Wayan Formation of eastern Idaho/western Wyoming, and now her key specimen was on display at MOR, shown here. Those are some enormous eggs; Jade was just beginning preparation of them before I graduated from MSU in spring 2011. Jade is now an adjunct (like me!) at Boise State U. in Idaho.

There's now a mounted skeleton of the burrowing ornithopod dinosaur Oryctodromeus cubicularis - described by our undergrad adviser Dave Varricchio in 2007, and studied as part of Jamie Fearon's master's thesis on forelimb digging adaptations. Jamie did some teaching at Luther College and is now looking to start a Ph.D. program.

An oldie but a goodie: the skull and neck of Edgarosaurus, described by former MSU master's student and current curator of the Museum of the North at U Alaska-Fairbanks Patrick Druckenmiller; this is a short necked plesiosaur from the Thermopolis shale of south central Montana.

Another new specimen on display: this is a marine crocodile, Terminonaris, also from the Thermopolis shale near the Pryor Mountains of Montana. I helped dig this specimen up, along with Lee Hall, Mike Knell, Dave Varricchio, Bob Harmon, and of course, the discoverer - Cathy Lash. It's an articulated anterior skeleton, and a total beaut; we nicknamed this "Cathysuchus".

Seen on the beartooth highway - adorable, but this is how you get bubonic plague. And encourage bad behavior.

A trip to Montana always means the possibility of seeing the aurora borealis. Sarah and I were sicker than shit, but we decided to brave a drive up to the rimrocks northwest of Billings to see if we could see anything... and man, was it gorgeous.

We were particularly happy, because we had a solar maximum while living in NZ, but were too poor to have a car, and we lived in an area with 1) a big hill to the south and 2) too much light pollution. So, pretty much everybody else got to see the aurora australis aside from us.

Which is fine, because the aurora borealis is way better. Also, there's just something uniquely montanan about watching the northern lights in a cow pasture.

A toad! This adorable little guy was discovered by Liz Freedman while digging a hole to bury a few bone fragments for a kids dig; she was horrified and thought she had killed it.

A pretty thistle flower.

Once in Malta, the four of us decided to try and do some birding at the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. In the 1980's Jack Horner wrote about trying to study pelican nesting grounds as a modern analog of fossil Maiasaura nesting grounds. We couldn't get anywhere close to the pelican island nesting ground, but it was a nice place to visit. Here's an avocet.

And another.

And the closely related black necked stilt.

Both of 'em!

And again.

I couldn't believe I spent 8 years in Montana without seeing laughing gulls, or even knowing they were even around! They're all over the place here in South Carolina, and they do sound hilarious. I love their penguin-like faces.

Can't remember if this is a willet or a godwit, but it's something like that.

We also saw a mother pheasant...

...who thought we were going to murder all of her babies.

How could you murder one of these adorable little guys?

A northern shoveler drake!

And his hen!


An osprey flying over the Yellowstone river near Billings - you can make out the tail of a small fish it caught. It was about 108 degrees out, 4pm in the afternoon, and both Sarah and I had mild fevers. That sucked.


Still majestic.

A black bear and cubs! Eventually we had to say goodbye to Billings and so we took a side trip through Yellowstone on our way out to Idaho and Oregon, and eventually California and a 4th of July celebration at Lake Tahoe.

Some younguns.

 Playful sparring between a calf and a yearling.

A Montana traffic jam.

They're like north american oxpeckers!

Closeup of a bison calf grazing on the side of the road.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Summer adventures, part 3: a visit to Santa Cruz

In June Sarah and I visited Santa Cruz two days in a row, and found quite a bit down there - here's  brief "slideshow" of some of what we saw, paleontological and otherwise.

Carcharodon hastalis tooth collected by Sarah from the lower Purisima Formation; teeth from this spot are often missing the root.

Pigeon guillemots roosting in exposures of the Santa Cruz Mudstone near Natural Bridges State Beach - one of the best sightings I've had of these guys!

Pigeon guillemot coming in for a landing over Monterey Bay.

Pigeon guillemots are members of the family Alcidae, the group including murres, auks, and puffins.

A medium-sized sperm whale tooth from the Purisima Formation! I was particularly happy about this find.

A skull of "Balaenoptera" portisi, from the Purisima Formation and on display below the mounted blue whale at the Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz.

The remains of the middle of a balaenopterid (rorqual) skull destroyed when somebody inadvertently chopped through it cutting surfer's stairs into the cliffs.

Beautiful view of the Santa Cruz coastline.

Bonebed 5 from my master's thesis/PLoS One article, showing fissure fill in a large burrow likely formed by a large boring pholad clam.

In Capitola there is an entire retaining wall constructed from blocks of concretions from the beach (mostly bonebed 6 of my PLoS One paper), but in one spot a caudal vertebra of a baleen whale was carefully chosen to be placed as a building stone...
At Capitola, beautiful invertebrates are exposed - hundreds of thousands of shells - including these large cockles, Clinocardium meekianum.

Here's a smaller nodule containing a collection of partially associated/articulated Clinocardium meekianum.

Elsewhere shellbeds are not quite so concreted - here sandy bottom bivalves (Anadara, Macoma) form beautiful lenses, pavements, and stringers within beautifully colored "blue sandstones".

But vertebrates are what I really care about! Here's a nice lumbar vertebra of a dolphin, in a large chunk of concretion that makes it not worth the effort to haul it off the beach.

I first spotted this skull in 2009, and after three years of erosion while living in New Zealand I can finally identify it as the tip of a baleen whale palate - possibly Herpetocetus.

And here's a small balaenopterid whale skull which I first spotted back in 2002. We're looking at the bottom of the skull...

...and here's a closeup of the auditory bones, in particular the curly looking orange element, which is the tympanic bulla. It's possible that this is an early gray whale, but unless the impossibly hard matrix was cleaned off (after removal of the impossibly heavy block, of course) we'll probably never know.

This is for certain a new Herpetocetus skull - mostly embedded in impossibly hard concretionary matrix.

And this is also a Herpetocetus braincase, one which I first came across back in 2008 or so while on a visit with Sarah (girlfriend at the time).

Ten years later, and she's still sleeping on the job.