Tuesday, January 13, 2015

You're doing WHAT to those bones?

Cross section through the femur of a fossil
bird called Hesperornis. Fossil bones
preserve many of the same structural features
that can be observed in modern bones. In this
image, the marrow cavity is the black portion
in the middle, and the bone tissue is the
golden/brown.
Fossils are not renewable resources.  While there is the potential that animals alive today may become fossils when they die, there are a finite number of T. rex and Smiledon (saber-tooth cat) fossils out there. Once an animal goes extinct, no more fossils of that animal can form.  This means that every fossil is precious to a paleontologist because it offers a unique glimpse into the biology, ecology, and evolutionary history of an extinct organism. Since people first understood that fossils are evidence of past life (which dates back to the mid-1600s and the work of Robert Hooke and Nicholas Steno), naturalists studied these biological remains by examining their size, shape, and similarities and differences to other fossil and living organisms. Given the scientific value of each specimen, it may be surprising to know that some researchers undertake destructive analysis (meaning they permanently alter bone) as part of their research methods. So why would paleontologists charged with preserving fossils into perpetuity do anything that would permanently alter a fossil? What information could be so important?

Histology is the study of tissue, and osteohistology is the study of bone tissue. Medical doctors and veterinarians study soft tissue and bone samples to look for disease, abnormalities, etc.  Paleontologists study bone tissue to look for evidence of the life history of an extinct animal. Only in the past few decades have paleontologists come to understand the wealth of information that can be gained from studying bone tissue. The internal microstructure of bone tells us about how an organism grew and how intrinsic and extrinsic factors affected how an organism grew.  Specifically, evolutionary relationships (phylogeny), age of the organism (ontogeny), how the animal used the bone (biomechanics), and environment directly influence bone growth. How an animals grows then tells us specifically about the life history of that animal: rate of juvenile development, age of sexual maturity, growth rate, etc.. To study bone tissue on a level that gives us useful information, one looks at just a thin sliver of the bone under a microscope.  This requires cutting a chunk out of the middle of the bone, gluing it to a slide, and grinding it thin enough so light shines through the bone. Of course we photograph, measure, and make replicas (molds and casts) of the bone before cutting, but this process obviously permanently alters a bone.

Schemtic drawing of internal bone structure showing
possible features that may be present.
Ultimately, justifying the time, effort, and destruction of cutting a bone is simple: looking at the internal structure of bone gives us information than we cannot gain just by looking at the outside of the bone (at least with current technology). Inside every bone is a network of vascular canals, osteocytes, collagen fibers, and other microstructures. Vascular canals contain vessels that carry blood and nutrients through the bone; these canals come in different shapes and sizes. Osteocytes are the cells that deposit new bone tissue; collagen fibers (made of proteins) are the organic portion of bone tissue and may vary in how well or poorly organized they are within the bone matrix.  Importantly, many of these features have been experimentally shown (using living species) to be related to growth rates. Other features like lines of arrested growth (LAGs) show when bone pauses growing and have been shown to be deposited annually.  And amazingly enough, these features are preserved during fossilization so that fossil bone microstructure can be studied just like modern bone microstructure. (It should be noted that actual osteocytes - the cells - are not fossilized, rather the space they occupy in the bone (termed osteocyte lacunae) are preserved.)

Cross section through a Gentoo Penguin femur under plain light (A) and polarized light (B). Under polarized light (B), collagen fibers become apparent (the light and dark regions show changes in collagen fiber orientation). Gentoo penguins were one of three modern penguins species used to help interpret fossil bird bone in a study I recently published
By studying how modern animals grow, and looking at their bone microstructure, we can understand how features like vascular canal density (canals/unit area), vascular canal orientation (radial, transverse, reticular, etc.), osteocyte density (osteocytes/unit area), osteocyte shape (globular or elongate), and collagen fiber orientation (well organized or poorly organized) relate to growth rates and metabolism. For example, high vascular canal density and unorganized collagen fiber orientations are associated with rapid growth rates; conversely, few vascular canals in well-organized collagen fiber matrix is associated with lower growth rates.  Using what we know about living animals to interpret and predict the biology, ecology, and behavior of extinct animals is an important aspect of paleontology. Armed with this knowledge of bone growth in living animals, paleontologists can begin to study the metabolism, effects of locomotion, effects of climate, and aging process of extinct animals. Bone histology is also the only way of knowing the age of an individual (extinct) animal at the time of death.

Histology is often the focus of studies pursuing a better understanding of ontogeny, paleoecology, and behavior. Even descriptions of new species often include bone histology. Knowing that an animal is an adult (and has completed development and growth) is important when describing a new species. Studying bone microstructure is the only way to determine if an animal had reached skeletal maturity by the time of death - in other words, whether the animal was an adult at the time of death. Because of all we can learn from fossils by cutting them open, histology is a rapidly growing field in paleontology. We are at a point where very few (at least in my experience) paleontology curators and collection managers (those who permit access to fossil for research purposes) don't permit researchers to section at least some bone for histology research.

Studying the internal microstructure of bone is a research trend that isn't going away any time soon - and this is a good thing.  There is too much valuable information yet to be uncovered that can come from studying bone growth. As one of my primary research focuses is on osteohistology, I sometimes find myself getting defensive when explaining my research to a lay audience. I feel that I need to justify why destructive analysis (or permanently altering bone, which sounds at least a bit more innocuous) is important. Luckily I have generally found that explaining the range and depth of information that can be gained from histology is very effective in relaying the significance of this research. Perhaps this research method doesn't seem so destructive when you consider how much information can only be gained by cutting open bone. Knowing that we make replicas of everything we sample also helps.

So while paleontologists work hard to preserve fossils, the goal of preserving them is to use these fossils for education and research.  Sometimes the quest for knowledge requires seemingly unconventional research methods. Histology has opened our minds to how extinct animals grew from hatching/birth to adulthood, how these animals responded to their physical environment, what their metabolism was like. It has also provided valuable information about the growth and development of modern animals! Bone microstructure has provided information that we could not imagine knowing just a few decades ago. It may seem paradoxical to alter bone to advance the science of paleontology, but in the case of bone histology, I feel it is clear that the ends justify the means.

Monday, October 13, 2014

National Fossil Day...why?

Wednesday, October 15th is National Fossil Day. And in case you didn't know it, this is the 5th annual National Fossil Day. In 2010, The National Park service joined together with museums, institutions, organizations, and other educational and natural history groups to initiate a nation-wide celebration of our fossil resources. This day is held annually on the Wednesday of Earth Science Week.

As a paleontologist, I think that having a National Fossil Day is pretty darn cool.  But justifying the need for a "National Fossil Day" is much like justifying the need for paleontologists in today's society - the need is very clear to us in the profession or with a passion for Earth's history, but often not as obvious to the average citizen.  Paleontology has historically been described as a "pure science" or "fundamental science", meaning that the focus is knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This is different from applied sciences like engineering, biomedical sciences, and behavioral sciences. The need for cancer researchers is clear to anyone who has watched a loved one fight cancer, but the need for someone who studies the anatomy and behavior of an organism that went extinct 80 million years ago is a little less obvious. When I was a student just breaking into the field, I often felt the need to justify my passion and career path.

Over the years, I've found that there are many reasons why studying past life on Earth is important. Most basically, it's important to understand our planet's past and where we, as a species that evolved on this Earth, came from. Additionally, fossils are not renewable resources. Much like we talk about fossil fuels running out, there is also a limited number of fossils. Less than 1% of all living organisms are fossilized to begin with, so we already start at a huge disadvantage when trying to understand past ecosystems and evolutionary history. Preserving what IS left in the fossil record is very important for saving these resources for future generations of citizens, students, and scholars. There are also applied uses for fossils that are important, such as the the fact that dead organisms form oil and gas resources (our fossil fuels); we can also use fossils to find these resources.  Understanding earth processes can also help with engineering and building safe structures. There's also the personal passion and thrill. Knowing that when you dig up a fossil you are the first person EVER to see that fossil is a pretty incredible thing.  There are so many questions, answers, mysteries, and adventures ahead just with that one fossil - not to mention what questions may be asked and answered when you add the new fossil to our growing datasets available for research and education.

I generally emphasize two reasons for why understanding and protecting fossil resources is important: understanding Earth's future and education. There is a reigning paradigm in the earth sciences called Uniformitarianism or Actualism: The Present is the Key to the Past. This means that the processes that shape Earth today are the same that operated in the past. Thus, to understand the events and sequences preserved in the rocks and fossils, we need to understand how different environments work today. Understanding how rivers and streams erode and deposit sediments, understanding how environmental and genetic pressures affect the evolution of a bird's beak, understanding how the decay of organic carbon produces oil, etc. I think that the concept of Uniformitarianism is reversible, too: The Past is the Key to the Present and Future. This means that by studying changes in Earth's past, we can understand where we are now AND we can begin to predict the future. Understanding how organisms responded to climate change, sea level rises, habitat changes, invasive species, etc. in the past is the only way to realistically predict how plants and animals will respond to current changes into the future. This understanding comes from studying fossils. Consequently, paleontology is becoming more and more relevant in discussions of global climate change (including climate modelling) and conservation biology. These discussions may often seem esoteric or politically-driven, but they are essential to the future of the human race.

Unfortunately, the discussion of education - and especially science education (and especially science education related to evolution) - can be just as politically charged as talking about climate change and endangered species. But the role of fossils in education can be distilled to the simple fact that at some point, most children are fascinated by dinosaurs. The success of Dinosaur Train speaks to this. Extinct animals are big, foreign, sometime terrifying, and utterly cool.  To this end, I often refer to fossils as a "gateway drug" to science. This awe and fascination is a great way to get kids engaged in science and interested in the world around them.  Not every kid is going to grow up to be a scientist (which is a good thing - I've been to enough professional conferences to know that a world of scientists would be completely dysfunctional); but just because you aren't a scientist, doesn't mean that you should stop asking questions. People of all ages should spend their lives as students of science - asking questions about nature and forming logical answers by making observations and gathering evidence. The more people interested in science and technology and engaged in becoming life-long learners, the better the world will be.

Essentially, National Fossil Day is a wonderful opportunity to provide engaging educational programming using fossils as a vessel to inspire an interest in science. Although how and why we study fossils is the focus of the day, the real lessons are how science works, to explore the mysteries of the natural world, the importance of preserving and protecting limited resources, and to inspire the next generation of question-askers and answerers. It's wonderful to see so many museums, organizations, agencies, and institutions embrace the opportunity to immerse children, students, adults, and families in innovative programs. And it's wonderful to see the public get excited about it. So contact your local museum to find out how you can participate in National Fossil Day 2014!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

National Fossil Day 2014

On Wednesday, October 15th, the United States is celebrating National Fossil Day. And the Sternberg Museum is joining in the fun! 

National Fossil Day is a day museums, organizations, institutions, government agencies, and other groups dedicate to educating the public on the importance of preserving and understanding fossils.  To this end, the Sternberg is extending their hours and opening their doors free of charge to offer special fossil-focused programs from 9:00am to 9:00pm. We invite kids, adults, families, and students of all ages to come celebrate and learn about the fossil resources of Kansas! Including our two newly appointed State Fossils: Tylosaurus and Pteranodon!

The day's events include:
  •        All Day: Free admission to our exhibits and special programming


  •        9:00am – 2:30pm: K-12 school groups touring special exhibits** (see note at bottom of post) 

o   Student groups will visit special exhibits set up around the Museum focusing on how and why we study fossils. Topics include how we dig up and clean fossils, how bones and animals grow, how we can tells males from females in the fossil record, and how skeletons relate to how animals lived their lives.
  •      4:00pm – 6:00pm: Fossil ID, Gallery Tours, Post Rock Carving 
o   Post Rock quarrying demo (in Museum parking lot)
o   “Post Rock Country” book signing by author Brad Penka
o   Guided tours of fossil gallery (tours at 4pm and 5pm)
o  Guided tours of zoology and paleontology collections (tours at 4pm and 5pm)
o   Bring in your rocks and fossils for identification by Museum scientists

  •       7:00pm – 9:00pm: Scientific Presentations and Discovery Room Activities 

o   These talks will be given by Fort Hays State University graduate students studying fossils in the Sternberg Museum paleontology collections.
§  7:00pm: Ian Trevethan, Mosasaur thermoregulation
§  7:30pm: Mackenzie Kirchner-Smith, Hesperornis and diving bird foot morphology
§  8:00pm: Thomas Buskuskie, Dinosaurs of Kansas
§  8:30pm: Kelsie Abrams, Teleoceras rhinoceros ecology and diet

o   The Discovery Room will be open for kids and families so patrons of all ages can enjoy the Museum!

As always, the overarching theme of National Fossil Day is education. This year, we are not only providing a variety of educational experiences to the public, but are showcasing several educational partnerships within our community. Students from Quinter High School will be talking about their experience digging up a Mosasaur with the Museum. Post Rock Country events will get the community involved exploring the bridge between Kansas's natural history and cultural history. FHSU Department of Geoscience graduate students are presenting their research on Museum fossils. And we are celebrating the newly named State Fossils of Kansas, legislature that results from the work of Kansas museums, patrons, and fossil hunters

Come join in the fun as we learn about Kansas natural history!


**If you are interested in your child’s class attending National Fossil Day events, have his/her teacher contact Education Director David Levering (dalevering@fhsu.edu).**

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Just another mosasaur dig?

Few things are more rewarding for an educator than the opportunity to work with a group of excited, engaged students - whether the students are children, teens, young adults, or mature adults. Having the opportunity to take a hands-on approach to education in the field is the cherry on top.  Over the past few weeks, Sternberg Museum staff have had the wonderful opportunity to work with local high school students on a mosasaur dig in Western Kansas.  Two students from the Quinter High School advanced biology class contacted me for instructions on how to safely and properly excavate a mosasaur fossil. They were working on a capstone research project for their class. After some discussion of techniques and equipment, we decided to join forces and dig together.  This way, we could provide hands-on instruction on proper collection techniques, and continue discussions on the importance of data collection and scientific research.  After contacting the landowners for permission to excavate and arrange for the specimen to be donated to the Museum, Museum staff - including myself (Sternberg paleontologist), David Levering (Sternberg education director), and Dr. Reese Barrick (Sternberg director) - joined a group of high school biology students and their teacher to begin field work.

Through the months of April and May, professionals, educators, high school students, graduate students, and local land owners all pitched in to excavate a partial Tylosaurus skeleton from the lower Smoky Hill Chalk of Gove County, Kansas. It didn't take long for the quarry to turn into an outdoor classroom as we talked about everything from the geologic history of Western Kansas to the skeletal anatomy of mosasaurs to different excavation techniques (including a few impromptu physics lessons as we figured out how to get a 1000 lb jacket into a truck bed). Ultimately, our classroom provided first dig experiences, a science project for two advanced biology students, a gathering point for ranchers around the area to drop by and see what was going on (lawn chairs and grills included!), and a launch pad for future student research and community collaborations.  Local media outlets also helped spread our story.

The jacket containing the fossil mosasaur getting fork lifted
to its new home in our prep lab at the Sternberg Museum.
Despite holiday weekends, exam schedules, a very heavy jacket, and a very old truck, the mosasaur skeleton was safely removed from the ground and transported to its new home at the Sternberg Museum.  Where our story continues into the future. Thanks to new connections and sparked interest, we have the opportunity to continue to use this fossil to work with local students. Through the course of the summer (and however long it takes after that), students will be volunteering at the Museum as we teach them how to prep, curate, and study fossils. This mosasaur specimen will be the first fossil used to teach a new generation of students interested in paleontology and natural history.

Of course, not all students are looking to build a career in the field of paleontology (talk about a flooded job market!), but it is the core mission of natural history museums to instill an interest in and understanding of science.  We strive to encourage people to ask and answer questions about the world around them and figure out ways to solve problems. We aim to build a respect for the knowledge and advancements that scientific research, engineering, and technology can provide. I like to think that by giving students of all ages hands-on experiences exploring what science is and why it's important, we are leaving them better equipped to shoulder the responsibility for our future.
A crew including Sternberg Museum paleontologist, Sternberg Museum education director, Fort Hays State graduate students, Quinter High School biology teacher, Quinter High School biology students, and our fantastic land owners! May 2014

-- Dr. Laura E. Wilson
   Curator of Paleontology
   Sternberg Museum of Natural History




And all with only one truck snafu (this is par for the course for me...)
video

Monday, May 5, 2014

FHSU Paleontology Student Scholars

On April 30, 2014, Fort Hays State University students and faculty participated in the 10th annual Scholarly and Creative Activity Day (SACAD) held on campus. This event showcases research undertaken by members of the FHSU community across all colleges and departments. The FHSU Department of Geosciences has a very strong history of participation and award-winning at this event. The 2014 SACAD was particularly special, as it marks a change in the name of the event to the John Heinrichs Scholarly and Creative Activity Day. It was renamed in remembrance of the late chair of the Department of Geosciences, who passed away in January of this year.  
Kelsie Abrams, second place for "Preparation of
Teleoceras fossiger teeth for dental microware analysis".

Over a dozen and a half undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of Geosciences presented posters at SACAD on original research, highlighting a variety of geology and geography topics. Five of these students are currently studying paleontology at FHSU. First year graduate student Melissa Macias is studying sloth migration across the Caribbean from South America and North America using a cool GIS application (PaleoGIS). First year graduate student Tom Buskuskie described new Niobrarasaurus dinosaur material from the Smoky Hill Chalk of the Niobrara Formation recently donated to the Sternberg Museum. First year graduate student Mackenzie Kirchner-Smith presented her finding on sexual dimorphism on the tarsometatarsi in pheasants using 3D geometric morphometrics (and the 3D scanner at Forsyth Library). Second year graduate student Kelsie Abrams presented her preliminary results on a microwear study of Teleoceras rhinoceros teeth from Kansas housed at the Sternberg Museum. Representing some undergraduate research, senior Jason Hughes showcased his project looking at comparative taphonomy between two Teleoceras quarries from Western Kansas (also based on specimens at the Sternberg Museum). As Jason is blind, his project focused on the application of using tactile markers to characterize the taphonomy of individual bones. 
Tom Buskuskie, second place for "New dinosaur material
from the Niobrara Formation assigned to Niobrarasaurus
coleii (Thyreophora, Ankylosauria)".
Overall, SACAD was a great day for creativity at FHSU, scholarship in Geosciences, and continuing excellence in paleontology research. To cap the day, Kelsie and Tom tied for second place for best graduate student presentations. These undergraduate and graduate students are setting the bar high for research at FHSU!  Congratuations to all who participated!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Celebrating Kansas's new state fossils at the Sternberg Museum!

Tylosaurus (top) and Pteranodon (bottom) fossils on
displayat the Sternberg Museum of Natural History
in Hays, Kansas.
Last month, the Kansas legislators passed a bill naming Pteranodon and Tylosaurus as the state fossils of Kansas.  Tomorrow, Wednesday April 23rd, Kansas governor Sam Brownback will visit the Sternberg Museum here in Hays for a ceremonial signing of the fossil bill. The bill was formally signed into law on April 4th, but Governor Brownback and supporters of the bill felt it appropriate for the ceremony of formally recognizing state fossils to be held at the Sternberg Museum. The Governor will be signing the bill at 3:30pm in the lobby of the Museum and the event is open to the public.

Prior to April 4th, Kansas was one of ten states in the union without a state fossil.  So to make up for lost time, we now have two.  Pteranodon and Tylosaurus are iconic Kansas fossils representing a time 85 million years ago when the state was covered by an inland sea that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Pteranodon was one of the flying reptiles (pterosaurs) the lived along side dinosaurs throughout the Mesozoic Era (The Age of the Dinosaurs).  They were the first reptiles to evolve flight capabilities.  The fossils of these flying reptiles are found almost exclusively in the marine chalks and shales of western Kansas.  The Pteranodon has long been the symbol of the Sternberg Museum.  Tylosaurus is a group of mosasaurs - marine reptiles that dominated the oceans of the Mesozoic. They were powerful swimmers with mouths full of sharp teeth.  Both fossils are featured in the Chalk Bed Gallery at the Sternberg Museum.

Many members of the paleontology community in Kansas helped pushed the legislation forward. Sternberg Museum's own Adjunct Curator of Paleontology Mike Everhart testified before the legislators on behalf of the bill naming the state fossils. Local fossil hunter Alan Detrich pushed the bill forward, and students, fossil hunters, and paleontologists from across the state emailed and called in their support for the bill to state senators and congressmen.

All are welcome to come celebrate with us at 3:30pm on Wednesday April 23rd in the lobby of the Sternberg Museum for the ceremonial signing of the fossil bill by Governor Brownback.  Bring your kids, bring your friend, bring yourselves!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sternberg Summer Camps Update


The Mission of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History is to foster "an appreciation and understanding of Earth's natural history and the evolutionary forces that impact it...with an emphasis on the Great Plains." Located in Western Kansas, we have a unique position serving rural regions of the Great Plains and surrounding urban populations with science education.  While continuing with school tour groups, after school programming, adult programming, family days, and community events, we are now expanding our reach by bringing Kansas' natural history to K-12 students, and brining K-12 students to Kansas' natural history.

As announced in a previous post, the Sternberg Museum is offering summer camps for elementary, junior high, and high school students beginning in the summer of 2014 (that's THIS summer!!). These camps focus on introducing students to hands on field- and lab-based biology, ecology, and paleontology educational activities and adventures. Western Kansas is filled with exceptional, accessible natural resources that we are excited to introduce to and share with learners of all ages.  These camps are one more way the Sternberg Museum can provide science education to K-12 students and families. And in a world that is moving indoors and moving less, we can offer our camp-goers outdoor adventures in the wilds of Kansas.

We are offering single day camps for grades K-5, three day camps for grades 6-8, and a 2 week camp for grades 9-12.  You can find more information in the Camp Catalog posted on the Museum website.  There are still openings for new campers, but register soon because spots are filling! Contact the Education Director David Levering (the mastermind, energy source, organizer, and facilitator behind the camps) with questions or for more information.

So what could be more awesome than biology and paleontology camps in Kansas?  How about our efforts to keep registration costs down?! As with any new venture, there are a lot of start-up costs associated with getting the summer camp program off the ground.  Using a crowdfunding website called RocketHub, we are raising money to purchase camping gear like tents, stoves, and pots and pans for use in the overnight camps.  This keeps students from having to purchase/bring more than the personal essentials for camping.  We are also raising money to purchase the more technical gear associated with biology, ecology, and paleontology field work (GPS units, compasses, excavation supplies, etc.).  All in all, these fundraising efforts mean that we can keep the registration costs for each student down, making camps available to a wide range of students.

Amid our fundraising efforts, we have also had several generous donors donate money specifically for student scholarships.  There are 10 scholarships available for elementary students, one for junior high students, and two for high school students. The application process for financial aid is included in the Camp Catalog.

In the past months, we have had a tremendous outpouring of support for our camps by way of private donations, donations through RocketHub, and student registrations. But we have a bit further to go to help our camps live up to their potential.  Please consider signing a young family member up for a camp or supporting our fund raising efforts - we can't do it without you!

Check it out! Our upcoming camps were also recently featured in an awesome write-up in the Outbound Adventurer blog