Monday, June 22, 2015

Digging more holes in Kansas

It's been quite a while since the last update, but that's because of all the field work we've been doing in western Kansas. Hell, I feel like I've been digging deeper holes than Kansas' Governor. Ha! Biting political humor.

In any case, Jacob just released a video that has a few awesome action shots of me staring at the ground, and a really ugly (well, even uglier than usual) Xiphactinus that I found before we started working on it. Check it out and don't forget to subscribe to his youtube channel or the Dinosaur Nerds website so you can see all kinds of boring thing like me complaining about mosasaurs.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Our Xiphactinus dig featured on River Monsters: backstory

I really hope everyone got a chance to see the River Monsters season finale. Here's a teaser of Jeremy Wade Sharing a bit of what he had learned with us in the field digging up a Xiphactinus audax skeleton.


One of the things he alludes to has a funny backstory. When we first arrived at the site, the film crew's rental minivans couldn't get near where all the equipment needed to be. Not a huge problem, we transferred it to the bed of the bosses truck and away went the gear and most of the crew. I had been riding in vehicles way too much already that morning and decided I'd walk the easy 1/4 mile or so left to the site. Jeremy, the director and an assistant decided this was a good idea as well, so I was able to show them some things in the chalk on the way up. Mostly clams. Lots and lots of clams.
The site is on the opposite side of the butte in the background
Arriving near the digsite site, literally within 4 feet of where the boss parked the truck, while talking to Jeremy about how you have to be in the right place at the right time to find a specimen, I look down and see the face of a newly eroding Xiphactinus specimen poking out of the rock. I COULD NOT HAVE PLANNED IT BETTER. It's really not all that great, but our guests had never seen the discovery of a fossil before, and they seemed pretty thrilled about it. Happy I could oblige.
Can you see it? It's a beauty!
Back in the lab the next day we worked hard to begin the prep on the Xiphactinus specimen RMDRC 14-012, which we nicknamed "Jeremy". Unfortunately, all of that seems to have ended up on the cutting room floor.
Just a few people watching over my shoulder as I prep
Nevertheless, we went ahead and finished prep on "Jeremy". Not the prettiest one, and for the life of me I can't figure out how the face was nicely articulated but the entire braincase was spun off and away. Them's the breaks I guess. As for working with the River Monsters crew again? Name the time and place, they were superb.
I've seen worse

Sclerotics in place still!



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

See us on River Monsters this Monday!



I can't reveal too much until the air date, but I can now share that you'll be able to see Jacob, Mike and myself on the season finale episode of "River Monsters" starring Jeremy Wade!
Looking busy in the glory of the Blue Shirt
Jeremy came out to the field with us recently, then visited the museum, film crew in tow, to experience a fish dig in Kansas and what we do with the fossils once they return to the lab. It was a busy but fun couple of days with him and the crew from Icon Films. Hopefully what airs on Animal Planet features my good side!


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

No love for Ichthyodectes?

It seems like nearly every year a new book, film, or television program comes out featuring the long-dead seaway that covered most of the central part of North America back in the late Cretaceous. Invariably they have cameos featuring Xiphactinus, Cretoxyrhina, Protosphyraena, and even the "bait fish" Gillicus and Enchodus. They have mosasaurs, pterosaurs and even sea turtles. If you didn't follow the science closely, you'd understandably figure that's about all that lived in that shallow sea.
Our cast specimen restored in all its 3d glory

Truth be told, there were probably a few hundred types of fish in that seaway. Dr. Kenshu Shimada made a decent attempt to catalog all of them a few years ago, but like all good science on the Niobrara, it was getting out of date almost as soon as it was published. It's really amazing that 120 years after collecting work began in Western Kansas, new critters are still being found. I'm not going to go into details on them (I'll save them for other blog posts) and instead focus on this fish that is criminally underrepresented in the literature and online.

RMDRC 11-018, a massive 9 foot Ichthyodectes
If it's Wikipedia entry were any indication of its importance, what does the text containing a whopping total of 89 words tell you? That's right, 89 whole words, some of which are even talking about other related fish. Lame.

Some of the teeth of RMDRC 11-018. Yikes
Ichthyodectes, a fish with moderately terrifying teeth and with a body length approaching 9 feet, it's not cheered on much. Sure it's pretty common in the Niobrara, but it's also basically a pocket Xiphactinus (see, using the Wikipedia trick of talking about it's cooler cousin to gin up some interest). An average scouting season for us will find 5 or so specimens identified through cranial material. Probably more, but postcranially all ichthyodectids of about the same size pretty much look identical.


RMDRC 14-027, excavated with a film crew, watch for it soon on TV!
Perhaps a big reason as to why Ichthyodectes gets so little love is that there are so few specimens on display in museums, even fewer ones that look, um, not silly. Perhaps we need more museums to decide that decent specimens of lesser known fossil fish of the Niobrara are just as important for display as mosasaurs or sharks or Xiphactinus. Maybe I'm just asking for too much. In any case, I've pretty much doubled the amount of useful Ichthyodectes pics on the interwebs, so I'll count it as a win.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Restoring a Brontosaurus

Growing up in the 80's and 90's was a strange time for a dinosaur fan. On one hand there was a plethora of old books in the library on dinosaurs telling us all about Brontosaurus. On the other, we were getting it beat into our heads that Brontosaurus didn't exist, and it's really Apatosaurus. It was all confusing for those few of us that were actually actively interested in these animals. Today Emanuel Tschopp published a paper resurrecting the genus Brontosaurus as valid. Where does this come in? In college I was lucky enough to work on sauropods, but never on the most famous ones. That all changed almost 8 years ago.

Our company was hired to reprepare, restore, remount, mold and cast the "Apatosaurus" specimen on display at the University of Wyoming geological Museum. This massive beast, also known as the "Sheep Creek" specimen after where it was found, was discovered and excavated in 1902 by a Carnegie Museum crew led by the great John Bell Hatcher. The specimen (CM 563) went back to Pittsburgh where it was quickly prepared in an effort to get the beast mounted and on display. Just before the mounting process was to start, an even more complete beast was recovered. Priorities shifted, and the new Apatosaurus went on display. It's still there at the Carnegie, remounted just a few short years ago.
The old mount, a young Brent for scale

CM 563 sat in storage for nearly a half a century until Dr. Samuel Knight from the University of Wyoming arranged for the specimen to be brought to their museum. He spearheaded the effort to restore incomplete bones, fabricate missing ones and get the whole specimen mounted in a current (for then) pose. The tail-dragging pose didn't age well, especially after the "dinosaur renaissance" which re-imagined these animals as more dynamic beasts.
Pubis bones never mounted on the old mount. Old Carnegie numbers still on them

Where do we come in? Director at that time Dr. Brent Breithaupt contacted us as a local (ish) company that could make copies and provide the museum with a revenue stream with the royalties from sales. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? With 100 years of work on a specimen, you know it never is!
before and after pics of the bones. Yes, originals were painted back in the day.

Hardware cloth, plaster and metal rod restoration from 1950's

Once we had everything in the shop we used special techniques to clean the specimen of its coating of paint to reveal several generations of restoration and conservation work. Everything except for the pelvis/sacrum, which was left on its pedestal and molded in place. It was also the set up for an epic April Fool's joke, but that's a story for another time. In any case, we were able to preserve the historic numbering on the specimen (including some possible field numbers), document its condition, and restore the specimen to good as new condition.
Molding the pelvis in situ

We mounted the skeleton back at the museum in nearly the same pose (sauropods are huge, so unless you have a big open building, your options are limited). One major change though was getting that dragging tail off the ground and up in the air. Much better! You can now see cast copies of this specimen in museums across the world. I'm lucky enough to have worked on this historic specimen of Brontosaurus parvus.

Swinging its tail over Big Al.



Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ava Restoration Update: March


Reconstruction of the skull started with 40 individual bones
Whether they are big or small, all ceratopsians sure do have a lot of parts. When they are juveniles like our Avaceratops, the lack of fusion in bones makes that even more apparent. For example, the sacrum (the wad of bones that holds up the rear end of the animal) in adults is usually one giant unwieldy piece. In our young animal, it is 26 individual parts, all with some degree of crushing, though not always in the same direction or degree.

Sacral neural spines molded
More of the massive piles of sacral parts
We've finished preparing the specimen and are busy restoring the individual bones to get molded. Restoration is a catch-all phrase that can mean anything from putting a protective layer of consolidant over the surface to sculpting missing bits to molding crushed vertebral centra, casting them, then cutting up the casts to re-inflate them to their appropriate size.
Most of the ribs, many crushed in strange directions

We're even using our trusty 3d scanning and printing equipment again to make precise mirror images of elements we are missing from one side to help complete the skeleton. In the end we'll end up with everything we need for a full sized standing cast skeleton, hopefully by Memorial Day.

Dorsal neural spines. Each one gets a centrum once restored.
Keep watching the updates on this blog for more news and pics of the restoration, molding and mounting project.



Thursday, February 26, 2015

Our newest little turtle: Jubal

Apparently TPI is the new home for the small turtles of the Niobrara chalk. We've already prepared, molded and cast our tiny Chelosphargis advena, Prepared a new Prionochelys matutina, and show prepped a nice Toxochelys latiremis that we discovered this past spring, all with nice skulls.
Our Prionochelys matutina specimen from MU5 (Coniacian)

You'd think that we would be content with our fossil turtle stash, but no. You can never have enough of these little guys. This week we prepared from start to finish another new specimen of a tiny protostegid from Kansas.

Box o rocks and bones
Preservation of the bones was beautiful, in nice hard yellow chalk so prep was an absolute joy. We didn't collect this specimen ourselves, which might explain the slightly unorthodox packing method employed in shipping the bones.

Plastron during preparation

While prepping the slabs we discovered many bones that were not apparent when work started. many of these surprise elements were adhered to adjacent bones by a thin layer of the oyster Pseudoperna congesta, making separation much more difficult.

Detail showing much of the pelvis in place

Amazingly, we are 4 for 4 this year for beautiful turtle heads. The skull block on this specimen contained not only all the major head bones, but also most of the hyoid apparatus. A very rare find in animals this small in the chalk.

Skull block before prep

Partly in thanks for helping us determine the identity of this turtle (the uber rare Chelosphargis advena), and partly just because we like him so dang much, we nicknamed RMDRC 15-001 "Jubal" in honor of Dr. Kraig Derstler of the University of New Orleans. For the back story, well you're just going to have to ask him about it.

Profile view of skull after prep

When finished with the prep, we did a layout and were shocked how complete this specimen really is. Next up is restoration, molding and casting so copies can be exhibited in museums and homes worldwide. The specimen is currently displayed in our lab viewing area, so come by soon and check it out before we put it all back together.

This is what a turtle looks like if you crack it open and pull everything out