Friday, September 22, 2017

Protosphyraena: Like a Swordfish Made Babies With a Chainsaw

We're back from SVP 2017 in Calgary, which was an awesome opportunity to debut our prototype Protosphyraena (Proto Proto) skeletal reconstruction. I've been involved with this project for 13 years now, very heavily for the past 4 with my various research projects with Drs. Jeff Liston, Kenshu Shimada, Bruce Schumacher and Matt Friedman. We've published a bunch of papers and talks recently, and there's even more on deck. If you're in Tahiti next week, stop by and hear my talk!
Image Copyright Mike Everhart
Loomis' reconstruction attempt

Protosphyraena was a tough nut to crack. The first bits were discovered in the late 1700s in the English chalk and first figured by Gideon Mantell in 1822. It got its name later in the mid 19th Century by Joseph Leidy meaning "early barracuda" due to the flat knife blade shaped teeth. Unfortunately this is what happens when you only have sparse material to work with. Protosphyraena is known now to have a basically worldwide distribution however since the animal has replaced its skeletal bone with cartilage wherever possible, more than isolated bits are extremely difficult to come by. In the Bone Wars of the late 1800s, Cope and Marsh's teams discovered many partial specimens in the Niobrara Chalk of Western Kansas, consisting mostly of isolated pectoral fins and skull bits.
Pectoral of P. perniciosa showing saw-tooth edge

The skull was amazing, with a long rostrum and forward-directed massive protruding teeth. The fins showed some variation, however the ones attributed to Protosphyraena perniciosa reached nearly a meter in length ad were adorned with saw-like serrated front edges. A tail fin was discovered near the turn of the last century and then one the first reconstructions was attempted by Loomis.
Cast and original parts at beginning, apple for scale

Not too shabby based on what they knew. Since the body had such little bone, it was highly unlikely that one would be found, yet the Niobrara as usual was full of surprises. In 2003 Mike Triebold found a partial Protosphyraena skull eroding out of the rocks in western Kansas. The specimen was already missing its rostrum, but a bit of pectoral fin was also visible. He continued excavation and noticed articulated evenly spaced spines, and followed them. They were ribs, hemals and neurals, ans they led to an articulated tail. This was the first "complete" Protosphyraena discovered.
Dig site pic, the specimen is already uncovered and pedestalled

This specimen ended up becoming the "Rosetta Stone" for our reconstruction attempt. Though it was a small example, it gave us tons of information about the body proportions. it kept on giving though, showing the streamer-like pelvic fins and large lobe-shaped "go faster" caudal peduncles.
The "go faster" caudal peduncles

We prepared out several specimens of large Protosphyraena in order to have a decent starting point for the reconstruction. One good skull specimen was partially disarticulated, we scanned the gill basket of a second smaller one and reproduced it out at the proper size on our 3D printing rigs. Our pectoral fin donor specimen was famously covered here as the victim of a poaching attempt in 2011. The original bones were molded and we made multiple copies of the parts so we could cut them up into individual elements. They were later remolded with most of the distortion taken out.
The kid seems bored

Jaws attached

Complete skull exterior

After that, the process was pretty easy! We decided to ignore how bizarre the critter was and just accept that's how these parts fit together, seeing where the reconstruction took us. It tuned out to be stranger than we ever imagined, and a lot bigger too, measuring over 2 meters in length (and flipperspan). We showed it off in Canada and it seemed to be a big hit! Enjoy the photos of the finished mount below.
I'm useful as a scalebar sometimes

Down the hatch!

Front view



Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Digging a tyrannobutt

We're back from Montana waiting for the temperatures and fire danger to die down for a bit. Earlier this month though we were battling the gnats working on excavating a dinosaur I found late last summer.

Can you spot the site?

The site is pretty typical for how I find them: about halfway up a 30 foot cliff with a menacing hoodoo overhanging the specimen. I found this site about 2 days before we broke camp last year so I was only able to do the smallest of evaluation digs on it.
Bones on either side of an erosional notch: usually a good sign

 Using air tools I was able to notch out a few of the bones. These were clearly large theropod bones, one looked like a caudal vertebra and I couldn't tell what the one shooting straight into the cliff was. Big theropod in the Judith River formation means one thing: Tyrannosaur! I knew I'd be coming back for this site in 2017.
Duckbills. It had to be duckbills
Additionally at this site was a big wad of predepositionally broken ornithischian (most likely duckbill) bones under the tyrannosaur material. This gave the impression of a stream or oxbow lake bottom assemblage, but sometimes you find good skeletons mixed in with all this material. Unfortunately with fall closing in, I had to abandon the site till 2017.
Storms are no fun in vehicles that lack roofs and windshields
This year however we came out with our big jackhammer and managed to notch out a decent sized evaluation pit. I wanted to get a better feeling for what was present before I suggested getting a bulldozer out there to knock down the whole cliff.

The isolated tyrannobutt
Turns out, it appears it was just an isolated tyrannosaur sacrum with one dorsal vertebra still attached. Not pretty now, but once I prepare it we will see better the shape of the specimen. I'm thinking Albertosaurus, but it's hard to say from this element.
Closeup of the spines. Bonus duckbill chevron at top left

It's a bit of a bummer that there wasn't more of this skeleton. It was going in towards the head but it was just not meant to be. I'm happy to find this now before we invested time and resources removing 15 feet of really tough sandstone from the area though. Guess I'll just have to spend the rest of my summer looking for more dinosaurs. It's a tough job but somebody's got to do it!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

First Kansas Trip in the Bag - 2017

For the first time in a few years, we've been able to hit the Niobrara outcrops in the spring! Holy crap was it cold. The last day out, I don't think it got above 50 degrees, not that the 40mph winds would make it feel any warmer. Perfectly miserable. And just like clockwork, on our last day, as the sun was setting behind a large row of thunderstorms on the horizon, we found the best skeleton of the trip! The rest of the time was staring at blank ground finding fossil poop.

Look at this swirly poop!
I entertained myself by finding a "nice" Xiphactinus tail. I was instructing a new hire on how to actually find fossils in pretty bleak badlands when I saw just a small fragment of tail fin coming out of the rock. I'm happy I found this one as since we have SO MANY Xiphactinus specimens in storage, we've implemented a "one in, one out" policy on these fish and I've somewhat jokingly insinuated firing anyone that finds another of these darn fish. Our newbies were safe.
Well, there's a fish tail

Jesse using a chainsaw to trench around the fossil
When you find weathered out fish tail chunks, you have to chase them in (even if they're "just" a Xiphactinus). Sometimes the rest of the tail is there. Sometimes there's the rest of a 15 foot long fish attached to it. Sometimes it just ends. In this case, we found a perfect lower lobe of the fin, but no body. As far as we were from the truck, I'm happy we didn't have to make a huge jacket, since those are heavy and I'm getting lazy in my old age.
Trenching complete, curatorial boot for scale

Jacketing complete and ready to flip, other curatorial boot for scale
Popping it out and prepping it was also quick. Measuring the vertebrae we found it's the exact same size to complete another Xiphactinus specimen we excavated 3 years ago (which just happened to be missing the tail). This will help us out tremendously when we panel mount the animal in the near future.
Not too shabby!
Other stuff was less plentiful on this first trip, but we were lucky enough to find parts of 3 sea turtles, which is always really nice.
Jesse and grace entrusted with power tools to get to a turtle
And of course at the very last minute, Jesse stumbled on a pretty complete Clidastes skull in an outcrop near where we discovered our gigantic 17 foot Xiphactinus specimen 20 years ago. We worked very hard to excavate the specimen with daylight fading and weather bearing down on us.
Jesse and grace getting Clidastes block ready for jacketing
The specimen was safely loaded in the truck by headlight, which also made for a really interesting drive through farm fields in the dark at the end of a 14 hour day. Prep is going on right now, so stay tuned to see how this cute little mosasaur turns out!





Friday, January 13, 2017

The Accidental Ichthyornis

Field identifications are problematic.

In mid October of this year the weather in Kansas was still warm enough to extend our dig season. That trip was pretty successful, finding a back half of a Protosphyraena and several small fish. Early on, Mike even thought he found another Pteranodon leg.
The drive to the site is a lot tougher when you can't see landmarks

We came out early in the morning. Man was it foggy. The entire day was supposed to be dedicated to finishing up excavation at several small sites. Since the "Pteranodon leg" site was so small, Mike and Jacob spearheaded the excavation there, while I wandered off to collect a Cimolichthys head and isolated Ichthyodectes site.
Several bones coming out at the site as discovered. Definitely not fish.

The "Pteranodon leg" showed some promising chunks of bone coming out, however inspection as they got down to the bone layer showed not a whole lot was there. Not like the large bones we were hoping to find for a Pterosaur.
That's a big hole for such a little block

Not a huge worry though, we perimeter the sites and very rarely expose the bone in the field, we will just find out what the "Pteranodon leg" looks like when we get back to the lab.
Jacob jackets and despairs as I tell him we have to go dig up another fish

Looking back at the video, just as Jacob began jacketing the specimen, I show up back at the site proudly announcing the discovery of the "Nia" Xiphactinus site that I blogged about last time. We all decided to drive over to the big fish and start work as the jacket cured. We were so stoked about the big fish that it was about a month later when we finally asked ourselves "Hey! Where did that jacket go?"

Turns out, we left it sitting there in the field, right next to a regularly visited oil well. Whoops! Over Christmas, Mike returned to the site to see if someone had poached it. Nope, the jacket was still exactly where we had left it. I guess you can say we got dang lucky. Let's never do that again.

Mike pulled it out and brought it back to the lab, where it sat for a week as I let it dry out (dry chalk behaves better than wet stuff when prepping, especially with small fossils). That's when the Eureka Moment happened: prepping down on the "Pteranodon leg" things weren't looking right. I immediately switched to my microscope, pin vise and very low pressure air abrasion (about 3psi with sodium bicarbonate blast media). My suspicions on the specimen's identity were confirmed when I found teeth. Pteranodon doesn't have teeth, but there's one small thing in the chalk with reptile-textured bone that does have it: a bird! Not only was it a bird, but the only complete articulated skull of Ichthyornis, who had been found only in fairly incomplete form since Marsh's days in the 1870s. This accidental and overlooked jacket suddenly turned into one of the rarest finds in the entire 160 year history of fossil hunting in the Niobrara.

Bird teeth, just a few milimeters long

Stay tuned for project updates as we work on this spectacular fossil.



Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Fall Xiphactinus Surprise

Let's go to Kansas they said. We'll find some marine reptiles they said. It'll be fun they said. Boy, were they wrong!
October is tarantula migration season

Doing fieldwork in Kansas at the end of October is pretty rare for us, but we lucked out with the weather and spent a few days hitting outcrops we hadn't been on in a few years. It's important for them to go through an erosive "refresh cycle" so that we can find new stuff on the same ground. In just the first day we found the remains of a partial Pteranodon sternbergi and a few cool small fish. Mike and Jacob were working on excavating Pteranodon #6 of the year and I was finishing up jacketing a nice Ichthyodectes ctenodon specimen and had a little time to kill, so I wandered off to the south a little bit to scout for some cool treasures. I had been over the area just a few yeas before, so I was expecting something small.

The chin

Curator at digsite for scale

That's when I accidentally found the biggest fish of my career laying on its left side. I nicknamed it "Nia". She's a Xiphactinus audax over 17 feet long when whole, with pectoral fins each 2 feet long.
There was a serious lack of overburden at first

Luckily overburden wasn't a big problem at first, with an average of about 4 inches (100mm) of chalk over the specimen. Digging in though, the articulated strand of ribs, spines and vertebrae were pointed straight into the outcrop wall.
Expanding the digsite

The Niobrara sea was chock full of predators ready and willing to scavenge a dead animal, and they didn't pay Nia any respect either. We discovered a half dozen shed Squalicorax falcatus teeth in the head area, lost while taking chunks of meat off the carcass. Unfortunately (or mercifully, depending on how you see it) the body was bitten off about 5 feet from the start of the dig.
Jacob driving a chalk-splitting chisel under the big jacket

How the specimen flipped in the field

Jacketing was a bit tough and we anticipated some problems with a huge flat jacket in soft weathered chalk. We feared a collapse (like that one other Xiphactinus I found a few years back that I nicknamed "Bea Arthur") so we did everything possible to try to get the specimen out safely. It still fell out, but to our amazement, almost all the bones remained in place in the jacket!
Show prepped main jacket
The rest of the jaws will go back in place later

Show prepping took a long time because of how soft the bones were. I got it into the "pretty enough" stage and now Nia is in storage, waiting for her turn to be turned into a spectacular panel mount.




Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reconstructing Chelosphargis: What to do with a pile of bones

We spend a lot of time in Kansas hunting for specimens in the Niobrara chalk. A whole lot of time. Luckily the soft chalk erodes pretty quickly so we also find a whole lot of stuff. Occasionally though, other people also get lucky and we'll happily take the specimen off their hands. In early 2015 this exact scenario played out. You may have seen the result at our display booth at SVP this year in Salt Lake City, overshadowed by our exciting mount of our Daspletosaurus "Pete III"
Curator shadow selfie while digging in Kansas recently

A poorly collected turtle specimen from the chalk was being shown around looking for a buyer, While the collection techniques caused some damage to the fossil, it was plain to see a fairly complete tiny Protostegid was encased in the slabs of yellow rock.

So, this is how we got it. Clearly not how we would collect a specimen.

Most importantly, almost all of the skull was there, which is really nice. We immediately acquired the specimen and prepared the parts. Quickly it became evident we had a older subadult specimen of the relatively rare taxon Chelosphargis advena, an 84 million year old relative of the much larger Protostega and Archelon.
The parts after prep

Skull partway through prep

As you can see, most of the animal was there, in fact it's one of the most complete Chelosphargis specimens ever discovered. But what do you do with a pile of bones once they're all prepared? We're one of the few places with the knowledge, experience and capability to do a complete cast restoration without damaging the original bones. The first step was to mold everything as-is, so we can have parts (sometimes even multiples) to work with.
Cast skull copies getting cut and shaped to take out distortion

Distortion is taken out of the plastic and missing parts are either fabricated from similar ones from this animal, scanned in and resized from other specimens, or in rare cases done the old way with sculpting from reference material.
Carapace getting parts added and completed

The restored parts are then molded again in units so that we can make our final copy and offer it to museums and the general public as a highly detailed cast skeletal mount, perfect for display anywhere. The entire project only takes a few weeks, but the result is pretty phenomenal!

Final product!


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

We're still out doing fieldwork

The glamour of digging holes in the ground while battling flies and heatstroke. Come for the stuck side by side, stay for me breaking a 2x4 with my brute strength! Enjoy!