Thursday, February 14, 2019

Project Kevin Part 1: Field and Lab Work

The astute social media observers among you may have noticed our new ceratopsian whose skull restoration was just finished in time for its debut at Tucson. Here's how we got it there in 2 parts. Today: the hot and nasty work.
Yep, that's hot
The site was originally discovered in the summer of 2017 by one of our landowners, rancher buddies and all around good guy Larry in the upper Judith River Formation of central Montana. We located a partial humerus, a lot of ribs and several vertebrae exposed on the erosional surface right away. The entire deposit was constricted to about 15cm (6 inches) of highly concreted sandstone, and from the exposed highly eroded elements we could tell it was from an ornithischian of some flavor. Odds were it was probably an incomplete scattered duckbill in fairly difficult to work matrix, so we decided to keep scouting and come back later.
The site is very remote but also gorgeous
That later turned out to be the summer of 2018. It was hot. Really hot. Continued scouting in that area turned up some pretty neat lag deposits but not a whole lot of good skeletal material. It was time to bite the bullet and see what the old duckbill site was going to give us. Who knows, there might be a skull in there.
Digging begins. We love our shade tents.

Sometimes we get visitors to the site

With 4 people digging we made some good progress on the first day of the dig. Around lunchtime I had moseyed on up to the top of a nearby bluff to get cell signal to call home to the boss and give him an update on how we weren't finding anything great out there and might relocate our scouting locality to somewhere closer to camp. Coming back to the site I ran into Jacob who was looking for me to let me know we had "the weirdest duckbill he's ever seen" in the quarry.
That ain't no duckbill horn.
Grace had found a brow horn.
Lainie demonstrates proper air hammer technique.
So, not a duckbill (though to be fair we did find some scattered hadrosaur material at the site). We dug more that week finding much more skull material, but had to come home for resupply and other projects. We got smart during trip #2 and brought out some diesel powered earth moving equipment as the overburden went from practically zero to nearly 3 meters very quickly. Again more skull material was found. There was some postcrania too but we all know that ceratopsian postcrania is pretty much worthless, right?
Bobcat good, getting hit by 2 dust devils in a row bad for shade tents
After the 3rd trip, the bone was very sparse along all edges of the excavation and we were pretty confident to call the dig finished.
Headed home with a load of jackets. Rock Chalk!
Lab work began right away. There were a few tricky bits getting the nasty concretion off the bones but for the most part they came out looking pretty good. Once cleaned up we got a much better idea of what parts of the skull we had (field identifications are always tentative). It also became pretty obvious the skeleton was trampled by other very inconsiderate dinosaurs way back in the cretaceous, as we had many broken bones with no parts to go back with them.
Right brow horn, missing some parts, but we can fix that.
Bone quality was pretty good and we ended up with most of the skull, quite a bit of the neck, some dorsal vertebrae and ribs, and curiously a random chunk of pubis.
Detail of jugal edge. Beautiful bone texture.
Stay tuned for the next installment where we show how we went from a pile of bones to a completed skull restoration in 100 easy steps!

Monday, December 3, 2018

Pete III Final Update: In Its Forever Home

This post has been a long time coming. A little over 13 years from when we first dug a hole in the ground for a toe fragment in Central Montana, our giant Daspletosaurus sp. "Pete III" is now on permanent display at the Cincinnati Museum Center! A photo of Pete's metatarsal was prominently featured in my first blog post here way back in 2010. We put over a decade into excavating, preparing, scanning, molding, casting and assembling this specimen (click these links to go directly to the older content). I'm happy that it's finally done, but I'm kinda sad to see it go all the same.

The original hole in the ground, field season 2005
The first ugly toe. It got better.
You can search all those old posts on the blog for progress, but now I'd like to share with you the finished product! We mounted all of the original bones (minus the skull, those bones are still loose and in the collections in Cincinnati) on an external steel armature with removable brackets so that anything that needs to be taken off of display for research can easily be done. Daspletosaurus is much more rare than "boring old" Tyrannosaurus rex so the research value of this specimen should be high.

Copies of this ungual can be purchased at www.deeptimefossils.com
The mount itself is a fairly conservative pose, not really running, not really mouth-wide-open. Viewed from near the Allosaurus, it seems to tower over the city skyline (hold the Chili). The restored art deco hall that Pete III now calls home is an exhibit itself and was very well done.
I really like this shot

We tried to make the supporting steel as visually unobtrusive as possible while still being substantial enough to do its job of holding up hundreds of pounds of real bone (and quite a bit of super glue). There might just be as much steel by weight as original bone in this mount, but it really doesn't feel like it.
Every bone gets its own personal mounting steel support

We're really happy how this mount turned out and now all you tyrannosaur researchers out there know who to talk to about planning a visit and publishing. No more excuse to pretend it doesn't exist anymore! And if you notice, things look "unfinished" in the photographs. This is because I helped install it back in August, so if you have better pictures of the display from your next visit I'd love to see them! Here's to thousands and thousands of visitors liking this specimen just as much as we do!
The finished mount, curator for scale

An even better photo without the curator

Pete's huge (as far as tyrannosaurs go) arm




Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Bigfoot from Wyoming: The largest dinosaur foot found yet

Hey! I published on something, 18 years after I started the paper.

The awesome scientific article is here on PeerJ's website, open access for anyone to read and download. As far as I can tell, it's gotten almost 8000 reads so far, so not too shabby! I also did a companion blog post for them where you can read all kinds of information on why exactly it took 20 years from discovery to publication. Short version of the story: I got a job and it wasn't a huge priority to me.
KUVP 129716 "Annabelle". Bigfoot was found under the tail.

As someone that has to self-fund all my research projects, publication costs are a real issue. I wanted to go open-access as I think making another company richer by giving them the fruits of my labor (on a public specimen) is kinda wrong, but there are some expenses in order to publish it properly. I simply don't have the free cash to do that.
More brachiosaur material from the site, me for scale.

Then came February. I had already assembled a small team of experts to finally move the project along, as I was getting tired of constipating science. Emanuel Tschopp and Femke Holwerda were Team Europe, and David Burnham and Myself were Team Kansas. We had no idea where we would publish but we had already begun preparing measurements and basic text. PeerJ surprisingly had a special promotion for their 5th anniversary offering to waive publication costs for articles submitted during that month. That was an offer too hard to pass up, but could we do it?
Archaeopteryx gawks at the metatarsals

The writing crew huddled over Google Hangouts and assembled a pretty decent draft in just 2 weeks (!!!) complete with figures for submission. Femke referred to it as "Rambo Writing" and I don't think it's too far off the mark as a description. We submitted it and waited.
Making the model of the MT IV

In a few weeks we heard back: Accepted with minor revisions. Minor except we had to refigure all of the original bones. So off I went to Kansas with Triebold Paleontology Inc's Artec Spider scanner and 3D render rig. Not included in the paper (but existing) are complete 3D models of every bone on this foot. Contact KUVP if you need access for research, I think they came out pretty well.
Completed model of MT II

After that, things went pretty well! We resubmitted and it was just a very short time between then and it coming out to the world. Press was also pretty kind (though they kept referring to me as "Dr." and thought it was a footprint instead of an actual foot). Heck, I made it into Newsweek! Pretty wild.

In the news(week)!
Why didn't we say it's definitely from Brachiosaurus? Simple: No Morrison Formation Brachiosaurus specimen has ever had any pes material recovered with it, so we didn't have any overlapping elements to compare with. Could it be Brachiosaurus? Sure, even probably, but we simply don't have that smoking gun just yet.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The little Thescelosaurus that could

The Hell Creek Formation is so much more than just Triceratops and Edmontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex. There, I said it. I head out there to swelter and dig nearly every summer, and it's truly not the big famous dinosaurs I'm interested in. This is where Jonathan comes in. This specimen, RMDRC 06-007, was collected over a decade ago and sat in our collections partially prepared for most of that time. Coincidentally it's a specimen of Thescelosaurus neglectus, the "neglected marvelous lizard" and the name sure fits. 
Partly prepared in the jacket, tail and right leg in other places

In the spring of 2017 we decided we needed to do something with the specimen. Jonathan was mostly articulated in a large heavy field jacket. The first step was to get all the parts into a state where we could mold them, so lots of careful preparation, and lots of consolidant was required. Jonathan was a large (by Thescelosaurus standards) and old animal, but the bones were still preserved with the insides like coffee grounds, ready to pour out in a pile of disappointment if the bones were even looked at the wrong way.
Right foot after prep and restoration

Any damage was stabilized and repaired as we worked. Missing parts were scanned with an Artec Spider structured light unit and we printed them out using our Form2 SLA printer and the usual PLA filament scribblebots. Molding was quick and straightforward for the most part, though the chest cavity posed a special problem for us. The chest cavity preserved a series of calcified intercostal plates between the ribs, which only start to solidify when the animal hits a ripe old age. These super delicate features prevented us from molding a set of ribs that could be immediately used on the cast, so instead we molded them all as a whole unit, cast them, then modified the casts to fit on the mount, then remolded them. Straightforward, right?
Posterior dorsal vertebrae

Assembly was pretty easy as well, though at nearly 14 feet long we were always remarking on how surprisingly big this animal was. It's huge clod-stomper feet came out very well, and since we had calcified cartilage with the specimen, we thought it would be dumb not to include it on the finished mount. In the end we came up with what I think is the very best and most scientifically accurate reconstruction of this poor neglected animal ever attempted. I hope you all like it as much as I do.
Finished mount, Grace for scale

An unusual view highlighting the cartilage

He just looks so dang HAPPY!

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!