Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Last post before I'm out the door: World record Platecarpus

Jaws and skull bits in field jacket
It's holiday time again, which also means it's the last big push to get stuff finished before the Tuscon gem and mineral show. One of my last minute projects is reconstructing the largest Platecarpus planifrons skull ever discovered from the Niobrara. This critter, from Gove Co., Kansas, measures in with a skull a whopping 65cm (26 inches) long! Usually Platecarpus of any flavor from the Niobrara is hard pressed to break 50cm (20 inches).  Mike Triebold discovered this specimen in May of 2010, and it was about time to do something with it.

Some parts restored (partially)
This monster wasn't the top of the food chain though, the frontal has the tips of 2 shark teeth (most likely Cretoxyrhina) embedded in it, along with many scratches and gouges in the bone from scavenging.

Taking a ride on the Mosa-tissarie
Unfortunately, all that was recovered was the skull, though with lots of bone and not much meat, this is usually the most common parts of what remains of mosasaurs from the Niobrara. The bodies, especially the flippers and tail, tended to get chewed up first. The skull was partially eroded out and scattered, however there was more than enough present to make a good reconstruction of this animal. Hopefully sometime around the new year I'll be finished, and back on to preparing Thescelosaurus bits. Fingers crossed.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Show Thescelosaurus some love

When is a dinosaur not a dinosaur? When it's fairly dull I guess. Just look at Thescelosaurus. Not brainy, not much in the way of fangs, claws, armor, clubs, or anything else sexy. It's also a fairly rare dinosaur, with just a handful of reasonably complete specimens. We at the RMDRC have been lucky, preparing the only complete skull so far (on "Bert"), as well as now preparing a pretty dang complete skeleton, "Jonathan".

Right leg from the former display
Jonathan was discovered in 2006 in the Hell Creek Formation of Montana. It was nearly complete, minus the tip of the tail and the head/neck where it had eroded out into the gully. Lying belly-up, once show prepped, it nearly looked like it died just yesterday.

Main jacket

Look at that cute little first chevron
We have now started to prepare all of the bones free of the matrix. We will restore them, mold them, reconstruct the missing bits, and offer a cast of this big Thescelosaurus (13-14 feet or 4m long) for sale to institutions. The original will be mounted in 3d on a steel armature. That last bit is a LOT of work, but it's also pretty satisfying and a bit of fun too, especially if you enjoy doing metal work!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Bonnerichthys dig: October 2011

On our last field expedition to Logan County this fall, we intended to try and recover the remains of a large Clidastes specimen located by one of our ranchers. That critter turned out to be a bit of a bust, however about 18 inches below it, we noticed another chunk of bone sticking out of the outcrop. Tracing it in, we eventually figured out it was a pectoral fin of the giant filter-feeding fish Bonnerichthys gladius. These fish are pretty darn rare, and since myself and Mike Triebold were co-authors on the paper naming this fish, we were pretty happy to find it.

Jacob Jett's feet for scale. The orange paint marks where we cut the slab with a chain saw
Detail shot of the distinctive fin of this strange fish
The chalk was very hard, but we were lucky enough to have all of our fancy air tools along with us after helping Mike Everhart with his Protostega dig earlier that week. That made life so much easier on our crew.

Preparation begins, with my hand for scale

The dig lasted just a day, and unfortunately it was just pectoral fins (and a few radials) preserved, the most common bits of this critter found. The fins themselves were 3 feet long, indicating a fish in the 15-foot range. We brought the specimen back to the lab and prepared it in a few days. Now what do we do with it?
The most intact fin, after the cleaning is finished

Friday, November 18, 2011

Daspletosaurus prep update

Jacob and I have been hammering away at the remaining small jackets of Pete III. By small I mean things less than the 4 ton main jacket monstrosity that we'll eventually have to confront. This week we've finished the left femur and ilium, along with a slew of gastral elements, vertebrae, and other bits and pieces.

Anterior dorsal of Pete III compared to Stan
The ilium has a strange mass of punky bone on the medial face of the pubic peduncle. We've seen a few instances of old age related pathology on this specimen, it wouldn't surprise me to find more.

Medial surface of left ilium, 42 inches long

Before long, we'll be started on the pathological tail section. Can't wait!

Caudal view of left femur.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Daspletosaurus prep restarts: this time with skull bones

While I was away soaking up pathogens at SVP in Las Vegas last week, paleotech Jacob Jett has been busy preparing some of the jackets from the weathered edge of Pete III's excavation. The bone was in difficult shape to begin with (earning the nickname "The pixelated Tyrannosaur" at SVP) before seeing several hundred Montana freeze-thaw cycles, making this prep work one of our greatest challenges to date. However, results are here! Skull bones so far include both quadrates, a jugal, both quadratojugals, a spenial, pterygoid and possible surangular, with more to come. No toothy bits yet though.

The left quadrate. Actually recognizable!

Dorsal vertebra #1, giving you an idea of the sheer size of Pete III. Transverse process span is 15 inches (38cm)

Surprise! Manual phalanx!
We still have many jackets (including the majority of the big 4-ton monstrosity) to prepare, however we're confident that the majority of the skeleton and perhaps 20-30% of the skull is here. Check back for more updates!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fall fieldwork!

There's nothing quite like a nice October day in the Niobrara chalk. Lots of hiking, fresh air, and occasionally a few fossils.

Scrappy Cimolichthys verts in the outcrop
Though the puropse of this past 2 1/2 day trip was primarily for scouting, we did return with a few jackets of specimens, including a nice Ichthyodectes tail from the lower chalk and part of a giant Clidastes from the upper chalk. We'll be returning very soon to recover the rest of the Clidastes, as well as a new Nyctosaurus specimen I discovered on Friday (more on that later), and possibly the Pentanogmius I located, or one of the 3 xiphs I stumbled across. It's good to have so many choices.

Mike evaluating a Xiphactinus skull

Interesting thing about the Clidastes. The tail is chock-full of pathological vertebrae, from what looks to be an old infected bite wound. No clue yet as to whether the bite was from a shark or another mosasaur, however from all the intraspecific damage we see on other specimens, I wouldn't doubt it was the result of Clidastes-on-Clidastes violence.
Ouch! Most certainly a grumpy mosasaur

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Light at the end of the Triceratops tunnel

We're back from another great Denver Gem and Mineral show. I even got Bob Dietrich to sign my copy of "Boneheads" by Richard Polsky. Dr. Bakker had some good input about javelinas, and we got our Bacculites jaws back from being prepared by Neal Larson.
Captain Jacob on the SS Pointyface

We're now back in our final push to get this giant Triceratops skull built and out of our workspace. We figure less than 3 weeks to go. All assembly is finished, save for installing the missing maxillary teeth. Steel work is also done (I incinerated 3 t-shirts during that process), all that it really left is details details details. Also painting. Today I should hopefully be finished hollowing out the ironstone from the orbits in the last bit of preparation.
A month's worth of work. Also I made the table.

We've got a space picked out in the museum and will let all of our readers know when it goes on display, so you can come visit it in person. Sad thing is, I don't think this Triceratops has a name yet...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Triceratops project update # whatever

8 feet long and 5 feet wide, about the same size as my bathroom
Ok the assembly process is almost done! We've assembled almost all of the frill, a process that took me a week and a half and 100 pounds of steel. I only severely burned myself 4 or 5 times, including a big melty blob that rolled down my shoulder and back. Ouch.

7 days of constant custom steel fabrication, and still not yet done.

Now it is time for the tedious texturing of the filler that went into areas where we were missing bone. We're leaving the busted part of the parietal off while we work around it. Also note in the photos the fancy stage that I built in an effort to save our backs while detailing. A bit of epoxy putty, some epoccipitals, and some paint will get us to the finish line, now hopefully around Halloween, if not sooner. It's painstaking work, send beer,

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Poached Again, Dammit

Hey, I recognize that plastic!
This past week Mike and Jacob returned to Kansas to do some field work, and were reminded by the heat and lack of breeze exactly why we don't usually go back till fall. They scouted some outcrops near where we discovered the poached Protosphyraena fin earlier this year. About 1/4 mile south of that site, Jacob spotted a sliver of blue plastic coming out of the outcrop... again.

View from the site
It was haphazardly covered with about 1 foot of loose chalk and had appeared to have been excavated about 2 years ago judging from the size of the plants growing in the talus. As with the last poaching attempt, the site was nearly completely excavated down to the bone layer before it was abandoned/re-covered. I have the distinct feeling these poachers may be headhunters.
Critter just prior to jacketing
After exposing it,the site turned out to be a sorta jumbled Xiphactinus coming out tail first. There may or may not be skull bits present. Our crew made short work of the specimen and took it out in 3 jackets. After that, the thermometer hit 109 degrees before lunch and it was time to get the proverbial hell out of Dodge. I think hunting out there will be better in about a month. Especially with someone out there finding and pre-excavating specimens for us.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Coelacanths of Kansas

Most everyone is aware of the story of the "living fossil" fish, the coelacanth. One was caught off the coast of Africa in the 1930s, surprising everyone since they were thought to have gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period along with the dinosaurs. Today there is but one genus left, Latimeria. They are strange animals, even for people experienced in working with fish.

Cast of the extant coelacanth Latimeria in the RMDRC
We recovered and prepared 2 specimens of the giant coelacanth Megalocoelacanthus from western Kansas in the past decade. As far as I know they are the only two examples of this big coelacanth ever recovered from the Niobrara chalk. The first specimen was excavated from the lower chalk around MU5 (Coniacian age) is fairly complete, and will be our basis for a 3d reconstruction of the skull and body. The second specimen was a fragmented left lower jaw found in the upper chalk, under MU20, putting it early Campanian in age. We used the coronoid from this specimen in our reconstruction to replace the missing one from the first.

About 20% of the skull material found with our first Megalocoelacanthus
Someone once said "go big or go home". We're taking that to heart as our first reconstruction will consist of a 3d skull on a panel-mounted restoration of the body. We're basing the postcranial skeleton heavily on Latimeria, since we only have a few parts of the pectoral and dorsal fins. Coelacanths don't have ossified vertebrae (or ribs for that matter) meaning skulls and fins are about all you are ever going to find.

RMDRC sculptor Mary working on our prototype
Our specimen is truly going to be a giant, coming in at about 9 feet 4 inches (3m) in length. As far as I can tell this will also be the very first restoration attempt of Megalocoelacanthus. Of course we'll be molding the thing, so hopefully it can be placed in museums worldwide. Ours isn't the largest specimen ever found, but it sure seems it is by far the most complete.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Nyctosaurus restoration finished!

Beautifully detailed specimen
We've added another flying critter to our family of casts. This time it's a restoration of a female Nyctosaurus gracilis. This is the smaller of the two flying reptiles found in the Niobrara Chalk of western Kansas, and by far the most rare. Contact me if you're interested in a copy. We're offering a substantial discount off of our introductory price through the end of August.

Top-ish view showing lack of wing claws

Look out for that Pteranodon!

Our restoration ended up with a wingspan of 7 feet. We'll be debuting the crested male specimen in a few weeks, so keep tuned for updates. Also come to the museum to see this specimen now proudly on display in out exhibit hall.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Just a Pretty Picture

Ok, maybe not so pretty because I've volunteered myself to be the RMDRC spokesmodel. Just consider yourself lucky I didn't accessorize with a bikini.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Building a Xiphactinus: ground to mount

Initial excavation of RMDRC 10-025 in Lane Co., Kansas
During the 2010 field season, we managed to find and collect part or most of 9 Xiphactinus audax specimens. But what do you do with all of those mainly incomplete fish? In the case with RMDRC 10-025, we decided to prepare and restore the skeleton in a panel mount display. Two factors helped us decide on working with this specimen: It was relatively complete except for the skull, which had weathered out in the float, and it looked to be a pretty small sized fish, possibly only 10 feet long. After all, it was excavated in a fishpile only 7 feet square.

Nice compact pile of fishbone
Since most of the skull was in golf ball sized fragments with eroded edges, we decided to source an already prepared Xiphactinus skull of the same size that was collected on the same ranch a few years prior. Preparation went slowly because of extensive root invasion, resulting in some of the most maddeningly soft fish bone we've ever had the joy of preparing.

Marking paint to denote the cutlines of the 2 jackets
Laying out the critter we found that we grossly underestimated the final size of our animal. From tail tip to procumbent fang it comes in at a whopping 13 feet 4 inches, with the beautiful tail fin 3 1/2 feet tall. Interestingly, there was bits of a Gillicus skull, pectoral fins and vertebral column mixed in with the Xiphactinus, more than likely the remains of its last meal. We included the Gillicus in the mount, because, why not?

Fishie is bigger than curator
No matter, we can make these panel mounts as large as we need. Our last mount was made of steel, plywood and solid Hydrocal, resulting in a 1600 pound monstrosity. This slightly smaller mount is using new techniques, with a finished target weight of below 400 pounds. Fingers crossed, chiropractor on call.
Status as of a few minutes ago. More detailing is needed before paintwork commences
We aim on finishing towards the end of this week. Hopefully. It's amazing how much lab space this thing takes up!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Well, I was told to find a Pteranodon

So I did. Jacob and I were scouting a few weeks back in some nasty hard more vertical than not yellow chalk between Marker Units 5 and 7. We were finding a whole lot of nothing except for blown out Cimolichthys bodies and some random Xiphactinus/Ichthyodectes parts. Not even a shark tooth to be seen. We were getting frustrated and I was busy entertaining myself picking up Martinichthys coprolites.

We had shifted into "Don't look where you don't want to collect" mode in the really steep stuff to avoid having to excavate 7-12 feet of chalk overburden like when I found the Platecarpus "Cap'n Chuck". Walking up a narrow gully it expanded and flattened out a bit, and I mustered the gumption to check out the outcrops closely. Nothing... Nothing... Martinichthys poop... weathered Cretoxyrhina tooth... Oooh Pterosaur wingtip!
Mmmm bones

I checked out the face of the outcrop and saw bones poking out on a single horizon for 4 1/2 feet. It was definitely a dig. Unfortunately it was a dig in the hard vertical yellow chalk, with 6 feet of overburden, located about 200 feet away from the nearest place we could pack in heavy tools and equipment.
Looks crunchy, but the bone is in beautiful condition

Jacob and I decided if we wanted to get this out of the ground sometime this year, we'd have to get the handy-dandy electric jackhammer down to the site. We set the generator up near the truck and daisy chained every single extension cord we could find together. Stretching them all out, we made it to the dig site, with only about 6 feet to spare.

A whole lot of topography
We used the power equipment to dig down to within 2 inches of the bone horizon. There was no splitting layer at the fossil so we had to carefully explore the perimeter of the excavation with chipper hammers and xacto knives. We found fingers and toes, legs and wings, and even some hints of super delicate skull material. We jacketed the slab and spent the better part of an hour climbing and hauling the 200 pound jacket out of the badlands.

After prep. Lower jaw running l to r under humerus. Lower unprepared area is full of metatarsals/toes
Back at the lab I began preparing the critter.Everything came out well, and it turns out we have about 50% of the skeleton, including a mostly complete lower jaw. The humerus measures 19cm, putting the total wingspan at 4.56m, or 15 feet. This size puts it in the range of a medium sized male of Pteranodon sternbergi. No giant, but still an exciting fossil

Quickie bone map of what is present

I decided to give it the nickname "Val" after my wife, since she pretty much made it clear I had to. A pretty hellish dig and packout, but the specimen is well worth it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Catching a poacher (sorta). Kansas trip #3

Back again after another week of baking my brains out in the chalk in search of long dead marine critters. We were focusing on a strip of outcrops that exposed MU 4 to MU 6 in the lower Niobrara chalk. Found some good stuff too, a nice Pteranodon sternbergi (which will be the focus of another post once prep starts), a partial Xiphactinus audax skull, a small Pachyrhizodus caninus tail, some Martinichthys rostra, and a whole bag of Martinichthys poop! If anyone has any research interest in this poop, let me know, I'd be happy to provide samples.

Pteranodon site
The Pteranodon took up most of our time on till Wednesday, but late that afternoon, Jacob and I finished up and moved on to some outcrops that our crews hadn't explored for a few years. Erosion in the chalk is surprisingly quick, so searching the same spots every 2-4 years is extremely productive. We drove the truck over next to an outcrop and decided to take a quick snack break. While chewing on a small bunch of Red Vines, I look over and notice something blue on the face of the outcrop. "what the hell is that?" I ask Jacob, thinking it is probably just a piece of garbage from the oil rigs in the field.

We go over and investigate, since we had to scout the outcrop anyway. Upon inspection we discover this:
Peek A Boo

A pachychormid fin eroding out with a layer of blue plastic over it. The chalk above the layer was obviously disturbed, and there were small plants growing out of it. Someone tried to poach this fossil!
It's like christmas

We reopened the hole and followed the fossil in. The blue plastic extended quite a ways in. To the end of the fin in fact! Someone excavated the entire thing, then left it! Amazing. We pulled back the plastic and to my surprise it revealed the longest Protosphyraena perniciosa pectoral fin I'd ever seen, 2'8" (82cm) from tip to erosional edge. There were a few fragments in the float and a piece of a radial, but I'm fairly confident we recovered pretty much all of the specimen. Good thing too, we finished up just as another severe thunderstorm was bearing down on us. Also: DON'T STEAL FOSSILS!

The monster storm a few hours later
Back in the lab our summer intern, Lisa, had the job of preparing the specimen . She did a beautiful job! Now to find an interesting way to display the specimen in the museum.

Big fishie

With nasty pointy fins