Study on a giant percrocutid published

22 December 2008, IVPP, Beijing

To wrap up an eventful year and to begin 2009, my study has been conveniently published online this month, and will be in paper form in January 2009:

Tseng ZJ. 2009. Cranial function in a late Miocene Dinocrocuta gigantea (Mammalia: Carnivora) revealed by comparative finite element analysis. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 96:51-67.

If you are *still* interested after reading the abstract, please let me know and I will send you a copy of the study!



Finally, a look at horns

18 December 2008. IVPP, Beijing

After wrapping up some loose ends from early 2008 projects, I took some time and finished cleaning all of our fossil finds from the Tibetan Plateau this year.

Now it is time for me to begin identifying and describing all the horned ungulates.

We collected numerous horncores this past season, most of them incomplete. However, the wealth of specimens makes up for their fragmentary nature.

[A relatively complete horncore of Olongbulukia tsaidamensis, the Olongbuluk beast of the Tsaidam Basin]

Equally exciting is a partial mandible of a large mammal that we could not identify in the field; after discussing with my host advisor, we now believe this specimen might belong to an anthracothere. Anthracotheres are a family of early artiodactyls, and people have suggested they provide the link between hippos and more modern terrestrial hoofed mammals. It would indeed be a very important find if we could confirm its identity; late Miocene anthracotheres have not been found on the Tibetan Plateau, or anywhere else in China.

In other news, we are blessed by the visit of my fellow graduate student from the University of Southern California and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Jingmai O'Connor is spending a month in the IVPP studying Mesozoic birds of China. We shared an office in Los Angeles, and now we share an office in the IVPP for the next month.

[Jingmai working next to mammal fossils from the Tibetan Plateau]



Dragged deeper into winter...

8 December 2008. IVPP, Beijing, China

After a weekend of intense fever, I arrived at my desk this morning feeling a bit wobbly and dehydrated.

Who knew it would be so cold?

[looking southeast from the IVPP, into the rising sun at 0715]

The sky is cloudier today than it has been in the past few days. Perhaps we will get some snow soon. Maybe snow will make it better; at least then I will admit I am not in Los Angeles anymore.

I got some thermals because the infinite layers of T-shirts don't keep me warm anymore.



That is so 2007

2 December 2008. IVPP, Beijing.

Taking a break from writing a paper, I took some unsorted fossils collected from last year and cleaned them. What I did not realize was that while some of these were recovered from the great flood of Hezheng in 2007, others were from the Inner Mongolia locality Baogeda Ula.

[a rhino wrist bone and a antelope horncore from the late Miocene Shengou locality. These specimens were buried in mud in the Hezheng collection and subsequently recovered along with fish fossils]

These are glimpses of what we hope to find during our 2009 Inner Mongolia excavation project; hopefully everything we collect will be more complete and more diverse.

Other than the occasional interruption by graduate students asking me to help translate their Chinese abstracts, research is going well. However, there are simply too many fossils in this building. There is always something I have not seen before, and is worth a look when I walk by someone's office.


This American Life in Beijing

I think there was an official moment over the weekend when I finally realized what I represent.

The Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology has recruited a handful of post-doctoral researchers from outside China in the past two years. The result is the residency of two French post-docs, a Japanese, a Canadian, and a British researcher.

For some reason the Americans (I am referring to U.S. researchers) come and go, and never stay long. At most the IVPP would have all of its former students and research associates who have left China for positions in the U.S. come for meetings and presentations.

So I have somehow become "the American" among the graduate students.

I am sure everything I do adds to their image of an American life: I wake up to jog around Beijing at 6 am; I wear flip-flops in winter; I drink fat-free milk in the morning; I just bought a guitar and I jam in my room.

I know English.

I have been working with half a dozen or so graduate students on translating their abstracts and helping with research methodology more commonly used in the U.S. You can even say that this is my "Fulbright moment", my role as a representative of an American student in a Chinese institution has become very clear.

I think that means I need to get to work! It dawned on me that this is a daunting job.



A short conference on the future of Chinese vertebrate paleontology

18 November 2008. IVPP, Beijing.

Today I participated in a day-long conference highlighting some of the major research projects from a large collaboration between paleontologists at the IVPP and biologists from other Chinese institutions.

A series of presentations highlighted current research in the original of jaw fishes, the Tree of Life project attempt to resolve the evolutionary history of mammals, the fieldwork on the Tibetan Plateau and our understanding of environmental changes during the past 10 million years, the genetic bases for new functions and physical features, and the evolution of digits in dinosaurs.

My impression after the presentations was that the attempt to bring together developmental / molecular biology with paleontology / anatomy is great, but they are two extremes on the spectrum of time and physical scale. What is still lacking is, simply enough, good old ecology and natural history. How do animals do what they do, when do they do it, and where?

Just as many traditional paleontologists focus on skeletal morphology and attempt to extrapolate ecology and behavior, molecular biologists use genetic, cellular, and physiological mechanisms within an organism to expand on how external features and behavior are modified. Both sides could benefit from a more thorough understanding of the living organisms in their ecological context, not only as skeletons or as aqueous forms in a test tube.

The dialogue between the two disciplines is promising, and there is much more to do to bring back what scientists have been doing for centuries: understanding nature from a holistic view point. Charles Darwin was an integrative biologist; he used available evidence, regardless of superficial designation (geology, physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), to test his ideas about the origin of species.

Back to more pressing matter: I am finishing up a major research proposal to ask for money to study European museum collections. The field work and expedition season is coming to an end rapidly, as the weather is getting too cold to wear shorts (who could imagine that?).

The time has come to settle in and do some research; the photos taken will no longer be majestic mountains, but only majestic mountains of papers to read and fossils to study.



Holy smokes! What a day

13 November 2008. Lanjiashan, Hezheng, Gansu Province (China)

What a dramatic day; I live for days like this.

We started the day in the valley of Lanjiashan, where a thick (several hundred meters) progression of the late Miocene Liushu Formation is exposed. We were looking at the boundary between the middle Miocene and the late Miocene.

It started out smoothly, until we came to a gulch that separated a clear set of middle Miocene deposits of sandstone conglomerate and marlite on the north side, and a late Miocene-looking set of brownish red mudstone interspersed by carbonate concretion-rich silty mudstone. We did not see any faults, thus we hypothesized that a large slump obscured the true connection between the sides of the gulch.

From the middle of the valley, our leading geologist called my host advisor Dr. Qiu Zhanxiang in Beijing for consultation; "we are unsure of the true contact between the middle and late Miocene, what is the best way to proceed?". The answer we got was: "Look for index fossil species that are unique to each of the geologic ages".

Sounds easy enough, you think. Isn't that what paleontologists do anyway? Well, it's one thing to look for fossils in the well exposed rock strata on the Tibetan Plateau, where deserts and tundra dominate. However, we were in a lush valley of grasses, crop fields, and vertical cliffs. These factors make fossil prospecting impractical and dangerous.

Danger?! You might get the impression that we are daredevils for doing what we do. But today I was a conservative adventurer. The grasses are slick from the frost, and the drifting snowflakes obscure my view of the steep slope down below me. I had better take it easy so I can make it back to Beijing to continue working on my dissertation.

We spent two hours prospecting in that gulch which separated the different lithologies. Nothing major turned up except for a few small bone fragments.

After a quick lunch of cold "pancakes" and canned fish, we went down a different gulch to examine a greenish layer of laminated sandstone and marlite. Before long, our crew leader Hou Sukuan found complete elements of small vertebrates embedded within the layer.

We gathered at the same stratum, and started hacking away at exposed chunks of rock. Before we could react, we were finding small fossil bones left and right. This was indeed a fossiliferous stratum, and it is the first time in the history of the study of this basin that a group of paleontologists had discovered a micromammal site and collected from it. Most of the fossils known from this region (including all the spectacular hyena skeletons) were taken from local farmers without exact locality and geologic information. We have discovered the first confident data point in the geologic progression of the Linxia Basin.

Four hours later, we came up with a handful of small vertebrate fossils. Shi Qinqin, a Chinese graduate student of my host advisor, had found almost all of the teeth we recovered today. Among them are a few partial mandibles of tiny mammals. School children became curious and watch us from afar as they got out of school and walked through the valley to get home.

After dinner in town, I quickly photographed the best finds from today, and emailed the photos to my good friend and small mammal specialist, Dr. Li Qiang, at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology. He could not wait, and called me (my cell phone service is charging the roaming rate right now) on my cell phone. Of the three main critters with known teeth, one belongs to an ancient lineage of Prosiphneus, a relatively low-crowned rodent known from th middle Miocene. The other two belonged to a small shrew and a large squirrel, respectively.

[Prospihneus-like rodent, surface view above, and side view below; scale bar lines are millimeters]

I will hand-carry the specimens back to Beijing tomorrow on my 19.5 hour train ride. This should stir up some excitement among the small mammal paleontologists in the Institute; we had little idea how the small mammal community of the Linxia Basin compared with other faunas around northern China and the plateau. The paleoenvironmental implications are extremely important because the large mammal species are preserved as spectacular fossils: what environmental conditions provided for this perservation, and what could potentially be the reasons for their extinction?

[A small shrew jaw embedded in the marlite]

[a squirrel tooth seen through a 10x hand lens in the field at the moment of discovery]

I prepare for bed, with endless possibilities to think about, and with an awe for the fascinating phenomena nature provides for the enjoyment and inspiration of naturalists.

I am very much humbled by nature (again).



(un)Happy feet!

12 November 2008. Hezheng, Gansu Province (China)

Today I am staying indoors, away from the rain. I am working on descriptions of the fossil carnivore skeletons for the public outreach program at the Hezheng Museum. Raising awareness about the natural resources in the region and promoting scientific understanding in general are two goals of the new exhibits to be installed early next year here.

A small dilemma was amplified in this cold weather: I brought two pairs of socks, one to wear until filthy, then washed; in the mean while, I would wear the spare pair until the other pair dried. It's been five days and the washed socks are still as wet as the day I washed them.

I am not one to whine constantly about the cleanliness of my attire (actually, you do not want to hear how long I have been wearing my clothes), but the lovely swampy and grassy hillsides of Hezheng made for spectacular falls down muddy slopes. Our fieldwork here is bringing back memories of my field biology days as an undergraduate.

We spent a whole day yesterday in the hills southwest of Hezheng, near Linxia Basin's edge. There we could see the basement granite in the river valley, and trace the progression of Cenozoic deposits from the early Oligocene up to the Pliocene up the mountain. boundaries between the geologic formations have been defined on layers of coarse conglomerates, which are very difficult to correlate from ridge to ridge when the vegetation obscures much of the underlying geologic features.

Our trek took us over foggy peaks, where shepherds roam and livestock dot the slopes. Every half hour we would come across a small earthen hut, which is used for shelter by the shepherds when weather turns unexpectedly. Lucky for us, there was no snow that day.

We ended the day in a small village a few mountains over from where we started. The late afternoon had already brought the chilling fog, prompting the locals to light their stoves for warmth.

On an unrelated note, I took a photo of a pair of carnivores that died together; the large hindlimbs are those of a fossil wolverine, Plesiogulo brachygnathus, whereas the little carcass on its left thigh probably belongs to that of a fossil skunk. The preparators almost got rid of the crushed skunk before realizing it was not fossil junk!



Geologists keep me honest

9 November 2008. Hezheng, Gansu Province, China

This post is for Karin.

Why do I keep talking about fossils and not so much about the geology? Because I am a biologist!

I do have a real excuse; the lithology and stratigraphy of the rich fossil deposits described in my previous post have not been worked out; I overlap with a team of students who are measuring sections in the immediate area exactly for this reason: to clarify the depositional environment and the geology of Hezheng County.

From what we know, we could at least say that all of the fossils come from yellowish to reddish mudstone, sometimes a sparse conglomeratic mudstone. The preservation differs from locality to locality; most of the deposits show signs of transport and sorting by skeletal element size. However, the deposit I visited in Hualin looked like some kind of mass death event, where many complete skeletons of animals were preserved in a catastrophic burial event.

Today was Sunday, so the museum collection was closed; after examining fossils for a whole day on Saturday, I again tagged along with the students to a geologic section adjacent to the very fossiliferous site previously discussed. No major localities are known from this valley which we measured, but it does provide some clue as to the general geology during the late Miocene of this area.

Walking up-section in the late Miocene Liushu Formation, I counted at least 30 layers of light tan mudstone rich in calcareous nodules. These layers are interspersed by deep red mudstone, representing some kind of cyclic deposition. Interestingly, as we went upsection I observed a layer of greenish mudstone overlaying the red mudstone at strange angles of contact. I hypothesized the presence of a Quaternary channel deposit in the Tertiary strata.

The student team will continue to survey the surrounding valleys, but I must continue with my museum work tomorrow; there are a couple more fossil hyena skeletons I need to measure.

[two amazing hyena skeletons in the collection of the Hezheng Museum]

From a frigid museum dormitory,




7 November 2008. Hezheng, Gansu Province

Hezheng County is located in southwestern Gansu Province, very near the Linxia Aotonomous Region for Muslims. As such, the town center in Hezheng has roughly an equal number of Muslims and ethnic Han Chinese.

The town center has two major street end into each other at a right angle; however, most of the county is inhabited by villagers in the surrounding valleys.

We woke up today to a brisk morning, around 3 or 4 degrees Celsius with lots of frost around. It has not snowed for two days, so today we will get to see some geologic exposures without snow in the way.

Although my main goal in Hezheng is to examine new fossil specimens in the local museum, I just could not refuse a chance to see the actual fossil localities. However, these are not typical fossil localities from our work elsewhere. These fossils are dug up by farmer in dangerous makeshift tunnels.

Fortunately, the local government got word of a very rich fossil deposit in the Hualin valley, and designated a new geological park in the area. With a currently estimated area of 120 meters by 80 meters, this is one of the largest bonebeds in the entire Hezheng County.

The bonebed itself is only about 1 meter or so in thickness (see the tannish mudstone containing white bones to the right of the photo above). However, the fossil material (at least what has been exposed) is so complete and concentrated, that it is worth the title of a "Konzentrat-Lagerstätte", or the german term for a highly concentrated fossil deposit of outstanding (dare I say spectacular) preservation.

[an exposed vertebral column of a large mammal]

[two rhino skulls are exposed at the bottom of the photo, with a mandible to the right of Hou Sukuan, who is standing near the top of the photo]

We walked around the protected area for twenty minutes, and as I pondered the enormous amount of complete and rich fossils that beneath my feet, I came across a football-sized block. It turned out to be a hyena skull, a late Miocene bone-cracking Adcrocuta.

Needless to say, I was very impressed (dare I say blown away).

The eventual research on this rich bonebed will reveal much about the paleoenvironment of the time in the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau; the complete hyena skeletons will reveal more about their paleoecology than ever before.

Here I sit on my bed in the museum dormitory, looking out to the hillside, and my mind is full of the possibilities, the potential, and the paleontological revolution that are forthcoming in the continued research of the Hezheng fossils.

I am very, very impressed (again).



Leaving on a heated train

5 November 2008. Beijing, to Lanzhou, Gansu Province

1525. After a week's restful research in the Institute, I am on the road again.

I am catching a train in an hour or so, heading towards the northwestern province of Gansu. Gansu is at the base of the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

After the 19.5 hour train ride, I will arrive in the city of Lanzhou, where I will find a researcher in the Gansu Provincial Museum, who will then accompany me to the fossil-rich area southwest of the city.

The town I am heading to is Hezheng, a small place with a Muslim majority. The daytime high temperature there is supposed to be somewhere around the 40's degree Fahrenheit. I packed the same clothes I used on the Kunlun Mountain Pass, because snow has already arrived at the base of the plateau.

I will spend a little over a week there examining newly discovered fossil hyena skeletons, and accompanying two graduate students to a few geologic outcrops where they are currently working.

I packed my laptop and cross my fingers with the hope that the Hezheng museum will have a functioning internet connection. They already told me they do, but it's rural China and a flash flood could wash the DSL modem away any second.



P.S. I will be thinking about our new president and the future of the world on the train.

Red Rock Canyon

24-26 October 2008. Red Rock Canyon State Park, Mojave Desert, California

We had a great weekend of warm weather and productive prospecting. The notorious wind of Red Rock Canyon was in total absence this past weekend. This made the work of a fossil prospecting crew of 70+ people easier.

[Fall 2008 Staff. Back row (from left): Collin, Jason, Christy, Mike, Robin, Xiaoming, Vanessa. Front row: Matt, Gary, Jack, Dave, Kamaron]

Among the most interesting finds (to me) were a fossil kangaroo rat jaw and a new microfossil locality. Mike Williams (Department of Vertebrate Paleontology) found the very complete lower jaw of Cupidinimus (probably C. tertius) and Dr. Dave Whistler (Curator Emeritus) found a new microsite from where we collected a test sample for screening.

[Dr. Dave collecting matrix from a new microfossil locality]

Of course, Marlene Heyning did not disappoint us. After finding many fossils (including the carnassial of the felid carnivoran Pseudaelurus) in 2004, she made her mark again on Sunday with an antelope foot bone which she carried back to camp by herself.

[Jack, Marlene, Kam, Gary, and Matt smiling for the camera at the conclusion of the weekend trip. No, that's not my pink bandana; I was just borrowing it because I did not bring my hat.]

With bags full of another weekend of memories, I flew back to Beijing on Monday. My long stay in China has begun.



Right back where we started from

19 October 2008. Los Angeles, California.

At the conclusion of the 68th annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Cleveland, Ohio, the paleontologists of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology are on their way back home to California and Beijing, respectively.

The meeting was composed of four full days of presentations, from the early marine vertebrates to the more recent large Pleistocene mammals. One of the foci of this year's meeting was climate change, including a symposium on biotic changes during the past several million years of Earth's history, and a special forum on the scientific community and the public understanding of global warming.

On another note, we welcomed the new president of the society at the banquet this past Saturday night: Dr. Blaire Van Valkenburgh of the University of California, Los Angeles, a carnivore specialist, is our new fearless leader.

We are now back in Los Angeles, and with a few days to spare, we are preparing our annual field trip to examine the rocks of the late Miocene Dove Spring Formation in Red Rock Canyon State Park, in the western Mojave Desert. Our leading paleontologists are: Drs. David Whistler and Xiaoming Wang, and Mr. Gary Takeuchi.

We hope to see you there!


Beijing - Los Angeles - Cleveland

13 October 2008. Beijing, China

The annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is just around the corner. This year the conference is being held in Cleveland, Ohio.

I spent the weekend before the conference hiking and dining with friends from the IVPP and the Fulbright Program.

I have been defeated by the Calorie-packed Chinese food in the past two months; even with daily jogs I have not been able to keep my weight down...what's tasty in Cleveland?



Tuosu lakers

As I unwrap our new specimens collected this field season and clean them for storage, some fascinating patterns began to emerge:

[washed fossils being dried]

It turns out that we collected specimens representing all three of Birger Bohlin's horned artiodactyls described from the Tuosu Lake area. Two of the species were named after the twin lakes Tuosu and Keluke, and the third after the Olongbuluk Mountain.

[The Tuosu Lake beast, Tosunnoria]

The black and white photo in each set was taken from Bohlin's (1937) original description of these critters.

[The Kelike Lake beast, Qurliqnoria]

[The Olongbuluk Mountain beast, Olongbulukia]

Approximately 33% of the specimens have been unwrapped and boxed; this work will continue to reveal the true extent of our discoveries this year.


A weekday hike in western Beijing

28 September 2008. Fenghuangling, Beijing

On the first day of a week-long Chinese national holiday, ten professors and students took a morning hike to the top of Fenghuangling (Phoenix Mountain 凤凰岭).

The Mesozoic granite rises among the lush cypress to form a steep and majestic wall cradling Beijing from the west.

After the holidays, weekly hikes in the mountains of Beijing will resume well into the winter months.

Beijing has been particularly smoggy over the past few days, making morning jogs more difficult than usual. A hint of Los Angeles is in the air today as the city operates in a dusty veil with increasingly heavy traffic.


Field moment: Energy

Burning on thin air at high altitude.


I am very, very impressed

25 September 2008 IVPP, Beijing.

I saw the first complete skeleton of the giant hyena Dinocrocuta gigantea this morning.

The head-body length of this individual is over 6 feet long (1.9 meters), the skull itself is 17 inches long (43 centimeters).

This skeleton is just one of the new discoveries coming out of Hezheng, the little town in southern Gansu Province that has produced the most spectacular late Miocene hyaenid specimens in China over the past 15 years.

The skeleton is to be studied by IVPP scientists and photos could be released after consultation.

This is a lion-sized hyena in an extinct fauna that did not contain large is very likely that the lion's present day reign in Africa was not supreme throughout the Old World.

I am awestruck.

Field moment: behind the lens

Catching a glimpse of passing scenery.


The month in review



Kunlun Mountain