AMNH, Day 5 (final day)

18 December 2009. New York, NY

The day began rather cold, around -12 C. I got to the museum by 0840, to look over the remaining exhibits that I have not visited. I began working promptly at 0930, unpeeling the borophagine molds I made the day before.

[exhibits: a west coast Native American boat stretching the length of the south entrance foyer]

[Friday morning cleaning of the elephants by exhibits staff, quite a sight to see the immense size of these mammals with a human scale]

After the borophagine molds are all done, I picked another batch of teeth to clean. I turned my attention to hyaenids, which will take longer to clean for the thick glue present on most specimens.

[a cast of the holotype of "Peking Man" Homo erectus, part of the batch of specimens lost in World War II during the evacuation of important scientific specimens from Beijing to the U.S.]

[the only reconstruction of the "Peking Man" locality of Zhoukoudian I have seen with a model and painting of the giant hyena Pachycrocuta brevirostris stalking the hominine Homo erectus]

By 1300 (more than three hours later), I finally finished cleaning the hyaenid teeth. While waiting for the second-round molds to set, I went upstairs to pack my tools into a box to mail back to LACM, so that on the way back I can carry everything else directly onboard, without worrying about losing my baggage (again).

1530. I am done with everything I set out to accomplish in New York on this trip. I cleaned up my work area, and went downstairs to see the three special exhibits (frogs, extreme mammals, and the Silk road). I bought a Dunkleosteus toy for my fiancee, and a wooden carved camel for myself.

[exhibits: a skull of the giant archaic mesonychid Andrewsarchus mongoliensis on display in the extreme mammals special exhibit; it's the length of my leg!]

[exhibits: a model of the giant perissodactyl Indricotherium stands in front of the entrance to the extreme mammals special exhibit. The animal stood around 18 feet at the shoulder]

I went up to Dr. Ni's office before the museum closed, and sat down to do some last-minute microscope photographs of enamel microstructure on his fancy microscope system. I photographed a few teeth of Osbornodon renjiei (a hesperocyonine dog named by now LACM curator Dr. Xiaoming Wang), and called it done.

Dr. Ni rode the subway with me until I had to get off at 103rd Street. We bid farewell, and promised our next meeting in Beijing (he is returning to Beijing in February for several months to do research, and will probably overlap with our 2010 field season in China).

[the subway station gateway to the American Museum of Natural History at 81st Street]

Verbatim from my field notes on the last night in New York:
"This trip has been very productive overall, but my stay in the hostel was a lot less than pleasant; the data collected should allow a preliminary conclusion to be made from my dissertation research, while pointing to areas that will require additional data collection to improve."

My flight for Edmonton is (so far) on time for departure, connecting in Toronto mid-day tomorrow. A snowstorm is headed for New York from the south, and I cross my fingers hoping to escape another round of chaos!

[waiting to leave NYC at New York JFK International Airport]

Live from New York City, it's Jack with another research trip!


AMNH, Day 4

17 December 2009. New York, NY

I spent the day working on both enamel microstructure and molding specimens for microwear.

[exhibits: the spacious east entrance to the museum]

Last night I called Delta Airline, the delivery company, and spoke with the hostel staff where I was staying about my baggage again (it has become a routine since the beginning of this trip). Someone at the hostel was actually responsible enough to check their storeroom. And behold! They had my lost baggage there all along, and no one had bothered to check on it even after I inquired about it more than 10 times over the course of 4 days! Ok, calm thoughts, happy thoughts, channel the fury into research energy...

After my routine exhibit hopping in the early morning, I picked out the specimens suitable for molding, and tried to get in touch with Ms. Jeanne Kelly, the chief preparator in the Division of Paleontology. I needed to work with her to pick the best chemical to clean the surface of the teeth with to achieve 1) the cleanest tooth surface possible and 2) the safest technique by not damaging any specimens.

[exhibits: the reptiles hall with a very large snake skeleton]

[exhibits: a mount of the largest living lizard, the komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis]

I did not find her until after lunch, so I spent the morning hours examining microstructure of hesperocyonine dogs (I did not plan on doing it, but hey I have the time, so why not?). I had lunch at the "Shake Shack" just southwest of the museum's south entrance with Dr. Ni. At noon the temperature was chilly and a few degrees below zero (Celsius).

[the chilly south entrance of the American Museum of Natural History on a December noon]

In the afternoon I met with Jeanne and she set me up with my own supply of cotton swabs, gauss, acetone, and ethyl alcohol for cleaning teeth. Since some of the specimens in the Frick Collection were collected over 100 years ago, Jeanne said, there is no detailed record on what glue the previous preparators used on all specimens. Thus it took some experimentation and tenacity to get the surface clean.

I spent about two hours scrubbing teeth. Once the 20 specimens I chose were clean, I examined their microstructure before molding with a small applicator gun for two rounds. The first round cleaned off any remaining particles on the surface, and the second round molds are carried back home for casting.

[the chosen specimens being cleaned before the teeth are molded with a high resolution dental impression kit]

I returned to my hostel room with slightly swollen fingers from scrubbing teeth all afternoon, but slept without a worry as my research plan seem right on track now with the commencement of the tooth-molding.

One more day of full-on research and it's back home for Christmas; TGIF!



AMNH, Day 3

16 December 2009. New York, NY

I spent essentially the entire day working on enamel microstructure. After a quick breakfast, I went to the museum and spent another hour (0840~0940) going through the exhibits. Then I went upstairs to examine borophagine enamel, which from Archaeocyon to Borophagus was all done by lunchtime.

[exhibits: the wall of biodiversity, where representatives from all major groups of animals and plants are placed side-to-side for an impressive display of life as we know it; it's displays like this that highlight what a museum can do to inspire wonder!]

[exhibits: the horse evolution section of the fossil mammal hall; the extinct three-toed horse Hipparion raises high above its relatives. I was surprised not to see a skeleton of Hipparion on display; they are relatively common and AMNH sure has the resources to obtain one!]

As far as I could tell, the sky was actually clear this morning. However with wind chill the temperature was still only a few degrees above zero (Celsius). I continued working on microstructure after lunch and finished Epicyon and the rest of Borophagus before moving on to the hyaenids.

[oh I was just studying hyenas when the cabinet next door revealed the holotype of Barbourofelis morrisi; we (LACM) found the first upper teeth of the smaller B. whitfordi in the Dove Spring Formation of southern California...the study is being published in the next issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology]

Unfortunately much of the Shanxi hyaenid collection was covered in thick layers of shellac or glyptol (or whatever consolidant they were using in 1920's China!). As a result there was a lot of glare on the tooth surface which meant I could not see the microstructure on many of the specimens.

[examination of enamel microstructure involves shining bright light on fossil teeth to illuminate the internal structure; it takes a lot of tweaking to get the lighting right, and for sure gives you nausea at the end of the day]

By 1600 I was essentially done with microstructure analysis; I had planned to spend the next two days molding specimens for microwear analysis, but that hinges on whether my bag arrives or not!

[a table full of loan tags shows the number of specimens examined each day; a good chunk of the research time involved writing up withdrawal tags so temporarily removed specimens don't get lost. It is a time-consuming but crucial step in good house-keeping and curation]

1720. I wrapped up work a little early today and went downstairs to the Hall of Sea Life with Dr. Ni Xijun to attend the annual holiday party of the AMNH. I was lucky enough to catch it on my trip. In addition to the free food, I got the chance to greet Mark Norell and John Flynn, two of the paleontologists on staff at the museum. Apparently I also shook hands with the AMNH director, but I did not know her by name or by face.

[the Hall of Sea Life the morning before the annual AMNH holiday party]

All in all a good day of work, food, and schmoozing.

Please, I need my bag by tomorrow!



AMNH, Day 2

15 December 2009. New York, NY.

0900. I hopped on the "C" Train going south-bound on Central Park West and got to the museum before my start time of 0930. With some time to kill, I headed straight for the mammal exhibits. I figured by visiting a few exhibits every morning before work I could get everything in without losing valuable research time.

[exhibit: a diorama of African hunting dogs Lycaon pictus looking into the distance for prey]

[exhibit: an impressive display of a growth series of the dinosaur Protoceratops discovered in Mongolia by the Central Asiatic Expeditions in the 1920s]

0930-1240. I continued to photograph the specimens of borophagine dogs, and after that was done I proceeded to the cabinets (4 of them) holding hesperocyonine dogs. Hesperocyoninae is a sub-family of dogs that was ancestral to borophagines and the modern canines we know as dogs, wolves, foxes, jackals, and their relatives. Most of the hesperocyonines I photographed are Oligocene in age, with a few ranging into the early Miocene.

A peek outside during lunchtime revealed overcast skies with temperature around 3-5 degrees C (37-40 F). I am not to sad to be indoors...just saving outdoor playing time for when I am in California!

[exhibit: a mounted skeleton of the little known marine mammal Palaeoparadoxia; our very own 2010 mammal hall in the LACM will feature a comparably complete skeleton of this genus from our own California coast!]

The afternoon began with an overview of the Chinese hyenas in the American Museum collection; several species of the Hyaenidae were jackal-like, wolf-like, and mongoose-like in their appearance, as discovered by previous researchers. For this reason, hyaenids are interesting parallels to study if one were to understand the ecological evolution of true dogs.

[a cart full of hyena heads for photographing...many of them from China, and some from Greece]

I photographed 28 specimens in the afternoon, mostly hyaenids from the famous Baode locality in Shanxi Province, China. After all the photographing is done, it was 1700 and I still had some time to kill before I have to leave the museum. So, I went up to the 10th floor of the Frick Building (the building with all the mammal fossils) and chatted it up with Dr. Ni Xijun, having some great green tea in the process.

[exhibit: the AMNH's diorama on the living spotted hyena Crocuta crocuta is larger than ours in the LACM; however, both are equally unflattering by showing the hyena as a scavenger. Spotted hyenas are specialized hunters that are smart enough to scavenge (they are not obligate scavengers like the vultures)]

Writing up the day's work in my fieldbook (yes I treat museum visits much like fieldwork; it's the best way to get a lot done in a limited amount of time), I realized that my luggage still has not arrived. Since I am done with photographing, I would begin the next phase in my data collection - examining teeth under the microscope for microstructure differences. This next task will take me at least a whole day, so hopefully the rest of my equipment will arrive by beginning of Day 4 in order for me to stay on track to clean and mold a sample of teeth to make casts for examination of surface scratches as an indication of the fossil dogs' and hyenas' diet.

[my hands are shaking with is the holotype specimen of Tunggurictis spocki, an early hyena found in the Tunggur Formation of central Inner Mongolia discovered by the Central Asiatic Expedition]

Tired, hopeful, but a tiny bit frustrated at Delta Airline for my delayed bag,



AMNH, Day 1

14 December 2009. New York City, USA

After flying out of Edmonton on the coldest December 13 on record (-46.1 C or -51 F), I spent the day on two flights with a less-than-pleasant 2-minute connection window in Minneapolis. I arrived in New York JFK International Airport at 2230.

I am to spend the week studying fossil dogs and hyenas in the famed Frick Collection of the American Museum of Natural History.

[east entrance of the American Museum of Natural History, with three of their current special exhibits advertised on banners]

On my first day I spent about one hour waiting for security to process my ID badge, and did not get around to studying the fossil specimens until 1100. I met the very nice Ms. Judy Galkin, who is in charge of the plethora of visitors requesting to see the fossil mammal and fish collection of the museum every year. I also greeted Drs. Jin Meng and Xijun Ni, both of whom I have met before in Beijing, China.

[Theodore Roosevelt Park, adjacent to the AMNH]

There are more than 50 cabinets of fossil dogs and 10 cabinets of fossil hyenas in the Frick Collection; each cabinet holding seven to ten trays of specimens. I though only briefly about the daunting task before me, and immediately began working. My goal is to photograph all undeformed skulls, examine under the microscope all lightly-colored teeth which show enamel microstructure, and mold five specimens of each major genus for microwear analysis of the lower teeth.

[the holotype specimen of Borophagus parvus, too crushed for geometric morphometrics analysis, but nonetheless very impressive to see on my first morning there]

Winter is pretty unremarkable around Central Park and the Museum; without the cover of snow (at least not at this time last week) to brighten the stern buildings, Central Park West at 79th was like an old man without cheery spirit. Spring brings much more energy to the neighborhood, the museum staffs say. Now be the season to work indoors perhaps?

[looking west into Central Park from the front steps of the AMNH east entrance]



Any town with a museum could be a town to call home

2 December 2009. Edmonton, AB, Canada.

I spent a good part of the day photographing mammal skulls in the University of Alberta Museum of Zoology ("UAMZ").

[this is not a skull, but a pangolin Manis fetus specimen preserved in a jar; note the body armor already developing on the fetus]

I was there to collect data on modern carnivores of the North American ecological communities, from the smallest living carnivore least weasel Mustela nivalis to one of the largest bears, Ursus arctos. The data from these modern carnivores serve as a basis for understanding the cranial shape of fossil canids that dominated the landscape millions of years ago (particularly during the Miocene).

[busily working in the mammal range]

Besides the excellent large mammal collection, I was comforted to see the bird and fish collections as well...the museum houses a locally sampled vertebrate collection, tucked into a corner of the 10th to 12th floors of the Biological Sciences building on campus. It was such a quiet place to work (after acclimating yourself to the hum of the cold room) that one could almost forget the ongoing construction of the new biology wing and the bitter cold outside.

[a very large grizzly Ursus arctos skull being photographed for morphometric analysis]

A museum is a museum...I returned home with a camera's worth of photos for analysis, and a renewed sense of appreciation for halls of bones and pickled lizards throughout the world. Museums are invaluable time capsules of biological and cultural change on this planet we call home.

[part of the wet fish collection at UAMZ]

[the small pelt room that smelled of my LACM home]

A heart-felt salute to the museums of the world!



A day at the provincial museum

22 November 2009. Edmonton, AB, Canada.

We finally made it to the Royal Alberta Museum across the river from the University of Alberta on Sunday, four months after settling down in this northern town.

I was quite pleased with the natural history exhibits at the museum; albeit a small museum by metropolitan standards, the RAM had the essential outreach and interactive programs that could educate visitors about the local wildlife history. In a oiltown such as this one, a nature program like this is more than one could ask for.

[the front entrance emblem of the Royal Alberta Museum, standing along the road on a chilly November morning.]

[the outreach classroom "Field Station" where presentations on local wildlife by outreach instructors are held.]

[a well-made (and gory) exhibit station on the process of decomposition and cycling of nutrients in nature.]

[one of the several panels showing the local freshwater fishes of the North Saskatchewan River; clockwise from top right: northern pike Esox lucius, burbot Lota lota, Iowa darter Etheostoma exile, spoonhead sculpin Cottus ricei, walleye Stizostedion vitreum, sauger Stizostedion canadense, trout-perch Percopsis omiscomaycus, and brook stickback Culaea inconstans.]

[a diorama of a family of coyotes Canis latrans living in the sand dunes of the Alberta plains.]

[a diorama of the pronghorn, Antilocapra americana, grazing on the prairies.]

I must also say that the taxidermy was beautifully done, and just as pretty as our own mounts in the North American Mammal Halls.

[a giant extinct beaver, Castoroides ohioensis of the Plio-Pleistocene Epochs. The skeleton is about the size of a large dog.]

Our day concluded with a Charles Darwin skit put on by their very own museum staff; the scene was set in 1859 with the publication of the Origin of Species and Darwin's apprehension regarding feedback of his work from the scientific and religious communities.

Just like Vitamin-D, a healthy dose of natural history learning from time to time is good for everyone.



New article on jaw mechanics published

6 November 2009. Edmonton, AB, Canada.

A new study on the mandibular biomechanics of the extinct hyena-like Dinocrocuta gigantea has been published online (advance of print) in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. The authors are Zhijie Jack Tseng from the University of Southern California and Dr. Wendy Binder from Loyola Marymount University; both are associates of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

This new paper is complementary to an earlier one on the cranium of Dinocrocuta published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Main findings combining data from both studies suggest that the cranium of Dinocrocuta matches that of modern spotted hyena Crocuta in its performance even at a sub-adult stage. However, the same is not true for the jaws; the sub-adult Dinocrocuta dentary is structurally weaker compared to a sub-adult Crocuta, and may present evidence of differential ontogenetic trajectories in the two carnivorans.




Red Rock Canyon Family Trip

29 October to 1 November, 2009. Red Rock Canyon State Park, Mojave Desert, CA

It's that time of the year again.

Enthusiastic kids and adults joined a 14-member museum staff for a beautiful weekend in Red Rock Canyon State Park for fossil prospecting.

This year was more productive than our last trip, in part thanks to winter rainfall in the park during the past season. We found remains ranging from mole to beardogs, from pronghorns to camels.

We will post specimens from this past trip as they are prepped and curated in the LACM Vertebrate Paleontology Collection!



New study in progress: a history of exploration

23 October 2009. Edmonton, AB, Canada.

A new study on the history of early exploration in the Quanshuiliang area (our most recent site) is in preparation. The study, led by Dr. Xiaoming Wang, re-examines the fossil localities and their geology in the context of a more modern framework.

The earliest explorations in the Quanshuiliang area was conducted by Swedish geologist Birger Bohlin; he was known as an all-around field scientist, often recording geography, geology, and paleontology of the areas he visit in greater detail than was customary for his time. Dr. Xiaoming Wang visited several archives in Sweden that hold Bohlin's original field notes, and reconstructed what Bohlin though he knew (and what we actually know today) about the locality area we call Quanshuiliang (and what Bohlin called the "General Strips").

[a 3D topological view of the Quansuiliang field area in the foreground, with the Olongbuluk mountains in the background; the new transect measured by our geologists in September 2009 is marked in red. Photo view is looking west]

Then, with the input of the Qaidam Basin expedition team members, we incorporated the geological and paleontological data gained from fieldwork in the region during the past decade to get a more current summary of our understanding of the area. One conclusion is that this is a very important area to explore a possible First Appearance Datum (FAD) of the three-toed horse Hipparion in east Asia (these horses immigrated to the Old World somewhere around 11.1 million years ago; we have some specimens right here in southern California that are very closely related to those first immigrants).

Please look forward to the findings in a future issue of the IVPP journal Vertebrate PalAsiatica!



A new discovery from Tibet

6 October 2009. Edmonton, AB Canada

The 2009 expedition led by Dr. Qiang Li of the IVPP to the Zhada Basin in western Tibet yielded a new discovery very dear to my heart...

On the third day after the small team of seven arrived in the basin, they were prospecting along the badlands of the Zhada wash when team member Dr. Min Zhao came to a pile of scattered bones and teeth.

[part of the face of a hitherto unknown carnivoran on the Tibetan Plateau]

They were fragments of a fossil hyena. Unfortunately, only bits of the cranium were preserved; and although the dentary bones are more complete, the teeth are very busted.

[right dentary]

This exciting discovery awaits my next visit to Beijing. From the loss of p1, relatively slender premolars, very reduced P4 protocone and m1 metacone, and a three-cusped m1 talonid, I am guessing this beast belongs somewhere in the lineage of the hyena Chasmaporthetes.

Even though we still don't have a very good idea what the exact vertical distribution of mammal fossils is in the basin (or how much time the entire sequence encompasses), we are somewhere in the Plio-Pleistocene as the small mammals (mostly pikas) show.

[left dentary]

Interestingly, Chasmaporthetes is the only hyena to have made it to North America, the rest of the family confined to the Old World from Africa to East Asia. Chasmaporthetes and their relatives (Hyaenictis and Lycyaena) are found in East Asia in eastern China and the Siwaliks of India, but they have never been found on the Tibetan Plateau.

[pile o' hyena teeth; can't wait to put them back together]

Was the Tibetan Plateau such a barrier that large mammals that were widespread throughout the late Cenozoic of Eurasia were not present on that raised land in the middle of Asia? Some endemic bovids (see previous post) seem to support this point, but others like this new hyena challenge the idea of an isolated plateau fauna (or rather, refine the timing and extent of various isolation events). The story is probably complicated as current fossils show, and will take much additional work by future expeditions to tease out.

For now, I am content with a new hyena occurrence that we can point to and say: see, it was supposed to be there, we just didn't look hard enough...



Meet the family

25 September 2009. Edmonton, AB, Canada,

The field activities of the IVPP-LACM party have officially come to a conclusion in 2009; even though individuals of our team may take trips throughout the world (Dr. Li Qiang is going to visit Russia next month), large-scale expedition will not resume until 2010.

That means all of us are now back in the office and/or laboratory, and thus begins our "other" life as indoor paleontologists. This is the time to reflect and research.

I have an ongoing project examining the skull biomechanics of extinct canids, the group so dear to Dr. Xiaoming Wang's heart (after all, he wrote a whole book about it). After scanning specimens from various museums over the past several years, a decent skull lineup of canid representatives is now ready to be analyzed.

[from left: Hesperocyon gregarius, Mesocyon coryphaeus, Borophagus secundus, Epicyon haydeni, and Canis lupus]

Five skulls of basal (Hesperocyon) to very derived (Borophagus) to modern (Canis) dogs are being analyzed digitally to reveal how their skulls are (or aren't) adapted to bone-cracking. The results will be useful in comparisons with the hyaenids which have extraordinary adaptations for consuming bone.