In New Mexico, Fossil Hunting Is A Family Affair

Ryan Williamson crouches down looking for fossils while his brother Taylor prospects behind him. (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Ryan Williamson crouches down looking for fossils while his brother Taylor prospects behind him. (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

It’s early summer after their sophomore year at the University of New Mexico, time for a brief break before their seasonal jobs at Cliff’s Amusement Park begin, but Ryan and Taylor Williamson have decided to unwind in a way most 20 year olds wouldn’t typically chose—coming into the field to go fossil hunting with their dad.

Ryan and Taylor are twins who bear only a small resemblance physically, but as they start their playful banter and joking, it is clear they share DNA and the exact same sense of humor. Most of their conversations are made up of movie quotes and jokes, sometimes difficult for an outsider to break in to. They are fairly typical college-going 20 year olds—except for the part where they spend weeks each summer accompanying their father hunting for fossils in the deserts of New Mexico.

Their father, Tom Williamson, has been a curator at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science since 1994. He took up this post after he obtained his PhD at the University of New Mexico in 1993. Tom, an expert on Paleocene mammals, has amassed a vast collection of fossils from the San Juan Basin of New Mexico with the help of his sons.

Tom Williamson examines a fossil find (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Tom Williamson examines a fossil find (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

Both Ryan and Taylor have a level of knowledge about the outdoors that can only come from practically being raised in the desert. “The first time dad took us into the field we were 5 years old,” Taylor remembers. “It took us years to get good at climbing and spotting fossil localities.” When I asked them what continues to motivate them to find fossils, they look at each other and laugh “It’s always sibling rivalry.”

Ryan Williamson (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Ryan Williamson (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

Sitting on the outcrop one afternoon chatting and tossing rocks, Tom and Ryan reminiscence about a time when Ryan was much younger—probably only 8 or 9 years old—and he found an important fossil on a loosely consolidated hill and ran over to show his dad: “I asked Ryan where he got it and he pointed to the hill that now had a giant skid mark from where he slid down right over where the fossil came from!” Now a decade later, Ryan and his brother are expert fossil collectors who have an unbelievably keen eye and keep more copious field notes than most career academics.

Taylor Williamson (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Taylor Williamson (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

“I don’t feel like an academic,” Ryan says, as he talks about why he has decided to get a BFA in film from the University of New Mexico instead of pursuing science. Not only do they have a keen eye for fossils, but an artistic eye too, as both Taylor and Ryan are extremely talented photographers, which they often practice in the field.

“In the beginning, I was more obsessed with dinosaurs than Taylor,” Ryan remembers, but now it seems their roles are reversed.

While Ryan isn’t majoring in science, Taylor on the other hand was frustrated when he started finding so many fossils and couldn’t identify them. This interest has lead him to a dual major in biology and evolutionary anthropology. A real aficionado of anatomy, Taylor often talks about animals he has come across in the desert, talking excitedly about a dead horse he found in the field one year the way only a real natural historian would. “I came back the next year to pick it up…then I spent time boiling it, cleaning it off…now it is in my backyard.”

Taylor Williamson searches for fossils (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Taylor Williamson searches for fossils (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

Back on the outcrop, Taylor finds some pieces of a partial mammal skeleton. They all jokingly argue about who will get out their GPS first to mark a new fossil site, and who will get the credit for finding the fossil. Tom and his sons frequently reminisce about fossil skeletons they have found in years past. Moments like this it is apparent why they come out to the field for reasons beyond the fossils—to spend time together. “It’s a great time to spend with our dad, since we don’t usually see him a lot,” says Ryan.

Often professional paleontologists are asked who is allowed to look for fossils —the answer is anyone. Collectors like Ryan and Taylor show that curiosity is the primary driving force that makes a great paleontologist. As they get older and take on their own identities and embark on new paths in life, it doesn’t seem like either one of them wants to give up a chance to head out into the New Mexico desert, as Taylor told me, “we’ll keep coming to the field as long as we can.”

This post originally appeared on forbes.com/science 

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Ancient Fossils Unearthed On Trek To Antarctica

The Antarctic landscape (Photo by A. West)

What do icebreakers, helicopters, and bright red down parkas with fur-lined hoods all have in common? If you are a fossil hunter in Antarctica like Abagael West, these are all necessary supplies for her job. To the envy of most people, her job is to explore one of the most remote places on the planet in search of 75 million year old fossils that represent a time when this barren, desolate place was warm and teeming with life.

West is a graduate student at Columbia University and the America Museum of Natural History who this past winter joined The Antarctic Peninsula Paleontology Project (AP3), a 12 person team of paleontologists from places like the Carnegie Museum, University of Queensland, and UT Austin who have gone on multiple expeditions over the past several years to explore the fossil-bearing rocks of Antarctica. I met up with her in her office at the American Museum of Natural History in the middle of Manhattan, an admittedly stark contrast to her recent Antarctic surroundings, and asked her to recount some of her experiences chasing down one of the last great fossil frontiers.

An Antarctic selfie (Photo by A. West)
An Antarctic selfie (Photo by A. West)

It all started on the first day of February this year. The team met up in Punta Arenas, Chile—the jumping off point for the US Antarctic Program (USAP). West and the other paleontologists spent time in Punta Arenas getting ready for their sea voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula, making sure they didn’t forget anything they’d need on their month long camping excursion and meeting their research and support staff.

“We got extreme cold weather gear from the USAP, things like gortex pants, fluffy snow boots, wellingtons which were useful for getting on and off the boat,” West said. They were also issued the famous red USAP puffy jackets, gloves, and hats. With the gear set and the food packed up (mostly dry goods but also an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables) the team was ready to get on the Nathaniel Palmer, the larger of the two USAP icebreaker ships.

The trip from Chile to the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula was about 5 days, with 1 of those each way crossing the infamous rough seas of the Drake Passage. Seasickness? “You get used to it,” West said, also noting Dramamine was a big help during this portion of the journey.

Once the journey was over, they were all dropped off on the desolate ice-covered landscapes of James Ross Island and Vega Island—locations where fossils have previously been found but still hold many more secrets of a late Cretaceous shallow sea. Every day the paleontologists had to hike more than 6 miles just to get to the fossil sites, but their trip was more than worth it.

The only wildlife of the trip (Photo by A. West)
The only wildlife of the trip (Photo by A. West)

“In these rocks we found birds, fish, sharks, and plenty of marine reptiles,” West described, “and other cool fossils we found were interesting plants, ammonites, bivalves, and sea urchins.” Although it wasn’t too cold when the team was there during the Antarctic summer (around 40 degrees Fahrenheit), the harsh windy environment of Vega Island makes it ripe for erosion, which is ideal for revealing fossils. “Every day we would go back, there would be something new to find.”

During the Cretaceous this rock was formed in a shallow sea—meaning there are loads of marine fossils, and especially marine reptiles like plesiosaurs. “Big chunks of plesiosaur are weathering out all over the place,” said West, who then explained they were lucky because they did not have to carry this material all the way back to camp when they found it because they had a helicopter at their disposal.

Analysis Of Ancient Eggshells Reveals Body Temperature Of Dinosaurs

Analysis Of Ancient Eggshells Reveals Body Temperature Of Dinosaurs

When talking about body temperature regulation methods of animals both living and extinct, there is more than just “warm or cold-blooded”. Birds and placental mammals are the stereotypical warm-blooded animals, and reptiles are well-known cold-blooded creatures. But then there animals like echidnas and great white sharks that can modulate their average body temperatures by as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, making them something between warm and cold-blooded. And now, a new study in Nature Communications by University of California researcher Rob Eagle and co-authors (including me!) indicates some speciess of dinosaur may have been too.

Scientists use the terms endothermy and ectothermy to refer to the primary methods of body temperature regulation in vertebrates. An endotherm is an organism that generates heat internally to maintain a constant body temperature while an ectotherm relies on external or environmental heat sources. To make matters more complicated, there are organisms that have an intermediate state called “mesothermy”—meaning these animals use internal heat to raise their temperature, but not as high as a typical endotherm.

A life reconstruction of an oviraptorid nest by Doyle Trankina and Gerald Grellet-Tinner. (Image via UCLA)
A life reconstruction of an oviraptorid nest by Doyle Trankina and Gerald Grellet-Tinner. (Image via UCLA)

Modern birds are standard endotherms, but what does this mean for extinct bird relatives like dinosaurs? Obtaining the body temperature of an extinct non-avian dinosaur known only from fossils may seem impossible, but with a new isotope technique, it isn’t at all. The hard shells of both dinosaur and bird eggs are made out of a mineral called calcium carbonate, which is comprised of the elements calcium, carbon, and oxygen.

When digested with acid, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released from the eggshell mineral, and the mass of the CO2 produced is measured with a machine called a mass spectrometer. Specific isotopes of carbon and oxygen produce a certain mass of CO2, and the amount of CO2 with that mass can indicate the temperature of mineral formation. Paleontologists call this method “clumped isotope analysis”. As eggs are formed inside the body of a female dinosaur, the temperature of eggshell calcium carbonate formation should be indicative of the animal’s body temperature.

In this study, the eggshells of two types of dinosaurs were analyzed: oviraptorid theropod dinosaurs from Mongolia and titanosaurid sauropods from Argentina. A wide variety of eggshells from modern birds and reptiles were tested to make sure this method was accurately measuring the body temperatures of these animals.

The “paleothermometer” reading from the clumped isotopes indicates something really interesting—these dinosaurs don’t seem to simply be “warm” or “cold” blooded. While the titanosaurid sauropod had a body temperature similar to a large living endotherm at 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit, the measured body temperature of the oviraptorid dinosaurs from Mongolia were considerably lower. The body temperature of a typical endotherm is at least 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit but the body temperature measured from the oviraptorid eggshell is 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This is lower than most modern mammals and birds. Due to the fact these eggshells were carefully analyzed for alteration and were found to preserve original mineral crystals, this low body temperature is likely an accurate signal. This suggests that these dinosaurs may have not been as warm as typical modern endotherms, but also weren’t completely ectothermic.

Where I collected fossils in Mongolia's Gobi Desert (Photo by Shaena Montanari)
Where I collected fossils in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert (Photo by Shaena Montanari)

I was involved in this paper as I am a paleontologist interested in using geochemistry to examine fossils and traces from dinosaurs—like eggshells. The oviraptors eggshells in this study were samples that I analyzed for environmental signals for my dissertation research. I collected these eggshells during my time doing field work in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. When I was walking around the Gobi I noticed these pieces of eggshells were everywhere but they weren’t being used for anything—so why not analyze them for isotopes and learn more about the environment of this habitat 80 million years ago?

While my research focused on just carbon and oxygen isotope ratios, I saw these eggshells were also great targets for this clumped isotope body temperature research, so I was fortunate to collaborate with Rob Eagle and other colleagues. Clumped isotopes are a gateway to understanding shifts in modes of vertebrate metabolism in a way we never thought possible before. Now knowing that some dinosaurs had an “intermediate” state of body heat regulation adds a new layer of understanding to the dinosaur-bird evolutionary transition.

Originally posted on forbes.com/science 

What We’ve Learned About Dinosaurs Since Jurassic Park Came Out

Days away from the theatrical release of Jurassic World, the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park series, paleontologists and dinosaur lovers alike are eagerly awaiting the return of the most beloved dinosaur franchise in film history. As a professional dinosaur lover, I’ve been having fun revisiting what the scientific community has learned from the fossil record since the first Jurassic Park to see what this new film appears to get right about dinosaurs and where it diverges from the consensus.

Scientists have known for decades that dinosaurs are related to birds and were most assuredly covered in feathers. Even though dinosaurs were being depicted in illustrations with feathery coatings as early as the late 1970s, it was not until the early 1990s that the mounting comparative anatomical evidence from fossil discoveries elevated the hypothesis of birds being avian dinosaurs to near universal acceptance in the paleontological community.

CHRIS PRATT stars as Owen in "Jurassic World". Steven Spielberg returns to executive produce the long-awaited next installment of his groundbreaking "Jurassic Park" series. Colin Trevorrow directs the epic action-adventure, and Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley join the team as producers. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment © 2015 Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Actor Chris Pratt stars as Owen in “Jurassic World,” the next installment of Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” series. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment.

Before this, dinosaurs were depicted in the media as being more similar to crocodiles—scaly, lumbering tail-draggers. Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park in the late 1980s before most of these theories had gained mass media appeal, but the book and the movie helped to make it more commonplace to illustrate dinosaurs as faster, more gracile, feathered creatures. The days of B-side horror films with tail-dragging dinosaurs were officially over. As a “flock” of Gallimimus runs by Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park, he watches their fast, graceful movement and behavior, leans over to the children and says to them, “Bet you’ll never look at birds the same way again.”

Old, out-dated illustration of T. rex with incorrect posture and wrong skull shape. Illustration by Charles Knight (Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Old, out-dated illustration of T. rex with incorrect posture and wrong skull shape. Illustration by Charles Knight (Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Legendary paleontologist Jack Horner was the official paleontological consultant (and partial character inspiration) for the original 1993 Spielberg film and can be thanked for the accurate depiction of dinosaurs as bird relatives. Despite having a paleontologist on board and the evidence showing that dinosaurs were in fact feathered, the dinosaurs in every Jurassic Park film are merely scaled. Artistic license is mainly responsible for this omission—at the time feathered dinosaurs just did not seem scary. Also then, paleontologists did not know the full scope and breadth of feathers on the evolutionary tree.

While it was clear back then that theropod dinosaurs, the ones most closely related to birds, were feathered, heaps of new fossil finds since the 1990s show that dinosaurs from all branches of the tree may have had some form of feathers. Although, interestingly, recent research suggests that the common ancestor of dinosaurs was not feathered and the ‘feathery’ coating seen in ornithischian dinosaurs arose independently from the feathers of theropods. It seems today all of the dinosaurs in the newest film remain scaly and featherless for both continuity and drama-sake.