Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Taz-tastic place lost in time...

Stunning...simply stunning! Tasmania is beautiful and ever changing. The climate is about as constant as a snowman in the desert. Mornings will freeze you, breakfast breeze you, lunch comes the thaw and my mid-afternoon your baking. If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes!

The past few days we have all been staying in the hallowed halls of James and Andrea...neither of whom ever stop working! This is possibly for good reason, as between them they maintain a veterinary practice, art studio and a small 'safari' park on their land, complete with chickens, ducks, geese, alpaca, highland cattle, turkeys, pigs, goats, sheep, giant horses....and many more beasties that I will furnish you with pictures of soon.

These past few days I have wrangled with a sheep, herded the alpaca (badly) and chased rabbits (at high speed, but with to little affect). As of yet (this is tempting fate) I have not been bitten, stung or poisoned...although Jim ate a dodgy pie from a road-side cafe that had him galloping into the bush clutching his rear-end...we kept out of his way!

Internet is hard to find here...my mobile phone does not work...this is the first (dial-up) internet I have accessed in nearly four whole days...this truly is a splendid place! Forgive the lack of images, but uploading any of the many...would possibly cause an IT overload in this portion of Tasmania...as per usual..images will soon follow!

Just to say...we have found our first Taz-fossils...but no dinosaurs yet. Stay tuned, as there is much to tell!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Traveling light to Tasmania...

23kg...this is my limit for nearly two weeks fieldwork...in the bush...with the usual array of biting, stinging and crawling beasties to deal with. Do I take the 1kg tub of 100% Deet...that melts all clothing, rucksack straps, watch-straps, etc., that it comes into contact with...or do I risk buying some in Australia (first stop-off) or at my destination, Tasmania? The fact that these repellants dissolve almost all known substances, bar hardened steel, I worry sometimes what it does to human skin! However, the choice of looking like a carbuncled elephant-man (not too different from normal, for those of you who already know me) or slowing melting my field-gear...I choose the latter. This last summer in South Dakota had me attacked on a daily basis by mosquitoes the size of pigeons (see 'Sunburn with Dinosaurs', one of my August postings on this Blog), so I shudder to think what the multiple legged antipodean beasties have in store for me. I am sure I will be able to provide some first-hand descriptions and interactions with the said beasties in only a few days.

Back to my 23kg problem...why do clothes weigh so much? I also have to take my camera gear...now that halves my luggage allowance already. I suspect not having underpants and socks would also be a mistake in the Tasman bush...maybe just three changes of clothes for the ten days?

Thankfully I have my library digitised onto my hard-drive. The digital dino-library is a priceless resource when in the field or on the road...and thankfully my Macbook fits into my 7kg hand luggage allowance. Looking at the luggage allowances online (it is a very small plane that drops our team in Hobart), I have realised that a big overcoat (albeit a tad warm in mid-antipodean summer) is a useful asset in such mass-challenging situations...one with big pockets! It seems that airlines do not weigh overcoats...regardless of how many pockets you have or what is inside them. Having just tried the said garment on, stuffed with camera bodies, lenses, GPS, calipers,  etc.....I now resemble a travelling sumo-wrestler....with an inbuilt technology market. If I get body-scanned in airport security wearing this coat, I will look like a walking shop-display.

My flight leaves for San Francisco (SFO) tomorrow, then from SFO to Sydney Australia tomorrow evening...arriving on Christmas Day in the morning. The International Dateline is depriving me of Christmas Eve this year. I had better get-on with my packing...oh for a Dr Who style Tardis!

Sunday, 19 December 2010


Having just got back from China and then San Francisco...my dislike of air-travel is about to be tested once more. I have been asked to join a research group on an expedition to Tasmania...that vast island that looks so small off the south east coast of Australia. This will mean, I spend Christmas Eve and Day in the sky...in-fact skipping Christmas Day, as a function of the International dateline. This sucks!

Tasmania is possibly most famous for its zoology, such as the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) and the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), the former very extinct, the latter alive and well in both animation and the real world!

I have been reliably informed that the real-life Tasmanian Devils do indeed spit, growl, bite and try to eat you...as per our carton friend above. However, they are quite small....but nobody seems to have told them this...so they try and eat anything they can get their sharp teeth into.

Like Australia, the island of Tasmania is a refuge for many species that died-out elsewhere around the world. Believe it or not, marsupial mammal species were once one of the most dominant forms of mammal on the planet...now they predominantly exist in their vast pocket of Australia and in smaller numbers elsewhere around the world. So, why would I be interested in Tasmania?

Whilst the majority of the island is very ancient....news of some Jurassic pockets with land plant remains have reached my ears. Jurassic-age, Terrestrial plant fossils are usually great indicators of good places to hunt for terrestrial vertebrates....dinosaurs hopefully!

Like on my other sojourns into the prehistoric past, you are invited to join me, via my Blog. Am sure you will be tucking into Christmas dinner, as I find a suitable cliff to scale or ravine to dive into....fun, fun, fun!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Atoms to Phillysaurus wrecked

Once again, the Manchester team completed the synchrotron beam-time at SLAC. I have to say that Roy, Holly, Nick, Pete, Bruce, Karen, Jim and Bill worked long hours to gently bathe a large number of fossils in a monochromatic x-ray beam. Uwe Bergmann was as cheerful and helpful as ever, helping to set-up our experimental hutch, but also drive the said experiment over the last week. When I hear of sleep depravation studies, I think of synchrotron work...as all I could do today, after my return to Philly at 2am this morning, was sleep.

On the last day at the synchrotron, Uwe had a treat in store for us all...a visit to the LCLS, the LINAC Coherent Light Source. This two mile long....yes TWO MILES...linear accelerator is the most powerful of its type in the world. This is where potential Nobel Prize winners are queuing to get beam-time. Stood in the main accelerator housing (below) the hum of vast power was palpable.

Bill, Roy, Bruce and Pete in the LCLS 2-mile long accelerator!
The LCLS produces pulses of X-rays more than a billion times brighter than the most powerful existing sources, such as the synchrotron source we were using to map fossil chemistry, which are also based upon large electron accelerators. Why such power? Well, if you want to image atoms and molecules in motion, this is where you have to come! The ultra-fast pulses allows the stop-motion capture of dynamic processes at the atomic level. If you want to understand how vitamins work on an atomic scale...you will want to work at the LCLS. Being a camera fanatic, I had to know the speed of this 'pulse-laser-shutter'...as my camera can hit a rapid 1/8000 of a second. Well, I was a tad surprised to here that the pulse of the LCLS allows a 'shutter-speed' of less than 100 femtoseconds (100 femtoseconds = 1/10 of a trillionth of a second)...this is fast!

LCLS from above...a vast facility!
The whole facility is so vast, that I had to take a picture of a picture (above) to give you an idea of the scale. The LCLS Far Hall (bottom left) is still being completed, but the nearby LCLS Near Hall, is up and running....only for a few weeks! It has already generated a stack of scientific papers in top-ranking journals...more importantly, it is pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.
Bill, Holly and Uwe align a sample in the beam-line hutch.
However, for the time-being...our team will continue to use the SSRL synchrotron....as it is bright enough for what we need...well, at least for the next few samples! Who knows, one-day, we too might get to shed some very bright light on fossils at the LCLS...and who knows what we might find!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Working with dinosaurs....

These past few days have been a tad long and interesting. I am afraid that I am unable to tell you much, if anything, about the fossils we are studying here at Stanford, such is the secrecy around our current research. However, it is fair to say that we are making progress on several existing lines of research that we started here over four years ago.

The problem with many areas of research is that the fossils we study are the hardest thing to negotiate access to. This really should not be the case, given we have international codes that govern the free access to material in public collections...else we should not be publishing on the material. We know that the fossils that we are currently working upon have been already scrutinised by several other research groups this year...as the collection from which they come is open to seeing new techniques being applied to their collections.

However, if only one person or research group can access a fossil, and prevent or restrict other scientists studying the same material, it slows or halts the progress of science. Hence why the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) makes it clear that all fossil material described should be openly available for scientists to study. When an organisation or research group prevents or restricts access to their collections, they risk the scrutiny of the ICZN....and hopefully the journals and funding agencies with whom they seek to publish or raise funds respectively.

Why might one scientist want to prevent another from studying the same material? It is usually quite simple....grants and papers...the staple on which we scientists must function. However, without the fossil fuel to stoke the fire of science, we cannot function.

While I am unable to relay which fossils we are working upon, I can assure you that they are freely accessible to all who wish to see and work upon them.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Red-eye-o-saurus wrecked

The Stanford synchrotron is where the Manchester Palaeontology Research Group are working this week...working hard!

In the past 40 hours, I have had 4 hours sleep...this is normal when your pulling 24 hour days on a particle accelerator, as the time in such a facility is so precious.

I'm about to give a live lecture to Manchester via Skype, from the beam-line on which I am working...the wonders of modern technology!

This is an amazing place to work...in the past few days I have met a NASA astronaut (images soon to follow), silicon-valley folks and nobel prize winners!

Manchester is calling...must go!

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Walking in the footsteps of giants

Where shall I start….I suppose at the beginning. In a gasoline-haze, sat in the back of a ‘taxi’ that had seen better days. Clutching a set of directions to a field, somewhere outside of Zhucheng. Here be dragons…well at least their tracks! The word dinosaur in Chinese literally translates to ‘terrible dragon’. Brandon and I were headed to a locality that has the promise of being one of the single largest dinosaur track site in the world, with over 5000 tracks on a single surface. Martin Lockley, had worked on the lower 10% of the site already, but since his visit last year the whole hillside was now exposed, along with a stunning series of tracks from sauropod to theropod dinosaurs. A veritable ichno-feast…meaning stacks of tracks and traces to study.

The track site has landed!

Brandon and I arrived at the site via a dusty track through a series of cultivated fields, well off the beaten track. Thankfully Brandon has mastered enough Chinese to relay our directions to the site. As we ambled up the hill it was clear that a large ‘spaceship’ had landed…in the form of several tons of scaffolding and plastic sheeting, now covering the precious tracks. On entering the vast ‘tent’ we were greeted by a larger than football pitch-sized rocky outcrop…we immediately spotted dinosaur tracks on the leading edge of the outcrop…and they did not stop!
Brandon walks in the footsteps of dinosaurs
This lower Cretacous slice of Shandong province provides a gimpse into the busy world of the Zhucheng fauna. From tutles to crocs and from predatory to plant-eating dinosaurs, the site records the activity of these animals, where they left their marks over 100 million years ago. Subtle variations in environment spread from one corner of the site to the other, from gentle ripple marks to billiard-table smooth mud-flat deposits. Each bump, groove and hollow relaying important infromation n the distant environments that once persisted here. However, like any geological outcrop, it is hard to absolutely nail the palaeoenvironment from over 100 million years ago…given we only had a tiny (several thousand square feet!) window into this world. It was good to have Professor Martin Lockley (below) along with us a day later to look at the site with us. Martin has spent his life tracking dinosaurs over the world, has written hundreds of papers on the subject and published many books on this topic.
Martin Lockley finds a track or ten!
Over the years Martin and I have gotten to scramble up and down our fair share of cliffs, desert outcrops and coastal sections in various corners of the globe. However, it was the first time that we were both in China at the same time and place. We have decided to work together, also collaborating with Dr Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing,  on the said track site. We both agree that such a vast site requires a touch of the light fantastic…or LiDAR as it is more commonly known!
Brandon needs to loose weight, as he leaves vast bowl-like tracks
Using a Light Detection and Range laser scanner (LiDAR) on the track site will allow us to map the whole locality in a single day. This would usually take us weeks or months. The resulting scan is (if I get hold of the right Z+F LiDAR unit) at sub-millimetre accuracy. Something that is very hard to achieve using traditional mapping techniques. The scan of the site will provide an accurate measure of trackway geometry, size, gaits, speeds, etc. This data will then be used by colleagues in Manchester (Dr Peter Falkingham and Dr Bill Sellers) to make sense of the thousands of tracks and trackways. Martin has already named some new track types from the locality…plus the first ever tutle tracks from China. We hope much more can be plucked from the surface of this ancient ‘sandy mud-flat’.
Stacks of tracks made by theropod dinosaurs....I think!
Some corners of the site look as if a ‘flock’ of theropods made there way across this surface back in the Cretaceous, leaving delicate traces of the soles of their feet. However, many of the tracks are not ‘true’ or surface tracks, but a reflection of the animals foot shape, as the soil failed beneath its feet during track fromation, disturbing lower layers, leaving transmitted tracks that we find today. This explains firstly why they survived…they were already buried…plus why they are not as sharp as we would like. Some folks call these ‘ghost’ tracks…I like that. To ascribe a species of dinosaur to a track or trackway is a dangerous game, unless you find an animal dead at the end of its tracks, your unlikely to identify the species of maker.
Laminated mudstone, overlain by massive sandstone track horizon
We not only took a look at the tracks, but also the geology of the surrounding outcrop. There were two major units exposed associated with the trackway horizons, a lower finely bedded mudstone overlain by a courser massively bedded sandstone unit. Dave Eberth, from the Royel Tyrell Museum (Drumheller, Canada), was with us on the second day we visited the track site. He is a brilliant field geologist and soon buried himself into the stratigraphy and sedimentology of the site. In time, we hope to publish our finding on this remarkable locality.
It was not just the trackways of Shandong Province we had come to see…in nearby slightly younger Cretaceous rocks, is possibly one of the 7 wonders of the dinosaur world; The Zhucheng hadrosaur bone-bed. I had seen this on my last visit to China, but could not wait to oggle this remrakable site again. Having worked at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah last year, I realized that the Zhucheng bone-bed makes the US-monument (which is very impressive), look more like a rockery. The bones of the giant hadrosaur Shantungosaurus litter a gully that has been excavated by the folks in Zhucheng. The originally horizonally lain beds have been uplifted and tilted…a perfect angle to view a lot of bone surface! This excavation was a massive undertaking and has been ongoing since the 1960’s, but few westerners have seen this remrakble site. This particular hadrosaur was of great interest to Dr Paul Barrett (Natural History Museum, London) who was along for this invited meeting of minds in Zhucheng. Paul is probably the worlds leading expert on ornithischian dinosaurs, to which our giant hadrosaur belongs. This type of dinosaur is not unique to China, as its sister group is commonly found in the Late Cretaceous of North America, my old friend Edmontosaurus. However, the Chinese hadrosaur is so much bigger…its trying to be a sauropod dinosaur in terms of bulk! I have been keen to see these giants again, as working with colleagues in Manchester, we hope to learn more about the locomotion of such giants. We will hoepfully get the scan the mount (below) in the Zhucheng Dinosaur Museum. From these scans we will rig muscles onto our virtual giant and put it throught its locomotary paces in the super-computer.
Shantungosaurus...who ate all the pies!
A single femur of this giant hadrosaur (below) is taller than me…ok, I did not exactly jump into the deep-end of the gene-pool when it comes to height…but any femur over 6 feet is impressive! The one below has been assigned ‘magical’ powers by the locals and has been ‘enshrined’ in the Museum…complete with its own mood-lighting. Touch this bone and you shall be very lucky…I already felt very, very lucky just to be there…but I still could not resist touched another bone.
Look at the size of Phil's lucky bone!
We drove up to the excavation, that is no longer under cover, as they are now building a permenant roof over the huge site. Like kids in a candy store we all lept into field mode as soon as we arrived. Dr Paul Sereno (Chicago), Dr Mark Norell (American Museum of Natural History), Martin Lockley, Dave Eberth, Paul Barrett and I all gawped in wonder at the sight before us…as I turned to Mark Norell and said, ‘Its like a bone-bed, only bigger!’.
Paul Barrett sneaks-up behind Martin Lockley at the Zhucheng bone-bed
Dave Eberth is the worlds leading expert on the interpretation of bone-beds was grinning from ear-to-ear at the site…I urge you to read his book ‘Bone-beds’ which is currently my bed-time reading. He has worked for many years on the vast ceratopsian bone-beds of Canada, that have made Dinosaur National Park so famous in the halls of palaeontological fame. Dave has worked for years on the excavation, data collection, mapping and interpretation of the said boney problems…the biggest question here, ‘How do you emplace thousands of beautifully preserved, giant, disarticulated (in the most part) Shantungosaurus bones?’
Xu Xing sits amongst the bones of giants
 Dr Xu Xing (IVPP, Beijing) was also along with us, as it was he who had provided us all access to the Shadong Province sites…incluidng the stunning bone-bed. You can see Xu above sat amongst one part of the vast bone bed. The weird thing about many of the bones, is they are so well-preserved..but not all! Dave Eberth was like a rat up a drain-pipe…scrambling up and down the exposure, not just looking at the bone, but also at the geology. We were all puzzling the emplacment of what Dave called, ‘the mother of all bone-beds’. The bones were encased in mudstone, which when you looked closely hosted a number of smaller inclusions (tiny rocks, pebbles and clasts of other sediment types). The complete lack of structure to the whole muddy-bone-stoked-mess immediately pointed to a very specific causitive process. Dave Eberth grinned and shouted, ‘ This is a bloody huge mud-flow!’…and it seems he is quite right. The rock-type (lithology) almost matched many of the samples Dave was so used to finding in the Canadian bone-bed sites…but the Canadian sites were an order of magnitude smaller than the Zhucheng bone-bed.
Thousands of bones litter the horizon
I headed-off to the top of the gully, as I saw some familier lithologies to those I cut my dino-palaeo-teeth upon on the Isle of Wight. The island just off the South Coast of the UK has similar Cretaceous-aged (albeit Lower) channel sands, overbank mud and flood-deposits to that seen in Zhucheng, but I had not seen a bone-bed of the likes of this on the Isle of Wight. However, I was used to finding fossil soil horizons (or palaeosols) on the Isle of Wight. They are often marked by the growth of distinctive carbonate minerals into what we often call a calcrete horizon. Such soils are indicative of arid environments and here I was, in Zhucheng, looking at a typical calacrete palaeosol. I called over Dave Eberth, who excitedly confirmed what we were looking at. It was clear that Dave had pieced together the geological evidence that would enable the site to be formally described and interpreted. Stunning.
Dave Eberth dismounts the Zhucheng palaeosol
We both scrammbled down from the palaeosol horizon (above) as we were being called by the other members of the team…we were making folks late! The rest of the team were already in the main prep-labs for the site…oggling at vast reconstructions of impossibly big dinosaurs. Its rare that you see Paul Barrett bragging about the size of his skull (below)…but today would be an exception!
I say Paul....what a large skull you have!
After a healthy few days in the field, we knew it was time to eat, drink and be merry. The eating bit was beginning to take its toll on my apetite. Many years ago I worked on arthropod palaeobiology, which included studying the respiratory function in scorpions…I never thought I would get to eat them, again, and again, and again. It seems scorpion is firmly on the Zhucheng menu…bare that in mind when you visit here…which you must!
Scorpions on a stick...going fast...as they were still alive :-(
Not only was their scorpion, but also cicada on a stick…they were not chirpping too loudly. The only sound they had left to make was the crunch as you bit hard through their exoskeleton, only to be greeted by a soft, oozing centre…not quite a box of chocolates!
Cicada on a stick...crunchy on the outside, goopy on the inside.
At the end of the field days, all the experts (Paul Sereno, Paul Barrett, Dave Eberth, Martin Lockley, Mark Norell and I) gathered around the table with local offcials from Shandong Province, inluding the Governor of the province, the Zhucheng mayor, IVPP scientists and many other folks. We sat and talked about the future development (both scientific and economic) of the sites we had seen. It was clear the Province possessed a unique mixture of trackway, bone-beds and even dinosaur eggs (that’s another story to be told!). We, the six visiting scientists, were all asked to contribute to the scientific research and development of the sites…a no-brainer on our part! Methinks the six of us will be regular partakers of deep-fried scorpion in the near future.
As the meeting drew to a close, much had been agreed…most importantly, the sites were being actively conserved and researched. It had been a successul few days deep in Shandong Province…it was time to return to Beijing; time to work with some particularly stunning fossils at the IVPP.
Brandon drools over the fossil of Microraptor

Brandon (above) and I arrived at IVPP on a bitterly cold December day. The Institute is situated opposite Beijing Zoo….which was helpfully remembered when explaining to the airport taxi driver where our hotel was in this vast city of 20+ million people. The IVPP has a pubic museum…a must for any visitor to Beijing, but also its hallowed collections halls...that is where Brandon and I were headed.
We had prearranged to meet with Xu Xing back at IVPP, as he too had flown back from Zhucheng (like us, via Qingdao). Our main objective was to review as many avian theropods as we could…although I would be heading back to the USA a full week ahead of Brandon. The first specimen brought out for us to work upon was that of Microraptor, a bizarre bi-plane of a winged theropod dinosaur from the lower Cretaceous of China. Like many fossils from China, it was beautifully preserved…albeit squashed as flat as a pancake against the rocky bedding-plane that became its tomb.
I have to say that it is the happiest I had seen Brandon all week, when he opened the first silk-clad box (the fossils are housed in beautiful silk boxes).
Mei long....dorsal (top) view
However, it was not to be a flat-pack dino-bird to get my heart racing. It was to be the deliacte 3-dimensional remains of a beautiful avain theropod dinosaur, Mei long. This most perfect, palm-sized fossil is exquisitely preserved. If there were flesh preserved upon the bones, you would be tempted to nudge this sleeping dinosaur awake. The picture above shows a top view of my new favourite fossil…head wrapped from bottom to right of the fossil, with its legs and arms tucked neatly beneath its body, sleeping. It seems likely this animal did fall asleep, but was not woken till the gentle tap of a palaeontologist released it from its geologically-long slumber. Flipping the fossil over (below) you can also imagine this dinosaur gracefully stretching its feet out and wiggling its stony toes, such is the level of preservation. Simply gob-smacking.
Mei long...ventral (bottom) view
I have probably disobeyed the first rule of blogging, by writing a tad too much for a single posting…but I feel I owed it to those folks who follow my ramblings.
Sunset over Beijing
I have now left Beijing on another freezing sunset and am sat on a turbulent flight (did I mention how much I hate flying) to San Francisco. I have been holding-back on a little secret…I have possibly one of the most special fossils in the world meeting me in San Francisco. It is there to get a dose of rapid-scan x-ray fluorescence synchrotron treatment! More on this later. I will leave you with this final thought…visit China not just to see the Great Wall and Forbidden City, make a B-line for the Great Fossils of Zhucheng and the Stunning Fossils of IVPP!

Monday, 6 December 2010

Internet snail-pace slows blogging!

My apologies for the lack of posts, but my internet connection in Beijing is hopeless!

I am writing a HUGE blog offline that I will upload...with stacks of pictures from the last few days....when I arrive in San Francisco tomorrow afternoon.

I have been working at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology today...so expect some drop-dead (being fossils this is easy) gorgeous images of avian theropods!

Thanks for your patience!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Phylogenetic soup!

The past few days have been a tad hectic...just for a change. We have been shown dinosaur bones that would make any palaeo-hungry child green with envy. More fossil bone than you can shake a very large stick at...a petrified one at that! In between the too and fro from dig-sites to Museums...we eat. I might have indicated in my early blog that I was a tad nervous about my possible diet, a function of my prior trip to China with Peter Dodson. This time I have tried to knuckle-down and try some local delicacies...and have been somewhat surprised!
My meal had legs....eight of them!

Yes, these are deep-fried scorpions on my plate and yes...I ate them all. Crunchy and quite satisfying really...no sting in these tails. The deep-fried cicada were a little more soupy...I only managed two of these juicy offerings. The pig knuckle and chicken feet were kind of chewy, with not much meat and more like a mouth full of cartilage. If I see another sea-cucumber...I might just scream.

Paul Barret (Nat Hist Museum) & Dave Eberth (Tyrell Museum) recover...
The vast array of food set before you is quite amazing.

Martin Lockley and Mark Norell...examine their food....carefully!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Dinosaur tracks and tribulations

Today I awoke early, as I knew we would get to see a new track site....one that no one has published anything on...yet! Given Martin Lockley (Dinosaur track guru) has already been to this site, the publications will no doubt be appearing very soon!

Brandon and I ate breakfast early (ish) and then headed-out to the track site. We hired a mini-van driver...this was our first error of the day! As we got into the back of our trusty vehicle, we were greeted by a strong smell of fuel...it was all over the floor. By the time we had decided, 'this was not a good idea'..we were already moving. So, windows down we headed into the country just outside Zhucheng. If you click this link...you can see where we went: CLICK HERE

The link was sent from my rather nifty Spot satellite locater that I often taken into the field...might use this on a future blogs?

The plans to build on the site were clear when we arrived, which was surprising given the remote nature of the locality...but dinosaurs are looking to become an important driver in the Shandong Province economy, so this site certainly fits into those aspirations.

Fossil dinosaur tracks have the potential to reveal additional information on the size, gait, and speed of dinosaurs, their locomotive evolution and also to provide clues to their behavior. Furthermore, the tracks, together with the surrounding sedimentary rocks, are a record of the global Mesozoic terrestrial environments and ecosystems. When interpreted correctly, all vertebrate tracks, not just those of dinosaurs, can assist in the interpretation of past environments, behavior, and ecology, and therefore their study has wide-ranging application to themes such as biodiversity and environmental change. 

The underlying assumption of many interpretations, through nearly 200 years of literature, is that what is preserved is a surface track. The geometric data (e.g., track length and width, digit length, number of digits) on which these interpretations and trace fossil classifications are based are therefore recorded essentially as 2-D features. However, vertebrate paleoichnology—the study and naming of vertebrate tracks and traces—has concentrated on describing the trace with little or no interpretation of track formation and preservation. The way sediments behave before, during, and after a track is formed, and the subsequent processes that may further modify a track have been essentially neglected.

The science of un-picking tracks has been close to my heart for many years and will even be the subject of my talk at a conference being held in Zhucheng over the next few days...the reason why I'm having to edit a stack of images....write my talk...and then sleep....I will upload images to my blog tomorrow...forgive a tired palaeontologist.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Slow road to Zhucheng

The fog lifted from Qingdao by late morning and even Brandon's flight finally arrived from Beijing. I was surprised that he was not dribbling and bleary-eyed after his 40+ hour journey ordeal. We soon loaded Brandon into our vehicle and finally headed off to Zhucheng....only a day late.

We eventually found the Zhucheng road, as our driver was not too familier with Qingdao...you know when your going round in circles when the same person gives you directions.

The journey should have taken a little over two hours...but took four. This was nothing to do with our driver, it just seems that today was the day to have an accident on the Zhucheng road.

All I need again is sleep...so forgive the short Blog, but we have arrived at our saurian destination. Tomorrow, we shall track some dinosaurs.

Foggy-no-saurus in Qingdao

The first light of morning was a tad muted by a thick cloak of fog smothering Qingdao. After a good nights sleep, in a bed that was harder than rough-cut diamond, I got myself ready for the first day back in China.

Han knocked on my door at precisely the prearranged time for breakfast. Han Fl has been given the task of making sure that both Brandon and I get to the Zhucheng meeting (Brandon is doing his best to make things complicated….well, airlines and weather are). His command of English is quite excellent and he is about as helpful and cheerful as a person can be.

It seems I am staying in the Qingdao Second Hotel, its name a reflection of the clear order of things here. The hotel, I think, is near the airport, but with the fog reducing visibility to 5 yards this morning…we could also be on a cliff, mountain or seafront…and I would not have a clue, until I took a blind step in the wrong direction!

Han suggested we get breakfast outside the hotel and our driver appeared to whisk us off into the morning fog. He looked a little nervous at the fog. I too was a little unsure at how being in a mini-van would improve our vision…it didn’t. We managed a walking pace 100 yards before the driver decided that dodging pedestrians, buses and motorbikes was not much fun…it seems the fog (‘Wu’….my first new Chinese word of the day) had permitted a free-for-all on the roads of Qingdao, as no police or official could see enough to take or give offence. We headed back to our hotel and were told they would supply us a guide to help locate the other hotel, where breakfast would be served.

Meantime, Brandon was also fog-bound in Beijing…but with at least 500 meters of visibility…luxury compared to where I am. The chances of an aircraft landing in Qingdao at the moment are borderline to zero. So, it looks like I’m here for the day! My second Chinese word was ‘yanwu’…it means delay.
Our breakfast-hotel guide arrived and asked that we follow his car, in our mini-van…I assume he had radar or that the constant blowing of his horn providing him with some echo-location ability. We stealthily beeped and slipped our way through the invisible city of Qingdao…avoiding pedestrians, cars, bikes and busses (at least tried to). We soon arrived at our destination…a foggy car park! However, by walking 10 feet made me realize we had parked next to several stories of hotel, albeit cloaked better than a Klingon starship. As we entered the hotel lobby, I felt as if my blindfold had been removed…I could see again!

We ascended a grand staircase to eat breakfast with Han and our driver. Steamed dumplings, seaweed rice, egg and fried chicken. Not my usual cereal breakfast, but remembering the advice of my colleague Peter Dodson, just tuck in and enjoy. So I did! After a brail-like journey back to our hotel, I find myself dutifully writing my blog…but I think I’d better go and explore Qingdao, seeing as I’m here (well, seeing as much as one can in the fog!).

PS. Apologies for the lack of images….but if I changed the page background to white, you would be seeing as much as I can!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Tired in Qingdao

Forgive possibly the shortest ever post to my blog, but 30+ hours of travelling and three flights later...missing a grad student, I arrived in Qingdao (China) at 10:30pm local time.

Brandon, a graduate student of Peter Dodson's (who I also help torture on the ins and outs of palaeontology) missed his flight...somewhere on the east coast of the USA. I await his arrival in the morning...he will be pretty tired by then!

Then we head west to Zhucheng....now, I head to bed!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

A taste of the un-dead?

Thanksgiving was splendid. Spending the auspicious occasion at Peter Dodson's house was possibly the best way to experience my first 'complete' Thanksgiving. Last year, I spent the said Holiday in Dulles Airport in Washington, a function of a very foggy day....not very festive. The avian theropod was suitably vast and the accompanying cuisine wonderfully filling. By now you must be asking, why the title to this particular blog? Well, it has nothing to do with Dodson family hospitality and more to do with the past few days. I have picked up a virus from someone...having just been on a transatlantic flight, this is possibly the most logical source.

I feel like this.......

What is curious about my virus, is that it reminds me of a rather big question, how did life start on Earth? Defining life can be tricky sometimes, as some ‘life’ forms are a tad fussy on being dead or alive, for example, my 'lovely' virus. A virus is happy as Larry when causing mayhem and replicating at will in their host, a virulent common cold is a perfect example, but outside the host is another story. A virus is composed of a smatterings of genetic material enclosed in a protein capsule, when outside a host, they are for all intense purposes, non-living. So defining life is not so clear-cut. If your kids are into stories of zombies and the 'un-dead'...an accurate and just as chilling bedtime story is one of the humble, but potent virus...from such a microscopic fellon, we too can get a feeling of being living dead...albeit until our immune systems regains control.

It was thanks to my own virulent virus that I did not make it to the Academy of Natural Sciences to give my talk on Friday....a heinous crime on my part, as I hate letting folks down. However, spreading my virus to a public audience would earn me few friends. For those who turned-up, all was far from lost, as Jason 'Chewie' Poole gave a stunning talk (which has been reported back to me by many folks)...so a large public thank you to Jason!

Now...it is time for me to sleep again, as I have to be well for Monday...when I fly to China!
Shandong Province, south of Beijing. Qingdao and Zhucheng is where I'll be on Monday

Thursday, 25 November 2010


Tomorrow, in much of North America, we dine on avian theropod...that's bird to most folks. The feathery descendants of the dinosaurs, birds, provide us with much insight to their toothy ancestors. Many use birds to provide information on the biology, physiology and even behaviour of dinosaurs...often bracketing the said dinosaurs between crocodiles and birds...in an extant (living) bracket to help further constrain the possible characters of the extinct dinosaurs.
In the UK, we tend to eat our turkey on Christmas Day, hence why I used to give a lecture at the Manchester Museum each December, called 'Stuffing the dinosaur at Christmas'...this was a fun take on dissecting (and often eating) a roast turkey, but showing the audience the vast number of features (characters) that birds still possess that place them so close to dinosaurs in evolutionary terms (in my mind, they are still dinosaurs). The old saying that something is, 'As rare as hens teeth', is testament to how close birds are to dinosaurs; as occasionally an ancestral gene is inadvertently 'switched-on' yielding a toothy-hen. We too possess 'fossil' or recessive genes in our DNA that surface in our own species, if the right genetic switch is flicked.

The use of living species to help infer or constrain specific characters in an extinct species is not a new thing, but Professor Larry Witmer gave this a name in 1995...the Extant Phylogenetic Bracket or EPB for short. Larry gave a name to something we already used, and in doing so penned a paper that will continue to receive citations (references within other published works) that will help it rocket into inter-steller levels of fame. Its hard to pick up a book or read a paper on dinosaurs without seeing EPB (Witmer, 1995) being quoted...even Larry agrees this is a rather useful paper in his career.

Basic family tree of the dinosaurs and birds....often subject to change!

In many cases we find additional evidence, such as the scars of muscle attachment on fossil dinosaur bones, that show that the EPB data appear to be appropriate (or not as the case may be). Combining such evidence and EPB with a liberal application of comparative anatomy (back to my dissection fun at Penn!), we can build a theoretical understanding of the complete prehistoric animal, as it was with its soft tissues intact. While evidence supports certain aspects of such extrapolation, in other respects this work is necessarily speculative...something palaeontology is often accused of with wagging fingers (and quite rightly so sometimes). About many points concerning soft tissues, we are completely in the dark. The best known dinosaur enigma is their colour, which is a particularly ephemeral aspect of an animal due to the nature of biological pigmentation and the tendency for such pigments to be lost in the fossilization process...but the Manchester team is hot on the trail of this particular conundrum (more on this later I hope!).

Amber can often trap beasties, providing excellent preservation
environments...sadly not big enough for dinosaurs!
Fossilization is a rare phenomenon that occurs to only a tiny fraction of a community’s population of any given place and period, and to none at all in many cases....we are dealing with disjointed sentences of once vast volumes. Nonetheless, if we consider the fossilization of skeletal elements as the standard, then the fossilization of soft-tissue structures is much rarer still. When these unique discoveries are made, this type of fossilization literally “fleshes out” our understanding of the fossil record in many crucial ways. Even a single example of soft-tissue preservation can be of tremendous value in the interpretation of fossil animal types. In each case, special circumstances prevented the ordinary loss of soft tissues. The explanations for certain of these situations have been reconstructed with a high degree of confidence, while the reasons for other localities’ exceptional preservation remain a mystery.

Dissection of crocs and birds can often tell us much 
about their relatives, the dinosaurs.

If your into the preservation of soft tissue, you might want to track down a paper that the Manchester team published last year (Manning et al 2009) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series B. This is the direction of much of our research today...so watch-out for future papers chasing bio-molecules in the fossil record...with a smattering of EPB!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Dinosaur embryo's on acid?

The flight to the UK was thankfully uneventful. The food was predictably scary and the atmosphere thick by the time we arrived in Manchester. I think two hours sleep is as much can be expected on a trans-Atlantic in bucket class. I forced myself to sleep, as I knew I would soon have to be functioning on UK-time...a nasty prospect when flying West to East.

Arriving to an overcast and cold morning in Manchester, I was soon through customs, acquired luggage and headed for the train to Manchester. At 10am I was stood in my office, slightly phased...and then the day could begin, albeit cheated of a good nights sleep.

My first port of call in Manchester was Dr Roy Wogelius, an inorganic geochemist in the School of Earth, Atmospheric & Environmental Sciences. He has been leading on several papers within the palaeontology research group, on the preservation of soft tissue in the fossil record. Roy is a good colleague and a great friend who has provided a paradigm shift in my understanding of what happens when you bury a lump of animal in the ground. This might sound a simple thing to answer, but the pathways of elements around and within this system is not fully understood and are critical to our understanding of what happens when you bury anything in the ground. In our world of waste and pollutants, this question of what happens when you bury something is vital. This is the world of the science of taphonomy (literally meaning 'burial laws').

The hadrosaur dinosaur 'Dakota' the 65 Million year old mummy!

Roy and many others in the palaeontology research group have been working on everything from 65 million year old dinosaur skin, 120 million year old feathers, 50 million year old lizard skin to 80 million year old dinosaur egg shell (with bits of embryonic skin with bone preserved inside!). We are keen to quantify which elements in the fossils have remained relatively stable (and in place) since the tissue (bone, skin, etc) were originally formed and which components came from the processes associated with the fossilisation of the said tissues. What appeared a simple question of mapping and identifying the composition of the fossils, has become a major research program for the Manchester group over the past 5 years.

This work all started when I was having lunch with colleagues and we started talking about the 'mummified' dinosaur that had been discovered in North Dakota. Roy was sat at the table and joined in the conversation, as we munched our way through our curries. It was clear that he would make a major contribution to the research program...and that has to be the biggest understatement I have ever made! He has dragged me into the world of geochemistry and its a journey that I am thoroughly enjoying, albeit it quite hard get my head around sometimes (nothing that a good read cannot put right). The early work we undertook on the dinosaur mummy was published last year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B (Manning et al 2009) and signified the start of my submersion into geochemistry.

Left to right, Nat Geo cameraman, Dr Pete Morris, Dr Roy Wogelius and Tyler Lyson.

We now have a large team from faculty and graduate students developing new methods and techniques to untangle this tale of tricky taphonomy, with every member playing their part. From synchrotrons to CT units and FTIR to MALDI-TOF....we coax molecules into revealing their secrets. This is some of the most interesting work I have ever been involved with and I always look forward to my meetings with Roy, Bart van Dongen, Mike Buckley, Paul Mummery, Bill Sellers, Holly Barden, Nick Edwards and many others who contribute to the work. Given that the research group is getting larger by the year, it is rare we all get to meet in the same place and time, that was one of my goals for this trip...one that was thankfully met. Being able to just sit and talk about science with colleagues is so productive and often hard to do with the hectic lives that we all leave...it was midnight on Wednesday before I headed to bed. Many meetings, samples and data reviewed, and progress made.

The remainder of the week was much the same. I had bird and crocodile shell samples to get to Dr Mike Buckley for analysis, sediment samples to Paul Mummery for x-ray micro-tomography and folks to chase (and be chased by) on finances, fossils and research papers. The key samples I needed to collect were those of the embryonic dinosaur material, as we are close to getting the various aspects of this research ready for publication...this is my next job. I'm travelling today with my clutch of dinosaur egg fragments, so that tomorrow I can start to physically and chemically pull them apart before handing over the suitably clean-room prepped samples for the team to work upon. Nothing that dental picks and a drop of acid can't put right.

Once again, I find myself sat in an airport, waiting for my flight to Philadelphia. I arrive in Philly at 2pm...and hope to get to a 3:30 research seminar on palaeobiogeography at Drexel University my 3:30pm...its going to be another long day, but one that I would not trade for anything.