Saturday, 28 December 2013

I'm not fat....just big boned!

Giant moa bird (Dinornis robustus, literally meaning ‘robust strange bird’) may not have actually had robust bones, according to new research conducted at The University of Manchester.
Moa convex hulls (a) Dinornis robustus (S.34088/89) reconstruction of convex hulls; (b) Pachyornis australis (S.27896) (a and b are to the same scale); (c) and (d) show different positions of the sternum in D. robustus. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082668.g003
The leg bones of one of the tallest birds that ever existed were actually rather like those of its modern (but distant) relatives, such as ostrich, emu and rhea, the study published in journal PLOS One shows.

The study, led by biomechanics researcher Charlotte Brassey, in collaboration with palaeobiologist Professor Richard Holdaway at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, has found that the largest of the moa species had leg bones similar to those of modern flightless birds that can run fast, whereas a much smaller species of moa – from a different family - had an extremely robust skeleton.
Ms Brassey said:“Our research suggests that this group of birds came up with several different solutions to deal with the problem of supporting the large body necessary to process a diet of coarse vegetation.

“We know that these species of moa were living together in the same locations, at the same time. So we don’t think the differences we’re seeing in leg robustness are adaptations to a particular habitat type.
“Instead it seems they were perhaps engaging in different behaviours, although both could deal with extremely rough terrain.”
The project was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. It involved academics from the School of Earth Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences and Faculty Life Sciences at Manchester, together with Biological Sciences at Canterbury.
To find out whether the leg bones were overly thick and strong, the researchers first had to work out how heavy the birds were in life. Scientists have done this in the past by working from how thick or round the leg bones themselves are, then scaling up according to the size of bones of living birds The problem comes when the leg bones have unusual proportions.
Ms Brassey, from the Computational and Evolutionary Biology Research Group, Faculty of Life Sciences, said: “If we’d wanted to estimate the weight of a saber-toothed cat, no-one would have suggested measuring canine tooth length and then scaling up the tooth size of your standard tabby.

“That’s because we know that the saber-toothed cat had unusually oversized canines compared to house cats. It wouldn’t be a fair comparison, and you’d end up with a ludicrously high estimate of the body weight of the saber-toothed cat.

“The same was true for moa. We already knew that moa had disproportionately wide leg bones, yet previous estimates of their body mass had been based on those same bones which probably resulted in overestimates.”
To get around this, the authors scanned whole skeletons, and, as predicted, the new estimates were considerably lower. Nonetheless, the largest moa still weighed in at a hefty 200kg, or 30 family-sized Christmas turkeys:  if you wanted roast moa on Christmas day, you would have to start cooking on December 23.
Dr William Sellers, co-author on the study, said:: “If you don’t get the body mass right, the rest of your analysis will just spit out the wrong numbers. By using the whole skeleton rather than just a single bone we get much better mass estimates, and we can even calculate how good this estimate actually is.”
The researchers then applied an engineering technique know as Finite Element Analysis (FEA) to estimate how robust the moa really were. FEA is a way of ‘virtually crash-testing’ an object using computer simulations, and is commonly used in civil engineering to estimate the strength of bridges, or model the behaviour of Formula One cars. The FEA technique and new estimates for body mass revealed  that different groups of moa had solved the engineering problems of supporting their huge bodies in different ways. Such fundamental differences in structure suggest that the nine species of moa had long histories of independent evolution.
If you want to download this HERE!

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Royal Society Summer Exhibition 2014

My proposal for next year’s Royal Society Summer Exhibition (2014) has just been accepted! This is wonderful timing, given the recent news on the Queens Anniversary Award for imaging work being undertaken at the University (of which palaeontology made its own small contribution).

The exhibit is entitled ‘X-appeal’ and will explore the many facets of our imaging work at the University of Manchester. In this exhibit we explore how X-rays can help resolve the shape, structure, chemistry and biology of life on Earth, both past and present. We aim to show how palaeontology is now using the electromagnetic spectrum to unlock the dilute traces of past life from deep time. The proposed exhibit will also help visitors discover how past life is only a mere wavelength away, but again aim to reaffirm Manchester’s position as a leader in this rapidly expanding research field.

It looks like 2014 will be another wonderfully busy year!

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Lectures, faeces and the media....

Today's blog title might conjure a rant on how lectures are not favourably received by the media, but this is far from the truth. This past week had me on my lectures, working with the media and being asked to comment upon published research on a prehistoric communal toilet!

The STFC event in Birmingham on the Public Engagement in Science went extremely well, seamlessly organised and delivered by the STFC team. The TeenTech event at the Olympic Park similarly went swimmingly, albeit in a vast basketball court. Over 600 kids came, saw and were hopefully inspired by a wonderful bunch of folks who give their time to promoting STEM subjects. The final talk I gave in London was at the Highgate School. Here I gave a lecture on the University of Manchester interdisciplinary approach to science. This was delivered to a very motivated science club...always splendid to see and hear.  No sooner had I finished the lecture and the very articulate Q&A session, I headed to the busy rush-hour street outside the school to await a mobile BBC Studio. I had already received three calls from the BBC Studio asking if the said van had worst the cellphone would have to be the final mode of interview. 

The interview had been arranged for 5:37pm….London rush hour traffic had been doing its best to delay the van, which arrived at 5:43pm. A splendidly organised BBC chap bundled me into the back of the van (which from the street-side must have looked a little odd!) and I found myself sat in a tardis-like recording studio. I was encouraged to immediately put on my headphones, only to hear a surprisingly calm BBC producer say that I would be live on air in a mere 30 seconds! Not much time to collect ones thoughts….the interview was a blur to be can hear the said Radio 4 PM Show on this link (44:30 minutes into the programme).

The topic of the interview was slightly I had been asked to comment on the recent publication on a possible communal 'toilet' used by a group of mammal-like reptiles (Dicynodonts) some 230 million years ago in Northern Argentina.  Anyone who listens to the interview might well hear my I tried to avoid 'forbidden' words at this early broadcast hour. It would have been easy for me to say, ‘Basically I’m talking c**p’ or ‘Communal c**pping critters coprophagicly conjure  a course communal khazi’….I could go on, but had better not!

As a final aside, my blog hit 100,000 views this week. Thank you for continuing to read my palaeontological 'droppings'...

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Reaching out with science....a busy week of particle physics, public engagement and dinosaurs!

Tomorrow I head down to Birmingham to set-up our 2012 Royal Society Summer Exhibition exhibit for a science outreach meeting hosted by the STFC at the University of Birmingham. This should be a fun day of meeting folks who equally value the publics engagement in science. Several members of the research team from Manchester will be taking part in this event and passing-on their knowledge and experience on what we have explored within the realms of public engagement.

On Tuesday, I head down to the SE of England to film with the BBC...I will tweet when this will be transmitted (later in the week on BBC1). The subject of the interview...again, that will have to wait.. is suitably-saurian.

On Wednesday we re-build the 2012 Chemical Ghosts exhibit, this time at the Olympic Park in London for a splendid TeenTech event. This is a GREAT organisation that I encourage schools to contact and take part in their events across the UK. This is a unique opportunity for kids to listen to talks and take part in events put on by both industry and science (from universities and companies alike).

On Thursday, time for a lecture at Highgate School in London where I hope to explain to the students how interdisciplinary science is changing the way we study the evolution, biology and history of life on Earth. A busy week ahead, but not too different from last week!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Auction...

The fate of the Duelling Dinosaurs has still to be decided. The Auction room was crowded, maybe too crowded. I was present at the auction to document the sale of the fossils for a documentary.  The international press sat alongside us, squeezed between fossils and bidders. This was my first auction...a strange experience to the uninitiated. As the auctioneer started the sale, I felt my eyes suddenly drawn to the floor, in slight fear that a simple smile or gesture might land me with an impossibly large bill from Bonham's. As each prehistoric lot appeared on the plasma screens, I found myself watching those bidding and not the fossil lots. Each person was there for their own reasons, some for the spectacle, others to acquire and many just to see the fate of the auctions namesake, the Duelling Dinosaurs.

International Media squash together to watch the auction at Bonham's...
The said auction lot came into play. Looking around the auction house, it was clear all eyes were now focussed upon the auctioneer. Within seconds the initial bid had gone from 5 to 5.5 million dollars...two people were bidding from the audience. Everyone was straining to see who had placed the bids, but no sooner had they been placed....silence. The auctioneer scanned the room, searching for a higher bid...and none came forth.

The reserve on the combative couple was not met. The saga of the Duelling Dinosaurs that began with their discovery in 2006 remains unresolved. Whether these fossils find a home in a museum, remains to be seen...I shall endeavour to follow the story of these remarkable fossils.

Auction Day for Dinosaurs...

The auction of the 'Duelling Dinosaurs' has raised many eyebrows in the world of palaeontology and beyond. Those who have come to see the remarkable fossils at Bonham's, which are still neatly parcelled in their plaster field-jackets,  cannot help but gawp at the complete nature of the predator and prey locked in immortal combat. It is clear why some major museums are seriously interested in the plucky pair of beasties, but their fate will be decided in a little over 4 hours...

The sarcophagus of sandstone that entombs the two dinosaurs also has the potential to reveal many secrets on the burial environments and preservation of these beautiful fossils. Who knows if a cadaver decay island seeped its chemical signature into the surrounding sediments, only to be set in stone for 66 million years. The fact that so much of the encasing sedimentary matrix is still attached to these dinosaurs is a good thing and something which any buyer will have to carefully explore and examine.

This powerful portrayal of a prehistoric battle between the hunter and the hunted will hopefully have a new home by close of play today. The palaeontological community are holding their breath...hoping for a public museum to step-in and acquire the fossil remains of two splendid Cretaceous combatants.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Dinosaur and the Gavel....

The auctioneers gavel will fall on Tuesday 19th November 2013 at Bonham's Auction House (New York City)...not an unusual occurrence for such an establishment, but this particular sale involves dinosaurs and other beasties from the fossil record. The sale of such fossils often generates debate among palaeontologists as to the ethics of such material being sold. The worry that fossils will disappear into private hands, never to be seen again by scientists, is a real concern. However, it is also a pity that dinosaurs seem to be the main focus of such debates, when there are so many other beautiful fossils that often find themselves in a similar predicament...but dinosaurs seem to attract the media attention, especially if the said beastie(s) is of the predatory persuasion.

Upside-down dinosaur...the head of this predator rests on the bridge of its nose!
I head to New York in the morning to follow science, media, public attention and ultimately the result of the said auction. Over the next few days I will no doubt hear views from many camps on the sale and acquisition of such remarkable fossils. My only hope is that the focus of this particular sale...the 'Duelling Dinosaurs'... are purchased by a public museum, so that one and all can gawp at this stunning fossil.

A relatively large arm, but huge hand defines this splendid predator.
Ultimately the fate of these splendid dinosaurs come down to a simple fiscal denominator...who has enough money on the day. Hopefully some kind-spirited folks are out there and are feeling generous towards their local or national museum...

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Virtual walking with Dinosaurs…Argentinosaurus takes digital steps!

A digital reconstruction of one of the world’s largest known land animals, the Cretaceous dinosaur Argentinosaurus, has allowed this giant to take its first steps -- albeit virtually -- in over 94 million years. The research  outlined in the journal PLoS ONE, is the most anatomically detailed walking simulation so far for a sauropod dinosaur. The study, undertaken at the University of Manchester, provides the first virtual trackway for Argentinosaurus…whose tracks have not been found (yet!).

The skeleton used in the study shows that the plant-eating dinosaur measured at least 131 feet (nearly 40 metres!) long. The digital reconstruction reveals that it gently lumbered along at around 5 miles per hour (8 kph). “The simulation shows a slow walking gait, which is to be expected, given that the animal weighs 80 tonnes,” lead researcher Dr. Bill Sellers from the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences. “What is interesting is how well the simulated footfall pattern matches up with typical sauropod trackways.”
For the study, Sellers and his colleagues laser scanned the huge dinosaur’s skeleton in Argentina using a Z+F LiDAR Imager. They then used the computer modelling system developed by Sellers (Gaitsym) that uses an equivalent of 30,000 desktop computers to complete the necessary calculations to get the dinosaur to digitally walk again. The virtual dinosaur allowed the team to study the vast sauropod dinosaurs locomotion.
The discovery that Argentinosaurus can comfortably walk counters prior speculation that the vast reconstruction was exaggerated and impossibly too large for a terrestrial animal…given this huge dinosaur is at the upper limit of what many models suggested as being functionally possible for terrestrial vertebrates. This research concludes not only that Argentinosaurus could walk, but that it was also at the top of its food chain….in so far it was protected from predators when it was an adult, due to its enormous bulk. Once you hit 80 tonnes, you don’t have to worry about being eaten by predators,” Sellers explained. “We don’t know whether this animal used its long neck to graze over wide areas of low-laying vegetation or for reaching the tops of trees, but from its locomotion we know that it was a slow, steady mover.”
Understanding how such past animals moved may help us to better understand modern day musculoskeletal systems. “If you are trying to understand any body system that is shared by a range of different animals then it is often extremely useful to compare this system across different species,” Sellers explained. “Vertebrate muscles, skeletons and joints work exactly the same way in everything from fish to humans.”
He continued, “The really interesting aspect of dinosaur locomotion is that you are looking at animals that test the limits of the musculoskeletal system simply by virtue of being so big. They have to make compromises and come up with ways of coping that help us to understand the limits and compromises in the human musculoskeletal system.”
Dr. Phil Manning is head of the Palaeontology Research Group at the University of Manchester (School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Science) and is a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History also contributed to the study. Manning maintains “Palaeontology is now undergoing a renaissance, with more interdisciplinary approaches, such as this, helping scientists solve long-standing questions.” Manning went on to say “To carefully break down the key components of the locomotion of such vast animals as Argentinosaurus is allowing us greater insight to the biology and physiology of such vast organisms,” Manning also concludes that “The diverse plethora of techniques and technology available to palaeontology today is changing the way we study and interpret the fossil record.”

In the future, the University of Manchester team plan to digitally recreate other dinosaurs, such as Triceratops, Brachiosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex, in order to better understand their locomotor ability. Prior simulations by the team of hadrosaur dinosaurs uncovered novel gaits, that included running, skipping and jumping…so watch this space for the first dinosaur pirouette!
Paper download at: from PLoS ONE with this link!

Friday, 25 October 2013

A gathering of scientists....a time to listen and learn.

It is that time of year when geologists, palaeontologists and the many other folks who study the multiple facets of earth and life history....head to conferences. Two of the biggest meetings of the year happen to be running back-to-back in Denver (GSA) and then Los Angeles (SVP). So, in the next week I and a large group from Manchester, will be doing our best to post information on hot topics and entertaining talks....that shed new light on the many respective sciences that combine to deliver a better understanding of our planet's history and the evolution of life on the said rock.

This is a splendid forum where folks can get together and discuss their latest discoveries, new species and de novo techniques that might help our field take steps forward. It is even an excellent forum to discuss the ups and downs of experimental work, given science can often move forward as a function of taking a few steps back. An experiment that does not work or even a simple mistake can often help to open a new door, which otherwise would have remained overlooked. It is fun to think that mistakes in science can be as important as those rare eureka moments!

If I don't have time to blog every can follow the lectures and events on my Twitter account @DrPhilManning

Troodon, by Jon Hoad....just an excuse to put this awesome picture on my blog!

Thursday, 10 October 2013


Date: 25 NOVEMBER 2013.

Registration.10:00am. Main Programme: 10:30- 17:00

The event is for all those who engage with STFC and its facilities and are interested in public engagement with science and technology. The programme for this fully interactive, lively one day event is now shaping up – this is your chance to be inspired by experienced public engagement champions and  to “get the engagement bug.”  Thank you to those who have already registered – 100 and rising daily!  

You will be able to share best practice, take part in hands-on interactive workshops and find out about all of the resources and people that are available to help you.

Public engagement is a vital part of the work of STFC, as will be highlighted in welcomes by STFC Chief Executive Professor John Womersley and Chair of STFC Council, Professor Sir Michael Sterling.  The Vice-Chancellor of the University, Professor David Eastwood, is also welcoming us.

Keynote speakers confirmed are:
·         Head of Science for the BBC, Andrew Cohen who will be talking on STFC Science and working in partnership with the BBC
·         TV presenter Professor Iain Stewart will cover taking science to the public – new rules of engagement
·         Dr Suzie Sheehy, an accelerator scientist at STFC, will talk about her exciting work covering a decade of public engagement.

There will be a choice of hands-on interactive workshops including:  
New and social media – a practical approach
Diversity: how to reach the hard to reach
Pathways to Impact, the REF and evaluating your public engagement work
Working with schools and young people
Working with the media

There will be exhibits and practical hands on activities during lunch, as well as a chance for you to talk to public engagement experts and find out about what resources are out there to help you.
Whether you are new to public engagement, want to branch out into a new method of engagement or just want to brush up on the latest developments, this is the event of the year for you.

All researchers who engage with STFC and its supported Laboratories/Facilities are welcome. We particularly welcome participation by early career researchers.  Attending can contribute to any researchers’ continuing professional development.

STFC can contribute up to £100 towards reasonable actual travel and subsistence costs to enable STFC-funded PhD students, PDRAs and Postdoctoral Fellows to attend. Please contact Jane Butt to check your eligibility.

Please register as soon as possible and at the latest by Wednesday 18 Nov 2013. Registered delegates will be sent further details and a final programme in early November.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Bright Lights and Dinosaurs...the seminar!

If you happen to be in Manchester this Wednesday lunchtime, why not drop into the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Science at the University of Manchester to hear a seminar by yours truly...

My talk is entitled, 'Bright Lights and Dinosaurs', but will cover much, much more than just of vast Mesozoic archosaur beasties. Here is my abstract:

The evolution of life on Earth has given rise to the endless forms most beautiful that weave a complex web of origin, diversification and extinction. Unraveling genomes and reconstructing molecular phylogenies can now measure the evolutionary distance between extant species. However, the fossil remains that litter deep time and record the evolution of all life on Earth are not so easy to characterise   The DNA that so defines life is a fragile molecule, unable to resist even the gentlest of ravages of geological time. The molecule of life is recovered from rare samples no older than 1 million years, but only in exceptional circumstances. The proteome might be the next logical focus, as proteins are more robust and might leave tantalising evidence for the very building blocks of life. Here the frustration is also evident to those who study such ancient molecules, as anything older than 10 million years is rare. Is there another way that we can unpick the biological codec concealed within fossil remains and, even if we could, why does it matter to those of you who study living organisms?

The very atoms that construct biological materials can and do survive the sands of time, else we would not find fossils, but can these atoms be imaged to relay information from a lost world? Recent work has shown there are biomarkers that we can identify and map in both extant and extinct organisms (plants and animals). Such biomarkers are powerful tools when unlocking the puzzle of organismal biology, physiology and the very biosynthetic pathways that built, regulated and drove the evolution of life. Synchrotron-based imaging techniques are allowing us to piece together the complex relationships between trace-metals, rare earth elements and the discrete tissue types that comprise life, both past and present. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


I have finally given in to pressure and decided to start a Twitter account...I am not entirely sure how this will work, as I have to admit this was not high on my list of priorities. However, folks have almost convinced me that a twitter feed might provide insight to my work as a I can instantly post images of experiments, places, people and of course...dinosaurs.

Whether we are at the museum, in a hole in the ground or scanning fossils we will tweet!

This blog will keep going, as I feel this can be much more informative and useful forum to provide a more extensive narrative on my teams work. We have some research trips and meetings coming-up in New York, Denver and Los, I will try and tweet real-time events, but continue writing my blog as a more comprehensive review of projects, events and publications. So, if you want to follow my work, travels and research on Twitter, my username is @drphilmanning

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Scanning with Dinosaurs

The latest offering of the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs will be gracing our screens (in the UK) this Christmas. The filming on how the latest science is informing such animated dinosaur reconstructions has also started.

Showing how a laser can capture a dinosaur...even a T. rex!

Hopefully another batch of dinosaurs romping across our screens will spur another generation of palaeontologists.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Another Splendid Day in Hell...

I have been quite remiss in updating my blog...but here are some images that need little text in way of explanation...

Montana sunrise over the fossil remains of a very special dinosaur....
Along with the sun comes the diggers...another day in dinosaur paradise!
No self-respecting rex dig should be missing a skull....simply gob-smacking!
Exciting digs in the middle of nowhere can often attract unwanted weather...
Front dusk....a wild night ahead under canvas. 
2am in the Big Sky country...a night to remember!

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Another day on the set...of 'Hell Creek'

The team has expanded....not from the CCP Burgers from the local saloon...CCP=Chicken, Cow, have to be here to understand why this is great field tucker! The field team has been swollen by the presence of the vastness that is the legendary Carl Mehling from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and his splendid wife Fiona, but also from the hallowed halls of the AMNH, Wayne Callahan...who seems to have magnetic abilities when it comes to finding the bones and teeth of theropod dinosaurs...we all follow Wayne in the hope we too will learn from his innate fossil-hunting skills. The site has now started yielding little bundles of joy, in the form of fossilised turtle...some quite complete. It looks like this particular corner of our site was once a raging torrent, as the bones, teeth and turtles have been jammed together in a rather unnatural prehistoric soup. Carl, Fiona, Nick, Bill, Victoria and Indy got busy with plaster and water to start the process of protecting our chelonian beasties from their sandy tombs with a liberally applied straight jacket of plaster.

The folks from the AMNH and Manchester did a splendid job (above) of slicing and dicing the fossil bundles into luggable field samples...anything over 100 pounds in weight is too much on our precarious precipice and far too much for my shot shoulder and other cumulative ailments that I will not bore you with....but lets just say, I have been using our field doctor too regularly.

Dr. Nick Edwards (left) and Carl Mehling (right)...about to leap into the Hell Creek Abyss!
It was a longer day for the field team, as I had to head back to our field station early to rehydrate and see doc Charles. Carl finally worked out that he was no longer in New York and his lunch order for a skinny double shot half-caff mocha frappuccino light on the whip...was a longer time coming in the Badlands of South Dakota...his bizarre request (apparently a drink of coffee?) seemed a world away. Another member of our team was preparing for his own change of diet....Dr Nick is about to make a slightly longer culinary journey than New York City. He leaves South Dakota early tomorrow to exchange his CCP burger for spaghetti and meat balls....he is off to Florence (Italy)...lucky toad! His muscle, jokes and editing skills (see prior blog) will be missed....who now could possibly complete the 'Hell Creek' movie...stay tuned!

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain,.....and mud!

The raindrops in South Dakota seem to disobey the laws of physics when it comes to the fundamental hydrostatic bonds that define and constrain a single falling drop of from the skies. Here, or so it would seem, the drops coalesce into bucket-sized ‘orbs’ that have the ability to disinter whole dinosaur bones from their Hell Creek tombs…maybe we should replace our geological hammers with water cannon?  The frustrating cycle of thunderstorms with intense rain, followed by a brief blast of sun, is making access to our field sites impossible…or I should say impassable. Once you step-off the prairie onto the series of inter-bedded sands and muds…the muds seem to be instantly attracted to your boots. The cumulative effect of successive steps results in 50-pound buckets of mud attached to each limb, making walking a cumbersome and exhausting process. I look over my shoulder at our tracks and it appears that a 400-pound animal has been dragging its huge feet slowly through the Badlands…no doubt a Sasquatch-type legend will soon be born of the Hell Creek. The once crackly popcorn surface of bone-dry mud is now replaced with glistening streams of mud and sand, gently ebbing into larger hollows to help mire any unsuspecting cows, antelope, deer or palaeontologists. We often include in our lectures how mobile the Badland landscapes and environments can be and that erosion and weathering are the worst enemies of fossils…I never thought I would be stuck in the very processes that carves and shapes the very same landscape. It is August…the supposed driest month of the year.

Hail palaeontologists!

Wherever there is a yin…there is always a yang. Manchester has had beautifully sunny weather these past few weeks…the rain has moved to South Dakota. This is great for the ranchers…as they can now look at their green pastures and fattened calves. The Great Plains are a sea of green, interspersed with ephemeral lakes, rivers and waterfalls…and that’s just the highway! Yesterday we saw stormy skies that hurled golf-ball sized hail with a soup├žon of tornado. This is going to be a slippery field season.

On the downside, the mosquitoes have multiplied to biblical proportions and seem to be vying for position as top-predator in the local food chain. The said blood-sucking savages are so fat on the blood of cows, ranch hands, Sturgis bikers and now…me. Yes, the mosquitoes were so happy to smell the blood of an Englishmen; they did a fly-past in formation. I felt I was partaking in some bizarre air-show, in which I was the food-stall for the participants. The said beasties could choose to drink straight from the skin, or take an alternative slurp of haemoglobin through my T-shirt, hat or trousers…these vial creatures seem to disobey all laws of biting…quite unsporting!
The long and 'green' march from site to site.

As soon as our team exited our field vehicle, the swarms descended. Within a few seconds we were all swatting at anything that buzzed. This is the first field season for Dr. Nick Edwards and Dr. Charles Egerton…the rest of the team did not dare to say that the mosquitoes were worse than we had ever seen. Dr. Bill Sellers and Dr. Victoria Egerton batted the said beasties away…one even kindly bashed a mosquito on my left shoulder…reminding me of my torn rotator cuff…double ouch! The bite of the day had to go to Jennifer Anne (aka Indy), as she was bitten on the lip…soon swelling into a curious mix of snarl and pout. Once we had donned all our field gear, we headed to the ridge above our SUV where we had parked. We were greeted with a splendid view of beautiful Hell Creek Formation badlands, set amidst an ocean of green; gently swaying in the afternoon breeze…here begins another field season.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Twas the night before fieldwork...and everything was heavy

All I can see in my office is a vast pile of equipment, ranging from laser scanning units to trenching tools. Each time a nervously glance at the luggage, I hear myself sigh. Why do we have so much 'stuff'. I am sure that last year's field season did not require so much kit? However, my main concern is the 'final frontier' 'space' is rapidly dissolving in my densely packed luggage. It is one of those moments that you start to wish for a Tardis-like bag to swallow all kit, but at the same time generate an internal anti-gravity zone within the confides of the luggage. I pick-up my first piece of luggage and groan; it seems impossibly heavy. I check inside the bag for any stray neutron stars that might be lurking in the darkest recesses, anchoring this stellar remnant to my office add to my fun, this year I am hampered by having one functional arm (courtesy my a shoulder injury from the 2012 field season). It seems remarkable that by just starring at the pile of kit or closing my eyes to the shear lack of carrying capacity, this does little to help me. This is when you inevitably start the pairing-down process, isolating those non-vital pieces of field equipment, such as soap, deodorant or underwear. Just as you think you are nearly spy a pile of cable's, plugs and connectors...without which the mountain of multiple electronic gadgets will silently mock you and refuse to communicate. The travelling electronics store also boasts a significant computer section, with PC's Macs and netbooks gradually piling-up. Oh for a single plug/cable/software solution...isn't technology meant to be making our lives easier? Why does my bag now look like a bloated organism riddled with escaping tape worms...the abstruse wonders of 21st Century fieldwork.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Nature's Chemical Laboratory

The brilliant 18th Century chemist, Antoine Lavoisier (1771-1794), is quoted as saying, 'I consider nature a vast chemical laboratory in which all kinds of composition and decompositions are formed.' It is often folly to paraphrase the accepted genius of Lavoisier, but the work that we undertake at particle accelerators (such as Diamond and SSRL) has enabled us to extend this chemical insight to life through deep time. It might now be fair to say, 'We consider nature, both past and present, a vast chemical laboratory in which all kinds of composition and decompositions are formed, which are occasionally preserved as fossils'.

What organic signals might remain in a fossil...even those not locked in amber?
The study of decaying bodies has provided useful data on the various stages of decomposition that might give clues to the time and type of burial environment.  It is remarkable that as soon as a heart stops beating, oxygen that was so critical to life process ceased to circulate and internal anoxic conditions rapidly develop. In the absence of oxygen cells began their auto-destruct sequence, this is called autolysis. Here the cells self-destruct courtesy of enzymatic digestion. While the tissues of an organism are still relatively soft, prior to rigor mortis setting in, blow and flesh flies all take there chance to colonise a corpse with their eggs and soon to be voracious larvae (who we know and love as maggots).  
Tissue chemistry of living animals provides a useful elemental recipe to diagnose and then identify in fossils.
If there are no scavengers around to chomp through our dead body, fly maggots will soon compensate for this. Within 24 hours flesh can often be moving again, not in a zombie-like state, but with the writhing bodies of maggots, feasting on rotting flesh. Maybe I should have suggested at the beginning of this blog that you not read this close to meal times? Whilst the maggots are munching from within a carcass, soil microbes start the process of multiplying on the new food source beginning to ooze from the various orifices of a body into the underlying soil. Microbial communities that were once symbiotic with an animal in life, living in the respiratory system, gut and intestine, also begin to multiply and consume their host. This is the ultimate in organo-recycling systems. The organic acids and gases (including methane and hydrogen sulphide) generated as by-products of the microbes metabolism soon begin to change carcass colour and start to bloat the body, accompanied by the distinctive rotting my anatomist friend Dr. Dino Frey might say, 'It has all gone soft and soupy'.....we all have days like that!

Decaying modern carcasses can provide evidence as to how fossils might preserve delicate organic molecules.
The combined efforts of insects, microbes and possibly scavengers would make short work of our deceased beastie. Most of the body fluids would soon be 'released' into the surrounding soil, causing an initial dye-off of vegetation (due to nitrogen toxicity), leaving a deathly halo around the body. The maggots would pupate soon after having eaten their fill. All is quiet on the recycling front to the causal observer, but not to the geochemist, as things have only just started to get interesting. Depending on the soil porosity and permeability beneath a body, the sediments would also be directly affected by the gentle ebb of decay juices from the body...yum! As the soil microbes get a free dinner, they also begin to process the vast influx of nutrients from the carcass. Metabolic by-products of the microbes also begin to alter pore-water chemistry, giving rise to the precipitation of early mineral cements to bind the soil particles. The stink of decay marks the availability of reactive chemistry. The once living animal is now entering the immortal realm of fossilisation.  The bodies of all living organisms are a wonderful store for elements that once released (or partly released) from their biological bonds can complex to form different species of mineral. Here is the paradox. Release too many of the organic building blocks to the inorganic processes and you reduce the amount of organism that remains to be fossilised. This is a bizarre 'two-horse' race between decay and that we rely on being a close draw.... especially if we are to search any fossil remains for a whiff of original biochemistry that might still lurk within the mineralogical straight-jacket. This is precisely why we need to use some of the most sensitive imaging technology in the world to tease-out this astoundingly dilute organic signal, through working at synchrotrons light sources such as Diamond and SSRL. Splendid fun!